The front line: the campaigners for country houses

Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: English Heritage)
Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: English Heritage)

Despite the image of wealth and power a country house might create, in reality their existence is far more precarious – as can be seen with nearly 1,800 houses lost over the last two centuries.  A house facing the threats of being uninhabited without a concerned, well-funded owner with an inclination to keep it in good repair can quickly deteriorate leaving another gap in the tapestry of the countryside.  Sometimes it requires someone other than concerned locals and architectural historians to highlight and campaign on behalf of those ‘at risk’ so here’s a quick round-up of the main English organisations fighting on behalf of country houses and who are very worthy of support.

English Heritage inhabits a prime position in view of its role in defining and, in conjunction with local authorities, implementing the statutory protection of our built heritage.  Its role can be traced back to the Ancient Monuments Act of 1882 – though the legislation specifically excluded privately owned houses. The responsibilities were exercised through various government departments until it became a quango in 1984.  As well as being responsible for the listing system and the annual production of the various ‘at risk’ registers (focussing mainly on grade-I and -II* properties), EH is also directly responsible for various country houses including Brodsworth Hall (Yorkshire), Rufford Abbey (Nottinghamshire), Hill Hall and Audley End (Essex), Kirby Hall (Northamptonshire), Witley Court (Worcestershire), Stokesay Castle (Shropshire), and Apethorpe Hall (Northamptonshire).   It’s at the grade-I listed Apethorpe where EH has done some of it’s most interesting work; taking a direct role in the restoration of one of the finest Elizabethan/Jacobean houses in the country following a long period of neglect. Since 2008, the house has been for sale for around £5m – though there is a compulsory £4m list of renovations, and if you want complete privacy expect to pay another £8m to fully reimburse EH otherwise you have to open it for 28 days a year; so a nice round £20m to restore, furnish and keep as your own. However, this is a role that I fully support them in taking on – they should be there as owner and restorer of last resort for threatened grade-I houses.  Now perhaps we can interest them in the sadly deriorating Melton Constable Hall in Norfolk…?

Another important group of campaigners are recognised in the 1968 Town and Country Planning Act which formalised the role of what are known as ‘amenity societies‘; that is, well-established voluntary societies who are experts in their areas, who must, by law, be informed of any applications for listed building consent to demolish listed buildings in whole or in part in England and Wales.

One of the best known is the Georgian Group who cover a period broadly from 1700-1837.  The society was established in 1937 and has long campaigned for the sensitive restoration and retention of not only the buildings but the many important, and sometimes sadly overlooked, internal features which are a key part of the character of a building.  Current active campaigns and cases they are involved in include Bank Hall in Lancashire and Trewarthenick House in Cornwall and many others. They also produce a scholarly annual research journal which provides a much more in-depth view of aspects of Georgian architecture.  Access for the wonderful trips to houses not normally open to the public are worth joining for alone.

Eaton Hall, Cheshire (by Alfred Waterhouse - dem. 1961) (Image: Lost Heritage)
Eaton Hall, Cheshire (by Alfred Waterhouse - dem. 1961) (Image: Lost Heritage)

The Victorian Society (which also covers Edwardian buildings too) was formed in 1958 at a time when almost all things Victorian were disliked and an easy target for demolition.  Founded at the suggestion of Anne, Lady Rosse, along with her influential friends such as Sir John Betjeman and Sir Nicklaus Pevsner, the Society has fought some notable battles; losing some such as Euston Station but winning others, such as the soon-to-reopen St Pancras Midland Grand Hotel building.  Victorian country houses have suffered badly as, although designed by eminent architects such as Richard Norman Shaw and Alfred Waterhouse, they were often built on a much grander and therefore less economically sustainable scale and at the times of greatest threat (the 1930s and 1950s) had few friends to argue on their behalf.  Luckily though this has changed – but with the predominant ‘gothic-revival’ style being quite polarising, threats to houses from this period will always be present. Again, well worth joining.

Perhaps more controversially for this blog, it’s also worth bearing in mind the Twentieth Century Society.  Although the focus of the houses usually covered is before 1900, there has been a growing recognition that some of the country houses built in the 20th-century were well-planned and architecturally pleasing, even if they sometimes replaced a much more attractive Georgian or Victorian house.  It does seem to take about 50 years after a style has passed from being fashionable for it to be appreciated, so I suspect there will be a growing realisation that we need to protect the work of those such as Francis Johnson, Craig Hamilton, Quinlan Terry, and Robert Adam (amongst many others) in the future.

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) is, as its name makes clear, not usually concerned with country houses as they are relatively ‘modern’ in terms of its remit.  However, they do immensely important work in promoting good repair practice to all buildings and their courses have taught generations of owners and craftsmen to respect the country houses and to approach any work required with a more ‘heritage’ mindset.

Although not ‘amenity societies’, two other organisations deserve a mention. The first is the Historic Houses Association which acts on behalf of the private owners of country houses and often lobby government to make them aware of the immense work done by the individual owners to maintain their slice of the national architectural heritage.  It may seem unfashionable in wider society to support the wealthy but they are the ones not only maintaining their homes to the exacting standards of English Heritage, but also restoring and rescuing houses and converting them back into homes again – and for that they deserve our thanks.

