About these ads
Home > Abandoned - Explained, Amazing, Churches, England, Europe, Explained, History > Stately in Abandonment: Witley Court

Stately in Abandonment: Witley Court

Witley-Court-ka11

During its heyday Witley Court was one of Europe’s most lavish Victorian estates. An iconic portico and timeless fountain – both penned by famed designers – are hallmarks of this West Midlands treasure. Nearly one hundred were on staff, and for centuries it served as a residence for British Lords who often entertained royalty.

However an early twentieth-century fire ravaged the building, and a prohibitive cost to rebuild forced the owners to abandon the home. It wasn’t until decades later the derelict building was rescued by a preservation commission, and today it stands as the grandest Victorian manor in arrested decay.

cover photo courtesy kennysarmy

*

Medieval Beginnings

Witley_Court_9Witley Court sits on a 40-acre parcel four miles northwest of Worcestershire and just shy of an hour outside Birmingham in the English midlands. The estate was named for the town of Great Witley, which it displaced in the eighteenth century.

The earliest recording of a domicile at the site dates to the Middle Ages, during a survey in 1086. The earliest record of ownership was in 1100, when a survey reported the property belonged to William de Beauchamp.

Later surveys indicated the Cooksey family owned a home on the site between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries before relative Robert Russell inherited the property in 1498.

By 1600 the Russell family expanded the site to include a large Jacobean brick house – the building which would eventually become known as Witley Court.

The home switched hands once again after the English Civil War.

Witley_Court_1730_illustration

 *

Witley Court Evolution

In 1655 the estate was sold to ironmaster Thomas Foley, who expanded the home by adding two towers to the north side.

Lord Foley’s son inherited his father’s estate In 1677 and continued the expansion. The wings, which enclose the front entry courtyard, were added between 1725 and 1730. The parish church to the west of the courtyard was finished in 1735.

A rendering of the Nash-designed Witley Court

Rendering of the Nash-designed Witley Court

The Baroque interior of the church was the creation of famed British architect James Gibbs, who was also tasked to incorporate the furnishings and paintings Foley acquired at the Cannons House auctions.

During the second half of the eighteenth century Great Witley village was relocated to make room for the estate’s landscaped grounds, which were deemed too close to the village for the owner’s comfort.

(click thumbnails to enlarge)

Witley_Court_Flora_fountain_1900 Witley_Court_1800s-2 Witley_Court_1800s-4

In 1805 the family had the house converted into an Italianate mansion. Giant ionic porticos were added to the north and south fronts, courtesy of famed London architect John Nash. Nash continued the theme throughout the home, using matching balustrades, columns, and staircases.

Unfortunately the Lord’s architectural exuberance would prove to be the financial undoing of the Foley family, who would ultimately be forced to sell the home in 1833, just four years after his death.

*

The Ward Era

Witley_Court_William_Ward_1st_Earl_of_DudleyWitley Court had been in the Foley family for 182 years before it was sold to one of the richest men in England: William Ward, the 11th Baron of Birmingham and later the Earl of Dudley (pictured at left).

The estate fetched a lofty £890,000 (or about £78M/$133M in 2014); the Earl would not assume residence until 1846.

In the mid-1850s, Victorian landscape architect William Andrews Nesfield was commissioned to transform the gardens.

In what would be Nesfield’s magnum opus, the Witley Court gardens – which included the Pegasus and Andromeda fountain – were completed in 1860 at a cost of £250,000 (or about £22M/$37.5M in 2014).

Witley_Court_Perseus_Andromeda_Fountain_1897

The Perseus & Andromeda Fountain, 1897

then & now

Witley_Court_Pegasus_Andromeda_Fountain_1870 Witley_Court_Fountain_2012

(click thumbnails to enlarge)

Twice a week Ward would operate the fountain, which offered spectators a fantastic water show reaching heights of 120 feet (36m).

To the east of the home is the Flora Fountain, the centerpiece of the smaller landscaped garden in which it sits.

