Slavery, evacuees, refugees and a donkey called Petronella
Back in 2014, this country house hit the market with a guide price of £3.1 million. Unsold, apparently unwanted, it remains for sale with a vastly reduced guide price of £2.25 million. Easterlands at Sampford Arundel, near Wellington, is an impressive residence surrounded by its own parkland with secondary accommodation, traditional outbuildings and mature grounds and gardens.
Knight Frank, who are marketing the property, believe the house dates to the late 19th century. However, it is probably earlier than that, possibly early 1830s because its architectural style is typically Georgian.
Easterlands House was most likely built for William Bellet who bought the land in 1816 from Richard Yendle of Uplowman, yeoman, and Jeremiah Woodbury of Exeter, innkeeper. His daughter Elizabeth married John Shattock (1792-1860), an English landed proprietor and merchant, who made his fortune at Kingston, in Jamaica, and returned to England between 1831 and 1833. Shattock was connected to Jamaica’s slave trade and duly awarded compensation by the British Government when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833. There were two small awards, for a group of about ten enslaved people in Good Air, St. Andrew, and for the enslaved people on St. Mary, Jamaica.
A man of immense wealth, the couple settled at Easterlands and when John Bellett Shattock died in 1860 it passed to his eldest son, the Rev. John Bellett Shattock of Stalbridge, Dorset, who put the estate up for sale in 1862.
Easterlands was sold to Charles Moore in 1864. He was a Liverpool merchant and appears to have let the fully furnished property. Occupants included Charles Hutton Potts (1823-1886) and Major-General Cookson, who was a yearly tenant when the estate was put up for sale again in 1876. Failing to find a buyer, it went back on the market in 1878 under the instruction of Mary Louisa Moore of Clontarf, Dublin.
The estate was sold to Robert Arundel Were (1822-1892), a solicitor and gentleman of Wellington, who held many appointments with local authorities including Superintendent Registrar Clerk to the Wellington Bench, the Board of Guardians, the Rural Sanitary Unit and Milverton Highway Board. When he died in May 1892 the estate was put up for sale just weeks later.
It remained unsold and was let to Arthur Tristram E. Jervoise before the house and estate of 140 acres were bought for nearly £9,000 by Frederick George Slessor in 1897. Slessor, chartered civil engineer, was the son of Major-General Slessor of Sidmouth, Devon, and remained until his death in 1905.
After going to auction in 1906 it was bought by Colonel Joseph Henry Moore, a retired officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He’d spent 30 years in the Army, serving in the Ashanti War, the defence of the hospital at Foomana and in the Afghan War the occupation of Kandahar and the Battle of Khelal-i-Ghilzai. He later held several appointments in India and was principal medical officer both at Quetta and Bombay.
Colonel Moore enjoyed Easterlands only briefly. He died there in 1908 but his family remained until 1924 when it was offered for sale by private treaty.
Up until this point, Easterlands had slipped between families and it wasn’t until Alderman Gerald Fox bought the property in 1925 that the house enjoyed any stability. He moved here with his wife, Beatrice Cornish-Bowden, youngest daughter of Admiral Cornish-Bowden, of Newton Abbot, and was affectionately known as ‘Bee’.
Gerald Fox (1865-1947), was the second son of Joseph Hoyland Fox, for many years the chairman of Fox Bros, an old family woollen business at Wellington. He was educated at Marlborough College and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took his B.A.. He joined Lloyds Bank prior to becoming a partner in Fox, Fowler and Co, a Westcountry private banking firm, afterwards absorbed into Lloyds Bank itself. He was also a director of Devon & Courtenay Clay Company, the Commercial Union Assurance Company and of Candy & Company, a pottery firm at Heathfield. Aside his business interests, he also managed to be secretary of Somerset County Rugby Club and Somerset County Cricket Club. (Fox Brothers still survives and is run by ‘Dragons’ Den’ star Deborah Meaden who purchased a majority stake in 2009).
As the current sale particulars point out, Gerald Fox will be best-remembered for taking in several evacuees and refugees during World War Two, when several rooms in the house were converted to accommodate them. Easterlands also became the headquarters for the local Home Guard and had a near miss in 1940 when a German bomber dropped a 100lb incendiary bomb. It cleared the house and fell into the lake causing no damage except to a tree.
