The BBC series, Downton Abbey featured an aristocratic family struggling to survive through the First World War and chronicling the changes to society that war caused. Because I write about houses such as these in my novels, I was interested to find out more about the fate of England’s great houses.
The past hundred years has seen the loss of many historical houses due to the Government’s taxing laws, death duties and fire, and some were bombed during the Second World War. The consequence of social changes such as divorce took its toll, making it impossible for many families to continue the upkeep of these expensive estates. War time requisitioning left many in need of costly repair. With the end of the First World War British society changed irrevocably, when the people who staffed the big houses chose a different life than one in service.
Magnificent houses have been broken up, their contents dispersed and their structures demolished. Underlying the destruction of many was the fading perception that the continued existence of a specific landed family in a country house was still important to British society.
The only hope for many of these houses, whose family fortunes could not sustain, was to hand them over the National Trust.
The portico of Weald Hall with its massive Ionic Columns, added in the early 18th Century.
WEALD HALL, Essex had been the property of the Tower family from 1759 who also owned Huntsmoor Park, Buckinghamshire. Robert Adam remodeled the dining room for Christopher Tower in 1778.
The core of the Weald Hall was a Tudor block, probably built by Sir Anthony Browne who bought the property from the Crown. It was remodeled around 1720 possibly by the architect Giacomo Leoni.
The saloon with its heavily coffered ceiling.
Neither Huntsmoor Park nor Weald Hall was large. In 1883 Weald Hall estate was 2,481 acres and brought in an income of 4,092 pounds.
Passing down from son to son, Weald Hall was transferred to Christopher Cecil Tower on his marriage in 1913. But Christopher Tower’s enjoyment was brief. He was killed in action in 1915 and the Hall was never lived in again. The Hall’s situation between Romford and Brentwood made it unappealing for a home and it was placed in the hands of caretakers and a shooting syndicate.
The Great Hall, two stories high, showing the massive painting of Weald Hall possibly by William van der Hagen. Beneath the paintings were Classical busts on shell brackets while chubby putti reclined over the doorcase pediments.
During the Second World War the park was used for military purposes and the house badly damaged by fire. In 1946, the 2,000 acre Weald Hall estate was sold by its owner Captain C.T. Tower who was going abroad. In 1951 the house was demolished. It’s former park is now a public recreation area.
The 1950s were years of crisis for country houses. At least forty-eight were demolished in 1950 alone. The country house seemed irrelevant, white elephants threatening to drag families down. Many were handed over to The National Trust, others found an institutional use for their houses, but many were pulled down. Ancient medieval seats and great piles created by wealthy Victorian industrialists were demolished with impunity.
The demolition of country houses continued steadily throughout the first half of the 1960s, but their tragic history was brought to the public’s attention by the Destruction of the Country House exhibits at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1974. Since then the battle has focused on houses that have been abandoned for many years, particularly those where speculators were hoping to profit by letting the houses they owned fall into decay so that they can be pulled down. Today the main risk to country houses is once again, fire.
It is now impossible legally to demolish a country house of any significance.
For more details on the history behind the loss of these enormous and often breathtakingly beautiful houses, I recommend England’s Lost Houses From the Archives of Country Life by Giles Worsley, Aurum Press Limited.
Historical Romance Novelist Maggi Andersen