Witley_Court_Flora_fountain_2010

Flora fountain & gardens

The Earl also had the curved southwest wing added along with a conservatory, also known as the Orangery.

William_Humble_2nd_Earl_DudleyWhen the first Earl of Dudley died in 1885, the estate passed to his son, William Humble Ward (pictured at right). Under the care and ownership of William Humble, Witley would reach the pinnacle of its splendor.

Under the second Earl of Dudley, Witley employed fifty household servants and twenty-five gamekeepers, who maintained a stock of deer and pheasants on the property.

A staff of greens-keepers and horticulturists tended to the estate’s multiple gardens; the conservatory kept them busy in the winter.

In the late nineteenth century Witley Court was the site of frequent lavish parties boasting prestigious guest lists. The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) was a good friend of William Humble Ward and was a regular visitor.

Witley_Court_1897

Witley Court in 1897

*

Destroyed by Fire

Witley Court’s heyday came to an abrupt end with the drowning of Lady Dudley in 1920. The grief-stricken Earl sold the property to Sir Herbert Smith, a carpet manufacturer from Kidderminster.

Sir Herbert enjoyed a quieter life in the house, and for the next seventeen years the estate was largely vacant, run with minimal fanfare and a skeleton staff.

Everything changed at Witley Court on September 7th, 1937. At 8 p.m. a fire – believed to have originated from the basement bakery – engulfed the house.

Witley_Court_fire_1937_2

The servants tried to extinguish the fire while Sir Herbert was away, but the fire pump – which was connected to the fountain – had not been maintained for decades.

The blaze consumed most of the central and eastern wings of the home.

Witley_Court_fire_1937_3 Witley_Court_fire_1937_1

The rest of the property, including the church, gardens, and Orangery, were spared.

Insurance was not enough to cover the damage, forcing the Smith family to abandon the home in its partial state of disrepair.

In 1938 the estate was auctioned. Scrappers stripped the home of materials; everything from fireplace mantels to pipes were removed and re-sold. Items too large to move (for example the fountains) were left to rot.

(click thumbnails to enlarge)

Witley_Court_6 Witley_Court_3 Witley_Court_11

*

Nearby Coventry endured severe bombing in 1940; the estate’s owner wrote to the city council offering to sell Witley Court’s remaining ornate stonework and fountains to help with the city’s rebuilding, however the council rejected his offer.

Over the next fifteen years, theft and vandalism accelerated the demise of Witley Court. Between the fire, scrappers, and vandals, the house had fallen in ruins and was in danger of demolition.

Witley_Court_10

*

Preservation Efforts

Witley-Court-ka9Witley Court sat unattended until 1953, when the Wigginton family of Stratford-upon-Avon purchased the property for £20,000 (£411k/$702k in 2014). However the family did not make improvements on the estate, which continued to deteriorate further.

In 1972 the Department of the Environment issued a compulsory guardianship order to rescue the estate and consolidate the buildings to prevent collapse.

The organization was able to stabilize the structures before transferring management in 1984 to English Heritage, where it remains today as one of the commission’s top ruins.

In 2003 the Wigginton family listed the property on eBay. The asking price of £975,000 ($1.6M) was for rights only and would not alter the arrangement with English Heritage or the site’s status as a tourist attraction.

Witley-Court-ka4

The property failed to sell in the 2003 auction, but a second attempt in 2008 yielded results when a private family purchased the home and forty surrounding acres for £887k ($1.5M).

 

Witley-Court-ka7

photos courtesy kennysarmy

Today the house remains under the guardianship of the Secretary of State via the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS).

*

Saint Michael & All Angels Church

Witley_Court_14The sanctuary is a limestone-faced brick building and sits on the northwest corner of the home (map). Erected between 1732-5, the church is the work of eighteenth century architect James Gibbs. Saint Michael’s and All Angels is considered to be one of the finest Italian Baroque churches in Britain.

