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BUNNY HALL

“My wife has been unfaithful. I therefore leave the estate to my mistress.” The strange case of a house bequeathed to the ‘housekeeper’

Bunny Hall 1 (Savills)

Bunny Hall is located to the south of Nottingham, close to the historic village of Bunny, which has nothing to do with rabbits, but signifies a marshy place full of water reeds. Built between 1710 and 1725, it was designed by Sir Thomas Parkyns (1662-1741), 2nd Bt, a local architect and known as the ‘Wrestling Baronet’. It comes with historical twists and turns, not least a bitter court case in the nineteenth century and is now on the market with offers wanted more than £3.75 million.

The Parkyns were originally a Shropshire family, and became associated with Bunny about 1573 by the marriage of Richard Parkyns to Elizabeth Barlow, Lady of the Manor of Bunny. Thomas Parkyns was the second baronet; the title having been bestowed on his father by Charles II in recognition of the family’s services to the Royalist cause.

Thomas Parkyns (Notts History)
Sir Thomas Parkyns also purchased the manors of Ruddington, Great Leake, Costock, Wysall, Thorpe, Willoughby, and parts of Keyworth, Barrow-upon-Soar and Gotham. Image: Notts History.

Thomas Parkyns was educated at Westminster School and Trinity College Cambridge (where he knew Sir Isaac Newton). He practised medicine and acted as his own architect for the hall, numerous buildings around the village as well his own impressive monument to the parish church.

He also rebuilt Bunny Hall, at a cost of £12,000, and surrounded it with a park wall, three miles long, which took three years and cost £5,000.

As a young man Sir Thomas took lessons in wrestling, vaulting and fencing from the best masters in London, and after settling on the estate at Bunny, established an annual wrestling tournament in his park in which he himself often took part. The first prize was a gold-laced hat which he often ended up wearing himself.

His servants were all good wrestlers, and his favourite coachman and footman both managed to beat their master in the ring. The matches, which took place on a piece of ground now in the confines of Rancliffe Arms, continued for more than 50 years after Sir Thomas’ death, the last being in 1809.

He was also fond of hunting and shooting, and when he was too old to follow the hunt, would dress in a red coat and watch its progress from the 6o foot tower which he built at his hall. The tower was ornamented with an elaborate coat of arms and a rare oak staircase giving access to the summit. On the ground floor were a continuous suite of rooms on the Hampton Court model.

Bunny Hall 2 (Savills)

Sir Thomas Parkyns was succeeded at Bunny Hall by his son, Thomas Boothby Parkyns (1755-1800) who was created Baron Rancliffe in 1795. His eldest son, George Augustus Henry Anne Parkyns (1785-1850), the 2nd Baron, succeeded in 1800 and extensively remodelled the hall in 1826-35.

The second Lord Rancliffe was educated at Harrow and was only fifteen when his father died. He was placed under the guardianship of Earl Moira, later Marquess of Hastings, who bought a commission for him in the British Army and negotiated for him to become MP for Minehead in Somerset (where he never set foot in the town).

In 1807 he had married Elizabeth Mary Theresa Forbes, eldest daughter of George Forbes, 6th Earl of Granard. It was an unfortunate marriage and they became separated on a charge that she had an improper acquaintance with a French nobleman during her residence in Paris. Lord Rancliffe left her in France, never divorced, and returned to Nottinghamshire where he made an acquaintance with Harriet Burtt, married to a GP in a small practice, considerably her senior, and who was at that time was confined to a lunatic asylum. She first lived at Wymeswold, under Lord Rancliffe’s protection, but in a short time went to live with him at Bunny.

Lord Rancliffe died in 1850 without issue and the title became extinct. When his will was read there was great consternation in the family. The English Baronetcy descended to Mr (now Sir Thomas) Parkyns of Ruddington, together with a small portion of his estate. The rest of the small amount of property went to Sir Richard Levinge of Knockdrim Castle, Co Westmeath, son of his eldest sister, married to Sir Richard Levinge, 6th Bt. Every pennyworth of non-heritable property, which was considerable, was willed to Harriet Burtt, who for about 20 years had been living upon intimate terms with Lord Rancliffe. She didn’t take the Leake and Costock property but did take the whole of the Bunny and Bradmore estates.

“I give Bunny Hall to Mrs Burtt for her life, and afterwards to whosoever she may appoint to inherit the said estates. I give Mrs Burtt, for her use entirely, all the goods, furniture, and pictures, with one exception; and I give her all my plate, together with the plated silver tureen and dishes with my crest. I also leave my silver tureen presented to me by the electors of Nottingham, to Mrs Burtt; and I also leave my horses and carriages at her entire disposal.”

