Stately in Abandonment: Witley Court
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
Witley 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 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.
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.
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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 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).
then & now
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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.
The Earl also had the curved southwest wing added along with a conservatory, also known as the Orangery.
When 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.
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.
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.
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.
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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 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.
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).
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
The 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.
The 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.
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)
• 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.
aerial photo courtesy Damien Dyer
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
The 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.
2) West Tower
Just 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.
Concrete rings were inserted in the 1970s to offer the structure additional support.
3) East Tower
Off 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.
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
The 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.
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.
5) Drawing Room
This 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
The 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.
7) Sitting Room & Guest Suites
The 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.
The 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
The 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)
photos courtesy kennysarmy
This 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.
Orangery: Then & Now
Built 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)