Redgrave Hall


Location   Redgrave
Year demolished   1946  
Reason   Damage due to wartime requisitioning, surplus to requirements  
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Text written by, and copyright of, Nicholas Kingsley - many thanks

The manor of Redgrave in Suffolk belonged from the 11th century onwards to Bury St Edmunds Abbey, and by the early 13th century the abbots had a hunting lodge here, set in a deer park. At the dissolution of the abbey in 1539 the estate passed to the Crown, which sold it in 1542 to Sir Nicholas Bacon (1510-79), who rose to be Lord Keeper of the Great Seal under Queen Elizabeth I. The house he acquired was described at the time as 'sore decayed', and between 1545 and 1554 he created a new mansion, incorporating part of the old work. The new house was an unusually early example of a perfectly symmetrical building, although we cannot be certain that the house took this form originally, as flanking wings were added in the 1560s (after Queen Elizabeth reputedly told Bacon that the house was not grand enough for a man of his position), and the centre could have been altered then.

In planning terms the house was more traditional, with the central entrance leading into a screens passage with the two-storey hall to its left and the family rooms in the left-hand wing, whereas the service rooms lay to the right. We know an unusual amount about the building of the house from the surviving documentation. Sir Nicholas, who had a considerable interest in architecture, appears to have played a major part in its design, but was advised by John Gybbon, a Southwark mason, and it was he who prepared the initial ground plan. Similarities with Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich suggest that the builders may have been Edward Withipoll and his team. The appearance of the house is known from a view of c.1676, which shows a gabled house approached through two balustraded forecourts, with a central octagonal cupola above a central porch with a sculptural panel above the door and an elaborate cresting and pinnacles. To either side of the centre, inner gables no doubt mark the extent of the original house, and then much longer wings with oriel windows in the ends the additions of the 1560s. The house was complemented by two walled gardens decorated with turrets or pinnacles, and in the 1560s a viewing mount was constructed in the park from which hunting or deer coursing could be viewed. A new approach was made from the south, crossing the stream valley below the house by a bridge and causeway.

When Sir Nicholas died in 1579 he was succeeded at Redgrave by his eldest son, Sir Nicholas Bacon (1540-1624), who in 1611 was the first recipient of one of the hereditary knighthoods - baronetcies - created by King James I. His descendants have been distinguished as the 'Premier Baronets of England' down to the present day. Redgrave remained unchanged throughout the 17th century, passing to Sir Edmund Bacon (d. 1649), 2nd bt, his brother Sir Robert Bacon (d. 1655), 3rd bt., and then in turn to two of the latter's grandsons, Sir Edmund Bacon (d. 1685), 4th bt. and Sir Robert Bacon (d. 1704), 5th bt. Sir Robert moved to Garboldisham (Norfolk) and in 1702 he sold Redgrave to Sir John Holt (d. 1709), Lord Chief Justice of Kings Bench. Sir John died without issue, so the estate passed to his brother Rowland Holt (1652-1719), and then to the latter's son, Rowland Holt (1698-1739) and grandson, Rowland Holt (1723-86), whose mother was a cousin of George Washington, the first US President.

It was this third Rowland who finally made changes to the house. In about 1763 he brought in Capability Brown to redesign the parkland. A lake was formed by damming the stream south of the house, which submerged Bacon's bridge and causeway. New stables, an orangery and a boathouse were built, together with a domed octagonal cottage known as the Round House, carefully sited as a landscape feature to the south-east. Plans for remodelling the house followed. A new south range was built across the ends of the wings of the Tudor house, enclosing a courtyard, and the whole building was clad in Suffolk white brick with stone dressings. The new south front was of nine bays with a central portico of four Ionic columns supporting a pediment: a beautifully proportioned statement of neo-classical architectural purity. The west side was made to echo the south front, with a further three-bay pediment, but the side elevation to the east, also of nine bays, was rather less successful, for while the end elevation of the new block matched the front, the encased older range behind was given different ground-floor fenestration, with taller arched windows set in recesses. Brown proposed the addition of flanking wings, but these were never carried out.

The reception rooms of the remodelled house were in the south and west wings. The entrance hall (which doubled as a saloon) was in the centre of the south front, with the dining room to its right, the main staircase behind it, and drawing room to its left. Down the east side of the house ran an enfillade of interconnecting rooms: two libraries, a morning room and a billiard room. The great hall of Bacon's house became the kitchen, and the rest of the ground floor of the old house was service accommodation. On the first floor, a corridor ran around three sides of the courtyard, giving access to the bedrooms. The new house was largely complete by 1773, when the Hon. William Hervey visited. Brown was paid £10,000, most of which was passed on to his architectural associate, Henry Holland, who oversaw the brick and masonry work, and John Hobcraft, who supervised the carpentry and joinery.

In 1786 the estate passed to Rowland Holt's brother Thomas, who bequeathed it in 1799 to his nephew, Admiral George Wilson (1756-1826). He was succeeded by his son, George St. Vincent Wilson (1806-52), who was visited here by King WIlliam IV in the 1830s. The King was impressed by the Brown landscape, and called it 'the most beautiful combination of land and water in Eastern England'. Both the Admiral and his son were addicted to high living, and George was also very fond of hunting, and kept a pack of hounds at kennels in the park. By 1845 he was running out of money, and he moved out of the house and let it. His brother, John Wood Wilson (1812-72) worked hard to put the estate back on a sound footing, and by the 1860s he was able to afford the redecoration of some of the principal rooms, with the entrance hall/saloon ceiling being given a Pompeian treatment. The house was then handed over to his nephew, George Holt Wilson (1836-1924), who had just married. They lived at Redgrave for some years, but the Agricultural Depression made the estate unprofitable and the house was vacated in the 1890s and let.

During the First World War it was used for billeting troops. In the 1920s the family suffered a blow from the death of George Rowland Holt Wilson in 1928, soon after his father, with consequent double death duties. It was an impoverished estate which passed to John Holt Wilson (1900-63), and after unsuccessfully trying to let the house in the 1930s, he asked the architect Basil Oliver to make plans for restoring and updating the house to make it more attractive. Nothing was done, perhaps because the Second World War intervened. During the war, the house was particularly badly treated by the British and American soldiers who occupied it, and the park was occupied by the largest US military hospital in Europe and a PoW camp. After the War, John Holt Wilson decided to demolish the Hall to raise money to plough into the Estate. The interior features - fireplaces, ceilings, staircases - were sold, and then the house itself was taken down brick by brick. All that he left standing was the kitchens - the core of the Tudor house - and the cellars beneath. He hoped one day to be able to make them part of a smaller house, but there was no revival of fortunes, and in the 1960s this surviving fragment, which had become dangerous, was also pulled down, along with the Capability Brown orangery.

In 1971 the park was sold to Guy and Elizabeth Topham, who created a modern industrial farm at Redgrave. The Capability Brown stables were partly demolished and the rest remodelled out of all recognition as a new house. The walled gardens were demolished. Much of the Park was turned over to arable farmland, and many old trees were removed. A complex of large prefabricated sheds were set up in the centre of the Park, and used for storing agricultural produce. Belts of trees created by 'Capability' Brown on the north-eastern side known as the 'Straight Parts' were removed. Of the buildings erected by Brown, only the Roundhouse and the Kennels, which are listed, survive, but the lake still gives a coherence to the estate. In 2015 the estate was put on the market as having the potential to be the setting for a new country house, but whether the purchaser has any such intention I do not know.