Beaudesert is/was an enormous estate in Staffordshire’, its name probably coming from the French for the surrounding landscape – “beautiful wilderness”. It has a reasonably well recorded architectural and contents history up to the demolition of the great Elizabethan mansion in 1937 but the story of its gardens and grounds is much less well known.
I started this post last year during the Repton celebration because the great man had prepared a magnificent set of designs for the grounds in a Red Book presented to the owner in January 1814. However as I began to research further I discovered that very little definite seems to be known about his impact so abandoned the effort because there were other things to do. BUT a little more time has meant that I could a little bit more research so read on to find more …
Beaudesert is an extraordinary site with the house sitting up high commanding wide views over the surrounding countryside. There are plenty of steep slopes and valleys which help make landscaping and gardening a more “interesting” business. It has long been occupied and Castle Ring, an Iron Age hill fort still sits in the park. The first recorded occupation is a mid-12thc small Cistercian monastery which later became a summer residence for the local bishop at Lichfield.
It stayed in ecclesiastical hands until Henry VIII, took it off the bishop and gave it, along with a great chunk of Cannock Chase itself, to his secretary of state, Sir William Paget, later the first Lord Paget.
Nothing was done to the medieval buildings until 1573 when his grandson Thomas, the third Lord Paget, started a ten year rebuilding programme. The result was a grand Elizabethan prodigy house in the same spirit as Burghley, Woolaton or Montacute.
Then once again nothing much happened for the next two hundred years, until in 1769 Beaudesert passed by marriage to the Bayly family who owned Plas Newydd on Anglesey. The heir, Henry Bayly changed his named to Paget and succeeded as the 9th Lord Paget. Two years later, in 1771, he called in James Wyatt, who had already worked at Plas Newydd, to update the interiors and remodel the house and give it some fashionable neo-Gothic features. Wyatt also added crescent shaped stables and coach houses well away from the hall, and some new gatehouses and lodges.
While Wyatt was working on the house it seems that William Emes was working on the grounds, laying out walks, pleasure gardens and a walled kitchen garden. Emes had been head gardener at Kedleston and in charge of re-landscaping the park and creating the lake. there. In 1760 he went freelance becoming a landscape designer in a similar style to Capability Brown, mainly in the Midlands and Wales. The Parks and Gardens database lists over 50 estates on which he was involved including Chirk, Erdigg, Eaton Hall and Powis Castle. There are letters in the Staffs record office about the stocking of the kitchen garden and the difficulty of finding a suitable gardener to take charge, and it appear that the earl “borrowed” John Beecroft the head gardener at Warwick Castle to supervise initially.
The early Staffordshire county historian Stebbing Shaw noted in 1798 that further improvements were “in contemplation” and that Beaudeserst grounds now wanted “nothing but water to render it exquisitely grand and perfect.”
One of the main reasons the Pagets could afford this building work was their immense wealth derived largely from the boom in coal mining on their land in Staffs and from copper mining on Anglesey. This was first reported on in the late 17thc by Robert Plot but by the later 18thc the Pagets were rich, by the early 19thc immensely rich and by the late 19thc they were one of the wealthiest families in the country. By this time they had moved their principal seat to Plas Newydd, and although not abandoning Beaudesert entirely it was sometimes tenanted or even left empty.
In the early 19thc the main reason the Paget name resounded throughout Britain was because of the exploits of Henry, the 2nd Earl of Uxbridge. He was a skilled cavalry commander and lost his leg at the battle of Waterloo in 1815 giving rise to the apocryphal exchange between him and the Duke of Wellington: “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!”, which met with the response “By God, sir, so you have!” After the battle he was created Marquess of Anglesey and went into national politics. However Henry Paget had been famous, or rather infamous long before that.
In 1798 he had married Lady Caroline Villiers, daughter of the Earl and Countess of Jersey with whom he had 8 children before shocking the world in 1809 by eloping with Lady Charlotte Cadogan, the wife of the Duke of Wellington’s brother. Although divorce and remarriage swiftly followed [along with 10 more children] the scandal forced the couple out of society for several years. It was during this social exile that, in 1812, he succeeded to the earldom and called in Humphry Repton, who had already worked for his father at Plas Newydd, to advise on Beaudesert.
