Friday, December 7, 2012

Wolverton's Grand Houses

Unusually, perhaps, for a manor of Wolverton's size and wealth, it has never been dominated by a big house, occupied by the local ruling family. Most of the surrounding manors - Calverton, Loughton, Hanslope, Cosgrove, Gayhurst, Tyringham, Linford - had one big house that was marked out for the local gentry. Wolverton was probably exceptional, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the ruling family sold the manor in 1713 to Dr John Radcliffe. Thereafter, due to his death a year later, it was managed by a Trust, essentially a committee, none of whom were resident. They employed land agents to manage their affairs and until the arrival of Thomas Harrison, whom I will come to in a moment, none of them were resident either. Thus, the only people of significance on the manor were the four or five farmers and the vicar. This small group made up the middle class with no upper class family above them.

The early "great house" must have been that built by Baron Mainou inside the motte and bailey castle at Old Wolverton. We have no idea what it looked like and no archaeological excavations have ever been undertaken to give us any clue. It seems likely that after 300 years the castle would have been abandoned in favour of a more comfortable house. We have no idea what sort of building was there in the 14th century, but we can assume, given the relative wealth of the de Wolvertons, that it was a splendid enough manor house for the period.  From surviving knowledge of domestic architecture of that era, the house at Wolverton probably had a great hall, where all the activities of the house took place, including providing sleeping places for the servants, and attached to it, possibly at right angles, was the private chamber for the lord and his immediate family, often known as the solar.  Kitchens were usually housed in a separate building set away from the great hall, as a precaution against the all too frequent risk of fire. We do not know if this house was of timber or stone construction; all we can presume is that there was a house there and it was of a standard befitting its occupants. This must have been followed by a succession of medieval houses on or near the site occupied by the de Wolverton and de Longueville families and it is fair to guess that they became progressively larger. There is some evidence that the house was largely rebuilt in 1586 and it probably ranked as a fine Elizabethan mansion. One visitor, Thomas Hearne in 1711, was impressed with the building.
“It stood near a large mount, thrown up East of the Church, & it was a magnificent Edifice, being 145 Feet in length & built with good Free-stone.”
The location was most likely that piece of levelled ground above the former rectory.
At the time of Hearne's visit Sir Edward Longueville was only living in part of it and the house was in a state of general disrepair. Sir Edward's debts and general mismanagement were catching up with him. After he sold the manor to Dr Radcliffe the Trust deemed the house to costly to renovate and the house was eventually dismantled. Parts of it were used to build the Rectory opposite.
Wolverton lost its great house.

The other factor that must be considered is the existence of Stony Stratford on Wolverton's western edge. The commercial opportunities afforded by the Watling Street created an extended middle class of innkeepers and tradesmen as well as some sheep farmers who did very nicely out of wool profits in the 15th century and could live in some style in larger houses at Stony Stratford. But my general observation is that after 1713 there was no "upper class" family living in Wolverton.

In 1773 the intriguing figure of Thomas Harrison became the land agent at Wolverton. He was already the land agent for Earl Spencer and was at the time living in the Wittewonge mansion at Stantonbury. He was also the land agent for the Earl of Uxbridge and seems to have used his connections to make a great deal of money out of copper mining, smelting industries and canal ventures. In 1780, when the proceeds from copper mining in Anglesey were flowing plentifully he decided to build his own pile at Wolverton. The Stantonbury mansion was in a state of decay and I guess that Earl Spencer was reluctant to put money into it. Wolverton, being close to the Watling Street, must have seemed an attractive location for Harrison, whose business dealings were taking him to London, Staffordshire and North Wales.



So, over the next four years Wolverton House came into being. It cost Harrison about £1,840 - a massive sum in its time. It was then, and remains, Wolverton's largest house.

By the standards of the really grand houses that were built across the country in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was a modest building, big enough for the family and a modest number of servants, but it was no Downton Abbey.

Harrison's younger son Richard continued as land agent for the Trust and lived there with his family until his death in 1858. His widow, almost a generation younger than her husband was allowed to live in the property until her death. The house, although built at Harrison's expense, was always the property of the Radcliffe Trust and they continued to rent it out until 1970, when it was sold.

A third house must be considered, The Gables.  This spacious house was built in 1880 for the Works Superintendent and was first occupied by Charles Park. Although it was a large house by any Wolverton measure, it would never have been considered a great house. It was a middle class house, suitable for the family and a couple of servants. In the 1960s the practice of providing tied houses for employees became outdated. House prices were rising fast and while an earlier generation had been able to live comfortably in tied housing all their working life and purchase a house on retirement were discovering that house-price inflation was leaving them high and dry. The Gables was by then out of date. It was demolished and replace by the tower block that now bear its name.



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