A theatre of innovation: Cragside, Northumberland

Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images/Simon Fraser)
Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images/Simon Fraser)

One hundred and fifty years ago, as 1863 drew to a close, the great industrialist Lord Armstrong may have reflected on a year in which innovation was sweeping across so many areas of life and, perhaps, his own future plans for his new country house at Cragside, Northumberland.  Country houses have often been at the nexus of innovation as they contain just the right mix of elements; namely a fashion for novelty, complex issues to be solved and a desire to impress others, along with the resources to experiment.  Cragside was to be a fine example of all these desires, a joint effort between an inventor owner and an inventive architect.

1863 was another year of great industrial developments as diverse as the running of the first Underground trains in London and the patenting of TNT, both of which would have far-reaching consequences.  That driving spirit of creativity spurred the Victorian engineer to look at many challenges, both large and small, seeking solutions which provided greater utility and comfort, though often tempered by the conservatism or financial reluctance of the owner.

Comfort and luxury are not always as synonymous as they are today and tales are legion of freezing country houses where one bathroom (used only for bathing naturally) served a whole house.  Owners of older aristocratic houses often felt little need to modernise; after all, if you had hot and cold running servants ferrying coal and water about the house this was often cheaper than a full refurbishment.  Worse, such improvements might be seen as nouveaux-riche (and therefore vulgar), unhealthy, or, worse, American. By contrast, the new money aristocrats in the Victorian era often had worked their way from less distinguished backgrounds and were keen to use anything which provided a better life – and also gave them the social bragging rights of novelty.

Bowood House, Wiltshire (demolished 1955-56) (Image: Lost Heritage - England's Demolished Country Houses)
Bowood House, Wiltshire (demolished 1955-56) (Image: Lost Heritage – England’s Demolished Country Houses)

Open fires have been the mainstay of country houses for hundreds of years but central heating – either steam, hot air or hot water – started making a comeback in the late Georgian period (remember the Romans introduced it first). The library at Bowood House, Wiltshire was thought to be the first modern room to be centrally heated when it was introduced in the 1790s (although it wasn’t all that successful).  Other centrally heated single rooms were to be found at Pakenham Hall, Co. Westmeath in 1807 where ‘The immense hall so well-warmed by hot air that the children play in it from morning to night‘.  The first multi-room ducted hot-air arrangements could be found at Coleshill, Berkshire in 1814, and Abercairny, Perthshire in 1829. Steam proved difficult to control (though it was installed by Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford in 1823) so other early examples were either hot air (Osmaston Manor – 1846-49, Flixton – 1847, or Tortworth Court – 1849-52) or hot water via radiators (Mentmore Towers – 1850-55).  These systems rarely extended beyond the entrance areas, hallways and main downstairs rooms.

Osmaston Manor, Derbyshire (demolished 1965) (Image: Lost Heritage - England's Demolished Country Houses)
Osmaston Manor, Derbyshire (demolished 1965) (Image: Lost Heritage – England’s Demolished Country Houses)

Ventilation was always a challenge and the unpleasant accumulation of stale air and the smell of gas was exacerbated by the higher building standards of the Victorians which reduced drafts.  Many houses such as Kelham Hall, Mentmore, Dobroyd Castle and Wykehurst Place had ventilation shafts fitted in individual rooms but they were fairly inefficient.  One of the most advanced systems was created in 1846-49 for Francis Wright, a wealthy ironmaster, at his home Osmaston Manor in Derbyshire.  A single intake near the kitchen drew air from outside before heating it and distributing it around the house.  Coal fires in individual rooms then drew the stale air towards them but the flues all took the air downwards into a central extractor system which vented though a single huge 150-ft chimney in the kitchen garden, thus eliminating the need for huge chimneys in the main house (though it had smaller ones).  Sadly the house was demolished in 1965, thus denying us the chance to marvel at the ingenuity.

