If you’ve been following the Gardens Trusts on-line lectures you’ll know that Yorkshire has a lot of unforgettable gardens, but there’s one that we haven’t yet covered: Nostell Priory near Wakefield.
Nostell is a Palladian mansion with stunning Robert Adam interiors and a world famous collection of furniture by Thomas Chippendale. It’s set in a 300 acre park, with formal gardens, a series of linked lakes, woodland groves and even has the remains of a menagerie.
In front of the mansion is what Country Life on 31 Oct 1914 described as a “magnificent avenue, over three hundred feet in width, [which] indicates the great scale of Nostell as originally laid out. As a great grass way, bordered by ancient trees and peopled with a herd of deer, it impresses the imagination dulled by the encroaching disamenities of manufacturing Yorkshire.” That sounds pretty unkind to the surrounding area and community but what’s Nostell and its park like today?
As usual the photos are mine unless otherwise attributed
The great Georgian estate of Nostell started life as a 12th-century Augustinian priory dedicated to St Oswald, [more on the priory at the Victoria County History of Yorkshire and Judith Frost’s The Foundation of Nostell Priory, 2007]. Confiscated at the dissolution of the monasteries, it passed through a series of owners who converted the buildings into a domestic residence, and later enclosed the land around the house as a deer park. In 1654 it was bought by the London alderman and textile merchant, Sir George Winn, and three generations of the family lived there until Sir Rowland, the 4th baronet inherited as a sixteen year old in 1722.
Soon afterwards, like others of his class he went on the Grand Tour, spending two years in France, Italy and Germany and when he returned to Nostell in 1727 he was enthused with ideas of building a modern house and laying out a new park and garden.
This required money. Nostell stands on coal, and this had been exploited in a minor way since mediaeval times, but additionally the Winns had invested the profits of their London drapery business in buying land, notably in Lincolnshire which, as we will see, were to contribute to their wealth in the 19thc . Even better, Sir Rowland married well. His new wife was the co-heiress of another city merchant and Lord Mayor so now he had almost unlimited funds at his disposal. He is thought to have commissioned designs for the new mansion from a Yorkshire-based gentleman-architect Colonel James Moyser although there is no conclusive evidence about this but if you’re interested in knowing more then see Frances Sands 2012 PhD on the construction of the mansion which is freely available to read and indeed download from the British Library.
Moyser had already designed Bretton Park, and was a follower of Lord Burlington of Chiswick and admired the Palladian style . His plan for Nostell was based loosely on Palladio’s Villa Mocenigo which Burlington himself had adopted for Tottenham House in Wiltshire, and which was also chosen as a model for Holkham Hall in Norfolk. The Villa Mocenigo has four pavilions, joined to the corners of the main block of the house by colonnades, although at Nostell only two were ever built.
It was, however, a very young James Paine, probably only about 19, who was eventually engaged by Sir Rowland in 1736 to oversee the building and all the interiors. Paine ended up working with and for Winn for the next 30 years and his alterations to Moyser’s plans were included in the 1767 supplement to Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus. It was Paine’s first major work and allowed him to build a practice locally in Yorkshire as well as take on the design of Kedleston which was planned on the same pattern.
Sir Rowland wanted more than merely a stylish new house. He called in Stephen Switzer to design new formal grounds, and local nurseryman Joseph Perfect, whose family ran one of the earliest and most important provincial nurseries in nearby Pontefract, to plant it. Although he didn’t implement all their ideas some elements still remain, notably the long avenue that stretches away in to the distance in front of the house. Originally planted with elms they were replaced in the early 20thc by sycamores.
Switzer’s proposals are shown in a map in Frances Sands PhD, and there’s more about the Perfect family and their nursery in John Harvey’s books, Early Gardening Catalogues (Phillimore, 1972) and Early Nurserymen (Phillimore, 1974)
The earlier formal gardens of the old house were grubbed up and the parkland developed in a more naturalistic style. The Upper Lake was created, and an informal shrubbery planted to the south of the house. The public road from Doncaster to Wakefield which runs close to the house was given a grand new bridge between the Upper and Middle Lakes.
Nearby were the remains of a mediaeval stone quarry. Switzer had proposed that this site be used for a hermitage and cascade but in the 1750s when the bridge was being built it was laid out as a menagerie. The Menagerie House, completed in 1765, has elaborate plasterwork suggesting it might have been intended for a summer house, but eventually was lived in by the keeper and his family, and later by a gardener. According to an estate plan it was surrounded by small enclosures perhaps for aviaries with later accounts showing it was home to lots of fairly common birds.
