Built by the Singer family to take advantage of Devon’s mild climate and cosmopolitan society. One hundred years after use as a military hospital it faces an uncertain future.
On the day that The Victorian Society has released their Top 10 Endangered Buildings List 2018, we take a look at Oldway Mansion at Paignton, the only country house to feature on this year’s listing.
One hundred years ago, life at Oldway was very different, if not more traumatic. American women were rendering generous and greatly appreciated help here to the wounded Allies’ forces, the house renamed as the American War Hospital. It was one of the finest and best-equipped in the whole range of Red Cross undertakings. Mr Paris Singer, who was well known as a skilful aviator, had given over his palatial residence with its hundreds of rooms and beautiful grounds, an ideal home for the wounded. Dr Penhallow was the chief surgeon, and a staff of over a hundred and fifty nurses carried on the work under Colonel Gunning.
This glorious house of 1873 was built by George Bridgman as a private residence for Isaac Merritt Singer, founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, and later rebuilt by his third son, Paris Singer, in the style of the Palace of Versailles. Following the end of an affair with dancer Isadora Duncan in 1917, Paris Singer went to live in the United States. Oldway Mansion became the Torbay Golf & Country Club in 1929 and was bought by Paignton Urban District Council in 1946.
Following many different functions during the later 20th century, it was used as council offices from 1946 until 2007 when the council announced its intention to sell the building as it had become too expensive to maintain. This proved controversial with residents who wished it to continue being a public space. In 2012, plans for the building to be converted into a luxury hotel and sheltered retirement flats were approved by the council, but works never started. In 2016 there emerged a legal dispute between the developers and the council over the leases, which developers claimed had caused the delay on the redevelopment. This heated legal dispute ultimately brought an end to the planned development, leaving the council once again with the issue of how to proceed with the empty listed building.
A grand country house that looked after wounded Australian soldiers in the Great War. It later became a sanatorium, the foundation to one of the world’s leading hospitals.
I quote from the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer on 23rd August 1918: ‘An agricultural correspondent tells of an extraordinary sale of farm stock today, at Harefield, Middlesex, a place so out of the way – nearly three miles from a railway station – that, till the selection of a local mansion as an Australian hospital, it was not known even to Londoners’.
These words tell us that Harefield Park, now in the London Borough of Hillingdon, was as remote as anywhere, but decades later this country house was to become world famous.
The earliest records of this historic mansion, sometime called Bellhammonds, dates to 1306. Amongst the evidence pertaining to the estate at this period, was a deed endorsed Knights Cortes, ‘whereby Prior Alexander and the Convent of Harley granted this Manor in Harefield, with all their lands in Harefield and Rykemesworth, to Richard Weltekart, of Louth, Thomas, his son, and Florence, the wife, to hold to them, and the heirs of Thomas, of the chief Lords of the fee forever, paying one hundred marks for the same’.
Harefield Place was the creation of George Cooke, the chief prothonotary of the Court of Common Pleas, the first of the Cookes who settled at Harefield, after his marriage in 1700. He created the estate after buying an ancient house called Ryes, or Rythes, and about 700 acres of land, from John Stanyan Gent, in February 1704.
Before his death in 1740, he built the present house, planted the ornamental timber, made the garden, and added about 200 more acres of land, bought at different times. Amongst his purchases was a small tenement, with stables and orchards, with three acres of land, called Bellhammonds, which he bought in 1713. He then gave that name to his own house. In ancient records, the name of Bellhammonds and Bellhackets frequently appeared as landowners in the village.
In 1750, his son, George Cooke, M.P. for Middlesex, added several farms with about 400 acres, and the mills on the River Colne, which he purchased from Sir Robert Newdigate. In 1758, he bought the Evesden Farm and fishery from William Ashby, of Breakspears. In 1824, General Sir George Cooke, his grandson, added the farm called Weybeards, or Hammonds, which he purchased from the executors of Mr R.G. Spedding, once the manager of the Copper Mills.
It was about this time that the estate came to be known as Harefield Park.
