A country seat of learning: Wispers, Sussex

Wispers, Sussex

Wispers, Sussex (Image: Daily Mail)

There has been a long tradition of country houses being converted to schools.  Indeed, the practice has saved many hundreds from being demolished all together, denying us today the pleasure of houses such as Stowe and Bryanston.  In recent years fewer houses have passed into institutional use with a preference for modern school buildings.  However, despite some difficulties in the last couple of years for private schools, the recent sale of Wispers in Sussex has shown that there is still the appetite for the country house based school.

Grade-II listed Wispers was built in 1874-76 by Richard Norman Shaw for stockbroker Alexander Scrimgeour and was sold in 1928 to the Bedford estate for Dame Mary Russell (the wife of the 11th Duke of Bedford) as a weekend retreat to which she added the huge eastern wing in the 1930s.  Dame Mary was known as ‘The Flying Duchess’ due to her interest, later in life, in aviation which led to her regularly flying her Tiger Moth – including from the Bedford’s main home, Woburn Abbey, to Wispers.  To help accommodate her new mode of transport, at the same time as the new wing was being added to the house, she had an airplane hanger built as well.  Dame Mary’s love of flying did eventually lead to her death when, at the age of 71 in 1937, her plane disappeared over the North Sea as she flew from Woburn to Cambridge.

Following her death, the house was sold in 1939 and became a school known as St Cuthman’s before West Sussex council bought it as a special needs facility.  After this closed in 2003, the house was sold and a planning application lodged to convert the main house into 7 flats with other buildings on the estate being either converted or demolished.  However, this plan was never implemented and after lying empty for 6 years was sold for £3m (against an original asking price of £4.5m) with 20 of the original 35 acres in April 2010 to Durand Primary, near Brixton, South London. The school was able to use the profits from its successful leisure and student accommodation business to provide Wispers as a weekly boarding environment for secondary age pupils.

Educational use has saved many country houses from being demolished or converted – though sometimes the alterations required or the heavy wear and tear on these buildings could be quite damaging.  When English Heritage took on Apethorpe Hall in Northamptonshire they discovered light switches and other fittings had been poorly installed, usually by simply hacking through the plasterwork.  However, on balance, these minor issues are the lesser of two evils compared to possible complete loss.  It’s not known precisely how many country houses have been used for educational purposes at some point in their lives (and many took on this role temporarily in WWII, most famously Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard) but it certainly shows the versatility of our country houses.  Use as a school can also help preserve a house so that one day it might possibly be converted back to being a home.

More details: ‘Inner-city school buys mansion to keep pupils safe from knife crime‘ [Daily Mail]

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About Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat

An amateur architectural historian with a particular love of UK country houses in all their many varied and beautiful forms.
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