Sir Rowland died in 1765 and the estate was inherited by his 26 yr old son, another Rowland who had spent 6 years completing his education in Geneva. There he met and in 1761, to the annoyance of his father, married his wife Sabine, who came from a wealthy Swiss Huguenot banking family. The couple now took over the running of the Nostell estate.They stopped Paine’s work and instead turned to his rival, Robert Adam, who was to become the most successful architect of the later 18thc pushing Paine out of the way not only at Nostell but also Kedleston and Alnwick. Adam completed the interior decoration , bringing in Italian painter Antonio Zucci, the plasterer Joseph Rose and most famously the local furniture maker Thomas Chippendale. Nostell has the best extant collection of his work.
In the 1770s Adam also built a new range in the stable block. This now, as usual, houses the NT cafe and shops. But while the courtyard side served as stabling Adam cleverly incorporated a Garden Room and banqueting House on the rear side. In front of them a large formal flower garden was laid out which shared a wall with an enormous kitchen garden. .
[For more on Adam’s work at Nostell See Eileen Harris, The Genius of Robert Adam, 2001]
Sir Rowland diverted the Doncaster- Wakefield road, and built a high perimeter wall, getting Adam to design three very different lodges at the gates, including an extraordinary pyramidal one known as Obelisk Lodge. This was restored between 2003-2006 and there is a lovely account of it by the Folly Flaneuse. [If you don’t know her blog about follies then you should!] Adam also added two small wings to the Menagerie House in about 1776 while a cock-fighting pit was constructed in 1783. There are a large number of his drawings for Nostell in the archives of the Sir John Soane Museum.
Although the Winns were well-off they were still concerned about raising money. In 1742, for example, they bought more land with mineral rights and by 1779 between five and fifteen men were employed in the collieries at any one time, and profits for the year were £206. But they also exploited the park with 50 oaks sold in about 1775 for £2500.
Adam’s work at Nostell stopped suddenly in 1785 when his patron was killed in a road accident. It also transpired that despite their immense wealth the family had seriously overspent. Sabine Winn halted everything. She sold the family’s London house in St James square, and isolated herself at Nostell. The mansion remained unfinished for nearly the next hundred years.
There is an interesting podcast and notes about Sabine and her sad life at Nostell on Warwick University’s
Her son, yet another Rowland was only 10 and was to die unmarried at 30. Nostell then passed to his estranged sister who, to everyone’s horror, had eloped with the local baker. The title, of course, passed out of the immediate family. Her elder son John inherited aged 12 and changed his name to Winn. He later called in a local firm of nurserymen to complete the park planting in the landscape style of Brown, although this was now becoming less fashionable.
In a throwback to Switzer’s plans, he also created the Lower Lake, with the cascade from the Middle lake and built a boathouse.
John died in 1817 and Nostell was inherited by his brother Charles. By then so much had been spent that the estate was heavily mortgaged that Charles’s first thoughts were to sell up, although eventually he was persuaded to remain at Nostell. Aided by his eldest son and heir, yet another Rowland, he began restoring the family fortunes by seriously exploiting Nostell’s coal. New shafts were sunk in 1860, just across the road from the mansion, and more than 26,000 tons of coal dug in the first six months, giving the Winns nearly £8,000 in profit. In the late 1850s they were helped enormously when ironstone was found on their Lincolnshire estate and quite soon the preponderant proportion of the family income came from minerals. They became prime movers in the foundation of the iron and steel industry in the Scunthorpe area.
In short the Winns became industrialists as well as landowners.
For more on the Winns as industrialists see “Coal mining on a Yorkshire estate: land ownership and personal capitalism, 1850-1914“, by David Steward Cross 2015, which uses them as its main case study.
It paid off. Charles Winn was able to fill Nostell with a great art collection, and kept up the grounds and hothouses in great style until his death in 1874.
[For more on this see‘A cultivated eye for the antique’: Charles Winn and the enrichment of Nostell Priory, Sophie Raikes in Apollo, 2003]
Rowland entered parliament becoming chief whip of the Conservative party, and was eventually rewarded with a peerage, becoming Baron St Oswald, after the patron saint of the priory. He modernised the house, repairing and updating the decor, completing the unfinished wing and even installing electricity in 1890. He rebuilt the stable block, added a large estate yard with farm buildings, kennels and its own entrance lodge. He also restored the Tudor  Wragby parish church, which lies inside the park
New areas of woodland were established to provide cover for game birds although these obscured the earlier landscaping style which probably wouldn’t have been a great consideration at the time.
