As the adults and children run between the amusements which now fill the grounds of Alton Towers, few will think about the once lavish seat of the Earls of Shrewsbury which gives the theme park its name, reduced as it is now to gift shop and garden ornament. Once a glorious showpiece - considered one of A.W.N Pugin's masterpieces - with superb collections of paintings and armour, and aristocratic connections to match, it was designed for pleasure but fell victim to family circumstances and wilful neglect.
Alton Towers has a long history and was first known as Alton Lodge before becoming Alton Abbey and finally Alton Towers. Originally a minor seat, but one with which the Earls of Shrewsbury had long family connections being part descended from the Verdun and Furnival families who had owned land in Alton. This was to be an important factor in the future development in the estate as the Talbots sought to reconnect with their medieval past as it was fashionable to do in the eighteenth century.
Shortcut: this is a rather in-depth look at the architectural history including the previous houses so here's a link to skip to the main section: Alton Towers
It's known that there was a house at Alton in at least 1686 when it was referred to as 'the old Lodge' in Dr Robert Plot's 'Natural History of Staffordshire'. Alton Lodge was a relatively modest Classical-style house - rectangular, two and half-storeys high with four, square-headed windows per floor. A low, pitched roof was concealed behind a parapet and to the rear of the house engravings show a circular tower rising just above the main house. This tower - the first of the many which eventually gave the house its final name - was probably part of a much older building. It was obviously considered important as not only had it been preserved during the building of the Lodge but it was to survive the many extensive remodellings which took place around it over then next 200 years. It can even today still be seen within the overall structure of the Towers, linked to the only surviving wall of Alton Lodge.
The Lodge was formed of two wings, offset by ten degrees, with the circular tower at the centre. An occasional summer residence, the Talbots would live in the grander rooms in the formal east wing with the estate manager, John Burton and family, in the west wing. Even the gardens were split with a large section adjoining the west wing marked as 'Burton's Gardens'. This peripheral existence was to change with the fifteenth Earl of Shrewsbury, Charles, (b.1753 - d.1827) who was so impressed with the location and views that he decided to not only improve the gardens but also "...by adding a few apartments to a house which had formerly been occupied by a steward, render it fit for his occasional reception, with a small suite."1 (emphasis mine). This "small suite" was to be the first part of a building programme which would consume prodigious amounts of money, involve several architects and result in one of the greatest gardens in Europe and one its finest houses.
Works started around 1800 and for the next fifty years were to become the major project of both fifteenth and sixteenth Earls with either construction or plans in progress each year. Work started relatively slowly; in 1804, a payment was made to local architect William Lees of Derby (who had also worked on Locko Park and Darley Abbey) for a drawing of the Lodge, followed by another payment, in 1806, for plans for a new room and his attendance on site. In December 1806, a payment was made for designs for a new dining-room, bedroom and passage and also for 'new gardens' including fishponds and a canal. It was the grounds which were to be the main focus for the 15th Earl; to the east of the house lay a large valley which was mainly inhabited by rabbits. The Earl had seen the potential for this site early on and was very involved in the design despite employing John Claudius Loudon (b.1783 – d.1843) , a renowned landscape architect, and also the garden specialists Robert Abraham (b.1774- d.1850) and Thomas Allason (b.1790 - d.1852).
These relatively limited works led to a much more extensive programme which started in 1811 and was to last ten years. At the same time, accounts started to refer to the house as Alton Abbey and by 1812 that name had become the new official title even though in 1811 the building work had yet to begin. The name was an obvious indicator of the Earl's intentions with regards to the style and possibly the scale of his changes, but was also part of the contemporary fashion (as satirised in Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey' for houses to take on a monastic or religious name regardless of accuracy). As one of the leading Catholic families in the area they were barred from taking part in public life or the Napoleonic Wars, so leaving the Earl with few distractions from his project.
The Gothic Revival style chosen by the Earl was probably influenced by the famous Fonthill Abbey, built for William Beckford by James Wyatt in 1795, with its 120-foot vaulted hall and 300-foot tower. Though there is no evidence that Wyatt was involved at Alton, the influence of Fonthill's design would have certainly reached Staffordshire. The works involved the demolition of the Burton's section of the Lodge and removal of the diary and estate functions away from the main house.
The overall style for the house was very much part of the Romantic fashion with an asymmetrical layout and a fanciful and varied skyline. Part of this irregularity was by design as the Romantics favoured a more organic design but also in part due to interference from the Earl. He would take a close interest in the design and offer his own alterations which, no sooner completed, were again altered and enlarged at his whim. However, the overall design was taking on a certain coherence with an emphasis on the creation of long enfilades running through the main rooms. The long-suffering architects during the period 1811-1820 were Thomas Hopper (b.1776 - d.1856) who was responsible for the conservatory, William Hollins of Birmingham (b.1763 - d.1843), who was responsible for changes to the old hall in 1817 and some ornamental work, and, most significantly, Thomas Allason, commissioned by the Earl in 1819-20, who designed the north Entrance Hall, Chapel, great Drawing Room, Long Gallery and dining room.
