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To The Manor Re-born

One of Bournemouth’s most important buildings, Shelley Manor, had fallen on hard times but can now look forward to a brighter future. Lee Rowland tells its story.

A Vanity Fair cartoonof Sir Percy Florence Shelley
A Vanity Fair cartoon of Sir Percy Florence Shelley in the ‘Men of the Day’ series. Headed ‘The Poet’s son’, part of the caption reads: ‘But he delights above all in yachting and in private theatricals, and is even now engaged in building a theatre for amateur performers. He is a gentleman.’

Shelley’s popular poem, ‘Mutability’, contains some lines that vividly capture the notion of our transient societies: ‘Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; Nought may endure but Mutability.’ I often think of his words on my regular walks through Shelley Park, a woody attraction set back from the cliff-top road near Boscombe, on Bournemouth’s eastern edge. The parkland itself is flourishing and well cared for, but most prominent is the large white mansion that stands battered and bruised at the northern tip of the land, looking forlorn with its windows boarded. You would hardly imagine that this building was once the very heart of Boscombe, full of fun, generosity and promise.
The house, built for Mr Philip Norris in 1801, and two hundred acres of land were bought in 1849 by Sir Percy Florence Shelley, the only surviving child of the romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the writer, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. He had originally intended it for his ailing mother, but she was too ill to move from London and died in 1851. Sir Percy and his wife, Jane, were seduced by the benign climate and wild beauty of the location and decided to move there themselves. By some accounts, Sir Percy was attracted to the area because of its likeness to the Italian shores of the Gulf of Spezzia, where he had lived as a young child and where his father died sailing at the age of twenty-nine.

old photograph of Boscombe Manori
The exact date of this old photograph is not known, but it was clearly taken at a time when ivy-clad Boscombe Manor was still a residence

The couple had a passion for theatricals and entertainment and Percy built a theatre in the house and set about establishing Boscombe Manor (as it was officially known by 1873) as a place of renown for culture and the arts. The theatre was described as the most splendid private theatre in England. Its red velvet curtains, realistic and colourful painted scenery and ornate furnishings were the very epitome of Victorian grandeur. But the shows staged there were about far more than ostentation. Percy’s plays were very close to his heart, to the extent that he often wrote, performed in and produced them, as well as painting the scenery and composing the music. Impressively, two of Percy’s plays are held in the British Museum. Lady Shelley was a gifted actor whose abilities were equal to those of many professionals.

Boscombe Cliff Gardens
Boscombe Cliff Gardens were part of the garden of Boscombe Manor and were bequeathed to the public in Lady Shelley’s will

The Shelleys’ talents and enthusiasm shone through and their plays became very popular, resulting in a stream of distinguished guests to Boscombe Manor: both nobility and the towering figures of the Victorian stage, Sir Beerbohm Tree and Sir Henry Irving. The latter, the first actor to be knighted, is said to have acted on the Shelley stage without a fee.
Monday 28 January 1856 saw the staging of the first play, He Whoops To Conquer, a farce written by Sir Percy. The actors were gathered from the Shelleys and their friends. Indeed, many of the plays put on at Boscombe Manor had a humorous and farcical edge, as the titles suggest: The Wreck Ashore, A Comedy of Terrors, A Model of a Wife. Character names such as Pygmalion Bonnefoi, Panda, King Colocauculon, Cradleman and Mr and Mrs Stump are even more ludicrous. After all the expended energy there was usually a big banquet. These evenings were no doubt very bumptious, gay and spirited affairs.
Sir Percy’s plays were advertised beyond friends and family and attracted local people. His interest and involvement in theatre led to the presidency of the fledgling Bournemouth Amateur Dramatics Society in 1876. The vice-president was another local luminary, Sir Henry Drummond Wolff MP, and the meetings were held at the town hall. However, it seems that the Shelleys’ decision to attract spectators beyond their circle was not appreciated by all. One small-minded resident informed the authorities that the tickets to these plays were being sold without a licence. Percy was taken to court and fined one shilling; the performance in question had been given for charity.

