Unsurpassed Englishness

Staunton Harold Hall, Leicestershire:  east front

Staunton Harold Hall, Leicestershire: east front

The grouping of Staunton Harold Hall and Church is, according to Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s The Buildings of England, “unsurpassed in the country – certainly as far as Englishness is concerned”.

In fact, the little church, which looks medieval, is later.  The elegant Palladian house, on the other hand, incorporates an older building.

The story of the estate up to 1954 is the story of the Shirley family, who owned it by 1423.

Sir Robert Shirley, 4th Bt, built the Church of the Holy Trinity in the Commonwealth period “when all thinges Sacred were throughout ye nation either demolisht or profaned” for which he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he died in 1656.

Queen Anne elevated the seventh baronet to the peerage as Earl Ferrers and Viscount Tamworth in 1711.

Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl (1720-1760) shot and killed his land-steward, Mr Johnson, in the hall at Staunton Harold, and was tried by his peers and condemned to death.  He was the last English peer to die a felon’s death, hanged at Tyburn, supposedly with a silken rope, and publicly dissected at the Surgeon’s Hall:  http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/ferrers.html.

By contrast, his younger brother, Vice-Admiral Washington Shirley, 5th Earl (1722-1778), remodelled the house in the Palladian style.

The magnificent staircase hall (c1764) is part of his improvements and may be attributed to Benjamin Yates, a pupil of Robert Bakewell (1682-1752) who designed the screen at Staunton Harold Church.

The fifth earl is thought to figure on the extreme right in Joseph Wright’s painting ‘A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery’ (1766), which he purchased to hang at Staunton Harold.

Sewallis Shirley (1847-1912), the childless 10th Earl, left the estate burdened with debt.  The title passed to his fourth cousin, Walter Shirley, 11th Earl (1864-1937), an architect who gave up his practice to take care of the family property.

His son, Robert Shirley, 12th Earl (1894-1954) occupied the hall for only three years before it was requisitioned, first for the army and then as a prisoner-of-war camp.  By the time he regained possession in 1947 it was no longer fit to live in, and in 1954 he decided, rather than leave his son and heir “saddled with this white elephant I’ve struggled with all these years”, to sell up the estate and transfer Staunton Harold Church to the National Trust.  He died the night before the auction took place.

A demolition contractor bought the house, and within six months sold it to Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC (1917-1992) for use as one of the Cheshire Homes for the Incurably Sick.  The Cheshire Home moved into more convenient premises in 1985 and Staunton Harold became a hospice for Group Captain Cheshire’s wife Sue Ryder’s Foundation.  Declining numbers caused the Sue Ryder Home at Staunton Harold to close in 2002.

It was purchased by John and Jacqueline Blunt in 2003.  In 1955 John Blunt’s father had bought three farms on the estate, including the stable block which they converted to craft workshops and studios and opened as the Ferrers Centre for Arts and Crafts in 1974.  The Blunts adapted the house to provide living space for themselves and members of their family, and use the state rooms to host a maximum of twelve weddings a year.

Staunton Harold Hall is open to the public in prearranged groups:  http://www.stauntonharoldestate.co.uk/history.

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