Soane’s hidden house uncovered

Moggerhanger Park, Bedfordshire

Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was one of the greatest English architects who ever lived, but he’s relatively little known because many of his major buildings have been destroyed or mutilated.

His father and brother were bricklayers, and John used their connections to train with the architect George Dance the Younger (1741-1825) and later with Henry Holland (1745-1806). 

From the start of his career he was fortunate to know the right people and to travel to the right places.

On a Royal Academy travelling scholarship he undertook a comprehensive Grand Tour from London to Malta, centred on Rome, seeing and drawing a huge range of classical buildings between 1778 and 1780.  During his travels he encountered numerous people of influence who would eventually help to advance his career.

After a slow start on his return to England, his reputation grew on the strength of country-house commissions, leading to official posts such as Architect and Surveyor to the Bank of England, architect to the Office of Works, professor of architecture at the Royal Academy and clerk of works to the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, St James’s Palace and the Palace of Westminster.

As a member of the United Grand Lodge of England he extended the Freemasons’ Hall in London (1821-31) – and, no doubt, his client-base.

The most distinguished of his surviving public buildings is the Dulwich Picture Gallery (1817), and his abiding legacy is the row of three terraced houses, 12-14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, filled with his collections of drawings and sculpture and now known as Sir John Soane’s Museum.

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described the destruction of much of Soane’s Bank of England structures after the First World War as “the greatest architectural crime, in the City of London, of the twentieth century”.

Only three of his country houses had remained intact – Pitzhanger Manor, Middlesex, Tyringham Hall, Buckinghamshire and the decayed but restorable Pell Wall Hall in Shropshire – but one, Moggerhanger Park, Bedfordshire, underwent an astonishing rediscovery at the turn of the twentieth century. 

It was commissioned by Godfrey Thornton, deputy governor and latterly governor of the Bank of England in the 1790s, and further altered for his son Stephen in 1806 and 1811.  His close friendship with Stephen Thornton and his brother and cousin meant that Soane used Moggerhanger Park as a test-bed for architectural innovations.

The house was sold to Bedfordshire County Council in 1919 for use as a TB hospital, which inevitably required extensive alterations and extensions.  In the late 1950s it became an orthopaedic hospital which closed in 1987.

It was bought by a developer who intended to build houses in the gardens, but it remained untouched for ten years until it was acquired by the Harvest Vision charity as a Christian Conference and Retreat Centre.

Harvest Vision worked with the Moggerhanger House Preservation Trust, which was led by a neighbour, Isabelle Hay, Countess of Erroll, to restore the building – a process of fascinating rediscovery that stretched over several years and repeatedly expanded the original budget – aided by designation as a Grade I listed building and support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

The cheap hospital extensions were stripped away, and a forensic archaeological examination of the original fabric, aided by the rich archive of the Soane Museum, showed that Moggerhanger could be substantially returned to its 1812 condition, revealing the architect’s command of proportion and spatial planning, the ingenious use of light and colour, and the inventive use and reuse of earlier structures.

Described by the architect Peter Inskip, who was involved in its restoration, as “a great work of art which has been ignored for a hundred years”, Moggerhanger Park could not have a better modern use. 

Alongside their mission work, Harvest Vision opens the house to the public, provides accommodation for individuals and groups and offers outstanding wedding facilities, for which purpose Mrs Thornton’s Dressing Room has become a chapel:  Moggerhanger Park.

It’s loved, it’s lived in, and it’s secured for posterity.  Sir John Soane would approve.

Moggerhanger Park features in Mike Higginbottom’s lecture ‘English Country Houses – not quite what they seem’. For further details, please click here.

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