Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Witley Court ~ Victorian Grandeur To Evocative Ruin




South Front (C) Heather King


In Victorian times, it was one of the largest and most celebrated houses in the country. Today, Witley Court, near Worcester in England, plays host to visitors from all over the world. Open air theatre productions take place in its beautiful grounds as well as fun activities for children and adults alike. You can take the dog and a picnic; walk around the Wilderness area; sit in the shade of a venerable tree and watch the huge jet of water from the restored Perseus and Andromeda fountain soar into the air; wander around the ruins or enjoy a piece of scrumptious cake in the tea rooms. A visit to the awe-inspiring Great Witley church is a must.


Perseus and Andromeda Fountain (C) Heather King
It all began, however, in the 1620s, when a fine Jacobean house belonged to the Russell family of Strensham. Stourbridge ironmaster Richard Foley had copied a nail-making machine he saw in Sweden, made a fortune and revolutionized the nail manufacturing industry in the Black Country in the process. His son, Thomas Foley I (1617-77), bought the manor of Great Witley from the Russell family in 1655. He also acquired other estates in the area, including two Redmarley villages, Adam and Oliver. Highly respected for his honest business dealings, he became High Sheriff of Worcestershire in 1655 and also a Member of Parliament. After Richard’s death, Thomas made improvements to the old Jacobean manor house at Great Witley, creating a substantial, ‘fair new-built’ house with a central block, two square towers and two large wings extending behind. In front of the central block to the south was a walled garden.


It is believed that Thomas’ son, Thomas Foley II (c1641-1701), another High Sheriff and MP, also made improvements to the manor, possibly replacing the original roof with an overhanging hipped roof. This is visible in an early painting. He had added the six manors of Great Witley to the property by 1689. Nevertheless, it would appear that it was his son, Thomas III, who began the switch from industrial entrepreneurs of sound business practice and acumen to landed gentry and politicians. It was he who disposed of many of the family’s ironworks, presumably with this aim.


Inheriting the property in 1700, Thomas III became Baron Foley of Kidderminster in 1712, courtesy of Queen Anne, who created twelve new peers to increase Governmental votes in the House of Lords. Thomas III lived at Witley for thirty-three years and greatly extended the house to match his burgeoning ambition. He deepened the central block by filling out the garden front of the house and added another floor, as well as erecting small, two-storey wings on the south front of the existing east and west projections. A bowed frontispiece in the centre was built to provide architectural interest to the southern aspect, while bay windows improved the northern ends of the East and West wings. Two stable blocks were constructed to flank the main driveway.


Thomas III was responsible for the planting of thousands of trees, including a magnificent avenue approaching the house from the east, and it is likely that in the process various cottages were moved. Photos of an old painting, now lost, shows the Jacobean south front, with the medieval church about two hundred yards to the left of the mansion and houses in the foreground. Little evidence remains of either the original village or the old rectory, which stood opposite the present day Garden House. It had been Lord Foley’s intention to erect a new church to complement his remodelled house and do away with the old Gothic parish church, but in the end this was accomplished by his widow and the second Lord Foley, Thomas IV (1703-66).


Consecrated in 1735, the new church may have been designed by James Gibbs (1682-1750), who was the architect for St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London. He it was who oversaw the installation of the windows and ceiling paintings, which were acquired in 1747 from the chapel ‒ at Canons in Middlesex ‒ belonging to the Duke of Chandos. Thomas Foley IV was the initiator of a new approach on the northern side, by creating a causeway across the present Front Pool through the damming of a stream. New service blocks were also added to enhance the aesthetics of this façade for the visitor, with curved walls ‒ which in due course became arcaded screen walls ‒ being used to connect these buildings to the house.


The Foley family continued at Witley for 183 years, but the original barony became extinct with the death of Thomas IV in 1766. The estate passed to his second cousin, Thomas V (1716-77), who hailed from Stoke Edith in Herefordshire. Another MP, he was rewarded with elevation to the peerage on his own merit with the title Baron Foley, of the second creation. A source of great disappointment, his two elder sons were spendthrift and succumbed to ‘the River Tick’, while Thomas VI (1742-93) earned the sobriquet ‘Lord Balloon’ following a hot air balloon catching fire when its ascent failed from the garden of Foley House in London on 20 September 1784.


