Newton Solney is close enough to Burton-on-Trent to have been something of a magnet for the busy brewery owner and it attracted a number of members of the ‘Beerage’ with the Grettons at Bladon House, along with Allsopps at The Mount, Salts at Rock House and a succession of Hoskinses, Worthingtons and Ratcliffs at Newton Park.
The Ratcliffs, perhaps surprisingly, appear to have originated in 18th century Derby; William Ratcliffe [sic] of St Mary’s Gate being recorded as a maltster in 1756 and 1762. His son John the elder had settled at Burton-on-Trent as a ‘traveller’ – peripatetic salesman – for Bass, joining William Bass as a partner from 1796, renewing the arrangement in 1830 and dying in 1834. He was succeeded, not by his elder son John Ratcliffe junior but by the younger, Samuel, whose partnership was signed in 1835.
By 1858 Sam Ratcliff (as the name henceforth appears to have been spelt) felt sufficiently well off to build himself a new house and chose a plot beside and above the Trent at the Burton-on-Trent end of Newton Solney parish, which he bought from the Earl of Chesterfield in October 1859, jointly with Abraham Bass (1804-1882) the third brother of his partner, the Derby MP Michael Thomas Bass. This plot was called the Cliffs or The Cliffe and lay against the border of Newton Parish with Bladon Hill behind but actually partly in Winshill, sandwiched between the road and the Trent. It had originally been sold to Lord Chesterfield by Abraham Hoskins of Newton Park in 1836 but must have been thought by the Bretby estate too distant from their core holdings and sold on.
Ratcliff also acquired, then or later, two adjacent fields, this time wholly in Newton, called Far Underwood and Bank, his acquisitions amounting to 11 acres in all. He had already commissioned Robert Grace of Burton to design him a new house and the sheer speed with which it was constructed suggests that, despite the contractor T Lowe & Sons putting 170 men to work on the site, work must have begun before the sale of the plot had been completed, probably in spring 1859.
The architect Robert Grace was born at Stafford in December 1794, son of Robert and Mary Grace, and was articled from 1808 to 1815 before marrying Susannah Tunley at Burton whose sister Sarah had married Samuel Ratcliff at Derby in 1813. Thus in engaging Grace – who had built up a good practice in Burton working a great deal for the Bass family, and was a reasonably accomplished architect – he was keeping it in the family. Grace also had an office at 2 Babington Lane in Derby in the 1850s and died in 1870. None of his Derby work has been positively identified, but it may well include commissions like the baths on Bass’s Recreation Ground and other projects sponsored by Bass.
With such a concentration of manpower devoted to building it will be no surprise to learn that the family were able to move into Cliffe House during February 1860 and a commissioning party was held on the 3rd of March.
The house was built on a high terrace above the river Trent and was of brick with dressings of local Keuper Sandstone, entirely ‘Jacobethan’ in feel. Because of the rise in the ground behind the house beyond the Repton-Burton road, its building platform was made to protrude west towards the river, creating a sharp from the west end of the house to the water, where a boat house and jetty were provided. The main fronts were each of seven irregular bays, facing south and north, with the west front being in effect the end of the two parallel ranges which made up the house, which was decorated with ornamental straight coped gables and two storey canted bays with a massive porte cochère between them, embellished with pinnacles, ‘Tudorbethan’ arches and battlements rather like that added to Repton Park and later transferred (stripped of some ornament) to The Hayes, nearby.
Inside, the hall was high and almost square with a well staircase of Hoptonwood stone, but the balustrade was supported on odd, curvy, cast iron balusters cast at Burton by Thornewill & Co. Otherwise, the interior embellishment was largely confined to ornamental plaster cornicing and plain marble fireplaces, the most ornate room being in the drawing room, which had enriched cornices, lavish, floor-to-cornice fielded mahogany panelling and a French style black marble chimneypiece.
There was a good long low stable block and coach house, plain with three openings with depressed brick arches, each topped by a plain gable with a lodge on the road. The grounds were splendidly landscaped by William Barron & Son of Borrowash.
Sam Ratcliff did not long enjoy his new house, for he died just over a year after he had moved in. Perhaps he knew he was ill from the start, which might explain the haste with which the house was built. Following his demise, it remained the residence of his sixth son Richard for some years before he moved to Orgreave Hall on the SW side of Burton, only to be replaced as resident by the fifth son, the bachelor Frederic, who in 1873 held 8 acres 1 rod 36 perches in Newton and three acres in Stapenhill whilst Robert, the eldest son, then still living at the latter, held 70 acres 3 rods 13 perches there. Robert went on to buy Newton Park from Lord Carnarvon five years later. Frederic died at Cliffe House in the 1880s, leaving his two surviving unmarried sisters, the Misses Sarah and Emma Ratcliff in residence.
After the Great War, both ladies moved out to eke out their dotage in more congenial surroundings (the house was said to have been cold and draughty), and it was let and later sold to Percy Kent Le May, the head brewer at Bass. He moved out in May 1929 when it was placed on the market. Unfortunately the Great Depression, triggered by the Wall Street Crash, had begun to make its effects felt and it attracted little interest, being eventually sold to a contractor who pulled it down for the value of the materials in 1930. The site is still vacant, but the impressive terraces, the house platform, lodge and stable block remain, the latter converted into dwellings. The house, into which a considerable amount of the profits of Messrs. Bass, Ratcliff & Gretton had been sunk, had lasted but seventy years. The Ratcliff family, however, remained in the village, at Newton Park, until 1966, just over a century after the completion of their forebear’s new seat.