The best of Dorset in words and pictures

‘Leave not a rack behind’

Jo Draper tells the story of vanished Duntish Court - near Buckland Newton

Duntish Court, nr Buckland Newton
The garden front of Castle Hill, designed in 1764 by Sir William Chambers. The roof was altered and the dormer windows added by 1840 to give ‘six cheerful airy bedrooms’. The house was originally red brick with stone details. The brick was rendered in the 19th century.

Castle Hill at Duntish, near Buckland Newton, was a handsome example of the smaller mansion. Designed in 1764 by Sir William Chambers for Fitzwalter Foy, it was beautifully sited, higher up the hill than its predecessor to gain views across the Blackmore Vale, a typical move as scenery was becoming more appreciated. The house was a dignified squarish classical block, set upon a basement. Fairly plain externally, it had very attractive plasterwork in the downstairs rooms, with handsome doorcases. Two detached wings housed stables and brewhouse, laundry and servants’ rooms. Later the house was re-named Duntish Court.

Castle Hill took its original name from the small Iron Age hillfort or castle close by and Fitzwalter Foy, who had the new house built, also improved the hillfort. Hutchins records: ‘On its being cleansed by the late Mr Foy from the wood with which it was overgrown, human bones, antique pickaxes, sword blades, and other remains were dug up’. This must have been a very enthusiastic ‘cleansing’ to produce so much stuff, although one might suspect that the labourers were palming him off with old iron from other places. These improvements to the little hillfort took place in the late 18th century, quite early for a landowner to appreciate ancient remains.

The plaster ceiling in the drawing roomDuntish Court, nr Buckland Newton
The plaster ceiling in the drawing room, with musical instruments, was part of the original 1760s decoration of the house.

The garden front of Castle Hill, designed in 1764 by Sir William Chambers. The roof was altered and the dormer windows added by 1840 to give ‘six cheerful airy bedrooms’. The house was originally red brick with stone details. The brick was rendered in the 19th century.

Duntish was at the centre of the 1830 ‘Captain Swing’ riots in Dorset, when the agricultural labourers revolted against their incredibly low wages and against the introduction of threshing machines, which threatened their main winter work. These new devices were smashed by the mob and they also demanded money. In 1830 Castle Hill was owned by William Williams and an eye-witness account of the riot records: ‘They went on to Squire Williams’s, o’ Castlehill, where they thought they should get another zuvrin; but the Squire said “I have no change; if you will come up Monday I will be prepared for you.”’ Silly labourers – by Monday ‘they got together all the special constables of Cerne and all the parishes round’ and instead of receiving a sovereign the rioters were arrested. Neither of the reports says whether the mob came to the back door (as befitted their humble status) or whether they stormed up to the front door, feeling brave because there were so many of them. This was the most exciting episode in the house’s public history.

The door cases at Castle Hill, Duntish Court, nr Buckland Newton
The door cases at Castle Hill had elaborate carving and were very handsome with their original doors. They all date from the 1760s.

A detailed sale catalogue of 1840 describes the ‘Domain of above 1,300 acres’ belonging with the house, comprising six or seven farms. All this, and the house, ‘one of the most admired and favourite seats in the County’, was advertised as ‘suitable to a gentleman of moderate fortune’. Estate agents in the 1840s were already using unlikely claims – Castle Hill was sweet, but hardly one of the most admired houses or estates. The landscape was an attraction described by the agent as ‘the most splendid and almost boundless scenery’. Oddly to our prejudices, one of the attractions was that the house was ‘upon the Turnpike-road leading from Weymouth and Dorchester to Bath’ – the italics are in the original to call attention to this benefit.

The house is described as a ‘truly comfortable mansion…of an elegant uniform elevation’ and ‘a country seat where comfort, enjoyment and distinction are preferred to imposing grandeur and formal state’. The agent was trying to avoid saying that the house was actually quite small. It was capable ‘of accommodating a large family establishment and all in the most excellent order’. There were ‘six cheerful airy bedrooms’ on the top floor, which had recently been adapted with dormer windows to make the bedrooms possible. On the first floor were ‘seven capital Bed-Chambers’ with dressing room and even water-closets. The ground floor had the dining room, drawing room and library, all ‘handsomely furnished with ornamental ceilings, expensive marble Chimney pieces, and the Drawing Room hung with elegant Paper and gift Mouldings’.

The principal staircase was of oak, ‘broad and well finished’, the servants’ stairs ‘of stone, even to the upper floor’. In the basement were ‘a good kitchen, Scullery, Pantries, Servants’ Hall, Housekeeper’s and Butler’s Rooms, and Bedroom, Store-closet, and superior Wine and Ale Cellars’.

The low wings either side had been completely detached, but by 1840 they had been joined to the house by long corridors. In the north wing were the stables ‘of a superior description’ with a double coach-house. The south wing had a brewhouse, wash-house and laundry, with servants’ bedrooms over. Attached to this wing was a conservatory ‘opening to the Pleasure Grounds, which are of a delightful character and universally admired’.

The 1840 sale catalogue inevitably describes the Pleasure Grounds as having ‘a delightful character’. They embraced ‘a considerable Extent’ of the hillside and ‘have been disposed and finished with Judgement and Taste of a superior Order…. They possess a great Extent of gravelled Walks, with beautiful Lawns and Parterres, refreshed by an ornamental Piece of Water, and adorned with choice and most luxuriant Beds and Belts of Shrubs and Plants, interspersed and shaded with lofty timber in magnificent variety, with a curious secluded Grotto, with jagged Spar Roof, overhanging a chrystal Spring’.

A detailed plan of 1879 shows how the house was increased in size by moving the kitchen and offices from the basement of the main house out into one of the wings. The superior stables and coach-house were transformed into an absolute warren of rooms – a big kitchen, smaller still room, two larders, a scullery, a pastry larder, store and housekeeper’s room. The hot closet must have been useful, but all the food had to be carried along the covered way to the dining room at the front of the house. Big houses had to choose between the dangers of fire from a kitchen actually in the house (and the cooking smell everywhere) and having hot food.

The south wing still had the servants’ bedrooms on the first floor and a conservatory, but the rest was used as a bakehouse, laundry and coal-house, with the brewhouse of 1840 abolished. This is a typical change: people were buying in their beer rather than making it.

The house was photographed and recorded by the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments in 1951, and was completely demolished in 1965. Some of the great trees survive in the grounds, including what is said to be the largest plane tree in the country.

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