Erlestoke Park


Location   Erlestoke
Year demolished   1950  
Reason   Fire  
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Text written by, and copyright of, Nicholas Kingsley - many thanks

The Brouncker family acquired the manor of Erlestoke in Wiltshire in the early 16th century, and built an Elizabethan manor house there, of which almost nothing is known. They held the estate until 1720, when Dauntsey Brouncker sold it to George Heathcote, who in turn sold it to Peter Delmé in 1737. Delmé, whose principal seat was Place House, Titchfield (Hants), left it to his son of the same name. He sold it in 1780 to John Smith, a merchant of Lambeth on the southern edge of London, who died soon after purchasing the estate. His son, Joshua Smith (1732-1819) enclosed the parish in 1782, making possible the creation of a park, which was landscaped by William Emes from 1786 onwards, and providing a context for the rebuilding of the house. For this, Smith turned to the relatively obscure George Steuart (1730-1806), whose neo-classical houses are characterised by 'an elegant restraint that verges upon bleakness'. Stoke Park, built in 1786-91, was no exception, and has the thinly-modelled elevations, chaste decoration, and compact planning that were typical of Steuart's designs.

The new house was set on a hill east of the church. It was a rectangular three storey block with lower recessed wings to either side. The proportions of the main block were essentially nine bays by five, but the outer two bays at each end of the main front were treated as one for the purposes of fenestration: on the entrance front they were given tripartite windows on each floor, all enclosed within a shallow arched recess; while on the garden front they were framed by paired Corinthian pilasters supporting a full entablature that occupied the height of the attic storey in the centre. Inside, the house had a series of grandly conceived yet sparely decorated interiors. The front entrance portico led into a hall with a screen of columns across the back wall. To the right were the dining and drawing rooms; in the centre of the garden front was a library; and to the left were a breakfast room, the principal staircase, and an oval dressing room. Each room had simple plasterwork of almost excessively delicate and refined elegance. Perhaps the most dramatic space was on the first-floor, where a dramatic narrow top-lit gallery rose through the attic floor.

When Joshua Smith died, aged 86, in 1819, the estate passed to his three married daughters, who sold it to George Watson-Taylor (né Watson), a profligate, larger-than-life character, who was the son of a Jamaican plantation-owner. After education in England he became a playwright (his play 'England Preserv'd' of 1795 was praised by George III for its anti-French sentiments), and also a poet and political journalist. On the strength of this, he became Lord Castlereagh's private secretary, and worked with him in Ireland and later at the India Office. In 1809 he married Anna Taylor, who was a niece of the richest man in Jamaica but who did not come into serious money until her brother died in 1813. It was her wealth that enabled the couple to buy Erlestoke (for £200,000). Watson-Taylor also claimed to have spent £180,000 improving conditions for the slaves on his Jamaican plantations, but he was a convinced opponent of the abolition of slavery. The Watson-Taylors spent lavishly on entertainments and already in 1823 there were signs of financial trouble. The headlong dash to penury continued, and in 1830 the Duchess of Kent and Princess Victoria were entertained at Erlestoke. Two years later, they hit the financial buffers and the contents of the house were auctioned off in a 21-day sale.

The Watson-Taylors moved away, and in 1837 the house and park were let to John Cam Hobhouse, later Lord Broughton. In 1844, however, Simon Watson-Taylor, George's son, returned and lived more modestly at Erlestoke until 1902. He does seem to have made one major change to the house however. At some point in his long ownership, the approach was changed so that the original garden front became the entrance side, with the former library becoming a new entrance hall and being given a Victorian porch. On the original entrance side, the porch was demolished and the recessed front wall behind it was brought forward. Inside, this meant adding a second colonnade into the entrance hall, on the line of the original front wall. It was a bizarre and expensive alteration, for very limited apparent gain, and did not improve the external appearance of either front.

The estate was finally broken up early in the 20th century; the more outlying parts being sold in 1907 and 1910, and the house, park and village houses in 1920. The house and park subsequently came into the hands of F. H. & F. W. Green and Sons, timber merchants of Chesterfield, who felled the timber in the park and then sold the house on to the rather dubious Rev. J. W. Potter, who opened it as a spiritualist centre and hotel, and was involved in several dodgy financial scams. During and after the Second World War, the house was used as a Senior Army Officers' training school, but in 1950 the main part of the house was burned down and the shell demolished. After a period of disuse the Home Office acquired the wings and outbuildings of the house in 1960, and opened it as a Youth Custody Centre and more recently as a full adult prison.