Going to the country: the country houses of UK Prime Ministers – Part 1

Houghton Hall, Norfolk (Image: Dennis Smith / Geograph)
Houghton Hall, Norfolk (Image: Dennis Smith / Geograph)

Those in important political roles have often sought to escape the pressures of office by escaping to the calm and tranquillity of the countryside.  This has been particularly true of the holder of the most important role; that of Prime Minister.  With early PMs drawn from the aristocracy, their backgrounds provided them with a seat which became a natural refuge but was also an important part of their political identity.  However, as their origins changed, so too did the nature of the country retreat.  However, for all PMs the country retreat has been a fairly constant feature – though not all aspired to live in grandeur.

To make this broad survey more digestible I’ve split this into PMs by ruling monarch, starting from when the role of Prime Minister was first recognised in 1721 under King George I.

The first holder of the office, Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, was the epitome of the aristocratic leader.  Walpole was born at Houghton Hall in Norfolk – though the house was a more modest one before Sir Robert engaged Colen Campbell in 1722 to rebuild it, creating one of the finest Palladian houses in the country.  The second PM was Spencer Compton, 1st Earl of Wilmington, who also employed Colen Campbell in 1726 to create a more modest home; Compton Place in Sussex.

The seat of Henry Pelham, who became the 3rd PM in 1743, was (according to Howard Colvin) Esher Place in Surrey which he bough in 1729. In 1733, he commissioned William Kent, who was also to create some garden buildings for Claremont for the Duke of Newcastle (see below), to add wings to the original house, Wolsey’s Tower, in a Gothic style.  The wings and garden buildings at Esher have now been demolished but drawings survive in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Pelham was succeeded as PM by his older brother, Thomas Pelham-Holles, the 1st Duke of Newcastle, whose main seat was Claremont in Esher, Surrey which he had bought from Sir John Vanbrugh who had built a ‘very small box’ as his own home.  The Duke then commissioned Vanbrugh to extend the house, adding two large wings.  This house was subsequently demolished as unfashionable by Clive of India who had bought the estate in 1768 following the Duke’s death, before being rebuilt in the Palladian style we see today.   The Duke also had other homes including in Halland, Sussex, an area the Pelham family had dominated since 1595 when they first bought land there.  Halland Place was also sold in 1768 and later demolished for materials.  [Originally I gave Welbeck Abbey as his seat but it was, in fact, inherited by the Holles Earls of Clare branch of the family creating a bitter feud.  A more detailed history of the feud is given by dennis in this comment below (thank you for the correction).]

One of the most fascinating houses in the country, particularly due to the extensive tunnelling work commissioned by the 5th Duke, but also one of the least known due to the reclusiveness of the Bentinck family and then later due to its role as the Army Sixth Form college which ensured military-level privacy. The house was largely the work of Sir Charles Cavendish who was given the house and estate by his mother, the remarkable Bess of Hardwick. [Corrected in response to comment below]

To complete the list of aristocratic PMs during the reign of George I (1714–1727) and George II (1727–1760), the last was William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire who lived in the peerless Chatsworth in Derbyshire – then, as now, one of the finest of our large country houses.  Interestingly, at the same time as he took on the role of PM in 1756, he also engaged in building at Chatsworth employing James Paine to add a new office wing and court (later replaced by Sir Jeffry Wyatville), a stable block, a bridge in the park, a bridge at Beeley, a water mill and also alterations to interiors of the house – though this work was not to be completed until 1767, long after his time as PM finished in 1757.

One notable feature of all the first PMs was they were all Whigs, a party nicknamed the ‘Country Party’ for their support was strongest in the shires and amongst the great landowners.  Unsurprisingly, these leaders were already managing vast estates which naturally came with sizeable houses which reflected their status – which then gave them the authority to aspire to be PM.  At this time, elections were rather crude affairs with the major landowners having MPs in their pockets due to ‘rotten boroughs‘ which gave the landowner a disproportionate, not to mention undemocratic, influence in the Houses of Commons.  Their country houses were therefore not a symptomatic trapping of power, something that they had aspired to and then acquired, but, in fact, were the foundation of the power which had secured them the position in the first place.

