Bylaugh Hall: the hidden history to a remarkable restoration opportunity

Bylaugh Hall, Norfolk (Image: Chesterton Humberts)
Bylaugh Hall, Norfolk (Image: Chesterton Humberts)

Many country houses we can visit today are innately interesting; the design, the contents, the occupants, all tell a tale.  Sometimes though there are houses with a much richer past which not only have an immediate story to tell but also a much more complex history, one fascinating for anyone with an interest in how these houses came to be created. One such house which was recently launched – and amusingly described on Rightmove as a ‘60 bedroom detached house for sale‘ – is the remarkable Bylaugh Hall in Norfolk, an engineering marvel and architectural delight, which had a forced birth through litigation, which wasn’t wanted by the first owner, and where credit for the design hasn’t truly been given to the right architect.

Bylaugh is remarkable in many ways; some obvious, others less so.  Even its genesis came from beyond the grave as the controversial inherited wish of the last owner, Sir John Lombe Bt (b. c1731 – d.1817), a man whose fortune came from the family’s silk throwing mill in Derbyshire.  The Lombe’s were established Norfolk gentry whose original estate was at Great Melton, centred around Melton Hall (built in 1611 by the Anguish family) but now a ruin having been first tenanted and then, by the end of the 19th-century, abandoned.

Allegedly won by Sir John in a skewed card game, the Lloyds had owned the Bylaugh estate for a number of years, and even if the story is false, it was legitimately Sir John’s by c1796.  The Lombe’s were unusual in that their wealth largely came from industry, and one which was located outside of the county, but they quickly used their fortune to create the fourth largest estate in Norfolk, at over 13,000-acres by 1883.

Whatever house was already at Bylaugh was insufficient for Sir John so he resolved to build an entirely new one.  However, the house he had in mind was not the house which was built.  Sir John must have had a fair idea that he would not survive to see his grand plan to fruition but he certainly wasn’t going to let mere death cheat him of his ambition.  Having placed £20,000 in trust for the express purpose of building the house – though without approving a design – he died in 1817 (unmarried and childless), leaving his estate and his firm directions to his brother Edward. Here, the family history becomes a little complicated as Edward was his half brother, the product of an affair with a Norwich doctor’s wife.  Edward adopted the Lombe surname but was reluctant to take on the grand role envisioned by his late brother – which is perhaps why Sir John’s will was so prescriptive, and which led to a quite extraordinary court case.

Edward Lombe disputed with the executors of the estate the instruction to build the new house.  However, Sir John had been quite clear, including this fascinating clause in his will:

And whereas it is my wish and intention that a mansion house and suitable offices fit for the residence of the owner of my estate shall be erected on some convenient spot in the parish of Bylaugh in the county of Norfolk either in my lifetime or after my death and that if I shall not erect the same in my lifetime then that my said trustees shall forthwith after my death erect the same according to such plan as I shall in my lifetime approve of or if I shall die before such plan shall be prepared and completed then according to such plan as the trustees or trustee for the time being under this my will with the consent of the person for the time being beneficially entitled to the immediate freehold of my said manors &c under this my will shall think proper to adopt adhering as closely as possible situation and other incidental circumstances being considered to the plan of the house now the residence of Robert Marsham esquire at Stratton Strawless in the said county of Norfolk. (source)

Yet Edward resisted, delaying the start of the build for years by arguing with the executors, Mr Mitchell and Mr Stoughton, and stating that even if they built the house he wouldn’t live in it.  Finally, in 1828, he went to the Court of Chancery and demanded that the money, now having grown to £43,000, be placed with it and a judgement made as to whether he could overturn the provisions of his brother’s will. The case was still undecided in 1839, by which time the fund had grown to over £63,500, when Edward again pressed his case, with a decision finally being made in 1841 – against him.  The Vice-Chancellor said:

It appears to me to be impossible to read this passage in the will without seeing that there is in the plainest language an express trust for the erection of the mansion house which the trustees are forthwith after his death to commence and to proceed with the erecting of. I cannot conceive any words more plain.

Stratton Strawless Hall, Norfolk - pre 1960 (Image: 'The Country Houses of Norfolk' by David Clarke)
Stratton Strawless Hall, Norfolk – pre 1960 (Image: ‘The Country Houses of Norfolk’ by David Clarke)

Which rather settled that. In the meantime, the executors had not been idle in their duties – but they weren’t as obedient as they might strictly have been.  Sir John had clearly stated that the house was to follow ‘as closely as possible‘ Sir Robert Masham’s house at Stratton Strawless; a three-storey (now two), strictly classical, almost Palladian house with a Tuscan-columned porch.  However, the executors ignored this provision and with possibly an eye to emphasising the esteemed family line and to help the new house blend in with the other seats in the area, they chose to create a historical ‘Jacobethan’-style house – but even that is not the one we see today.