Repton turned up at Beaudesert in December 1813, during an exceptionally severe winter, and stayed for 10 days enduring a cold and foggy time. He returned to his cottage at Hare Street and wrote up his Red Book finishing it on 7th January 1814. It was perhaps his most ambitious project in terms of scope and scale.
The Red Book for Beaudesert is in Princeton Library. It is not available on-line. The black and white images below come from David Coffin”Repton’s Red Book for Beaudesert” in Princeton University Library Chronicle, Winter 1986. He has also written about it in Magnificent Buildings, Splendid Gardens, 2008
Beaudesert was to be “a desert beautified – un-beau-desert; rendered habitable with all the elegance, magnificence and comfort of which it was capable.” Repton “rejoiced to find it was the wish of the noble Proprietor of this noble pile to restore its pristine character.”
For once what Repton proposed was not the planting of trees but the removal of a considerable number. He argued that of the four principle characteristics of an interesting landscape -” Inequality of Ground, Rocks, Water and Woods” – the first three had been abandoned at Beaudesert in favour of the fourth, and as a result the site’s greatest single feature, its steep-sided valleys had largely disappeared visually. So by removing the tallest trees on the valley floor, the streams would become apparent and could be enhanced by adding large rocks to make “every drop of water visible on a hard surface, and yet make the whole appear the work of Nature not of Art.”
It was also necessary to remove many other large trees that otherwise blocked views across the wider forest especially from the principal rooms of the house. Taking out one tree revealed hundreds of others.
The effect can be seen in the before and after sketches he included, where the mansion is suddenly revealed high above the valley once the large foreground trees have been removed.
Nevertheless there were a few areas where new planting would be advantageous “although I confess I have never seen a place where it is less absolutely necessary.”
Next he proposed creating a lake, by damming the various small streams that ran across the view but in such a way that the ends would not be visible. This would mean its size would appear “indefinite” and this would be “a cheerful object from every point of view.” It would also form a natural visual barrier between the park and the arable land beyond and “on the banks of this water, a spot might be found for a such a garden as would accord with the character of the house.” He also proposed to re-site the kitchen garden on the slopes nearby and overlooking the proposed new lake.
Later in his life Repton got historic revivalism firmly in his sights, and he drew more and more on the antiquarian past. At Beaudesert he sought advice from John Shaw, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and an architect who worked in the Gothic Revival style, for advice on proposed building alterations. It led to his suggestion for an Elizabethan-style garden outside the private apartments with “lofty terraces of the privy garden” to give “seclusion and protection to the noble persons” who use them. These were ” improved” by the addition of the “modern luxury of hothouses and conservatories”. Repton also reports with satisfaction that the “old labourers on the premises” felt that he was “restoring the place to what they remember it in the beginning of the last century.”
It’s not clear what, if anything, that was proposed by Repton was actually carried out at the time. The “Elizabethan” garden and its conservatories may have been built, since, as we will shortly see something like them was in place by 1872. Perhaps the series of cascades and ponds coming down from the heights, seen in the “after” picture, although these may have been Emes’ work. Perhaps some of the lodges like the Grand Lodge which was built in 1814.
But certainly the totality was not implemented. This may well have been because the earl had other things on his mind. He was summoned back to military duty in 1814, and Waterloo was followed by political service until his death in 1854. After that the family largely abandoned Beaudesert and it was tenanted.
After the Red Book there seems to be nothing written about the gardens until an article in The Journal of Horticulture in 1872 where Repton’s name isn’t mentioned. The house had been let to Sir. T Abdy who was doing “much to keep the extensive premises in good order and in improving them by judicious planting” but one gets the impression that the gardens, and especially the parkland are in something of a decline. The description is quite hard to follow but there are several formal elements near the house: terraces, an “embroidered box garden” and some “glass corridors” [Repton’s improved Elizabethan garden?]. Further away was a flower garden with “beds in circles and oblongs alternately, all gay with bedding plants, all doing well excepting calceolarias, which here as in several other places, were not as they ought to be.” The shrubs consisted “mostly of rhododendrons” which elsewhere had been allowed to encroach on pathways. The 4 acre walled kitchen garden was a mile away in one of the lowest and sheltered valleys but even so there was always a danger of frost, so “gardening is carried on under difficulties”. Nevertheless the hothouses produced peaches and pineapples in abundance. Further away still in the surrounding parkland there were plenty of good trees but the whole was being overrun with “ferns” [presumably bracken] which “luxuriate” in such freedom.