The Grange, Hampshire (Image: mpntod / Wikipedia)
The Grange, Hampshire (Image: mpntod / Wikipedia)

The other organisation is one in which I have an interest having worked with them for several years: SAVE Britain’s Heritage.  Founded in 1974, SAVE have taken a very active stance on campaigning, willing to create media interest at short notice, but also to take time to produce some excellent research on houses at risk with thoughtful proposals for their re-use.  These campaigns have saved houses such as Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, The Grange in Hampshire, Barlaston Hall in Staffordshire (where SAVE bravely took on the house for £1!), and, working with Kit Martin, have acted as a catalyst for the saving of other houses through conversion into apartments.  Supporting SAVE’s work and becoming a Friend also gives access to their extensive ‘Buildings at Risk Register’ which features over 800 properties, including several country houses, which are in need of rescue – could it be you?

It is also worth keeping an eye out for local activists and campaigns which can also be remarkably successful at highlighting buildings at risk but can also sometimes take a more direct role; see the wonderful work at Poltimore, Devon, Bank Hall, Lancashire, and Copped Hall, Essex.  These are just three examples where concerned locals have organised themselves and presented a credible alternative and prevented the complete loss of the house.

All of these organisations are worth joining but economics being what they are it can be best to join a national organisation and then another to focus on the period which you prefer.  Joining up means that you are helping to support research but also active campaigns to ensure that as much of our built heritage is passed on to future generations.


I realise this selection is not comprehensive and is quite national in focus and deficient in regional organisations but this will be remedied in another post once I’ve had time to learn a bit more about who’s out there.

– Matthew


6 thoughts on “The front line: the campaigners for country houses

  1. jeff Aldridge March 12, 2011 / 13:09

    Well……….thanks to you this is one Yank who is going to join the Victorian Society. If only I could see that beautifully complex and ornate Eton Hall that was so sadly demolished. Anything which might help prevent further losses is worth time and money. It is almost becoming palatable to see great houses bought by the rich and/or foreign. Even if they don’t share them, they are at least not razed. The Forbes house in Battersea looks exquisite and may well be sold as a teardown to build a tower just like its neighbors. If only it could be moved here as were English Country houses in the early twentieth century. I used to feel guilty that American Guilded Age money took these houses from their “home”……but now I am just glad they persist. This was a great post. Thank you

    • countryhouses March 16, 2011 / 23:30

      Hi Jeff

      Thanks for your comments – and I’m sure the VicSoc will be glad to welcome another member.

      The ‘Gilded Age’ was actually a blessing in disguise – though obviously it had a negative side. The shipping of entire houses was relatively rare and what resulted at the other end would have to be a reconstruction by its very nature and therefore would have lost much of the historical patina of use which gave the houses much of their appeal in the first place.

      However, the wealth flowing from America did offset or mitigate the devastating effects of the 1870s/80s agricultural slump which seriously damaged the incomes of the country house owners. By buying up the art works (particularly paintings through dealers such as Joseph Duveen or Knoedler) or through the purchase of rooms (although the true extent of Hearst’s depredations are still a somewhat unknown quantity), this new injection of funds actually staved off the demolition of these houses until the 1920s/30s when the wider economic crisis tipped many families over the financial edge. Those families which used the money wisely were able to ride out the storm and so there are houses today which, except for the artistic avariciousness of the Fricks, Clays, Morgans and Rockefellers of this world, might have been demolished. Of course, the sale of contents was simply part of a pattern of decline for some families but this lifeline has been overlooked I feel and ought to be better known. It was never going to save all the threatened houses but to save a few was still worthwhile.

      Thanks again


  2. James Canning March 13, 2011 / 00:13

    Great survey!

  3. Andrew March 13, 2011 / 12:54

    Melton Constable Hall and its property developer owner since 1986, Roger Gawn, are discussed in a detailed EDP24 2006 article, which also quotes local campaigner Kevin Craske who has commented here. Gawn also owns, since about 2000, Purfleet House and the adjoining Custom House in King’s Lynn (both also on Norfolk County Council’s Buildings at Risk Register) and from 2007 the abandoned RAF West Raynham base near Fakenham (with its 172 empty houses). It appears that Mr Gawn has been dividing the Melton Constable Hall north and east wings into apartments and slowly renovating and selling them, although the main Hall may remain as a single home (similar to that done by Christopher Buxton at Kirtlington Park), or even end up owned by a charitable Trust.

  4. Sara Crofts March 15, 2011 / 11:43

    Thanks for including the SPAB in your survey. Perhaps it is worth clarifying that the ‘ancient’ in our name doesn’t really give much of a clue as to our areas of interest. In terms of our casework we comment on listed building consent applications for buildings that date from about 1720 and before. However, we provide technical advice to owners of historic buildings of all ages through our technical helpline. You might also like to know that we are currently researching ways of improving the energy efficiency of pre-1914 buildings without compromising their character or technical performance. Find out more at

    • countryhouses March 16, 2011 / 23:34

      Hi Sara

      Many thanks for clarifying – I am a very happy member of SPAB so perhaps shouldn’t have been so light in my reference to the name! The technical helpline is a fantastic resource and the work and wider education and research which SPAB undertake shouldn’t be under-estimated in any way.

      Thanks again


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