After his Gerald Fox’s death in 1947, his widow remained until the early 1950s before selling up and moving to the Quantocks.
Easterlands appears to have then been occupied by Mr Hans K.E. Richter and then Lieutenant-Colonel R.S. Rogers, both of whom little is known. However, in 1963, the estate was bought with great fanfare by Mr Edward Du Cann, the Conservative MP for Taunton and Economic Secretary to the Treasury. In later years he would become chairman of the 1922 Committee, the Conservative party’s parliamentary group.
Edward Du Cann (1924-2017) and his wife had been living in temporary accommodation while they waited for the sale to be finalised. When it was concluded they lived a very public life at Easterlands along with a donkey called Petronella.
He became a well-known businessman with his Unicorn Group, was a director of Keyser Ullman, a banking firm that collapsed in 1974, and later served as a director and chairman of Lonhro (later collapsing owing £10 million to creditors).
After Easterlands he owned nearby Cothay Manor which he was forced to sell after several legal disputes over debts and was made bankrupt in 1993.
The current owners arrived at unlisted Easterlands during the 1980s.
According to Knight Frank, the main reception rooms are well-proportioned with high ceilings and have elegant detailing including substantial fireplaces and panelling. As might be expected Easterlands provides the traditional room configuration – entrance hall, study/drawing room, dining room, garden room, billiard room, kitchen/breakfast room, pantry, larder, utility room, estate office, three cloakrooms, boot room and extensive cellars. Its master bedroom has two en-suite dressing rooms and bathrooms, in addition to a further six bedrooms and bathrooms.
The house also comes with extensive outbuildings including a two-bedroom cottage, a three-bedroom lodge, a coach house with stabling and stores, as well as barns.
Within its 44.4 -acres are a walled garden, hard tennis court, covered swimming pool, a former vineyard, mature gardens, woodland and a lake.
In January 1918 The Sphere published photographs of the Hart House V.A. Hospital at Burnham. It opened in January 1915 at The Gables, a property owned by Mr and Mrs Gerald Lysaght, with only 25 beds. This number doubled, and the hospital moved to larger facilities at Hart House. Three outdoor huts were provided in addition to the indoor accommodation. It claimed to be the first hospital in England to employ ‘Flavine’ (a yellow acridine dye, used as antiseptic in the treatment of wounds) and had processed some 993 soldiers through its doors.
The construction date of Hart House is unknown. It had once been owned by the Dod family, who owned Paradise Farm and acquired the nearby Manor House which they renamed Paradise House. In the 1880s it was owned by John Bolton Thwaites, JP, Chairman of the Local Board of health and local President of the Lifeboat Institution, who renamed it The Grove.
Following his death in 1892 the property, a family mansion standing in 6½ acres, was placed on the market and came to the attention of the Rev. Herbert John Ker Thompson of the Hart House School at Tregoney in Cornwall. The school had been established in 1861 but suffered a devastating fire in 1893. Instead of rebuilding the school it was decided to relocate nearer to a centre of population, hence the move to The Grove at Burnham.
The house was renamed Hart House School and operated as a boys’ prep school until 1911. The Rev. Thompson became Vicar of Pensford with Publow (until 1936) and Hart House remained empty. It was offered free of charge to the Red Cross in 1916. The hospital moved to these ‘spacious and well-wooded grounds’ over a few days and functioned until 1920. After it closed it was bought by Violet Waterhouse and Humphrey Thomas Logan who converted into the Manor Hotel that was still going by the late 1940s. It ended its days as a hotel and was eventually demolished, although the exact date is unknown.
Mells Park (or Park House), near Frome in Somerset, was lost almost 100 years ago. The house had been built in 1724 when Thomas Strangways Horner commissioned Nathaniel Ireson to build a new mansion in an ‘H’ shape, and the family moved there from Mells Manor House. In 1900 the Horner’s, finding it too expensive to run, left Park House and moved back into Mells Manor House. The house was rented to Mr G.T. Bates, of Edward Bates and Sons, ship owners of Liverpool, until his death in April 1917. His effects were removed and the mansion was redecorated and furnished with a view to the Horner family again going into residence.
The evening of 11th October, 1917, was cold and miserable with driving rain. At about 8.00pm the Misses Horner, daughters of Sir John Fortescue Horner, spotted flames coming from Mells Park. With only a caretaker and his wife on the premises it was left to Sir John Horner and William Bexter, agent of the estate, to summon help and try and put the fire out. The rising wind carried the flames into the older part of the building, and the blaze quickly spread along all three sides. The ferocity of the fire meant efforts were instead diverted into saving the most valuable pieces of furniture, family pictures and books.
The house might have been saved had it not been for a series of unfortunate mishaps involving the fledgling fire brigade. Initially the Frome Fire Brigade had been summoned but was unable to find horses. Instead they travelled to Mells Park by motor managing to arrive by 9.30pm. By this time the fire was out of control and the Radstock Fire Brigade was summoned to assist, but it appears that the motor drawing their engine got stuck in mud on route. The Bath Fire Brigade were telephoned but they declined to set out as Mells Park was considered too far to travel. In the end only the bare walls survived and the only portions saved were the stables and electric station. The cause of the fire remained a mystery but it was thought to have started in a heating apparatus chamber.
It was the end for the house. The Horner family stayed at Mells Manor House and the following year there was a sale of valuable furniture, china, prints, watercolours, carpets and rugs that were salvaged from the fire. The architect Edwin Lutyens tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Horner’s to rebuild Park House and it took until 1924, when they let it to Reginald McKenna (Chairman of the Midland Bank and married to a Horner niece), on the understanding that they would rebuild the house. Lutyens finally rebuilt Mells Park in a more modest scale neoclassical style in 1925.
Built: 1872 Architect: John Foster and Joseph Wood Owner: Kersfield (Property Development Group) Private apartments Grade II Listed
Commonly known as Burwalls House but referred to here under its original name of Burwalls
Orange/red brick with limestone ashlar dressings; stone-coped plain tile roof with carves finials; brick ridge and end stacks with moulded stone cornicing to diagonally-set flues. Jacobethan style. (Historic England)
The year is 1864 and the Clifton Suspension Bridge has just opened spanning the Avon Gorge and the River Avon, connecting Clifton in Bristol to Leigh Woods in Somerset. The opening of the bridge has caused great excitement and, for those heading into Bristol, saves a lot of time.
However, the construction of the bridge had not been without its critics. The Bristol Times, in an article by the Churchgoer, blamed the disruption on three Bridge Commissioners, Liberal dissenters, “the loudest to talk, the last to feel for the humble” who had abused a clause in an Act of Parliament to “mar the scenery.”
The readers of the Bristol Times did not know that the legendary Churchgoer was none other than Joseph Leech, the owner of the newspaper. While they delighted in his prose they were not to know that Leech was also vice-chairman of the Suspension Bridge Company.
This mischievous characteristic would resurface later when Leech discovered plans by Sir Grevile Smyth, of Ashton Court, to create a low-cost housing on part of his estate at Leigh Woods. He carefully put together an alternative proposal to build high-class housing instead. He became a director of the company and succeeded in obstructing the Smyth scheme.¹
It was here that Joseph Leech built Burwalls in 1872.
Joseph Leech (1815-1893)
Joseph Leech was born in Ennis, County Clare, in 1815. He represented the ‘mad Irishman’, a famous spinner of yarns, who embellished his stories so much that now it is difficult to establish fact from fiction.
He was the son of an Irish Protestant, John Leech, who ran a prosperous hardware business in Ennis. His brother-in-law ran a newspaper in Maryborough (Port Laoise) and it was here that Joseph acquired an inclination for newsprint.
In 1838 Joseph made a visit to London travelling back home via Bristol. It was here that he studied local newspapers and decided that the city needed a Conservative publication to respond to the Bristol Mercury , a hard-hitting Liberal title.
Legend has it that Joseph returned to Ireland and obtained £500 early-inheritance from his father . Back in Bristol he set up the Bristol Times, published at a small shop and lodgings on Redcliffe Street, writing many of the early editions himself.
“By the early 1840s, he really hit his stride with a brilliantly inspired idea. He became “The Bristol Church-Goer”. Nowadays we are familiar with the idea of a mystery shopper, someone who goes into retail premises incognito to review them. Leech became a “mystery worshipper”, sampling a different church service each Sunday, first in Bristol and then further afield, and then reviewing it in his paper. He carried out his researches anonymously, leading his readers to believe that the Bristol Church-Goer was a short, portly, balding bachelor in his fifties, when in fact he was a tall young buck still in his twenties.”²
In 1853 Joseph purchased Felix Barley’s Avon Journal and two years later he amalgamated with the Bristol Mirror. As senior proprietor he devoted himself to business management and literary work. His dry humour made him an excellent narrator and a wonderful memory afforded him a storehouse of subjects. He also became part owner of the Bath Chronicle with Charles Thring Bleeck, whose sister Adelaide Elizabeth he married in 1852. He and Ada, as she was known, had six children and lived at Kingsdown Parade and Canynge Square in Clifton before moving to Burwalls.
The house at Burwalls was designed by Foster and Wood, who were responsible for many of Bristols’s finest buildings, including Bristol Grammar School and the former Grand Hotel on Broad Street.
Joseph never sought public life, turning down offers of mayoralty and a position of Justice of the Peace, but carried out several undertakings as vice-chairman of the Bristol Waterworks Company, a director of the Leigh Woods Land Company and the Aberdare Railway Company. He also associated himself with the Clifton Zoological Society.
His zealousness almost cost him dearly in the 1870s. He was sued for libel by Handel Cossham after Joseph had accused him of dishonesty over the winding up of a manufacturing company. The case was complicated and many believed that Cossham would be victorious but Leech was fortunate enough to win the case. Defeat would have ruined him.
Joseph retired from the Bristol Times and Mirror in 1882 and also sold his interest in the Bath Chronicle. His eldest son died just as he came of age and it was said that Joseph never recovered from the loss. In 1888, at the unveiling of the Queen Victoria Jubilee statue, at College Green, Joseph caught a cold resulting in severe illness. He slowly recovered and lived his remaining years at Burwalls.³ However, he suffered from a chronic intestinal complaint that required a live in nurse.⁴
He died at Burwalls in August 1893 after catching another cold. His old rivals at the Bristol Mercury were among the first to pay tribute. “He left a very distinct mark upon the history of Bristol journalism … His name and his work will long be remembered with respect and with admiration.”
Joseph left estate worth £107,000. Ada was given £1,000 with a further annuity of £1,000. She inherited the furniture and household effects and was allowed to remain at Burwalls. His only remaining son, Joseph Bleeck Leech, was given £4,000.
In time, Ada moved to nearby Wentworth House and between 1894 and 1897 Burwalls was rented to Surgeon-Major Robert James Fayle. He was in the Royal Army Medical Corps and later served in the South African Campaign (1899-1901) for which he was awarded the D.S.O..
In 1897 Fayle married Mary Leech, daughter of Joseph and Ada, but it marked the end of his stay at Burwalls. This was also the year that Ada died and the Burwalls estate was placed on the market for the first time.
George Alfred Wills (1854-1928)
George Wills lived with his wife Susan (Britton Proctor), and their four children, in a large house called Woodlands, on Bridge Road. They shared this with his brother Henry, an architect, his wife and their three children.
When Burwalls came on the market in 1897 it provided George with an opportunity to strike for independence and exploit some of the wealth he’d amassed. He paid £8,000.
Wills was born in 1854, the eldest son of Henry Overton Wills, of Kelston Knoll in Bath. In 1874 he entered the firm of Messrs W.D. and H.O. Wills, tobacco manufacturers, and eventually became one of the managing directors.
When the Imperial Tobacco Company of Great Britain and Ireland was formed in 1901 he became its deputy chairman. On the death of his cousin, Lord Winterstoke in 1911, he became chairman, a position he held until the end of 1924 when he retired. On his resignation he was invited to become president, a coveted role he kept until his death four years later. Outside of the tobacco industry he was a director of the Great Western railway and president of the Bristol General Hospital which also benefited from his generosity.
