I’m starting at Wigfair Hall in Wales, but I am going to wander off to somewhere else by the end of the blog, just to warn you. But first, Wigfair. The Reverend Howard built this large country house on the River Elwy in 1884. Part of the house is a tower, which was originally a water tower used to create electricity – this re-use of water towers continues today and many such towers are turned into homes (although fitting them with furniture must be a challenge since they are usually round). The house was built with red brick in the Jacobean style and was designed by Chester architect John Douglas.
John Douglas (1830-1911) designed over 500 buildings across North Wales, Chester and the North West of England including churches, houses, shops, schools and memorials. He was influenced by many styles including the Gothic Revival, like Pugin’s Houses of Parliament, and half-timbering, which can be seen in the black and white revival of the Chester Rows. He also liked to incorporate tall chimney stacks, pargeting and detailed wood carving.
Douglas was a Christian and built at least 40 churches and designed fittings and furnishings for the interior of churches. His main patron though was Hugh Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster, whose secretary pointed out that Douglas was a good architect but a poor accountant, often presenting his accounts late, leading to delays of up to ten years.
Douglas was commissioned by the first and second dukes to design churches, chapels, parsonages, houses, schools, smithies, factories, cottages and farms on the duke’s Eaton estates in Cheshire. The Grosvenor family were and still are one of the wealthiest in the country. The family business, the Grosvenor group, has been in existence since 1677. In London, they own Mayfair, Belgravia, Grosvenor Square, Eaton Square and Chester Square including the many fine Georgian terrace houses with white stucco. These are the homes of the fashionably rich and famous and one of the most expensive places to live in the world.
(While I lived in central London, many years ago, I went on an open top bus tour of London and as we drove through Belgravia, the tour guide pointed out the colour of the rendering – it’s pretty monochrome and off-white, almost cream. The tenants are not allowed to paint the outside of the houses any other colour other than the one specified by their landlord, the Duke of Westminster. Who makes the paint and this special colour? Just one supplier – the Duke.)
Back to our esteemed architect. Douglas also had good connections with businesses and politicians, including industrialists, Johnson, the soap manufacturer who commissioned Oakmere House (with another tower), Port Sunlight’s workers’ village for Lord Lever and Douglas made additions to Jodrell Hall. This was one helluva busy man and he even had time to build himself a house on the banks of the River Dee in Chester – Walmoor Hill. I said we would go on a wander. Built in the 1890s in red sandstone, it became a girl’s school, then the headquarters of the Cheshire fire brigade until 1997. Popularly known as Douglas’s Castle or Folly, he lived there until his death in 1911. And yes, it does seem to have a tower.
Sadly, Douglas published no writings, nor did he leave behind records of his thoughts and ideas. Fortunately, his buildings allow us to see inside his mind and many still stand and are listed for preservation.
So my journey began with one house, out in the countryside, and ended up with many, many more.
“Beautifully written mystery weaves a spell around the house and the people connected to it.” Goodreads reviewer
Pre-order for 99 pence – The Women of Heachley Hall – release date 4 May.