That the headline above is even possible today is shocking; that it almost came with the acquiescence of English Heritage is even worse. The wealth of Britain allowed the creation of thousands of wonderful country houses; stores of learning, art, literature, music and much more. Yet hundreds have been lost, the contents scattered, the fixtures and fittings sold for a fraction of their worth and the history and visual value of these beautiful buildings lost to the demolisher’s pickaxe. Many a country house has been restored from a serious state of dereliction, so for demolition to even be proposed is to be deplored. Winstanley Hall, near Wigan, has long been a cause for concern but a new campaign, run by SAVE Britain’s Heritage, hopes to quickly raise the funds needed to rescue this fascinating house.
The Country Seat blog is an off-shoot of my earlier interest and research into the lost country houses of England. Initially sparked by the ruins of Guys Cliffe House in Warwickshire, I have been building on the remarkable work of Peter Reid, John Harris and Marcus Binney who produced an initial list of nearly 1,200 houses which had been lost since 1800. This list formed the backbone of the ground-breaking 1974 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London which dramatically brought home the shock that so much of our architectural heritage had been lost already and the then legal constraints were insufficient to stop it continuing. My list now totals over 1,800 houses which have been lost since 1800 – every county has been affected and each has their own sad roll-call of losses.
Houses can be lost for a number of reasons but two of the main causes are fire and finances. Country houses are unfortunately particularly susceptible to fire; the wooden construction, the flammable contents, the open fires and the restoration work which often brings careless workmen with their blowtorches. Beyond mitigating the risk, preventing these devastating blazes has always been a challenge. Yet, diminishing or insufficient finances are equally pernicious but harder to combat as the decay can quietly take place over generations, with the realisation of the seriousness only coming too late.
Many houses were traditionally supported by their estates but the agricultural crisis of the 1880s led to a reduction in income which was largely staved off through the sale of contents, until, in the early 20th century, this was no longer sufficient and the houses themselves were demolished – at a stroke removing the running costs and raising funds through the sale of the materials. This continued through that century, spiking in the 1920-30s and again in the 1950s, reaching a nadir in 1955 when a significant house was being demolished every five days. This fascinating video below shows rare footage of a country house in Kent, Pickhurst Manor, as it was destroyed in the 1930s:
The impact of the ‘The Destruction of the Country House‘ exhibition cannot be over-stated in heritage terms. It can be said to have jump-started the heritage movement, creating the current mass interest in country houses which can still be seen today in the popularity of the National Trust and the many individual owners who open their houses to the public. It also led to the formation of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, which has since then been one of the countries most effective campaigning charities; saving not just country houses, but working to find viable uses for a broad range of historic buildings including factories, churches, offices, and, most recently, terraced housing threatened by the wasteful and pointless Pathfinder Scheme. In the interests of transparency: I am involved with SAVE as a member of the Committee which is consulted about current cases, but this post was not written at their request and the views expressed are my own.
Which brings us to the Grade-II* Winstanley Hall. One of only three surviving Tudor buildings in that borough, the house was built shortly after James Bankes, a London goldsmith, bought the estate in 1595. The core of the Elizabethan house, with its two projecting wings, can still be seen on the garden front of the house, thought the original gables were replaced by parapets during alterations designed by Lewis Wyatt in 1818-19. It was Wyatt who created the new entrance tower to the west with its Ionic portico and his work can still be seen inside with some surviving plasterwork and the fine cantilevered staircase. What makes Winstanley particularly interesting is that it contains layers of work but with each grafted onto the last making the house quite ‘readable’. A new wing to the south-west was added in 1780, with further changes, marked by keystones, in 1843 and 1889.
The stable court is especially fascinating architecturally as it contains a range of different styles, chosen at the whim of the owner; Meyrick Bankes II. This delightfully eccentric but still functional range of buildings reflect his life as a well travelled, well educated man and includes Norman, Tudor, and Baroque motifs (and even his own likeness) in the masonry which creates a varied design which adds to the charm of the setting. The visual interest of the courtyard, combined with the house, really does set Winstanley apart as many houses have lost one or the other of these core elements which make up an estate.
The house started declining in the 1930s and was last occupied in the early 1980s, with the parkland being open-cast mined during the post-war period and later the M6 being built along the edge of the parkland. However, the parkland has now been restored and the road, which is some distance to the west of the house, is hidden in a cutting and by banks of trees, resulting in the Winstanley estate forming a precious rural space on the edge of Wigan, still approached from the east along a long, secluded drive which dips in between romantically landscaped woodland.
When the family sold up, the house and 10-acres were bought by a local developer who submitted a scheme which proposed enabling development, even though, as Green Belt land, it was unlikely to succeed. With the failure of this scheme, the house remained unused, sliding further into dereliction to the point where another scheme was suggested which would have involved the conversion of the buildings in the courtyard but would have resulted in the demolition of the main house – and it’s this shocking scheme which English Heritage almost approved in 2011 (though EH, to be fair, also cannot be praised highly enough for their saving of Danson House and Apethorpe Hall – which is still for sale, by the way).
SAVE stepped in and prevented the demolition and has been working with leading consultants to draw up plans for emergency repairs but also to find a long-term, sustainable solution which not only preserves the house through re-use but also brings the other buildings in the complex to life. The leading country house conversion architect Kit Martin along with the Morton Partnership, a leading firm of heritage surveyors, have been working with Roger Tempest of Broughton Hall (who has a track record of creating business space in estate buildings), in conjunction with the Landmark Trust, and the Heritage Trust for the North West, who have been consulted about creating heritage training skills opportunities. The overall aim is to create a community which is not just residential but also hosts businesses and events, with public access via an exhibition space and café.
How you can help: English Heritage have agreed a major grant of £217,000 for the emergency works but SAVE urgently needs to raise a £50,000 contribution. Any donation, large or small, will help rescue this wonderful house and estate and help prevent the loss of yet more of our heritage. Since 1974 no house of this size or quality has been lost, so, if you can, please do help.
Ways to donate:
- Online via the SAVE website
- Phone: donate £3 or £5 by texting RESTORE3 (for £3) or RESTORE5 (for £5) to 70500. (This will cost £3 or £5 plus your standard message rate and 100% of your donation will go to SAVE Britain’s Heritage.)
- Cheque: made payable to ‘SAVE Britain’s Heritage’ and sent to SAVE Britain’s Heritage, 70 Cowcross Street, London, EC1M 6EJ.
Full SAVE campaign brochure: ‘Help us Save Winstanley Hall‘ [PDF – SAVE Britain’s Heritage]
Photos of the house in better days ‘Winstanley Hall: gallery‘ [SAVE Britain’s Heritage]
A very unofficial tour: ‘Winstanley Hall‘ [YouTube]
A view of the interior: ‘Winstanley Hall‘ [WiganWorld]
Aerial view of the house and outbuildings: ‘Winstanley Hall‘ [Bing]
Listing description: ‘Winstanley Hall‘