Lord Foley was responsible for commissioning the project, but he died two years before it was finished.

Unique details abound, such as the ten Joshua Price painted glass windows which depict a chronological sequence from the New Testament. Interior pieces were sourced from the Cannons House collection.

The second Lord Foley commissioned the moldings, which were first made of stucco before being re-created in papier-mâché, then covered in 24-carat gold leaf by Gibbs.

[ Take a St. Michael’s 360-degree interior virtual tour ]

Witley_Court_Foley_MonumentThe famed architect continued the gold accoutrement along the ceiling and walls of Saint Michael’s, however it was merely the supporting cast to the Antonio Bellucci ceiling artwork. Bellucci’s center panel depicts the Ascension, his east panel the Deposition, and his west panel the Nativity.

An exterior update in the 1850s by Gloucester architect Samuel Daukes gave the brick church its current ashlar facing. Daukes is also responsible for most of the woodwork seen in the church today.

The church also contains one of the tallest funerary monuments in England, a Michael Rysbrack-designed piece (pictured at left) dating from 1735. The large shrine cost the family £2,000 (over £350k/$600k in 2014) and depicts Lord Foley and his wife with five of their children who predeceased them.

Witley_Court_Church-1762

Witley-Court-ka8 Witley_Court_15

*

Did You Know?

• The Perseus and Andromeda fountain designed by William Andrews Nesfield was recently restored to working order by English Heritage. It is believed to be one of the largest fountains in Europe based on Greek legend.

• British rock band Procol Harum’s classic hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (from 1967’s iconic Summer of Love) was filmed at a derelict Witley Court in 1967, before the estate was protected & restored by English Heritage. (watch below)

• The original Witley Court South Parterre Garden gates from 1862 are now the entrance to the London Bridge site at Lake Havasu in the United States. (pictured below, then and now)

Witley_Courty_Gates_1897 Witley_Court_Gates_Havasu_today

• The John Nash-designed Ionic portico on the home’s south front is believed to be one of the largest on any country home in England.

• The Saint Michael & All Angel’s church organ case is originally from the Cannons House, and is one on which G. F Handel composed and played.

• For additional property information, visit the English Heritage official site for Witley Court and Gardens.

Witley_Court_Aerial_Dyer

aerial photo courtesy Damien Dyer

(Explore Witley Court on Google Maps)

*

Witley Court Floorplan

As our regular readers know, Sometimes Interesting will on occasion dissect buildings to help readers better visualize the site plan.  Below is a non-comprehensive floor plan description of Witley Court:

1) Entrance Hall

Witley_Court_layout_1The entrance hall stretches nearly the full width of the home. Once inside, a visitor was greeted by great door which led to the salon/smoking room. The walls of the entrance hall were adorned with paintings and mirrors; lavish chairs and sofas were staggered throughout.

To the right was a large stairway with a brass-railed balcony, which gave access to the west wing’s bedrooms. To the left was the entry to the Dining and Drawing rooms.

Witley_Court_Main_Hall_1882

2) West Tower

Witley_Court_layout_2Just to the right of the main entry is a well-preserved seventeenth century door, which opens into the West Tower. Most of the walls have been reduced to bare brick, however some of the original exquisite plasterwork is still visible.

Witley_Court_7

Concrete rings were inserted in the 1970s to offer the structure additional support.

3) East Tower

Witley_Court_layout_3Off the Entrance Hall to the left is the East Tower, at one point home to the Witley Court Library. This tower suffered damage in the 1937 fire; Witley Court’s bakery ovens were located beneath the east tower in the basement.

Witley_Court_4

As in the West Tower, concrete beams were added in the 1970s to strengthen the remaining walls of the structure.

 

4) Dining Room and Ballroom

Witley_Court_layout_4The Dining Room was an octagonal design, the rounded walls meant to create a more intimate feel; however, the room’s western walls were destroyed by the fire, leaving the Dining Room open to the entrance hall.

