Vanished Country Houses

Our May meeting was a talk by Thea Randall, Staffordshire County Archivist.

In the 19th century Staffordshire was an incredibly aristocratic county and had the second highest density of country houses in England, after Westmorland. Thea Randall began by providing the historic context for this. These houses represented a symbol of economic wealth, social and political status and show-cases for possessions acquired here and abroad. Their owner's rising wealth and status meant that houses were not static entities; they were knocked down and then rebuilt to reflect current architectural fashions. Estates were built up in the middle ages and enlargement was financed by trade, inheritance from rich relatives and clever marriages.

In the 16th century the monastic estates seized during the reformation were also sold to the monarch's friends. Old inconvenient houses were replaced in the 17th century - as illustrated in Dr Robert Plot's "Natural History of Staffordshire" published in 1686. In the 18th century many houses were rebuilt; with landscaping designed by Brown, Earnes or Shenstone providing enhanced settings.

Staffordshire became a big industrial county in the 18th and 19th centuries - explaining the high density of houses. Money came from minerals, pottery and textiles. But in the late 19th century the agricultural depression impacted on estate income and began a gradual decline in estate fortunes.

Early in the 20th century Lloyd George's fiscal changes imposed double death duties on some landowners, causing estates to be split and sold off. The first world war also had a devastating impact as men were less willing to return to agriculture after 1918. Thus in the 1920s a big sell off of property occurred. The second world war had less impact but increasing urbanization meant that some estates were now close to the expanding towns.

In the second part of her talk Thea Randall showed images of over 20 lost houses sourced mainly from the William Salt collection. In several cases a copy of the sale catalogue has also survived and these give a fascinating insight into the details of the estate - e.g. Gardens, an Ice House, Gas Works etc. - as well as the house contents. For a demolition sale, such as at Beaudesert in 1935, the fittings including oak panelling and the staircase would also be described.

Just as individual properties had been financed by the profits on Coal, Pottery, Sugar or Wool, so their decline and ultimate demolition followed a variety of routes. Some passed into Local Authority ownership and were used as Hospitals, Mental Institutions or Schools. Some were requisitioned by the armed forces during WW2 but were poorly maintained and ultimately demolished in the 1950s. At least one, Little Fenton Hall, stood in the path of the expanding nineteen century railway network and was demolished as early as 1847.

Small parts of some houses do remain: a Belvedere Tower from Trentham Hall now stands at Sandon; the gatehouse from Tixall hall is owned by the Landmark Trust; and the rump of Illam Hall is now a Youth Hostel. But the county's tourist trade would certainly have prospered if more of these wonderful houses remained.

Finally, Thea Randall expanded on her role as County Archivist; on the need to encourage deposits and their value in interpreting the past. The main catalogue is online with indexes to some records and there is pressure from the National Archives to digitise all our records - a long and costly exercise - but this is resulting in a falling off of archive services. She concluded by saying that "You cannot beat research with original documents".

Lorna Bushell
May 2010