Country House Hospitality

From an article by Brian Quayle in the CIHS Bulletin for April 2019

All good hosts wish to make a favourable impression with their guests and visitors. This is especially true if you wish to sell your goods and services to them or if you wish to solicit their good offices in some way. To this end several of the larger industrial concerns located on the west coast of Cumbria operated their own private guest-houses in which important customers and people of influence could be accommodated, wined and dined. Most properties suitable for such entertaining were already in existence and were acquired as and when houses of the appropriate ambience and location came onto the market. There is one notable exception as we are about to see.

Abbey House – Vickers Ltd
This property is the one exception to the criteria set out above. By 1910 Vickers wanted somewhere impressive in which to entertain ministers and heads of state while negotiating the sale of warships and armaments both to the British Government and to friendly Foreign Powers. No suitable properties seemed to be available and so Vickers resolved to build their own ‘Country House’. They engaged the celebrated architect Edwin Lutyens (later knighted). His brief was to design a country house but without its appendages of stables, service buildings and garden (1) . Lutyens came up with a Neo-Elizabethan H-plan mansion as the guesthouse containing a flat for Vickers managing Director Sir James McKechnie. It was located in the grounds of Furness Abbey on Abbey Road on the outskirts of Barrow and was opened in 1914. Amongst its many illustrious guests can be numbered King George V and other members of the Royal family. Despite becoming a II* Listed Building in 1949 Vickers disposed of the property to Lancashire County Council in 1951 for use as a Residential Care Home. Unsurprisingly it suffered from some neglect and was sold again in 1984 and after extensive refurbishment re-opened as the Abbey House Hotel, a four-star establishment. Historic England briefly describe it thus; Irregularly coursed red ashlar sandstone, graduated slate roof. 3 storeys in H-plan extended by 2-storey cross-wings. Elizabethan style; symmetrical.

Fleatham House – Albright & Wilson
Located in woodland just outside St Bees Fleatham House was about 3 miles from Albright & Wilson’s Marchon Works near Whitehaven. It was built in Victorian times for Thomas Henry Brockbank, solicitor of Helder & Brockbank (43 &44 Lowther St, Whitehaven). By 1901 Brockbank had moved to the nearby house Khandallah and the property was owned by George Scoular a Mining and Civil Engineer and County Councillor. Listed there in 1929 was Alexander Scoular (George’s son?) who was prominent in the steelworks at Workington. The property was then purchased by the Smith family, owners of the Whitehaven packaging firm whose name it bore. A lack of suitable local hotels in which to entertain important customers prompted Marchon Products to acquire the house in 1953. Renovations were overseen personally by Fred Marzillier, one of Marchon’s founding fathers. The house was equipped with a full complement of staff including a manager, with several waiting and domestic staff. Guests were wined and dined lavishly by the resident chef and accommodated in one of nine bedrooms. Important contacts from major customers such as Unilever and Proctor & Gamble provided the bulk of the clientele. Visiting politicians such as Harold Wilson and Ted Heath were also entertained periodically. Indeed some wags suggested that it was only the existence of Fleatham House and Sella Park (see later) and their hospitality which could prompt occasional visits by Jack Cunningham to the constituency he ‘served’ for 22 years. Fleatham was also the venue for meetings of senior management including the notorious 1966 gathering at which the ill-fated decision was taken to invest in the Long Harbour (Newfoundland) project to manufacture elemental phosphorus in preference to purifying phosphoric acid by solvent extraction (2) . It may have seemed like a good idea at the time but events were to prove otherwise. Junior staff ‘of whom great things were expected’ could also expect an occasional invitation to break bread with members of the senior management team in order to test them out. (My invitation is still eagerly awaited). Occasionally accommodation was also provided for artistes performing at the nearby Rosehill Theatre. Following the takeover of A&W by Rhodia in 2000 (and eventual closure of the Marchon Works) Fleatham was sold off and became a small hotel counting celebrated world statesmen such as Anthony Charles Lynton Blair and his family as guests. However due to the retirement of its owners in about 2013 the hotel closed. Some of the grounds were sold off to enable the construction of 3 houses including one named, appropriately enough, Scoular Howe for which the builders won a regional award.

Moresby Hall – High Duty Alloys
This impressive building was accorded Grade I listing in 1967. According to Historic England there were 3 main building phases the earliest of which dates to the late mediaeval period possibly comprising a tower with a hall range attached. Sir Christopher de Moresby fought at Agincourt (1415) and his great granddaughter Mrs Anne Weston sold the Hall to a Cockermouth merchant William Fletcher in 1576. In the about 1615 the Fletcher family remodelled the house extensively to assume a courtyard layout and some attribute this work to Inigo Jones.. The south range was remodelled again in 1670-1690 possibly to designs by William Thackery or Edward Addison. The Fletchers owned the Hall for some 250 years but following the death of Thomas Fletcher who died childless the house changed hands several times and in 1881 was the home of Henry Spencer, a retired Major. (Was he the same Spencer who set up a Wine a & Spirits business in Whitehaven and acquired the Old Brewery on Irish Street?). The Hall eventually ceased to be a manorial residence, fell into disrepair and was used as a farmhouse for some years. In about 1910 it was restored and re-emerged as a small manor house until about 1955. High Duty Alloys’ factory on the site of the defunct Distington Ironworks some 5 miles to the north was erected in 1940 as a ‘shadow’ factory to fabricate aluminium alloy extrusions and castings for the war effort. The factory continued operations after the war and in 1955 bought Moresby Hall for use as the company guesthouse for entertaining important clients. Ownership of the Hall was maintained even though the company itself underwent more than one takeover. Its proximity to Rosehill Theatre lent itself to convenient accommodation for artistes performing there when the usual lodgings at Rosehill House were unavailable. After more than 40 years of custodianship in 1996 the then owners Pechiney put the property on the market. In 1999 the new owners decided to turn the property into a Country House hotel offering facilities for small conferences and weddings and similar events. As for the factory itself production ceased in June 2007 with final closure in early 2008. At the time of writing (2018) the factory buildings still remain but plans for a hotel, restaurant and filling station on the site have been mooted. The promontory on which the Hall and the adjacent church of St Bridget was used by the Romans and several artefacts dating to their occupation have been found on the site. For those who believe in such things the Hall is also reputed to be haunted and has been the subject of a TV programme which investigates such matters.