While Lord Balloon had a successful career, in that he became a privy councillor and Lord Lieutenant of Worcestershire, both positions of high office, it was noted in the Royal Register that he had sunk to such a level of ‘misery and disgrace’ through ‘debauchery, extravagance and gambling’ that he could never recover. His father disowned him, but the damage had been done. The family fortunes had been badly dissipated.


The next recipient of the title was Thomas VI’s third and only surviving son, also Thomas, who inherited in 1793, at the tender age of thirteen. Thomas VII (1780-1833) married one of the 2nd Duke of Leinster’s daughters in 1806 and thus restored his financial standing. He commissioned premier Regency architect John Nash (who often stayed with the family at Witley) to carry out various ambitious alterations. The most evident of these to the modern visitor are the two enormous stone porticoes built on to the north and south fronts. Although precise dating is unclear, the north portico is mentioned in print in 1814 and appears to have been added before the southern façade. The East and West wings were raised to match the roof-lines with the new porticoes. At this same time, the roof was altered to permit overhanging ‘Tuscan’ eaves.


Nash redesigned the house interior around a central gallery – a favourite ‘conceit’ of his in grander houses – and altered the East wing. Here he developed a line of rooms, starting from the Gallery with a dining room and leading through a library to ‘Lord Foley’s Rooms’, which included a bath. These arrangements are depicted in a drawing by architect C.R. Cockerell following a visit to Witley Court in 1821. Although described by Cockerell as ‘very coarse and vulgar in taste’, it is probable that Nash’s décor followed those fashionable Regency styles he had employed for the Prince Regent at Carlton House and then Buckingham Palace. The stable blocks were demolished at this time and large new domestic quarters were built around two courtyards to the west of the house. A small conservatory was also added by Nash, placed at right angles to the south-west service block. Kennels, in the shape of octagonal pavilions and exercise yards which inter-connected, were erected in the park for Lord Foley’s hounds by George Repton, son of the famous landscape gardener, Humphrey Repton. It is quite likely Repton Snr. was asked for his opinion with regards the landscaping.


The whole Witley estate, including the house and contents, was sold in 1837, four years after Thomas VII’s death, by his son Thomas VIII. It passed into the hands of the trustees of William, 11th Baron Ward of Birmingham, who inherited the wealth of the first Earl of Dudley, John William Ward, at one time a Foreign Secretary, in 1833. Prior to Lord Ward gaining his full inheritance (based on the income from over 200 mines in the Black Country), aged 28, Witley was let. Queen Adelaide, widow of William IV, was the most notable occupant, between 1843 and 1846. King Edward VII was another Royal guest, at various house parties around 1860-1910, towards the end of the Court’s Victorian heyday.


View of Orangery and South-west Wing (C) Heather King


Lord Ward put his own stamp on Witley Court, further enlarging the already impressive building. He was responsible for the addition of the Orangery, which replaced Nash’s conservatory, and the curved South wing. He added a facing of Bath stone to the whole building and the church, and brought in architect Samuel Daukes to refurbish the house in the ornate Italian style. A corniced balustrade was added around the new flat, lead roof and a new stable block was constructed adjoining the churchyard on the southern side. W.A. Nesfield was commissioned to lay out elaborate gardens; these were enclosed by a stone balustrade incorporating two pavilions and thus neatly formed the boundary of the deer park. The church was also further embellished, both inside and out.


Wall Pavilion (C) Heather King


Carton Pierre (a type of papier mâché) was used to create mouldings and other fashionable decoration, while the ballroom and the main reception rooms were dressed in various versions of white and gold as inspired by the Louis XIV and XV French interiors. Marble chimney-pieces and other such items were carved, many by the designer of the Perseus and Andromeda fountain, James Forsyth. This work was completed in 1860, the very year that Lord Ward succeeded to the revised title of Earl of Dudley in recognition of his charitable donations.