The sadly dilapidated state of the mansion before restoration began
The sadly dilapidated state of the mansion before restoration began. The brick extension to the left housed the theatre.

The Shelleys’ charitable and philanthropic nature was a huge benefit to the local area. They were instrumental in raising money for and contributing to all sorts of local causes, such as the health centre in Shelley Road. In 1872, plays were staged to help raise money for Bournemouth Sanatorium. But their participation in the development of Boscombe went beyond charity and health projects; they had an interest in the building of the town, in the sculpting of the natural environment and in the development of the sea front into a place to be enjoyed by all. In 1888, Lady Shelley fixed the very first pile of the pier.
After Sir Percy’s death in 1889, his widow continued with the charity work and allowed the grounds to be used for a variety of local functions, including picnics, fetes, carnivals and football games. She herself died there in 1899, well-respected. Her estate was valued at £16,000 gross, some of which was bequeathed to family, but much was given to acquaintances and the clergy. Three servants each received £250, and another a life annuity of £30. Six acres of land went to the public and were developed into the Boscombe Cliff Gardens, which are still enjoyed today. The gardens were opened in 1900 to great celebrations and fireworks.
The mansion was left to Jane’s great-nephew, Captain Shelley Leopold Lawrence Scarlett, who later became Lord Abinger. Like their predecessors, he and Lady Abinger were much involved in charitable work, supporting local hospitals and continuing to make the park available as a venue for fetes. Lady Abinger regularly gave flowers and grapes grown in the grounds to hospitals, and he gave pheasants during the festive season.
But the Abingers’ stay at Boscombe Manor was a relatively short one. In June 1911 the Bournemouth Beach Committee bought the mansion for £69,500 and it was left unoccupied for some time. Then in 1918 it was re-invented as a school for girls and re-named Grovely Manor. Yet this, too, proved an ephemeral role: the doors were bolted shut once again in the late 1930s and the property returned to the ownership of the council. Its past glories were by now distant and largely forgotten and the theatre was in a state of serious neglect.
During the last thirty years Boscombe Manor, by now re-named Shelley Manor, was home to the Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design, which used the theatre as a canteen and lecture room, and to a museum specifically devoted to Percy Bysshe Shelley. The only one of its kind, the museum had visitors from all over the world. However, it closed after the death of its curator, Miss Margaret Brown, in 1992 and the college left shortly after.
Has the house’s romantic grandeur been lost to the ravages of time and modern sensibilities? It appears not. Since 2003, a local action group, the Friends of Shelley Manor, have campaigned to re-invigorate the house and park into something like their former glory. They are well on their way to raising the necessary £2 million for the project. Chris Wakefield, a former member of the Friends and an enthusiastic Bournemouth Councillor, told me that the 200-seat theatre is to be restored, as well as the museum and library. The scheme will also include a reception area, a café, an outdoor patio and bar. Wakefield, who also sits on the Board of Shelley Manor Theatre Company, has a vision of a theatre that will accommodate a varied range of productions and will be available for hire by the public to stage their own plays, as well as being used as a cinema and music venue.
This vision will be buttressed by the other plans currently in operation. The Adeline Road surgery is to be re-housed as part of the complex, and spacious flats will be built overlooking the park and grounds. The contract for this ambitious project was granted in 2005 to the Charles Higgins Partnership, who specialise in bespoke medical architecture. The wish to harmonise old and new is palpable on the project, and the intention to retain natural beauty while providing something of use and interest to the community is commendable. The preliminaries are completed and work is expected to begin in earnest within a few months.
It is heartening to consider that Shelley’s words from ‘Mutability’ do not yet apply to his son’s legacy. Shelley (or Boscombe) Manor may once again be a place for the arts and culture, full of fun and laughter. In recent years the park has been put to use in a manner in keeping with its founders’ beliefs: there are free and decent tennis courts, regular games of football on the grass and the Boscombe Arts Festival in July. And soon the house will follow suit.

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