The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Dorset Houses – The lost mansion

Jo Draper tells the sorry tale of a fairy-tale mansion named Clifton Maybank

Clifton Maybank had just the sort of Tudor architecture to make Victorians swoon. Sadly this huge house did not survive long enough for Victorian rapture. The house was built in the mid 16th century by the Horsey family, and was a very pretty stone mansion with all the decorative trimmings typical of a rich house at that date – twisted stone finials with beasts on, decorative pierced parapets and oriel windows. The family was interesting: the Horsey estate was greatly enlarged at the dissolution of the monasteries. Sir John Horsey gained much land around Clifton, including Sherborne Abbey and its lands, in the 1530s. He sold the church and churchyard to the townspeople of Sherborne for £320. A handsome memorial to Sir John Horsey and his son of exactly the same name survives in that very church.
It was the son who built the great house at Clifton Maybank, and the front transported to Montacute has the initials of this Sir John Horsey II and his wife Edith Philips. The double tomb at Sherborne has almost identical figures representing father and son, and both are shown in armour of about 1470, a hundred years before the tomb was made. Presumably the Horseys were emphasising the fact that they were an old family, but the combination of very modern classical decoration on the tomb and the archaic amour is odd. The Horsey family added a handsome gatehouse to Clifton Maybank around 1600, and left the house in the 1640s.

The gatehouse at Clifton Maybank dated from around 1600. This engraving is from the first edition of Hutchins (1774) and he described the gatehouse as ‘very beautiful’ and ‘ascribed to Inigo Jones’. In the later 18th century anything early 17th-century and the slightest bit classical was ascribed to Jones. He did not design this.

The gatehouse at Clifton Maybank dated from around 1600. This engraving is from the first edition of Hutchins (1774) and he described the gatehouse as ‘very beautiful’ and ‘ascribed to Inigo Jones’. In the later 18th century anything early 17th-century and the slightest bit classical was ascribed to Jones. He did not design this.

A description of it in 1648 makes it sound more like a little town than a house: ‘The capital message [messuage ie: house] consists of a faire yellowe freestone buildinge, partly two and partly three stories, a faire hall and parlour, both waynscotted [panelled]; a faire dyninge roome and with-drawinge roome; and many good lodgings, a kitchen adjoining backeward to one end of the dwellinge house with faire passage from it into the hall, parlour and dyninge roome and sellars adjoining. In front of the house a square greene court; and a curious gate house with lodgings in it, …, in a large outer court three stables, a coach house, a large barne and a stable for oxen and kine, and all the necessary houses. Without the gatehouse paled in a large square green, in which standeth a faire chappell; … towards the river a large garden. … a large bowling greene, with flower mounted walks about it, all walled with a battled wall, and sett with all sorts of fruit; and out of it into the fields there are large walkes under many tall elms orderly planted. There are several orchards and gardens about the house, 14 acres well planted. In the backside of the house there is a brewhouse, bakehouse, dairy house and all other necessary houses and lodgings for servants, and a faire double pigeon house and a corn mill. The river gave ‘plenty of pike, carpes and other river fish’; on the hill was a rabbit warren, many ash trees and coppices. Hunting and hawking was easy, and in ‘the great coppice wood’ were ‘a competent number of deere’. This house is a manufactory for brewing beer, grinding corn and baking bread; making cheese and butter in the dairy house; raising rabbits & pigeons for the table; besides all the cooking in the kitchen. Horses and cattle are stalled close by the house, and the gardens have fruit as well as flowers.

The south front of the surviving wing at Clifton Maybank with the 18th-century sash windows admired by Hutchins, but otherwise mid 16th century with clasping pillars and pretty parapet. Engraving of about 1900.

The south front of the surviving wing at Clifton Maybank with the 18th-century sash windows admired by Hutchins, but otherwise mid 16th century with clasping pillars and pretty parapet. Engraving of about 1900.

Clifton Maybank could supply everything, and all in a handsome setting – ‘large walks under many tall elms orderly planted’. All these rural mansions were the centre of landed estates, often including the whole parish, and even beyond. Clifton Maybank was the main house for an absolutely massive estate – the owner who died in 1564 had 18,000 acres in Dorset and Somerset. Clifton Maybank parish was only 1300 acres of this.

The tomb of the two Sir John Horseys in Sherborne Abbey, built soon after 1565, shows them looking like twins, rather than father and son. Their armour is based on that current in 1470, but enriched with neat decoration.

The tomb of the two Sir John Horseys in Sherborne Abbey, built soon after 1565, shows them looking like twins, rather than father and son. Their armour is based on that current in 1470, but enriched with neat decoration.

By 1774, when Hutchins described it, the house had been modernised a bit. ‘The mansion house is a large and stately pile of building, repaired, sashed and otherwise modernised’ by the current owners. Sash windows would have been thought a great improvement in the 18th century, but W H Hamilton-Rogers, writing in the 1880s, fulminates against that modernisation ‘then doubtless, all the rich oak Tudor carved work and stone-mullioned windows, radiant with sparkling armories [stained-glass windows] were ousted to make way for the bald monotony of deal-panelled parallelograms, lit by the dingy bottle-green sashed transparencies of good Queen Anne’. He really was prejudiced – why should Tudor glass sparkle and Georgian glass be dingy?

The front from Clifton Maybank as adapted at Montacute in 1786. This was the most elaborate part.

The front from Clifton Maybank as adapted at Montacute in 1786. This was the most elaborate part.

This vandalising didn’t really matter because in 1786 most of the house was demolished. Edward Phelips of Montacute (the large house of about 1600 just over the border in Somerset, only six miles away) attended the sale of the building and purchased ‘600 feet of plain ashlar
for Cattistock. The porch, arms, pillars and all the ornamental stones of the front to be transferred to the West front of Montacute; also a chimney piece in the drawing room, some windows etc.’
Stone has always been re-used: transport was expensive and so it was much cheaper to take stone from redundant or decayed buildings than to have it brought from the quarry. What is unusual here is the appreciation of 16th-century architecture at a time when more classical styles were fashionable. Phelips may have wanted the pretty façade because he thought it matched his house (actually it is forty to fifty years earlier) or because his aunt had married a Horsey and her initials are in the heraldic panel on the façade.
He used the Clifton Maybank façade to form a corridor along the west front of Montacute, with the original porch as a new entrance. When Montacute was built around 1600, rooms opening into one another were fine, but by the 1780s corridors to keep the rooms private and to give the servants discreet route were wanted.

The west front of Clifton Maybank with a pretty oriel window reset from the original house. This façade is 18th century, built after the demolition of the main block. Engraving of 1888.

The west front of Clifton Maybank with a pretty oriel window reset from the original house. This façade is 18th century, built after the demolition of the main block. Engraving of 1888.

The gatehouse survived a bit longer – until 1800. But then Hutchins records that the gatehouse ‘has been purchased by Lord Paulet for 120 guineas to erect in his park at Hinton St. George’ in Somerset. Sadly the gatehouse doesn’t seem to have been rebuilt there – presumably the Paulets just wanted the stone.
In 1815 Hutchins noted ‘besides the remains of the mansion the whole parish contains eight or nine cottages’. It still, just about, had a church (demolished 1824) but the early 19th-century parish sounds so empty compared to the 1648 description.
The 21st-century version is bleaker yet; Clifton Maybank survives only as two dismembered pieces – with one front at Montacute, and a wing on the original site.

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