History of Witley Court and Gardens
Witley Court was once of the great country houses of England, reaching its peak in the Victorian period when it was the setting for extravagant parties and royal entertainments. After a devastating fire in 1937, however, it became one of the country’s most spectacular ruins. It is still possible to gain a sense of the opulence and scale of the 19th-century interiors, as well as to see the earlier layers of the building’s history laid bare by the fire.
Witley’s Early History
For nearly two centuries Witley was closely associated with the Foley family, whose fortunes were at first based on the iron industry. When Thomas Foley bought the Witley estate in 1655, Witley Court was a substantial Jacobean mansion, which had developed in turn from a medieval manor house.
The Foleys – whose business began with manufacturing nails – gradually abandoned the industrial base that had made them rich, concentrating instead on being landed aristocrats and politicians. The 1st Baron Foley (1673–1733) enlarged the house significantly, adding wings on either side.
In the mid-18th century the lake known as Front Pool was created to the north of the house by damming the brook that feeds it. Sometime between 1772 and 1794 an ornamental woodland known as the wilderness was planted to the north-east, with walks laid out along the banks of the lake and brook.
By the early 19th century the family fortune was badly eroded. Thomas Foley VII (1780–1833), however – helped by an advantageous marriage – was able to commission John Nash, the leading Regency architect, to design a succession of ambitious alterations to Witley. These included the addition of two massive porticos to the north and south fronts in the early 19th century.
In 1833 the Foleys sold the Witley estate to the trustees of William Ward (1817–85). Although still a minor, Ward was one of the richest individuals in England. Like the Foleys, his fortune came from industry, in this case the income from more than 200 Black Country coal mines.
In the 1850s Witley Court reached its peak of grandeur when Ward, now 1st Earl of Dudley, commissioned the architect Samuel Daukes to remodel it. The transformation, largely complete by 1860, involved recasting the austere exterior in Bath stone, in the ornate Italianate style used for the creation of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. A new curving wing was added at the south-west corner, leading to a vast glass-roofed conservatory.
Within the house, the Georgian interiors gave way to fashionably ornate decoration, much of it in the Louis XV style.
Lord Dudley’s immense wealth, generated largely by his industrial enterprises in the West Midlands, enabled his family to live an extraordinarily opulent life. An army of servants was involved in servicing the property and family. Their number was further swollen during the lavish house parties attended by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and his circle.
Dudley’s fortune also funded the creation of an ornate formal garden at Witley designed in the 1850s by William Andrews Nesfield, the leading garden designer of his day, to complement the remodelled mansion. Nesfield described the gardens at Witley Court as his ‘monster work’ and his additions included the grand formal parterres and the Perseus and Andromeda fountain.
After The Fire
The opulent Witley lifestyle was already a thing of the past when, on the night of 7 September 1937, the head keeper spotted flames spurting from the roof above the servants’ rooms in the south-east corner of the great house. Fanned by a strong wind, the fire spread rapidly downwards into the reception rooms on the main floor. By the next day, much of the house was a smouldering shell.
Although the west side was unaffected, the then owner, Sir Herbert Smith, decided not to rebuild but to put the estate up for sale. Witley was never lived in again and was subsequently stripped and abandoned. Yet, as a ruin, it remains deeply evocative of a bygone age.
In the gardens, the south and east parterres have been restored by English Heritage to give an idea of their Victorian glory. At the centre of the south parterre, the Perseus and Andromeda fountain – one of the grandest in Europe – has been restored to working order. The wilderness was redesigned by Michael Ibbotson of Colvin & Moggridge in 2002 as part of the Contemporary Heritage Garden scheme, creating a naturalised setting of trees with winding paths mown through long grass.
The ensemble is completed by the Georgian parish church (not owned by English Heritage), which has one of the finest interiors of its period in the country.