OVER THE course of several weeks at the beginning of the year, we reproduced selections from a catalogue of sale, dating from the summer of 1935, which was produced for an auction of several parcels of land belonging to the Earl of Dudley.
That catalogue, kindly loaned to us by Mrs June Roberts of Wall Heath, featured detailed maps of over fifty plots, spread throughout the Black Country, which the Earl saw fit to sell off in those pre-war years. They must have made him a tidy packet; but clearly not enough. Because just over a decade later, in January 1947, the Earl requested the same auctioneers, Edwards, Son & Bigwood and Mathews, to place an even more impressive array of property under the hammer. Huge chunks of Himley village were to be sold off, surrounding farms and woodland totalling thousands of acres, the historic Holbeche House, scene of the Gunpowder Plotters’ last stand, and, most impressive of all, the Earl’s own home, Himley Hall and all its surrounding parkland.
The whole array of lots were described on the title page of the catalogue as follows:
"Freehold Properties forming part of THE HIMLEY ESTATES including HIMLEY HALL, with the beautifully timbered Park, Entrance Lodges, Keepers’ and Gardeners’ Houses, Lakes and Gardens, together with the well-equipped Home Farm, and the detached Residence known as ’Himley House’, Area 696 acres, with vacant possession. Also, EIGHT FIRST CLASS FARMS with exceptionally good Houses and Buildings."
The latter were listed as: Greenhill Farm, White Hall Farm, Manor Farm, Holbeche Farm, Hinksford Farm, Ashwood Lodge Farm, Ashwoodfield House Farm and Stallings Farm, and they ranged in size from 56 to 233 acres.
The resume continues:
"THREE RESIDENCES; Holbeche House, Dawley House, Ashwood House. Numerous Cottages, Allotments, etc., in the Villages of Himley and Swindon. Well-situated Accommodation Land and Land suitable for Development. Also VALUABLE WOODLANDS, the whole area having an area of about 2,711 acres, 3 rods, 14 perches."
The whole lot, which must have been most of what the Earl had left after his previous sell-off, was to be disposed of over the course of two winter days, Tuesday and Wednesday, January 14th and 15th, at the Station Hotel on Castle Hill.
There is a brief section of ’Historical Notes’ on the inside front cover, which explains that:
"HIMLEY HALL is the ancestral home of the Earls of Dudley and has associations going back to 1314, although the present building dates from 1740. It was reconstructed about 1820 and brought up to modern standards in 1926.
"HOLBECHE HOUSE is notable as having been in 1605 the residence of Stephen Littleton, who with Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes and others, plotted to overthrow King and Parliament. After the arrest of Guy Fawkes, the other conspirators, reaching Holbeche on November 7th, made their last stand there, the end being hastened by the explosion of damp gunpowder being dried before a wood fire which blew off the roof and did other damage."
There are also a couple of pages of legal stipulations and General Remarks, the latter of which explains that all the coal beneath the land up for sale belonged either to the Coal Commission or the Coal Board. Ironstone, iron ore and fireclay beneath certain of the lots belonged to The Earl of Dudley’s Baggeridge Colliery Limited, but was ’presumably being acquired by the National Coal Board under the Coal Industry Act, 1946.’ Any minerals beneath the surface of the remaining lots were included as part of the sale.
There was to be no whetting of appetites on the first day of the sale. Lot One was ’The Valuable Freehold Estate comprising Himley Hall, with the surrounding beautifully timbered Parkland and Woods, three Lodges, Gardener’s House and Bothy with the adjoining Walled Gardens, Vineries, Greenhouses, etc., Stabling and Garages, Keeper’s House and adjoining Cottage, High Archal House, the attractive Residence known as ’Himley House’ and ’The Home Farm’ with modern House, excellent Farm buildings and four Cottages.’
This all covered a fraction shy of 700 acres. Thankfully, the Hall (from the outside) and its parkland look every bit as good today as they did in their heyday, but the description of the Hall’s interior gives a fascinating insight into how it was when it was still the family seat of an Earl.
Starting on the Ground Floor, the tour begins naturally enough with the Entrance Hall, which ...
"... entered from the Courtyard by a pair of oak panelled doors with a small panelled Lobby, measures 45ft by 22ft., and has a central ceiling beam, supported by oak coupled pilasters, fully fluted, and with Ionic capitals ... A pair of oak panelled doors at the south end lead to ...
"The Handsome Main or Staircase Hall, which measures 36ft by 22ft, with an annexe 24ft by 8ft, and has cross beams supported by four Ionic columns, a fireplace with a heavy moulding enclosing a white marble surround, marble hearth and curb, three radiators and an oak boarded floor. The 6ft wide oak Principal Staircase has carved and turned balusters, oak handrail and panelled dado. The cornice column and plaster heads and staircase have gilded decoration. There is another staircase on the north side of the Entrance Hall, with oak treads, white enamelled balusters, mahogany handrail and panelled dado. A telephone exchange is formed under this staircase."
Off this hall was the Dining Room, situated in the centre of the house’s West Front. Marbled pilasters and a white marble mantelpiece would certainly have caught the eye of the guest, and a carved apnel depicted an episode from the Siege of Troy.
Next on the virtual tour is the suite of Entertaining Rooms with views of the park. The White Drawing Room had panelled doors leading into the Library, which in turn led onto the Ball Room, 40 feet in length and with a polished oak floor.
Another pair of doors led off to the intriguingly-named Chinese Room. This had a coved ceiling, and the walls above the dado were painted with ’a charming Chinese design of flowering trees, birds etc.,’ a carved mantelpiece with marble slips and a polished oak floor.’
A series of doors would lead from there into the Study and then the Billiard Room, and the remainder of the South Wing consisted of four rooms which had been converted during the wartime Hospital ’occupation’ into kitchens, bathrooms and lavatories.
The Squash Court had an adjoining projection room, which suggests that it also doubled as a cinema, but probably the most obvious symbol of the Earl’s wealth was the fifty foot swimming pool, with its own gallery, shower bath and four dressing cubicles.
On the first floor were 15 Principal Bed and Dressing Rooms — not counting the staff quarters. On the much smaller second floor were a variety of nurseries, schoolrooms, bedrooms, bathrooms and lavatories. Beneath the building were cellars, which covered most of the area of the ground floor, and contained amongst other things boilers for the heating and for the swimming pool. There was also a tunnel which ran beneath the courtyard and connected the north and south wings, to enable the staff to go about their business unseen.
The Stabling and Garages, surmounted by a clock turret, consisted of thirteen ’Loose Boxes’, presumably each housing one horse, and garages for seven cars; plus a cowhouse for seven. Above them in the same block were five bedrooms for the staff, residential flats, bathroom, kitchen and pantry.
The Ornamental Grounds included, as well as the wide terraces and expansive lawns, the Great Pool, a tennis court, 23 acres of ’The Hill’, and 40 acres of Woody Park. At this time though, much of the parkland had been ploughed by order ofthe War Agricultural Committee.
The Gardener’s House, a stone fronted lodge situated at the main entrance, was larger than most people’s homes, with a hall, two sitting rooms and four bedrooms.
Added to the list almost as an afterthought are twelve horticultural buildings including greenhouses and a peach house, a huge walled garden, the two New Lodges, High Arcal House on Himley Road, the Head Keeper’s home, Park Lodge on the northern part of the park, and Beggars Bush Lodge on the Wolverhampton Road, which was occupied by a pensioner, Mr W Turner. Mr Turner came with the property, buyers were told, as he had a lease for twenty years on ’a peppercorn rent.’