Eleven years after the death of Lord Rancliffe, Sir Arthur Rumbold, his brother-in-law, had doubted the validity of the will. The Bunny Hall estates were worth about £7,000 a year, and it troubled them that the money had gone out of the family. Efforts to upset the will failed and Harriet Burtt was left in full enjoyment of the estate.

Harriet Burtt later married George Fortreath and lived at Bunny Hall. On her death in the 1870s, the estate was bequeathed to her niece, Arabella Hawksley, who married Mr Robert Wilkinson Smith, a GP, in 1898. Robert died in 1907 and left the greater part of his large fortune for the benefit of Nottingham’s poor widows and spinsters.

Bunny Hall 4 (Savills)

Arabella Wilkinson Smith died in 1909, and in a strange development, the Bunny Hall estate was left to the Levinge family in Ireland. It so happened that Sir James Levinge, seventh son of Lady Levinge, had long ago taken rides with Harriet Fortreath and was one of her greatest friends. Doubtless out of gratitude, Mrs Fortreath had entailed the property on Sir James, but had given her niece, Arabella Hawksley, a life interest.

On the death of Mrs Wilkinson Smith, the estate passed back to the Levinges. In the interim, however, both Sir James Levinge and his son had passed away, the next of kin being the grandson, Sir Richard William Levinge.

Sir Richard Levinge (1878-1914), who succeeded his father in 1900, was educated at Eton and served with the 8th Hussars in South Africa. He had married Miss Irene Desmond, a well-known actress in The Merry Widow, The Belle of Mayfair and Les Merveilleuses.  There was a rumour that Sir Richard would live at Bunny, but it was entirely without foundation. Almost as soon as the property came into his possession he gave instructions for it to be sold. Sadly, he was killed in 1914 while serving with the 1st Life Guards in France.

Richard William Levinge (Hannah Anstey)
Sir Richard William Levinge Bart., First Life Guards, who was killed in action, was the representative of a very old Irish family. Image: Hannah Anstey.

In December 1909, Bunny Hall, its 4,000 acres, extending into five parishes, was sold to Albert Ball (1863-1946), the Mayor of Nottingham, a man who has been on these pages more than once. It might seem unscrupulous now that a man in such a precious position should take advantage of property, but Albert Ball was a man that might be considered the scourge of the country house. The son of a plumber’s merchant, he rose to a position of dominance in Nottingham’s civic and business life. In 1908 he had bought Bulwell Hall, later selling 225 acres to Nottingham Corporation.

Bunny Hall - 1910 (Nottinghamshire History)
The South front of Bunny Hall about 1910. The photograph may have been taken at the time Albert Ball was selling off parts of the estate, but had no desires on the mansion. Image: Notts History.

Before reaching his middle-age he’d began speculations in real estate. At the outset his purchases were small, but he made money and as his experience and resources increased, so did the magnitude of his deals, which in the aggregate, must have amounted to millions. Amongst his lifetime purchases were Sedgley Park, West Hallam, Kirk Hallam, Morton and Pilsley, Tattershall Castle, the town of Shaftesbury, the Papplewick estate, Willesley Castle (the home of the Arkwrights), Upton Hall and the Stansted Hall estate of 6,000 acres in Essex, which embraced several villages. His most spectacular deals came in later life with the purchase of the Rufford Abbey estate and the development of a large estate in Edinburgh.

Sir Albert Ball - Nottingham Evening Post - Thu 28 Mar 1946).
Alderman Albert Ball was later knighted. Lady Ball was a daughter of Mr James Dannah of Cheveney Manor, Quorn. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

Ball’s method of making money was simple. He would buy a country estate, often at a knock-down price, and immediately sell off the land to property developers. Bunny Hall had cost him £90,000, quite a lot for the time, but the land he sold raised far more. The mansion was of no interest to him and he promptly agreed a deal to sell it to Mr W. Holbrook of Plumtree two months later. The agreement stumbled but he was able to find another buyer very quickly.

In the meantime, there was the small matter of clearing the contents of Bunny Hall. The treasures had belonged to Mrs Wilkinson Smith, inherited by Richard Levinge, and provided a fascinating history. A five-day sale of furniture, antiques and artworks raised over £20,000.

