Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Lost Houses of England

by Maggi Andersen

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


  1. So sad to hear of such a beautiful piece of history coming down. I can understand how it would be hard on the average family to maintain such an estate in the modern age, but its nice that there is an interest in preserving some of them.

    Thanks for the post! Really enjoyed the pictures.

  2. We are NT members and it's just great they have so many properties that would otherwise have gone to ruin. Such sad stories of great houses. I sometimes visit Barrington Court in Somerset which was the NT's first property and it nearly bankrupted them! It's a tudor building and doesn't have any furnishings at the moment - great for toddlers to run around in, but a bit sad all the same! Thanks for the post.

  3. Most interesting. It's good to know that organizations like the National Trust are focusing on preservation. It's so easy to destroy something; too often, it's a huge mistake.

  4. That's awfully sad... I love big old houses with centuries of history...

  5. The impact of WWI on these great houses is beyond reckoning. It often wasn't just one son who died, leaving the family without an heir. But several sons and cousins. The Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall are the result of that kind of loss--by the end of the war, there were just two little old ladies left in the family, and they hadn't the money or the energy to maintain the huge garden. And so it slept, forgotten, until it was accidentally rediscovered, long after the ladies had died, in 1991.

    Many of the big houses are still changing hands, chiefly because taxes so high, but maintenance costs are higher than anything. These old piles are all Grade I listed, which means the owner has to restore the house (if work is being done) with reclaimed whatever from the same period and it has to be exactly right--whether it's window frames, roof tiles, chimney pots, doors, paint (must be an historic colour)...the list is endless. And the costs make your eyes water.

    Also, as you mention, the taxes. During the 1960s the upper tax band was 80%. Which effectively meant that if you were a landowner and a fence came down, you didn't have the money to repair it. If the roof leaked, you didn't have the money to repair that either--you just brought in extra buckets. And this was devastating to the fabric of these houses...

    A number of the big houses have been sold to Russian oligarchs in the last decade--they have the money for the upkeep, and frankly, from those houses I've seen, they're willing to be patient and restore the houses properly.

    Though, interestingly, one other way to earn a bit of cash to be used in the restoration works is to let said house out for filming.

  6. Thanks everyone. I would love to visit the Lost Gardens, M.M.

  7. It makes me sick to think of these fabulous houses being left to die. I'm glad there is provision to take care of them. When I watch period movies, it seems as if there is a new house for every movie. I just can't believe there are so many of them, and those are just the ones I have seen.

    Do many families still manage to keep up their own houses?

  8. Weald House was gorgeous! What a loss.

  9. Debra, lots of houses are still owned privately, but it's true that the First World War and changes to taxation meant that only the very cleverest people have kept them. The National Trust (NT) has lots of houses under their care, but they will only take on new houses if there is some kind of fund for the upkeep. The NT relies mainly on volunteers to help run these houses. Some other houses are owned by English Heritage (but they tend to take on castles more). Others have had to adapt. For example: Longleat House is a safari park and theme park as well as a stately home owned by the Marquis of Bath. Some offer Wedding venues, hotels, conference facilities. In fact me and my husband run our own business and have met with our customers in a stately home (as a meeting room) for the day at a very reasonable rate. hth Jenna.

  10. What a loss. Anyone who loves the work of Robert Adam should oppose this awful scheme for Wyreside Hall: http://dasteepsspeaks.blogspot.com/2011/12/adam-would-turn-his-grave.html

  11. Thanks for your reply, Jenna. It is nice that us ordinary people can see these houses nowadays. How nice that you can hold meetings in one!

    Are not some still self-sufficient? Until the death of Diana, the Spencers still ran their home alone, did they not? Now they do allow a period of visitation per year in Diana's honor as people want to see the place. Or is it because they needed the money? Then Earl Spencer married a philanthropist- that must help. I'm sure some still look to marry well.

    Thanks Matthew, I'll read your post.

  12. I have only recently learned that Sir John Bramston the Elder was my 10X grandfather. Fortunate to have found photographs of the now demolished manor from several vantage points. Was even sent some photos of the interior. Much information regarding the Bramston's online.
    Would love to have a copy of a coloured painting of Skreens manor and one of my 9X grandfather Sir Mondeford Bramston.
    Regards, Ken Duncan, Vancouver, BC


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.