Olantigh Towers


Location   Wye
Year demolished   1903  
Reason   Fire, then rebuilt as a smaller house  
See all images: Gallery

Often the ivy-clad exterior of a house is no more than decoration but for the master of Olantigh Towers it proved to be a lifesaver.

The Olantigh estate is first mentioned as being owned by the Kempe family in the 14th-century of whom the most well-known member of the family was Cardinal Kempe, founder of nearby Wye College (1447) and Archbishop of Canterbury. The Kempe family had obtained the lands from the Abbey at Battle in Sussex who had been granted the lands around Wye by William the Conquerer. Nothing is known about the first house which was built on the site but in 1508 Sir Thomas Kemp built a new house called Olantigh on the site of the earlier building.

The Kempe family connection with Olantigh ended in 1607 (or 1619 according to another source) when the house and estate was sold to Sir Timothy Thornhill. On his death it passed to his son, Col. Richard Thornhill, who left it to his stepson, Harry Thornhill (b. ? - d.1689) but unfortunately he couldn't afford to live in his inheritance and it was let to Sir John Bankes. On Harry's death it passed to his son Richard whose most notable contribution to the estate was to level the top of a small hillock called The Mount to create a circular lawn with tree-lined edges. This was but one example of Richard's extravagance which eventually forced him to sell the estate with its 600-acres of woods, pasture and parkland.

The estate was purchased in 1717 by Jacob Sawbridge (b. ? - d.1748) - the start of an association with the family which was to last until the 1930s. Jacob was MP for Cricklade (from 1715) but had made his fortune as a Director of the South Seas Company and from slavery. However, in 1721, as a consequence of the failuire of the South Seas company, the House of Commons gave him that rare 'honour' of being one of the few MPs to be expelled. Jacob had ambitious plans for the rebuilding of the house but collapse of the South Seas company and the associated scandal meant that he was stripped of much of his fortune as compensation for the investors, despite his protestations of innocence, thus ending his plans. He was not stripped of his house and was allowed to keep £5,000 out of his total £77,254 fortune and, along with money he made subsequently, was able to live at Olantigh until his death in 1748.

The Olantigh which Jacob's only son John inherited was essentially that built in 1508. John (b. ? - d.1768) rebuilt the family fortune through two very advantageous marriages; firstly to the daughter of another South Seas director, Elias Turner, but was widowed and then married Elizabeth Wanley, daughter of a wealthy city banker. During his time, John made some modest changes to the house including refacing it. His second wife Elizabeth gave John two sons, John and Wanley, with the eldest inheriting the estate and the fortune enhanced by his father.

John Sawbridge (b.1732? - d.1795) followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and also saw success in public life, becoming MP for Hythe in 1768, before becoming MP for London in 1774, and was re-elected in 1780, 1784, and 1790. He was also elected as Lord Mayor of London in 1775. Following in his father's footsteps, John also became wealthier through marriage; his first to Sir Orlando Bridgeman Bt. brought his £100,000 but sadly she died just two months after the wedding. His second marriage was to the daughter of a City of London politician. John inherited from his father in 1768 and set about making the most extensive changes to the house since it was built in 1508. He greatly extended the house in the now contemporary Georgian style including a massive stone portico with decorated pediment but the architect for this phase of the building is unknown.

On John's death in 1795, Olantigh passed to his eldest son, Samuel Elias Sawbridge (b.1769 - d.1851) who was also an MP of some disrepute being unseated twice for bribery. On Samuel's death the estate passed to his eldest son, John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge (b.1800 - d.1887) who took the family to its greatest wealth and notoriety, earning himself the nickname 'The Mad Major'. Already a rich man, Samuel married Jane Frances Erle-Drax-Grosvenor in 1827 and added two of her surnames to his own in 1828 to secure her inheritances including Charborough House in Dorset, resulting in the impressive name of John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge-Erle-Drax. He had inherited the vast Sawbridge fortune at the age of fifty-one and spent money prodigiously on work at both Olantigh and Charborough Park, where he was the MP for the nearby 'pocket borough' of Wareham. At Charborough, between 1841 and 1842, John had created one of the longest brick walls in the country using almost two million bricks. This was more than matched by his spending at Olantigh where he added huge picture galleries and Venetian towers giving the later name of Olantigh Towers. By the time he had finished the house was 21-bays wide on the north front - over 200-feet long. When he visited the Great Exhibition in 1862 he purchased one of the two very large fountains which stood at the entrance which was then installed in front of the house at a cost of over £3,000 (the other was purchased by Daniel Ross and installed as the 'Ross Fountain' in the Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh). This extravagance was also repeated with the interiors and picture collections with his galleries containing works by Ruisdael, Lorrain, Bugiardini, Fidanza, and Melone amongst others.

The fire

The Major didn't have any children and so following his death in 1887 the house, estate and now superb collections passed to his nephew, Wanley Ellis Sawbridge-Erle-Drax, who again shared his time between Charborough and Olantigh, until that fateful night in 1903. It's not known what started the fire but it was fierce enough that by the time it was discovered the only route of escape for Wanley was to clamber down the ivy-covered wall of the east wing. Despite the efforts of the local firemen, the fire gutted the house from end-to-end so that when morning came photographers could only record a roofless, smoking shell.

A rebuild - and a reduction

For many this would have been the end but the wealth of the Sawbridge-Erle-Drax's was such that, in 1910, Wanley commissioned the architects A. Barnett Brown & Ernest Barrow to design a new house in a classical style incorporating the original stone portico. The new red-brick mansion was on a much smaller scale, although even that eventually proved too large. The west wing, which was almost two-thirds the size of the main house, was demolished in the mid-1950s, leaving the house today only a fifth as large as the house it replaced. It can safely be said to be one of the best of the replacement houses, an elegant re-use of the portico combined with a well-proportioned house which does justice as the centrepiece to the estate and gardens. The residential connection with the Sawbridge-Erle-Drax family ended as only a year after the house was finished in 1912, when it was let to Mr J.H. Loudon who redeveloped the gardens, erasing the earlier layouts, before it was sold to his son, Mr F.W.H. Loudon, in 1935, and remains to this day an estate in single residential ownership.