A sensational price – said to be the highest ever paid at the time for a sale in the provinces – was given for a portrait by Hoppner of the Hon. Mrs Parkyns, afterwards first Lady Rancliffe. It had been exhibited at the Academy in 1794, and sold for 8,800gs to Mr Charles Wertheimer, a well-known art expert.  Another Hoppner – a portrait of Sir Thomas Parkyns – was sold for 900gs to Major Paget of London.

Bunny Hall 5 (Savills)

The new owner of Bunny Hall was Dr Robert Henry Cordeux (1864-1915), the son of a former rector of Brierley, Yorkshire, who had graduated from Cambridge University and settled down as a GP in West Bridgford in 1895. He died five years later and his widow, Ethel Monk Noble, remained until her own death, although she had considered selling the house in 1924.

Bunny Hall 6 (Savills)

Ethel Cordeux died in 1942 and Bunny Hall was bought by Bertram Douglas Edwards (1900-1970), a company director and former Nottingham city councillor for the Meadows Ward, who also owned Newfields Farm at Screveton.

It appears that Edwards never lived here and allowed the Broadgate School, Nottingham, to evacuate here during World War Two. In 1944 it had been considered for the evacuation of large families, but the idea was shelved after it was realised that the £200 cost of black-out blinds would be too expensive.

After the school vacated, Bunny Hall was briefly occupied by a Captain Thompson but was then left empty for more than 40 years, until it was bought by Mr Chek Whyte, a business entrepreneur, in 2000.

‘One more winter and the roof would have fallen in and pushed the walls out. I bought it without going inside. The deal was completed within 24 hours.”

It failed to find a buyer when it was offered for sale at £3 million in 2009.

Bunny Hall 7 (Savills)

According to Savills, who are marketing the property, Bunny Hall has been skilfully renovated and restored to the very highest standards. The principal range of reception rooms lie to the south of the house with views over the restored gardens to the open countryside beyond. The leisure suite set within the historic north range of the property includes a heated indoor pool, gym, sauna and steam rooms and a well fitted entertaining kitchen.

One of the most notable features of the property is the historic North Wing of long chequered brick design with a tall narrow facade at the end crowned by a huge Elephantine semi-circular pediment across the whole width and massively castellated tower above it. There are stunning views across the South Nottinghamshire countryside from the open topped roof of the tower building. On the ground floor the original porch area has now been transformed into a stunning Porche Cochere with plate glass inset panels and doors and the creation of a large adjoining Orangery with a finely detailed interior.

Bunny Hall 9 (Savills)

The five principal reception rooms include the Orangery, kitchen, principal drawing room, dining room and library. These rooms lie across the principal elevation of the hall with views across the formal gardens adjoining parkland and open countryside beyond.

The principal upper floor is reached by a large wide dog staircase from the ground floor staircase hall. There is a circular glazed frosted dome allowing light to flood through to the hallway and the galleried landing areas. There are two additional staircases to the East and West Wings, providing both internal and independent access to the upper floors if required. There are two self-contained but linked fully fitted apartments suitable for guest or relative accommodation but readily linked back to the main house if required.

Bunny Hall 10 (Savills)

In addition to the principal living accommodation is the stunning tower structure, set atop the historic North wing of the main house. A staircase leads up through several floors to the tower roof, which offers glorious views across the grounds and the open countryside of Nottinghamshire and is a landmark structure within the area.

The grounds and gardens of Bunny Hall have been carefully renovated and restored by the current owners and extend now to some 14.5 acres or thereabouts. The approach to the house is through two sets of remote controlled period gates and a tree lined driveway leading up to the main house.

Chek Whyte (The Telegraph)
Chek Whyte, a property developer, who bought Bunny Hall in 2009. Image: The Telegraph.

KIRBY HALL

“And to think that the sumptuous palace erected by Elizabeth’s wealthiest subject should have become the residence of a humble shepherd.”

Kirby Hall (Wikipedia)
Kirby Hall. A hall whose precise age is recorded, and in which we see plainly that the designer had not quite got rid of the idea that the exterior was to be plain, as being liable, in case of civil strife, to future ‘crenellation’.

Kirby Hall, near Gretton in Northamptonshire, was built from Barnack stone between 1570-1575, for Sir Humphrey Stafford, whose motto, ‘Je seray loyal,’ and the date 1572, were to be seen over the porch of the great hall, and on some of the panels of the parapet one noted the inscription, ‘Hum Fre Sta fard.’