Sir George Cooke died suddenly at his chambers in the Temple in 1740, and lies buried at Hayes, where he was also Lord of the Manor. On his death, and his brother, Sir Henry, the property descended to his nephew, Mr William Frederick Vernon, who prepared a complete history of Harefield for private circulation.
The park was well timbered, and commanded extensive views of the Colne Valley. Prominent in the grounds was a fine grove of ilex of considerable size. Close to the house and south of the terrace was a large statue in white marble of Sir George Cooke, the founder of the estate, long thought to be the work of John Michael Rysbrack, but later attributed to Sir Henry Cheere, 1st Baronet, a renowned sculptor and monumental mason.
A full-length picture of George Cooke, painted by John Vanderbank in 1726, hung in the billiard room of the mansion, and many other valuable pictures were left behind by the Cooke family.
At the start of the 20th century, Harefield Park was in the possession of Mr Charles Billyard Leake, who owned extensive sheep farms in Australia. Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, he offered his house and estate to the Australian Government as a convalescent hospital for the overseas forces. From 1915, the house became the No.1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital, the grounds around the mansion arranged with many huts, in all accommodating about two thousand men. During the occupation, it was visited by King George V, Queen Mary, the Duke of Connaught, and Mr Billy Hughes, the Prime Minister of Australia.
In 1919, Middlesex County Council bought Harefield Park to provide additional sanatorium accommodation for the Middlesex County Hospital for the use of tuberculosis patients, with the Government contributing £38,400 towards the cost.
What a difference one hundred years makes!
After becoming part of the NHS in 1948, Harefield first became a general hospital and then a specialist heart and lung centre. Ground-breaking work, led by Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub in the latter part of the 20th century, included the first successful heart transplant in 1980 followed by the world’s first combined heart and lung transplant in 1983. This led to Harefield Hospital having the largest transplant programme of its kind anywhere in the world.
In 1998, Harefield Hospital merged with Royal Brompton Hospital, Chelsea, to become Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Trust before achieving Foundation Trust status in 2009. The organisation is now referred to as Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Foundation Trust.
Grade II* listed Harefield Park mansion provided many years of service, but soon became lost on a rapidly expanding site. It was last used as accommodation for Harefield Hospital’s medical staff and is still standing, although it has become a long-serving entry on Historic England’s ‘Buildings at Risk’ register. According to the list, the house is vacant and in very poor condition, the building is propped-up and a temporary roof is in place.
Tatchbury Mount was built in the early 19th century, possibly for William Timson, or more likely for Henry Thomas Timson, a ‘gentleman of fortune’, who died in 1848. It passed to the Reverend Edward Timson, Master of the New Forest Foxhounds, until his death in 1873, and subsequently to his son, Captain Henry Timson, of the 5th Lancashire Regiment.
Tatchbury was later rented to Mr J.P. Hesletine and then Sir Daniel Fulthorpe Gooch, also of Clewer Park in Berkshire, the third holder of the baronetcy conferred in 1866 on Sir Daniel Gooch, for many years chairman of the Great Western Railway. The third baronet had accompanied Sir Ernest Shackleton in his 1914 Antarctic Expedition as far as South Georgia, signing on as an able seaman on the Endurance.
In 1927, Tatchbury Mount, still owned by the Timson family, was put up for sale and eventually sold to Hampshire County Council as a Colony for Mental Defectives. It opened in 1931 and after a long-use as a secure hospital, the site around it developed and still in use, the original mansion was surprisingly demolished in 2006.
A century ago, Lord Howe was reported to be in financial difficulty. It came as no surprise when he sold this country house to a furniture baron, but there were troubled times ahead.
On August 21st 1918, The Pall Mall Gazette reported that the Gopsall estate in Leicestershire, one of the seats of Lord Howe, had been sold to Mr Samuel James Waring. The price was not disclosed, but the elastic figure was somewhere between £300,000 and £400,000. At one time the property had extended to 40,000 acres, but now comprised an area of 12,000 acres, including several villages. Gopsall Hall had sold for about £10,000.
