Upton House – some council house!
Thousands of motorists every day pass Upton House, but how many of them realise what a rich and varied history it has? John Newth explains.
Published in April ’14
Most of the great houses of Dorset claim a colourful history, but how many of them can boast a connection to the Tichborne Claimant, maggot-racing, a Romanian prince, the Great Train Robbery and the first female Mayor of Poole? Upton House can, yet it is technically a council house, having belonged to the Borough of Poole for the last 55 years.
The Upton Estate, which at one time extended to 1000 acres, was bought by William Spurrier in the mid-18th century. The Spurriers were one of the great Poole families who had made their fortune from the Newfoundland trade. It was William’s ambition to build a mansion on the land, but he died in 1811 and it was left to his son, Christopher, to build the main part of the present house in 1816-18, diverting the Wareham-Poole turnpike to enlarge the park. In 1825 he added the west wing.
It would be nice to think that Christopher honoured his father’s ambition out of filial piety, but it was more likely to impress his in-laws, the Garlands, who were another wealthy Poole family. Also, piety was not as high on the list of Christopher’s priorities as was spending the family fortune on his political ambitions, on extravagant travel and on gambling. He might have got away with it had his profligacy not coincided with the decline of the Newfoundland trade.
Standing for Parliament in the 1817 election against the candidate sponsored by his father-in-law was probably not a clever move by Christopher – he lost, although he did become MP for Bridport briefly in 1820. As for his gambling, he could not be said to have kept a good table, and at dinner one night the walnuts were found to be full of maggots. Unabashed, he suggested a maggot race and staked the family silver on a creature which he presumably thought had the look of a thoroughbred about it. To encourage it during the race, he prodded it with one of the forks that formed part of his stake. The maggot showed its disapproval of the proceedings by expiring, and the Spurrier silver was carted from Upton House, never
Unsurprisingly, the Spurriers were forced to sell the estate in 1828 to Edward Doughty, who, although he had changed his name from Tichborne to receive an inheritance from a cousin, in due course succeeded to the barony of Tichborne. He died in 1853, but not before building the house’s east wing and creating a chapel. His nephew and presumptive heir, Roger, had been drowned on a voyage to South America, but there was a public sensation in 1866 when a large Australian turned up, claiming to be Roger and demanding his inheritance. He produced some startlingly strong evidence, but the courts eventually decided that he was not Roger and sent him to prison for perjury. However, the lengthy case ruined the Tichbornes financially and they let Upton House to a succession of tenants.
In 1901 the Estate was bought by John Alfred Wigan and Thomas John Llewellin for the occupancy of William and Frances Llewellin (née Wigan), who moved from Kent. Much of the interior of the house as it is today reflects their re-modelling, not least the conversion of the Doughtys’ chapel into a dining room, including an impressive oak overmantel with a huge mirror to reflect light from the overhead cupola into a room that has no windows. For the walls they commissioned paintings of their former Kent home and of Upton House; they are of no great artistic merit but have considerable charm. Art nouveau friezes in the drawing room and the library also date from this period. Of William and Frances’s three children, one became a distinguished penologist, one was a cabinet minister who was ennobled and became Governor-General of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland, and the third, Mary, was Mayor of Poole in 1951 and 1953, the first lady to hold the office.
When the Llewellin family left Upton House in 1957, they presented it to the Borough of Poole for the benefit of the people of the town. One can imagine the councillors rather scratching their heads over what to do with the gift, as the 55 acres that came with it would not earn nearly enough to pay for its maintenance. The solution was for the house to be let again, and the chosen tenant was Prince Carol of Romania. Despite his title, he had to work as a carpet salesman, but perhaps he was not a very good one as in 1969 he gave up the lease, having done none of the promised maintenance on the property.
Shortly after the Great Train Robbery of 1963, the house was surrounded by dozens of police. Local rumour claimed that they had received a tip-off that some of the loot had been stashed in an old smugglers’ tunnel that was supposed to run from the house to Pergins Island in the middle of Holes Bay. Not only were piles of used notes conspicuous by their absence, but the whole story of the tunnel is just that – a romantic story.
The Borough Council now acknowledged that the future of the property was in their hands and a programme of steady reclamation of the house and grounds began. In 1976 the grounds were opened to the public as Poole’s only country park, with free entry. Today it extends to over a hundred acres and it is proof of its popularity that it receives getting on for a million visits a year from dog-walkers, bird-watchers, joggers and those who just appreciate its beauty and its peace. Above the tea-room, the Gallery Upstairs stages free art exhibitions. For the more active there is a simple orienteering course and a pétanque terrain.
At the park’s centre is a beautiful walled garden to which has been added a water feature on a site once occupied by a fountain, which is in keeping with a wish for authenticity expressed by Roger Brewer, Team Leader at Upton Country Park: ‘We recognise the value of the property as a historic landmark and try to reflect that in our improvements.’ Elsewhere in the park, recent work to clear invasive species like rhododendron has not only had conservation value but opened up some wonderful views.
It was 1986 before the house was fully restored. Its first floor is let as offices, but the five main rooms on the ground floor are in use for functions such as weddings, conferences, other corporate events and private parties, catered for by an in-house team. Contrasting with the drawing room and dining room are the smaller, plainer study and morning room, although the latter is particularly charming, with views down the lawn. All the rooms interconnect, which gives great flexibility, and brides in particular appreciate the grandeur of the setting as a backdrop to their wedding photos. Special events are held in both the house and park throughout the year, and all these commercial activities make a crucial contribution to the cost of meeting the Borough Council’s obligation to maintain the grade II* listed property.
In the library, with its doors ingeniously disguised as bookshelves (including some extraordinary ‘elliptical hypotenuse pivot doors’ into the drawing room), the woodwork is being restored and repolished and the whole room is being given a face-lift, including a considerable amount of repair to broken door-frames. The work is possible thanks to funds from the Friends of Upton Country Park, a very active organisation some 250-strong which must be the envy of many owners of historic houses; over the years it has contributed significantly to a number of improvement projects. The Friends also open the house on occasions, acting as stewards and guides, which gives the general public a chance to enjoy this beautiful and intriguing house. As Roger Brewer says, ‘It’s a fantastic and diverse estate that should be celebrated.’ ◗
❱www.uptoncountrypark.com (Upton Country Park) www.uptoncountrypark.org (Friends of Upton Country Park)