Large bay windows opened up views to the eastern Parterre garden and the Flora Fountain. A door on the right leads to the drawing room, a larger opening on the left leads to the grand ballroom.

Second only to the entry hall in square footage, the ballroom is one of the largest spaces in the house, extending nearly the entire length of the east wing.

Witley_Court_Ballroom_2 Witley_Court_8

The Ballroom circa 1880s; Dining Room (from Entry Hall) today

High ceilings provided the room for eight large chandeliers, which provided ample lighting for the 2nd Earl of Dudley’s majestic parties.

The ballroom suffered severe damage during the fire; the exposed charred beams are preserved in place for visitors to see today.

Exterior view of Dining & Ballroom shows extensive fire damage

Exterior view of Dining & Ballroom shows extensive fire damage

5) Drawing Room

Witley_Court_layout_5This corner room offered expansive windows and sweeping views of both gardens and fountains. The remains of a mid-nineteenth century fire grate can be seen on the first floor along the chimneystack on the inner wall.

This was part of Witley Court’s elaborate – and costly – heating system, which consumed nearly 30 tons of coal per day.

6) Salon/Smoking Room & South Portico

Witley_Court_layout_6The Salon (or Smoking Room) was primarily a gateway from the house to the garden. Architect John Nash added Witley’s now-iconic South Portico in the mid-nineteenth century. Elements of Greek architecture are still visible in the portico today

In this room, parts of the decorative molding made from refined papier-mâché – known as Carton Pierre paneling – have survived the fire. The décor above the central doorway not destroyed by the fire has been refurbished.

Witley_Court_2

7) Sitting Room & Guest Suites

Witley_Court_layout_7The west wing of the home contained the bedrooms and their bathrooms, which were further separated from the main living areas by a large sitting room.

These rooms were accessed via the large stairway to the right of the entrance hall.

Witley_Court_19

8) Kitchen

Witley_Court_layout_8The main kitchen access was on the primary floor by the Servants Hall, however the bulk of food storage and bakery ovens were located in the basement and sat underneath the Entrance Hall.

The rear of the kitchen allowed access to the laundry facilities, pantries, and the servants’ quarters.

9) Servants’ Hall & Michelangelo’s Pavilion

Witley_Court_layout_9The curved wing to the right of the South Portico dates from the mid-nineteenth century, and was a portion of Samuel Daukes’s alterations as commissioned by the first Earl of Dudley.

This portion of the structure housed the Servants’ Hall, the children’s nursery, the male steward’s room, a schoolroom, and the Governess’s accommodations.

The rectangular room on the end of the wing is the Michelangelo Pavilion, a beautiful room with tessellated marble floors and (now vacant) niches for statues.

(click thumbnails to enlarge)

Witley-Court-ka3 Witley-Court-ka5

photos courtesy kennysarmy

10) Conservatory/Orangery

Witley_Court_layout_10This section was added later by the 1st Earl of Dudley in the mid-nineteenth century. The Orangery was a greenhouse; trees were kept in an irrigated, winterized room which allowed for year-round greenery in colder climates. A self-contained coal-fired heating system main­tained the temperature in winter.

The camellia growing on the wall is an original plant, dating from before the 1937 fire. The grooves of the columns still contain remains of the Orangery’s original plate glass.

Witley_Court_1800s-3 Witley_Court_20

Orangery: Then & Now

11) Church

Witley_Court_layout_11Built between 1732-5. In 2014 the church’s crypt was reopened to the public on weekends. Visit the Great Witley Church official site for more information. (See section above on Saint Michael & All Angels Church above for more information on the church and its history)

Witley_Court_Church

 

*

Witley_Court_Floorplan

**

About these ads
  1. August 7, 2014 at 16:23

    Such a sad demise for a gorgeous place! Of course, if it was mine, it would only qualify as the “guest house”!!! (HA!)

  2. August 7, 2014 at 16:25

    Ah, it was good to see a post from you again!!! I was going through withdrawal!!!!