Carlton Towers, Yorkshire (Image: Landed Houses)
Carlton Towers, Yorkshire (Image: Landed Houses)

Bathrooms and indoor plumbing were often a great source of inconvenience. Even as late as 1873, such a grand house as Carlton Towers, Yorkshire, had no bathrooms with washing still undertaken via hand-filled basins and hip baths.  By contrast, Stoke Rochford Hall in 1839 had fifteen and by 1874 Wykehurst had the then radical innovation of each bedroom being a suite with its own bathroom.  A number of country houses were demolished for reasons of inconvenience with a  lack of bathrooms often cited, especially as the complexities of adding them to older houses was to prove insurmountable, either technically or financially.

Such challenges were often a catalyst for innovation – particularly if the owner was one of the industrial titans of the age, a man as comfortable in the workshop as the boardroom. Although William Armstrong (b.1810 – d.1900), 1st Baron Armstrong (after 1887), started his professional life as a solicitor he was able to turn his analytical mind to practical challenges as much as legal ones.  The genesis of his engineering career stemmed from his love of fishing where he noticed how inefficient waterwheels were and so designed a much more efficient water-powered engine. He successfully showed it could be used to hydraulically power cranes and thus improve the speed of cargo unloading at the docks.  This formed the basis for Armstrong’s engineering firm in 1847 and his first fortune.  The firm’s greatest fame/infamy came due to the later armaments work which Armstrong had turned to when he read that the British Army had difficulties with heavy field guns during the Crimean War. Success here with his revolutionary design and, later naval versions, led to the creation of a shipbuilding firm which won orders throughout the world, generating his second fortune.

The Lodge 'Cragside', dated 1864-6, before Norman Shaw's editions at Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images)
The Lodge ‘Cragside’, dated 1864-6, before Norman Shaw’s editions at Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images)

Armstrong’s obviously busy and productive life gave him great status in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and beyond and his main home in the city was a grand, if heavy, suburban creation called Jesmond Dene House.  As befitted any Victorian man of wealth and social stature and due to the pressures of running his businesses, Armstrong sought a country retreat.  Having visited the Rothbury area as a child, he looked there for a suitable estate, eventually buying in 1863 the then small shooting lodge and 20-acres of land which formed part of a steep-sided valley through which ran the Debdon Burn. Over the next few years, as Armstrong came to reduce his involvement in his businesses, Cragside became a passion; a place to retreat but also to enjoy more domestic challenges with the help of one of the most brilliant architects of the age, Richard Norman Shaw. Armstrong eventually came to own 16,000-acres of Northumberland, including Bamburgh Castle, of which 1,759-acres surrounded Cragside in which he had planted over 7m trees and innumerable rhododendrons.

View from the Terrace, Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)
View from the Terrace, Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)

Between 1869-84, Cragside was transformed into a modern Victorian plutocrats palace, but one incorporating all conceivable innovations, powered by his own hydraulic engines. The first challenge was the location, which was ideal for a small lodge but cramped for the house which it eventually supported.  The steep hillside meant that space for expansion either had to be created through excavation or by building up the ground.  What it lost in convenience, it gained in views; spectacular vistas overlooking the remote Northumberland countryside.  Unfortunately, those views – both from and of the house – are now somewhat obscured by some of those same trees planted by Armstrong.

One of four of the original electric lamps at Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/James Dobson)
One of four of the original electric lamps at Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/James Dobson)

It was inside the house that the inventive mind of both owner and architect could really find effect.  For Shaw, Armstrong was an ideal patron, offering none of the conservative reticence he might have found in other clients, able to offer either his innovations or those of his friends. By December 1880, Cragside was the first private house in the UK (and Girouard thinks possibly in the world) to have electric light comprehensively installed, thanks to Armstrong’s friendship with Joseph Swan, with his eponymous filament bulbs throughout. Power for these innovations came from Armstrong’s own hydroelectric engines, running from the Burn below.

With the luxury of his own cheap and apparently limitless power supply, Armstrong and Shaw’s opportunities were myriad.  In addition to the lighting, the central heating system was also driven by a hydraulic engine.  That same power source also enabled the kitchen to boast a hydraulically-powered spit with the heavy pots in the conservatories moved by hydraulic machinery, with an electric sewing machine and electric communication throughout the house and even out to a shooting lodge on the moor.