Nor is Repton mentioned in a short article in Gardeners’ Chronicle in 1884 which gives a more positive impression, although there are just a few column inches on the gardens. Instead it is William Emes who gets the credit: ” a finer site for the landscape gardener could hardly be found, and Mr Emes made his terraces, prospects and vistas in such cunning wise that it is difficult to know where Nature ends and Art begins.” The parkland is “the very ideal of the picturesque…extremely unlike a conventional park… it is broken and rugged, thickly wooded with groves of old oaks, opening out into shady glades… Hill and valley, grove and dell make one of the most charming pictures imaginable.” BUT , confirming both Shaw’s and Repton’ opinions “water is indeed the one scenic effect which is lacking.”
The article concludes with a quick mention of “the quaint-looking flower garden” with its “intricate pattern” of beds, in the “fashion of the Hyacintha and Tulip beds of a former age” is now usually planted with the “ordinary kinds bedding out subjects.” It is pictured in the accompanying illustration which also shows what I presume are the glass corridors.
Some nine years later in Feb 1893 Gardeners’ Chronicle followed up this visit with another short piece about Beaudesert. The house was not lived in and the grounds were neglected although somehow they still maintained something of their former grandeur, thanks largely to their situation. However there is nothing else of substance mentioned and the article concludes “let us hope there are better times coming.”
As far as the family were concerned there probably weren’t. When the decline in family fortunes came it was man-made and it was rapid. The virtual demise of Beaudesert in the early 20thc shows how quickly such great landed estates can be driven to the verge of extinction. A large part of the reason for this was the unusual lifestyle of the the 5th Marquess who inherited several great houses, 30,000 acres and an income of about £110,000 a year in 1898 at the age of just 23. Known familiarly as “Toppy” he squandered almost everything before declared bankrupt, owing £544,000 in 1904. He died the following year in Monte Carlo just before his 30th birthday. Definitely worth reading his bizarre story, although its relevance to Beaudesert is mainly a financial one.
His cousin who inherited as the 6th Marquess had to retrench hard, although after a fire at the house in 1909 he spent more than £30,000 on the restoration. He also opened a new kitchen garden in 1911, planted a new lime avenue and built a massive rockery. The later sale particulars also mention houses for peaches, figs, orchids and carnation, a 186ft long vine house and 80ft by 60ft palm house.
It looked as if Beaudesert was entering a new phase of life.Nevertheless, heavy taxation after the First World War meant a change of heart, and in 1920 the marquis took the decision to move permanently to Anglesey and sell Beaudesert and the contents he could not take.
When the estate did not find a buyer and could not be given away to a public body or the National Trust, it was, despite public pressure, broken up and sold off piecemeal.
The house and 2000 acres were put up for auction in 1932 but once again no buyer stepped forward, so three years later the fabric of the building and its fixtures and fittings were sold off separately. The grand Waterloo Staircase ended up at Carrick Hill in Adelaide, South Australia.
The mansion itself was sold for demolition and re-use as building material. It fetched just £800.
Lord Anglesey gifted 123 acres, mainly of garden land between the house and Castle Ring, and including the walled kitchen garden, to the local community, which is now run by The Beaudesert Trust. A permanent Guide and Scout camp opened in 1938 and is still operating.
Although demolition of the mansion was begun it was never completed because the firm went bust during the final stages of clearance and the site was abandoned. However many of the facing bricks were used to replace those polluted by coal smoke at St James’s Palace in London. Further damage was caused later by attempts to shut off the cellars but there are still some standing remains, now refereed to as “the ruins”, which in 1953 were give Grade II listed building status.
One of the aims of The Beaudesert Trust is “to maintain and conserve the parkland of Beaudesert, and to preserve the ruins of Beaudesert Hall”. The walled garden has become the activity centre and their Management Plan envisages opening a resources base to enable the public to view the hall and study its history. Good luck to them in their endeavours to save one of the country’s great lost estates.
Apart from the references in the text above see also the Staffordshire Gardens Trust newsletter for the spring 2008 ; articles in Country Life 22 and 29/11/1919, although they contain nothing about the gardens; https://www.abandonedspaces.com/?s=beaudesert ; Howard Colvin on Beaudesert in Transactions of the Ancient Monument Society New Series vol 29 1985; there are a large number of images of Beaudesert, including some of the interior at Staffordshire Past Track