Going to the country: more country houses of UK Prime Ministers – Part 2

The first part of this series, highlighted the aristocratic background of our early Prime Ministers – Earls and Dukes abound.  This meant that a country house was just where they had been brought up and simply regarded as home rather than the aspirational purchase.  It also highlighted that the architectural tastes of the PMs reflected their political beliefs with a strong preference for the Classical, representing structure and order.

So, to continue the tour of country houses of Prime Ministers, this time those who served  under George III (1760–1820):

Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire (Image: ickle_angel/Flickr)
Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire (Image: ickle_angel/Flickr)

The first was John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute. Originally a man of rather limited means who only acquired great wealth following his marriage to the rich heiress, Mary Wortley Montagu. The family seat was Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute; at the time a small Queen Anne house which burnt down in 1877 to be replaced by the Gothic palace we see today.  With his later wealth and prominence the Earl created two fine new country houses.  On his retirement as PM, he bought Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire in 1763 and in 1767 commissioned Robert Adam to create a large neoclassical mansion which, although this was never fully realised, the resulting house (now a hotel) is still sizable.  The wings are a later addition but faithful to Adam’s original conception. Ill health later forced a move to the Dorset coast and having bought a clifftop position he built High Cliff “to command the finest outlook in England.“.  Unfortunately it was a little to fine, the crumbling cliff not only necessitated the demolition of the house in the late 1790s, it also led to the Earl’s death in 1792 due to a fall whilst picking plants.

He was succeeded as PM in 1763 by George Grenville who was born, and lived, at the family seat, Wotton House, Buckinghamshire.  He is one of only nine PMs who did not become a peer on leaving office.

Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire (Image: geograph.co.uk)
Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire (Image: geograph.co.uk)

If there was a competition for the most impressive house of Prime Ministers then Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham would be feeling rather confident.  His family home, Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire, is one of the largest private country houses in Britain with a main front extending to over 600ft. Built over a 25-year period, the house exemplifies the grand palaces which became possible in Georgian England. Faced with the usual pressures on later owners, plus vindictive coal mining, the family moved out and the house was leased as a teacher training college but since 1999 it has been the home of architect Clifford Newbold and his family who have been undertaking a massive and very impressive restoration programme.

William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham was brought up in great comfort from the proceeds of the sale of the Regent Diamond by his father.  As the younger son, Pitt would not inherit the family seat and so made his own way, choosing politics and becoming PM in 1766.  His country residence was the relatively modest Hayes Place in Kent, which he had built after he bought the estate in 1757.  He later sold it in 1766 to Horace Walpole who encased the house in white brick and enlarged it before selling back to Pitt in 1768 on his retirement.  The house survived until 1933 when it was demolished and houses built on the land.

Euston Hall, Suffolk (Image: David Robarts / flickr)
Euston Hall, Suffolk (Image: David Robarts / flickr)

Another Prime Ministerial seat to suffer later loss was Euston Hall in Suffolk seat of Augustus FitzRoy, 3rd Duke of Grafton who succeeded William Pitt.  The Dukes of Grafton were very wealthy with extensive land holdings in Suffolk, Norfolk, Northamptonshire and London.  Euston Hall had been extensively remodelled by the Palladian architect Matthew Brettingham for the 2nd Duke between 1750-56.  The house suffered a devastating fire in 1902 which destroyed the south and west wings, which were subsequently rebuilt on the same plan but then demolished again by the 10th Duke in 1952.  It should also be noted that the Dukes also owned the splendid Wakefield Lodge in Northamptonshire, designed by William Kent, though it was tenanted and therefore the Dukes never lived there.

William Petty-FitzMaurice, 2nd Earl of Shelburne had the splendid fortune to be brought up in one of the finest of Georgian country houses, Bowood House in Wiltshire, which also became a scandalous loss when it was demolished in 1955/56.  Remodelled for the 1st Earl by Henry Keene between 1755-60, the house also featured interiors by Robert Adam, who also altered Keene’s original portico to create a much grander version.  Afterwards the stables were converted to function as the main house where the 9th Marquess of Lansdowne (as the Earls became) still lives today.

Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire (Image: Mr Nibbler / flickr)
Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire (Image: Mr Nibbler / flickr)

The next PM, William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland inherited Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire, which had also been the home of an earlier PM, his relative Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle.  As stated in Part 1, this is a fascinating house which has often been overlooked due to the fact that it has been rarely open to the in the last 100 years, public tours having finished in 1914. Extensive work was carried out between 1742-46 by the relatively unknown architect John James who reconstructed the south wing and remodelled the west front for Henrietta, Countess of Oxford.  The west front was subsequently changed again in 1790 to designs by Sir Humphry Repton.  The Dukes of Portland also had a southern seat at Bulstrode Park in Buckinghamshire, though this house was replaced in 1865 by the 12th Duke of Somerset who by then owned the estate.

In contrast to the vast wealth and aristocratic status of the preceeding PM, William Pitt the Younger was able to bring political heritage; his father also having served in the same role. In stark contrast to the size and splendour of Welbeck, his country home was Holwood House in Kent, a modest mansion set in 200-acres for which Pitt paid £7,000 in 1783 before commissioning Sir John Soane to alter and enlarge it in 1786 and 1795.  Soane’s work here led to Pitt recommending him for the work to build what was to be one of Soane’s masterpieces; the Bank of England building which was so sadly demolished in the 1920s.  Holwood was also to be demolished, in 1823, to be replaced by a much grander house designed by Decimus Burton.

The country houses of Henry Addington 1st Viscount Sidmouth have both largely now vanished under the sprawl that is Reading University.  Addington had a low-key record as PM and his houses were equally modest.  Although on becoming PM Addington moved into the beautiful White Lodge in Richmond, his main seat was Woodley House, Berkshire, which had been built in 1777 before being bought by Addington in 1789. At the same time, he also bought the neighbouring estate of Bulmershe Court which was then tenanted, before falling into disrepair in the 19th century leading to two-thirds of it being demolished. Woodley House was used by the Minstry of Defence during WWII but subsequent dereliction led to its demolition in 1960.

William Wyndham Grenville, 1st Lord Grenville, as well as abolishing slavery, also created one of the most elegant of the houses in this series; Dropmore House in Buckinghamshire.  Built in 1795 and designed by Samuel Wyatt (b.1737 – d.1807) with later work by Charles Heathcote Tatham (b.1772 – d.1842), it was Grenville’s refuge, describing it as ‘deep sheltered from the world’s tempestuous strife‘. The grounds were also lavished with attention with Grenville planting 2,500 trees, and creating numerous walks which took in the superb views and even going as far as to remove a hill which blocked the view to Windsor Castle.  Tragically, devastating fires in 1990 and 1997 left a ruined shell but it has been recently rebuilt as a series of luxury apartments.

The only PM to be assassinated, Spencer Perceval, never really had a country seat of his own but had grown up in Enmore Castle, Somerset though he would never inherit as he was the second son of second marriage.  Only a small section of the main house now remains after it was largely demolished in 1833, but originally Enmore, built c1779, was one of the largest houses in the county.  In later life, Perceval lived in a large house called Elm Grove on the south side of Ealing Common in London – though at the time this would have been quite a rural area but not quite enough to classify this as a true country house.

The final PM under George III was Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool who again chose to live close to London, though in a country house, at Coombe House in Kingston upon Thames in Surrey.  Originally Tudor, this brick house was replaced with a Georgian mansion which was later altered by Sir John Soane, including the addition of a library.  The house survived until 1933 when it was demolished with houses now covering the site.

So although the Gothic revival movement had started in the 1740s and was the main alternative to the dominant Classical architectural style, even by the 1820s, it did not reflect the tastes of any of the Prime Ministers.  Considering the system still echoed the exclusions of the Reformation with its explicit rejection of all things ‘catholic’ (architectural, theological, political) it was unlikely to change, especially as the Catholic Emancipation Bill wasn’t passed until 1828.  Architecture was taken an expression of belief and so to favour the Gothic could potentially have given the wrong signals.

Next: Prime Ministers under George IV and William IV

List of UK Prime Ministers

So you can’t afford a whole house: country house apartments

Charlton Park, Wiltshire (Image: Chesterton Humberts)
Charlton Park, Wiltshire (Image: Chesterton Humberts)

Country houses were always a community with not only the family but also a significant number of staff.  Yet as these houses became more uneconomical and houses emptied, large sections often lay dormant, until the family moved out and, in darker times, the house might be demolished.  However, conversion of the house into multiple individual homes offered a route to not only save the house but ensure that it was lived in rather than just used as a conference centre or hotel.  These apartments are now highly prized and offer the fascinating possibility of living in a grand stately home without many of the burdens – but only if it was converted sensitively and the setting preserved, which sadly isn’t always the case.

