Hooton Hall was easily one of the finest houses in the north west, perhaps even in the country. Despite its comparatively small size, the quality of the house, with its distinctive columns, vast orangery, and extensive park meant that this was an estate that which should've survived. Yet, industrialisation and World War I meant that the hall became another of the lost houses.
The ownership of the lands around Hooton can be traced back to 1070. Hooton Hall is actually the third house to take the title as seat of the estate. Almost nothing is known about the original Hooton Manor, only that its replacement was built in 1488. By this time the house was owned by the Stanley family, a younger branch of which later became the Earls of Derby.
This house survived until 1788 when the fifth Baronet, Sir William Stanley, engaged the fashionable architect, Samuel Wyatt (b. 1737 - d.1807) to built a new mansion and entrance lodges. Wyatt had worked for some of the finest architects in England, such as James Paine and Robert Adam, and was renowned for his understated neo-classical style. In his early twenties, Wyatt had been employed as Adam's Clerk of Works during the construction of Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire. The close involvement heavily influenced the young Wyatt, leading to a similar style that can be seen in his design for Hooton Hall.
The main house was seven-bays wide by six deep and built in the local Storeton stone from the Stanley quarries. A short, three-bay connecting wing, with an elegant clock tower surmounted by a tall cupola rising from the end of the connecting wing, linked the chapel at the rear with the main house. The entrance front to the main house was dominated by four large Corinthian columns mounted in projecting brackets upon which four statues gazed down from the roofline. This style of non-pedimented portico can be seen in Robert Adam's design for the garden front at Kedleston Hall which is related to the work of Palladio (see the Church of S. Giorgio Magiore in Venice - though this has a pediment, the arrangement of columns, the enlarged central bay and the use of crowning statues is similar). The grounds were landscaped by Humphrey Repton for the sixth Baronet, Sir Thomas Stanley, in 1802. The design was a success, being described in 1848 as:
"...a beautiful structure, standing on a gentle eminence, and commanding an extensive view of the river [Mersey], and of the entire coast of Cheshire and Lancashire..."1
The Stanleys were to only enjoy their new house for seventy years before financial difficulties brought about by profiligate gambling forced the sale of the house and estate. The house was bought by Richard Christopher Naylor, a banker from Liverpool, for 80,000 guineas (approximately £6.6m in today's money). He then spent another 50,000 guineas (approx. £4m) on extensive improvements including the addition of the vast, ornate orangery, a racecourse, a polo field and a heronry. The clock-tower was also built at this time to the designs of J.K. Colling (who may also have been responsible for the other changes to the house including the orangery). Naylor was also a keen sailor and bought a yacht which he moored on the Mersey. Remarkably, it was this hobby which was to contribute to the eventual loss of the house.
In 1875 the Manchester Ship Canal was built along the banks of the Mersey, right through the great Hooton Park. Now cut off from his beloved yacht, Naylor promptly moved to his other estate in Nottinghamshire. The house was now left empty - though Naylor still retained ownership. The racecourse that he had built was now opened to the public with races bring held regularly, attracting visitors from across the north west. This income meant that whilst he himself didn't want to live there (and was even less likely to do so with the crowds), he also had little incentive to sell.
This arrangement might have continued indefinitely without the intervention of World War I. At the declaration of war, the empty hall and the park were requisitioned by the army and Hooton Hall now became a miltary hospital with barracks erected in the grounds. These barracks became the home for the Kings 18th Liverpool Rifles Battalion until they were called to action in France in 1916. Following their departure, the army started turning Hooton Park into an airfield for the storage of aircraft imported from America via Birkenhead and Liverpool and for the training of US and Canadian pilots. The flat, open space of the racecourse meant that they had a ready-prepared area for the runways and associated hangers and service buildings. The Hall itself became the officer's mess.
Following the end of WWI, the military retained the airfield - as it did until 1957. The house, following thirty years of neglect, 3 years as a military hospital and fifteen years as an officer's mess, was probably in a terrible state by the time the decision was taken in 1932 to demolish it. With no prospect of the airfield moving, the house had been permanently blighted and would have been inordinately expensive to repair.
However, as with Dawpool, a fragment was preserved by William Clough-Ellis and incorporated into his architectural fantasy, Portmeirion in north Wales. Clough-Ellis bought many architectural elements from country houses due for demolition and would eventually reuse them in Portmeirion. In fact, it took thirty years before Clough-Ellis came up with the idea for The Gloriette (inspired by the one at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna). By this time the columns could not to be found, however a detailed search eventually discovered them buried in a garden within another part of Portmeirion. They were resurrected and used to create the impressive facade which now looks out over the Piazza.
And what of Hooton Park now? It remained a military airfield for the Royal Auxiliary Air Force until they were disbanded in 1957. In 1962 work began on the construction of what has grown in to the huge Vauxhall car plant which is now the main European production line for the 'Astra' cars and vans. So when you next see one, remember back to the glory days of Hooton Hall which has now become their birthplace.
1 - 'The Topographical Dictionary of England' (1848)