George was a man of retiring disposition and simple life and is long remembered for his generous gifts to the City of Bristol. These provided for the welfare of its citizens and notably towards the University of Bristol. His father had donated £100,000 from which the university was formed and George made gifts far exceeding this amount.
At Burwalls he also invested considerable amounts of money to extend the house and expand its estate. He created Burwalls’ Gardens, acquired Burwalls’ Wood and the Nightingale Valley and, donated both of these to the National Trust in 1908. Major changes and renovations, designed by his uncle Frank Wills, were also completed at Burwalls in 1916.
Despite the extensive work at Burwalls he spent most of his time at Coombe Lodge, Blagdon, which he had inherited from Lord Winterstoke. Here, he carried on the tradition of high farming, successfully bred shorthorn cattle, and spent his time angling and game shooting.
George was created a baronet in 1923 but suffered ill-health in his later years. In 1928 he became seriously ill and died in July. He was survived by his son George Vernon Proctor Wills and daughters, one of whom would inherit Burwalls.⁵
The most staggering details emerged after George’s death. He left estate worth £10 million to which the Exchequer benefited about £4 million because it came under the maximum death duty rate of 40%. After settling certain bequests he split the remaining estate between his children. On his death he became the tenth member of the Wills family to leave estate worth more than a million pounds.⁶
Hilda Proctor Wills (1879-1946)
Burwalls became the home for George’s eldest daughter Hilda Proctor Wills. She remained unmarried but was recognised for her work on behalf of Bristol institutions and all sections of the community.
In 1931 she became the first female president of the Bristol General Hospital, in succession to her brother, Sir George Vernon Proctor Wills. In 1935 she gave £6,000 that allowed the hospital to purchase massage, electrical and x-ray equipment.
Hilda also had the distinction of being the first lady president of the Society of Bristolians in London in 1938, and held other interests as governor of the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital, vice-president of the Peter Herve Benevolent Institution and president of the Colston Research Society.⁷
She stayed at Burwalls until 1937 but had already bought Horton Court, at Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire, the previous year. Building work at Horton Court delayed her departure but she eventually turned her back on the family home.
Burwalls was offered for sale but eventually let as an unfurnished property. It was requisitioned by the War Office at the outbreak of World War Two, the house adapted to become the headquarters of the Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment who found it ideally situated to protect Bristol and its port. Towards the end of the war it became an army educational centre.
Hilda Wills later moved to Langford Court, near Bristol, where she died, aged 66, in 1946. This allowed Bristol University to buy Burwalls from her trustees.
The house and grounds were used as halls of residence until 1973 when it was converted into Bristol University Conference Centre. By 2010 the building was deemed surplus to requirement and the university placed Burwalls on the market for £5 million. The house was considered run-down and future occupation would need considerable investment.
“Its impressive red brick frontage will be instantly recognisable to anyone who regularly goes across the Clifton Suspension Bridge.”
The sale process was long and complex but a deal was eventually reached in 2013. However, this fell through soon after and allowed Kersfield, a London and Bath based property developer, to begin negotiations for the purchase. The company, run by David Newton, specialised in high-end flat conversions and paid a sale price of £4 million.
Over the next few years almost £6 million was invested at Burwalls. The conversion went over budget due to the presence of asbestos and the discovery of an old well underneath the house. The aim of Kersfield was to remove many of the university’s later changes and re-engage with the original purpose of the house. They appointed Nash Partnerships to design and reconstruct Burwalls into luxury apartments but this meant consultation with English Heritage and Bristol’s Conservation Department. They were required to restore the building to its former glory with minimal disturbance to the fabric of the building. At the same time they introduced contemporary features sympathetic to its original features such as fireplaces, timber panelling and the decorative ceilings. The old stables, along the southern boundary of the estate, were also redeveloped to provide two refurbished houses along with four new detached houses and a studio.
In 2016, a year later than planned, the new apartments were advertised for sale with prices ranging between £1.1 million and £1.5 million.
References:- ¹Peter Gould (2011) ²Bristol Post (17 Mar 2015) ³Western Daily Press (14 Aug 1893) ⁴Derek Smith www.leighwoods.org ⁵Western Daily Press (12 Jul 1928) ⁶Western Daily Press (4 Aug 1928) ⁷Western Daily Press (14 May 1946)