In many ways, a country house was often the headquarters of a business relating to both the estate and the affairs of the family who lived there. This role was to be mirrored in the latter half of the 20th-century as firms sought to adopt the prestige of stately homes and set up their offices in the many country houses which were then available. What grander statement could a company make to clients and investors than to invite them to visit their stately offices? Yet times changed, and over the years companies found it harder to justify such lavish accommodation, leading to a steady trickle of houses being sold – and the latest is Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire.
The Second World War ushered in the modern era of offices in country houses. With little by way of aerial bombing, few firms saw the need to move out of London and other cities in World War I, however, this danger had dramatically increased by 1939. Faced with the significant logistical challenges in moving their vital paper-based records and operations, the late 1930s saw a number of companies actively scouting out possible alternatives, with country houses an ideal choice due to their size and seclusion. This new lease of life enabled some houses to escape the demolisher’s pickaxe, such as at Shalford Park in Surrey. A solid, well-proportioned Georgian house, the result of a rebuild of an older house in 1797, had been sold to Guildford Borough Council in 1938, but primarily to protect the land from development, with the intention that the house be demolished. However, a lease was granted to the Cornhill Insurance Company (later part of Allianz Inc) who moved there in 1939, creating dormitories on the upper floors. Cornhill were to remain at Shalford Park until 1955, but unfortunately the condition of the building had significantly deteriorated, and combined with it being in the ideal location for a new local water treatment works, meant that the house was demolished.
One house which fared only slightly better from this type of arrangement was the beautiful Wrest Park, Bedfordshire. A fanciful French château, it was built in the 1830s to the accomplished designs of the owner, Thomas de Grey, 2nd Earl de Grey, and features some of the finest, and earliest, Rococo Revival interiors in the country – of particular note is the spectacular staircase. The house was sold in 1939 for £25,000 by John G. Murray to the Sun Insurance Company (later Sun Alliance) who bought it in anticipation of war. They promptly moved there from London once war had been declared, having made plans to ‘…alter the stable block and erect huts in the grounds for sleeping quarters, together with washing facilities and air-raid shelters … the stable block was the first area to receive our attention. The whole of the East Wing and the upper storey of the West Wing were to be converted for sleeping accommodation with toilet and washing facilities. The middle connecting section was also to be similarly altered, but it was later decided to make part of the upper storey into a communal long room.‘. Such scenes were undoubtedly repeated in many a country house – though such a use was preferable to the treatment meted out at the hands of enlisted men or children.
Other houses had the good fortune to secure relatively benign tenants for the duration of the war. The imposing Stratton Park, Hampshire, was built between 1803-06 by George Dance the Younger for Sir Francis Baring, Lord Northbrook, a founder of Barings Bank. Although it had been sold following the death of his descendent, Francis Baring, 2nd Earl of Northbrook in 1929, the house was bought back by Barings Bank in 1939 as their base for the duration of the conflict (though sadly it was demolished in 1960 by a later Baring who had bought it after the war). The choice of house was possibly influenced by the fact that the Bank of England had decamped to the nearby beautiful Cranbury Park, also in Hampshire – and, coincidentally, also designed by George Dance the Younger, but built in 1780. This little known house, still lived in today by the Chamberlayne family who commissioned it, has particularly impressive interiors; the hall and ballroom were described by Pevsner as an ‘unforgettable experience‘. Compared to the horrors of the bombing in London, what a strange pleasure it must have been to be stationed in such an environment.
The extensive alterations to even such an important house as Wrest Park indicated the level of damage such intensive use could bring to buildings which had not been designed for such a purpose. The post-war era held many threats to country houses and use as offices saved many from the wave of destruction which led to the demolition of so many in the 1950s. In 1949, Wrest Park was sold to the Ministry of Works, who leased it to the National Institute of Agricultural Engineering, later called Silsoe Research Institute which inflicted even more stress on the house and estate. Although Simon Jenkins included it in his book ‘England’s Thousand Best Houses‘, he wrote that ‘The [Institute's] outbuildings spoil the approach avenue and its abuse of the interior is dreadful. The best of the reception rooms, the library, is packed with modern bookcases and computer equipment. Other rooms are cheaply kitted out for lectures and seminars. It is like a Soviet academy of sciences camped in a St Petersburg palace.’. Thankfully the Institute closed in 2006 and the ground-floor rooms of the house (sadly, office space remains), along with the superb gardens and Thomas Archer‘s sublime Baroque banqueting house have been expertly restored by English Heritage.