    I’m just back from about 8 days overseas (10 hour time difference) and so my internal sleep clock is way off…and as I was laying awake in the middle of the night just last night, I thought about your blog and was going to email you telling you that I was in withdrawal from not having seen any posts from you lately! I know you’ve been busy with fixing up the dwelling, etc., so this was a welcome addition to my inbox today!

    Thanks!

    • August 7, 2014 at 16:37

      Thanks Galen, welcome home yourself! Yes, the new S-I offices are coming along fine. Been offline longer than I would have hoped for, but I have something to show for it: A few more stories simmering in the queue right now…

  3. August 7, 2014 at 17:36

    There’s a part of me that’s sad for the preservation efforts. Sure it’s noble to try to keep a structure like this around, but to me it feels “right” if it were to return to nature. Of course, that’s my strong bias talking; I enjoy all stages of decay. Besides that, what spoke to me the most was the factoid about 30(!) tons of coal per day used to heat this joint. Now, I lived in a house heated by coal. A softball sized lump of coal would burn for a long time, and put out a lot of heat (there’s a reason this 19th century technology is still so popular in the energy sector). Three to four lumps would heat a room for a day, practically. Thirty tons? I can’t even wrap my mind around that.

  4. August 7, 2014 at 17:58

    Loved the 360 tour of the church. Spectacular stained glass windows.

    • August 11, 2014 at 16:48

      Thanks for the comment Noelle, glad the links were of value. I agree, the windows are beautiful. :)

  5. August 7, 2014 at 21:20

    So much detail! I really admire the work and effort you put into these articles!

  6. August 8, 2014 at 06:37

    Looks like an awesome place

    • August 26, 2014 at 15:33

      It is! I had the pleasure of seeing this one in person, I’d highly recommend you visit if you ever have the opportunity.

  7. livvy479
    August 17, 2014 at 20:44

    Gosh I am so glad that you have posted another story. Like another user said, I was also going through withdrawal! Your blog is absolutely amazing and I can’t wait for future posts. Keep up the awesome work :)

    • August 26, 2014 at 15:33

      Thank you, you are so kind. More stuff in the pipeline (and coming soon), thanks for hanging around. Been a busy summer. ;-)

  8. August 18, 2014 at 13:21

    Fascinating tension between ruin and what still remains. Excellent post and yet another place to add to my list of places to go!

  9. August 22, 2014 at 07:16

    In the 90’s me and my sister used to play here, before it was done up. It was overgrown and nothing was inaccessible. I have very fond memories of rinning around the fountain and playing in the orange garden ruins. I recently went to see what it looked like now the national trust have spruced the gardens and re-conditioned the fountains. Thanks so much for posting this. Reminiscing of some really fun times has made my day!

    • August 26, 2014 at 15:35

      Thanks Janine, I bet it was fascinating to see the property before it was rescued by English Heritage. You are one of the lucky few!

  10. August 22, 2014 at 07:19

    I also remember the day we drove up the drive in my dads battered Reanult Savannah we were so excited about having a run around and adventure in my favourtie place. But there was a man asking for donations to go into the grounds… my dad, being the man he was, turned around and left. I couldnt have been more upset that day.
    It really is beautiful!

  11. October 24, 2014 at 03:23

    Could anyone envision Witley Court restored back to it former glory as a 5-Star Hotel and museum? Afterall, Castle Howard suffered a similar fire damage that was even worse than Witley Court. And yet, Castle Howard is full re-roof and being restored back to it former glory. Why can’t Witley Court follow in Castle Howard’s footsteps? I would love to see Witley Court serve as a monument to Sir Winston Spensor-Churchill and his family, which would be linked to Blenheim Palace.

    • October 29, 2014 at 11:56

      I would imagine it would be quite a spectacular place to stay! Guests would come from all over just to watch the garden fountains.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,483 other followers

%d bloggers like this: