The Ruined Mansion 

English Heritage

Witley Court and Gardens, Worcestershire

A Great Country House
The vast shell of Witley Court was once one of the great country houses of England. After a devastating fire in 1937, however, it became one of the country’s most spectacular ruins.

The earliest phase of the Witley Court buildings dates to the 13th century. A substantial new house was constructed on the site at the end of the 15th century, and this in turn was remodelled and extended in the early 17th century.

Thirty years later the estate was sold to the Foley family of industrialists. Initially they extended the house, rebuilt the nearby church and created the lake.

In the final years of the Foleys at Witley Court, the architect John Nash was brought in to modernise the house, particularly the interiors, in the popular neoclassical style.

The estate was then sold to William Ward, 1st Earl of Dudley, a rich industrialist.

He had the house remodelled in the 1850s in the new and fashionable Italianate style, as seen at Queen Victoria’s seaside retreat, Osborne House.

He also commissioned W A Nesfield to design new gardens, complete with fantastic fountains, to complement the remodelled house.

The garden was described by one contemporary critic as ‘barbarous in its magnificence’.

An Opulent Home
At its height in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Witley Court was the scene of great luxury and opulence – not least during its legendary house parties. 

Witley Court was owned by some of England's wealthiest families.

Bought from the Foleys in 1837 for the equivalent of around £48 million, the 1st and 2nd Earls of Dudley owned extensive lands across England and Wales.

Many of these estates housed coal mines, a source of considerable income. It's not surprising that the imposing Witley Court became a site of great opulence, with elaborate shooting parties and visiting royalty.

This grand structure was once a vast conservatory.

Lord Dudley's sizeable annual income, equivalent to around £7 million today, meant that he was able to fund improvements to Witley Court such as elaborate formal gardens.

These lavish gardens were a perfect fit for the equally extravagant activities that were to ensue. In 1895, a golf course was laid out.

The grand parties hosted at Witley Court saw armies of servants working behind the scenes.

Permanent staff, including housemaids, a butler and gardeners, totalled over one hundred.

Ravaged by Fire
The age of opulence was not to last. 1937 saw the end of an era at Witley Court, as the faltering magnificence of this once grand home was finally reduced to ashes.

The 2nd Earl of Dudley ran through his fortune. In 1920, the estate was sold to industrialist Sir Herbert Smith.

Although rich, Smith was much more frugal than his predecessor, and vastly reduced the number of staff to just half a dozen maids and a butler. He retreated to the south-west corner of the house, effectively abandoning the rest of Witley Court.

At around 8pm on 7 September 1937, a fire broke out at Witley.

Believed to have originated in a basement bakery and fanned by strong winds, it quickly spread.

Sir Herbert was away, and his few remaining staff fought in vain to save the house.

Many of the contents were saved, but a faulty hydrant system and ineffectual 'fireproof' floors meant that the central and eastern sections were gutted.

It soon became clear that insurance money would cover no more than a quarter of the costs of rebuilding the house, and Sir Herbert decided to dispose of the house and gardens.

The surviving contents of the house and many garden ornaments were auctioned off in 1938.

But Witley's ruined state is not just due to the fire.

In 1954, the site was bought by an antique dealer from Stratford-upon-Avon, who stripped and sold anything of value that remained: marble chimneypieces, lead and timber from the roof and even the glass from the conservatory.

Saving Witley Court
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Witley narrowly survived demolition. There was even a proposal for a motor-racing circuit on the site!

Luckily, in 1964, a Building Preservation Order gave Witley vital protection. This was furthered in 1970, when the house and surroundings were scheduled as an Ancient Monument.

Witley has been under the care of English Heritage since 1984.

A good example of the care provided by English Heritage can be seen in the Perseus and Andromeda fountain.

Built in the 1850s, and intricately carved in Portland stone, the fountain shows the mythical Perseus flying to the rescue of Andromeda, who has been chained to a rock by the sea god Poseidon.

The scene is surrounded by cupids riding dolphins, and the main jet in the centre is said to have reached a height of 36 metres.

Before Witley was given the protections it so desperately needed, this magnificent fountain was nearly relocated to a traffic island in Worcester.

In 2016, English Heritage embarked on a major series of works to restore the fountain to its former glory.

The beautiful fountain is now back in working order, as it would have been in the times of Lord Dudley's sumptuous house parties.

While it may be a shadow of its former self, the ruin of Witley Court is still a striking and evocative reminder of a lost period of luxury, and a caution on how easily things of value can be lost forever.

Luckily, through the care of English Heritage, visitors will be able to enjoy the majesty of Witley for many years to come.

Credits: Story

Cameron Moffett, Rose Arkle

Visit Witley Court and Gardens.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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