The mansion was built in 1750, long thought to be by John Westley for Charles Jennens (1700-1773), the son of a Birmingham industrialist, at a cost of over £100,000. However, there is now speculation that it might have been the work of William or David Hiorn of Warwick.
Jennens was a keen follower of the arts and allowed his friend George Frederick Handel to stay for a time. Handel was reputed to have composed part of his ‘Messiah’ here and was responsible for the installation of a magnificent organ.
It was inherited by his nephew Richard William Penn Asherton Curzon, whose mother was the eldest daughter of Admiral Howe. In later years, King Edward VII took advantage of the house’s shooting estate (as did Kaiser Wilhelm) and a silver bath was installed prior to his visit. Other visitors included Queen Adelaide during her long widowhood, and Winston Churchill.
A feature of Gopsall were its beautiful ceilings, the one in the dining room occupied nearly the whole space and represented Neptune riding in a nautilus shell drawn by horses.
According to the Pall Mall Gazette, Gopsall ‘may claim a prominent place in the ranks of the stately homes of England’.
The sale, however, played sad havoc with the motto of the Curzons: ‘Let Curzon hold what Curzon held.’ Its new owner couldn’t resist the ‘splitting-up’ movement going on all over the country, and he intimated his willingness to consider proposals from tenants to purchase their holdings.
Samuel James Waring (1860-1940), known as Sir Samuel Waring, Bt, between 1919 and 1922, was a British industrialist, public servant and benefactor. He was the grandson of John Waring, who had arrived in Liverpool from Belfast in 1835 and established a wholesale cabinet maker business. In 1893, Waring was given the task of opening a branch of the family furniture making company in London. In 1897, Waring was responsible for the merger with Gillow and Company to become Waring & Gillow, and of which Waring became chairman.
Seven years later, Waring sold the estate to the Government for £1 an acre and it was transferred to the Crown Estate. It was considered for various uses including that of a motor racing centre, an airfield and a country club. The house remained empty until World War Two when it was used by the No1 Radio Mechanics School of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers as a radar training base. They left in 1945 and the house was once again abandoned. It suffered several fires in the 1940s, lead was stripped from its roof and many of its fittings stolen as souvenirs. In a poor state of repair, Gopsall Hall was demolished in 1952.
NOTE: The Pall Mall Gazette corrects an error made by most people, me included, that the estate was sold to Samuel Waring in 1919. We now know that it was in 1918.
From the archives. A country house in West Sussex. This photograph appeared in The Tatler in October 1940. It shows Grove Lands at Henfield that was being used as a war supply depot. Pictured here is Grove Lands’ owner, Sir Gerald Stanhope Hanson, 2nd Baronet, who not only went round collecting supplies, but also collected for his wife’s penny-a-week Red Cross Fund. Six years after this photograph appeared, Gerald Hanson (from the Bryanstone Square Baronetcy) died aged 78. Not being familiar with this mansion, it has taken a bit of research to determine its fate. Grove Lands is now called ‘Grovelands’, on Wineham Lane, at Wineham, a small hamlet, about 2.5 miles away from Henfield.
The Dukeries are four estates whose boundaries join and form a green and tranquil tract of Nottinghamshire which, until the Second World War, was a celebrated beauty spot.
In 1963, the writer J. Roger Baker re-visited the area for The Tatler and discovered that once more the estates were being cared for in a way which, while retaining the feeling of pre-war grandeur, was entirely consistent with the 1960s.
Fifty-five years later, with the benefit of hindsight, his work proves to be a rather rose-tinted look at four country houses. These were the ‘swinging-sixties’ after all, but life further north was a bit grim. For at least one of these properties times would get very hard indeed.