The pressure to create more space is often the cause of the most damaging changes to a country house. Simon Jenkins’ criticism of the additional buildings at Wrest Park can similarly be levelled at the extensive construction which has taken place at Hursley House, Hampshire, home of IBM UK. The house itself was originally built between 1721-24, with ‘gentleman architect’ Sir Thomas Hewett acting as architectural consultant for Sir William Heathcote, and with further major reconstruction in 1902-03 to create the imposing Queen Anne house which appears in various marketing materials. What the images don’t show is the huge campus (of fairly ugly buildings) which has sprung up so close to the house since IBM took over the site in 1958. A more intelligent approach to the siting of extra accommodation can be seen at the Computer Associates site at Ditton Park, Berkshire, where the new office buildings have been placed a sensitive distance from the main house. If their priorities changed, the house could be sold and could resume a comfortably independent existence even if the offices remained in use. Such a change might once have been expected at Donington Hall, Leicestershire, which served as the headquarters for the airline BMI for many years until the recent merger made it redundant. Sadly, it’s actually unlikely that anyone would chose to live there as there would be no peace and quiet as the parkland has long been converted into the Donington Park race circuit, just half a mile south of the house.
Sadly, it is uncommon for a house, once it has been used as offices, to escape such a fate being made permanent. The alterations and additions can render the house a soulless shell with the grounds ruined beyond the possibility of economic rescue. However, some have survived this role remarkably intact and, if the possibility presents itself, offer a remarkable opportunity to rescue a house and bring it back to the glory of being a single family home. One such example is Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire, which has had something of a chequered history. The original house (above) was built between c1735-40 for John Barrington to designs by John Sanderson (b.? – d.1774), a man who Colvin wrote was described as a competent ‘second-generation Palladian’, who worked on an impressive roster of houses including Hagley Hall, where he proved to be an accomplished designer of rococo decoration, Kelham Hall (burnt down 1857), Kirtlington Park, Pusey House, Langley Park, Copped Hall, and Kimberley Hall.
Barrington Hall remained unfinished (despite the engraving above) and was uninhabited for 128 years due to, what the estate agents refer to as, ‘bizarre and unfortunate events‘ (anyone with more details please do post a comment!). The house was eventually restored in 1867 by George Lowndes, a distant relative of John Barrington, who employed the Lincolnshire architect Edward Browning to remodel it in a Jacobean style. The changes created an attractive house with a varied and interesting form, featuring a series of handsome architectural details such as the ‘Dutch’ gables, quoins and a miniature ogee turret. The house was bought by the Gosling family in 1903 who had merged ‘Goslings Bank‘ to create Barclays & Co in 1896. It was then sold in 1977 to the British Livestock Board who converted it to offices and then subsequently sold in 1980 to CPL Aromas LTD, a family perfumery firm who seem to have had some challenging times following an ill-fated public listing in 1994, which they reversed in 1999. Having remained at Barrington Hall it now seems that the company has reviewed its requirements and decided that a stately home is a luxury no longer required.
Although originally offered several months ago for £5m (with 32.85-acres), it seems possible that a serious, but lower, offer could be successful. It would probably take at least £2m to restore this fascinating house, creating the rich and lively interiors which it needs to match the exterior and bring it back to life, but whoever did so would have the pleasure and pride of having rescued an interesting country house from the drudgery of corporate service.
Sales website: ‘Barrington Hall‘ [Hamptons] – which, by the way, is a pretty weak effort. Nice photos but quite lacking in details.
Listing description: ‘Barrington Hall‘ [British Listed Buildings]
Know any more? If you’re aware of any other country houses of a similar size to Hursley House, Ditton Park, or Donington Park, please post a link (ideally) to a Google Map aerial view in the comments below.
N.B.: an earlier article on this blog (‘Converting country houses from commercial to residential: a sound investment?‘) looked at a few other examples including Gaddesden Place, Hertfordshire, now the headquarters for Xara software, and Benham Valance, Berkshire.