A silver lining to an industrial cloud; the Mersey mansions of the Victorian elite

To join the landed gentry you previously needed to have no connection with the vulgar business of actually making money. Even if you had bought a significant house and estate, to be truly accepted (and not be cast off into social Siberia) a gentleman would have to sell all his business interests and retire to live off the proceeds.  Yet, times changed and as it became acceptable to mix business and pleasure, so the requirements of the new gentry altered as they became unwilling to be too far from their sources of wealth, particularly around the great Victorian cities.  Smaller country houses and weekend villas with reduced estates sprang up to meet this new demand, with Liverpool being a prime example of these forces.  Later, as the cities grew, fortunes waned and housing pressures increased, many of these houses were lost; yet, occasionally, a rare survivor appears such as Calderstones Park Mansion House in Liverpool.

Harewood House, Yorkshire (Image: Lee Elvin via flickr)
Harewood House, Yorkshire (Image: Lee Elvin via flickr)

The Georgian era truly challenged the mystique of inherited wealth and royal patronage being the primary route to social elevation (though both helped).  Money talks, and the vast wealth being created, and the men making it, could not be ignored.  No family exemplified this more than the Lascelles family of Yorkshire. Although the family had been in the county for many years, their purchase of the Harewood estate in 1739 for £63,827 (for an estate of 6000-8000 acres) was with wealth generated only relatively recently.  Henry Lascelles (b. 1690 – d. 1753) had made his fortune largely between 1715 and 1730 as a plantation owner, victualling contractor and Collector of Customs in Barbados. It was his son, Edwin, who, having inherited his father’s vast fortune, set about, between 1759-71, building the grand house we see at Harewood today, to designs by John Carr of York who had already built the stables.  The vast expense of paying Carr, plus Robert Adam for the interiors, Angelica Kauffman and Biagio Rebecca for internal decorative painting, Thomas Chippendale for the superb furniture, and ‘Capability’ Brown for the beautiful grounds hardly made any serious dent in the family fortune.  On Edwin’s death in 1795, he reportedly had an income of £50,000 per year, of which half came from the West Indies business interests.  It was this mercantile wealth which established one of the great houses of the 18th-century, elevated the family to the peerage and enabled them to become a local political force, all in the space of just 60 years – something not possible on the limited and sometimes uncertain income of an estate alone.

Picture gallery, Dawpool, Cheshire (Image: H Bedford Lemere, Bedford Lemere & Co / copyright: English Heritage/NMR)
Picture gallery, Dawpool, Cheshire (Image: H Bedford Lemere, Bedford Lemere & Co / copyright: English Heritage/NMR)

The 19th-century only saw this trend accelerate with the great wealth of the cities now a serious challenge to the old inherited wealth of the land. This was especially true since, following political reform, land holdings were not always necessary to secure power and influence.  Now the owners could indulge their preferences, as not all of them, having been born, brought up, educated, worked and having made their fortunes in the cities, would feel a natural attachment to the countryside, beyond the social cachet it brought.  Rising land values from the mid-19th-century also would have been a factor which might have put off the hard-headed businessman – better value to invest in the most luxurious house possible.  Yet, the allure of the country seat was still strong as a recognised symbol of success so around each major Victorian city could be found these mini ‘pleasure’ estates; with Liverpool being a classic example.

Hafodunos Hall, Wales in 1954 (Image: RCAHMW) - burnt out in 2004
Hafodunos Hall, Wales in 1954 (Image: RCAHMW) - burnt out in 2004

For some, their fortunes financed the Victorian version of the Lascelles, with the acquisition of large estates and the building of the great houses away from the dirt and noise of the cities, such as at Hafodunos Hall (sadly burnt out by morons in 2004) by George Gilbert Scott for H.R. Sandbach (son of a Liverpool West India merchant). Yet for some of these gentleman there was no shame in being near to the industrial heart which pumped their fortunes – but that didn’t mean they had to compromise on luxury or convenience. Soon, many large houses with small estates populated the edges of the city.  Writing in 1873, the journalist Patricius Walker said:

Crowds of comfortable and luxurious villas besprinkle the country for miles round Liverpool, inhabited by ship-owners, ship-insurers, corn merchants, cotton brokers, emigrant agents, etc, etc, men with “on foot on sea, and one on shore,” yet to one thing constant ever – namely, money-making – and therein duly successful.

These captains of industry and commerce were also able to take advantage of the newly developed railways; becoming early commuters, able to spend the day at the office yet still escape at the end, back to their slice of bucolic charm.

The merchant palaces of Liverpool were, broadly, either those which were built as villas with substantial gardens near the large pleasure parks such as Sefton, or, taking advantage of the rail links, based outside the city in areas such as a the Wirral, just across the Mersey.

Holmestead, Cheshire (Image: openlyJane via skyscrapercity)
Holmestead, Cheshire (Image: openlyJane via skyscrapercity)

One particularly fine example of ‘rural urban’ villa was Holmestead on Mossley Hill, set in its own extensive grounds just to the east of the elegant and very desirable Sefton Park.  What is remarkable is that many of the larger houses still survive, albeit in an altered form; some becoming flats or care-homes.  The house was originally built in the 1840s in a Gothic style and effectively doubled in size in 1869-70 by the then owner, Michael Belcher, a local cotton broker. Urban ‘society’ of the newly wealthy mirrored the practices of those in the countryside as shown by William Imrie, owner of the house at the turn of the 19th-century and formerly of the famous White Star line, and also a patron of the Arts-and-Crafts movement.  He held regular concerts in his music room – a grand space, decorated with William Morris’ ‘Acanthus‘ pattern wallpaper, with the imposing ‘The Tree of Forgiveness‘ by Edward Burne-Jones on one wall, and Spencer Stanhope’s ‘Why Seek Ye the Living Amongst the Dead‘ on another. Remarkably, the house has survived and is still a single family home.

