Guest blogger – Amicia de Moubray: ‘White knights – the 20th-century castle rescuers’

The castle is often part of the imagination of many children; for the boys as a scene of battles, for the girls usually as a romantic backdrop.  As adults, this love of castles can take many forms but for those with a real passion and deep pockets, the castle can also become a home.  As part of my initiative to broaden the contributors to this blog, Amicia de Moubray, contributor to magazines such as Country Life and The Architect’s Journal as well as an author on books on interiors, has drawn from her latest book, ‘Twentieth Century Castles in Britain‘, to look at the bold men and women who realised that childhood dream of creating or restoring a castle.


For those of a heightened romantic persuasion the chance to rescue a ruined castle and bring it back to life after centuries of woeful neglect is the ultimate fantasy.

Detail of aerial view of Castle Drogo, Devon, showing the spectacular location (Image: National Trust on Dartmoor) - click for complete image
Detail of aerial view of Castle Drogo, Devon, showing the spectacular location (Image: National Trust on Dartmoor) – click for complete image

At the beginning of the twentieth century wealthy Americans along with an ever burgeoning steady stream of new British millionaires were in hot pursuit of decaying castles to restore.  They were both drawn to a deeply nostalgic vision of an older England far removed from their industrial or mercantile past.  The prospect of living in a castle drenched in history is immensely attractive.  It offers both a beguiling form of escapism and a tangible link with the past.  Some arriviste English tycoons opted to build new edifices such as Julius Drewe who commissioned Sir Edwin Lutyens to design Castle Drogo in Devon. But others like Lord Armstrong at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland settled for imposing their stamp on existing historic structures.

Herstmonceux Castle, East Sussex (Image: Herstmonceux Castle)
Herstmonceux Castle, East Sussex (Image: Herstmonceux Castle)

The magazine Country Life established in 1897, played an important role in the story of the castle in Britain in the 20th-century.  This was mainly because of the patronage of Edward Hudson, who himself employed Lutyens to restore Lindisfarne Castle in Northumberland for his summer residence and also nearly bought Lympne Castle in Kent.  Hudson promoted a gentle picturesque image of old England through the pages of his magazine.  Then, as now, architectural enthusiasts pored over the magazine’s enticing property advertisements eagerly alighting on slumbering forlorn castles ripe for renovation.    And there were plenty.  Nowhere was this trend more evident than in the south-east of England, where in the early years of the twentieth century five decrepit ancient castles – Leeds, Hever, Saltwood, Allington (all in Kent) and Herstmonceux (in Sussex) were sold to new owners who took great delight in restoring them with swaggering Edwardian panache, giving them a new lease of life.

Interestingly the restoration of four of the five castles was financed by American money (Herstmonceux being the exception) to the horror of commentators who were mourning the death of the old social order:  ‘The power of the purse of American millionaires also tends greatly to the vanishing of much that is English – the treasures of English art, rare pictures and books, and even of houses’, lamented P.H. Ditchfield in ‘Vanishing England’ published in 1911.

Luckily for the castle enthusiasts who wanted to combine the joys of living in a medieval dream with a smart life in London, the proximity of Kent and Sussex to the capital meant that castles abounded within striking distance of the metropolis.

Bodiam Castle, East Sussex (Image: National Trust Images/Matthew Antrobus)
Bodiam Castle, East Sussex (Image: National Trust Images/Matthew Antrobus)

The heady allure of a castle is magnetic.  Lord Curzon was utterly bewitched by Bodiam Castle from the moment he first saw it and Sir Martin Conway described seeing Allington Castle for the first time with his wife as ‘The beauty of it was overwhelming, it took our breath away and for the moment we were speechless’.  It is easy to understand how they poured money into making them habitable again. Adam Nicolson encapsulates the sentiments of many a would-be castle-restorer when summing up his grandmother Vita Sackville-West’s restoration of Sissinghurst Castle:  ‘there was a chance here to revitalize a one-great but deeply neglected place, to take a ruin and make it flower’.

Amongst the most lavish restorations was Lady Baillie’s transformation of ramshackle Leeds Castle into a smart Jazz Age country house boasting a sprung ebony dance floor for dancing in the Saloon, six new bathrooms, each clad from top to bottom in a different coloured marble, two En-Tout-Cas tennis courts, a nine-hole golf course and a large swimming pool complete with a wave machine.  Dozens of local builders were employed as well as several French and Italian craftsmen imported by the interior designer, Armand Albert Rateau (1882-1938). The foreign workers travelled weekly from London by train in a special Southern Railway coach emblazoned ‘Leeds Castle’ only.

Leeds Castle, Kent (Image: Sarah Dawson - Sez_D via flickr) - click to see complete image
Leeds Castle, Kent (Image: Sarah Dawson – Sez_D via flickr) – click to see complete image

‘WANT BUY CASTLE IN ENGLAND’ read the terse wire the American newspaper tycoon Randolph Hearst sent to his English agent, Alice Head in August 1925.

Interestingly Randolph Hearst rejected Leeds Castle after Alice Head wired him ‘…quite unique as antiquity but needs expenditure large sum to make it habitable not a bath in place only lighting oil lamps servants quarters down dungeons…. could be made fit to live in by spending about four thousand’.  This would no doubt have resulted in a spartan sort of abode as Lady Baillie is reported to have envisaged spending £100,000 on Leeds.

Hearst eventually settled for the remote St. Donat’s in Glamorganshire.  The plus side was that the castle had already been sensitively restored a few years earlier by Morgan Williams, a noted Welsh antiquarian.

St Donat's Castle, Glamorganshire, Wales (Image: The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales)
St Donat’s Castle, Glamorganshire, Wales (Image: The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales)

In true bombastic American tycoon manner, Hearst transformed the castle into a plutocrat’s palace, overlaid with romantic connotations, in which to entertain his international guests who included Winston Churchill, Errol Flynn, the Mountbattens and Ivor Novello.  The thirty-two new bathrooms put such demand on the existing reservoir that a water main was laid from Bridgend some 9 miles distant.  The engineer from the South Wales Electricity Power Company was astonished to be asked for connections for all manner of cutting-edge electrical gadgets including electric clocks and private hairdressing apparatus. His other clients in the area were still wary of electricity, limiting themselves to a solitary light in the middle of rooms.

Alas, Hearst was only to visit St. Donat’s five times for a total occupation just short of four months.

It is interesting to speculate what would have happened to all these castles if these wealth folk had not come to their rescue.  Would they now be in the ownership of English Heritage conserved as manicured ruins?

We must salute the valiant castle restorers and thank them for making the architectural history of the castle in the twentieth century a gripping tale.

Text by Amicia de Moubray, choice of links and images by Matthew Beckett.


Amicia’s superb book: ‘Twentieth Century Castles in Britain‘ [Amazon]

You can follow her on Twitter too: ‘ademoubray

Many of the castles mentioned are open to the public so are well worth a visit.

Previous guest blog: ‘Guest blogger: Jeremy Musson – ‘English Ruins: an odyssey in English history’

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]