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire
Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

Architecturally, the apparently only acceptable styles were either Palladian or Classical which reflected the political nature of the landowners – symmetry, structure, proportion and the use of the correct orders would have appealed to those who were against monarchical absolutism (which would have challenged their own power) but also reflected a societal structure which ensured their wealth and status.  The Whigs were also closely associated with the Church of England and, as such, would not have entertained the idea of building their houses in the ‘Catholic’ Gothic style, and anyway, with the neo-Gothic movement only really starting in the 1740s it would be several decades before it gained real influence.

So the early years of the role of PM was dominated by the existing ruling class; the great landowners who now shifted from trying to solely influence events through the levers of Royal favouritism (though their support of the Hanoverian succession and therefore King George wasn’t overlooked) to the use of Parliament – though on their terms.  The houses which had often been built to attract and impress a visiting monarch in the hope of securing influence now shifted to helping build alliances with other landowners – and what better way than creating a home they would feel comfortable in? Architecture had become a key part of the political landscape; a physical expression of certain values but also part of a supporting cast which would build the alliances which elevated men to be Prime Minister.

Next: a change of King, and a new PM.

List of UK Prime Ministers

Thanks to Andrew for the original suggestion for this survey

9 thoughts on “Going to the country: the country houses of UK Prime Ministers – Part 1

  1. Andrew January 6, 2011 / 14:16

    Matt, thanks for the credit and a very interesting article, being an enjoyable way to combine a history lesson with country house viewing, something like an academic Escape to the Country. Though it would be nice to have a thumbnail of each house in the article for easy association, if space and copyright permit. I am curious to see how many of these ‘power houses’ have survived, and whether the tally is representative of the approximate 20% fatality rate for our stately rural retreats. Five PMs down (1721-1762), 48 to go – looks like a long series to warm up our winter months. I was amused to notice that the father of David Cameron (our 53rd PM) was born at Blairmore House in Aberdeenshire. Speaking of Tony Blair, I wonder if he will eventually buy himself a country house, because he has apparently already viewed a few (it’s a pity Blair Castle is not for sale, although he can always stay at Blair House). Of course other countries also have their official political retreats, such as the American President’s Camp David and the French President’s Fort de Bregancon, though neither being as grand as Chequers.

  2. dennis January 7, 2011 / 11:44

    I enjoy your blog very much, and can’t wait for your next installment of PM houses, because you’ll feature Wentworth Woodhouse and Welbeck Abbey.

    Some minor corrections to your post. Henry Pelham never lived at Claremont, he lived a mile away in another house. Vanbrugh sold his Esher house to Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle, who re-named it Claremont in honor of his uncle the 4th Earl of Clare, who was also Duke of Newcastle. If you can find any information on this house, please post it. The Claremont house that exists today was a replacement house constructed after the death of the Duke in 1768, and I have never seen a drawing or floor plan of the enlarged house Vanbrugh constructed between 1715-1721.

    As for Clumber, Thomas Pelham-Holles never lived there. The house in your picture was constructed by his nephew, the 9th Earl Of Lincoln, who suceeded to Duke of Newcastle when his Thomas Pelham-Holles died in 1768.

    When Thomas Pelham travelled to Nottinghamshire he stayed a mile away from Clumber, at Haughton Park, a great mansion that was the seat of the Earls of Clare. Any info on Haughton would also be appreciated.

    Again, I really appreciate your blog, and all the work you put into it. I’m a fan of English country houses, but live in America, where there is limited information available on the subject. Keep up the good work!

    • countryhouses January 17, 2011 / 01:17

      @dennis – thank you for your support and feedback. With regards to Clumber House, you are right that it was not the seat of Thomas Pelham-Holles. However, it seems difficult to say that Haughton Hall was the seat as it seems the Dukes of Newcastle moved to Welbeck Abbey and it was only on TP-H’s death in 1768 that the Earl of Lincoln then moved to Clumber House as Welbeck passed to the Bentinck family. Haughton had been abandoned in the early 1700s in favour of Welbeck and was allowed to fall into ruin. More details on the history of Haughton Hall on the Notts History website.

