Piercefield House

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Piercefield House
Piercefield march 2021.jpg
The ruined Piercefield House in 2021
LocationSt Arvans, Monmouthshire
Coordinates51°39′28″N 2°41′01″W / 51.6579°N 2.6836°W / 51.6579; -2.6836Coordinates: 51°39′28″N 2°41′01″W / 51.6579°N 2.6836°W / 51.6579; -2.6836
Built forGeorge Smith – (Central block) / Colonel Mark Wood – (Pavilions)
ArchitectSir John Soane (Pevsner) or George Vaughan Maddox (Cadw) – (Central block) / Joseph Bonomi the Elder – (Pavilions)
Architectural style(s)Neoclassical
Governing bodyPrivately owned
Listed Building – Grade II*
Official nameRuins of Piercefield House (Central Block)
Designated14 February 2001
Reference no.2013
Listed Building – Grade II*
Official nameRuins of Piercefield House, Left Hand or West Pavilion
Designated14 February 2001
Reference no.24754
Listed Building – Grade II*
Official nameRuins of Piercefield House, Right Hand or East Pavilion
Designated14 February 2001
Reference no.24755
Piercefield House is located in Monmouthshire
Piercefield House
Location of Piercefield House in Monmouthshire

Piercefield House near St Arvans, Monmouthshire, Wales, about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) north of the centre of Chepstow, is a largely ruined neo-classical country house. The central block of the house was designed in the very late 18th century, by, or to the designs of, Sir John Soane. It is flanked by two pavilions, of slightly later date, by Joseph Bonomi the Elder. The house sits within Piercefield Park, a Grade I listed historic landscape, that was created in the 18th century as a notable Picturesque estate.

The house is now a shell, along with its extensive stable block, but its status as a Grade II* listed building[1] reflects its importance. It is currently owned by the Reuben brothers, London-based property developers. A campaign to save and restore the building was launched by SAVE Britain's Heritage in 2013.[2]


18th–19th centuries[edit]

Valentine Morris circa 1765

Records since the 14th century refer variously to Peerfield, Peersfield, Persfield and Piersfield, the area taking its name, according to some sources, from the nearby manor of St Pierre. The land was owned by the influential Walter family from medieval times until the 18th century. Local historians report an enlargement of the existing house under John Walter in the 1630s, and a later extension around 1700 is believed to have been the work of the architect William Talman, also responsible for Chatsworth House.

In 1727, the estate was sold for £3,366, 5.6d to Thomas Rous of Wotton-under-Edge. His son then sold it again in 1740, for £8,250, to Colonel Valentine Morris. Morris (c 1678–1743) was born in Antigua, the son of a sugar planter and merchant, and is thought to have been descended from the Walter family. The estate was then inherited by his son, also Valentine Morris (1727–1789), who began living at Piercefield with his family in 1753. At this time, tourism in the Wye Valley was in its infancy. Morris landscaped the parkland, with the help of Richard Owen Cambridge in the style of Capability Brown.[3] The work was largely undertaken by architect Charles Howells and builder William Knowles of Chepstow, who had also undertaken work at nearby Tintern for the Duke of Beaufort.[4] Piercefield was developed into a park of national reputation, as one of the earliest examples of picturesque landscaping. Morris laid out walks through the woodland, and included a grotto, druid's temple, bathing house and giant's cave. He also developed viewpoints along the clifftop above the River Wye, and opened the park up to visitors. One of the many tourists to marvel at this view was the poet Coleridge, who wrote: "Oh what a godly scene....The whole world seemed imaged in its vast circumference". The scientist and traveller Joseph Banks wrote: "I am more and more convinced that it is far the most beautiful place I ever saw".[4]

In the 1770s Valentine Morris's gambling, business and political dealings bankrupted him, and he was forced to leave Piercefield for the West Indies. In 1785, Piercefield was sold again, for £26,200, to George Smith, a Durham banker, father of the linguist Elizabeth. Smith continued to open the walks, but straightened some of them.[3] He also commissioned a young architect, John Soane to design a new mansion in the neo-classical style, which would incorporate Morris's house.[3] Work began in 1792, and the new three-storey stone building had reached roof level when Smith found himself in financial difficulties. He sold Piercefield in 1794 to Colonel Mark Wood, Member of Parliament for Newark-on-Trent, who continued and modified the work with architect Joseph Bonomi,[3] incorporating a Doric portico and wings, and commissioning the long stone wall which runs along the edge of the estate. Wood was also the owner of Llanthony Priory. In 1802, Wood in turn sold the house and estate to the mixed race planter Nathaniel Wells,[5] for £90,000 cash. Wells was born in St Kitts, the son of William Wells, a sugar merchant and planter originally from Cardiff, and Juggy, one of his house slaves. With his inherited fortune, Wells continued to add to the Piercefield estate until it reached almost 3,000 acres (12 km²). In 1818 he became Britain's only known black sheriff when he was appointed Sheriff of Monmouthshire.

It is rumoured that Admiral Nelson spent a night at Piercefield House on one of his visits to Monmouthshire. Nelson was closely connected to the town of Monmouth through his mistress Lady Hamilton. It is possible that he stayed in the summer of 1802 with her and her elderly husband Sir William Hamilton, on a journey to a friend's Pembrokeshire estate via Monmouth and Kymin Hill.

