Over the Easter weekend I took a trip to Speke Hall a National Trust managed property. It is a rare example of a Tudor timber-framed wattle-and-daub Tudor manor house and it is located in an unusual setting sandwiched between Liverpool John Lennon Airport and the banks of the River Mersey. It is said that it is one of the finest surviving examples of its kind.
The Hall was built in the Tudor period by the devout Catholic Norris family who were keen to impress visitors with the grandeur of their home and in particular the magnificent Great Hall. William Norris II began building the house with funds accumulated from the spoils of war. He also started the long tradition of Norris’s becoming members of parliament for Liverpool.
The building has seen more than four centuries of turbulent history. From the Tudor period when Catholic priests were hunted down and Catholic families who might aid them such as the Norris’s were punished; to years of neglect and decay in the 18th and 19th centuries when at one point it was used as a cow shed; through to being refurbished in Victorian times with the installation of the developing ‘technology’ of the era. The Hall, following the restoration, spans many periods with a unique mix of Tudor design combined with Victorian Arts and Crafts’ interiors. In the 20th century the National Trust acquired the building and its remaining lands on behalf of the nation.
The oak frame, typical of the period, rests on a base of red sandstone surrounded by a now dry moat. The main beams of the house are stiffened with smaller timbers and filled with wattle and daub.
Construction of the current building began in 1530. However it is thought that earlier buildings had been on the site and they have been incorporated into today’s structure. The Great Hall was the first part of the house to be built, in 1530. The Great (or Oak) Parlour wing was added in 1531 as was the North Bay. Between 1540 and 1570 the south wing was altered and extended with the west wing being added between 1546 and 1547. The last significant change to the building was in 1598, when the north range was added by Edward Norris. In 1612 a porch was added to the Great Parlour. And a laundry and dairy were founded in 1860. Though the house itself is Tudor, the interiors have been decorated and redecorated through the years as fashions changed. Much of the decor is Arts and Crafts inspired, and some of the interior rooms are furnished with original William Morris wallpaper. These rooms illustrate the Victorian desire for privacy and comfort. The laundry was altered in the 1950s.
In some rooms there is fine Jacobean plasterwork and intricately carved furniture. The National Trust has laid out a fully equipped Victorian kitchen and servants’ hall which enables visitors to see behind the scenes.
The gardens date from the 1850s and feature ornamental Yew hedging. There is also a ‘Ha Ha’ (a recessed wall that creates a vertical barrier while preserving an uninterrupted view of the landscape beyond) at the front of the main house. A short walk from the Hall is the Home Farm, a model Victorian farm. There are woodland trails, a hedge maze, and walks along The Bund, an earthwork designed to cut noise from nearby Liverpool John Lennon Airport.
In the courtyard of the main building are two ancient Yew trees, one male and one female, called ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’. In speaking to one of the Trust volunteers I learnt that it is hard to date Yew trees. They are first recorded in correspondence dating to 1712; however they are generally estimated to be at least 500 years old with Adam possibly being around 600 years old.
The house was built and owned by the Norris family for many generations until the female heiress married into the Beauclerk family in 1736. Towards the end of the 18th century the house was abandoned by the family, who preferred to live in more fashionable London, and the dilapidated estate was finally sold in 1795.
The Watt family purchased the house and estate from the Beauclerks in 1795. Richard Watt, had made his money in Jamaica from the sugar plantations and decided to invest his hard-earned wealth in property. Leaving Speke Hall to his great nephew, who substantially refurbished the Hall; it was again vacated in 1813. After a period of tenancies, the house became thoroughly neglected and was almost a ruin before Richard Watt V and his new bride began the arduous task of restoration in 1856. Both dying before they were 30 years old, and leaving only a young daughter to inherit on her coming of age, Speke Hall was then leased to Frederick Leyland for 10 years.
As manager of the Bibby Shipping Company, Leyland was a relatively wealthy man, and ploughed a lot of money into the redecoration the house. His understanding and appreciation of the Arts and Crafts movement featured prominently in the Victorian refurbishment of Speke Hall, from his use of contemporary wallpapers by William Morris to his collection of Old Masters.
The last surviving heir of the Watt family was Miss Adelaide Watt, who returned to the house in 1878 at the age of 21 years. She set about developing a huge new farm complex, and was determined that such an historic property should be preserved for all time, irrespective of the massive amount of industrial development that was fast spreading out from the city.
Miss Watt died in 1921, leaving the house and estate in trust for 21 years, during which time it was looked after by the staff under the supervision of Thomas Whatmore, who had been butler to Miss Watt. During this time the farm complex was transformed into an aerodrome opening in 1932. At the end of this period, in 1942, the house passed into the ownership of the National Trust. The house was administered by Liverpool City Corporation from 1946 until 1986, when the National Trust took over full responsibility.
Under the National Trust the building has been further refurbished. The Home Farm building has been renovated and now houses the shop, restaurant and reception and the laundry has been converted into the education room. Rooms such as the gun room have been changed over the years and then changed back by the National Trust in order to show more of the history of the Hall.
There are a number of unique features in the Hall dating from the various periods of its history. Some of the most interesting survive from its early days. There is a ‘priest hole’ and a special observation hole built into a chimney in one of the bedrooms to allow someone from the household to see people approaching the house and to warn any Catholic priest visiting the family that he may need to hide. There is also an ‘eavesdrop’ – a small open hole under the eaves of the house – which allowed a servant to listen in on the conversations of people awaiting admission at the original front door to see if they were friend or foe.
Why was this the case? Well under Queen Elizabeth I the Act of Uniformity was passed which restored the Church of England rather than the Catholic Church as the official religion of the country and all who did not conform were fined or imprisoned. It was High Treason for a Catholic priest to even enter England and anyone found aiding and abetting a priest would be punished severely. The Jesuit religious order was formed in 1540 to help the Catholic Church fight the Protestant Reformation and many Jesuit priests were sent across the Channel to England to support Catholic families. Jesuit priests would live with wealthy Catholic families in the guise of a cousin or a teacher. To this end ‘priest hunters’ were tasked to collect information and locate any such priests.
Sometimes Jesuits priests in an area would meet at a safe house; these safe houses were identified by secret symbols and the Catholic supporters and families would pass messages to each other through code. Hiding places or ‘priest’s holes’ were built in these houses in case there was a raid. The Priest hole in Speke Hall has been built behind a false timber panel in one of the bedrooms. Priest Holes were largely constructed between the 1550s and the Catholic-led Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Sometimes other building alterations would be made at the same time as the priest’s holes so as not to arouse suspicion.
Speke Hall is said to be haunted. It has appeared on the TV series Most Haunted in 2009. The resident ghost is said to be Mary Norris, who inherited Speke Hall in 1791. Mary Norris married Lord Sidney Beauclerk, who proceeded to gamble away the family fortune. When Beauclerk told his wife they were ruined, she threw their newborn son out the window of the Tapestry Room, into the moat outside. She then ran to the Great Hall where she took her own life. Her ghost is said to haunt the Tapestry Room.
At the end of the day as I left the Hall I reflected that it is not only a miracle that the building has survived but even more surprising that it has remained virtually unaltered since it was first built for the Norris family some 450 years ago. It is in the most unlikely setting, at the edge of a modern industrial estate and bordering on the runway of Liverpool Airport where the air is regularly punctuated by the roar of jet engines as planes taxi down the next door runway. Truly a remarkable piece of history preserved for us all to appreciate.