Going to the country: the country houses of UK Prime Ministers – Part 1

Houghton Hall, Norfolk (Image: Dennis Smith / Geograph)
Houghton Hall, Norfolk (Image: Dennis Smith / Geograph)

Those in important political roles have often sought to escape the pressures of office by escaping to the calm and tranquillity of the countryside.  This has been particularly true of the holder of the most important role; that of Prime Minister.  With early PMs drawn from the aristocracy, their backgrounds provided them with a seat which became a natural refuge but was also an important part of their political identity.  However, as their origins changed, so too did the nature of the country retreat.  However, for all PMs the country retreat has been a fairly constant feature – though not all aspired to live in grandeur.

To make this broad survey more digestible I’ve split this into PMs by ruling monarch, starting from when the role of Prime Minister was first recognised in 1721 under King George I.

The first holder of the office, Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, was the epitome of the aristocratic leader.  Walpole was born at Houghton Hall in Norfolk – though the house was a more modest one before Sir Robert engaged Colen Campbell in 1722 to rebuild it, creating one of the finest Palladian houses in the country.  The second PM was Spencer Compton, 1st Earl of Wilmington, who also employed Colen Campbell in 1726 to create a more modest home; Compton Place in Sussex.

The seat of Henry Pelham, who became the 3rd PM in 1743, was (according to Howard Colvin) Esher Place in Surrey which he bough in 1729. In 1733, he commissioned William Kent, who was also to create some garden buildings for Claremont for the Duke of Newcastle (see below), to add wings to the original house, Wolsey’s Tower, in a Gothic style.  The wings and garden buildings at Esher have now been demolished but drawings survive in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Pelham was succeeded as PM by his older brother, Thomas Pelham-Holles, the 1st Duke of Newcastle, whose main seat was Claremont in Esher, Surrey which he had bought from Sir John Vanbrugh who had built a ‘very small box’ as his own home.  The Duke then commissioned Vanbrugh to extend the house, adding two large wings.  This house was subsequently demolished as unfashionable by Clive of India who had bought the estate in 1768 following the Duke’s death, before being rebuilt in the Palladian style we see today.   The Duke also had other homes including in Halland, Sussex, an area the Pelham family had dominated since 1595 when they first bought land there.  Halland Place was also sold in 1768 and later demolished for materials.  [Originally I gave Welbeck Abbey as his seat but it was, in fact, inherited by the Holles Earls of Clare branch of the family creating a bitter feud.  A more detailed history of the feud is given by dennis in this comment below (thank you for the correction).]

One of the most fascinating houses in the country, particularly due to the extensive tunnelling work commissioned by the 5th Duke, but also one of the least known due to the reclusiveness of the Bentinck family and then later due to its role as the Army Sixth Form college which ensured military-level privacy. The house was largely the work of Sir Charles Cavendish who was given the house and estate by his mother, the remarkable Bess of Hardwick. [Corrected in response to comment below]

To complete the list of aristocratic PMs during the reign of George I (1714–1727) and George II (1727–1760), the last was William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire who lived in the peerless Chatsworth in Derbyshire – then, as now, one of the finest of our large country houses.  Interestingly, at the same time as he took on the role of PM in 1756, he also engaged in building at Chatsworth employing James Paine to add a new office wing and court (later replaced by Sir Jeffry Wyatville), a stable block, a bridge in the park, a bridge at Beeley, a water mill and also alterations to interiors of the house – though this work was not to be completed until 1767, long after his time as PM finished in 1757.

One notable feature of all the first PMs was they were all Whigs, a party nicknamed the ‘Country Party’ for their support was strongest in the shires and amongst the great landowners.  Unsurprisingly, these leaders were already managing vast estates which naturally came with sizeable houses which reflected their status – which then gave them the authority to aspire to be PM.  At this time, elections were rather crude affairs with the major landowners having MPs in their pockets due to ‘rotten boroughs‘ which gave the landowner a disproportionate, not to mention undemocratic, influence in the Houses of Commons.  Their country houses were therefore not a symptomatic trapping of power, something that they had aspired to and then acquired, but, in fact, were the foundation of the power which had secured them the position in the first place.

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire
Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

Architecturally, the apparently only acceptable styles were either Palladian or Classical which reflected the political nature of the landowners – symmetry, structure, proportion and the use of the correct orders would have appealed to those who were against monarchical absolutism (which would have challenged their own power) but also reflected a societal structure which ensured their wealth and status.  The Whigs were also closely associated with the Church of England and, as such, would not have entertained the idea of building their houses in the ‘Catholic’ Gothic style, and anyway, with the neo-Gothic movement only really starting in the 1740s it would be several decades before it gained real influence.

So the early years of the role of PM was dominated by the existing ruling class; the great landowners who now shifted from trying to solely influence events through the levers of Royal favouritism (though their support of the Hanoverian succession and therefore King George wasn’t overlooked) to the use of Parliament – though on their terms.  The houses which had often been built to attract and impress a visiting monarch in the hope of securing influence now shifted to helping build alliances with other landowners – and what better way than creating a home they would feel comfortable in? Architecture had become a key part of the political landscape; a physical expression of certain values but also part of a supporting cast which would build the alliances which elevated men to be Prime Minister.

Next: a change of King, and a new PM.

List of UK Prime Ministers

Thanks to Andrew for the original suggestion for this survey

An ambition frustrated: country houses never completed

The delight of a country house is the beautiful meeting of house, setting and contents to create a complete picture.  Yet, for some houses, they never make that stage – finances or death of the instigator usually being the main obstacle to completion.  For some, these half-built aspirations are demolished, others left as a shell which can tantalise us today as to why they failed to achieve their purpose.