Down at the Menagerie House formal flower beds replaced most of the animal and bird enclosures, and these were decorated with statues and urns. Creepers covered the building itself while ferns were planted on the walls and lilium auratum which had only been introduced from Japan in the 1860s planted in abundance.
The areas around the Middle and Lower lakes were planted up with woodland and shrubberies notably rhododendrons which became a regular feature in visitors accounts of the garden , especially as they could be seen from Nostell Bridge.
Two bridges across the dams were also added. The Swiss Bridge which took a path over to the Menagerie garden,was replaced by a simple wooden one in the 198os. The other known as the Druids Bridge collapsed and was abandoned until 2007 when it was rebuilt from the original stones which were retrieved from the lake.
Throughout this period the gardens there was clearly plenty of money to keep the gardens well maintained. We have an account of the hothouses and kitchen gardens in an article in The Journal of Horticulture in October 1885/6, which found them ” in most admirable keeping, reflecting the highest credit upon the good management of the head gardener, Mr Deavon.” In addition to the 2 acre orchard there was a cutting garden, vineries, a pine house, a new peach house, and “a series of nearly new low brick pits heated with hot water pipes and well stocked with the usefull plants for winter flowering.”
There were also “two well-built span-roofed ranges of glass erected about three years since … very gay with large numbers of well grown dwarf specimens of zonal pelargoniums profusely bloomed and making a blaze of colour.” Apparently pelargoniums, especially the scented leaf sorts were great favourites of Lady St Oswald, as were the next specimens to be mentioned. “Large bushes of gardenias… about 5 feet through each way… throughout the month of May flowers were cut from these fine bushes at the rate of 250 per day.” The reporter noted that the gardenias were disease and mealy-bug free and the head gardener Mr Deaven ” told us he dare venture to make an offer of one guinea for each bug that could be found”. He then expalkined the reason for his optimism. It wasn’t the usual be-all-and-end-all Victorian death chemical nicotine, instead “whenever mealybug or scale is seen the plants are at once syringed thoroughly with petroleum at the rate of a wine glass to a gallon of water.”
The first Lord St Oswald died in 1893 and was succeeded by his son, yet another Rowland. The next generations left little mark on Nostell although at first things seem to have continued well, with an article in The Gardening World for January 1900 about growing freesias at Nostell by the new, but very experienced head gardener, John Eastor. Eastor and his career were the subject of another article in October that year. He became a regular contributor to the gardening press, and a short obituary was later published in Gardener’s Chronicle in 1912..
It’s probably not surprising that the gardens and hothouses were in fine form, because there was no shortage of coal for heating. By 1901 Nostell colliery employed 638 men underground producing 200,000 tons of coal a year. Of that 1,000 tons was supplied to the house, together with electricity, for free.
Even as late as 1920 Gardeners Chronicle reported that “the garden are famous for the summer floral display, and many noted gardeners have been trained in them.”
It was after the Second World War that things sorted to change. The house was requisitioned as a training centre for the Royal Artillery, and very soon afterwards the effects of austerity, taxes, social change and family disputes began to bite. James Lees-Milne, secretary of the Country Houses Committee of the National Trust, visited in Oct 1946 and was quite dismissive.
“We went to tea at Nostell Priory… Charles Winn is the present owner, his father having disinherited the elder son, now Lord St Oswald…. It was foggy as we approached. The Paine block is too squat for its length and the Adam addition is not in scale or in proportion.… All these rooms still under dust sheets and the furniture piled in heaps… The outside of the house is pitch black there being a mine only one hundred yards from the house. The house park large and not very beautiful.”
The result was that in 1954, the 4th Lord St Oswald arranged for the National Trust to take the house in lieu of tax, while thirty years later in 1984 the 5th baron formed a trust to secure the future of the contents which were also transferred to the Trust, although the family still live in part of the mansion. The walled gardens, along with the estate yard next door, have been developed into a small office/business park which is not part of the National Trust part of the estate but still owned by Nostell Estates.
The wider parkland was bought by the NT in 2002 with help of a grant from the HLF and is undergoing a long term programme of restoration and replanting.
Nostell is an unusual case. It rarely figures in standard texts about gardens, and I’ve found it difficult to track down any early images of the grounds. It doesn’t have any outstanding features yet the park, woodland and lakes are all impressive in their own way. Perhaps its biggest drawback is that the house seems strangely detached from its surroundings, especially at the rear towards the lakes largely because of sharp drop in levels and the trees which obscure the views. One can only hope that the National Trust’s long term plans will change all that.
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