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Wrest Park 1770 to 1840

The relative positions of old house (blue) and its replacement (red)
The relative positions of the old house (blue) and its replacement (red)

Historian of Wrest Park James Collett-White wrote a history of the old house at Wrest, demolished in the 1830s, in Volume XXII and XXIII of The Bedfordshire Magazine. The following extract from his article deals with the old house from 1770 until its demolition.

In 1790 Marchioness Grey employed George Byfield (c.1756-1813) to make alterations to the family's London house [L31/276], but it was John Woolfe (died 1793), Examining Clerk in the Office of Works, who supervised the refacing and alterations at Wrest which took place in 1791. One of the chief architectural weaknesses of the house was that none of the fronts matched, a feature accentuated by the formality of the gardens on the south. To remedy this, the North and South Fronts were given uniform sashes and window frames for £765 [L31/277]. The South Front was extended and a room added to screen the kitchens from the garden, at a cost of £435 [L31/277], but no attempt was made to balance the extension with the south-west corner of the house. Despite these improvements the South Front still had a somewhat lopsided appearance [L33/232/3].

 South view of the remains of the old house [L33/216]
South view of the remains of the old house [L33/216]

On the North Front the central turret and balustrading had been taken down by 1775, as a recently discovered illustration has revealed. This showed the unsightly roof and chimneys of the building behind. In the central block two niches containing statues were replaced by windows and the gateway replaced by a square-headed doorway. The bays and wings were comparatively unchanged, apart from removing the sills and replacing the windows. In the third storey the dormer windows in the bays were reduced from six to two. The single-storey flanking walls were both taken down. The result of these alterations was a plain, uninspiring front with Hooper's ornate splendour sadly neutered [L31/277].

The North Front in 1831 [L31/277]
The north front in 1831 [L31/277]

Of the 1791 estimate £1,050 was for reproofing the part of the building that connected the North and South Fronts and taking down two chimneys. The floor levels were made the same as those in the two fronts. Beside this interconnecting block was added a large Chinese Drawing Room and a passage on the south side of the east bay and wing of the North Front [L31/277 and L33/149]. This was estimated to cost £1,560. Between the Chapel and the south-east corner of the house a piece of unused ground was filled in to create a breakfast room. The estimated £340 included "Raising Roof on east side of the Garden Front to am Attick [sic] and filling up small opening with a room on each floor". The total estimate for all the alterations was £4,888 [L31/277].

These were the last alterations to the house before it was demolished. On 11th January 1797 the Marchioness Grey died, aged 73 and she was succeeded by her eldest daughter Amabel, created Countess de Grey in 1816, widow of Lord Polwarth. As Amabel had no children, the heir was Thomas Philip, 3rd Baron Grantham, future Earl de Grey (1781-1859), son of Amabel's youngest sister Mary. He worked closely with his aunt in managing the estate. Little except essential repairs seems to have been done, and garden buildings like the Root House and Cain Hill House fell into such bad repair that they had to be pulled down [CRT130Silsoe4].

The library at the old house in 1831 [L33-213]
The library at the old house in 1831 [L33/213]

In his History of Wrest House written in 1846, Earl de Grey wrote: "It was quite clear to us all, many years before the place came to me, that something upon rather a great scale must be done, if at all. The old house, with its cracked walls and its long passages, and its windows that annually became les capable of being closely shut down, was evidently incapable of any essential repair or improvement". As early as 1818 John Shaw (1766-1832) was commissioned to draw up plans for a replacement of the existing house. It would have been a third the size of the old one and occupied the site of the South Front. Shaw's plans and some elevations have survived [L33/147]. But "by degrees" the future Earl de Grey felt that "it would not do". From 1822 he had been fascinated by French architecture and soon decided to rebuild Wrest on the site the Duke of Kent had chosen, in the style of an 18th century French chateau.

South-east view of the remains of the old house [L33/217]
South-east view of the remains of the old house [L33/217]

Just before Countess Amabel's death on 4th May 1833, aged 82, the future Earl de Grey and J. Buckler made a series of sketches of the house and buildings in the grounds [L33/212-215]. As soon as de Grey inherited the estate he began to plan his new house in detail, and the foundation stone was laid on 12th February 1834. Some demolition of the old house took place between 1834 and 1838. Buckler did a series of watercolours in 1838, which show that only he oldest parts of the house were then left standing [L33/216-218]: the last walls were taken down on 30th January 1840 [CRT190/45/2].

 North-east view of the remains of the old house [L33/218]
North-east view of the remains of the old house [L33/218]

Earl de Grey can be criticised for demolishing a house of considerable antiquity that would now be of great interest to architectural historians. But by the 1830s it was cold, damp and uncomfortable and, because of its piecemeal development, impossible to restructure further. To a man like de Grey it provided an inadequate focal point for the gardens which, then as now, were the chief glory of Wrest. It was natural that he should wish to demolish the old house and build a grand but comfortable modern house in its place.

The Bedfordshire Historic Environment Record [HER] contains information on the county's historic buildings and landscapes and summaries of each entry can now be found online as part of the Heritage Gateway website. The entry for the old house at Wrest [HER 15260] notes: "In 1988 parch marks became visible and allowed the foundations of the 17th century building to be seen. A combination of geophysical survey and the parch marks revealed details for the north front including rain water conduits, and a plan for the rear of the structure was also produced. The evidence suggests that the remains of the house have not been extensively removed below ground level, and probably survive in fairly good condition".

The staircase at the old house in 1831 [L33/212]
The staircase at the old house in 1831 [L33/212]