From ‘The Tatler’ – 28 August 1963:-
Today’s image of Nottinghamshire is probably one of coal-mining sons and lovers enjoying riotous Saturday nights and hung-over Sunday mornings, plus vague race-memories of Robin Hood engaging in endless television sorties with the local Sheriff. But the core of the county has always been – and remains – Sherwood Forest which once accounted for a fifth of its area. Until the 17th century this thirty-mile expanse of woodland and ling forest belonged to the Crown; the King retaining hunting rights and the great oaks were used to build ships and – it is generally believed – to supply beams for large buildings, among them St. Paul’s Cathedral.
In 1683 the Earl of Kingston formed Thoresby Park from 2,000 acres of forest land; later another 3,000 were taken for the fourth Earl of Clare’s park at Clumber and the Duke of Newcastle began building Welbeck Abbey. At nearby Worksop stood the magnificent Elizabethan manor house begun in about 1530 by the fourth Earl of Shrewsbury. This house – the most glorious in the midlands and possibly the whole north of England was burned down (at a total loss in art treasures of £100,000) in 1761. The conjunction of these four estates is dubbed the Dukeries. In the past 30 years they have probably gone through more upheaval – retrogression and subsequent redevelopment – than in the previous three hundred. I revisited the Dukeries earlier this year when the oak, lime and birch trees were just emerging into consciousness and daffodils carpeted the parklands. It is possible to travel for miles without seeing a coal mine or any other scar on the carefully manicured landscape, or any living thing apart from birds or the odd herd of deer. The perimeter of the Dukeries is dotted with unlovely mining villages and in many places spoil heaps (buckets travel along wires to tip subterranean refuse on to growing piles) and mining plant encroach within the forest itself, but the centre of the area remains unspoiled. Or, to be more precise, has regained an unspoiled appearance.
For the greatest depredations to the forests and parks happened during the Second World War when the Army took over. I remember as a small boy raiding the ammunition dumps for Very lights which enlivened the first post-war bonfire celebrations. Perhaps the worst to suffer was Clumber Park which was requisitioned as an ammunition sub depot; it had been, too, a transit camp and much of the timber felled for war purposes leaving the park in a dismal state. Clumber House itself, a basically 18th-century mansion with later enlargements, facing on to the 87-acre lake, was demolished by the Duke of Newcastle in 1937 who intended to build a smaller dwelling on a nearby site. For a variety of reasons, he never did and sold the park to the National Trust.
A miniscule remnant of the house still stands (teas are available) and the National Trust’s area agent, Mr John Trayner, has his office in the stable courtyard.
“Clumber was the hunting and farming type of park,” he told me, “and a perfect example of a landscaped 18th century park which we are slowly restoring to its original state. The forestry side is well in hand, replanting at the rate of 28 acres a year. The rest is a question of maintenance and keeping the roads and paths in trim. We are also concerned with the buildings, especially the church.”
£9,000 has been spent on restoring Clumber church which was rededicated earlier this year. “On a good summer Sunday as many as 70,000 members of the public visit Clumber,” said Mr Trayner.
The joint estate of Thoresby is also open to the public. The hall is the home of Earl Manvers’ widow (he was the representative of the Dukes of Kingston whose title is defunct). It is not quite the Woburn of the Midlands, the Countess Manvers has made admirable use of the resources at her disposal to attract the public. In Sissons’ ‘Penny Illustrated Guide to the Dukeries’ published some 50 years ago, the rapturous author writes: ‘Everything is in the most perfect order on the Thoresby Estate and the mansion is the ideal abode of a high-minded English nobleman.
Of the estate this remains true; the park is about twelve miles in circumference, its variety of trees, lake and herds of deer (this particular estate has always retained large herds) are immaculate. Of the mansion… well, times have changed, and a few English noblemen would relish a bookstall selling Thoresby Hall place mats, waste paper bins, trays and tea towels in their great hall. The present house, another example of Victorian splendour, was designed by Salvin in 1874 and its massive, elaborate exterior confines a series of state apartments around which the public drift, open-mouthed at the fascinating collection of objets on view, ranging from the coronation robes of the Earl & Countess Manvers to some very beautiful paintings and back via a set of dolls in national costumes.
