A comparative youngster among Dorset’s historic houses is nevertheless an attractive and interesting example of an Edwardian conversion. John Newth has been to see it.
Published in November ’10
The story of Norburton Hall as it is today really begins in 1901. However, there is documentary evidence of a farm on the site, on the northern edge of Burton Bradstock, since the 1640s, and the previous owners said that there are the remains of a Tudor fireplace behind the Aga in the modern kitchen. The barn with its cross-shaped windows has been used as a threshing barn and is believed to have housed people on the upper floor. There is evidence of an undercroft, too. Cottages were subsequently added to form a T-shaped building which appears on a tithe map dated 1839. On a tithe map of 1891 it is referred to as ‘The Buildings’.
Thus it became a fairly substantial and rambling group of farm buildings, almost a hamlet. Surviving evidence of those days includes a columbarium in the gable-end of the barn, which would have supplied pigeon meat, and a pond consisting of rectangular chambers of increasing size and originally nine feet deep, which was surely some sort of fish farm; today it is a water feature in which koi carp and goldfish swim peacefully. By 1901 the property was known as Squire Brown’s Buildings (a James Brown held land in Burton Bradstock and it seems that the name referred to him) and was in the possession of a farmer called Marsh.
In that year, Edward Toronto Sturdy (his middle name came from his birthplace) appeared on the scene. He had inherited the Trigon Estate, near Wareham, but had sold it to his uncle, also Edward. He lived in Hampstead, where he took a close interest in theosophy and ancient Eastern religions, but one may guess that he rather missed having a country retreat because ten years after selling Trigon, he bought Squire Brown’s Buildings.
With his cousin, Philip Sturdy, as architect, Edward Toronto extended the property in the Arts and Crafts style, with plenty of wood panelling, coloured glass and mullioned windows. The Arts and Crafts movement encouraged traditional hand-crafted building methods which kept alive the skills of artisans, together with the use of natural materials like stone and wood, and imagery from the natural world such as peacocks, roses and sunflowers. Some of Edward Toronto’s furniture, including heavy wardrobes and a built-in sideboard is still there. Yet it is not an oppressive house, thanks to its spaciousness and its view over a well-designed garden to the West Dorset countryside. Edward Toronto christened his new house ‘Norburton’, presumably because of its position to the north of the village. The nice social distinctions of the age are reflected in an illustration of the property at the time of the sale, which refers to ‘E.T Sturdy Esq.’ but ‘Mr Marsh the farmer’.
Edward Toronto lived in the house for over fifty years. His son, Ambrose, suffered shell-shock in World War 1, and his daughter, Dorothy May, married Rodney Scott, who had a distinguished naval career. A charabanc used to run from Burton Bradstock to Weymouth to watch Captain Scott’s ship arrive or leave, and in the house is a linen press that reputedly went to sea with him. Sadly, Dorothy May was killed in a car accident after only two years of marriage but had produced a son, Anthony. In the 1990s, Anthony gave the then owners of Norburton Hall a portrait of his mother because, he said, it belonged there.
Ambrose sold the house after his father’s death in the 1950s to a family who wanted to turn it into a caravan park. Permission was refused and in 1961 it was bought by the Knightsmith family, who ran a business connected with oil in London; apparently the business had installed the first petrol pump in the country, in North Acton. It was the Knightsmiths who added ‘Hall’ to ‘Norburton’. After their parents died, Norburton Hall continued to be the home of the three Knightsmith children, Felicity, Sylvia and Nicholas, none of whom married. During that time the house remained almost entirely unchanged, although some of its land was sold. The Knightsmiths were generous in allowing the village to use Norburton’s facilities, including a skittle alley which they created from a long, low cow byre.
In 1994 the Attwood family bought the house, staying until they sold it in 2005 to Karen and David Venn, and Karen’s sister-in-law, Margaret Jones. The Venns were living in Burton Bradstock and were looking for a house with one more bedroom: ‘We ended up with one more bedroom – and a business,’ laughs Karen. It was Margaret who first pointed out the commercial potential of Norburton Hall, and she is now a partner in the self-catering cottage and bed and breakfast business. ‘For us all it was a decision with the heart rather than the head, but we have never regretted it,’ Karen says.
The partners converted the buildings surrounding the main house into five self-catering cottages: the Dairy; the Shippen, which is the former skittle alley; the Stables, which consists of two cottages; and four-bedroomed Gardener’s Cottage, which is joined to the original house and is by far the largest. The three main bedrooms in Edward Toronto’s extension have been converted into bed and breakfast rooms. This involved putting in bathrooms, but otherwise the Venns did not undertake any major structural works. Some of the coloured glass in the windows was in poor shape but was restored with the advice of the late John Hayward of Corscombe, designer of the west window in Sherborne Abbey.
Karen, David and their two children (one at university, one in her last year at Colyton) live in the oldest part of the house, onto which Edward Toronto built his extension. The atmosphere in this part is quite different, the thickness of the walls even giving a different quality to the sound of conversation. The old part includes the entrance hall and a family room that was Edward Toronto’s dining room; the other rooms may well have comprised the servants’ quarters in his time.
Karen’s background in marketing and customer service training was a considerable asset in setting up the business, but so was her excellent taste and her sympathy for the atmosphere of the house. In 1901 the Arts and Crafts movement was thriving and was of great interest to Edward Toronto. Furniture, lighting and mirrors have been carefully chosen by Karen to fit in with this. She was fortunate in that an antiques dealer in Crewkerne had spent a lifetime building up with his first wife an Arts and Crafts collection, which came on the market after she died because he was emigrating to Australia with his second wife, who had a passion for Art Deco and no interest in Arts and Crafts!
More even than in most houses, Edward Toronto’s rooms at Norburton are defined by their fireplaces. In the large main hall, which houses a grand piano and can accommodate more than seventy people as a venue during the Burton Bradstock Music Festival, the impressive stone fireplace bears the date 1906 and a Sanskrit inscription that translates as ‘There is no higher law than truth.’ The oldest fireplace is in the entrance hall and is spanned by a massive elm beam. In the former dining room there is much Arts and Crafts detailing, and the decoration of the fireplace includes the serpents which are an important symbol in theosophy. There is also another splendid fireplace in the main bedroom. Best of all, though, is the fireplace by Walter Crane in what is now the breakfast room but was possibly Edward Toronto’s drawing room. It is a magnificent example of Arts and Crafts, and its extravagant peacock motif is used as a logo for the accommodation business.
With so many historic houses in Dorset, it is easy to overlook one most of which is barely a century old, but Norburton Hall is full of interest and has a particular charm. It has been fortunate in its owners, too: one suspects that if Edward Toronto were to come back today, he would not be displeased to see what has happened to his creation.
1 Photography by Peter Booton