      I’m still looking into Claremont – again, unclear, partially due to ‘Henry’ being a favourite first name of the Pelhams. Howard Colvin says that Vanbrugh built a house there known as Chargate between 1709-10 which he sold, in 1714, to the 1st Duke of Newcastle (of the third creation in 1715 and Henry Pelham’s eldest brother). It was this house which the 1st Duke then engaged Vanbrugh to enlarge between 1715-20 and which was later demolished c1763. But this does leave the question of exactly where Henry Pelham’s seat was? Investigations continue…

  3. Andrew January 9, 2011 / 12:07

    The interconnectedness of the aristocracy is highlighted by Compton Place passing by marriage from the family of the Earl of Wilmington (2nd PM) to the youngest son of the 4th Duke of Devonshire (5th PM), whose grandson became the 7th Duke of Devonshire. Compton Place is today still owned by the Duke of Devonshire, but is leased to an English language school.

  4. dennis January 20, 2011 / 15:12

    Thank you for the link to Haughton.

    Thomas Pelham-Holles had as his main seat Claremont in Esher. His secondary seats were Halland in Sussex (which was the ancestral Pelham home), and Nottingham Castle and Haughton, both in Nottinghamshire.

    Thomas Pelham-Holles never lived at Welbeck Abbey, and would never have been invited there because of a bitter feud over the will of his uncle, John Holles, Duke of Newcastle and Earl of Clare. Welbeck Abbey was the property of John Holles’ wife, Margaret Cavendish. Margaret was the heiress of her father, the last Cavendish Duke of Newcastle. After Margaret’s death, Welbeck passed to her daughter Henrietta, who was married to the 2nd Earl of Oxford. (The Earl of Oxford was the son of a prime minister in Queen Anne’s reign.) Henrietta and her husband lived at another great country house, Wimpole Hall, which she had inherited from her father, John Holles, Duke of Newcastle.

    After Henrietta’s death, Welbeck Abbey went to her daughter, Margaret Cavendish-Harley, whose husband was the 2nd Duke of Portland.

    The feud I mentioned began in 1712 when John Holles, Duke of Newcastle, died and left all the property of the Holles Earls of Clare (which included Clumber and Haughton) to his nephew, Thomas Pelham. Outraged that they had been disinherited, Margaret and her daughter contested the will, but lost. Both women remained bitter enemies of Thomas Pelham-Holles, and it is unlikely he ever visited Welbeck.

    Again, I appreciate all the work you put into the blog. I enjoyed your article on Wentworth Woodhouse. Is there any way you could post some of the Country Life pictures taken in 2010? I have never seen the magazine here in the States. Thanks again.

    • countryhouses January 21, 2011 / 01:09

      Thanks Dennis – I’ve obviously stepped into your area of expert knowledge so I’m happy to be corrected. I’ll amend the page to refer to your comments as they explain it very well – thank you for your help.

      There are unfortunately copyright reasons for not posting the Country Life photos but you can get a sense of them from the preview images on the Country Life Picture Library: Wentworth Woodhouse

  5. ldm January 20, 2011 / 20:49

    Further to the excellent comment by Dennis about John Holles, Duke of Newcastle’s will, I believe he attempted to leave his wife’s Cavendish property to his nephew as well, as he had paid off the very large debts on it out of his own pocket. I also recall that his nephew, as part of the settlement negotiations, offered to marry his cousin, but was turned down, and that ultimately most of the Cavendish property was given to the daughter, while the Holles property did go to the nephew and future Prime Minister (whose mother had been a Holles).

  6. ldm January 21, 2011 / 01:34

    For those who can’t get enough of the Duke of Newcastle, the info I posted above (from memory) is based on what I recall from reading “Newcastle, A Duke without Money: Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1693-1768” by Ray A. Kelch.

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