Despite the inevitable tourist attractions (did I spot a Robin Hood tea room?) Countess Manvers – an active painter, many of her works hang in Thoresby Hall – has clearly compromised with the ‘60s in the most agreeable manner, ensuring that the estate and house retain a basic feeling of a past age.
The other two ducal estates exist on a slightly different basis; to neither is the public admitted except by very special arrangement. Welbeck Abbey was first founded about 1150 but under Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries act, destroyed. The present pile – of varying periods – was begun in 1600 by the first Duke of Newcastle. The author of Sissons’ ‘Penny Guide’ goes completely berserk at the prospect of describing Welbeck, describing the wonders as ‘world-wide.’ Well. The wonders exist of a series of underground rooms and tunnels built (Sissons estimates the cost as ‘two or three millions of money’) by the fifth Duke of Portland. One is not required to indulge in a species of pot-holing to see these apartments – they are in fact just below ground level, lit by skylights.
Today Welbeck Abbey is a school – a college providing a two-year sixth-form boarding school education for boys intending to take cadetships at Sandhurst. The present Duke of Portland, who lives in a smaller house at Welbeck Woodhouse nearby, retains some state apartments for his own use.
The underground ballroom (a picture gallery originally) is now the gymnasium, and oil paintings hang on the walls, men and women of a bygone century watching lusty youths vault, practise judo and perform on parallel bars. Many of the rooms leading from the underground galleries are classrooms; football and cricket pitches are marked on the great lawns and boats sail the lake. Tactful conversion of a great home into a military college of this nature is a sure way of preserving the house from either destruction or misuse. Within the park, Welbeck village, once a completely self-contained unit, feudal in nature, serving the Abbey, retains its function; the rest of the estate is farmed by efficient and up-to-date methods.
Farming is also the function of the Worksop Manor estate which joins that of Welbeck. The manor house has been associated with various moments of history, visited by Mary Queen of Scots, by Charles I, and once tenanted by Bess of Hardwick who married the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. The present house was built by the 9th Duke after the Elizabethan house had been razed in 1761. He and the Duchess began rebuilding but the death of their heir finished their enthusiasm. The remains of their project are in a singular curtain wall attached to the main house which gives the place a strangely Mediterranean feeling; there is space, there are statues. In 1840 the manor was sold to the Duke of Newcastle of Clumber and in 1890 sold again to Sir John Robinson, passing in 1929 to his great-nephew Captain John Farr, whose widow still lives there, the 450-acre farm being managed by her son., Mr Bryan Farr, who has a house on the estate which includes 600 acres of forest land. Today Worksop Manor is probably the most striking of the four houses; with its wide courtyard and unfinished wing, completely unexpected.
And so ended J. Roger Baker’s visit to the Dukeries. But what lay ahead for these country estates? This was the 1960s, and there was still a tendency to demolish great houses that proved too costly to maintain.
Clumber Park, minus demolished mansion, became one of the National Trust’s crown jewels. Listed Grade I on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens, it has steadily been managed and maintained. It still contains the longest double avenue of lime trees in Europe, created by the 5th Duke of Newcastle in the 19th century and extending for more than two miles. The Duke of Newcastle’s study, designed by Charles Barry Jr, is all that survives of the house and is used as a café.
Worksop Manor might have been described as the finest of the four houses, but it was, and remains, the most secretive of estates. Guarded from public view, it strives to avoid publicity, the house remains in private ownership and continues to be the home to the Worksop Manor Stud.
The Dukedom of Portland became extinct following the death of Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, 9th Duke of Portland, in 1990. The military college continued at Welbeck Abbey until 2005, while Lady Anne, the unmarried elder daughter of the 7th Duke of Portland, remained at Welbeck Woodhouse until her own death in 2008. Her nephew, William Henry Marcello Parente (born 1951) inherited and moved into Welbeck Abbey making it a family home once again. The family-controlled Welbeck Estates Company and the charitable Harley foundation have converted some estate buildings to new uses. These include the Dukeries Garden Centre in the estate glasshouses, the School of Artisan Food in the former fire stables, the Harley Gallery and Foundation and the Welbeck Farm Shop in the former estate gasworks and a range of craft workshops in a former kitchen garden. The house remains private although public visits are available on a limited basis at certain times of the year.
