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

Rent a doll’s house: Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire

Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire (Image: Gardens-Guide)
Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire (Image: Gardens-Guide)

Sitting on a small rise, just off the A158 on the road to Skegness in Lincolnshire sits one of the prettiest of the National Trust’s many country houses; Gunby Hall. However, unlike the others, where we can only ever dream of moving in, Gunby is currently available to rent for the bargain rate of £10,000 per year – but do remember to add an estimated £100,000 for the annual running costs.

Gunby Hall was built in 1700 (commemorated with the date on the rainwater heads) for Sir William Massingberd by an unknown architect but one who was obviously familiar with the work of Sir Christopher Wren.  Built of warm plum-red bricks the sophisticated 3-storey exterior shows the elegant use of stone dressings which elevates this grade-I listed house to being one of the finest of the smaller country houses.  Although showing stylistic links with Wren it was almost certainly by a skilled provincial imitator or local builder.  Wren designed very few country houses – Tring Park in Hertfordshire, Winslow Hall and, according to John Harris, contributed designs for Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, and Houghton Hall in Norfolk – all for patrons who were somehow connected to Wren.  So unless someone discovers a link between Sir William and Sir Christopher it is likely that the local ‘architect’ had only been shown Wren’s designs.

Newby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: johnet/flickr)
Newby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: johnet/flickr)

When Gunby Hall was built it would have been regarded as very fashionable as Baroque style houses had only become popular in the 1680s.  Newby Hall in Yorkshire is one of the best examples and was rated as the finest house in Yorkshire when it was completed c.1690 (remember the houses we regard as the finest today in Yorkshire such as Castle Howard, Wentworth Castle, and Wentworth Woodhouse amongst others hadn’t yet been built).  In many ways, Gunby Hall and Newby Hall are architectural ‘cousins’ – closely stylistically related but distinct, particularly in size; reflecting the relative wealth of the owners .  Similarities can also be seen with other Yorkshire houses such as the earlier Ribston Hall, built in 1674, and the wonderful but now sadly demolished Wheatley Hall built in 1680, and the later Bolton Hall.

Gunby Hall was later altered c.1730 and extended in 1873 and 1900 to very successfully add a Dining Room, Servants’ Hall and Service Wing.  The later additions blend very neatly with the existing building creating the harmonious look which is so attractive today.  Gunby has long been admired with the famous poet Lord Alfred Tennyson reputedly using it as his inspiration when he wrote during one visit:

. . . an English home – gray twilight

On dewy pastures, dewy trees

Softer than sleep – all things in order stored,

A haunt of ancient peace.

The house was also admired by James Lees-Milne who described it as ‘an Augustan squire’s domain, robust, unostentatious, dignified and a little prim.’.  Lees-Milne was a regular visitor and was instrumental in not only bringing the house to the National Trust, as he did many other houses, but also saving it from outright demolition during WWII.  This terrible prospect came about in 1943 when the Air Ministry wished to extend the airfield they had built at Great Steeping only later discovering that Gunby Hall inconveniently blocked the proposed path of the longer runway.  Luckily the combined forces of James Lees-Milne and the impressively named owner, Field Marshal Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd, persuaded them to re-route the runway thus saving the house.  In thanks, the family immediately made over the house to the National Trust becoming one of the few houses to be taken on during the war.

So if you fancy living in one of the prettiest stately homes in the country and don’t mind a few tourists having a look round occasionally, get in contact with the Savills Lincoln office.

More details: ‘Stately home can be yours for just £10k a year… plus another £100k for the staff‘ [This is Lincolnshire]

Property details: ‘Gunby Hall‘ [Savills]