Interestingly, although the current Bylaugh is rightly described as being designed by Charles Barry the younger and his partner, Robert Robinson Banks, few are aware that in 1822 the trustees had originally asked another noted architect, William Wilkins (b.1778 – d.1839), to draw up a plan, and his design showed a remarkable stylistic similarity to the one actually built 27 years later.

Unexecuted design for Bylaugh Hall by William Wilkins, 1822 (Image: Public Record Office MPA. 66.1 / 'William Wilkins, 1778-1839' - R.W. Liscombe)
Unexecuted design for Bylaugh Hall by William Wilkins, 1822 (Image: Public Record Office MPA. 66.1 / ‘William Wilkins, 1778-1839’ – R.W. Liscombe)

Although a noted proponent of the Greek Revival, Wilkins, like many an architect, was well-educated in other styles and could turn his hand if asked. Clearly inspired by the style of ‘Prodigy‘ houses such as Burghley and Longleat, he also drew on elements of buildings he had seen and studied – for example, the polygonal domes capping the raised central hall are copied from the Porta Honoris at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, on which Wilkins had written a scholarly article for the esteemed ‘Vetusta Monumenta‘ in 1809. Although each façade was similar, the entrance front was enlivened by a projecting centre bay above the door which was on the piano nobile, reached by an elegant split stair.

The plan of the house was also modern, rejecting a rambling layout, and firmly following the Palladian 3×3 grid on the ground floor.  Centred around a double-return staircase, this was an innovative layout for an early Victorian design – though one Wilkins the classicist would have been entirely comfortable with.  Essentially, he had designed a Palladian villa, dressed in the architectural garb of the ‘Jacobethan’ style.

Bylaugh Hall today (Image: Chesterton Humberts)
Bylaugh Hall today (Image: Chesterton Humberts)

Bylaugh Hall, as attributed to Barry and Banks in 1849, was perhaps better described as an updated version of Wilkins earlier plan – the core 3×3 layout remained, as did the external style, though some of the details such as the raised central hall and domes were removed, and the central staircase replaced by a saloon.  The construction did display some innovation, being one of the earliest steel-framed buildings and was considered a success with one rather giddy local newspaper exclaiming ‘Neither Holkham nor Houghton, those Norfolk wonders, can compare with it for either appearance or comfort‘.  Such wild exaggeration aside, this was a house at the forefront of domestic convenience and was commended in The Builder for having no corridors in the main block, which maximised the space.  It was completed in 1852 at a cost of £29,389, and by 1869 it was reported that £38,000 had been spent on the project, which would have included further works on estate buildings and landscaping (see photos of the house and grounds c1917).  An interesting aside is that during the delay in starting the money had grown to quite a considerable sum, more than enough for all the works.  Edward Lombe applied for the remainder but the Court demanded it be spent on bricks and mortar and so a 4-mile perimeter wall was constructed to satisfy this.

Ruined shell of Bylaugh Hall before restoration (Image: The Burrell Partnership)
Ruined shell of Bylaugh Hall before restoration (Image: The Burrell Partnership)

It seems that no descendent ever loved the house.  By 1878, the then owner, Edward Henry Evans-Lombe, was renting the handsomely Classical Thickthorn Hall, before buying Marlingford Hall, whilst selling off outlying parts of the estate.  In 1917, Bylaugh Hall and the 8,150-acre estate were put up for auction in 140 lots but Edward sold it whole for £120,000, and the hall and 736-acre park were subsequently sold to the Marsh family.  Used by the RAF in WWII, it was sold in 1948 to a new owner who unsuccessfully planned to turn it into a nursing home.  At that nadir of country houses generally, a familiar pattern started; parts of the house were demolished and in June 1950 a 350-lot demolition sale was held which stripped the interiors of the house, creating a gaunt and sad shell.  So it remained until, in 1999, the house and a lodge was sold to a local sculptor who dreamt of fully restoring the house but with insufficient funds he was forced to restore just the Orangery (article by the engineers with lots of photos), intending it to be a wedding venue.  Other parts of the main house were parcelled up as investments and rebuilt but the plan faltered and then failed, leaving the partially restored house we see today.

So Bylaugh Hall is a house paid for by a man who never got to see it, with a design chosen by two men who ignored the last wishes of the patron, with credit for that design going to two men who relied heavily on another architect now obscured, for a beneficiary who really didn’t want it in the first place. A brilliant story richly illustrating the fascinating complexities of our country houses.

So what should happen to this superb house? Interestingly, the 557-acre Pavilion farm which surrounds the east and south of the house, and includes one of the original lodges, is also for sale, providing the opportunity for the right person to combine them both.  It would require real vision – the restoration work at Bylaugh Hall may be sound but the aesthetics are dire.  Given the budget, much of the existing restoration should be stripped right back and the interiors given the lavish attention they demand.  This is a house which cries out for sumptuous plasterwork and panelling, for grand rooms with fine wallpaper and filled with artworks and quality furniture. With the funds and the vision to take advantage of this rare opportunity, a restored Bylaugh Hall, combined with the farm and more land later, could once again create one of the finest estates in Norfolk.

