John Lloyd Davies inherited one of Wales’ largest estates when he was ten-years-old. He died at 28, having squandered his fortune, and leaving behind a series of ‘dubious’ wills
On the market at Savills with a guide price of £800,000 is Alltyrodyn Mansion, a substantial three storey late Georgian Grade II* listed country house. It is thought to date from about 1827, built in the style of the architect John Nash and retaining many of the original features throughout including decorative plasterwork.
The house, at Capel Dewi, near Llandysul in Ceredigion, was rebuilt for the Lloyd family, owners since the early 17th century, either for David Lloyd (1748-1822) or John Lloyd (d. 1841). According to the 1873 return of owners of land, this estate was once the sixth largest in the county, part of an estimated 6,877 acres of land owned by John Lloyd Davies (1850-1878) in Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire.
And it is to this person that we focus on the house’s most infamous years, a young man whose eventual death caused scandal and turmoil in the courts.
John Lloyd Davies was born in October 1850 and married in July 1872, shortly after reaching his majority. He became a rich man, possessing real estate in Cardiganshire and other Welsh counties, yielding a rental income of about £4,000 a year. The property he inherited at Alltyrodyn was derived through the old Welsh Lloyd family, long settled in Cardiganshire. The last of the line, John Lloyd, died unmarried and devised the estates to a female cousin, Anne Stewart, who survived her husband. After his death she married a man called John Davies (later called Lloyd Davies), a servant at a hotel in the neighbourhood in which she resided. He was her junior and considered to be illiterate, but before marrying him she had him educated.
The issue of this marriage was one child, a son, Arthur Lloyd Davies. He married Adelaide Lacy, the daughter of a publican, and he died in 1852, leaving surviving him his widow (who subsequently remarried) and two children, John Lloyd Davies and Ann Justina Lloyd, later Mrs Massey. John Lloyd Davies Sr survived his wife. He re-married and died in 1860, leaving surviving him two young sons – Hardwick Lloyd Davies and Powell Lloyd Davies. Though having only a life interest in the Alltyodyn estates, he dealt with them as if he were the owner in fee and disposed of them by will.
The consequence was a suit in Chancery in which 10-year-old John Lloyd Davies Jr inherited his estate, but managed by trustees until the child reached his majority. He became acquainted with James Allen, then a Chancery managing clerk and later a member of a firm of solicitors called Eyre and Co, of Bedford Row, London, who acted in his interest.
Lloyd Davies Jr gained full control of his estate at the age of 21, but was of an obstinate and intractable disposition and though gifted, with considerable intellectual power, had little inclination to study. When aged 20 he formed a relationship with Miss Susannah Crowhurst, a ballet-dancer at the Alhambra Theatre, and in April 1872, shortly after reaching 21, made provision for her in the first of a series of wills he executed. He gave her a legacy of £1,000 and an annuity of the same as well as a legacy of £5,000 to Mr Allen. He devised his real estates to his uncles by half-blood, Powell Lloyd Davies and Hardwick Lloyd Davies, in succession.
He married Miss Crowhurst the following July, and the will having been revoked, was revived by codicil, in which the gifts to her were made as to his wife. In June 1873, he executed a second will, and by it he increased the annuity to his wife to £2,000 and the legacy to Mr Allen to £10,000, leaving the remaining parts of the will unaltered. Lloyd Davies subsequently added further codicils, including adding a further £10,000 to Mr Allen’s legacy.
Shortly after the marriage Lloyd Davies needed money and mortgaged his estates to pay succession duties and supply his extravagances. He made a trip to South Africa to hunt ‘big game’ and visit the diamond fields. He sailed, leaving behind James Allen as power of attorney. He returned in 1874, but during absence had written several interesting letters of his adventure to Mr Allen, signing himself ‘your sincere and affectionate friend’.
On his return he went to live with Mr and Mrs Dewdney in Regent’s Park (and would later include them in his wills). Lloyd Davies needed more money and sold a portion of his landed property raising about £75,000.
About this time, James Allen’s relationship with his wife had deteriorated, and he thought it necessary to leave London for a considerable time. He was still a clerk, though admitted an attorney at Eyre and Co, of which he didn’t become a member until 1877. He made known his difficulties to John Lloyd Davies, who placed at his disposal a gift of £10,000. The marriage subsequently collapsed, and Allen stayed away from London.
In the meantime, John Lloyd Davies had stretched himself financially after dealings with a man named Morgan, a horse dealer, with whom he had entered into partnership. In 1875, he left his wife for America, visiting New York, and the Niagara Falls. He then journeyed into the far West, hunting in the Rocky Mountains, visiting the gold digging sites in California, and finally San Francisco.
On his return to Alltyrodyn he communicated for the first time with his sister, Ann, who visited his wife and became very friendly with her. A codicil was made by which she and her children were benefited to the extent of £300 a year. However, John Lloyd Davies developed pulmonary consumption and sought medical advice in London. His sister, perhaps sensing what might lay ahead, suggested that the estates, upon his death, go to her children, also his wife’s diamonds and jewellery. This so enraged him that he made another codicil, leaving her nothing. In the final will all the estates were given to James Allen, his most intimate friend, a legacy of £1,000 to his wife, in addition to an annuity of £2,500 per year during widowhood. By now, he had strained relationships with his family – particularly from his uncles, because their guardian would not allow them to associate with him.