It had one-time represented the high-water mark of Renaissance building, before it degenerated into heaviness and over ornamentation. The original plan is preserved in the Soane Museum, and the architect John Thorpe, very thoughtfully entitled it, ‘Kerby whereof I layd ye first stone Ad. 1570.’ It was so ambitious in concept that it took five years to build, somewhat too long for its owner, Sir Humphry Stafford, who died just before it was ready for occupation. His son, who probably considered the whole scheme unnecessary as they already had a fine house at Blatherwick, only five miles away, at once sold Kirby Hall to Sir Christopher Hatton, so that the only connection with the Staffords was found in the crest and badge carved in stone and wood.

It was never certain whether Sir Christopher Hatton found time to live in Kirby Hall, for he owned many fine properties, besides having to attend the Queen at Court. He didn’t go near it for five years after the purchase, because he wrote to a friend in 1580 that he was going ‘to view my house at Kirby which I have never yet surveyed.’ Sir Christopher, who was well-known to be the favourite of Queen Elizabeth, was said by his enemies to have entered Court ‘by the galliard,’ referring to the famous occasion when he caught the notice of the Queen at a masked ball by the beauty and agility of his dancing. Favours were heaped upon him, even to the apparent absurdity of making him Lord Chancellor, but in the end the Queen tired of her devoted admirer and was cruel enough to insist upon the return of a Crown debt, money which had been advanced to pay for some of the fine furnishings of the house. This was said to have broken his heart, because he died shortly afterwards.

Christopher Hatton - The Sketch - Feb 4 1882 (BNA)
Sir Christopher Hatton (1540-1591) was an English politician, Lord Chancellor of England and a favourite of Elizabeth I of England.

Sir Christopher never married, but Kirby remained with his heirs. His successor, following the fashion of the day, employed Inigo Jones, the English Palladio, to re-decorate the exterior in 1640, and on the north side of the spacious courtyard that occupied the centre of the building, his work and that of John Thorpe was blended together into a harmonious whole. The arcade, pilasters, and cornices dated from an earlier period, and the windows, chimneys and attic storey formed part of Jones’ later embellishments. There was less trace of Inigo Jones’ handiwork on the opposite side of the courtyard, only the window over the porch and the side door being his.

The Hatton family kept Kirby Hall until 1764, when it passed to the Finch-Hattons.

Kirby Hall was abandoned in the 1800s, its owner moving to a newer and more commodious house, and it was left to solitude and destruction. Its lead was stripped from the roof, the oak wainscoting was carried off to ornament other houses in the district, and its stones were used to mend roads. In 1878 the Northampton Mercury said that the house had become a kind of quarry, from which stone could be cheaply obtained for the erection or repair of farmhouses, stables and other buildings in the vicinity and, it was whispered, that many richly sculptured slabs, the work of the most celebrated art-workmen of the Renaissance period, were to be found embedded, face inwards, in the walls of stables and labourers cottages. ‘We have seen such specimens of sixteenth century art in the possession of cottagers, who made no secret of the source from whence they had been obtained.’ The house was left to the estate shepherd who allowed his flock of sheep to wander the once grand halls.

Kirby Hall - Garden Front - The Sketch - Feb 4 1882 (BNA)
This sketch is from 1882 and shows Kirby Hall’s garden front. By this time the house was derelict. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - Inner Quadrangle - The Sketch - Feb 4 1882 (BNA)
The interior court was symmetrically designed, with its carvings and classical forms. Image. The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - The Library Front - The Sketch - Feb 4 1882 (BNA)
The library front. Another sketch from 1882 when tourists were freely allowed to wander through the abandoned house. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

Its last absent-owner was Murray Edward Gordon Finch-Hatton, 13th Earl of Winchilsea. When he inherited the property, his first thought had been to preserve the home of his ancestors from complete ruin, and he did what was necessary to keep Kirby from falling to pieces. It was his intention, ‘if ever his ship came in,’ to restore the property to its old splendour, using the profits from his stone quarries in Northamptonshire. But ‘man proposes, God disposes’; he was never able to carry out his dream. He died in 1898, and Edith Broughton, writing in The Sketch the following year, described the decay that had beholden Kirby Hall to her Victorian readers:

“The oak panelling has been torn from its walls; at the approach of a stranger, rats scuttle away through holes on the worm-eaten boards; and the decorations hang in festoons from the ceiling.

“Through the porch a short passage leads into the banqueting hall, with its musicians’ gallery, where once the soothing strains helped calm the angry passions of bygone revellers, or the merry tunes to which the light feet of the dancers in the room below kept time. Good-living, good-fellowship, good times were these; but alas for the frailty of earthly things, a change has come to this once beautiful mansion.

