24 April 2018

A lecture in Lichfield on
the Wyatts of Weeford,
an architectural dynasty

Lichfield Cathedral … Pugin called James Wyatt a ‘wretch,’ a ‘pest’ and a ‘monster of architectural depravity’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

I am back in Lichfield today, and later this evening I am delivering the monthly lecture in the programme organised Lichfield Civic Society at Wade Street Church Community Rooms in Frog Lane.

This evening’s lecture [7.45 p.m., 24 April 2018] tells the story of ‘the Wyatt Family of Weeford: a Lichfield architectural dynasty.’

There are several interesting architectural dynasties in the 19th century, including the Hardwick, Barry, Pugin and Scott families. But the Wyatt family tree stretches back much further than any of these, and the Wyatt family stands out for the variety and influence of its work by five or six generations of influential English architects in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

The best-known member of this dynasty was, perhaps, James Wyatt (1746-1813), although his work on rebuilding and restoring Lichfield Cathedral at the end of the 18th century drew the opprobrium of the greatest Gothic Revival architect of them all, AWN Pugin, when he visited Lichfield.

I am familiar with the work of the Wyatt family, not only because of my research on Pugin’s work, and because my family had worked on Pugin churches in the 19th century, but also because of their strong family links with Lichfield, because of Wyatt contributions to the architectural shape of Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, and because of one unique architectural feature – Wyatt Windows – which are found in large measure in two towns in Ireland: in Bunclody, Co Wexford, which was the Irish home town of my father’s ancestors, and Rathkeale, the principal town in my group of parishes in the Diocese of Limerick in south-west Ireland.

While I am in Lichfield this week, I am staying at Saint John’s House on Saint John Street, directly opposite Frog Lane.

The house was badly damaged about two months ago [15 February 2018] when a car crashed into the classical-style columns supporting the portico, causing one of the columns to collapse and causing serious damage to the portico.

Given the architectural focus of this evening’s lecture, it is interesting to stay in Saint John’s House, a Regency or Georgian house that is one of the oldest houses in the centre of Lichfield. It is a listed grade II* Georgian house, and has been listed since 1952.

The four-bay colonnade at the façade, which was severely damaged in the incident, is said to replicate the columns on the Tower of the Winds in Athens.

Unusually for a house of this age, and despite the recent crash and two restorations in recent decades, it still has many of its original features – including the butler’s pantry (now the reception area), the servant’s bell pulls, the staircases, and the larder with the original pegs for hanging game.

The renovations and restorations have been entirely faithful to the original plans for the house, and any alterations have used modern materials to show the evolution of the house for future generations.

Johann and Sarah Popp bought the house in July 2003. At the time, they felt it was an extravagant outlay, and so they decided to finance their purchase by opening the house for bed and breakfast. The house has since been transformed totally, using traditional and natural materials such as lime, horse hair, reclaimed glass and wood – along with blood, sweat and a few tears!

During his work on the house, Johann Popp came across the original living room mantelpiece that had been buried in the garden. The former billiards room still has the old billiard cue holder in the corner and also has a Victorian open fireplace for winter months.

Part or all of St Johns House incorporates the former Bear Inn, which appears in local records in Lichfield in 1698 and it is marked on maps of Lichfield since at least 1766. It stood opposite the entrance to Throgmorton Street, now known as Frog Lane.

The Bear Inn was one served by one of three Lichfield stage coach services. Giles Tottingham ran the Lichfield Flying Wagon from Anglesey in North Wales to London, using the Bear Inn as a staging post. The journey took only four days, and so the Bear Inn was once an important stage on the journey between Dublin and London in the 18th century.

Neighbouring inns and public houses in Saint John Street included the Lord Nelson and the Robin Hood, which stood on either corner of Frog Lane, opposite the Bear Inn. The Lord Nelson was incorporated into Lichfield Grammar School as part of the living accommodation in the mid-19th century, and later passed to Lichfield District Council; the Robin Hood was levelled within the last two decades.

When the Bear Inn ceased being a pub around 1815, the house was renovated extensively in the Regency style. The portico, with its columns and pillared cove, dates from this time. The site British Listed Buildings says the four-bay colonnade on the ground floor has columns modelled on those of the Tower of the Winds in Athens, with three pairs and a single columns to the ends, a frieze with wreaths over the columns and a cornice with a blocking course.

Other features from this time include the decorative stucco façade, including the pedimented windows on the first floor, and much of the cornicing and plaster-work.

The south wing was added in Victorian times, along with the stables, and some fireplaces upstairs were replaced. William East Holmes, who owned St Johns House in 1849, probably built the stables and one of the rooms in the stables is named after him.

Later, the house was owned by Frederick Simmonds, an iron merchant, and then by Archdeacon John Allen, the Master of Saint John’s Hospital, which is only a few doors away. He was followed by Mrs Susan Coyney, a Mrs Young, a Major Matthews, and Mrs Louisa Dawson, a haberdasher.

In 1902, a local colliery proprietor named Peake owned St John’s House. It was renamed Peake House and the Peake family lived here for over 50 years with their daughters.

Saint John’s Preparatory School was housed here from about 1958, but the school moved to Longdon Green in the early years of this century.

Dan and Elly Ralley acquired St Johns House in August 2012. Having fallen in love with the building, they set about bringing the building back to life. This includes a rear extension, which is now the Pavilion Room, acting as the main function room at the house.

They have taken great care in restoring the features of the house and have combined contemporary furnishings with classic antiques to create a very stylish, warm and friendly place to stay. Elly is a self-trained chef with a real flair for home cooked cuisine which is very popular with customers, and Dan and the team run the place from a front of house perspective.

The accommodation includes 12 individually styled bedrooms, of which 11 are doubles and one is a single; eight are located in the main house and four in the stables across the courtyard from the main house. Many of the Victorian features have been restored, including the fireplaces and the encaustic tiles, perhaps by Craven Dunnill.

The names of the rooms reflect the history of the house, including Francis, Coyney, Tottingham, Holmes, Peake, Simmonds and St John’s Suite, as well as the Terrace, and the Victoria, Peacock, Cottage and Garden rooms.

St Johns House Bed & Breakfast is located on Saint John Street in Lichfield and further information can be found at http://www.stjohnshouse.co.uk/. St Johns House can be contacted at: 01543 252 080.

St John’s House … the four-bay colonnade is said to replicate the columns of the Tower of the Winds in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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