Perhaps the most beleaguered story belonged to Thoresby Hall. To minimise the threat of coal mining subsidence the house was sold to the National Coal Board in 1979 who proposed mining underneath it. It stood empty and abandoned from 1980, and in 1983 was described ‘as gradually crumbling as a coal seam is mined under its foundations’. It was sold on the open market ten years later and after several uninspiring owners was eventually acquired by Warner Leisure Hotels. Thoresby Hall opened as a 200-room country house hotel and spa in 2000.
The writer, J. Roger Baker , was born in 1934 and studied at Nottingham University. After working at the Nottingham Evening Post, he moved to London in 1960 to take a job with The Tatler. He died in 1993.
When fire broke out a lack of water caused by summer drought resulted in this country house’s destruction
Between the autumns of 1933 and 1934, the southern counties of England suffered extreme drought. The summer wasn’t particularly hot, but lack of rainfall depleted surface water in rivers, streams, ponds and lakes, leaving many of them dry beds. The effect of this had devastating consequences for one Norfolk country house when it caught fire in the early hours of Saturday 23 June 1934.
Fring Hall, built in 1807, was one of the show mansions of West Norfolk, and home to the Hon. Somerset Arthur Maxwell (1905-1942), the eldest son of Arthur Kenlis Maxwell, 11th Baron Farnham. He’d married (Angela) Susan Roberts, daughter of Captain Marshall Owen Roberts, by his former wife Irene Helene Murray, in 1930.
The House, which stood in many acres of grounds, with a beautiful garden and park, had been leased from the Dusgate family, and redecoration had recently been completed in readiness for the incoming tenants. It was described as ‘a neat cemented mansion, upon a commanding eminence, with extensive gardens and pleasure grounds’
Mr Maxwell and his wife had arrived from London about an hour before the fire broke out. He at once communicated with the police when the outbreak was discovered by a servant, and the Sandringham Brigade from the King’s estate was the first to arrive.
So intense were the flames, that by 4 am only the walls were left standing, and some of these had become cracked and in danger of collapse. The roof and two wings had gone and the fine old mansion of about 60 rooms was little more than a blackened ruin.
Only a few hundred gallons of water were available to fight the flames. Owing to the drought there was no water in the ponds or in the ditches, and 60 men from five fire brigades and 20 Royal Air Force men could only stand by after the initial supply was exhausted. The main sources of water turned out to be a well in the grounds and some storage tanks, meaning only a few hoses could be used.
Flames rose to a great height and could be seen for miles, the roads full of motorists who had come to watch. One local resident was able to report on the blaze:
“Mr Maxwell, I believe, only took over the mansion about four months ago, but only returned to it yesterday to attend a Conservative meeting promoted by Viscountess Downe, at Hillington.
“In the glare of the fire he worked in his shirt sleeves, doing all he could to help the firemen. Valuable furniture and jewels were saved before the flames reached the front of the house, I understand.”
Despite the lack of water, men were able to get into the buildings and rescue most of the downstairs furniture and some from the bedrooms. All the jewellery and silver recovered were placed in a cell at Docking Police Station for safekeeping.
Fring Hall was rebuilt in 1936 and said to be a copy of the original, although there are differences in its external appearance. The cropmark of the original building is said to appear in dry weather protruding from the side of the present house.
Lt-Colonel, the Hon. Somerset Maxwell, one of the country’s tallest MPs, died in 1942, of wounds he received in Agedabia (now Ajdabiya) in Libya.
These days Fring Hall is home to the Brun family. Henrik Constantin Brun (1908-2009) came over from Denmark before World War Two and worked for a large farming company before branching out on his own as a tenant on the Sandringham estate. His youngest son, Edward Henrik Constantin Brun (b. 1948), is now the occupier at Fring Hall with its woodland used to supply coppice and woodland products.