Higher (country) seats of learning: country houses and current courses

Keele Hall, Staffordshire - now Keele University (Image: simon3k via flickr)
Keele Hall, Staffordshire – now Keele University (Image: simon3k via flickr)

Perhaps one of the most traditional images of university is that of the hallowed, ancient spires of Oxford and Cambridge.  The idea that wisdom is a product of experience can create a sense that perhaps historic surroundings might impart some of that wealth to those studying.  Of course, this isn’t always the case but, for various reasons, country houses formed the historic core of a number of new universities. There are now several courses (listed in a new page called ‘The Study‘) which examine UK country houses and their place in the architectural, artistic and cultural tapestry of our society.

Although country houses have a long tradition of becoming schools for those up to the age of 18 (a topic touched on in a previous post: ‘School’s out: seats of learning for sale‘), the requirements for higher education present a much tougher set of challenges.  To create a successful, broad-spectrum university requires a significant number of buildings, particularly for subjects such as engineering and the sciences.  The Robbins Report in 1963 recommended an expansion of higher education and was a catalyst for the establishment of a new wave of universities, often colloquially known as ‘red-brick’ (coined, apparently, by the University of Liverpool, inspired by their Victoria Building which is built from a distinctive red, pressed brick.).  Yet, many of these new universities could not be accommodated in already crowded city-centres and so the search was on for suitable locations.

Country houses were an obvious option; space, good locations, existing infrastructure, uncontaminated grounds – often landscaped, and easy to purchase as a single entity. Although by the 1960s, the tempo of the brutal country house demolitions of the 1950s had slowed, many a house owner was faced with a building often still suffering from the damage and neglect of WWII requisitioning, wider economic problems and a society increasingly unsympathetic to the landed classes.  To sell or even donate a house to an educational establishment seemed to be a solution to the problems which beset them.

Reed (formerly Streatham) Hall, Devon (Image: University of Exeter)
Reed (formerly Streatham) Hall, Devon (Image: University of Exeter)

The ancient universities were housed in purpose-built facilities, the glory of the architecture often designed to reflect glory on the patron – be he king or cardinal.  The 19th-century university was often founded on industrial wealth and wishing to keep their trophies prominently displayed, the patrons ensured that the buildings were mostly urban-based in the cities.  So the earliest country house to become part of a university actually happened quite late; Streatham Hall was donated to the University College of the South West of England, based in Exeter, in 1922 by Alderman W.H. Reed, a former mayor of the city.  The house, surrounded by an arboretum of rare and beautiful trees collected from around the world by the Veitch family, was renamed Reed Hall to honour the benefactor and became the core of the new university as the first student accommodation, with new buildings rising around it.  The house is still there today at the centre of the campus and is used as an events and conference centre.

Keele Hall, Staffordshire - garden front (Image: Mr Ush via flickr)
Keele Hall, Staffordshire – garden front (Image: Mr Ush via flickr)

One owner who was probably grateful for the solution offered to him was Ralph Sneyd, owner of Keele Hall, Staffordshire.  Designed by that foremost of Victorian architects, Anthony Salvin, the house had been praised by William Eden Nesfield as one of the best-planned houses of its time, which may have been a back-handed compliment as later writers have decided that the garden front is generally criticised for being ‘too long for its height‘ (J. Allibone) and the ‘entrance front is confused rather than pictureseque‘ as, by this time, ‘His gift for calculated asymmetry was already on the wane‘ (M. Girouard).  The interior, however, was regarded as very well-designed for the needs of the bachelor Mr Ralph Sneyd (b.1793 – d.1870) who had commissioned it in the early 1850s, with a series of rooms to cater for the male pastimes of the Victorian gent.  Although let to Grand Duke Michael of Russia between 1901-10, it was nevertheless in decline by 1939. During WWII, the house was requisitioned and became a transit camp for troops with numerous huts and buildings appearing on the estate but the family had already moved out as financial struggles, which had started in 1902, made the house too expensive to be their home. After the war, Ralph Sneyd (the nephew of the one who had commissioned it) was probably more than happy when the local council bought the house and much of the estate for £31,000 in 1948.  The main house and the wartime buildings formed the core of the new university, allowing it to open relatively quickly in 1949.

Lamport Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Mike Higginbottom / Interesting Times)
Lamport Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Mike Higginbottom / Interesting Times)

Other universities also took this route and re-purposed country houses or their estates (year is date it started being used):

Another notable country house linked to a university is Lamport Hall, Northamptonshire, an important, grade-I listed house which was once home to the Isham family until 1979 when Sir Gyles Isham, the 12th (but not the last) Baronet, bequeathed it, plus the contents and estate, to a charitable Trust.  That trust now runs the house as an education and conference centre which has long been a partner for the Centre for the Study of the Country House based at the University of Leicester.

Harlaxton Manor, Lincolnshire (Image: stemurphy4 / flickr)
Harlaxton Manor, Lincolnshire (Image: stemurphy4 / flickr)

Perhaps the most spectacular of houses to be used is Harlaxton Manor in Lincolnshire, which, since 1971 has been the British campus of the University of Evansville, Indiana, USA (though Stanford University had taken it over in 1965).  The exterior is a riot of gables, chimneys and decoration by Anthony Salvin, though the interior now enjoyed by generations of American students was by William Burn after Salvin and the owner, the wonderfully named Gregory Gregory, fell out. As a smaller outpost, it has not only been preserved with few external additions but also holds the tantalising prospect that, if the university decides it is surplus to requirements, could once again become a stunning country home. Also of note is the impressively restored Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex which was given to the Queen’s University of Canada in 1993.

Attingham Park, Shropshire (Image: Jonathan Davies / wikipedia)
Attingham Park, Shropshire (Image: Jonathan Davies / wikipedia)

Of course, it wasn’t just the formal universities who made use of country houses to become seats of higher education.  One of the best known is the beautiful Attingham Park, Shropshire, which was an adult education centre from 1946 until 1971.  Owned by the Lords Berwick, it was the 8th, and last, Thomas, who bequeathed it to the National Trust. However, the college was run by the decidedly New Age, Sir George Trevelyan who mixed serious study with rather more mystical pursuits.  One of Sir George’s greatest successes was the creation of the Attingham Summer School in 1952 which, through the Attingham Trust offers “…specialised study courses, primarily for people professionally engaged in the field, on country houses, their collections and settings, and on the history and contents of English royal palaces.“.  The courses still run today – though they do require rather deep pockets to attend. Dillington House in Somerset became an adult education centre in 1950, operated by North Somerset Council but still owned by Lord Cameron of Dillington.

And so it continues.  The latest is that grade-II* Hestercombe House in Somerset has been handed over to a Trust who not only wish to restore the house and fascinating gardens – with Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian phases including work done by Gertrude Jekyll – but also to establish, subject to HLF funding, a Centre for Landscape Studies.  This, it is anticipated, will host conferences, courses and hopefully become a national archive for conservation management plans.  Country houses are still proving their value with the house and grounds forming the justification and catalyst for new educational ventures.

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New on The Country Seat: ‘The Study

There is a new section called ‘The Study‘ where I hope to be able to keep an up-to-date list of courses at recognised UK educational institutions which are focused on, or have significant sections relating to, our wonderful country houses.  Please do let me know if you are aware of any I have undoubtedly missed, or any future updates.  I’m particularly keen to hear from institutions to make sure that we can try and generate interest in the long term for the more substantive degree and masters courses.  Feedback always welcome.

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