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The History of Wollaton Hall and Stables

The origin of the fortune that bought the land and built Wollaton Hall was first in the wool trade, and then in coal. The house is special in that it was designed by Robert Smythson, the first man in England to call himself an ‘architect’. Smithson started as a stonemason on Longleat House in Wiltshire, helping develop a new and quite different style of architecture. He left that project calling himself an ‘architecter’ and came to Wollaton to design the Hall for the first Francis Willoughby. On this evidence Wollaton Hall is the first ever professionally designed English Country House. Some other houses were built at this time, but they were of necessity specified and designed by their aristocratic owners; for example, Burghley House at Stamford. Smythson went on to build more houses in his same remarkable style; for instance, Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, built for Bess of Hardwick, the second richest woman in England after Elizabeth 1st.

Wollaton Hall itself was built in the 1580’s but the Stable Block was not started until 1738. The added space incorporates a brewhouse and a laundry as well as extensive accommodation for servants. In the interval the facilities back at their old home in Wollaton village must have been used. The building now housing the Industrial Museum was not added until 1829, and it was built as the ‘Riding School’ to practise what we now call Dressage. These Riding Schools were a European invention (think of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna). They were introduced to England by William Cavendish, grandson of Bess of Hardwick, and owner of Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire.

Originally the Lace Gallery and the Transport Gallery would have been one large room. The floor would have been much lower and covered in sand. In the centre there would have been two tall, shaped posts which formed part of the formal horse exercises. The doors would have seemed much higher allowing a mounted rider to enter the room. At the Local Industries end of the room (where the steps are), there would have been a gallery for aristocrats to view proceedings. At the other end of the room, under one of the windows, there would probably have been some staged bench seating for lesser participants.

From the building construction perspective, the date, 1829, is interesting. The roof needed to be a wide span, structural steel had not been invented, it had to be spanned by massive wooden beams. Beams of this size would probably have been imported, either from the Baltic or from Canada. The sawmill has been a little optimistic over the usable length of the beams, some have had to be reinforced with metal plates at one end. It would have needed a large wooden ship to carry these beams as deck cargo. The first steam-driven trans-ocean ship, the Great Western, was not launched until 1837, and the first metal-hulled, the Great Britain, 1843. It is very possible that the beams came over as a so-called disposable ship or drogher. These were assembled out of large timbers to sail across the Atlantic once and then be dismantled and the timbers sold on. There was by chance one of these ships called the ‘Baron of Renfrew‘ launched in 1825 that would have been broken up in time to provide the beams for our museum.

The roof is slate; this could not have arrived here via the railways. The Midland Counties Railway did not start operations until 1839. Slate could have got here by canal; the Nottingham Canal was completed in 1796. The slates could well have left Wales by ship, gone around the coast to the mouth of the Humber, then by barge up the Trent and through the canal junction at Trent Bridge. The Nottingham canal passed just to the North of Wollaton right past the Wollaton Colliery (which was within what is now the Torville and Dean estate).

The bricks to build the Riding School likely came from the estate’s own brickworks situated in the local area now called Balloon Woods. As far as we know this continued trading until 1886.

By 1880 the Willoughby’s, who had owned the estate for over 350 years, considered it too close to the smoke and disturbance of industrial Nottingham and had started leasing out the property. In 1925 they were hit with two lots of death duties in a generation and elected to sell the estate to Nottingham City Council. This body incorporated the land within the city boundary and sold off a large chunk for housing; thereby recovering the greater part of their investment. The remaining land became a public park, still of very considerable size; and the house opened a year later as a Natural History Museum.

Moving back to the Stable Block and the Riding School [which houses the front of the museum]. The date when the floor was put in and the building adapted is at present unknown. What is known is that in 1944 there were 2,000 paratroopers of the American 508th camped in Wollaton Park and the room was being used for dances and probably also as a canteen. The cafe which is situated just inside the main entrance to the grounds is adapted from what was the last of a row of huts which housed Italian prisoners during WW2.

In 1964 a group of local engineers and the local council set up an industrial heritage collection in the building. The collection opened to the public in 1975 and has remained open with just a small break ever since. knowledgeable Volunteers staff the museum and are happy to answer visitors’ questions.

The Willoughby family still exist, holding the title of Lords Middleton and retaining a large landholding in Yorkshire. His lordship still returns to the hall occasionally to ‘cut the ribbon’ on new exhibits etc. The origins of the family can be traced to one Ralph Bugg who was a wool trader originating from what is now Belgium. Flemish cloth was the finest in Europe and English wool was the best available. The family bought land in South Notts. at Willoughby-on-the-Wolds and changed the name to suit. Family memorials can be found there and in the church at Wollaton.

The origin of the stunning architecture of the house lies with one John Thynn who served as a steward to the Seymour family. Like them he made a fortune during the reign of Edward VI, and he bought land at Longleat. He was somewhat of a business magnate who married the daughter of the Lord Mayor of London. The present Marquis of Bath [who now owns Longleat], is a direct descendant of his. He spent months planning Longleat House and produced a new, radical, and harmonious style. Influences from many parts of Europe can be read into this new style and there is one mysterious detail that readers may enjoy. At Longleat there are lions’ heads carved into the lower outer walls with an iron ring in their mouth. At Wollaton there are lions’ heads with stone relief rings in their mouth. At Hardwick there are no lions’ heads. Why should this be? One theory is that the detail is derived from Venice, where the canals have mooring rings for gondolas. Perhaps John Thynn had seen these, in person or on designs. Perhaps some of the stonemasons working on Longleat and Wollaton were Italian. We may never know for sure, but it is fascinating to speculate, and some of you may find new clues; please let us know if you do.

© 2022 R Clifford

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Registered address: The Courtyard, Wollaton Hall And Deer Park, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, England, NG8 2AE

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