If no more changes had been made after 1820, Alton Abbey would still have been regarded as one of the best of the Gothic houses in the region built around that time, such as nearby Ilam Hall which was built in 1816 for Jesse Watts-Russell by John Shaw (dem. c1935) or Snelston Hall built in 1828 to designs by L.N. Cottingham (dem. 1953), which bore strong similarities with Alton Abbey.
The 1820s were a relatively quiet time for the house with the focus now shifting to the gardens to the north east. Architecturally, the most important works were the Pagoda Fountain, started in 1826, the finishing of the Gothic Flag Tower, started in 1810, the Conservatory, Orangery, Gothic Prospect Tower and the Gothic Loggia. Besides these buildings much of the landscape planting was being completed. The overall effect would have been somewhat jarring with new buildings sited amongst sparse greenery - in fact, considering how long it would take the trees to mature, those working in the gardens must have known that they would not live to see the full effect. One of those who didn't was the fifteenth Earl who had been the driving force - and sometimes interfering architect - for the whole project, dying as he did in 1827. He was succeeded by his nephew, John (b. 1791 - d.1852), who not only completed the work on the gardens but also started the next round of changes to house, changing it from 'Abbey' to 'Towers'.
The largest phase of development started in 1832 and would effectively double the size of the house Earl John had inherited. John not only completed the works started by his uncle but also added to meet his own requirements. Principally, these developments were the adding of new storeys, a new chapel, and also domestic enhancements including new coal vaults and extensive cellars and a new gallery. The works were to absorb the equivalent of over £1.2m per year throughout the 1830s rising to double that by 1838.
Perhaps most interestingly, at the same time as work started, the house became known as 'The Towers'. This changes can be attributed to a number of factors; firstly, the house was increasingly becoming more medieval in style, harking back to the Shrewsbury's long connection with the area through the Verduns and Furnivals. The 'abbey' style of architecture had proved to be something a fad, its rise and fall in popularity following that of the most extravagant example, Fonthill Abbey. Secondly, an abbey is a religious residence, which his house obviously wasn't nor had ever been, which may have offended his strict Catholic principles. The relaxation of the restrictions on Catholics after 1829 also meant a resurgence in a true Gothic Revival allied with sound ecclesiastical principles as championed by A.W.N. Pugin (b.1812 - d. 1852) - an architect who was to become increasingly important in the development of Alton Towers from 1837 and also architecture in Staffordshire.
Some of the early changes were driven by necessity and were completed by Thomas Fradgley (b.1801 - d.1883) who had been employed since 1820, and was principal architect and builder from 1830 until Pugin's arrival in 1837. Unlike his uncle, the sixteenth Earl had married and produced a family which the Abbey was not designed for, so extra rooms were simply added on top of the existing ones. The sixteenth Earl was also an avid collector of paintings, sculpture and fine furniture all of which required suitable space for display. This issue was also exacerbated by the serious fire at Heythrop Park in Oxfordshire in 1831 which, until that point, had been the Shrewsbury's principal seat. The objects and furnishings salvaged from the blaze were all shipped to Alton Towers with Heythrop left as a shell until sold in 1871 to the Brassey family.
One of the most important elements of the house was the formal alignment of rooms to create long views (enfilades). The central point for the house as the Octagon - a beautiful, vaulted room of which ran the Talbot Gallery and the Picture Gallery of which ran the Armoury. These rooms were built between 1824 and 1840, creating a single view 480-foot long, in a very similar arrangement to that created by Wyatt at Fonthill. These also formed a new entrance route for guests who would alight from the Entrance Tower at the end of the Armoury which they would then pass through before entering the Picture Gallery and then the Octagon - a route designed to ensure that any guest was left in no doubt about the importance of the Earls of Shrewsbury.
Pugin came late to the works at Alton Towers in September 1837 but he was to have a profound effect particularly on the interiors but also in Staffordshire through the patronage of the Earl. Both architect and patron were staunch Catholics and Pugin's visionary commitment to what he said was the only 'Christian' style of architecture. In the Earl he found a willing and committed supporter who, over time, became almost a friend to Pugin - in as far as was appropriate. The patronage of such an eminent aristocrat ensured that Pugin was able to come wield such influence nationally, creating a new movement for Gothic, reaching far beyond architecture to include books, wallpaper, plasterwork, churches and many other areas of design.
It was at Alton Towers that Pugin had that rare opportunity to combine his creative genius with his patron's ardent support and, most importantly, a lavish (though not unlimited) budget. Besides the extensions, it was the interiors he created for the Earl would now be regarded as one of the finest examples of the type - his masterpiece. Though much of the work already completed would have irritated Pugin and his 'True Principles' he worked with it rather than recommend tearing it all down - with the exception of the Dining Room over which architect and client disagreed but with the former winning out eventually. The interiors were tour-de-force of Gothic detailing, with vaulted ceilings, fine tracery, exquisite carvings and the doors, panelling and light fittings produced to Pugin's designs. His prodigious output was to continue for the rest of his life until his untimely death in September 1852 - matched by that of the Earl from malaria a few months later, thus ending one of the most remarkable and influential architectural and artistic partnerships of the nineteenth century.
