When Brian Spencer recently visited this Victorian Mansion near Doncaster his first impressions were that everything was boxed up and ready for the removal men. But when he looked again and saw the explanation plaques, he realised that what he was looking at was part of an ongoing battle against the ravages of time.
When English Heritage took over Brodsworth in 1990, it acquired a much loved property where successive generations struggled to keep it viable in the face of declining fortunes. It was almost as though its owners gradually retreated room by room into a central enclave where modern living could take over from a time when labour was cheap and, more to the point, willing to serve the needs of Brodsworth’s owners.
Alongside the need to finance the steadily increasing costs of running a place the size of Brodsworth, dilapidation and nature began its attack on the very fabric of the place and its furnishings. Everything from death watch beetle, woodworm and both wet and dry rot attacked the building over the years. Rain water found its way through movement in the lead sheeting covering the roof. Despite the family’s onetime ownership of nearby Brodsworth Pit, coal mining activities undermined the very foundations. Moths and sunlight made inroads into expensive carpets and furnishings; even the family’s beloved dogs lifting their legs on the bottom of curtains caused further dilapidation. A pair of stuffed peacocks is now an amorphous heap of dusty feathers after decades of moths have done their worst.
Brodsworth Hall was built in the early 1860s by the fabulously wealthy Charles Sabine Augustus Thellusson (pron. Telluson). After a long drawn-out legal battle, he inherited the Brodsworth estate of some 8,000 acres along with its earlier version of the hall which he pulled down. The result was a sumptuous Victorian county mansion set amidst fashionably designed gardens and attractive woodland. Richly furnished and with a well organised servants’ section, and with an almost limitless source of coal, the house was, for its day, easy to run. Staff to run all this seem to have been content, for many stayed at Brodsworth for the rest of their working lives.
Unfortunately his fortunes had begun to decline by the time of Charles Sabine Augustus Thellusson died in 1885 and the estate was inherited in turn by each of his four sons. In 1931 it passed to his grandson, Charles Grant-Dalton and then held in trust for the latter’s daughter Pamela from 1952, but still lived in by his widow Sylvia Grant-Dalton until the 1980s. One can just imagine her deciding which rooms to close and which to continue using. Bedrooms were plumbed using the cheapest possible materials to provide wash basins, or further along the corridor, a very basic white porcelain toilet and bath. Downstairs the original kitchens were abandoned, but fortunately for today’s visitors, preserved along with their massive coal-burning stoves and ovens. Instead there is an Aga standing proudly next to a still usable washing machine; installing the ‘modern’ kitchen must have taken some heart-searching and careful book-keeping before the necessary finance was allocated. Coming almost next door to the original kitchens, the new one, is very much a relic of the 1970s with its Tupperware, Formica and scenic biscuit tins: it is easy to imagine Emily Chester the cook of that time, sitting comfortably in the now badly worn easy chair drawn up to the comforting warmth of the Aga. Many of the fireplaces are still stuffed with brown paper to stop draughts as there was no longer enough money, or staff, available to keep coal fires blazing in every room.
Despite all the corner-cutting, there are still many relics of greater times. Two boat-shaped beds dating from the 1850s looking just like those Napoleon’s Empress Josephine slept in. Cleverly sited mirrors in the drawing rooms still reflect the opulent chandeliers almost infinitely. Alongside their grandeur are little touches of life when Sylvia Grant-Dalton was in charge. Her shoes are still on display, waiting for her decision of which pair to wear, then nearby is a linen cupboard, nowadays with the door left open to reveal the labelling on her bedclothes, dividing them into everyday ‘Roughies’ or better quality ‘Smoothies’.
Sylvia obviously loved Brodsworth despite its problems. Still on show are many of the 23 Italian sculptures, looked on as ‘art’ in Victorian times, but nowadays they might be frowned on as too erotic. She obviously put up with them, but called them the ‘poor cold ladies’ as they were so scantily clad! Despite the passing of time since Charles Thellusson’s days when he used one of the downstairs rooms for woodworking. Known still as the Lathe Room, in Sylvia’s day it became somewhere she dumped anything unused but not to be thrown away. Today what was once junk is now a treasure trove of the unexpected, such as the pair of albino peacocks displayed in their glass case like something discovered in ‘Bargain Hunt’.
English Heritage have a huge task ahead of themselves in preserving Brodsworth without making any major changes. Painted walls are carefully held as they were when found, leather seating and fabrics still look worn and tired, but whatever the rot or fading, the now restored item will (hopefully) never descend into complete wreckage. Wallpaper is being carefully patched, often with original paper found stuffed away in cupboards. When all the work is finished the house will still look as it did when English Heritage took it over in1995. All the blemishes will still be there, after all they are part of the house’s story.
The one part of Brodsworth that has been brought back into its former glory are the gardens. Trees planted in the past are now mature and shelter both the house and its gardens from northerly winds. In pride of place is the massive cedar around which the main drive to the house curves on its way to the four columned porte cochère where guests would alight from their carriages.
Very much in keeping with Victorian ambience, the manicured lawns below the west terrace are used for croquet competitions and one can pause and watch this far from gentle and complex game.
Immediately beyond the croquet lawns are elaborately designed flower beds surrounding a gently trickling fountain and paths wander off in all directions. Well sheltered from the storms are well laid out rose beds where an associated rose pergola leads to the point furthest from the house. This is the pretty Target House where archers rested between competing along the straight lawn known as the Target Range. At the far end and higher than the range is a stone wall, for that is simply what it is. Looking like the ruined gable end of a building, it serves its purpose as an Eyecatcher, someone’s idea of a folly or focal point. The deepest point, the Grotto is devoted to a nationally important collection of ferns spaced between gravel paths made to look like a stream.
More winding paths lead to the Summer House with its perfect view of both the garden and the west front of the house – a perfect place to rest and admire everything. Below the Summer House and looking in the direction of the house is a natural-looking alpine garden, while to the rear of the Summer House in a secluded woodland setting is the Pets’ Cemetery, the final resting place of many of the family’s pets, including a parrot! In spring wild flower lawns are filled with daffodils and wild flowers.
From the gardens, a wide level path leads to steps guarded by four pairs of marble greyhounds and then to their left, round the corner of the house and beyond them is the main entrance to the Brodsworth.
Brodsworth Hall is open the end of March to the end of October 11a.m. to 5p.m.daily. Gardens open at 10a.m the end of March to the end of October and until 4p.m during winter months on specified days.
Directions: 5 miles NW of Doncaster off the A635 Barnsley road from junction 37 of A1(M).