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It's amazing how powerful a spark is. So small, and yet in a moment it can start something which can devour entire buildings. In this instance it was Rushbrooke Hall; a house which was almost saved, having been bought by the Rothschilds, but within a few short years it had gone, consumed in a blaze. Having been a fixture of the landscape for hundreds of years, this house, though one of the best of its type, was condemned to the slow death of demolition, but fire was to strike first for a quicker end.
Although the lands originally belonged to the nearby Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, since 1180 they had been tenanted by the Rushbrooke family. The land appears to have been bought by the Jermyn family in the early 13th-century who then held it for the subsequent six centuries. The Jermyn family had once held the title of Earl of St Albans but it had expired with the death of the first and last holder, Henry Jermyn, in 1684. The Jermyn's were a staunchly royalist family and Henry, the fourth but second surviving son of Sir Thomas Jermyn (1572-1645). Having become the MP for Bodmin, Cornwall, in 1625 he assiduously played the role of courtier - though he was described as 'a course and brutish libertine' - and won the favour of Charles I's Queen consort, Henrietta Maria of France, to whom he remained loyally and lucratively attached.
A subsidiary title, the barony of Jermyn passed by special remainder, along with the Earl's substantial wealth, to his nephew, Thomas Jermyn, who was already resident at Rushbrooke Hall. Unfortunately Thomas' son, another Thomas, was sadly killed by a falling mast in 1692. The title, as third Lord Jermyn, passed to Thomas' brother Henry but he died without issue and so the Jermyn male line end with his death in 1708. Thomas' family now rode to the rescue. His eldest daughter had married Sir Robert Davers, 2nd bt., (b.1653 - d.1722), owners of the nearby Rougham estate and a Barbados slave plantation. He bought out the other Jermyn family interests and Sir Robert's second son, Sir Jermyn (the fourth baronet), favoured Rushbrooke and invested in enhancing the house. The estate passed through the Daver's family until it passed to Frederick William Hervey, 1st Marquess of Bristol (b.1769 – d.1859) through his marriage to Sir Jermyn's daughter Elizabeth. Only two years later, in 1808, the Earl exchanged Rushbrooke for an estate at Little Saxham, owned by Col. Robert Rushbrooke, returning the house and lands to the original family, who then remained there until 1919.
The house at Rushbrooke was described in 1950 in a Country Life article as a 'famous and beautiful old house'. It was believed to have been built c.1550 by Edmund Jermyn, or c.1575 by Sir Robert Jermyn, and formed one of the core group of larger houses which were in the regional vanguard of the use of brick, alongside similar examples including Assington, Sudbury, Hengrave, Kentwell, Regrave, and others. As such, it ranked as one of the largest and most important sixteenth-century houses in Suffolk. In addition, the lavish attentions of Sir Jermyn Davers, who had made extensive alterations in the early 1700s, including a new north front, comprehensive refenestration, and the impressive interiors with rococo stuccowork and fireplaces, decorated with carvings reputedly by Grinling Gibbons. The Great hall was also probably floored over at this time. Later, the house also fortunately avoided the usual Victorian additions of extensive service wings. Undoubtedly impressive, the house sat at the centre of its estate, rich in history, but growing financially poorer with each generation.
The ever diminishing returns of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century agriculture, condemned many estates. During WWI, Aldeburgh Lodge School was evacuated to the house in early 1915. Those there remember the boys fishing in the moat from dormitory windows and have the run of the panelled rooms. After the war, the owners of the school considered purchasing it and relocating the school there permanently. Unfortunately, a lack of suitable land for playing fields meant that the school gave up the lease and moved back to Aldeburgh (eventually it moved to Orwell Park in 1937, where it ramains today).
In 1919, Captain Robert Basil Wyndham Rushbrooke put the estate up for sale. In October, the estate was duly lotted and auctioned with the house and 195 acres being bought by Captain Philip Ashworth of West Dean Park, Chichester. The contents of the house duly followed. The lots indicate that this was a family breaking almost all ties with their past with family portraits and furniture being sold. The Marchioness of Bristol bought various Jermyn and Davers pictures for the Ickworth collections (but which don't appear to have been passed to the National Trust who now own the house). By 1922, Captain Ashworth had determined that demolition was the only option and had written to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings to warn them. As a tiny charity, it was far beyond their means to rescue the house but thankfully Ashworth sold the estate shortly afterwards to Lord Islington.
Lord Islington (who was the first and last of his title) had held a number of notable appointments, including as Governor of New Zealand and serving in the governments of both Asquith and Lloyd George. His time at Rushbrooke was relatively short, particularly in comparison to the families who had held it previously as he died, childless, in 1936. He undoubtedly saved the house from demolition at that time. After his death, the house may have finally looked as though it was on an upward path towards a solid future as it was bought by Lord Rothschild.
To bring the house up to a suitable standard for himself and his family, Rushbrooke underwent what was probably the most comprehensive refurbishment since Sir Jermyn's work in the 1730s. Mains water, electricity, heating, hot water, security systems were all installed, along with, extensive fire safety measures including fire escapes, hydrants, pumps, fireproof bookcases and strong rooms. Land which had been previously sold off in the 1919 sale was re-acquired, and estate buildings reconstructed. The work took around three years, finishing just as World War II broke out.
In 1941, the Red Cross took over Rushbrooke to become a convalescent home for the wounded. The Rothschilds were never to live in the house they had so carefully restored, though they kept the estate until 2015, when it was sold. The usual pattern for post-war country houses now took hold. Offered to West Suffolk County Council, in 1947 it became a hostel for a farming institute until it was realised that farm land would also be required, scuppering the plans, with the lease surrendered in 1949. For the next decade, the house lay empty, despite efforts to find other institutional uses for it. Without a use, the house had been unheated (especially as it required five tons of coal a day) and dry rot broke out. Photos in the gallery show signs of dereliction and neglect. In 1961, the family decided the house was without a viable future and should be demolished. The porch, some panelling and chimneypieces were removed and reused elsewhere, but the rest remained awaiting the auctioneer's chalk marks and gavel.
No one is sure how the fire started. Perhaps a carelessly discarded workman's cigarette, an electrical fault, or was it deliberate? Whatever the cause, the fire left just a smoking shell, filled with the twisted and charred remains of what was to have been demolished. Although the demolition would have been a tragic end, in other similar circumstances, a final auction would ensure that the finest features and much of the physical material would live on elsewhere. For Rushbrooke, the devastating fire which swept through the house from end-to-end robbed it even of that slim chance of a fragmentary afterlife.
I'm very grateful to Pam Thomas, whose grandfather was headmaster of Aldebrough Lodge School for her recollections of the house at that time.
The incredible photos in the gallery of the house, during the 1950s and just after the fire were taken by Lesley Jerman, and are used here with the permission of his daughter Stacey Whatling, whose kind generosity has enabled this unknown images to be made public - many thanks.