View of Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)
View of Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)

To his contemporaries, Cragside must have seemed beyond ingenious – a place grown from an inhospitable hillside, packed with innovations.  The house became a significant marketing tool for Armstrong as visits from his prospective customers, including the King of Siam, the Shah of Persia and the Crown Prince of Afghanistan, gave him the chance to demonstrate the advanced technology they could be buying into, a true theatre of innovation.  The Prince and Princess of Wales also visited in August 1884, thus giving the royal seal of approval to such a modern approach to the traditions of the country house.

Cragside passed to the National Trust in 1977, sadly missing the best of Armstrong’s picture collection (sold in 1910), but cared for and open so we can enjoy seeing the products of two great Victorian minds.  Despite being the genesis of domestic hydroelectric power, a gas turbine was installed in 1895 to provide more power before being connected to the National Grid in 1945.  However, in early 2014, the National Trust is again installing a modern hydroelectric screw to once more generate electricity for the house providing a welcome return of innovation.

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Article: ‘Hydro-electricity restoration work starts at Cragside‘ [BBC News]

Official site: ‘Cragside‘ [National Trust]

160+ images: ‘Cragside‘ [National Trust Images]

Houses as hospitals: the country houses in medical service

Hatfield House, Hertfordshire (Image: Amy Lloyd/flickr)
Hatfield House, Hertfordshire (Image: Amy Lloyd/flickr)

Our country houses have always been adaptable as changing fashions or functions required they accommodate new ways of living or roles.  One role which quite a few houses have taken on is that of hospital – either privately or as a fully-fledged part of the NHS – though this use has not always been sympathetic.  However, as the modern health service centralises to larger sites it seems some country houses are re-emerging to become homes again.

Hospitals were traditionally monastic, centred on the abbeys and convents but these were obviously scarce.  The ill were treated in large dormitories although some established houses in the country away from the main abbey to care for the mentally ill.  However the dismantling of the religious orders during the Reformation from 1536, meant that increasingly the burden for care of the pauper sick fell to secular civic bodies, with towns creating their own hospitals.  This model persisted until the 17th-century when private benefactors became increasingly prominent, donating funds and buildings for the care of the ill.

One of the earliest country houses to be converted was the partially completed Greenwich Palace. Originally a Tudor royal house, it had become derelict during the English Civil War, so in 1664 Charles II commissioned John Webb to design a replacement but which was only partially completed.  It was this building which Queen Mary II, who had been affected by the sight of the wounded sailors returning from the Battle of La Hogue in 1692, ordered to be converted to a navel hospital in 1694, to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor and later Sir John Vanbrugh.

Possibly inspired by the royal example, other country houses were donated or converted for use as hospitals.  However, it quickly became apparent that they weren’t particularly suitable with one Irish physician, Edward Foster, complaining in 1768 that ‘In general, Houses have been rented for Hospitals, which are as fit for the Purposes, as Newgate for a Palace‘.  By the 1850s hospital design was beginning to emerge as a distinct branch of architecture -Florence Nightingale wrote to an officer of the Swansea Infirmary in 1864 saying that a hospital was a difficult to construct as a watch; no building ‘requires more special knowledge‘.  From this time, the country houses themselves became less important than the space they offered with the house itself being used as accommodation or offices. However, for the treatment of respiratory illness the clear country air was considered part of the cure with houses being acquired as tuberculosis sanatoria such as at Moggerhanger Park in Bedfordshire originally designed by Sir John Soane for the Thornton family.

The First World War necessarily required country houses to come back into medical use due to the terrible consequences of the strategy of attrition through trench warfare in WWI which created large numbers of wounded.  Without a national health service there were fewer hospitals able to cope with the seriously disabled or even those simply convalescing.  Many country houses were pressed into service, their clean country air and fine grounds considered most helpful to rest and recuperation. During WWII, fewer houses were used as military hospitals as changes in military tactics led to many fewer casualties than expected.  However, a significant number were used either by the military or as civilian replacements for urban hospitals which it was feared would be bombed.

