A five-day auction that brought the curtain down on a fine country house
Today marks the 100th anniversary of an important and interesting five-day sale of the ‘magnificent surplus furnishings’ at Belvoir Park, Newtownbreda, near Belfast. It was an indication that times were changing for this country house… and not for the better.
The estate, once called Ballyenaghan, had once been the home of the Hill family, named so it is said, by Michael Hill’s wife, Anne Trevor, subsequently married to Lord Midleton, owing to the view (belle voir’) and in part to her childhood recollections of Belvoir castle in Leicestershire. She was responsible for creating the grand mansion and it is suggested used the German architect Cassells for the design. Her son, who became Viscount Dungannon in 1766, inherited the estate before it was sold in 1809.
It was originally bought by three Belfast merchants – John Gillies, Robert Davis and William Blacker – for £35,000 – until it was bought by Robert Bateson, a Belfast banker and landowner, in 1818.
Robert Bateson was born in 1782 and died in 1863. He was created a Baronet in 1818. His eldest son, Robert, was an MP for Co Londonderry; his second son, Thomas was born in 1819, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Deramore in 1885 after 34 years of service in Parliament and died in 1890.
Decline set in after the death of Baron Deramore. For a time, it was occupied by Walter H. Wilson, a shipbuilder and partner in Harland and Wolff’s. It was his widow that instigated the sale of its contents in 1918. Its last resident was Sir James Johnston, Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1917-1918.
Belfast was quickly growing, and the estate which had once stretched to more than 6,000 acres, was now only a few miles from the city centre. It falls into the category ‘swallowed by suburbia’; the land was more valuable than the house and was prime residential development.
In the 1920s parts of the estate became a golf course and at one time it was suggested that Belvoir Park might be used as a residence for the Governor of Northern Ireland (Hillsborough Castle was chosen instead).
Belvoir Park stood empty until 1934 when the building company, W.J. Stewart, leased the building and land. The obvious motive was to build houses on the estate, but this was scuppered by the outbreak of war. The Admiralty requisitioned the house during World War Two as a temporary armaments depot and built over a hundred nissen and elephant huts.
Afterwards, it was handed back to Stewart and Partners and used for the storage of building materials.
From the 1950s Belvoir Park was in serious decline. Empty, derelict and populated only by its by ghosts, the estate was sold to the Northern Ireland Housing Trust in 1955. 150-acres of former parkland was leased to the Forest Service and became Belvoir Park Forest, while the rest was used to build much-needed housing.
Belvoir Park was blown up by the Army, presumably as part of a training exercise, in 1961. The site of the Georgian mansion is now used as a car park.
A Georgian mansion with Victorian additions. Not much remains of the house that General Robert E. Lee’s family once knew
The selling-point or Coton Hall is inevitably its connection with the de la Lee family, probably of Norman descent, who owned a sizeable chunk of Shropshire for about 500 years. This was their ancestral home, and in 1636, Richard Lee emigrated to Virginia, where he prospered in tobacco. Another descendant, Richard Henry Lee, was one of the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence, and Robert E. Lee was commander of the Confederate States Army.
The present house was built about 1800 for Harry Lancelot Lee, the last of the family to live at Coton Hall, in the Parish of Alveley. In his book In Search of the Perfect Home, Marcus Binney says “the elegant simplicity of the house is pure Regency, but to Victorian tastes it was a little too plain, and a picturesque Italianate tower and wing was added about 1860.”
With attention drawn to the American link, Coton Hall was on the market for £2.2 million back in January 2017. Eighteen months later, still unsold, the guide price has been quietly dropped to £1.85 million.
According to Marcus Binney, the house is hidden until the last moment, and it is the ruined chapel on the grass circle in front that first comes into view. With its fine interiors, the cellars are of interest, being two-storeys deep, and on the lower level is an entrance to a tunnel which leads to the chapel.
There is another side to Coton Hall’s history, one that is often overlooked. The Lee relationship might have ended with Harry Lancelot Lee, but by the time he died in 1821, he had already let the estate to a local curate.
Coton Hall was bought by James Foster (1786 -1853), an iron-master and coal-master of Stourbridge. In 1831 he sat in Parliament for the Liberals, became High Sheriff of Worcestershire in 1840, and became the head of the firm of iron-masters, John Bradley and Company. Foster’s wealth was immense and later allowed him to buy Stourton Castle. When he died in 1853, he left his fortune to his nephew, William Orme Foster of nearby Apley Park.
Coton Hall came into the possession of Edward Lloyd Gatacre (1806 -1891), head of one of Shropshire’s most ancient families, having settled at Gatacre Hall in the reign of Henry III. Educated at Rugby and Christ Church, Oxford, he became one of the oldest magistrates in the county and filled the office of High Sheriff in 1856.
Gatacre put the estate up for sale in 1851, and it was bought by the Reverend Edward Ward Wakeman (1801-1855), a man much esteemed for his great kindness to the poor, and his works for charity. He was the son of Sir Henry Wakeman, 1st Baronet, and Sarah Offley, and married Louisa Thompson in 1835. Wakeman also acquired the Hanley Court estate in 1855, under the will of the Rev. T. H. Newport, but died only months afterwards.
His eldest son and heir, Offley Francis Drake Wakeman (1836-1865) only came of age in 1857, and the affairs at Coton Hall were briefly managed by his uncle, Offley Penbury Wakeman (1799-1858), 2nd Baronet of Periswell Hall, in Worcestershire.
After over-exerting himself in a cricket match in 1865, Offley Wakeman was found lying in a pool of blood, his death caused by the rupture of a blood vessel. His brother, Henry Allan Wakeman-Newport (1841-1923), had inherited the Hanley Court estate, and Coton Hall was awarded to the youngest brother, Edward Maltby Wakeman (1846-1926).
Edward graduated from Christ Church, Oxford, with a Master of Arts, became a Chartered Accountant, a J.P., and was awarded Honourable Lieutenant-Colonel in the 3rd Battalion Shropshire Light Infantry. He married Edith Mary Buchanan in 1874, and had two children, Gladys Louisa Wakeman and Edward Offley Wakeman, an only son, who died within his first year.
In 1878, the roof of the chapel collapsed, and all the Lee monuments were moved to Alveley Church.
Colonel Wakeman died in 1926, and left instructions that his funeral should be ‘the plainest possible description, and that all unnecessary expense should be avoided’. He was drawn in an open bier to the grave at Alveley Church by those whom he had employed. Edward left his property in trust for his daughter, with the request that the successors to the property assumed the name and arms of Wakeman. Gladys Louisa had married Captain Hugh Davenport Colville, Royal Navy, in 1906, and legally changed their name to Wakeman-Colville in 1927. They stayed at Coton Hall until the 1930s.
In the 1940s, Coton Hall was home to Mr and Mrs Howard Thompson. The house, which had always maintained a modest degree of secrecy, was opened to the public for one-day in 1956, and was described in the Birmingham Daily Post:
“On show in the Hall – the ancestral home of Gen. Robert E. Lee – will be four of the main rooms. These contain many art treasures, including superb paintings of the Lee family, who owned the hall for more than 500 years.
“In front of the Hall stands the remains of a chapel built in 1275, which was at one time the private domestic chapel of the reigning monarch. It was used by King Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor. The latter laid a rent charge on the manor which is still paid. A subterranean passage leads from the Hall to a crypt beneath the chapel
“The Hall, which stands on a hill, 550 feet above sea level, commands a wonderful view of the valley and the large trout lake.
“The main feature of the four-acre grounds are the trees, which have plaques attached to indicate their variety. Behind the Hall, overlooking a valley, stands a magnificent cedar tree, planted 226 years ago. In the same year, Thomas Lee sent some seeds to Coton from Virginia. These seeds have now flourished into the tall red chestnut trees in Coton Park.”
Marcus Binney says the ruined chapel is no antiquity. “Local historians have claimed that this is the chapel of ancient Saxon kings, but it is a simple Palladian box with a pretty Strawberry Hill Gothic window in the east end. It is attributed to Shrewsbury architect, Thomas Farnolls Pritchard.”
Coton Hall, built in mellowed sawn grey stone, with a slate roof, is being marketed by Savills and offers excellent family accommodation. Particularly notable are the well-proportioned reception rooms, with their high ceilings and decorative architectural detail. The additional Victorian wing, with Italianate turret, blends admirably with the Georgian part of the house.
Pinewood outrivals Hollywood. A home where history was made
Once there was a big country house that stood in 92-acres of beautiful parkland. However, in October 1936, The Sphere published photographs from Heatherden Hall, at Iver Heath, when it was about to change its existence forever. The house had been converted from a grand mansion into Britain’s newest and largest film studio. This Victorian house had been turned into a residential club for the stars and was about to enjoy an exciting and completely different future.
Heatherden, with its tree-lined driveway, was built about 1865 by Charles Frederick Reeks, who also designed St. Margaret’s Church at nearby Iver Heath. However, after the Canadian financier and later Conservative M.P. for Brentford and Chiswick) Lieutenant-Colonel Walter Grant Morden bought the property in 1914, he employed the architect Melville Seth-Ward to create the grand country house seen today.
These changes were made between 1914 and 1928 and included a huge ballroom, stone gallery, Turkish bath and a swimming pool, and were reputed to have cost £300,000. (Morden later claimed that the cost was actually between £20,000 and £25,000). The gardens to the south, with their serpentine paths, specimen trees, sunken garden, cascade and lake with ornamental bridge, were laid out at the same time.
Colonel Grant Morden was a Canadian, who came to England at the end of the 1890s with a big reputation, and combined business with politics after the war. He was born in Ontario in 1880, educated at the Collegiate Institute of Toronto, and in his business career he founded the British Commonwealth Union and Canada Steamship Lines Ltd. Before long he controlled over a hundred steamers and became interested in various timber and land companies. Morden also obtained the assets of all the cement companies in Canada, which resulted in the formation of the Canada Cement Company Ltd. He arrived in England to found a business for making office furniture and bookcases and became associated with no fewer than thirty-five companies, one of the biggest ventures being the flotation of the British Cellulose and Chemical Manufacturing Company, which eventually had a capital of £6 million. (It specialised in the manufacture of cloth dope used in aeroplane construction).
Morden had a distinguished career in World War One. He served as the personal staff officer to General Sam Hughes and operated in France as an airman, turning Heatherden Hall into a convalescent home for Canadian soldiers.
He combined his busy business life with a vigorous open-air life. Shooting and hunting were his favourite sports, and his hobbies included the breeding of horses and pedigree cattle. The magnificent grounds at Heatherden Hall contained tennis and squash courts and a golf course, which were threatened by a big forest fire in 1929. At one time he owned a yacht claimed to be the one of the best-equipped medium-sized yachts in existence. It had cost him £21,000 but was eventually sold by the bank for £4,000.
In 1931 Morden was declared bankrupt with total liabilities of £151,280. He told the London Bankruptcy Court how he had made and lost a fortune. He said he had been financially interested in over forty companies and in the big slump in securities in 1929 his shareholding greatly depreciated. At one time he had been reported as being a millionaire with household expenses in 1928 of £30,000 – by 1930 these had been reduced to £10,000. The bank seized his assets, including Heatherden Hall, and when Morden died, aged 52 in 1932, he was suffering from serious heart trouble and practically blind. He left just £10 in his will.
For a short time Heatherden Hall became a country club but in 1934 the estate was acquired by Charles Boot, head of the enormously successful Sheffield building firm of Henry Boot and Sons. He lived at Thornbridge Hall, Derbyshire, but the purchase of Heatherden had nothing to do with it becoming a family home.
Boot’s dream was to establish a film studio that would rival those in Hollywood and make Britain a big film producer. He went off to Hollywood on a fact-finding mission and returned within months with plans to establish Pinewood as the studios we know today. Those plans were to cost more than £1 million and the first chairman of the company was the millionaire flour-miller and film entrepreneur Mr J. Arthur Rank.
Boot and Rank employed the architects A.F.B. Anderson and H.S. Scroxton to develop the parkland to the north of the house, called Pinewood (in Rank’s words, ‘because of the number of trees which grow there and because it seemed to suggest something of the American film centre in its second syllable’). The mansion was used as a residential club and a large administration block was built alongside the house. The studios opened in September 1936 and grew to become a mainstay of the British film industry, home of the Rank Organisation and the birthplace of hundreds of films including The Red Shoes (1947), The Ipcress File (1965), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and the James Bond and Carry On series. Heatherden Hall itself has frequently been used as a film location, as well as to accommodate visiting actors, directors and production staff.