He died in May 1878 aged 28. In opposition to the claim for probate, his sister and brother-in-law, Mr and Mrs Massey, alleged that the execution of the final will had been obtained by the undue influence and fraud of Mr Allen, and that at the date of the execution of the wills and codicils, John Lloyd Davies was not of sound mind.
In the end, James Allen’s name was struck out of the will of 1858, by which all other wills were revoked, and was instead given the sum of £5,000, presumably in aid of legal expenses. John Lloyd Davies’ sister, Ann Massey, became the possessor of the Alltyrodyn estates, a situation that caused bemusing celebrations at Llandysul. ‘The brass band marched through the town, followed by the drum and fife band in uniform; The Church bells rang, and bonfires, illuminations and other signs of rejoicings were prominent objects at night’.
However, in 1881, the former estates of John Lloyd Davies – Alltyrodyn, Blaendyffryn and Heolddu -were put up for sale by Ann Massey to settle outstanding debts. The mansion was later bought by Captain James Stewart (1830-1908), JP, DL, the second son of Mr Alexander Stewart, of Woodford Hall, Essex. He was a captain in the Royal Madras Horse Artillery and served in the Indian Mutiny. He married Louisa Charlotte Butler, a daughter of James Butler of the Indian Army. His son, Douglas Dormer Stewart, inherited the estate and the house remained with the family until the mid-20th century.
These days, events at Alltryodyn are much quieter and has been home to the current owner for many years.
A stunning portico entrance leads through double doors into the grand reception hall with exposed floorboards and a fireplace providing a warm focal point. A door leads off to the left and dining room with fireplace, and views across the front of the house. On the right of the reception hall is the drawing room again with fireplace, full-length mirror in frame and views across the front gardens. A doorway with fan lights over leads through from the hall to the inner hall with moulded stair hall cornice and staircase. On the right of the inner hall is a small reception room/extra bedroom. Beyond is the impressive ball room with cornice, arched recesses each end, flanked by matching display alcoves and built in cupboards and views across the side gardens. On the opposite side of the floor, the inner hall leads past the pantry, a cosy snug/office with fireplace, access to the wine cellar and through to the kitchen breakfast room with white Aga set in stone surround. A scullery and larder are situated off the kitchen together with a side entrance leading to the rear courtyard.
There are fourteen bedrooms in total, offering purchasers an opportunity to acquire one of the famous houses of Wales either as a home and/or to explore other commercial avenues including boutique B&B, hotel, wedding venue etc (of course, subject to planning permission).
For the first time in 65 years this house might be going back into private ownership, but it will require deep pockets to do so
In 1936, there was excitement and relief when Lord Brocket, who as Mr Ronald Nall-Cain had represented Wavertree as its MP until 1934, bought Bramshill Park. This country house had been the residence of the Cope family for 200 years, but there was a danger of it passing out of private ownership as had happened to so many other mansions at the time.
It was bought as a second home for his family in more rural surroundings and further from London than Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire.
As it turned out, Lord Brocket, a man of considerable wealth, was its last private owner. He held on to the property until 1953 before selling it to the Government. However, sixty-five years later there is a chance that Bramshill Park might become a family residence once again.
This is a big country house. Bramshill Park is a magnificent Grade I listed mainly Georgian mansion, set within Grade I listed parkland, woodland and lake. It stands just over three miles away from Hartley Wintney, a charming country village in Hampshire. It is now being marketed at Knight Frank as a conversion opportunity, price on application, but expect to pay in excess of £20 million for the privilege, and then there will be conversion costs on top.
Bramshill dates to the Doomsday Book of 1086 when the estate was held by Hugh de Port. In 1347 Sir Thomas Foxley, Constable of Windsor Castle, was granted permission to enclose 2,500 acres of land as a deer park at Bramshill and Hazeley. Sir Thomas was responsible for the construction of the noble mansion at Bramshill which has drawn comparisons with Windsor Castle. The mansion then passed to the 11th Lord Zouche of Harringworth. Zouche needed a large country mansion to consolidate his position at Court and to make a statement that he was a force to be reckoned with. He reconstructed the house between 1605 and 1615.
Lord Zouche was a well-travelled and cultivated gentleman and it is to him that the creation of Bramshill House, largely as it appears today, is credited together with its walled gardens, maze and lake. The Henley family bought the estate in 1640 and remained at Bramshill until 1699 when it was sold to Sir John Cope whose descendants remained at Bramshill for 236 years. The Cope’s had a significant influence on both the fabric of the building, and its landscape. Much of what we know of the changes to the house and grounds over this period are described in a book published in 1883 by Sir William Cope, the main phases of internal change appear to be as follows:
1720. Introduction of the mezzanine floor and Queen Anne Stairs.
1812. Construction of the “Dark” corridor in the courtyard to allow independent access to the first-floor rooms and improve internal circulation.
1850-90. Incremental changes, mainly replacement of failing external fabric and re-organisation of the ground floor of the north wing. Introduction of bathrooms.
1920. Removal of partitions and walls from the former billiard room and “Red” dining room to create the Morning room.
In 1936, Bramshill was bought from the Cope family by Ronald Nall-Cain, 2nd Baron Brocket. During the Second World War, the house was used by the Red Cross as a maternity home for evacuee mothers from Portsmouth, and afterwards as a home for the exiled King Michael and Queen Anne of Romania and their family.