“The unglazed windows, the skeleton walls, the nettle-decked passages, are in strange contrast to the magnificent architecture that in many places has been spoilt by time and neglect. A few rooms in the house are still habitable, and a caretaker lives and makes tea for the curious tourist who loves to visit ‘the homes of England.’ In the large Drawing-Room, with its huge bay-windows, it isn’t an uncommon sight to see a picnic-luncheon laid out upon the floor where once spindle-legged furniture stood on which were seated the powder-headed courtiers, as they paid their addresses to the be-jewelled and be-satined damsels of long ago.”

Kirby Hall 1 - The Sketch - Jan 11 1899 (BNA)
The north side of the courtyard in 1899. This photograph was taken by Edith Broughton, of Bedford, for The Sketch magazine. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - The Sketch - Jan 11 1899 (BNA)
The porch to the banqueting Hall. Another photograph from Edith Broughton. Ivy can be seen taking hold of the building. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

Edith Broughton hoped that the day would soon dawn that would see men hard at work restoring this lovely specimen of the Renaissance. ‘Which it were a sin to leave longer to ruin and decay!’

That day would take a long time coming. In 1935, the ruined mansion was under the kindly protection of the Office of Works and had suffered well over a century the utter misery of neglect. With no one interested in it, or to watch over it, it had become a roofless ruin, its windows broken, more stones removed, and its beautiful interior woodwork long gone.

Kirby Hall - The Sphere - Sat 3 May 1930 (BNA)
The Banqueting Hall. This photograph was taken in 1930, just after it had been taken over by the Office of Works who planned repair and renovation. At this time, the house had not been inhabited for one hundred years. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - The Sphere 1 - Aug 3 1935 (BNA)
Delicate Renaissance carving on the capitals of the fluted columns that alternate with the tall windows, and along the frieze running round the four sides of the inner quadrangle at Kirby Hall, which represents the best of Elizabethan architecture, having been built in 1570 by John Thorpe. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - The Sphere 3 - Aug 3 1935 (BNA)
“Beautiful, stocked with a great variety of exotic plants, and adorned with a wilderness composed of almost the whole variety of English trees, and ranged in elegant order,” was the comment of John Bridges, the 18th century Northamptonshire historian, on the garden at Kirby Hall, which was until the 1930s an overgrown waste. In this photograph from 1935 they were about to restocked with yews and roses by the Office of Works. Image. The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - The Sphere 2 - Aug 3 1935 (BNA)
Elegantly ornamented pilasters on either side of one of the great entrances at Kirby Hall, whose owner never lived to see it in its completed beauty. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Kirby Hall - The Sphere 4 - Aug 3 1935 (BNA)
Devouring time had brought much of the splendour of Renaissance architecture to decay, but under the care of the Office of Works, the crumbling walls were about to be restored in 1935. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

Kirby Hall is approached by an outer court, with fine gateways, and is enclosed by a stone balustrade, but the main structure consists of the quadrangular courtyard, surrounded by buildings like an Oxford college. The long east and west sides were occupied by a series of small apartments and connected with one another, in which the household and guests once resided, while the Great Hall was at the southern end. The exterior of Kirby Hall is described as ‘not particularly striking’; it is the richness of the detail and real beauty of the design of the inner courtyard which makes it of importance.

Today, Kirby Hall and its gardens are still owned by the Earl of Winchilsea but is managed and maintained by English Heritage. Although the vast mansion remains partly roofless, the walls show the rich decoration that proclaims its successive owners were always at the forefront of new ideas about architecture and design. The Great Hall and state rooms remain intact, refitted and redecorated to authentic 17th and 18th century specifications.

It now enjoys a new celebrity as a filming location and has appeared in Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, Mansfield Park, A Christmas Carol for Ealing Studios in 1999, and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story in 2005.

Kirby Hall (K Team)
The semi-restored Kirby Hall. The house was described in 1878 as being ‘cold grey ruins, the very image of mournful desolation, hidden amid deserted lime avenues and woods, untrodden save the solitary gamekeeper.’ Image: The K Team.
Kirby Hall (The Telegraph)
A managed ruin. Parts of Kirby Hall are still unrestored, but the decay has been halted under the management of English Heritage. Image: The Telegraph.

OAKLEY HALL

This house’s ownership reflects the changing demographic of wealth over the past century 

Oakley Hall 2 (Savills)
Image: Savills.

