Christine Conlin delves into the history of this Grade 1 listed building
Barlaston Hall is up for sale. Its price tag has gone up from the £1 it changed hands for almost 30 years ago to a cool £2.3 million. How did it go from rack and ruin to become one of the most significant success stories in English heritage?
Barlaston Hall was built in 1756-8 for Leek attorney Sir Thomas Mills to replace the manor house on the Barlaston Estate he had inherited from his late wife. A fine example of an English Palladian country house, it is attributed to Sir Robert Taylor, a sculptor turned architect who also extended the façade of the Bank of England.
Listed in Pevsner’s Architectural Guide to Staffordshire, the elegant red brick hall is tall for its size. The middle three of its five bays project and carry a pediment at the front and a bow on the garden side. Its classical façade retains Taylor’s trademark octagonal and diamond glazing in their sash windows and doors.
In 1774, long before the Wedgwood’ Company’s association with the hall, a lithograph of Barlaston Hall was featured on one of the dishes of a 925-piece ‘Frog’ service specially commissioned by Empress Catherine II of Russia and produced by Josiah Wedgwood at his new Etruria works.
In 1816, the hall passed into the Adderley family when Rosamund Mills, co-heiress of the Barlaston estate married Ralph Adderley of Coton Hall, Hanbury. Their son Ralph Thomas Adderley was High Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1866. Some years after his death, in 1937, the hall and its 380-acre estate were bought by the Wedgwood Pottery Company who built their ‘factory in a garden’ and a model village for their workforce in its grounds.
During the Second World War, Barlaston Hall was occupied by the Bank of England. From 1945, when it was returned to the Company, it became home to the Wedgwood Memorial College. But when dry rot was discovered in the building, the College moved to another house in Barlaston.
Barlaston Hall under repair in 1984 (Photo courtesy of Staffordshire Past Track)
Wedgwood continued to maintain the vacant hall until the 1960s, when it was vandalised and the lead stripped from its roof. By the early 1980s, the building was a wreck. Water was getting in through the roof and there was subsidence from coal mining below. Worse still, surveyors found that the 4-inch cracks in its walls were caused by a geological fault the hall is built over.
The National Coal Board said that it would pay for past subsidence damage to be rectified and for the construction of a concrete raft under the building which could be jacked up to prevent any subsidence in future.
So, on 29 September 1981, Barlaston Hall was sold to SAVE for £1, on condition that the restoration was completed within five years. If they failed to achieve this, Wedgwood retained an option to repurchase it for the same sum.
The scale of the project only hit home when SAVE President Marcus Binney made his first visit to Barlaston in October that year:
“All the floorboards had been removed, and the ceilings and plasterwork had crashed down into the basement with the weight of water pouring through the roof,” he recalled. “The main staircase had collapsed long ago, only the upper flight remained, hanging precariously in space. The back staircase collapsed a few weeks later.”
But Binney also realised that dereliction could be an advantage.
“Everything that was normally concealed behind plasterwork was open again for all to see.”
Barlaston Hall would not just be a restoration triumph but an “archeological document” as well.
An independent trust was established to restore the hall, starting with repairs to the roof. Over the next four years, with the help of Historic Building Council grants and the support of the Manifold Trust, the exterior was successfully restored.
But problems developed with the Coal Board, who threatened to renege on their original undertaking.
According to the Coal Act, three conditions had to be met for the Coal Board to pay to repair and stabilise the hall. The Secretary of State had to rule it was of outstanding architectural interest. This Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Heseltine had already done. However, the Secretary also had to certify that restoration was both practicable and in the public interest – assurances which Heseltine’s less decisive successors had failed to provide.
Seizing their advantage, the Coal Board were refusing to build the concrete raft and offered instead a paltry £25,000 towards past damage. The repairs for this had been estimated at £100,000.
In desperation, SAVE sought leave to bring a judicial review. They issued a writ naming the Secretary of State for the Environment as the first party for failing to provide the necessary certificates and the Coal Board as second party. Surprise, surprise, the government acted quickly and SAVE received the missing certificates next day!
The move brought the Coal Board came back to the negotiating table, agreeing to pay £120,000 as subsidence compensation. They also agreed to fund the preventative works – and the legal fees as well.
Then followed more good news – Wedgwood extended its original time limit by another three years in recognition of the work SAVE had done. With the help of grants from English Heritage and a loan from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, work recommenced to make the hall structurally safe.
In the early 1990s, the trust put the hall on the market as a restored shell. Step forward current owners James and Carol Hall, who were looking to move with their two daughters from Wandsworth to Derbyshire.
“I was sent a proof of a brochure and saw this large and beautiful house that had a curious price tag of just £300,000,”
said Carol in a ‘Country Life’ interview.
“I immediately called James, who was working in Manchester, and told him to go and see it. He went to have a look one evening, when the night watchman showed him round. It was all open floorboards and torches. He later called me and told me that I was barking mad, but the seed was sown. It had a roof, it had windows and we could just about afford it.”
“Luckily, because it’s Grade 1 listed, we knew that we’d get some support from English Heritage,”
Carol added. The Halls bought the hall in the summer of 1992, living in its lower ground floor flat for the five years it took for the rest of the interior to be restored.
This included new internal walls, ceilings, plasterwork and staircases. Much of the work was done by specialist craftsmen who had honed their skills on the restoration of Uppark, a West Sussex Georgian mansion run by the National Trust.
The layout of the rooms remains unchanged. On the first floor, the four living rooms radiating from the hallway hall are of classical proportions. The dining room, with its meticulously restored Rococco plasterwork can seat 26. In pride of place hangs the restored 18th century Mills family portrait which the Halls discovered rolled up in a London flat.
The library with its glass-fronted mahogany bookshelves looks out over 4 ½ acres of garden, parts of which have been redesigned by RHS Chelsea Flower Show gold medallist Arabella Lennox-Boyd. Robert Taylor’s restored cantilevered Chinese Chippendale staircase leads to four first-floor bedrooms and a second floor with another five bedrooms and bathroom.
“What strikes people is that it’s very much a family house rather than a series of big formal rooms that don’t get used, it’s actually lived in,”
Carol explained. Which echoes Marcus Binney’s judgment when he was invited to visit the completed project.
“The architect built a villa, not a mansion. Now that it is in safe hands, all SAVE’s hard work has been rewarded.”
But after 22 years, the Halls have decided to sell Barlaston Hall and take on another project in the Highlands.
“It’s time for someone else to enjoy the house,” says Carol.
The rebirth of Barlaston Hall as a family home after decades of institutional use, and later desperate neglect has gone down in the annals of the country-house movement as a landmark case in the history of preservation.
The current sale is being handled by Knight Frank, who describe it as “an architectural triumph.” Whatever its new ownership, long may this elegant Georgian villa continue to prosper and thrive.