Possibly for sale – a landmark for landowners: Crichel House, Dorset

Crichel House, Dorset (Image: BNPS / Daily Mail)

Crichel House, Dorset (Image: BNPS / Daily Mail)

When to believe the rumours? Occasionally one of the old families will decide that they no longer wish to hold onto the estate which has been the family seat for many years – sometimes centuries. When these estates come to market they usually attract a significant price-tag which truly reflects their beauty, significance and acreage.  If the unconfirmed rumours which feature very prominently on page 2 of the Sunday Times (26 June 2011) are to be believed, then the Marten family of Crichel House in Dorset have decided to sell – almost 60-years after the family won a decision against the government of the day which became a landmark in the rights of landowners against government.

Crichel House is widely regarded as one of the best houses in the county – indeed, John Julius Norwich states that it “…possesses the most spectacular series of state rooms in all Dorset.“.  Crichel started off as a modest house in 1743; hastily built to replace a charming Elizabethan house which was burnt down in 1742.  This smaller seat of a country squire – brick-built and just five bays by seven – was for Sir William Napier, who left it to his nephew, Humphry Sturt, in 1765.  Sturt had inherited not only his uncle’s house and wealth but had also married well. He didn’t feel the house was grand enough for a man of his fortune, and so embarked on an impressive rebuild, creating a house “…so immensely enlarged that it has the appearance of a mansion of a prince more than that of a country gentleman.” (Hutchin’s ‘History of Dorset‘ – 1774).

Dining Room, Crichel House, Dorset (Image: A. E. Henson / Country Life Picture Library)

Dining Room, Crichel House, Dorset (Image: A. E. Henson / Country Life Picture Library)

Sturt, using an unknown architect (though thought to be from nearby Blandford), effectively wrapped a new house around the old one to the east and the west, and linking the two on the south front with an impressive recessed portico and suite of rooms on the first floor.  However, the need to accommodate the dimensions of the old house created a slightly cramped feeling to the first floor elevations.  However, all is forgiven by the splendid interiors which are, in parts, a curious mix of early Georgian created late (e.g. the staircase, the library), and fashionable later Georgian, particularly in the stunning Hall, Dining Room and Drawing Room where Adam-style plasterwork reigns.  The latter rooms were probably designed by James Wyatt who was working nearby at Milton Abbey and at Bryanston.  The Dining Room is considered the finest room in the house; a coved ceiling framing delicate plasterwork and decorative panels in the style of Cipriani and Angelica Kauffmann.

So, how did part of the Crichel estate become so significant that it became immortalised as a set of planning procedures known as the ‘Crichel Down Rules’? In part, it was due to the bureaucratic arrogance of the post-War era which meant the Civil Service felt able to deal rather high-handedly with anyone, and particularly landowners who were not popular under Attlee’s socialist government. In 1937, 742-acres of Crichel Down had been compulsorily bought as part of a larger area for use as a bombing range. Churchill had given a very public commitment in the House of Commons in 1942 that land purchased in this way would be offered back to the original owners once it was no longer required for the original purpose.

Hinton Ampner, Dorset (Image: ec1jack / flickr)

Hinton Ampner, Dorset (Image: ec1jack / flickr)

However, there was an even greater danger of compulsory purchase for houses which had been adapted for wartime use under the ‘Requisitioned Land and War Works Act (1945)’ (sections 8 & 9 Geo. 6 c.43 in case you were wondering!) which gave officials the right to buy, regardless of the wishes of the former owner or any previous assurances. At Hinton Ampner in Hampshire where Ralph Dutton (the 8th and last Lord Sherborne), having just finished an extensive remodelling in 1939 only to be turfed out by a girls school, received a letter saying that the Royal Observatory were interested as a new Royal Observatory.  Dutton took the day off work at the Foreign Office and was on the doorstep when the officials arrived and gave an impassioned speech about the importance of the house, how it had been in the family for generations and that losing it would be akin to an amputation. The officials apparently looked somewhat embarrassed but gave no sign of retreating until a short note arrived a little later confirming that they were taking Hurstmonceaux Castle instead.

At Crichel Down, the government had decided to retain the land as a new model farm.  Lt-Cdr George Marten (who had married Mary Sturt, the only child of the 3rd Lord Alington), began a vigorous one-man campaign to examine the conduct and procedures of the relevant departments.  In doing so, he exposed a series of administrative errors as officials tried to evade the requirement to offer back the land and retain it for the government’s use.  Eventually, in 1954, public and press criticism led to the minister in charge, Sir Thomas Dugdale, resigning in one of the first examples of a minister taking responsibility even though he had not been involved in the earlier decisions and the land was sold back to the Martens.  To avoid a repeat of such failings, new planning rules regarding compulsory purchase were drawn up which are today known as the ‘Crichel Down Rules’ and are a vital part of the framework protecting landowners from the sometimes autocratic decisions of officials.

The death of Mary Marten in 2010 (her husband pre-deceased her) led to the recent sale of some of the contents of the house including a small collection of Asian jade ornaments which raised some £12.5m.  However, if the rumours are right, the rest of the house and 5,000-acre estate are also quietly on the market with an estimated price tag of around £100m, which, if it sold as a whole estate, would make it the most expensive sale ever outside of London.  It’s always a regret when families no longer wish to keep an estate which has been in the family for centuries, however, with the demands of sibling equality it is understandable that each of the six children – five females, one male – should wish to share their inheritance.  It would be a wonderful outcome if it could be bought in its entirety and remain one of the most important estates in Dorset, with the glorious Crichel House at it’s heart.

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Update – 7 July 2013: Crichel House has been sold

Daily Mail confirms that the house plus 400-acres has been bought by Richard L. Chilton, a US hedge fund billionaire.  Initial reports indicate that he is a ‘conservationist’ having rescued other houses in the States so it seems promising that he is the right buyer; one with both the right attitude and pockets deep enough to do the house justice.  Though sadly it’s the end of an era for the Marten family, one hopes that this next phase will see the house restored to its former glory.

And if Mr Chilton happens to read this, it would be great to get your perspective – please do email me.

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More images – both interior and exterior: ‘Crichel House, Dorset‘ [Country Life Picture Library]

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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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10 Responses to Possibly for sale – a landmark for landowners: Crichel House, Dorset

  1. jeff Aldridge says:

    The “Country House Revealed” DVD arrived in the mail today and now………this! It was a fascinating read. I can only wonder what sort of new build dwellings these siblings will buy once this majestic family home has been “liquidated” to insure their financial equality. I can only admire with even greater zeal those families who treasure the uniqueness of a home owned by a family for generations and struggle to preserve it. I really haven’t seen anything built after the 1920’s that would engender such a commitment………..but that is why I love the homes featured here.

  2. Dorset resident says:

    It seems this rumour of sale is coming true. I fear the estate may never be the same again, sadly approx. 100 workers, many of whom have worked there most of their lives, will now be in turmoil whilst this superb estate waits for news of what will happen to it. The house itself is both majestic and beautiful and the Martens themselves in their time were committed wholeheartedly to the communities and families within the estate and to the environment and animals throughout it. The traditions and people must now await the inevitable change coming their way, who ever knows what this will bring. I do hope though that whoever buys this estate and the house itself, have an interest in, and some commitment towards maintaining at least some of what the Martens built and achieved here. It is a truly historical and beautiful place.

  3. ldm says:

    Primogeniture may not be fair, but it is the single biggest reason that country houses manage to stay in the same family for generations. And when a family abandons primogeniture, as may be the case here, then almost inevitably the house is sold.

    The saddest part is that when that happens, the sum total of the house as a piece of ‘living history’ disappears because the contents which are integral part of that history are removed and scattered.

  4. Andrew says:

    The ironic aspect about the Crichel Down affair was that the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries who as a result resigned in 1954, was Tory MP Sir Thomas Dugdale of Crathorne Hall in North Yorkshire (now a hotel), subsequently the 1st Baron Crathorne, not someone you think would wish to deprive the Martens of their lands. To add to the irony, his Prime Minister in 1954 was Winston Churchill, born at Blenheim Palace and grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. I can understand why the Clement Attlee Labour government of 1945-51 would in principle not wish to hand the land back to the aristocracy, but for the Churchill Tory government of 1951-5 to continue the battle for 3 years, seems unusual, especially as Mary Marten was a goddaughter of the Queen Mother.

    Fans of the 1996 movie Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, will remember Crichel House playing the part of Donwell Abbey (at 2.55 minutes).

    There are even the usual rumours that Prince Charles may buy Crichel House for William and Kate, because it neighbours the Duchy of Cornwall‘s Cranborne Chase estate to the north.

  5. Paul says:

    £100m is a gross overestimation of the estates value. In today’s enviroment £50m-£60m would be a excellent result.

  6. anon nymous says:

    I happen to know quite well one of the female siblings of this fine family. it is rare to find such a jewel and a totally down-to-earth person. It has been indeed my pleasure to have met and know her for so many years.

    Anon.

  7. Anon says:

    I once nannied for one of the female siblings of this fine family. I have very fond memories of this beautiful, stunning house and estate from my stay there, and wonderful memories of the family that I shall cherish forever. I’m sure it was an excruciating decision to sell.
    I wish you all the very best for the future with or without a sale from the estate.

  8. Angela Fishbourne says:

    I read with great interest that you were once nanny to one of the family’s daughters. My great aunt, Ada Harrison, was nanny to Mrs Marten, and they kept in touch over the years. Mrs Marten kindlyoffered my aunt and her sister a flat in the house when they needed it in later life in life and they spent their time darning socks and sheets for the family! My aunt knew the children and often spoke of them. I’m not sure what my aunt would be thinking of this sale but I would guess that she would be rather sad. I came to the house around 1977 to collect some of my aunt’s furniture and Aunt Ada showed me the nursery, which I loved. I would be so grateful if you could let me know if Crichel has been sold, or if you knew of my aunt.

  9. Sally Tripptree says:

    In the year 1970, I was relief groom and remember walking to the thoroughbred yard with the Commander in the mornings, riding with one of the siblings on the estate grounds, lodging at a tenant’s house and reappearing to the “living” as a flour grader after milling the imported oats in one of the upper rooms of the wonderful building in a square. I’m sure it had a clock tower. Happy days.

  10. RONALD WARE says:

    In the 1960’s A Conservative party rally was held at Crichel House, the speaker being the Rt. Hon. Edward Heath leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. It was a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon and I believe the numbers attending were considerable. I supplied the concert millitary band that played before the speech and an hour’s concert after. It was a wonderful sound. These musicians were used as the military could not be involved. The large band were organised by the Bournemouth Branch of the Musician’s Union led by the branch chairman, Eddie Blundell a former theatre musician in London. The arrangements were made with me by the South Dorset Conservative Assocciation who subsequently booked the Ronnie Fife Orchestra to play at a supper dance at Weymouth Pavillion. On this occasion Eddie was my 1st Trumpet and Bert Jenkins, 2nd trumpet. It was a night off for Bert as he was playing for Joe Loss at Hammersmith Palais, three nights a week. Later I was contacted quite independantly of this occasion by Mrs Marten to tune a Bechstein Grand. After living in Crichel House for around 30 years, Mrs Marten told me that her husband had that morning found another piano in the house! Ronald Ware, Westminster Pianos

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