A social history of our country is often reflected in the country house. A good example is Oakley Hall where the Chetwode family held seat from the 13th century. The baronetcy of Oakley was created in April 1700 for John Chetwode of Oakley Hall, then surrounded by a 300-acre park, with a generous annual income coming in from the surrounding estate. By the turn of the 20th century, the riches from agriculture were diminishing, and somewhere like Oakley Park was an unaffordable luxury. The Chetwodes sold up, and subsequent occupants included a chemical manufacturer, a cotton merchant, a ship-owner and subsequently an investment banker. Now that the Queen Anne/Georgian stately home is back on the market, with a guide price of £3.5 million, it is intriguing to see what the occupation of its next owner might be.

Before reading any further, let’s clear up the confusion as to which county Oakley Hall sits in. The house straddles the border of Shropshire and Staffordshire, the River Tern runs next to the 3½-acre lake and forms the county boundary. Oakley Hall sits on the Shropshire side, near Mucklestone, but continues to confuse interested observers.

Oakley Hall 1 (Savills)
Image: Savills.

The Grade II* listed mansion was built in 1710 to replace an older manor house by Sir John Chetwode, a two-storey mansion constructed of brick on a sandstone plinth, with a severe east entrance front of 11 bays, the first three pedimented, with two sphinx-like figures with female heads flanking the front door. It has two differing facades overlooking the lake to the north and parkland to the south.

According to Historic England, subsequent Chetwode baronets improved the estate, with the addition of walled gardens, a large farm and stable block. The plain south front previously had a four-bay veranda that was removed in modern times and replaced with a conservatory.

Oakley Hall 3 (Savills)
Image: Savills.

The last of the family to live at Oakley Hall was Sir George Chetwode (1823-1905), 6th Baronet, the son of the Rev. George Chetwode of Chilton House, Buckinghamshire, who succeeded his uncle in 1873. He was a military man, serving in the Crimean War in the battles of Alma, Balaclava and Inkerman and the Siege of Sevastopol; he also fought in the Indian Mutiny and was wounded at the Battle of Sindwaho.

Sir George died in 1905 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Major (later Field-Marshall) Philip Walhouse Chetwode, D.S.O., another military man, of the 19th Hussars.

The Chetwodes, meanwhile, remained loyal to their ancestral seat, and spent most of their time at Chetwode Manor, Buckinghamshire.

The house was let to Mr Arthur Reginald Midwood (1863-1936), the Managing Director of Alfred H. Midwood and Co, cotton merchants, Manchester, and a director of the Dennis Motor Company. He later invested in the Lancashire Automatic Glass Manufacturing Company, pioneers in the production of glass-machine made bottles that became extremely popular during the new century. After he left Oakley Hall, Midwood went to live at Oakmere Hall in Cheshire, and died in Sydney, New South Wales, in 1937.

In 1920, the Chetwode family sold Oakley Hall to Charles Cyril Dennis (1881-1964), an Oxford M.A. and chairman of James H. Dennis and Co Ltd, copper and chemical manufacturers of Widnes and London. A member of the North Staffordshire Hunt, he was a keen fisherman and enjoyed shooting on the estate. He had married Mary Scott MacFie, daughter of Mr J.W. MacFie of Rowton Hall, Chester, in 1911, and came from a very old Scottish family. Her grandfather lived at Dreghorn Castle, Edinburgh, and was one of the founders of MacFie and Son, who made a fortune in sugar refining. The Dennis family moved from Broxton Old Hall, and after his wife’s death in 1939, remained at Oakley Hall until 1949. Cyril Dennis moved to nearby Park House in the same year he was appointed High Sheriff of Staffordshire.

Oakley Hall Auction - Staffordshire Advertiser - Sat 8 Dec 1945)
Auction notice from 1945. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Oakley Hall 4 (Savills)
Image: Savills.

During the 1950s, Oakley Hall was used for a time as a boarding school, before being bought by Major Paul Baker Lawson in the sixties. Born in Dresden, he was the son of Francis Richard Lawson, a noted North Staffordshire ecclesiastical architect who had practised in the Potteries for over 40 years. Major Lawson had been associated with Johnson Bros, potters of Hanley.

Oakley Hall in 1960s (Staffordshire County Council)
Oakley Hall in the 1960s. Image: Staffordshire County Council.

Oakley Hall was sold to the Crosthwaite shipping family in the 1970s, who ‘considerably altered’ the interior, as did its current owner, Mr Freddie G. Fisher III, who moved here in 1982.

