wired stanford

Stanford Hall – wired by ferrets

The owners of country houses have rarely been quick to adopt new technologies, and electricity was no exception. Although electric light of a kind was installed at a dozen pioneering country houses in the 1880s, it was another forty years or so before it began to appear on a large scale, partly because rural remoteness usually meant the expense of a dedicated power plant, and partly because of the disruption to old and fragile interiors which was entailed in wiring up a centuries-old mansion.

The guides at Stanford Hall in Leicestershire used to tell the story of how in the 1920s Lord and Lady Braye were baffled by the prospect of having to run cables through their long ballroom without wrecking its delicate 18th-century stuccowork. Then someone had a bright idea: they prised up a floorboard at one end and dropped a dead rabbit into the void; then they prised up a floorboard at the other end and unleashed a ferret, with a string tied to his collar. When the ferret had managed to negotiate the joists and reach the rabbit, the string was used to pull through a cable and hey presto! the problem was solved.

A complicated generating system was installed in 1936 at the magnificent and massive Kimbolton Castle in Huntingdonshire, remodelled by Vanbrugh for the 4th Earl of Manchester in 1707-14. It powered 350 lighting points, eighteen electric fires and six portable radiators. An electric pump was used to circulate hot water round the central heating system; there was a large electric refrigerator; and even a small electric cooker, ‘installed for occasional use’. (No need to take modernisation too far, obviously.) Low loads of up to forty lamps were powered by a small battery; if more lamps or one of the electric fires were connected, a 7.5kW generator started up. And if that wasn’t enough, a second, 16kW generator kicked in, shutting down the first. Both plants, which were housed in a converted stable, could work simultaneously if needed, and the battery was re-charged automatically. The generators were made by R A Lister & Co.

wired kimbolton

Kimbolton Castle – eighteen electric fires and six portable radiators

The situation was obviously much easier with new houses. In 1939 an article in Country Life extolled the virtues of the all-electric house, with its own washing machine, dishwasher and room heaters – which should have some glow effect, ‘as we have not yet become accustomed to general heating as opposed to the open fire’. The writer of the article, J. V. Brittain, conceded that the absence of chimneys was odd, and admitted that it might cost a little more to heat and light an all-electric house than it would with a mixture of coal, gas and electricity. ‘But as electricity can be obtained at 1/2d. or 3/4d. a unit the extra cost will not be excessive and is considered to be more than offset by the saving in labour, the added convenience, and the cleanliness.’

But in an older house, there was always a danger than new technology would disrupt old-world charm. Fake candles were popular, both in the form of candelabra and as candle wall-brackets. Concealed lighting in bedrooms was considered acceptable, and when it came to removing ‘that chilly feeling which is generally present in winter in a spacious house’, aesthetics went out of the window along with the coal scuttle, and frankly hideous wall-mounted convector heaters were installed in medieval manors and Georgian mansions without compunction.

Zip Floors floodlit

Floors Castle floodlit – a faint flavour of vulgarity?

One of the more intriguing uses of electricity in the country house came to prominence in the lead-up to the coronation of George VI in 1937. Although ‘the commercial associations of flood-lighting have created in some minds an uneasy feeling that it may be faintly flavoured with vulgarity’ (Country Life again), there was a drive to celebrate the coronation with the 20th-century equivalent of bonfires and flares and torches – the flood-lighting on a grand scale of great houses and local landmarks throughout the countryside. ‘Bonfires, laboriously built up, exhaust their glamour in a single night; a flood-lighting installation is available for a week or a month or as long as the festivities continue.’ And anyway, where would we be without the occasional faint flavour of vulgarity?

Albert Richardson

Sir Albert Richardson at home

The other day I finished reading The Professor (White Crescent Press, 1980), Simon Houfe’s affectionate biography of his grandfather, the architect Sir Albert Edward Richardson. I’ve been intrigued by Richardson for a while: he often has a passing mention in memoirs and letters produced between the wars although, in spite of an architectural career which lasted from the late 1890s to the early 1960s, his country house output was small. He enlarged or remodelled one or two minor houses – The Hale, near Wendor (1918) and Chevithorne Barton in Devon (1930) are good examples – but the practice he carried on, with C. Lovett Gill until 1939 and from 1945 with his son-in-law, E. A. S. Houfe, focused mainly on commercial premises, usually designed in a light, elegant neo-Georgian style.

Richardson drawings 1

Houses at Chew Magna near Bristol (1765) and Redbourn in Hertfordshire (1778) – examples of Richardson’s distinctive graphic style

Richardson’s real contribution to the period was as a polemicist for the buildings of the past, and in particular for the long eighteenth century – which in his case was even longer than usual, beginning with the Restoration and ending with the death of George IV 170 years later. He travelled the length and breadth of the country in his enormous Rolls Royce, haranguing philistine local authorities to save an England that was in danger of demolition, berating negligent owners of dilapidated mansions. He recorded historic architecture in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fluid, fluent sketches and in a flood of published work: Georgian England, The Old Inns of England, The Smaller English House of the Later Renaissance. John Betjeman once told him that ‘You have written the two bibles of my life – Monumental Classic Architecture of the 18th and 19th Centuries, and Regional Architecture in the West of England. If I were king, I would give you a peerage.’

Richardson Avenue House

Avenue House, Ampthill

And not content with promoting the past, Richardson lived in it. In 1919 he bought Avenue House in Ampthill, built for a Bedfordshire brewer in 1780 and extended by Henry Holland in 1792-5. Over the next four decades or so the architect filled Avenue House with art and oddities: oils by Philip Mercier and Angelica Kauffmann, exquisite George III furniture in tulipwood and satinwood; a lamp said to belong to the Lady of the Lamp herself, Florence Nightingale; Clive of India’s door knob and a battered baluster from Doctor Johnson’s house. He refused to have electricity installed, and was fond of dressing up in full Georgian costume around the house.

In many ways Richardson was a difficult character – bombastic, self-centred, a reactionary conservative who hated Modernism as much as he loathed modern society. Imagine an architectural G. K. Chesterton, and you have him. But his contribution to the evolving preservationist movement of the 1920s and 1930s was profound.

Richardson Christie's

The Avenue House Sale Catalogue

By a strange coincidence, just as I reached the last page of The Professor, an email came through from Christie’s announcing the sale of the contents of Avenue House. The place had remained more or less intact since Richardson’s death in 1964, and after years of searching for a way of preserving it for posterity, the family has given up the struggle.

The Avenue House sale took place this week. It isn’t a disastrous Mentmore-type dispersal to be remembered and mourned for decades. It is more of a small sadness. But it is a sadness, none the less. Something has been lost, and we’re all a little poorer for it.

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.