The idea of converting country houses into smaller, more manageable units is a fairly modern practice, largely since World War II, though some smaller conversions had taken place previously.  A pioneer was the now defunct Country Houses Association which was set up in 1955 to provide shared accommodation, with communal meals, for well-to-do retirees in good health in a style to which many residents had formerly been accustomed. The first house to be bought and converted, in 1956, was the red-brick Elizabethan Danny in Sussex. Next, in 1959, was the grade-I listed Aynhoe Park in Northamptonshire, a Soanian masterpiece with an elegant central block framed by two wings (though this has now been converted back into being a single home).  These set the pattern which was successfully repeated for seven other houses, some of which remain as retirement communities despite the collapse of the CHA scheme.

Around the same time, Christopher Buxton formed ‘Period and Country Houses Ltd’ which focused on creating independent units within the house and estate buildings.  Buxton had several notable successes such as the restoration of Kirtlington Park in Oxfordshire, keeping the splendid central portion as his own home, and also Charlton Park in Wiltshire, seat of the Earls of Suffolk, who currently still live in a portion of the house and own the 4,500-acre estate surrounding it.

In the 1950s and 60s, sale adverts for country houses often included the phrase “eminently suitable for conversion”.  Other developers could now see the potential and developed their own schemes – but with little heritage protection they often did more harm than good.  For them the key to getting the maximum profit was to cram in as many units as possible within the house and estate buildings before trying to built in the parkland.  This sadly meant that the grandest rooms in the houses – ballrooms, libraries etc, – would be crudely sub-divided, wreaking their proportions and destroying decorative details.  Sometimes developers simply developed the houses in the estate and then neglected to restore the main house, often citing the mounting costs of the work.

Northwick Park, Gloucestershire (Image: Cotswold District Council)
Northwick Park, Gloucestershire (Image: Cotswold District Council)

A sad example of where the house has been compromised through too many units is at Northwick Park in Gloucestershire, a grade-I listed house of 1686, with later work by Lord Burlington in 1728-30 for Sir John Rushout.  An architecturally interesting house with a Classical east front topped with a decorated pediment, which contrasts with Burlington’s work on the east front, which was later, oddly, given shaped gables sometime between 1788-1804.   Empty from 1976 with significant thefts of chimneys and doorcases and general deterioration, it was then bought including just 19-acres in 1986 by a local developer for £2m.  With repairs estimated at the time to come to at least £1.5m, the local authority permitted some enabling development totalling 68 new units – with just six in the main house itself.  However, the new properties had to be sited within the footprint of existing estate buildings leading to an overcrowded development with the house becoming almost an architectural ornament, lost in the rest of the residential development.

Many of the most successful and sensitive conversions have been undertaken by Kit Martin, a gifted architect who has saved some wonderful houses and been instrumental, with assiduous promotion by Marcus Binney of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, in demonstrating that it is possible to convert a house without compromising it.  His particular skill was in dividing the houses vertically, rather than horizontally, which gave each residence (as they always are in KM’s developments – never apartments) a range of rooms and usually included one of the fine rooms.  Starting with Dingley Hall, a beautiful but terribly derelict house at risk of complete loss, he has worked on a number of significant houses including The Hazells in Bedfordshire, Burley-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire, and Ecton Hall in Northamptonshire.  His finest work, however, has been at Gunton Park in Norfolk, grade-II* listed house of 1742 designed by Matthew Brettingham with later work c1785 by Samuel and William Wyatt.

Formerly seat of Lord Suffield it had suffered a serious fire in 1872 leaving a large section of the main house as a burnt out shell.   Fortunately for Mr Martin, extensive Georgian estate buildings had been constructed in anticipation of future work to enlarge the house which never happened, leaving him with a perfect opportunity to create a new community.  He then proceeded to vertically divide the main house into four large 5,000 sq ft houses, with other smaller houses created in the wings and outbuildings.  Having restored the house, he then sought to recreate the 1,500-acre parkland by William Gilpin and Humphrey Repton and has succeeded in re-acquiring over 1,000-acres and has been replanting over 6,000 trees – each one in the place originally marked out on Repton’s plan.

It’s not known in total how many country houses have been converted to multiple residences but it is probably at least between 40-50.  Many of these would otherwise likely have been demolished so conversion is preferable but only where it respects the existing architectural heritage and setting.  However, where successful, these fascinating properties allow the opportunity for those of lesser means to experience living in the grandeur of a stately home with the cost and responsibility of owning a whole one.


Examples of apartments currently for sale in country houses: