An interesting quirkiness – Purbeck House
Published in August ’14
Thomas Hardy called George Burt ‘the King of Swanage’, an appropriate title in view of the influence Burt had on the town during his lifetime and the legacy he left behind. He laid the foundation of his fortune when, in 1835 at the age of 19, he joined his uncle, John Mowlem (1788-1868), in the building firm which the latter had founded and which still bears his name. Burt rose to be manager of the very successful company. But a king must have a palace, so in 1857 George Burt bought for £550 the nearest to a palace that Swanage could offer: a large Georgian house standing at the highest point of the High Street. The site was said to have been previously occupied by a religious building, possibly associated with Bindon Abbey, but there is no documentary evidence for this.
By 1875 Burt had decided that the house was not palatial enough to reflect the power and wealth of a prosperous man in that most prosperous age, so he knocked it down and built the present house. He designed it in collaboration with the distinguished Weymouth architect, George Crickmay, who was an old friend and who himself designed two lovely Carrara marble fireplaces that are still in situ. The result of their efforts is most often described as Scottish Baronial, but really it defies classification. Paul Nash called it ‘Purbeck-Wesleyan-Gothic’, which is as good and as meaningless a label as any, while Pevsner does not attempt a description beyond ‘High Victorian at its most rebarbative’. Another critic refers to ‘so startling an ugliness’ – a judgement that is hard to dispute, yet the house proclaims such an interesting quirkiness that it has unique charm.
Scattered throughout the house and gardens are oddities that Burt brought to adorn his home, presumably for no other reason than that he liked them and they were available. ‘Waste not, want not’ seemed to be his watchword and he was an avid recycler. The heavier objects, like many other major pieces he brought from London to Swanage, served the practical purpose of acting as ballast in empty stone boats returning to Purbeck for another load.
Of no great weight but of considerable historic interest are the tiles in the summer house above the croquet/tennis lawn. They came from the lobby of the Houses of Parliament, designed by Barry and Pugin, on which Mowlems did some work in 1880. The finest tile design is in the entrance hall, but it is not original; rather, it is a faithful copy of a Roman pavement found by Mowlems while building London’s Queen Victoria Street in 1869. The pavement was on view to the public for three days, during which some 50,000 people viewed it, and is now in the Museum of London. The fact that Burt went to the trouble to replicate it answers his critics who say that he was just a chancer who picked up and incorporated whatever was available.
On the eastern end of the outer wall is a gazebo from which a viewer can look down the High Street or across the bay to Ballard Point. This was originally intended to sit atop the house’s impressive tower, but Burt decided to place there instead a flying fish weathervane salvaged from the re-building of Billingsgate. For some reason the weathervane left Purbeck House for Newton Manor, on
the outskirts of Swanage, but by that time the gazebo had been positioned on the wall, presumably on the principle that it had been designed so it might as well be put somewhere.
In good Victorian style, inscriptions of an improving nature abound. Burt’s family motto, ‘Know thyself’, is on the tower, while in what is now the lounge bar appears the motto that Prince Albert wrote for the old Stock Exchange building in 1853: ‘Let Prudence direct, Temperance chasten, Fortitude support and Justice be the guide of all your activities’. A more practical, terse admonition is carved into the stone wall near the entrance to the old stable yard: ‘Beware of Dog. Chained day, loose night’.
One of the finest pieces of Burt recycling is to be found in the garden: an arch which Burt worked on in his early days at Mowlems and which was positioned in Hyde Park. Forty years later, Mowlems were involved in re-modelling Hyde Park Corner and the arch was removed. Perhaps inevitably, Burt salvaged it and re-erected it here. This piece may have had particular value for him, since it is a striking piece of work that suggests that Burt was no mean craftsman in stone before he got involved in the management of Mowlems. It shows the face of a god, possibly Neptune, with a long, flowing beard which would be more long and flowing had it not been struck by lightning some years ago.
Higher up the garden is a flat lawn, no doubt used for tennis and croquet, to judge by the four pillars which stand on its edge and which are further relics of Billingsgate fish market. On top of three of them are croquet balls, providing an irresistible parallel with the cannon balls on the monument that was erected by John Mowlem on Swanage’s seafront to commemorate Alfred’s victory over the Danes. On the fourth column is a pair of old-fashioned tennis rackets, crossed to form the shape of a heart.
At the southern end of the lawn stand three statues. Two of them came from the Royal Exchange in London, burnt down in 1838. Unfortunately they are headless, but they are believed to represent Charles I and Charles II, although the evidence for this is weak – according to some experts, they could equally well be Henry V and Edward III. The third statue excites historians more because it may be of Sir Thomas Gresham, who founded the original Royal Exchange in the reign of Elizabeth I. Like its successor, Gresham’s Royal Exchange burnt down, this time in the Great Fire of 1666, but both those indefatigable diarists, Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, go out of their way to record that the only statue to survive the conflagration was that of Thomas Gresham. Could this be it? If so, it is a work of major historical importance.
Overall, the house and garden occupy a remarkable 3½ acres. A feature of the garden is a huge Victorian greenhouse, in which produce is grown for use in today’s kitchens. Unfortunately it fell victim to February’s storms when a large tree crashed down on it, but is under repair.
Space does not allow a detailed description of all Purbeck House’s treasures, but they include: in the stable yard, part of a frieze from the Parthenon, depicting prancing horses; in the gazebo, a door-knocker from a house in Bloomsbury that housed the original British Museum; and pillars from the old toll-house on Waterloo Bridge, now supporting the summer house above the croquet/tennis lawn. George Burt’s billiard room, today an elegant dining and function room, included at the time of his death a range of exotic objects, including a stuffed albatross and an Egyptian mummy! Perhaps most bizarrely of all, the facings of part of the building are made from waste chips from the base of the Albert Memorial, which Mowlems constructed. Or is it so bizarre? After all, the Albert Memorial and Purbeck House, each in its own way, represents the apotheosis of the High Victorian decorative style.
Even what can be seen at Purbeck House is not the whole story. Frustratingly, there is documentary evidence of other treasures that have disappeared. These include railings from St Paul’s ‘cast under Wren’s specification’, a scale model of Cleopatra’s Needle and the jawbone of a whale, as well as balusters from various London bridges.
George Burt died in 1894 but his descendants continued to live in the house until 1935. It was then taken over by the Sisters of Mercy as a convent. They converted the billiard room into a chapel and were in occupation until 1994, when the house was bought by a local property developer, John Cruse, who renovated it and converted it into a hotel. Three years later, it was bought by the Hutchins family, hoteliers who had run White Lodge at Durlston (now flats). They are very sensitive to the history and atmosphere of Purbeck House, and nowhere is this more evident than in Louisa Lodge, a substantial building alongside the tennis/croquet lawn, which provides twenty modern rooms to go with the eighteen in the main house; designed by Morgan Carey Architects, it shows how modern development can be sympathetically assimilated into an historic setting and does not have to shout ‘Here I am!’ Traditional features like the row of bells in the old servants’ quarters, bearing legends such as ‘North-west dressing room’, have been retained and the owners have brought off the trick of providing a comfortable 21st-century hotel without compromising the building’s 19th-century charm. ◗