Hatfield House, Herts - King James Drawing Room as a hospital ward in WWII
Hatfield House, Herts - King James Drawing Room as a hospital ward in WWII

For country house owners, given the possible options of who might take over their house, the bed-ridden were infinitely preferable to the bored squaddies who wreaked such havoc at other houses (apparently housing art treasures was first preference, evacuated schools second, hospitals third).  This reality plus a genuine sense of wanting to help led to many owners voluntarily turning over their houses as hospitals including the Earl of Harewood offering Harewood House, Lord Howard of Glossop Carlton Towers, Lady Baillie lent Leeds Castle and the 4th Marquess of Salisbury offering Hatfield House as he had done during WWI.  On the civilian side, Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire became a maternity hospital as was Battlesden Abbey in Bedfordshire, Stockeld Park and Farnley Hall, both in Yorkshire. Cholmondeley Castle in Cheshire became a Royal Navy Auxiliary Hospital, treating ‘cases of good morale, who are suffering from nervous breakdown usually as the result of operational stresses’.

After the war many houses were returned to their owners in such terrible disrepair that unfortunately hundreds were demolished.  Others continued in their wartime roles with some such a Poltimore House in Devon becoming hospitals after the war when two local GPs recognised the need for more bedspaces and so took over the old seat of the Bampfyldes until it was nationalised after the creation of the NHS in 1948.  There were also many War Memorial hospitals, founded by public subscription after WWI, which often made use of a country house. The nationalisation of these hospitals gave the NHS many of the country houses it has today – although it is relatively few overall as less than 5% of all their buildings are grade II* or grade I listed.  Of the historic ‘therapeutic’ landscapes it manages, seven are included on the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England.

However, sometimes these country houses and their settings can escape and revert to being homes, either through conversion or, if the houses has been lost, replacement.   Bretby Hall in Derbyshire, built between 1813-15 by Sir Jeffry Wyatville for the Earl of Chesterfield, was an orthopaedic hospital until the 1990s when the main house was converted into flats, as was the High Victorian Wyfold Court in Berkshire.  Harewood Park in Hertfordshire was demolished in 1959 after use as hospital in WWII but the estate has been bought by the Duchy of Cornwall with proposals for an elegant and very impressive new Classical house by Craig Hamilton Architects.  A similar plan has been put forward for the 57-acre site of the former Middleton Hospital in Yorkshire with the permission requiring the demolition of various redundant buildings from its former use to restore the site.

Sadly though, sometimes the NHS fails to adequately look after the houses it has in its care.  As the trend has moved towards large, new hospitals so the historic elements have been overlooked or abandoned as new hospitals are built elsewhere. As funding for new hospitals is not dependent on the sale of the old site and the house, sadly they can be neglected or subject to inappropriate development as has been the case with the grade-II listed Stallington Hall in Staffordshire, which became a home for the mentally ill in 1928, but after it closed has been vandalised and neglected with a housing development built inappropriately close to the house across the lawn, forever ruining it as a country house –  a poor payback for years of public service.

Related story: ‘Developers draw up plan for country house‘ [Ilkley Gazette]

Background information: ‘Reusing historic hospitals‘ [Institute of Historic Building Conservation]

Grand attic sale raises £2m

Lord and Lady Gerald Fitzalan Howard of Carlton Towers had hoped to raise £1m to pay for repairs to his family home through the sale of silverware, furniture and paintings from the Towers.  Whilst it’s always sad when the contents of a house are sold to fund repairs, thankfully, the sale went better than expected and raised over £2m which will hopefully secure the future of one of the most interesting Gothic houses of the North East.

Full story: ‘Heritage under the hammer as hall sale raises £2m‘ [Yorkshire Post]

Country house content sales continue

Following on from the recent auction of contents from Powerham Castle in Devon to pay for much needed repairs and maintenance, Lord Gerald Fitzalan Howard, second son of the Duke of Norfolk, is doing the same. Lord Gerald’s home, the Grade-I listed Carlton Towers in Yorkshire, requires approximately £1m spent on essential repairs.  Carlton Towers is a fine example of type of large Victorian Gothic houses which were particularly popular in the North.

With the help of the family archivist and architectural writer John Martin Robinson the family have selected 120 lots including furniture, ceramics, silver – including a set of four silver wine coolers by Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, dated 1809 and 1811, and Old Master paintings – including two views of Venice by Canelletto.

The sale is on 4 November at Sothebys, New Bond Street, London.

Catalogue: ‘Carlton Towers‘ [Sothebys]