Piercefield House circa 1840 from a painting by George Eyre Brooks

In 1848, Samuel Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of England described Piercefield in the following terms:

From Piercefield Park, a splendid seat, the views are remarkably magnificent, and embrace numerous reaches of the Wye, the Severn, and a great range of the surrounding country. The mansion, situated on an eminence, in the midst of fine plantations, is a superb elevation of freestone, consisting of a centre and two wings, and much admired for its tasteful architecture: on the spacious staircase are four beautiful pieces of Gobelin tapestry which belonged to Louis XVI, representing subjects in the natural history of Africa.[6]

Wells left the area in the 1840s and his tenants closed the walks to the public. In the late 1840s the estate was leased to John Russell (1788–1873) the Coal and Ironmaster (appointed High Sheriff of Monmouthshire in 1855), who owned the neighbouring estate of Wyelands. In 1855, following the death of Nathaniel Wells, Russell purchased the estate.[7] The walks were occasionally reopened to the public, but for a charge. Around this time suggestions were made in the national press that the estate would be a suitable residence for the Prince of Wales.[4] However, following the explosion at his Risca Blackvein Colliery, Russell sold the estate in 1861 to Henry Clay, a banker and brewer from Burton-on-Trent. In 1874 the estate passed to Clay's eldest son, also Henry Clay, who lived there until his death in 1921 aged 96.

20th century[edit]

The Clay family sold the house and much of the estate on the death of Henry Clay to the Chepstow Racecourse Company (of which the Directors were all members of the Clay family), who opened the new racecourse there in 1926. The house, already in a poor state of repair, was abandoned and stripped, gradually decaying to its current ruinous condition, with just the main walls still standing. During World War II the area was used by US forces training in urban warfare before the Normandy landings; damage from the live fire exercises is still visible.[citation needed] The woods overlooking the river became established as a nature reserve, and footpaths which now form part of the Wye Valley Walk were reopened in the 1970s. Plans to develop the site as a hotel or outdoor pursuits centre have so far been unfulfilled, with emergency repairs to the house carried out in 2008–09.[8]

Piercefield House circa 1920

The Estate was marketed for sale in October 2005 with Jackson-Stops & Staff, Estate Agents, with an asking price of £2 million.[9] It reportedly had planning and listed building consent for the restoration of the house, stable block and kitchen gardens, together with their associated cottages.[10] The estate was withdrawn from sale in early 2012.

A festival with a central environmental focus, the Green Gathering, was held in the grounds of Piercefield House in July 2011. The festival became an annual event.[11][12]

In July 2013, a campaign and petition were launched by Marcus Binney of SAVE Britain's Heritage to seek the protection of the building.[13] John Russell when he left Piercefield in 1861 removed Soane period furnishings and fittings. In 2019 some of these were presented to the Pitzhanger Manor and Gallery Trust by Peter Verity (Russell's great-great-great-grandson).[14][failed verification]

Architecture and description[edit]

The available sources make clear that George Smith commissioned designs for rebuilding from Sir John Soane in 1784–85.[15][16] The architectural historian John Newman suggests that Soane produced further designs, for a completely new house, in 1792 and that construction commenced, to this design, in 1793.[15] Cadw disagrees, contending that the new building, in the late 1780s, was undertaken under the direction of George Vaughan Maddox.[16] Cadw's designation report acknowledges that the design was "very dependent on Soane's ideas" and closely followed his design for Shotesham Park, Norfolk, which was built between 1785 and 1788.[16]

There is agreement that the West and East pavilions, which flank the main mansion, were undertaken to the designs of Joseph Bonomi the Elder for the new owner, Colonel Wood, in 1795 to 1799.[15][17][18]


  1. ^ Stuff, Good. "Ruins of Piercefield House (Central Block), St. Arvans, Monmouthshire". britishlistedbuildings.co.uk.
  2. ^ Forest of Dean and Wye Valley Review, "A Grim Experiment", 31 July 2013. Retrieved 1 August 2013
  3. ^ a b c d Newman 2000, p. 471.
  4. ^ a b c Ivor Waters, The Unfortunate Valentine Morris, 1964
  5. ^ "South East Wales – BBC News". BBC News.
  6. ^ "Arvans, St – Ashburton – British History Online". www.british-history.ac.uk.
  7. ^ "Black Vein Colliery, Risca". www.welshcoalmines.co.uk.
  8. ^ Davies Sutton Architects. Accessed 22 September 2012
  9. ^ Country Life magazine, 21 October, 2005. Accessed 22 September 2012
  10. ^ "Jackson-Stops and Staff agency sale notice, September 2009".
  11. ^ Big Green Gathering 2012. Accessed 16 May 2012
  12. ^ Green Gathering. Retrieved 3 November 2020
  13. ^ Save Britain's Heritage, Press Release: Sir John Soane’s Piercefield House is in peril: handsome offer made to repair it, 29 August 2013 Archived 14 December 2013 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 14 December 2013
  14. ^ "Home page". Pitzhanger Manor & Gallery. Retrieved 5 May 2020.
  15. ^ a b c Newman 2000, pp. 470–473.
  16. ^ a b c "Listed Buildings – Full Report – HeritageBill Cadw Assets – Reports". Cadwpublic-api.azurewebsites.net. 14 February 2001. Retrieved 31 August 2017.
  17. ^ "Listed Buildings – Full Report – HeritageBill Cadw Assets – Reports". Cadwpublic-api.azurewebsites.net. 14 February 2001. Retrieved 31 August 2017.
  18. ^ "Listed Buildings – Full Report – HeritageBill Cadw Assets – Reports". Cadwpublic-api.azurewebsites.net. 14 February 2001. Retrieved 31 August 2017.


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