Gorhambury through the Ages - 1771-2017

Photo:Old Gorhambury House

Old Gorhambury House

Report of a talk given by Viscountess Grimston at the Society's meeting held on Tuesday 17th January 2017

By Tony Scott

Viscountess (Rosie) Grimston stimulated members during her talk with a fascinating insight to the history of her family and the Gorhambury Estate particularly covering the period from 1777 when the present day house was commissioned.

Following much research, she referred to plans to refurbish and modernise parts of the house and played at the meeting a video showing areas of the house before the commencement of the proposed changes along with a summarised history of the estate over the years. Mention was made of the Roman influence, that the remains of a Roman villa were found on the Estate while carrying out excavations some years ago while trying to trace the foundations of the original medieval house. Also that the Verulamium Roman Theatre built in 140 AD sits within the estate grounds.

Early history and the Bacon family

King Ethelred granted the manor to the Abbey of St Alban in 996 and the name ‘Gorhambury’ derives from Geoffrey de Gorham, the 16th Abbot who built the first recorded house c1130. The manor remained the property of the abbey until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. Some 20 years later it was purchased by Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, who demolished the old hall and in 1563 built the second Gorhambury House making use of materials from the medieval mansion. When Queen Elizabeth I visited the house in 1572 she is recorded as saying “My Lord, what a little house you have gotten”, to which Sir Nicholas replied: “Ma’am, my house is well, but it is you that have made me too big for mine house”. Later the house became the residence of Sir Nicholas’s second son Sir Francis Bacon, the statesman and philosopher, who under James I became Baron Verulam and subsequently 1st Viscount St Alban in 1621.

Sir Francis, who died in 1626, left the house to Sir Thomas Meautys and in 1652 the estate passed to Sir Harbottle Grimston, Master of the Rolls, and the estate is owned by the same family to this day. James Bucknall Grimston, 3rd Viscount Grimston, commissioned a new mansion in 1777 near to the site of the old hall, which was left to fall into ruin.

The Grimston family

After showing a short video guide the Viscountess focused on the “new” Gorhambury House. Before the house was built the 3rd Viscount embarked on a Grand Tour during which he acquired many treasures as well as a future wife, Harriot Walter, an heiress whom he met in Rome also on a Grand Tour. They married in 1774 and considered living in the old Tudor house, which by then was most expensive to maintain, but after much discussion decided to rebuild on another site. In 1777 Robert Taylor was commissioned to design a new house but not before the Viscount had made comparisons with other grand houses of England such as Chatsworth and Harewood where, surprisingly, he considered the rooms too small.

The main block was completed in 1784 in local brick fronted with a Bedfordshire stone, Totternhoe clunch. They had three children but, sadly, his wife died in 1786 and with the children away at school the house became empty and uninviting leaving his “glorious ambitions” unrealised. Following the death of Harriot there was a lull in building activities for two years before two detached wings were added connected to the main building by colonnades.

The next two generations saw radical changes made to the house. In 1816 James Walter Grimston, the 1st Earl of Verulam, commissioned increased bedroom accommodation by adding to the main block which filled the space between it and the detached north wing. In 1825 the south wing was demolished and the gardens extended over its site.

The 2nd Earl was more radical with internal changes in 1848, which included replacing the 18th century gallery ballustrading in the hall with heavily decorated cast iron, reconstructing the portico roof, relaying the hall floor, creating a porch, a new cantilever staircase and more bedrooms in the annex - called Grosvenor Square named after their London house. The house ended up with a large number of bedrooms but only a single bathroom! They filled the house with 8 children and led a very full life with balls, shoots and the like. However, with 5 expensive daughters they were permanently in debt and notwithstanding his wife’s inheritance from her father’s Norfolk estate and short lived attempts to cut back on spending the debts persisted.

Challenges during the 1930s

In general during the 19th century the house was full of parties and the gay life but the 20th century saw the battening down of hatches and a change in fortune. An investment in Venezuelan oil stocks was quickly followed by the Wall Street Crash with the inevitable financial consequences for the family. It was left to the 4th Earl to put Gorhambury up for sale in 1930 but no acceptable offer materialised. In 1931 most of the farm land was sold to the Crown Estates and the house was first occupied by tenants and then closed and boarded up. The 4th Earl and his family lived in Hampstead, returning to Gorhambury in 1936.

In 1941 the War Office requisitioned the house for the duration of the war for use by the Intelligence Services but permitted the family to remain in the Victorian wing. Unfortunately, some of the furniture was destroyed during its removal while much of that sent to storage was destroyed by enemy action during the war. Another unfortunate incident was the stables being accidently burnt to the ground by allied troops.

After the war the 5th Earl, who was managing director of 14 companies found time to form a furniture company in Wales to provide employment for redundant miners. At home he installed modern electric lighting in the house and over a 10 year period replaced the badly weathered Totternhoe clunch facing on the main block with Portland stone.

He was followed by the 6th Earl, who was Chairman of Delta Metal, a producer of copper sheeting, and replaced the lead roof with copper sheeting. He lived in Gorhambury with his wife Marjorie Duncan but they lived in just a few rooms as the house was cold and not adequately heated. During this time some of the principal rooms were redecorated.

The 7th, and present Earl, who worked for a merchant bank, lives in a house on the estate with his wife, apparently because of continued inadequate heating in Gorhambury House. His wife Dione, Countess of Verulam, served as the Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire until stepping down on 31 July 2017.

Plans for the future

The 20th and 21st centuries have been a story of maintenance, repairs and modernisation against a background of limited funds but now this position is starting to stabilise. New plans have been drawn up to modernise and improve Gorhambury, with the garden being re-modelled as a start. This will be followed by internal refurbishment directed at taking the house back to the time of the 3rd Viscount, but to include the likes of a modern kitchen and living accommodation along with green energy.

The task of taking forward the current refurbishment plans falls on the heir to the present Earl, Viscount James Walter Grimston and his wife Lady Rosanagh, who graciously and very ably gave the talk to our members.

Although not mentioned during the talk, and despite wartime losses, much fine furniture, many paintings and works of art adorn the house, including a chimney piece in the Yellow Drawing Room by Giambattista Piranesi (1720-1778) commissioned during the Grand Tour. Also Britain’s longest collection of family portraits, extending with hardly a break from 1446 to the present day and not to mention four of the eight pictures and possessions of Sir Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor. A truly wonderful collection and well worth a visit!

This page was added by Rosemary Ross on 26/09/2017.

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