Printer Friendly

Wembury House, Devon: 'a house of legendary grandeur'.

Wembury House at the southwest tip of Devon is still, as Tristram Risdon put it nearly two centuries ago, 'a most elegant mansion', (1) but what we now see represents only the epilogue to a long and distinguished history that began with the Augustinian Priory of Plympton. The Priory was founded in 1121 by William Warelwast, a nephew of William I and later Bishop of Exeter, who ensured it was liberally endowed. (2) In due course Wembury became part of that endowment as a monastic grange, and it remained the property of the Black Canons until the Dissolution in 1539. It was then granted by the Crown to Thomas Wriothesley (1505-50), 1st Earl of Southampton, a royal favourite and the recipient of more than one Devon monastic property. His son, the 2nd Earl, conveyed it to Thomas Chamberlayne in 1579, and twelve years later it was sold again. At that time, it was described as 'a fair estate', (3) but its agricultural status was about to change.

The new owner was Sir John Hele (1543?-1608), one of the many successful lawyers who flourished in Devon during Elizabeth's reign.4 He came from a large family, which is first identified in the hamlet of Hele, a few miles north of Exeter. John was sent to the Inner Temple where--in John Prince's words--'he grew into great reputation', (5) but his career blossomed in the West Country when, in 1592, he was appointed both MP and Recorder for Exeter. In 1594, he was back in London as a Serjeant-at-law, followed by promotion as Principal Serjeant for James I, who knighted him in 1603. It was as the King's representative that he prosecuted Sir Walter Raleigh in 1603-1604.

Then, as now, a legal career could generate a fortune, which in Sir John's case amounted to 'about an hundred thousand pounds', (6) which he employed in building a magnificent house on the site of the old monastic dorter. In an age of prodigy houses, Wembury seems to have held its own, and Risdon described it as 'equalling if not excelling all other in these western parts for uniform building, a sightly seat for shew, for receipt spacious; for cost sumptuous; for sight, salubrious; near the sea, upon an advanced ground, whereby all houses of office are under it; having a delightful prospect both to sea and land.' (7) A glimpse of the interior is also provided by Prince, who was particularly struck by the dining room chimney piece, 'valued at no less than five hundred pounds containing the representation of two armies drawn up in batalia, all in polished marble, done after the life with such exactness, that nothing can exceed it; the very nails in the horseshoes are not omitted.' (8) Prince also provides a clue to the architectural style of the house when he writes: 'From the lower gate which stands at a considerable distance you might have seen the upper end of the Great Hall, which was of the figure of a Roman T[emple] into which you ascended by steps distinguished into several uniform fiats, adorned with rayes and balisters.' (9) The cost of Sir John's house, which contained forty-two hearths--the largest number by far recorded in any house in Devon (10)--was reckoned to be twenty thousand pounds; even the gatehouse was 'fit for the accommodation for a large and genteel family'. (11) Nothing of it now survives.

From these rather vague accounts, it is clear that Wembury was indeed an exceptional house with only one rival in Devon, namely Sir Richard Edward Seymour's Berry Pomeroy Castle, which he remodelled in the 1590s and which is said to have cost 'upward of twenty thousand pounds', (12) albeit over a longer period of time than Wembury. It too is now a ruin, but perhaps its balustrade and columned loggia may have been related to the temple-like appearance of Wembury. The identities of the architects--or more precisely of the master masons--responsible for both buildings are unknown. One name that has been suggested for Berry Pomeroy is the West Country mason William Arnold, whose name is also associated with Robert Cecil's Cranbourne Manor and Lord Suffolk's Lulworth Castle, both in Dorset, and The Hall, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire. Those three houses are all built on balustered terraces, but unfortunately the connection cannot be taken any further.

Beyond Wembury House itself, there were two other features of Sir John's estate that were peculiar to it. One was the tidal fishpond on the Yealm Estuary, which 'contrived so as to be stored with fish by the influx of the tide, and closed by the floodgates, which prevented their return to the ocean.' (13) The substantial remains of this hydraulic marvel can still be seen (Fig. 1). The other feature was the vast buttressed rampart on the southwest boundary of the present garden, broad enough to sustain a grass terrace. It is uncertain whether its original purpose was to ensure privacy or to serve as a defence, but the proximity of the sea and the possibility of invasion suggests the latter. It is unique in Devon, and today does service as a fox-proof chicken run (Figs. 2 and 3).


Sir John Hele died in 1608, leaving eight sons. The eldest, Sir Warwick Hele, married a Courtenay, but had no issue, so his estate passed to his nephew, another John, who built the picturesque Hele Almshouses in 1682 opposite the front gates to the house (Fig. 5). He left a daughter, Jane, who married Sir Edward Hungerford, a baronet impoverished by the Civil War, who sold the Wembury estate in 1686 for eleven thousand pounds to the Devon-born General George Monck (1608-70), Duke of Albemarle. Monck was a canny politician as well as a ruthless General, who had not only served Cromwell, but also played an important role in restoring Charles II to the throne--for which service he received his dukedom. His son, Christopher, the 2nd Duke, was less effective and performed badly against the Duke of Monmouth's rebels in 1685. (14) Shortly afterwards he sold Wembury to John Pollexfen, a member of an old Devon family, the MP for Plympton and also a London merchant (his elder brother had been Lord Chief Justice). Pollexfen had the house rebuilt 'not to its disadvantage', (15) and unlike its predecessor, a drawing of it--by Edmund Prideaux (1693-1745) and dated 1716--survives (Fig. 6). (16)


The main facade follows a conventional late seventeenth-century 2-3-2 bay rhythm beneath a hipped roof, with, to the rear, two more bays on either side. However, grafted onto this facade are other unusual elements which reveal the author of the design. At the centre of the house is a raised three-bay attic storey with a balustrade, while marking the corners of the three-bay frontispiece and the two-bay elevations either side, there are heavily rusticated quoins, perhaps implying pilasters. The source of these details is Dutch, but closer to Wembury was another Devon house that had been similarly detailed only a few years previously. This was Escot, approximately ten miles east of Exeter, which had been built for Sir Walter Yonge by the polymath architect Robert Hooke (1635-1703), Sir Christopher Wren's (1632-1723) colleague in the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666 (Fig. 4). (17) That Pollexfen knew both Hooke and Yonge is confirmed in Hooke's diary, (18) and through Pollexfen's participation in the rebuilding of St Stephen's, Walbrook, with which Hooke was also involved. Pollexfen's parliamentary duties, which he had in common with his fellow MP Yonge, provide further evidence of his association with metropolitan activities. (19)


Pollexfen died in 1715 and his son, another John, inherited. Wembury then descended through the female line until it was sold in 1757 to William Molesworth of Pencarrow in Cornwall. (20) His daughter Frances, an heiress, brought it in 1785 to the first Marquess of Camden, (21) who sold it in 1803 for twenty-six thousand pounds to Thomas Lockyer, a Plymouth merchant and sailmaker. It was 'a cheap purchase' (22) because, as the diarist John Swete had noted a decade earlier in 1793, the house was 'in a state of great decay if not entirely dilapidated'. (23) Lockyer's solution was to pull it down and start again. In the process he sold the materials for eight hundred pounds, including the Portland stone facing to the walls and perhaps the sash window frames, which--like those at Chatsworth--were gilded.

The new house is more modest in scale than its predecessors: five bays long plus a service bay to the north (Fig. 7). It is built of rubble stone with ashlar dressings on a granite plinth. Red 'brick' lintels over the windows are actually trompe l'oeil paint. The house is two storeys high, excluding a deep basement and an attic storey tucked behind the parapet which hides the hipped roof. It is planned as a traditional double pile with a staircase hall at its centre. The finest room, now used as a drawing room, is on the southeast side, furnished with a white marble fireplace carved with female figures to either side. The ceiling is a lavish confection of modillion cornice and a centre rose. The dining room on the opposite side of the hall also has a marble fireplace and, like many of the rooms, retains the original mahogany doors.


Unhappily for Lockyer, he never saw his house completed due to his premature death following a carriage accident in 1806. (24) His son, also Thomas, (25) concluded the work, but moved in 1822 to South Wembury House (now known as Thorn). Wembury became the property of Sir Edward Thornton, Count of Cassilas, a retired diplomat and a Privy Councillor. (26) He died in 1850, and his son sold the house three years later. (27) It changed hands four times thereafter, until finally in 1948 the MP Sir Henry Studholme bought it with thirty-five acres for thirteen thousand pounds. (28) He died in 1987, having increased the size of the estate, and Wembury was sold to a property company. (29) It is a reflection on the rise in twentieth-century property values that over thirty years the price had leapt to 1,290,000 [pounds sterling]. Almost immediately, the house was sold again to the current owners, Mr and Mrs Tim Hanbury. They have made their own contributions to it, particularly by changing the entrance front from the west to the east side and building a granite perron and a new front door in place of a sash window (Fig. 8). It is flanked by an original pair of niches that protect two carved wood classical figures bearing floral attributes.


What then is the connection between Wembury and The National Trust? The answer is covenants. Before carrying out alterations to the house or land, the Hanburys, like all future owners of Wembury, are obliged to comply not only with the planning regulations and listed building consent (the house is listed Grade II*), but also to obtain the consent of The National Trust, which is the beneficiary of restrictive covenants. These were given to the Trust in 1966 by Sir Henry Studholme in order to protect the property from development in a popular holiday area constantly under threat. Covenants are sometimes regarded as the Cinderellas of the Trust's 'portfolio', but their impact can be considerable. In Devon the Trust owns covenants on one hundred and nine houses in North Devon, once part of the Chichester Estate, a large area of Broadclyst village, originally the Acland Estate, three historic houses--including Wembury--and several farms. Monitoring changes requires resources that are not always readily available, but at a time when the acquisition of buildings becomes an increasingly expensive option, the alternative of protection through covenant management is an attractive and effective solution.