Dawpool, Cheshire - dem. 1927 (Image: H Bedford Lemere, Bedford Lemere & Co / copyright: English Heritage/NMR)
Dawpool, Cheshire - dem. 1927 (Image: H Bedford Lemere, Bedford Lemere & Co / copyright: English Heritage/NMR)

One of the grandest houses of them all was also connected to the White Star Line.  Dawpool was the pet project of Thomas Henry Ismay, the man who built a company large enough to launch the Titantic. Although was not conceived as the centre of a landed estate, it was certainly designed to showcase the power of his empire.  Designed by the leading architect, Richard Norman Shaw, the house, started in 1882, was a monument to Ismay’s wealth and meant to last – the local red sandstone was finely shaped and even the screws being finest brass.  The house took four years to build at a cost of over £50,000 – equivalent to over £3.5m today, a colossal sum compared to the average £80 per year the skilled ship-worker took home. Yet, the house was to survive less than half a century. After Ismay’s death in 1899, the widowed Mrs Ismay said that the house had given her husband pleasure every day – but without that driving force, it languished before being sold, becoming an orthopaedic hospital in WWI, before being sold again, and then demolished in 1927 [more history and photos available on Lost Heritage: Dawpool].

Calderstones House, Liverpool (Image: Liverpool Confidential)
Calderstones House, Liverpool (Image: Liverpool Confidential)

Although some have been demolished and most of the houses have lost their extensive grounds, one rare survivor, Calderstones House, gives a rare insight into the once-gilded edges of Liverpool.  The now grade-II listed house was built in 1823 for Joseph Need Walker, a lead shot manufacturer, who built an elegant late-Georgian design (architect unknown) with a Doric portico which looked out over carefully tended gardens and parkland.  In 1875, the house and grounds were sold for £52,000 to Charles MacIver, a shipping magnate who had spent 35 years with the Cunard Line. The house and grounds were sold in 1902 to the Liverpool Corporation for £42,000 and became one of the city’s finest parks (John Lennon apparently used to hang about there) with the house used as offices for their Parks departments with a public tea-room and, to the rear, a stage for concerts.

Faced with severe budget cuts, Liverpool Council are now exploring what options are available, with a sale the preferred outcome.  Sadly, it is extremely unlikely to become a home again; to carve out sufficient space and access from a public space would be extremely controversial, with security a further worry.  The two most likely options are that it is taken on as a public facility with commercial aspects such as concerts and refreshments, or that it will languish, becoming progressively more dilapidated.  Sadly, local government generally has often shown a rather careless attitude to heritage assets in their care -though in recent years they have improved markedly from the 1950s and 60s when some (Derbyshire being particularly notorious) would simply demolish the historic buildings, especially country houses.

The current period of austerity is forcing councils to re-examine their assets and objectively analyse the most cost-effective way of operating – a process open to the risk of losing elements of what makes an area locally distinctive.  This is especially true when ‘heritage’ and ‘arts’ are seen (falsely) as relatively ‘high-brow’ interests – this creates a challenge for everyone to be aware of what their councils own, and to monitor whether there are any signs of them seeking to cut corners and creating conditions which threaten the heritage assets.  They hold these in trust for the local area and, if necessary, councils need to be forcefully reminded of their obligations to this generation and the ones which follow to care for the built environment which contributes so much to local identity.


Further reading: Merchant Palaces: Liverpool and Wirral Mansions Photographed by Bedford Lemere (Photographers of Liverpool) (disclosure: this is an Amazon associates link – the price you pay is the same but I’m experimenting to see if I can help offset costs with Amazon affiliate links).

2 thoughts on “A silver lining to an industrial cloud; the Mersey mansions of the Victorian elite

  1. Andrew January 31, 2012 / 12:31

    This article highlights the possibility of other councils also selling their cash-draining country houses in these difficult economic times, in order to also free up their capital investment. There could be over 100 other such cases in England alone. Most councils have maintained these houses responsibility, within their financial constraints, but some have not, and this list would make for another interesting article.

    I would have also mentioned Thornton Manor, which had its Music Room on the front cover of the Merchant Palaces book, and is across the river from Calderstones House, with similar architecture to Dawpool (especially Dawpool’s 1884 Salon and fireplace compared to Thornton’s 1902 Music Room). Thornton was built in 1888 for the 1st Viscount Leverhulme and has a personal connection through my grandfather’s business dealings with Lever Brothers. I was fortunate to tour the house when the £9m contents were auctioned in 2001 by Sotheby’s, after the death of the 3rd and last Lord Leverhulme in 2000. The house was also sold at that time for £3.5m.

    When I think of the many Merseyside country houses, the main ones that come immediately to mind are Knowsley Hall, Croxteth Hall and Speke Hall.

  2. Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat February 1, 2012 / 23:48

    Hi Andrew

    Thanks for the extra info. I did consider the angle of those country houses owned by local authorities but settled on focusing on just the Mersey area. Thornton Manor is a superb house and, with the luxury of more space, I would certainly have included it but feared I was rather running on as it was! Another superb local house is Hillbark, formerly known as Bidston Court, which was originally built in 1891 on Bidston Hill before being moved to another location locally in 1921 where it is now a beautiful wedding venue (which is how I got to spend a lovely day there as a guest). I’ll have a look at doing another post about country houses owned by local authorities in the future.

    Thanks again


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