Following its sale in the 1953 to the British Government it became the Police Staff College in 1960, and was later home to the European Police College, the house and its outbuildings operating as a conference and training centre. Owing to escalating maintenance costs the property was put on the market for £25 million in 2013 and later sold to City & Country for £20 million in August 2014.
The property is now being offered for sale as a private mansion, along with a former coach house and assembly dining hall. It has the benefit of consents pending to restore it back to a single-family residence.
A mansion that was only a shell, but would soon be no more
In February 1949, The Sphere published photographs of New Murthly Castle, at Dunkeld, in Perthshire, where demolition work was in progress. The stonework, amounting to 200,000 tons, was to be used to build workers’ houses near the new hydro-electric dam at Pitlochry, six miles away, and at Loch Sloy.
The castle, which was never completed, was begun in 1827 by Sir John Archibald Drummond Stewart, 6th Baronet (1794-1838), Laird of Murthly, and was said to be the outcome of his rivalry with John Campbell, 1st Marquess of Breadalbane (1762-1834) who had also started to rebuild Taymouth Castle in grandiose fashion.
Sir John called his residence New Murthly Castle and engaged John Gillespie Graham, said to be the most expensive architect in the country. When Sir John died during the progress of the work, Murthly was left just as it was, a magnificent empty shell.
Charlie Brand, an expert from ICI Nobel, who worked at the world’s largest dynamite works at Ardeer in Ayrshire, supervised the work. ‘The four flanking towers were pulled off their footings using a hawser attached to a huge Caterpillar tractor, then the central block was blown up by ICI’s men, using four tons of gelignite’.
Several hundred spectators turned up to watch.
John Stirling Maxwell, the founder of the National Trust for Scotland, said in 1937, that: “This unfinished house, for dignity, proportion and beauty stood quite alone in its day and is still without rival.”
But these were the days before conservation. The National Trust for Scotland’s founding aim was to protect wild places from development, rather than to save buildings, and New Murthly Castle was lost.
A Victorian country house you’ve most likely never heard of… except you did know it – and twenty-five years ago it fell into the sea
In 1879, when George Alderson-Smith decided to build a new house on a clifftop above Scarborough, he chose not to listen to those people who thought it ill-advised. It was common knowledge that there was a history of cliff collapses in the area, but the house called Wheatcroft Cliff was built anyway. He died here in 1931, reaching the grand old age of 96, still declaring the property ‘safe as houses’.
114 years later, his words were little comfort to Barry and Joan Turner who had bought the property in 1988. In June 1993, after a period of heavy rainfall, the world watched as the now-named Holbeck Hall Hotel fell into the sea, the victim of a rotational landslip. It seemed that the Victorian doom-mongers had been correct after all.
It was a tragic end for the former ‘country house by the sea’. It had to be demolished completely after the incident, and twenty-five years on, there are few traces of its existence.
George Alderson-Smith (1834-1931), a native of Leeds, was the son of Mr John Smith, J.P., of Burley House and Belvedere in Harrogate, a partner in the firm of Beckett and Co. He had lived in Scarborough for nearly half a century, the whole time connected with the fishing industry. He was one of the town’s biggest steam trawler owners, amassing a small fortune and a reputation to match. This wealth allowed him to build Wheatcroft Cliff looking over Scarborough’s picturesque South Bay.
In time, Alderson-Smith became chairman of the Grand Hotel Company, chairman of the South Cliff Tramway Company and a director of the Scarborough Spa Company. His standing in the community also allowed him to become a J.P. for the North Riding of Yorkshire and eventually Deputy Lieutenant of the same county. Two of his mischievous sons, Hubert and Alder, had caused significant embarrassment when they appeared before Scarborough Police Court in 1889 after throwing five public seats over a cliff.
Alderson-Smith’s fishing business didn’t end well, his last three trawlers – the Seal, the Otter and Dalhousie – were sunk by First World War enemy submarines somewhere off Aberdeen, but by this time he was well into retirement. When Alderson-Smith died in 1931 he left gross estate to the value of £107,736 (net £93,812).
Wheatcroft Cliff was described as ‘standing in six acres of secluded grounds at the extremity of the South Cliff, from where it overlooked Holbeck Gardens and the coast, north and south’. The contents of Wheatcroft Cliff were quickly sold at auction. The important collections included antique furniture, oriental porcelain of the Ming and Chinese dynasties, fine old English silver, oil paintings, watercolours, arms and armour and a fine library of books.
In June 1932, Wheatcroft Cliff was bought by Messrs Laughton, the proprietors of the Pavilion Hotel in Scarborough, who announced that the mansion was going to be converted into a first-class hotel. Mr Robert Thomas Laughton was the brother of Charles Laughton, the actor, and whose family had been operating hotels in Scarborough for 30 years. He told the Leeds Mercury that they had been searching for some years through various parts of the country for an estate suitable for an hotel to stand in its own grounds, which he considered to be a feature of the most successful first-class holiday hotels.
All the architectural features of Wheatcroft Cliff were preserved, but a new wing was built to accommodate its new services. Once the conversion was completed it had cost nearly £40,000.
