Let’s Work Together

Rodmarton 1

Rodmarton Manor under construction

As far as the theorists of the Arts and Crafts movement were concerned, the ideal country house should be a meeting of minds and skills, a communal effort on the lines of a medieval building project, in which designer, consumer and estate workforce collaborated to produce something which was not the individual vision of the architect-as-artist, but a collective expression of traditional domestic values.

That rarely happened. But at Rodmarton Manor in Gloucestershire, built between 1909 and 1929 for Claud and Margaret Biddulph, the dream was realised.

Rodmarton took twenty years to build because its architect, Ernest Barnsley, insisted on traditional working practices. No contractor was employed. All the stone and slate was quarried nearby and brought to the site by wagon, to be worked by local masons. Timber for beams and rafters was cut and seasoned on the estate; Barnsley wouldn’t allow planks to be shaped with a circular saw – that smacked of an industrial process, and came between the workman and his materials. So a sawpit was constructed on site, and two men slaved away sawing every single one with a two-handed saw. Metalwork was made by the local blacksmith; the Rodmarton foreman, a carpenter named Alfred Wright, acted as clerk of works; and the grounds were designed by Barnsley and laid out by the head gardener, William Scrubey.

The emphasis on local involvement continued inside the house, with furniture made by Alfred Wright’s joiners and designed by Ernest Barnsley, his brother Sidney and the cabinet-maker Peter Waals, who had worked as foreman for Gimson and the Barnsleys before setting up on his own at nearby Chalford. Wright’s workmen also produced oak panelling from drawings by the designer Alfred Powell, whose wife Louise contributed pottery and the decoration of a piano designed by Waals. The main hall was often given over to craft classes in canework, needlework and woodwork for the villagers, presided over by Margaret Bidulph. Members of the local Women’s Guild produced applique hangings.

There was a serious point to all this, which went far beyond a hankering after a mythical pre-industrial past. Rodmarton was an educational enterprise, a quiet attempt to change the world. If traditional crafts were dying out they must be revived; and their revival depended not on city-bred reformers, but on people like the Biddulphs’ masons and joiners, on the Rodmarton Women’s Guild. Give them the skills and the confidence to make beautiful things, and they would pass their knowledge on to others.

Applique hanging by the Rodmarton Women's Guild of the coronation of George VI. The king started out as Edward VIII.

Applique hanging by the Rodmarton Women’s Guild of the coronation of George VI. The king started out as Edward VIII.

John Rothenstein, whose father William was a regular visitor to Rodmarton, once wrote that ‘a hundred people doing as the Biddulphs did would have gone far to transform the face of rural England.’ He was wrong. It would have taken more than a hundred thousand Biddulphs to turn back the tide of history. But they made a difference, and a small corner of Gloucestershire is so much richer because of it.

Rodmarton Manor is open to the public. Go and see it! http://www.rodmarton-manor.co.uk/


The Baronet, the Blackshirt and the Farmer’s Daughter

Sir George Vernon

Sir George Vernon

‘Sir George Vernon was found shot in his bedroom at his country home, Hanbury Hall, near Droitwich, about midday yesterday’, ran the report in the Manchester Guardian of 15 June 1940. ‘A revolver was near the body.’

The Vernon family had lived at Hanbury for centuries. Richard Vernon was rector there before the Spanish Armada. Thomas, a sucessful chancery barrister, marked his success by building Hanbury Hall, a beautiful essay in redbrick Queen Anne, in the early years of the 18th century. Victorian Vernons added to the estates. Now, in the summer of 1940, that was all over. Sir George was the last of his line.

He was a man of pronounced views, and after inheriting Hanbury in 1920 at the age of fifty-five, he took every opportunity to make them known. He wrote to the Times to complain about local taxes; he resigned as a magistrate because his colleagues were too lenient towards motorists who came up before them. He loathed the Church of England and was active in the anti-tithe campaigns of the 1930s, to the extent that in June 1935 his refusal to pay tithes led to a forced sale of his goods in front of the Hall.

It was through the anti-tithe campaign that Sir George became involved with Oswald Mosley and the the British Union of Fascists. In the early 1930s a number of leading British fascists saw the campaign as a way of garnering support among farmers, and the blackshirts were active in organising opposition to tithe seizures all over the country. Sir George was never a member of the BUF, but he sympathised with its aims, and Mosley became a regular visitor to Hanbury.

Sir Oswald Mosley

Sir Oswald Mosley

Sir George combined extremist political views with an unconventional private life. In 1927, after separating from his wife of more than twenty years, he turned up at the house of his farm manager, Edward Powick, and asked to borrow Powick’s 16-year-old daughter Ruth for a few months. ‘Things are in a mess up at the Hall,’ he explained. Ruth lived with him for the rest of his life, becoming his secretary and his mistress. In 1938 she changed her name to Vernon and he made her his heir. He had no children of his own. ‘Sir George introduced me everywhere as his daughter’, she recalled.

On 22 May 1940 the British government passed Defence Regulation 18B (1A), allowing the detention without trial of anyone believed to be ‘of hostile origin or associations or to have been recently concerned in acts prejudicial to the public safety or the defence of the realm’. Early the next morning Oswald Mosley was arrested, along with other leading figures in the movement. ‘Britain Swoops on Fascists’, reported the popular press, which carried front-page pictures of BUF members giving defiant salutes as they were led away by police. Over the following months around one thousand active members of the British Union were interned, along with an unknown number of far right sympathisers.

Sir George thought his own arrest was imminent. It was this, coupled with his poor health – he was variously described as having heart disease and throat cancer – that led the 74-year-old squire to close his bedroom door on the world that day in June 1940 and take his own life. Ruth married six years later and lived happily ever after – although not at Hanbury Hall, because Sir George’s widow moved back in after her husband’s death. The house passed to the National Trust in 1953.

Hanbury Hall

His and Hers

I noticed today that Savills are offering for rent an apartment in Charters, one of the great country houses of the 1930s.

Charters was built for Frank Parkinson (1887-1946), Chairman of engineering firm Crompton Parkinson & Co. Ltd., which made everything from hydro-electric plants to locomotive engines. As you might imagine with an industrialist who had made a fortune out of new technology, Parkinson was a forward-looking, progressive type of man. He liked modern design.

His wife Doris didn’t.

As a result, Charters could never quite make up its mind what it was meant to be. The Parkinsons’ architects were George Adie and Frederick C. Button, whose buildings, including Athanaeum Court in Piccadilly (1936) and the Electroflo Factory in Acton (1937), tended towards an austere, rather stark Modernism with little or nothing in the way of ornament or decoration. And Charters, which was finished in 1938, appeared to be frankly austere and uncompromisingly Modern. It was a gleaming white box, its flat roof crowned with a massive wireless aerial.

But as you approach the house, it becomes obvious that Charters is not all it should be. If it was serious about proclaiming the Brave New World of the future, its walls should be of reinforced concrete, or at least covered with a decent cement render. But Charters turns out to be faced with slabs of Portland stone – fine for St Paul’s Cathedral or the British Museum, but not quite the thing for the futuristic palace of an electric entrepreneur in the 1930s.


Inside, you might expect to find textiles by Marion Dorn, perhaps, and furniture by Serge Chermayeff. At least a little glass and chrome, at least some white walls and abstract paintings. But you’d search in vain. Doris Parkinson’s ideas on interior decoration, and those of her ensemblier Mrs G. R. Mount, were more conventional. The drawing room was panelled in pine, with geranium-red brocade curtains; the dining room was furnished with eighteenth-century chinoiserie chairs in mahogany and hand-painted Chinese paper on the walls; the decoration of Mrs Parkinson’s bedroom owed more to Louis XVI than Lubetkin or Le Corbusier.

The technology was there, but it was hidden. The curtains in the living hall were opened and closed by electric motors; the gas-heating boilers for the central heating and the thermostatically-controlled water heating were tucked away in the basement, along with the air-conditioning plant and the motors which drove the centralised vacuum-cleaning system. The chrome was to be found in the kitchens, where there was a combined electric dishwasher and waste disposal unit, probably the only one in an English private house at that time. Only here and there above stairs did contemporary design intrude on Doris’s tasteful decorative scheme.

The four-bedroom apartment being offered by Savills includes the original library, Doris’s boudoir and her fabulous pink onyx master bathroom. A snip at £5,769 per week.


The Guilt and the Gingerbread

There is nothing quite as beautiful as an English country house in summer. And there has never been a summer quite like that Indian summer between the two world wars, a period of gentle decline in which the sun set slowly on the British Empire and the shadows lengthened on the lawns of a thousand stately homes across the nation.

Real life in the country house during the 1920s and 1930s was not always so sunny.  By turns opulent and ordinary, noble and vicious, its shadows were darker. In  this blog, I intend to uncover the truth about a world half-forgotten, draped in myth and hidden behind stiff upper lips and film-star smiles. Drawing on thousands of memoirs, on unpublished letters and diaries, on the eye-witness testimonies of belted earls and unhappy heiresses and bullying butlers, The Long Weekend gives a voice to the people who inhabited this world. In a definitive social history which combines anecdote and narrative with solid scholarship, it brings the stately homes of England to life, giving readers an insight into the guilt and the gingerbread, and showing how the image of the country house was carefully protected by its occupants above and below stairs, and how the reality was so much more interesting than the dream.

And along the way, The Long Weekend revels in the sheer variety of country house life, from George V poring over his stamp collection at Sandringham to Sir Oswald Mosley collecting mistresses at ancestral homes across the nation; from Edward VIII entertaining Wallis Simpson at Fort Belvedere to David Niven playing cards in the servants’ hall at Leeds Castle and the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim losing his wife to a pack of pet spaniels.