The country house was often the headquarters of a business relating to both the estate and the affairs of the family who lived there. This role was to be mirrored in the latter half of the 20th-century as firms sought to adopt the prestige of stately homes and set up their offices in the many country houses which were then available. As times changed companies found it harder to justify such lavish accommodation, leading to a steady trickle of houses being sold – and the latest is Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire.
The Second World War ushered in the modern era of offices in country houses. The danger of aerial bombing had dramatically increased by WWII forcing many firms to look outside London for safety. The late 1930s saw a number of companies actively scouting out possible alternatives, with country houses an ideal choice due to their size and seclusion. This new lease of life included a surprisingly wide range of houses including the beautiful Wrest Park, Bedfordshire. A fanciful French château, built in the 1830s to the accomplished designs of the owner, Thomas de Grey, 2nd Earl de Grey, it features some of the finest, and earliest, Rococo Revival interiors in the country. The house was sold in 1939 for £25,000 by John G. Murray to the Sun Insurance Company (later Sun Alliance) who bought it in anticipation of war. They promptly moved there from London once war had been declared, having made extensive internal alterations. Such scenes were undoubtedly repeated in many country houses – though invasive, such a use was preferable to the treatment meted out at the hands of enlisted men or children.
Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)
Other houses had the good fortune to secure relatively benign tenants for the duration of the war. The imposing Stratton Park, Hampshire, was built between 1803-06 by George Dance the Younger for Sir Francis Baring, Lord Northbrook, a founder of Barings Bank. Although it had been sold following the death of his descendent, Francis Baring, 2nd Earl of Northbrook in 1929, the house was bought back by Barings Bank in 1939 as their base for the duration of the conflict (though sadly it was demolished in 1960 by a later Baring who had bought it after the war). The nearby Cranbury Park had the Bank of England as its tenants.
The extensive alterations to even such an important house as Wrest Park indicated the level of damage such intensive use could bring to buildings which had not been designed for such a purpose. The post-war era held many threats to country houses and use as offices saved many from the wave of destruction which led to the demolition of so many in the 1950s. In 1949, Wrest Park was sold to the Ministry of Works, who leased it to what became the Silsoe Research Institute which inflicted even more stress on the house and estate. Simon Jenkins, in his book ‘England’s Thousand Best Houses‘, wrote that ‘The [Institute’s] outbuildings spoil the approach avenue and its abuse of the interior is dreadful. The best of the reception rooms, the library, is packed with modern bookcases and computer equipment. Other rooms are cheaply kitted out for lectures and seminars. It is like a Soviet academy of sciences camped in a St Petersburg palace.’. Restoration since 2006 has helped some rooms recover their splendour.
The pressure to create more space is often the cause of the most damaging changes to a country house. Simon Jenkins’ criticism of the additional buildings at Wrest Park can similarly be levelled at the extensive construction which has taken place at Hursley House, Hampshire , home of IBM UK. The house itself was originally built between 1721-24, with ‘gentleman architect’ Sir Thomas Hewett acting as architectural consultant for Sir William Heathcote, and with further major reconstruction in 1902-03 to create the imposing Queen Anne house which appears in various marketing materials.
What the images don’t show is the huge campus which has sprung up so close to the house since IBM took over the site in 1958. A more intelligent approach to the siting of extra accommodation can be seen at the Computer Associates site at Ditton Park, Berkshire, where the new office buildings have been placed a sensitive distance from the main house.
Sadly, once used as offices, it likely that it is a permanent fate. However, some offer a remarkable opportunity to rescue a house and bring it back to the glory of being a single family home. One such example is Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire, which has had something of a chequered history. The originally built between c1735-40 for John Barrington to designs by John Sanderson (b.? – d.1774), an architect who Howard Colvin wrote was described as a competent ‘second-generation Palladian’, who worked on an impressive roster of houses including Hagley Hall, Kelham Hall (burnt down 1857), Kirtlington Park, Pusey House, Langley Park, Copped Hall, and Kimberley Hall.
Barrington Hall remained unfinished and uninhabited for 128 years but was eventually restored in 1867 by George Lowndes, a distant relative of John Barrington, who employed the Lincolnshire architect Edward Browning to remodel it in a Jacobean style. The changes created an attractive house with a varied and interesting form, featuring a series of handsome architectural details such as the ‘Dutch’ gables, quoins and a miniature ogee turret. The house remained a home until 1977 when it became offices and was subsequently sold in 1980 to CPL Aromas LTD. It now seems that the company has decided that a stately home is a luxury no longer required.
Although originally offered several months ago for £5m (with 32.85-acres), it seems possible that a serious, but lower, offer could be successful. It would probably take at least £2m to restore this fascinating house, creating the rich and lively interiors which it needs to match the exterior and bring it back to life, but whoever did so would have the pleasure and pride of having rescued an interesting country house from the drudgery of corporate service.
For the unabridged version of this article, featuring more houses and detail, please read: ‘The estate office: country houses as corporate headquarters – and Barrington Hall, for sale‘
Matthew Beckett writes about the UK’s wonderful country houses at ‘The Country Seat‘ blog and also on twitter @thecountryseat. He also writes and researches about the hundreds of lost country houses at ‘Lost Heritage – a memorial to demolished English country houses‘.