Big houses are expensive. Expensive to purchase, maintain, and even sell. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, large country homes, built in the Victorian era or earlier and serving as countryside getaways for the rich and noble, were becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. Famous for its deer park, Warnham Court was a grand country home, and had extensive farmland to maintain. Like many of its contemporaries, it did not remain (entirely) in the hands of its creators. Luckily, unlike many of its contemporaries, the building still stands today.
In this blog, we’ll look at the growth and decline of the county home, by using Warnham Court as a case study.
Warnham Court on Film
Snippet from the film The Home of C J Lucas, by Screen Archive South East, part of the series for West Sussex Unwrapped. Other films showing Warnham Court, including a wedding and the Deer Park, can also be seen on SASE’s website.
Images should not be reproduced without permission from West Sussex Record Office.
Warnham Court in the Archives
Manors and Country Houses
First, a brief history of the country manor. In ye olden days, the manor acted as the lowest level of administration for landed estates in the mediaeval era. They varied in size, and what records remain is inconsistent across the country. Money was made from tenants renting and working the land, thus – in the countryside – agriculture was a main source of income for these estates. In shows of wealth and in attempts to elevate themselves from the serfs or tenants of the land, lords of the manor migrated further away from the parishes they held land in. As such, knocking down and rebuilding manors was nothing new by the nineteenth century.
The types of landowners had begun to change by the early 19th century. Many of the grandest homes were owned by businessmen – those who had made their fortune outside of inheritance and had cash to burn. What was a greater sign of having ‘made it’ than a large country estate to retire to when city life was too much? This was the case for Warnham Court.
Warnham Court, for the purposes of this blog, began life in 1826, whereupon land that had once been part of another manorial estate was purchased and built upon by Henry Tredcroft and his father Nathaniel. There, the house known as Warnham Court was established. It was passed amongst various hands until 1865, where Charles Thomas Lucas purchased the whole estate and home.
The collection held at WSRO can be found largely under the Add Mss catalogue, between Add Mss 31741 to 32666, and then Add Mss 32722 to 32725. Highlights of the collection include sale catalogues for the famous herds of cattle the estate maintained, as well as a series of accounts from the farms which give you an excellent idea of how expensive these lands could be to maintain. There is also a series of sales particulars and auction catalogues for the breaking up of the estate from 1930 onwards.
We also hold SP 161, which is the sale particular that Charles perhaps would have seen when purchasing Warnham Court, as it dates from 1865.
The Lucas Brothers were a very well-known building and contractor business. Amongst their more famous contributions were the Royal Albert Hall, the Covent Garden Opera House, King’s College Hospital and Alexandra Palace. Due to working on such prestigious projects, Charles had a bit of cash to spend! As such, Warnham Court was continually expanded and altered over the following decades.
By 1945 it had thirty nine bedrooms, six reception rooms, a central hall with a grand oak staircase, a billiards or ballroom, offices, kitchen, scullery, pantry, still room, housekeepers and servants hall, a tennis lawn, rock garden, a gate house, greenhouses… and on and on! It was valued in 1945 as being worth £119,450 (well over five million in today’s money).
Perhaps the slow decline of the estate began in 1895, when, with Charles’ death and the Lucas Brother’s business folding, the house and ground’s expansion slowed. Charles’ death arguably came at not a great time – death duties had been introduced in 1894, so Warnham would have certainly been hit by some taxation. Then came Estate Duty in 1897. Even worse, a fire on Christmas in 1901 broke out in the billiard room, causing an auction to be held where many or the damaged – if not outright ruined – pieces were sold off.
The next major even in the history of the house itself came in the 1930s, when parts and contents of the estate were auctioned throughout the decade. The house was acquisitioned by the government for WWII, not unlike what many of its contemporaries also went through during wartime. It arguably did not do the house much good, in terms of maintenance.
Once war had ended, the house, in such a state of disrepair, was sold in 1947 to London County Council for around £21,755 (much less than the 1945 valuation of £119,450). Initially it was adapted as a convalescent home and school for ill children. Records for the school, if one is interested, can be found at the Met Archives in London, due to it being ran by the Council. This closed in 1997, but the Lucas family still retained and lived on sections of the Estate, such as the famous Deer Park. As for the home itself, it has been converted into apartments.
The Decline of the Country Estate
What led to this? Not just in Warnham, but across the country, large country estates were literally crumbing.
The agricultural backbone of income had been floundering ever since the late 1800s. Industrialisation and cheap imports of raw material made farming and staffing more expensive to run. The First World War, amongst many other things, led to several estates without heirs, on top of having to pay Death Duty to the government. Death duties could be extortionate, at one point in 1950 being as high as 80%. There was a general migration away from small villages, so obtaining staff to run and maintain the properties was tricky. Combine that with the Great Depression of the 1930s, higher taxation, and a general migration of these grand homeowners back to the city… Keeping these estates running was simply not worth it. To help pay for these sorts of bills, a quick solution was to sell land, however that meant you lost the income that land produced going forward. And so, the shrinkage continued.
Warnham Court is – in many ways – lucky. Of the 5,000 mansions that were occupied in the mid-19th century, around 3,000 remain. The rest were knocked down, sometimes to great public interest. The peak time to do so was between 1930 (when the Great Depression hit hard) and 1976 (when a Finance Act gave large mansion owners a way out from certain inheritance taxes: let the public in). After then, the concept of preservation and renovation was starting to become a viable option for these larger homes.
The National Trust in its earlier years saw how bad the dereliction was going to become and lobbied the government to allow them to accept historic houses, which they were allowed to do in 1934. English Heritage and the Historic Houses Association were founded in the 1970s, and have since taken on many homes themselves. They were too late for Warnham, which by that point was well established as a school (you can see the local history website dedicated to the school here).
However, for Warnham Court, the building and the deer park continue to thrive. The continued presence of this building, even in a slightly different format, is much more preferable than the home being lost forever, only to be immortalised in postcards and sales particulars.
Next month, we’ll be looking at the South Downs to celebrate Sussex Day!
Screen Archive South East will showcase a veritable collage of footage showing off the AONB, as well as hosting a joint live event with ourselves in the early evening.
Look out for Episode 5 on Tuesday 15th of June!