In previous generations, the simplicity of construction methods would necessarily mean that in some cases a decade could pass from plans being drawn up to actually moving in. As now, families can go from great wealth to poverty in a short time so to build a substantial country house was a commitment and a statement of the aspirations of the owners as to their future good fortune and health – though sometimes it was not to be.

Many a mansion has been started with grand ambitions which will forever remain unfulfilled (how impressive would Goodwood House in Sussex be if they’d completed the other five sides of the intended octogon?).  However this post is focussed on those which were started and ended only as frustrated shells.

Woodchester Mansion, Gloucestershire (Image: Matthew Lister via Wikipedia)
Woodchester Mansion, Gloucestershire (Image: Matthew Lister via Wikipedia)

One of the most impressive of these is Woodchester Mansion in Gloucestershire.  Originally built for William Leigh, a wealthy trader, who, inspired by his conversion to Catholicism, sought to create a religious community in the Cotswolds on his estate.  As any good Catholic was inclined to do at the time, he consulted A.W. Pugin, a devout Catholic who believed that Gothic architecture was the only true Christian style.  He produced plans for a grand new house (after naturally condemning the existing house as “…a more hopeless case of repairs I never saw.“) and a church and monastery, and sent his new design for the house with his estimate of £7,118.  Anyone familiar with Pugin’s career will know that he never saw an estimate he couldn’t exceed so Leigh probably had a lucky escape when Pugin resigned the commission in 1846.  Leigh instead turned to another Catholic architect Charles Hansom (b.1817 – d.1888).  Leigh’s religious zeal took priority so the church was completed in 1849 and the monastery in 1853 after which work started on the new house.

However, progress was slow; the workers were occasionally given tasks elsewhere on the estate, funds were inadequate, and Leigh was also a perfectionist who took a close interest which can only have delayed things.  The architect had also changed, with the young and inexperienced Benjamin Bucknall taking over and revising the designs to a combination of Pugin and the French architect Viollet-le-Duc, giving the house a distinctly French influence.  However, Leigh’s declining health overtook the build and he died in 1873 with only the shell complete.  A profligate son, declining family fortunes, the World Wars, and its isolation meant that despite various plans, including completion for use as mental hospital offices, it simply sat in its parkland. Now grade-I listed, the house gives a unique insight into the construction methods of the time.

Worksop Manor, Nottinghamshire (Image: Heritage Images)
Worksop Manor, Nottinghamshire (Image: Heritage Images)

Perhaps the grandest house never to be completed was the Worksop Manor in Nottinghamshire for the Dukes of Norfolk.  Part of the ‘Dukeries‘, that area of the county formerly rich in ducal seats, the original 500-room Elizabethan Worksop Manor, designed by Robert Smythson, burnt down in 1761 during renovations, destroying £100,000 (approx. £143m) of works of art from the famous Arundel collection.  Although childless, the 9th Duke decided to rebuild for the benefit of his eventual heir.

The plans were colossal and would have been the largest house in the county and maybe the country – if it had been completed.  Even Horace Walpole, who had developed a discerning eye for country houses during his many tours, thought the Duke’s schemes “…so vast and expensive that it is scarcely possible they can be completed.“. Designed by James Paine (b.1717 – d.1789), the aim was to mark the status and learning of the Duke’s family, building only one side, however it alone was 23-bays, 318ft long and featured a fine Corinthian column supported by six columns, with a 37ft x 25ft entrance hall, decorated by Flemish artist Theodore de Bruyn, and a grand drawing room of 50ft x 30ft.

However, following the death of the heir, Edward Howard, the grief-stricken Norfolks abandoned the project and concentrated on their Sussex seat Arundel Castle.  The 10th and 11th Dukes never completed it so it was therefore unsurprising that the 12th Duke decided to sell the house and estate in 1838 to the neighbouring Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyme for £375,000.  With his own palatial house at the nearby Clumber House, the Duke was not interested in the house, just in adding the land to his own. Rather than pay for the upkeep, the Duke sold the fabric of the building before demolishing the rest in June 1841 leaving just the stables and part of the service wing.  It was these that were later restored to make a rather awkward looking new Worksop Manor.

Lyvden New Bield, Northamptonshire (Image: Ed Bramley via Wikipedia)
Lyveden New Bield, Northamptonshire (Image: Ed Bramley via Wikipedia)

Altogether more mysterious is Lyveden New Beild in Northamptonshire.  Built for the remarkable if oft persecuted Catholic Sir Thomas Tresham (b.? – d.1605), a well-educated and wealthy man who moved in the highest social circles.  Never intended as a main residence (Lyveden Old Bield), this was apparently a summer house, a retreat for the owner during the annual spring clean of his main house.  That said, this is a house with many meanings.  Designed by Robert Stickells (b.? – d.1620) to indulge Tresham’s interest in antiquity and religious symbolism, the house was built in the shape of a cross and other elements aligned or organised according to mystical numbers, often alluding to the Holy Trinity.  Tresham also used the same ideas in his construction of the famous Rushton Triangular Lodge, a small folly also on the estate.

However, the same ardent Catholicism which drove the design of the New Bield and the Lodge also meant that he was regularly persecuted for his faith, frequently being fined huge amounts.  With borrowing his only option, funds were scarce and his estate heavily indebted.  Perhaps surprisingly, this half-finished house, set in fine gardens and parkland, was never bought and completed and so remains an architectural enigma to this day.


Visiting

Woodchester Mansion holds regular open days more details available on their website. The surrounding Park is owned by the National Trust.

Worksop Manor is still very much a private residence and is not open to the public.

Lyveden New Beild is owned by the National Trust and is regularly open.