The loss of Didlington Hall and the fabulous collection it held is still lamented locally and is widely regarded as one of the most serious of the many losses in Norfolk. If house and collection had remained intact it would today be probably regarded as one of the treasure houses of England.
The estate had originally be owned by the Wilson family from mid-1600s. In 1832 Robert Wilson was called to serve in the House of Lords under the revived title of Baron Berners (he became the 9th). The original 17th-century house became the west wing, with further additions to the south side in the late 18th-century, and a new north front in the early 19th-century.
The family sold the estate in 1846 to Lord William Powlett but he only held for a short time before selling it on to William George Tyssen Amherst in the early 1850s who was living nearby in Foulden Hall. William George immediately set about a series of improvements to his new seat, including a new Italianate-style east front and a tower. However, he was not to enjoy his new seat for long as he died in December 1855 even before the works were finished, leaving them to be completed by his son who inherited this impressive estate when just 20 years old.
William Amherst Tyssen-Amherst (b.1835 - d.1909) became a noted bibliophile and collector, mainly of rare books, tapestries, antique furniture, other works of art and Egyptian artifacts. He was created 1st Baron Amherst of Hackney (where the family were originally from) in 1892 after serving as a local MP from 1880-92. However, it was for his Eygptian collections for Baron Amherst was perhaps best known. The core of the collection was the Leider and Lee collections which he bought in the 1860s but these were extensively added to with further purchases and also his own finds from expeditions. He also became a patron of the young Howard Carter - the Egyptologist famous for discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun. Howard accompanied his father (a well-known artist) to the Hall to watch him paint, but when he got bored he spent time in the Egyptian room looking at the collection Amherst had accumulated over the years, sparking Howard’s fascination in things Egyptian. The Amhersts were to be the key to Howard’s entry into the world of Egyptology, providing the contacts and recommendations which led to his arrival in Egypt. To provide a suitable home for his collections, a fine single-storey museum was constructed on the south side (description from the 1910 sale particulars):
"...a stately apartment, finished throughout in oak, and measuring 90 ft. 9 in. by 28 ft. 3 in. At one end is a MINSTREL GALLERY for Organ. Remarkably handsome Italian Renaissance carved marble mantel-piece with medallions in relief. The room is lighted on the South and East by lofty windows."
This and other general improvements were completed under the supervision of the architect Richard Norman Shaw in the 1880s following William Amherst's retirement from Parliament.
Despite his obvious academic pursuits, William Amhurst was also very much aware of his responsibility as a landowner and employer. The 7,000 acre estate employed over 300 workers whom William looked after by building 160 cottages, supporting four local schools and paying for the restoration of churches in Didlington, Bodney, Langford and Cranwich.
The Tyssen-Amherst family wealth largely came from their estate which, in light of William's obvious passions was left largely in the hands of his land agent. However, this was to prove to be a catastrophic mistake as the agent embezzled to fund his gambling habit, massively depleting the family funds, before committing suicide in 1906. The situation led to forced sales, including most of the books in the magnificent library. The first of the sales took place amid much interest at Sothebys on 3 December 1908 and it was reported in The New York Times (pg. 2 - 4 December 1908) that the famous collector John Pierpont Morgan had acquired the 16 Caxton books in a private sale for $500,000 - considered a good price by the other dealers. JP Morgan also purchased the King Charles I copy of the Cambridge bible for $5,000 (The New York Times - pg. 9 - 9 December 1908). One of the few Gutenberg bibles was also bought for the library of Charles William Dyson Perrins, which was particularly strong in medieval illuminated manuscripts and printed ballads. Over the two sales in December 1908 and March 1909, over one thousand lots were auctioned off, decimating the library William Amherst had so carefully built since 1856.
Whether the stress of the betrayal and the subsequent sale hastened his end is unknown but Lord Amherst died in January 1909. The title and estate passed to his daughter who became Mary, Baroness Amherst (b. 1857 - d. 1919) and the following year she sold the house and 7,105 acre estate - Didlington Hall and Estate Sale Particulars.
The estate was sold to Colonel Herbert Francis Smith who spent a significant amount of money on modernisation including the construction of a fine cricket pitch. During WWII, Didlington Hall was been requisitioned by the army and was the headquarters for General Miles Dempsey, commander of the British Second Army during the D-Day landings.
After the war, the house remained empty as the damage and neglect during requisitioning had left it beyond economic repair. Colonel Smith died in 1949 and that same year the decision was taken to demolish the house, with the first step being to partially strip the interior of the house, with a two-day sale in April 1950 of the hall's 'valuable fixtures and fittings' including marble chimneypieces, oak doors, a carved oak staircase, flooring, panelling, cornices and architraves. A final sale in May 1952 comprised the basic fabric of the building including window frames, joists, baths, doors etc, following which demolition commenced soon after.
Today, the setting of this house has remained remarkably intact and a new house has been built on the site of the original. Aerial views show the lakes, tree-lined avenues, and even the remain of garden buildings and the boathouse with the stables and coach house having been converted into a new residence. All sad reminders of one of the finest houses, estates and collections to have been lost in Norfolk.
Further images and more information about the family is available from Amhersts of Didlington