Pugin's work represented the high-point for Alton Towers; the culmination of massive expenditure on the building, interiors and contents to create a seat worthy of the Earls of Shrewsbury. The slow decline over the next 100 years to the ruined shell started here.
Following the death of the sixteenth Earl, it was his cousin Bertram Arthur Talbot, a sickly nineteen year old, who inherited the title and estates, becoming the seventeenth Earl of Shrewsbury. At the same time, Pugin's eldest son, Edward, sought to carry on his father's work. Bertram had inherited his uncle's passion for church-building and he and Edward Pugin worked to realise their forebears dream of a cathedral for Shrewsbury and the completion of Alton Towers. However, the early death of Bertram in 1856 not only ended the senior line of the Talbot family but also the various ecclesiastical projects throughout Staffordshire. Both Earl John and Bertram knew that he was unlikely to live long, marry or produce an heir so both arranged their wills to ensure that the Shrewsbury titles and wealth remained in Catholic hands by leaving it to the Dukes of Norfolk. However this was thwarted by legal action after Bertram's death by Henry Chetwynd-Talbot who, after prolonged litigation, was declared the rightful owner of the title and most of the estates. Crucially, he was not the owner of the contents so his 'celebration' dinner on taking possession of Alton Towers was in an largely empty house, the entire contents having been sold off by the executors in a huge auction of over 4,000 lots in July-August 1857. Many of Pugin's carefully considered furnishings and fittings were stripped and sold, however, much remained including the impressive chapel.
Once he had finally taken possession in 1860, the eighteenth Earl, financially depleted by the legal action, was faced with having to re-furnish the vast house. Photos from the 1890s show rooms populated with an odd collection of furniture - a poor attempt compared to the grand designs of Pugin and the previous Earls. The Chetwynd-Talbots main home was Ingestre Hall which it remained apart from a short period in the 1880s following a severe fire which necessitated the rebuilding of the house during which they moved to Alton Towers. During this time, little structural work was completed on the Towers, with work largely limited to maintenance. Sadly, after Bertram's death the house was never again to be furnished to the lavish scale or cared for in a way that it had enjoyed over the previous sixty years.
In the 1890s, the twentieth Earl, Charles Henry John Chetwynd-Talbot, faced with the usual mismatch between a vast house and limited wealth started opening and developing the gardens as a serious tourist attraction. A cross between a circus and a massive fete these events drew crowds of thousands who also came to see the gardens which were immaculately maintained during this time. However, following the Earl's divorce in 1896 it was his impoverished wife who remained at the Towers, with no money for even the basic maintenance necessary for a house of this size. Most of the Alton estates were sold in 1918 followed by the sale of the remainder, including Alton Towers, in 1924. A grand auction was held in the same year which again cleared the house of the contents, following which it was never to be lived in a home again. The house had finally passed from the Talbot family after nearly seven hundred years of continuous ownership during which they had created one of the great country houses of England.
The house, although empty, still retained many of its fixtures and fittings including the stained glass, panelling, carved doors and lavish wallpaper. However, shortly after the house was sold, reports started that some of these items were being stripped out and sold. Letters dated from July 1924 from the architects building the new office block for the Leek textile firm 'Wardle and Davenport' discuss the purchase of large quantities of panelling ('250ft run for £450'), quantities of stone and doors. Unfortunately the office block was demolished in the 1970s so there is no way of knowing exactly what was incorporated. Throughout the 1920s and 30s the Dining Room and Music Room were turned into tea rooms for the many visitors to the gardens.
The real destruction of the interior started after the Second World War. The Army requisitioned Alton Towers for use by Cadets but were surprisingly good caretakers, though the programme of essential maintenance was largely curtailed. A photographic survey by the National Monuments Record in 1951 showed the house in remarkably good condition. However, the owners in 1952 used the Army occupation as a convenient excuse to strip out anything of any possible saleable value from the roofs to the floorboards and everything in between. Local residents recall lorries piled high with timber and materials passing through Alton village for weeks and although a few protested, their calls fell on deaf ears. Eventually, the remaining unsold materials were piled in the east end of the house and simply set alight. The combination of fire and removal of the floors meant that by the time the owners had finished the house was a empty, derelict, partially burnt-out shell. Today, the Armoury is used as the gift shop with little of the rest of the house used. Some remedial work in the 1970s re-inserted some floors to help provide some structural stability but one of the greatest and most important buildings of the Gothic Revival has been left a denuded shell by the twists of fate which let it fall into the hands of the breakers.
See the interior of the house as it is today: Virtual Tour of Alton Towers
1 - 'The gem of the Peak; or, Matlock Bath and its vicinity' - William Adam (1852)
For more information and with many images of Alton Towers, I highly recommend the book 'Alton Towers - A Gothic Wonderland' by Michael Fisher (1999)