“Charles Laughton is once again in the news. I can hardly pick up a paper without seeing some review of his new film ‘Vessel of Wrath’. Though I will admit to being one of his fans, there is something which appeals to me far more, and that is the Laughton Hotels at Scarborough – the Pavilion, the Royal and Holbeck Hall. Now, the Laughton Hotels at Scarborough are a family concern. Although Charles is a director, it is his mother and his two brothers, Tom and Fred, who are in active control. In nearly every town you will find a local name, and I believe I am correct in saying that the Laughtons have been associated with hotel keeping in Scarborough since the first one was opened. Perhaps my favourite of the Laughton hotels is Holbeck Hall – the hotel with a view. Here there are six acres of private ground stretching down to the beach, and you can walk straight from your bedroom down to the sea in your swimming suit. There are all the characteristics of a country mansion. In the hall is a magnificent baronial fireplace, beautiful parquet floor, a minstrels’ gallery – everything, in fact, to promote a sense of well-being.” – ‘Hotel Discoveries’ by Ashley Courtenay in The Illustrated and Sporting Dramatic News – March 18 1938.
And so Wheatcroft Cliff began life as the four-star Holbeck Hall Hotel. Although it was used briefly as part of a scheme to re-settle returned prisoners of war after World War Two. The property passed through other owners until it was bought by Barry and Joan Turner, who added it to their English Rose Hotels portfolio.
Until that fateful day in 1993. Cracks had been seen near the hotel some weeks before, but it took until the night of 3 June for the cliff near the hotel to finally give way. Guests had to make a quick exit after its owners realised the seriousness of the situation following the landslip which left the building perched perilously close to the edge. As the cliff continued to collapse, parts of the building soon began to follow.
The hotel was in ruins by the time the ground finally stabilised by the end of the weekend, and what was left was bulldozed into the ground two weeks later. The Turners later used the insurance money to buy a new hotel in Malton and continued to build up their hotel empire.
A country colony for Londoners: A house that became part of the ‘garden city movement’. Three years later it was lost
On Monday 6 January 1913, the members of Park Langley Golf Club were shocked to find that their club house was on fire. The blaze had started about eight o’clock at night in the dining-room, the cause unknown, and quickly consumed the interior, including the fine Adam ceiling.
On that cold January evening firemen from Beckenham and Bromley rushed to Langley Park. They laid their hoses to the pond 300 yards away and frantically pumped water into the house. By midnight the fire had consumed most of the building and by first light on Tuesday it was evident that only the outer walls remained.
The remains of Langley Park were demolished soon afterwards and a replacement club house constructed nearby.
Previous to this, Langley Park mansion, standing at the centre of Langley Park in Beckenham, Kent, had been an age-old family home. Parts of the house were said to date back from 1476, built for the De Langele (Langley) family, although the main part of the property was Georgian. The Langley family remained until the 1820s when it was bought by Emmanuel Goodhart. In total, there were twenty rooms, many containing valuable objets d’art, Adam fireplaces and about twenty sepia frescos.
After the death of its last occupant, Emmanuel’s son, Charles Emanuel Goodhart, D.L., J.P. in 1903, the property had been empty. However, with one eye on the advance of London, there were plenty waiting patiently to exploit Beckenham’s rural location.
The estate was sold by the excecutors of Charles E. Goodhart in 1908 and 700-acres of its parkland bought by H & G Taylor, a Lewisham building firm, to build a new ‘garden estate’ – Parklangley –‘the most luxurious and beautiful attempt at town-planning in the country’.
The initial phase (1909-1913) was based on the ‘garden city movement’. The layout of the estate and most of the houses were designed by Reginald C. Fry, but there were other designs from Edgar Underwood, H.T. Bromley, Sothern Dexter and Durrans & Groves.
The first roads to be laid out were Wickham Way, Elwill Way and Hayes Way in 1909. Malmains Way, Whitecroft Way and Styles Way followed in 1910. The golf club moved into Langley Park in 1910, occupying the house and remaining parkland.
Originally envisaged as a self contained garden city complete with circular shopping centre, church and dance hall building, around 80 houses had been built before the development was interrupted by World War I.
Work resumed on the ‘garden city’ in 1918, but the scheme never fully materialised. However, consisting mainly of sizeable detached and semi-detached housing it remains ones of Beckenham’s most exclusive and unspoilt areas.
The site of Langley Park mansion is now occupied by Langley Park School for Girls, behind what is now the 3rd green of Langley Park Golf Club.
On the eve of ‘The Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition, an aspiring writer traced the social and economic reasons for the decline of the English country house and described the dangers that threatened those remaining
In October 1974, a landmark exhibition opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The Destruction of the Country House had been conceived following a conversation between the museum’s director, Roy Strong, and John Cornforth, the architectural historian, then compiling his important report on the ‘present’ state of our country houses, the first since the 1950 Gowers Report. The exhibition included a Hall of Destruction decorated with falling columns and illustrations of some of the hundreds of country houses demolished since 1875.
By the end of the exhibition, the total number of houses was found to be over 1,600. Forty years later, Matthew Beckett, ‘the statistician of loss’, found that between 1880 and 2014, the number of houses demolished was 1,921. A record of these can be found on his Lost Heritage website, and the number keeps increasing as we find more candidates – vanished, forgotten and then remembered again!