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Property details

1917 auction catalogue:

Listing description: ‘Bylaugh Hall‘ [British Listed Buildings]

HS2 Northern Extensions, Part 2 – Birmingham to Manchester: a delicate dance with one mis-step

Having looked at the impact on country houses of the first branch of the next phase of the HS2 line between Birmingham and Leeds (‘HS2 Northern Extensions, Part 1 – Birmingham to Leeds: good for some, bad for others‘) it’s clear that the damaging heritage choices which marred the plans for the first phase between London and Birmingham have been largely avoided.  Can this new spirit be successfully continued as the line tries to find a path to Manchester through a landscape shaped by the many country houses in the area?

Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Neilsvrx via flickr)
Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Neilsvrx via flickr)

The line emerges from the urban sprawl of Birmingham and swings past Lichfield into the Staffordshire countryside, equidistant between the rivers Trent and Blithe, well to the west of the remains of Hamstall Hall with its beautifully weathered gateway, and Blithfield Hall, which now sits next to the Blithfield reservoir. It also sweeps past well to the north of the first of the great estates on the route, the grand Shugborough Park. The core of the house was built in 1693, but the house house seen today was largely the creation of the architect Thomas Wright, between 1745-48, followed in 1794, by Samuel Wyatt who added the dramatic, ten-column portico. Across the river, the splendid Tixall Gatehouse (to the demolished, later Tixall Hall) also can continue in its peaceful repose.

Ingestre Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Langstraat via Wikipedia)
Ingestre Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Langstraat via Wikipedia)

Sadly, a poor route decision follows immediately after, with the line cutting within 400 metres to the south-west [PDF] of the grand front of Ingestre Hall (historical details here).  A former home of the Earls of Shrewsbury, the house is a wonderful example of the Jacobean tradition, that short period which developed the drama of the Elizabethan house with classical principles, combining architectural flamboyance with symmetry.  Although Ingestre is no longer a home, and the park a golf course, the embankments of the HS2 line may not be enough to mitigate a serious incursion into the environs of this house.

Swynnerton Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Simon Huguet via Geograph)
Swynnerton Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Simon Huguet via Geograph)

The route continues to the north of Swynnerton, placing the village between the trains and the beautiful seat of Lord Stafford, Swynnerton Hall, which still sits in a 3,000-acre estate. After Newcastle-under-Lyme, the line passes to the east of Doddington Hall, still the seat of the old Staffordshire family, the Broughton-Delves.  The route continues northward, neatly bisecting Winsford and Middlewich, passing to the east of the impressive but now hugely over-developed Bostock Hall with its housing estate at the back.

Tabley Hall, Cheshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy via Wikipedia)
Tabley Hall, Cheshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy via Wikipedia)

As HS2 heads into Cheshire, the delicate dance to avoid the grand houses and their estates requires some deft footwork. Knutsford is surrounded by important houses but importantly, for us, the line passes west of the beautiful Tabley Hall and estate, which was so atmospherically painted by J.M.W. Turner (the painting can be seen at Petworth in Sussex).  One of the finest examples of the work of John Carr, the house replaced Tabley Old Hall which remained on the estate and was incorporated as an eye-catcher in the landscape as a picturesque ruin.  Also untroubled is Viscount Ashbrook’s family seat of Arley Hall, also well to the west of the line.  Similarly, the ever-grand Tatton Park, once seat of the Egerton family, now owned by the National Trust, and its thousand acres of parkland are kept well clear of the line.

Dunham Massey, Cheshire (Image: Danny Beath via flickr)
Dunham Massey, Cheshire (Image: Danny Beath via flickr)

Past Knutsford and heading towards Altrincham, the line splits with one branch curving gently west away from another National Trust property, Dunham Massey. Following this line, heading north of Lowton, the attractive small family home of the Byrom family, Byrom Hall, built in 1713, loses its rural outlook and will instead be at the edge of a rolling stock maintenance depot at the end of that line.  The other branch heads south of Altrincham and heads towards Manchester, skirting the edge of the city but by now the semi-urban fringe is no longer the setting for country retreats and so the line passes into the city without any further threats.

So again, the route of HS2 from Birmingham has avoided many of the pitfalls of the first phase and has mostly been able to step lightly around the historic estates which have brought such beauty to our landscapes.  However, the one mis-step is around Ingestre Hall, where the line will create a dramatic slash through the parkland and perhaps impinge on the future ability of the house to be rescued from its current use as an arts centre and golf course to one day become a home again.  This is unlikely if the economics of conversion and restoration are upset by the overall value of the house and estate being seriously compromised by HS2.  With farmland to the south, it would make sense to move the route just another couple of hundred metres to ensure tranquillity for this fine house.  Overall though, the planners at Arup and Mott Macdonald ought to be congratulated on plotting a sensitive course through a difficult landscape and one hopes that the final plan maintains this.

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Source for route: ‘HS2 phase two initial preferred route plan and profile maps‘ [Department for Transport/HS2 Limited]