Fisher is a graduate of Harvard University and gained his M.A. at Oxford University and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. With a long career in mergers and acquisitions, he is an international investment banker, particularly in the banking sector. His son, Freddie Fisher IV, gained celebrity status when he appeared as a housemate in television’s Big Brother.

Oakley Hall 14 (Savills)
Image: Savills.

While principally a private house, Oakley Hall has a civil licence for ceremonies, and has hosted up to twelve weddings a year. The stable block has been converted into offices, the main portion occupied by a specialist engineering business, as has the Brew House, which is presently vacant.

Thirty-six years after buying Oakley Hall, considered to be one of the finest stately homes in Shropshire, it is available to buy once again.

The house is approached past the entrance lodge down a long tree-lined private drive that sweeps in front of the house.

According to Savills, the principal reception rooms flow off the main hall with the formality and elegance of the ballroom and dining room, with the library and morning room being less formal. The kitchen overlooks the lake.

An elegant classic Georgian staircase sweeps up to the first floor, with a beautiful principal bedroom suite with curved windows overlooking the terrace and lake. The main house provides eight bedrooms with en-suite, together with a further three bedrooms and a bathroom.

There is a substantial cellar with wine cellar, steam room, walk-in safe and boiler-room. At the side of the house is a private courtyard which leads on to The Brew House.

Oakley Hall sits in about 95-acres of beautiful parkland and grassland, with about 22-acres of mature woodland. The lake is the centrepiece and was restored to celebrate the new millennium. The house also comes with a walled garden, separate tennis court, and gardens made up of mature trees and shrubs.

Oakley Hall 5 (Savills)
Image: Savills.
Oakley Hall 6 (Savills)
Image: Savills.
Oakley Hall 7 (Savills)
Image: Savills.
Oakley Hall 8 (Savills)
Image: Savills.
Oakley Hall 9 (Savills)
Image: Savills.
Oakley Hall 10 (Savills)
Image: Savills.
Oakley Hall 11 (Savills)
Image: Savills.
Oakley Hall 12 (Savills)
Image: Savills.
Oakley Hall 13 (Savills)
Image: Savills.
Oakley Hall 15 (Savills)
Image: Savills.
Oakley Hall 17 (Savills)
Image: Savills.
Oakley Hall 18 (Savills)
Image: Savills.
Oakley Hall 19 (Savills)
Image: Savills.
Oakley Hall 20 (Savills)
Image: Savills.

CHATSWORTH HOUSE

A stately home without a Duke. How its treasures were cared for in the absence of the Duke of Devonshire

Chatsworth 1 - The Sphere - Dec 28 1946 (BNA)
The ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire. In 1946, the 10th Duke had placed Chatsworth and its treasures on a caretaking basis, as he didn’t expect to live there for many years, partly on account of high taxation and partly on account of the servant problem. (British Newspaper Archive).

The domain of Chatsworth was purchased by Sir William Cavendish and it was he in 1553 who began the old mansion, which after his death in 1557 was completed by his widow, Bess of Hardwick. Here in succeeding years Mary Queen of Scots was five times imprisoned. The present mansion includes the old Palladian pile started in 1687 by the first Duke of Devonshire and the north-wing added in 1820.

With its 636,000 visitors a year, Chatsworth House may have become one of our greatest stately homes. However, life in the Duke of Devonshire’s grand mansion wasn’t always a bed of roses. In 1946, The Sphere painted a rather bleak and uninspiring outlook for the house, a stark contrast to its present-day fortunes.

Back then, ‘one of the private treasure-houses of the nation’ was reduced to one housemaid, a sole survivor of a pre-war domestic staff of forty, and the whole house was being kept on a caretaking basis.

Chatsworth House was without a Duke. Taxation of the time made it impossible for him to live there in the old style while the servant problem was almost insuperable. It was suggested that one day the Duke might return to his Derbyshire home, but he himself didn’t expect this to happen for many years.

The custodian was Edward William Spencer Cavendish (1895-1950), the 10th Duke of Devonshire, who was still reeling from the loss of his eldest son and heir, William John Robert Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington, who had been killed in wartime action two years before. The future of Chatsworth would have rested on the shoulders of Billy Cavendish (and his wife, Kathleen Kennedy), but instead the weight of responsibility later fell to his second and younger son, Andrew Robert Buxton Cavendish (1920-2004).