The exhibition was curated by Roy Strong, John Harris, then working at the Royal Institute of British Architects, Marcus Binney, soon to become Architectural Editor of Country Life Magazine, and Peter Thornton, from the V&A’s Department of Furniture and Woodwork. The exhibition did more than anything to bring the plight of our ‘suffering’ country houses to the attention of the public.
Days before the opening of The Destruction of the Country House, an article appeared in the Illustrated London News, written by John Martin Robinson, a 26-year-old Lancastrian who had just been awarded a doctoral degree for work on the architect Samuel Wyatt. By the end of the year, he was working for Greater London Council’s Historic Buildings Division, contributing to the Survey of London, inspecting buildings in Westminster and revising the Statutory Lists of Historic Buildings across the city. In time, we would know Robinson as an Architectural Writer for Country Life, as well as being the author of almost thirty books.
In 1974, John Martin Robinson was an unknown entity, but mature enough to write The Future of England’s Country Houses for a magazine that had been published since 1842. Unfortunately, like many of the country houses featured, the magazine eventually disappeared. However, forty-four years later, Robinson’s narrative still provides a definitive account as to how England’s country houses had got into such a perilous situation.
“No country can rival England in the number and beauty of its country houses in their setting of gardens, avenues and parklands. They are an association of beauty, art and nature achieved through centuries of effort, which has seldom, if ever, been equalled in the history of civilisation. The English country house is the greatest contribution made by England to the visual arts: thus, the Gowers Report on ‘Houses of Outstanding Historic and Architectural Interest’ summed up the object of its investigations in 1950. Yet despite their unquestionable artistic importance the survival of these houses has been increasingly jeopardised in this century and many have been destroyed.
“With hindsight the rumblings of the avalanche can already be discerned behind the apparent calm and opulence of the Edwardian heyday of the country house, threatening the tranquil world of tea under the cedar trees and white-gloved footmen festooning smilax around the dining-room candelabra.”
“From 1870 onwards, English agriculture faced an increasingly serious crisis and its economic viability was destroyed by large imports of cheap grain from North America. As a result, land ceased to be profitable and the economic base of the country house was undermined. The effects were not immediately apparent because the overall financial power of the country’s trade and industry helped subsidise country house owners, but that was a situation that could not last forever.
“The huge staffs of Edwardian houses were partly a response to the rural unemployment caused by agricultural decline. In many areas domestic service was the only means of providing a livelihood for the inhabitants of whole villages. One result of the agricultural slump was disastrous, and that was the amendment of the settled land law in 1882, which enabled landowners to sell entailed heirlooms, particularly works of art, to meet their debts and day-to-day expenses. This opened the floodgates, and the systematic disposal of the fabulous collections assembled here between 1610 and 1850 has gone on ever since.”
“Estate duty was first introduced in 1897 and greatly increased in Lloyd George’s 1909 budget. This was followed quickly by the First World War in which it was common for two or three heirs to be killed one after the other, thus incurring multiple death duties. Then in the period between the wars came drastic increases in the rate of income tax which bore more heavily on landowners than on any other section of the community.
“The destructive effect of increased taxation upon the upkeep of country houses is well known. Another equally powerful but less widely recognised factor has been the steady encroachment of industry and urban development in certain areas, and it is those areas which have seen the worst losses of country houses – particularly South Lancashire, parts of Durham, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire and outer London. South Lancashire has sustained the worse losses of all and today only two country houses are still lived in. Six are museums, over 50 have been demolished and the remainder lie derelict or have been converted into institutions.”
“The first two important English houses to go, heralds of doom, were Giacomo Leoni’s Bold Hall in Lancashire in 1900 and (Sir Charles) Barry’s Trentham in Staffordshire in 1910. In both cases industrial development was immediately responsible for the abandonment of the house. At Trentham the river had become so polluted with sewage from Stoke-on-Trent as to render that palatial seat no longer pleasantly habitable. In the case of Bold Hall, the coal mines crept up to the park walls and the owner finally sold out to the colliery company which demolished the house, thus contributing to an ironic pattern of development whereby the lucrative mineral, which had paid for so many fine houses, now destroyed them.”
“The crash occurred in the 1920s. In 1922 Stowe was sold up, and though the house was saved from demolition for use as a school the interior was largely dismantled, and the surroundings littered with gymnasiums, laboratories and all sorts of necessary new buildings, to the permanent spoliation of the gardens, the finest in England. Then house after house was demolished. In 1922 the worst loss was Cassiobury Park near Watford, where a Wyatt exterior concealed splendid seventeenth-century state rooms. In 1925 Leoni’s finest English house, Lathom House in Lancashire, was razed to the ground. In 1929 occurred the most regrettable vandalism of all, the wanton smashing of domed Nuthall Temple in Nottinghamshire, which contained superb rococo plasterwork. And so, the melancholy story continued until the eve of the Second World War.”
“However, the horizon was not one of unrelieved gloom. New country houses continued to be built, often on a considerable scale, particularly such late works of Sir Edwin Lutyens as Gledstone Hall, Castle Drogo and Middleton Park. The latter was completed only in 1938, and had 12 principal bathrooms including Lady Jersey’s, which was lined in pink onyx and white marble with a vaulted ceiling. A casual glance through the pages of Burke’s ‘Landed Gentry’ shows that ‘new’ families continued to be recruited throughout the period. They bought estates and either built their own houses or brought new life to old ones. Those who restored old houses often assembled in them fine art collections and laid out gardens on an almost eighteenth-century scale. Three of the most notable achievements of this type now belonging to the National Trust: Buscot Park and Upton House near Oxford, and Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge.