Newlands House – Workington Iron & Steel Company (and successors)
This property was built as a country house with adjacent two-storey coach house in 1879 on the Whitehaven Road in Workington for local solicitor William Thompson of the firm J C & C Thompson (53 Edkin Street). It took the form of a detached two-storey property with a three-storey annex to the rear. In 1900 the property was conveyed by Thompson’s children (?) to Robert Ernest Highton (1863-1943) the first headmaster of Brigham School, Keswick (1880-1907) and a partner in the Harrington Iron & Coal Co. Highton was also an Alderman on Workington Borough Council and in that capacity on 10th September 1903 laid the foundation stone for the Carnegie Library in the town; on 6th October 1904 he also performed the opening ceremony. In 1913 Highton also purchased the adjacent property Elm Bank so that in 1920 he was in a position to sell Newlands to the United Steel Company. His son Langton Highton became Managing Director of United Steels in Workington. The property was used as the guesthouse for the steelworks for many years until, due to the continual decline of the local works, it was sold off in the early 2000s. It was operated as a hotel but this venture did not prove to be very successful and the hotel closed for business in 2006. The property remained empty for some years until purchased by a local building firm Lattimers of Mealsgate. The intention of this well-regarded firm was to divide the original house into 4 selfcontained homes retaining original features such as stained glass windows and open fireplaces. A further 14 properties were built in the extensive grounds of the main building at comprising a mix of two, three and four-bedroom semi-detached mews with garages and gardens. Lattimers proposed to name the development ‘Newlands Close’ but Workington Town Council made a counter-proposal which the builders were happy to accept. The works of Charles Cammell & Co were relocated from Dronfield to the town in 1882 by James Duffield. He also served as town mayor three times, buying the mayor’s robes for the town. Since the move he had engineered had brought much prosperity to Workington the Council wished to see the name ‘James Duffield Close’ adopted and that is how the development is now known. As an aside it is interesting that in 1901 Duffield’s residence was listed as Tallentire Hall some 4 miles from Cockermouth and well away from the noise and grime of the works of which he was still General Manager.

Sella Park – British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL)
Located between Calderbridge and the Sellafield nuclear plant Sella Park is comprised of a 14th century pele tower incorporated into late 17th century house, with 19th century restorations and in 1967 was accorded Grade II listing. Its precise origins are unclear but it may be even earlier than indicated above since a date of 1278 has been suggested3 for it to be the ‘Sea Grange’ owned by the monks of nearby Calder Abbey. However to add to the mystery it is not mentioned in any list of the Abbey’s lands (4) . On the dissolution of the monasteries Sella Park was supposed to have been granted to Sir Henry Curwen of Workington Hall who in turn gave it to his younger son Thomas. However Henry is said (5) to have bought the property from Thomas Fleming in 1594 casting further doubt on the supposed connection with Calder Abbey. Henry’s grandson Darcy Curwen of the junior branch of the family is said to have built the current house (6) . In 1725 when the senior branch of the family died out the Lordship of Workington passed to Henry Curwen of Sella Park. In 1770 The Curwens sold the property to George Edward Stanley of Ponsonby Hall and it passed to his son Edward who, previously, had married Isabel the eldest daughter of Thomas Curwen of Sella Park. The house remained in the possession of that family until 1925 when it was purchased by Capt. Llewellyn E H Llewellyn CB OBE RN (Retd) who in turn sold it to Mr James McGowan (7) . In 1954 the property was taken over by the Riley family who ran it as a hotel (the venue for my 6th form leaving party – no ‘proms’ back then) until 1979 when it was purchased by BNFL. It was used as an exclusive guesthouse for important reprocessing customers such as those from Japan but following the MOX data fabrication scandal in 1999 relations cooled somewhat and such visits became scarcer. The house was used increasingly to accommodate staff visiting the works from other BNFL sites and for management meetings. Following a re-organisation of the nuclear industry the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) was established in 2005. After a review of its estates the NDA decided it was no longer appropriate for them to continue running Sella Park. In 2008 the property was leased to the Pennington family of Ravenglass who added it to their local portfolio of hostelries and, once again, it is being operated as a Country House hotel.

1. Matthew Hyde & Esme Whittaker ‘Arts & Crafts Houses in the Lake District’ ISBN 978-0-7112-3753-7 (2014)
2. Hugh Podger ‘Albright & Wilson; The Last 50 Years’ ISBN 1 85858 223 7 Brewin Books (2002) 3. John Thorley ‘The Estates of Calder Abbey’ (CWAAS) 2004
4. Mary C. Fair. Calder Abbey (CWAAS) Read at Kendal September 2nd 1953
5. Samuel Jefferson ‘The History and Antiquities of Cumberland: Allerdale Ward above Derwent’ (1842)
6. John F Curwen; The House of Curwen (referenced in turn by Mary C Fair ‘Calder Abbey’ (CWAAS) Read at Kendal, September 2nd, 1953.
7. Mary C. Fair. Sella Park, St. Bridget’s, Beckermet (CWAAS) Read at Penrith, July 7th, 1936.

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