Chatsworth 2 - The Sphere - Dec 28 1946 (BNA)
Mingled with the shrouded furniture in the Sculpture Gallery are examples of the genius of Canova, Thorwaldsen, Chantrey and Wyatt: During the war, when Chatsworth was used as a girls’ school, this gallery was converted into a storeroom for some of the principal treasures. (British Newspaper Archive).
Chatsworth 3 - The Sphere - Dec 28 1946 (BNA)
Restoring and preserving the great pictures of Chatsworth. Captain T.S. Wragg, who had been librarian at Chatsworth since 1933, at work on the surface cleaning of a painting on copper. (British Newspaper Archive).
Chatsworth 4 - The Sphere - Dec 28 1946 (BNA)
Mr G.H. Constantine, technical assistant at the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, at work on a landscape. He spent two days a week cleaning and restoring the Chatsworth pictures, paying particular attention to the regulation of the atmosphere. The Chatsworth pictures included works by Holbein, Titian, Reynolds and Murillo. (British Newspaper Archive).

The Chatsworth estate was saddled with debt. Death duties, liabilities from previous incumbents and a depression in British agriculture had all contributed to its downfall. In 1920, Devonshire House, the family’s London mansion, had been sold to developers and later demolished; Chiswick House, a Palladian villa in West London was sold to Brentford Council in 1929.  However, the financial burden refused to go away, and it was quite impossible to keep Chatsworth House occupied.

While Chatsworth was mothballed everything was being done to preserve its treasures, including its magnificent library, with its 35,000 books, including many irreplaceable first editions, and the art collection, including canvases by Murillo Van Eyck, Titian, Reynolds and other masters.

During World War 2 Chatsworth had been occupied by the Penrhos Girls’ College and it had taken its toll. Fumes from moth-balls in stored carpets, and lack of oxygen due to occupation of rooms by large numbers of people, had affected many of the pictures. Inadequate heating during the acute coal shortage caused fluctuations in temperature which caused the canvas of paintings to contract and expand, leading in time to cracking and flaking.

A small staff of experts had been brought in to repair years of inevitable neglect. Pictures were being cleaned, and the books whose leather was becoming brittle were being dressed in ointment, developed by the British Museum.

Chatsworth 5 - The Sphere - Dec 28 1946 (BNA)
The elaborate alter-piece in Chatsworth’s private chapel. An example of the decorative style so typical of the mansion. The alter-piece is the work of Verrio, the walls and ceilings are by Laguerre, and Cibber’s figures of Faith and Hope surmount the alter of alabaster by Samuel Watson. Watson’s wood-carving, can be seen throughout the house. When these pictures were first published it would have been a rare opportunity for people to see inside the house. (British Newspaper Archive).
Chatsworth 6 - The Sphere - Dec 28 1946 (BNA)
In the Orangery. Stored furniture, sculpture and books. The large marble urn in the centre was a copy of the Medici Vase. The Orangery is now a gift shop. (British Newspaper Archive).
Chatsworth 7 - The Sphere - Dec 28 1946 (BNA)
A 15th century masterpiece restored to its pristine glory. Mr Constantine, technical assistant at the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, and Mr Thompson examining a canvas after its renovation. The pictures all have a protective coat of varnish, and this had to be removed before they could be submitted to the turpentine-and-wax restorative treatment. Inadequate heating as a result of coal shortage had caused considerable fluctuations in temperature, and this had caused deterioration of some of the valuable canvases. (British Newspaper Archive).

When the 10th Duke of Devonshire died in 1950 there were death duties of £7 million. The 11th Duke, Andrew Cavendish, along with his wife Deborah (‘Debo’), fought hard to keep the estate, selling tens of thousands of acres of land, transferring Hardwick Hall to the National Trust in lieu of taxes, and selling major works of art. Chatsworth House opened to the public in 1948-49, but it would take until 1959 for the 11th Duke of Devonshire to move back into the house. It was a happy outcome and the rest, as they say, is history.  Chatsworth House

Chatsworth 8 - The Sphere - Dec 28 1946 (BNA)
Leather-bound books needed constant care and attention. The covers often became brittle with age, and Captain T.S. Wragg, the librarian, was seen applying a dressing to the batch which he had selected for treatment form the shelves. This dressing had been developed by the Research Department of the British Museum and had been found to be the most effective. (British Newspaper Archive).
Chatsworth 9 - The Sphere - Dec 28 1946 (BNA)
A view of the main library, where half the collection was accommodated. When Chatsworth was rebuilt in 1687 by the first Duke of Devonshire this was the Long Gallery, and it was converted into a library by the sixth Duke at the beginning of the 19th century. The preservation of the books was an unending task, and expert binders were constantly at work on repairs and renovations. (British Newspaper Archive),