“This period also saw the beginning of a constructive attempt to save the country house from ruin. In 1924 the National Trust first pressed for legislation to grant tax concessions to the owners of country houses. This was unsuccessful, but in 1934 Parliament passed a Bill enabling the Trust to accept historic houses. The first house received by the Trust, Blickling in Norfolk, was bequeathed in 1940 by the Marquess of Lothian. It was followed in the same year by Wallington in Northumberland, and today the Trust owns and maintains some 150 great houses.”
“During the Second World War houses were used as hospitals, schools and army barracks. The eventual result of this was, in many cases disastrous. As readers of ‘Brideshead Revisited’ will know the Army was not an appreciative tenant. A typical example is Egginton Hall in Derbyshire where, when the Army relinquished the house in 1945, all the taps were left running. The interior was irreparably damaged by water and the house was subsequently demolished. Schools were reckoned to be more civilised occupants, although while Castle Howard was in use as a school half of it was gutted by fire.”
“At the beginning of the war the Government refused to give guidance and help to private owners over the storage and protection of art collections. As a result, a great deal of unnecessary damage was caused. The Duke of Bedford relates how, on inheriting Woburn, he found the famous Sèvres dinner service lying loose in the straw in the stables, while French eighteenth-century chairs were piled up in heaps with kitchen table legs stuck through the seats.”
The subject of wartime requisitioning was one that John Martin Robinson would return to. His book, The Country House at War was published in 1989. Twenty-five years later, it was followed with the weightier Requisitioned: The British Country House in the Second World War.
“In 1945 the country house presented a huge, seemingly insoluble problem. No general maintenance had been done for at least six years, and many garden buildings and subsidiary structures had not been repaired since before the First World War because owners had had no money to spend on such ‘inessentials’. In many cases there seemed no alternative to demolition and over the next ten years hundreds were pulled down or truncated, as at Woburn, where half the house was demolished because of dry rot. The losses in this period were quantitively much greater than in the 1920s and 30s, though it could be argued that individually the houses destroyed were not of such great importance. The one absolutely irreparable loss was Coleshill, a statement of the utmost value to English architecture. It was gutted by fire in 1952. The Government declined to serve a preservation order on the shell, which as a result was demolished.”
“By the early 1950s it seemed as if the end had come for the country house, but there was in fact a remarkable recovery. This was largely due to the efforts of individual owners and also the post-war Labour Government. In 1945 the Minister for Housing and Local Government was empowered to make lists of buildings of special architectural and historic interest which were to be legally protected from demolition or unsympathetic alteration. Although slow in compilation (only 120 houses out of a target of 1,450 were listed in the first five years) and full of omissions and inconsistencies, they were better than nothing, and have developed in the succeeding years to become the foundation of all preservation work in this country. Then, at the invitation of Stafford Cripps, Chancellor of the Exchequer, a committee was set up to investigate the possibility of making grants and tax concessions to the owners of outstanding historic houses. In 1950 this committee produced the Gowers Report, as a result of which the Historic Buildings Council was established with the power to make annual grants for the restoration of great buildings.
“At the same time there was a dramatic revival in English agriculture. Landowners have reorganised their estates much more efficiently, and together with Government subsidies this has led to a doubling of the output of English farming and the restoration of its economic viability. Large-scale opening to the public, which started with Longleat in 1949, also provides funds for the upkeep of houses. This has given them a completely new raison d’etre, as well as presenting owners with additional incentive to maintain and improve their houses. As a result, many of the greatest country houses have been splendidly restored since 1960, and Chatsworth, Wilton, Holkham, Ragley and Althorp have never been so well cared for or looked so magnificent as they do today.”
John Martin Robinson’s use of the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth House was a good example. The property had been ‘closed-up’ for many years but is now regarded as one of the country’s most popular visitor attractions. The other houses remain open to the public, in the case of Althorp in Northamptonshire, its popularity reached unprecedented heights for being the home and final resting place of Lady Diana Spencer, later Princess of Wales.
“A year ago, this article could have finished on that happy note, but now there are new dangers. The possibility of increased taxation, together with general economic recession, threatens the precarious finances of the owners of great houses. If a wealth tax were to be imposed upon such houses and their contents it would lead to certain ruin. Already there have been disquieting events. For example, Heveningham Hall in Suffolk had to be sold as a result of capital gains tax in 1969 and although bought by the Government most of its contents were dispersed and it stands today empty and without a use, a sad place to visit.”
The Wealth Tax didn’t materialise. Denis Healey, the Labour chancellor misquoted for saying “squeeze the rich until the pips squeak” came closest in his 1974 election pledge but was forced to backtrack. However, the possibility remains a distant threat as is the recurring menace of a Mansion Tax, a common name for an annual property tax on high value homes. There was a happy end for Heveningham Hall, after all. The halls and grounds were bought in 1994 by Jon Hunt and his wife to use as a family home. Extensive work has been carried out to restore the house and the Capability Brown grounds.
“The great increase in the monetary value of works of art is also, ironically, a threat. Not only are owners tempted to sell, as in the case of the Longford Castle Velasquez, but the increased monetary value of country house collections makes them a great security problem, as was highlighted by the recent spectacular theft of pictures from Russborough in Ireland. These treasures, however, form the greatest portion of the works of art in this country and far surpass in both quantity and quality the contents of our provincial museums. As well as the furniture and portraits which obviously form a unity with the architecture, about 100 great English houses contain important collections of European works of art formed between the seventeenth and mid nineteenth centuries, which as collections are of the greatest and aesthetic importance. England is the only country in the world where such historic collections survive on such a scale, and it would be tragic if they were to be dispersed.”
When John Martin Robinson referred to the theft of pictures (by the IRA) from Russborough House in County Wicklow, he wasn’t to know that they would be recovered, but stolen a further three times.
“Another threat is to the landscaped parks in which these houses are situated. Unlike historic buildings, they enjoy no statutory protection despite the fact that they form some of the greatest works of art ever produced in this country. Those at Petworth and Chillington, designed by Capability Brown, as well as Port Elliot by Repton, are threatened by motorways. At Audley End the local council wish to place a sewage works in the middle of Capability Brown’s landscape, and many other eighteenth-century parks are also menaced by incongruous developments.
“It is essential therefore that the machinery of Statutory protection be expanded to cover the parks, gardens and the essential contents of historic houses. At the same time the system of grants should be extended to pay for such works as the renewal of the planting in eighteenth-century parks and the proper maintenance of the pictures and furniture in all privately-owned houses regularly open to the public. In 1950 the Gowers Report recommended that all the repair and maintenance costs of historic houses and their contents should be subject to tax relief. It was also recommended that landowners should be able to set aside part of their estates to produce a tax-free income for the support of the house in perpetuity.
“These recommendations were not adopted at the time, but their implementation is even more urgent now, and it is to be hoped that the Government will at least introduce effective legislation to protect country houses, their contents and collections, their parks and gardens from ruin. It would be tragic if despite the hard work of the last 18 years, the cultural achievement of five centuries were still to be needlessly sacrificed.”
And so he ended. Nine years after Robinson wrote about parks and gardens, the ‘Register of Historic Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England’, was established in 1983. It now identifies over 1,600 sites, including many country house properties, assessed to be of particular significance and which are graded similar to that of historic buildings.
Of course, there were many things John Martin Robinson couldn’t have foreseen in 1974.
The resurgence in agriculture was to stall, the full impact of joining the Common Market in 1973 still around the corner. The days of quotas and subsidies from the European Union were still to come. In fact, agriculture was to see the biggest change ever.
Country house visits increased in popularity during the remaining years of the 20th century. Those houses managed by the National Trust and English Heritage (formed in 1983) are now some of the country’s biggest visitor attractions. They’ve been joined by those properties belonging to the Historic Houses Association (now known as Historic Houses), a not-for-profit organisation representing about 1,600 privately owned historic houses, and created in 1973, a year before Robinson’s magazine article.
More than anything, the country house has had to reinvent itself. This was highlighted in the television series, Country House Rescue, which showcased large properties heading for oblivion. The programmes made intelligent attempts to persuade owners that the house must pay for itself. Some succeeded; some failed due to the stubbornness of the property holder. A large number of country houses are now hotels, conference centres, training facilities, wedding venues and specialist event centres. The trend of the seventies and eighties, when mansions became offices for large companies has reversed – many of these given over to the hospitality industry and even reverting back to residential use.
Sadly, the days of aristocrats in their big houses are a thing of the past. A large number are still in private ownership, but you’ll far more likely see a country house owned by a self-made businessman, a Russian oligarch or a middle-eastern billionaire.
Thankfully, the number of country houses being demolished is now a trickle, confined to those unfortunate not to be included on Historic England‘s ‘National Heritage List for England’ (NHLE). Probably more houses have been destroyed through fire, as in the cases of Clandon Park, Kelsale Hall and Parnham House, whose shells still survive due to the listing process, one that wasn’t afforded the magnificent Coleshill back in 1958.
Nothing remains of this former mansion; the only reminder of its existence is the balustrading which once encircled the garden at the front of the house.
The age of opulence. In October 1902, The Sketch visited Aston Clinton House, to the south-east of the village of Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire, thought to have been the most charming of the country houses belonging to various members of the Rothschild family and their immediate descendants. As one observer said: “This typically English homestead gains rather than loses by contrast with its stately neighbour, Waddesdon.”
The long, low white building was unpretentious in general design, and had been bought in 1851 by Sir Anthony de Rothschild from a well-known Aylesbury banker. Both the house and the estate had been improved and altered; but the general appearance of the fine old square manor had not been altered, and the additions were charmingly picturesque, while the views from the windows commanded the loveliest prospects.
Sir Anthony Nathan de Rothschild (1810-1876) was the third child and second son of Nathan Mayer Rothschild and Hanna Barent Cohen, and had worked for N.M. Rothschild & Sons in London as well de Rothschild Frères in Paris and M. A. Rothschild Söhne in Frankfurt. In 1840 he married Louise Montefiore (1821-1910), a cousin, and daughter of Abraham Montefiore and Henriette Rothschild.
Sir Anthony and his wife Louisa made alterations from 1853 using the architectural talents of George Henry Stokes, assistant of Joseph Paxton, and using the builder George Myers. Extensions to the existing house included a ‘billiard room building’, dining room, offices and a conservatory. Between 1864 and 1877, they turned to the steady work of George Devey who designed the park gates and various cottages on the estate.