The first Earl died in 1885 and is buried at Witley, although his monument lies in Worcester Cathedral. The 2nd Earl, William Humble Ward, took up residence when 21, three years after inheriting, and held a splendid three-day party to mark the occasion. The first evening, there was a glittering ball for 214 guests. Two marquees were set up – one for the ball and one for all the coachmen – while an enormous temporary stable was arranged for one hundred horses. The second day involved congratulations and presentations from various trades. Then on the third day, a fair was held, complete with Punch and Judy, lunch for nine hundred men in a massive marquee sixty metres in length, pleasure boats, merry-go-rounds and fireworks. The 2nd Earl married Norfolk banking heiress Rachel Anne Gurney in 1891 and owned two properties in London (Dudley House and 7, Carlton Gardens), as well as estates in Great Britain, Europe and Jamaica. Lord Dudley hosted lavish shooting parties that were attended, as aforementioned, by the future Edward VII. Enormous dinners were held in either the ballroom or picture gallery when the dining room was of insufficient size to accommodate all the guests.


Guests might stay for a week, bringing with them retinues of servants (depending on status), all of whom had to be housed too. A lady’s maid, a valet, a groom, would be a minimum requirement for those joining a house party. Nobility and Royalty might well bring their own cook, footmen, gun loaders and more. The Court’s own servants included the butler, housekeeper, housemaids, footmen, boot boys, scullery maids, gardeners and stable staff, totalling about one hundred persons. It was the size of a modern hotel!


William Humble and his wife Rachel had seven children between them, but did not dance to the same tune. He was outgoing and enjoyed being one of the Prince of Wales’ rackety set, while she embraced the characteristic Victorian values of family, duty, good works and church. A legal separation was arranged in 1908 and Witley Court became the Countess’ domain. She created ‘My Lady’s Garden’ of topiary and this is now the garden of the Tea Rooms, adjacent to the church.


Lord Dudley’s extravagance, however, had depleted his fortune and foreign competition further ravaged the family’s wealth. The story goes that the Earl threw unpaid bills into a pair of wooden urns which stood at the bottom of the main staircase. The estate was mortgaged and pictures were sold to fund his partying. In 1920, the Countess died in a bathing accident in Ireland and Witley Court was sold the following year. The estate was bought by Sir Herbert Smith (1872-1943), a Kidderminster carpet manufacturer. Lord Dudley remarried and the line still continues.


Meanwhile, Sir Herbert, a self-made man and accomplished violinist, who retired at the age of forty-nine already a millionaire, reduced the staff and, although the house was furnished, lived with his family in the south-west wing. He had electricity installed, but the vast mansion was no longer to play host to the excesses of the idle rich. In September 1937 a fire started in the evening of the seventh, possibly in the basement bakery. It spread quickly, the flames assisted by a strong wind. Lack of maintenance meant the water system from the fountain’s reservoir was unusable and while villagers helped the few staff to save much of the contents, the eastern and central blocks were devastated. Those contents saved, plus garden statuary, were auctioned in 1938 and the house and grounds were sold to a Mr. Banks the year after. Trees were felled and the land was sold for farming.


The house fell into ruin, anything of value taken by a Stratford antique dealer, who bought the property in 1954. Nature’s forces began the slow process of reclaiming what man had built and the mansion was nearly demolished on several occasions for various schemes, including a caravan park, housing and a motor racing track. Thank heavens none of these proposals succeeded! What a travesty it would have been. It seems hard to believe, now, that visitors to Worcester Cathedral might daily be driving past the Perseus and Andromeda fountain on the roundabout there, or that the church could be sitting somewhere in London…


Thanks to the foresight of those responsible for a Building Preservation Order issued in 1964 and a Compulsory Guardianship Order from the Department of the Environment in1972, the ruined grandeur of Witley Court lives on to delight thousands of visitors, due in no small measure to the dedication and work of English Heritage, who took over in 1984.


Long may this still-glorious and evocative building continue to grace the velvet lawns of Witley in this time capsule of historic magnificence, and encourage many future generations to appreciate the architectural splendour of our country houses. First developed through industry, this author hopes that the industry of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – tourism – will go on keeping our heritage alive.

I hope you enjoyed this post as much as I enjoyed my day out at Witley Court!



  1. Are you planning to have your house party here on the 27th, Heather?

    1. Now there's an idea! I was planning on a cosy Yorkshire inn or on the Great North Road, since that's where A Sense of the Ridiculous is set... but nothing is written in stone.