Historic Houses over the last 60 years
The  future of England’s stately homes and historic houses is considerably more secure now than it was when the Queen came to the throne in 1952.  Today our built heritage is not just part of our culture, or simply something beautiful to look at, it is an important source of income to the Exchequer and local employment.  The Historic Houses Association recently reported that tourism related to the historic environment was Britain’s fifth largest industry and that 80% of visitors said their principal reason for visiting the UK was heritage and culture.

In 1952 stately homes were the province of the aristocracy and in the eyes of many represented a bygone era.  A significant number of houses had been requisitioned during the war and when handed back were in a poor state of repair.  Few owners could afford a large retinue of staff, leaving service wings empty, while repair, maintenance and heating were growing problems.  There was a shortage of building materials which meant that a house could be worth more for its bricks, stone and timbers than as it stood.  Winslow Hall in Buckinghamshire, a Grade I house by Sir Christopher Wren which cost £6,585 when built in 1702 narrowly escaped being demolished when the Wren Society and Bucks County Council stepped in. It was ultimately sold in about 1950 for £8,000 and is now the only example of a private house by Wren that survives in its original form.  Other great houses were far less fortunate.

By 1955, according to the founders of Save Britain’s Heritage (SAVE), 75 stately homes were lost in a single year; architectural historian John Martin Robinson has suggested the figure may have been higher with approximately 1,000 houses lost between 1945 and 1955.

Although the decline of our built heritage accelerated significantly post 1945, the writing had been on the wall decades earlier.  In 1912 Country Life carried an advertisement for the sale of the roofing balustrade and urns from Trentham Hall.  The house has been demolished with little concern and was no doubt seen to be nothing new.  After all it was quite commonplace over the centuries for owners to knock down their historic house and reuse the materials to build something grander or more fashionable.  The difference this time was that new stately homes were not taking their place due in part to recession, war and taxation.

The National Trust was able to rescue a few houses but was severely restricted by funding.  Compulsory listing of historic houses gathered momentum through the 1950’s but this alone could not arrest the number of properties being lost and in many respects only served to catalogue the losses which by 1955 were running at one house every five days.  Owners determined to retain their historic houses or preserve them for future generations looked to various alternatives.  A number decided to remove the rambling service wings and attics, many of which had been added in the Victorian era.  The Royal Family saw fit to scale down Sandringham House whilst Chevening, which had been gifted to the nation and was to be used for many years as the official country residence of the Foreign Secretary, had the attics removed and the roof lowered.  Heydon Hall, another significant Elizabethan property in private ownership, was dramatically reduced in size and even relatively modest historic houses like Iver Grove in Buckinghamshire had the ballroom and a wing demolished to bring the house back to its Georgian proportions.

Throughout the 1960’s and into the 1970’s Estate Duty played a large part in the decline of the historic house.  In some cases owners sought to sell off land or cottages to pay tax bills but this in turn could incur Capital Gains Tax on the one hand and reduced the income from the estate on the other.  A small amount of grant aid was available to owners through the Historic Buildings Council for repairs but many owners were still uncomfortable about applying for grants which were not only means tested but more often than not require a degree of public access for an indeterminate number of years.

By the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee the tide had started to turn.  A few years earlier in 1974 the exhibition at the V&A, “The Destruction of the Country House” organised by Marcus Binney and Sir Roy Strong became headline news.  The tireless work of a number of notable architectural historians including Marcus Binney, John Cornforth, John Harris and Gervase Jackson-Stops proved the power of the pen and championed the future of those houses that had so far survived the ravages of the previous decades.  The Historic Houses Association was established in 1973 and was set up to help and support the owners of private houses.  SAVE was founded two years later and set about publicising the importance of saving the built heritage. 

In 1975 Capital Transfer Tax (Inheritance Tax) was a crippling 75%, but modifications to the acceptance in lieu procedure provided a way forward for a few owners.  Jackson-Stops & Staff were the first firm to submit an application for acceptance in lieu of CTT on behalf of the owners of a privately owned stately home under the 1976 Finance Act.  A challenging and lengthy procedure it inevitably required a permanent commitment to public access.  Not all properties were given favourable consideration and the Treasury refused to accept Mentmore, valued at £2 million, only for the property to be sold in the open market for over £6 million and become divorced from the land and contents.

When Jackson-Stops & Staff were instructed in the early 1980’s to act on behalf of the Harpur Crew Settled Estate to secure the future of Calke Abbey Estate the lessons of Mentmore were still fresh in the memory.  SAVE mounted a high profile campaign to engage the public but by this time the National Trust stipulated they could no longer take on the responsibility of further houses without an endowment fund.  In the case of Calke Abbey the sum required by the National Trust to endow and repair the house was £6 million.  Fund raising from the sale of land and off-lying property was boosted by a special one off grant announced in Nigel Lawson’s 1984 budget which saw £3 million provided to the National Heritage Memorial Fund to rescue the Calke Abbey Estate and secure its transfer to the National Trust.

By the 1980’s the clamour to pull down stately homes had been arrested but it was clear the National Trust were not in a financial position to step in and rescue every building that was in difficulty.  Far greater emphasis was placed on private initiative.  Many owners decided opening their houses and gardens to the public was the best option.  Others identified an opportunity to consider a different use and there was a surge in the number of houses, like Newick Park in East Sussex being turned into exclusive country house hotels.  Kit Martin had already demonstrated an amazing talent for converting the largest of houses into smaller units looking to retain the integrity of the property by vertical division.  Others took a different approach and divided laterally creating a number of flats.  One of the largest schemes was Northwick Park, a Grade I building in the Cotswolds, which required a considerable amount of enabling development to make the scheme viable.

The public appetite for visiting historic houses had grown to around 50 million visitors a year by the early 1990’s and approximately 600 houses were regularly open to the public.  These numbers have continued to grow and today the Historic Houses Association represents 1,500 privately owned historic houses, many of which allow a degree of public access, and together with those owned by the National Trust and English Heritage illustrate the diversity of our built heritage. 

In the last five years no applications have been made for the demolition of a stately home or major historic house, however there are still a number of properties in peril and SAVE publishes an annual register to highlight the plight of buildings that are still in peril.  One such house that appeared on their list, and which had been neglected since the 1950’s, was Grade II* Shurland Hall.  The building was eventually rescued by the Spitalfields Historic Building Trust in 2005 and after nearly seven years of painstaking work the house has been brought back to life and Jackson-Stops & Staff hope to have identified a new owner.

The tide of fortune for the country’s built heritage may have been slow to turn and an untold number of magnificent houses have been lost. However during the course of the Queen’s reign our attitude towards these buildings has been transformed and hopefully the wrecker’s ball has fallen silent forever.