Back in 1902, Constance Flower, Lady Battersea (1843-1931), the only surviving child of Sir Anthony, and his widow, the venerable chatelaine of Aston Clinton, were interested in gardening, long before horticulture had become a fashionable hobby; accordingly, the gardens of Aston Clinton were full of rare and interesting plants and shrubs. Fortunately, Cyril Flower, 1st Baron Battersea (1843-1907), was as keen a horticulturist as was his wife, and both at The Pleasaunce, their other property at Overstrand, Norfolk, and at Aston Clinton, he had given up much time and thought to the practical beautifying of the grounds.
The interior of Aston Clinton was arranged in an artistic and original manner. The rooms weren’t large, but a corridor connecting the principal apartments was full of objets d’art, collected by the Rothschilds. Particularly beautiful was the china, arranged in such a fashion that it added to the artistic effect, instead of, as was too often the case, detracting from it.
Lady de Rothschild’s boudoir was hung with fine tapestries, and the white panelling in the dining room had been carved by a sixteenth-century Dutch artist. The drawing-room contained more fine works of art, worthy of inclusion in any world-famous collection, and among hundreds of curios was an old clock showing a mighty Sovereign walking in a procession, while above his head waved a Royal umbrella.
According to the commentator in The Sketch, “Pictures were here, there and everywhere, sharing the space with books, etchings and prints.” Sir Anthony Rothschild had been a generous patron of painters and etchers, and had been ready to back his own taste, a love of creative art that was shared by his son-in-law Lord Battersea, whose study at Aston Clinton contained a remarkable series of amateur photographs, several watercolours and engravings, each chosen with reference to their intrinsic interest or artistic value.
A feature at Aston Clinton was a splendid winter-garden (conservatory) which had been arranged in such a manner that it became part of the long corridor already mentioned. ‘Lady de Rothschild, bringing, as it were, the varied delights of leaf, fruit, and blossom into the house itself’.
Both Lady Battersea and her mother showed a practical interest in the welfare of their poorer neighbours. Anthony Hall, a building erected by Sir Anthony’s widow in memory to him, formed a centre not only for those in the neighbourhood, but also for the many practical philanthropists who met there at the invitation of Lord Battersea. The Aston Clinton Coffee Tavern was another familiar benefaction conferred on the village by the Rothschild family, and successful had been the Training Home for Girls, an institution that had solved locally ‘that difficult modern problem – the servant question’.
Both were keenly concerned in what was going on in the political, artistic, and philanthropic worlds. The Sketch painted a lavish, if not saccharine, portrayal. “They are among those whom the nation should delight to honour, for they have done all in their power to make happier and better the many large circles of human beings with whom they are brought in contact. Lady Battersea has the energy of her wonderful race, and she is ardently interested in all that affects the welfare of her own sex.”
When Lady de Rothschild died in 1910, Aston Clinton reverted to the Rothschild estate, but Lady Battersea and her sister, Annie Henrietta (1844-1926), remained in occupation until the First World War. It was given over to the Commanding Officer of the 21st Infantry Division, then based on the Halton estate.
The Rothschild estate sold Aston Clinton for £15,000 in 1923 – a house with seven reception rooms, billiard room, ballroom, thirteen principal bedrooms and dressing rooms, seventeen secondary and servants’ bedrooms, four bathrooms and domestic offices. To commemorate the sale the Rothschilds placed a tablet in the wall of the portico recording that the family had owned Aston Clinton between 1853 until 1923, a period of 70 years.
The country house was bought by Dr Albert Edward Bredin Crawford who used the house as a school for boys. Evelyn Waugh was a schoolmaster for a short time from 1925, and in his diaries he referred to it as “an unconceivably ugly house but a lovely park” and “a house of echoing and ill-lit passages.”
After a brief period as the Aston Clinton Country Club in 1931, the house was on the market again the following year and described as being suitable for a club, school or institution.
Aston Clinton became the Howard Park Hotel in 1933, ‘a first-class country hotel’ complete with a landing strip for aeroplanes. It was run by Mr Stanley Cecil Howard, the son of a well-known hotelier, and had studied hotel improvement across the world. (The house itself was owned by Charles Richard Stirling of Sysonby Lodge, Melton Mowbray, and was rented on a five-year lease). Howard had trained as a hotel manager and a restaurateur in Paris and Dusseldorf and had been the general manager of the Royal Hotel in Scarborough.
The Howard Park Hotel was a business failure and became the Green Park Hotel in 1938, run by Douglas Haslett of Surrey. The curtain came down on Stanley Howard’s career when he was declared bankrupt in 1939. (The ownership of the house had since transferred from Richard Stirling to Stanley Howard; on his bankruptcy it was seized by H.M. Treasury before being sold to Thames Side Property Developments Ltd).
The Green Park Hotel was more successful and survived until the late 1940s. During the Second World War it became the temporary headquarters for Oxo Ltd, while the stables were used by Eric Kirkham Cole for his Ecko Radio Company, which used them as offices and for the development of radar.
Buckinghamshire County Council bought the country house and land in three lots between 1959 and 1967. Aston Clinton House was demolished in 1956, and Green Park Training Centre eventually built in its place. The extended garden of Aston Clinton House is now incorporated into Green Park, while the stables survive as part of the training centre.