10 September 2022

Did Christopher Wren design
Winslow Hall? Indeed, was the
Winslow Boy from Winslow?

Winslow Hall dominates Sheep Street on the road from Winslow to Aylesbury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Strolling through the streets of Winslow a few days ago, there was no sign of the ‘Winslow Boy’ at the centre of Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play The Winslow Boy. I bumped into a man in his 90 on the High Street, who was curious to know what I was photographing, who told me how he had fought against cancer, and who still enjoyed life.

Now that’s the way to live an independent life in your 90s.

However, the Winslow Boy in the play and the later film The Winslow Boy (1948) was not from Winslow. The fictitious character, Ronnie Winslow, a 14-year-old naval cadet who is accused of the theft of a five-shilling postal order.

There are no Winslows of Winslow or of Winslow Hall, and Ronnie Winslow is based on George Archer-Shee (1895-1914), a naval cadet who faced a similar accusation in 1910, when he was successfully defended by Sir Edward Carson.

The Archer-Shee family was descended from two very distinguished Kilkenny families, and they did not have any connections with Winslow either, as far as I know.

There are no Winslows of Winslow Hall. But, alongside Saint Laurence’s Church, Winslow Hall dominates the centre of the town, with a public front facing Sheep Street, the street leading out towards Aylesbury, and a large garden in the centre of the town.

Winslow Hall was built by William Lowndes in 1700, and there have been many and prolonged debates about who was the architect. Was he Sir Christopher Wren? Was he a draughtsman n the Board of Works, which Wren oversaw? Or was he a talented provincial architect based in Buckinghamshire?

Some sources even suggest Inigo Jones, although he died in 1652, half a century before Winslow Hall was built.

Winslow Hall is almost unique as both a town and a country house. Thus it is even more remarkable that it has survived largely unaltered, escaped conversion to institutional or office use, and remains an inhabited house.

The south or entrance fa├žade faces Sheep Street, the main A413 road from Aylesbury to Buckingham and is within a few metres and clearly visible from the road. This is very rare in an English country house, although one other instance where this happens is Aynhoe Park, Northamptonshire.

The Lowndes family – later the Selby-Lowndes family – were a prominent family in Winslow from the late 16th century. They may have been descended from a family from Overton, Cheshire. They first appear in Winslow in the 1570s, and the Revd Geoffrey Lowndes was the Vicar of Swanbourne from 1565.

William Lowndes bought his original house in 1685, and gradually acquired his neighbours’ properties during the 1690s, had them pulled down to build his new house, and demolished houses on the other side of the road to improve the view.

The design concept is extreme symmetry, pushed to the utmost. The original plan of the house was very simple, a main rectangular block, three floors high, seven bays long, five bays wide. The sash windows are placed symmetrically placed. The three bayed central section is crowned on both principal facades by a pediment containing a round window.

The central front door led to a narrow passage the width of the house ending with a door onto the garden at the rear. To the right at the front was the dining room, to the left the hall. Passing along the passage, towards the gardens, were on the right the library and on the left the withdrawing room.

Staircases were placed symmetrically in the centre of each end wall of the house.

Flanking the house were two wings, on the west a large kitchen and service range and on the east connected by a covered way to a brew-house and laundry. These two wings have now been altered and in one case removed. The interiors of the house have too been altered over the centuries; however, much original panelling remains.

The builders used in all 111 oak trees that cost a total of £221.19s.2d. The bill for cutting ‘Mr Lowndes name and the date of the year over the door’ (‘1700’, and visible from the road today) was £5. The total cost of building the house was £6,585.10s.2¼.

A hatchment is among the many Lowndes family memorials in Saint Laurence’s Church, Winslow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

William Lowndes and his family lived at Winslow Hall until he died in 1724, and his descendants continued to live in the house until 1848.

In his will, Thomas James Selby of Whaddon Hall required William Lowndes to take the name of Selby to inherit his estate. There was a protracted legal dispute but the will was eventually upheld in 1782. William Lowndes or Selby later rebuilt Whaddon Hall and it became the family’s principal home.

William Selby Lowndes of Winslow and Whaddon Hall was MP for Buckinghamshire 1810-1820, was buried in Saint Laurence’s Church, Winslow, when he died in 1840.

Winslow Hall was identified as suitable for a new workhouse in 1834. Instead, however, in 1848 it was leased Dr Henry Lovell, who moved his school there from Mannheim in Germany. Unusually, for the time, the boarding school was co-educational, and had 32 boarders.

The school moved to Aspley Guise in 1862, and from 1865 to 1868 Dr Theodore Boisragon used Winslow Hall as a private asylum for lunatics. It was then let until it was sold by the Lowndes family to Brigadier Norman McCorquodale (1863-1938) in 1898.

Winslow Hall was bought by the Northampton Glass Bottle company in 1942. But it was requisitioned for war use and became the offices of RAF Bomber Command throughout World War II.

After World War II, Winslow Hall was left in a poor condition. Despite this, the house was listed as a Grade I building in 1946. It was bought by Thomas Oakley Ltd demolition contractors for £8,000 in 1947 and faced imminent demolition. It was saved when it was bought by Geoffrey Houghton-Brown and became an antiques showroom.

The house again changed hands in 1959 and was bought by Sir Edward Tomkins (1915-2007), a British ambassador and a key negotiator in British accession to the EU. Tomkins and his wife restored the house and improved the 5 acres of garden to the rear by planting specimen trees and shrubs.

Sir Edward offered Winslow Hall for sale in May 2007, four months before his death. A caveat on the house insisted that the chapel and the priest’s house attached to the house were let to the Roman Catholic Church.

The architectural commentator Marcus Binney, writing in The Times about the sale of the ‘ultimate trophy house’ and surroundings 22 acres, attributed its design to Sir Christopher Wren without any referring to doubts about the architect.

There was press speculation that the house was being purchased by the former prime minister Tony Blair. However, the exposed and highly visible location of the house created security implications that made the house unsuitable for a high profile public figure.

The contents of the property were sold by auction in April 2009, and Winslow Hall was bought in June 2010 by the Hon Christopher and Mardi Gilmour, who moved there in 2012. Since then, Winslow Hall has provided a stunning backdrop for Winslow Hall Opera.

If Winslow Hall was designed by Wren, it is the only surviving example of a substantially unaltered Wren house outside London. However, Sir Christopher Wren or – more likely – his colleague Nicholas Hawksmoor have also been suggested as the architects of the Queen Anne House, also known as Shell House, at 48 High Street, one of the most elegant and most intriguing houses in Stony Stratford. This house was once the Dower House for nearby Wolverton Manor, which was demolished in 1728.

However, the difficulty in identifying the Shell House with Sir Christopher Wren depends on accepting that Wren designed Winslow Hall.

Winslow Hall is depcted on the welcome signs to Winslow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating history, Elmfields backs onto Winslow Hall,one of the mature oak trees has a hollow in the top. When we were kids we would climb the tree, it was like a crows nest, lovely times.