(1) Tristram Risdon, The Chorographical Description, or Survey, of the County of Devon, with the City and County of Exeter, etc., London, 1811, p. 397.

(2) Dom John Stephan (ed.), The Ancient Religious Houses of Devon: Adapted from the 'Historic Collections' and the 'Monastic Dioec. Exoriensis' of George Oliver, D.D., Exeter, 1935, p. 43.

(3) John Prince, Vicar of Berry-Pomeroy, Danrnonii Orientales Illustres, or, The Worthies of Devon ... etc., Exeter, 1701, p. 485.

(4) W.G. Hoskins, Devon, Newton Abbot, 1954, p. 77. However, according to Sir Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography (hereafter DNB), London, 1885-1900, vol. IX, p. 370, he was also 'alleged to be drunken, insolent and overbearing'.

(5) Prince, op. cit., p. 485.

(6) Ibid., p. 485.

(7) Risdon, op. cit., pp. 199-200.

(8) Prince, op. cit., p. 485.

(9) Ibid., p. 485. The main approach to the house at that time was from the direction of the River Yealm to the south-east.

(10) T.L. Stoate, Devon Hearth Tax Returns 1674, Bristol, 1982, p. IX.

(11) The Reverend Daniel Lysons, Topographical and Historical Account of Devonshire, London, 1822, p. 54.

(12) His Grace the Duke of Somerset, Presidential Address for the Transactions of The Devonshire Association, vol. CXXXIII, 2001, p. 11. The history of Berry Pomeroy is exhaustively considered in Jean Manco, 'The History of Berry Pomeroy Castle', Devon Archaeological Society Proceedings, no. 54, 1996, pp. 203-17.

(13) Lysons, op. cit., p. 549.

(14) The Rev. Thomas Moore, The History of Devonshire, London, 1829-31, vol. 11, pp. 443-66.

(15) Prince, op. cit., p. 485.

(16) The drawing, still in the possession of the Prideaux Brune family, was published in John Harris, 'The Prideaux Collection of Architectural Drawings', Architectural History, vol. vii, no. 59, 1964, pp. 19-108 (there wrongly identified as Mothecombe).

(17) Colen Campbell, Vitruvius Britannicus, vol. I, London, 1715, plates 78-79. Escot was destroyed by fire in 1808.

(18) H.W. Robinson and W. Adams (eds.), The Diary of Robert Hooke, 1672-80, London, 1935. There are nine references to Pollexfen between 1673 and 1680.

(19) This association between Hooke and Pollexfen was first noted in Bridget Cherry, 'The Devon Country House in the late Seventeenth and

early Eighteenth Centuries', Devon Archaeological Society Proceedings, no. 46, 1988, pp. 110-11.

(20) He was the second son of Sir John Molesworth, 4th Baronet.

(21) He was the eldest son of the 1st Earl of Camden, Lord Chancellor. In 1795, he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, where he was deeply unpopular. In 1804, he became Secretary of State for War. Canning described him as 'useless lumber'. See also DNB, vol. XVI, p. 292.

(22) Richard Polwhele, History of Devonshire, London, 1793-1806, vol. III, p. 454.

(23) Reverend John Swete, Travels in Georgian Devonshire, Todd Gray and Margery Rowe (eds.), Exeter, 1998, vol. II, p. 17.

(24) Plymouth, West Devon Record Office (hereafter WDRO), 246/7.

(25) He became Lord Mayor of Plymouth in 1806 (his brother Edmund played a prominent role in the colonisation of Western Australia in 1853).

(26) Thornton had served abroad during the Napoleonic Wars, particularly in Sweden and Denmark. After a brief appointment as Ambassador to Brazil, he was posted to Portugal, where the King invested him with the title of Count.

(27) WDRO, 246/14.

(28) WDRO, 2777/108 (5). Studholme was MP for Tavistock from 1942 to 1966, and Vice-Chamberlain to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II.

(29) WDRO, 2777/108 (7).

Hugh Meller began his career as a criminal lawyer. In the 1970s, he retrained and became Architectural Adviser to the Victorian Society. Since 1980, he has been the National Trust's Curator in Devon. Publications include London Cemeteries (3rd edition, 1994), and Exeter Architecture (1989).
COPYRIGHT 2003 Apollo Magazine Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Meller, Hugh
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 1, 2003
Previous Article:A Minton floor rediscovered at Cliveden.
Next Article:A George III silver service at Waddesdon Manor.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |