"Wollaton Hall & Park (A History of the Hall, Park & Village)"

April 2005 Meeting Report

Guest Speaker - Tim Preston

The April 2005 meeting of the Keyworth & District Local History Society was held on 2nd April 2005 in the Centenary Lounge, Keyworth. Another well attended meeting gathered to hear Tim Preston deliver a slide show and talk with Wollaton Hall and Park as its theme. Tim began by telling the audience that the hall was built between 1580 and 1588 for a cost of approximately £80,000, a phenomenal amount of money in those days. An equivalent sum of money today would be in the region of £8 million pounds. The building was constructed for Sir Francis Willoughby who made his money from coal mining in the East Midlands. The overall plan of the project was believed to have been given to an eminent architect named John Thorpe. The actual details of the plan however were believed to have been implemented by one Robert Smythson. Little is known of Robert Smythson, he was born in 1535 and died at Wollaton in 1614 and is buried in the churchyard of Wollaton Church. Smythson was renowned for the novel way in which he combined elements of Renaissance, Flemish, and English Gothic architecture to produce an innovative, romantic style. Wollaton Hall is a perfect example of this; in fact it is one of the finest examples of a grand Elizabethan house to be found in England. The building today is largely the same as it was built, it has had virtually no extensions or additions made to it making it a perfect example of such Elizabethan splendor.

 The land where Wollaton Hall was constructed came into the Willoughby family during the first half of the 14th Century. The family can trace its ancestry back to a Ralph Bugge, a wealthy Nottingham merchant who after making his fortune retired to Willoughby on the Wolds early in the 13th Century. The family name was changed to Willoughby when one of the Bugges married a wealthy woman named Willoughby. Perhaps the thought of becoming a Bugge was not to her taste or then again the current Bugge might have thought that Willoughby was a far classier name for the circles that he aspired to. Either way, Bugge became Willoughby and that is the name forever associated with Wollaton Park. Incidentally the Willoughbys have left their mark at Willoughby Church in the form of some very fine alabaster effigies that can be seen in the mortuary chapel there.

Wollaton Hall is constructed of Ancaster stone, reputedly exchanged for coal from the Willoughby’s coalmines. The Willoughbys also appear to have made a considerable amount of money from the dissolution of Lenton Priory. Not only were the profits from the Priory’s destruction used by Sir Francis to build Wollaton Hall, so was much of the masonry. The site chosen by Sir Francis for the building was particularly well suited for the Hall, though the residents of the small hamlet of Sutton Passey would probably not agree. Sir Francis had the village destroyed to make way for his new undertaking. Being rich and powerful in Elizabethan times had its perks, that and the absence of any planning laws or rights on tenure for the peasants! When completed the Hall and Park occupied some 790 acres.

Wollaton Hall is a building that was constructed with a single aim and that was style. Looks were everything, so much so that the Hall does not have the traditional front, back and sides but four fronts.  Each of the four fronts presents a similar view and all are imposing. The Hall was also one of the first buildings in England to feature an upstairs and a downstairs with clearly defined different uses. It was also one of the first buildings of its size not to be built with battlements or any other means of being defended showing how settled England had become a century after the end of the Wars of the Roses. The Hall was elaborately decorated, both inside and outside. On the external walls there are many niches for decorative figures. Some of these have never been occupied and legend has it that a ship with a consignment of statues for these niches sank in the Bay of Biscay en route from Spain. For all the Hall’s grandeur though it appears not to have been a particularly pleasant place of residence. The Willoughbys owned the Hall for over three centuries and during all that time it appears to have been lived in by them for only around ten years.

It was not only the Hall, which was imposing though. The Park, which it was set in, was particularly beautiful. The grounds were laid out in the style developed by Lancelot “Capability” Brown. An imposing avenue of lime trees lines the route to the Hall from Nottingham whilst other specimen trees were planted around the grounds. Some of the cedar trees in particular are of special interest. A large lake was created in the grounds and a deer park too. A fine stable block and, in 1823, a Camellia House were also added. 

 Nottingham City Council purchased Wollaton Hall in 1924 for the sum of £200,000 from the 10th Lord Middleton for whom the Hall was “surplus to requirements”. Interestingly Sir Jesse Boot had been considering buying the estate a couple of years earlier as a site for his new grounds for Nottingham University. Instead he settled on the site at Highfields. When the City Council bought the estate they sold off a small portion of it for private housing development. The Council insisted that some of the houses were to be for working class accommodation whilst others were to be of a much higher quality. The sale of this land to private developers recouped the whole outlay that the City Council had made in acquiring the site in the first place, (if only today’s council were so prudent!).

Today the Hall is in desperate need of renovation. A National Lottery grant for £6.9 million has been allocated for this and work on restoring the Hall is due to begin in the immediate future. (It’s gratifying to see National Lottery grants being made in one of the areas where a great many lottery ticket buyers intend their money to go). It is to be hoped that when the restoration project is completed that Wollaton Hall and Park will be restored too much of its original glory and remain a jewel in Nottingham’s sadly depleted collection of historical treasures.