Westonbirt House

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Main facade
Westonbirt House in 2009.

Westonbirt House is a country house in Gloucestershire, England. It belonged to the Holford family from 1665 until 1926. The first house on the site was an Elizabethan manor house. The Holfords replaced it first with a Georgian house, and then Robert Stayner Holford, who inherited Westonbirt in 1839, replaced that house between 1863 and 1870 with the present mansion which was designed by Lewis Vulliamy. He also remodelled the gardens, diverted the main road and relocated the villagers. The house is constructed of high quality ashlar masonry on a grand scale. The exterior is in an Elizabethan style, with a symmetrical main block and asymmetric wings, one of them containing a conservatory. The interiors are in a sumptuous classical style. The house was fitted with the latest technology such as gas lighting, central heating, fireproof construction and iron roofs. It is now a Grade I listed building.

Extensive formal terrace gardens were created around the house and 25 acres (100,000 m2) of ornamental woodlands were planted in the 19th century. Since 1928, the house has been occupied by the girls' boarding school Westonbirt School. Westonbirt House is open to the public on certain days, and the gardens are open more frequently. The house is also licensed to hold civil ceremonies and is used as a wedding venue.[1]

Robert Stayner Holford and Mary Anne Holford[edit]

Robert Stayner Holford circa 1860

Robert was born in 1808 to George Peter Holford and Anne Holford who was the daughter of Reverend Averell Daniell of Lifford, County Donegal, Ireland.[2] He was the only male born to this couple but he had three sisters. George Peter Holford was a lawyer and a member of parliament. He also wrote books which usually related to religion and Christianity.[3] He inherited a mansion at Westonbirt from his father. This house was the original manor which had been erected in the reign of Elizabeth or the early part of the time of James I.[4] This house was demolished by George in 1818 and a new house built in 1823.[5]

In 1829 at the age of 21, Robert graduated from Oriel College at Oxford University with a Bachelor of Arts Degree.[6] In the same year the Arboretum on the Westonbirt Estate commenced and Robert played a significant role in this project. In 1838 he inherited his uncle's fortune of over one million pounds. In the following year his father died and he became the owner of Westonbirt House. He was a keen lover of art and literature and his enormous wealth now allowed him to indulge this interest. He began collecting paintings and books for what was to become the famous "Holdford Collection". To accommodate this collection he built Dorchester House in Park Lane, London between 1851 and 1853 and employed Lewis Vulliamy as the architect.[7]

During this time he became a Magistrate for Gloucester and Wilts and in 1843 was the High Sheriff for Wilts. In December 1854 he was first elected as the Member for Gloucestershire East.[8] In August 1854 Robert at the age of 46 married Mary Anne Lindsay who was the 25-year-old daughter of Lieutenant-General James Lindsay.[9]

Over the next five years the Holfords had three daughters – Margaret, Evelyn and Alice. It was not until 1860 that George Holford was born who was to become heir to the family fortune.

Between 1863 and 1870 Robert built the present Westonbirt house. It was reputed to be one of the most expensive houses constructed in the Victorian era.

Robert continued his work as a member of parliament until 1872 when he retired.[10] He continued to collect plants for the garden at Westonbirt House and also for the Arboretum. George also developed an interest in gardens and plants and assisted his father with this work.

After Robert's retirement, the couple spent time at both Westonbirt and Dorchester House. In 1875 Charles Gayard, a French diplomat visited Westonbirt and gave an account of his experience as follows.

This morning I have lost no time. Sometimes Mrs Holford, sometimes Evy, took me about the house, which surpasses in magnificence any that you know. There is a hall, a sort of conservatory three stories high, something like the great apartments of Louis XIV. The most original room in the house is the one painted by Mrs Holford, in a bizarre fanciful style, something between Delacroix landscape and Rouen pottery.
After luncheon my friends took me on a pony chaise, across the beauties of the park to the keeper's lodge. I saw conservatories without end, then a lake, a bit of a wild, heaps of rocks that it seems have been newly brought there. And the lake too is a thing of yesterday. The pheasants were so thick we fairly trod on them. At last we reached the Head-keepers's lodge, and saw a pack of thirty spaniels with legs short enough to make the rabbits dance for joy.

The garden at Westonbirt House and the Arboretum continued to expand and in 1886 an extensive article was written about it in a notable publication called "The Garden". It said that "Mr Holford's aim has been to create variety without confusion, informality and picturesqueness without losing sight of that polish in the vicinity of the mansion which must always be regarded as in accordance with correct taste.".[11]

In February 1892 Robert died at Dorchester House.[10]

Sir George Holford and Lady Holford[edit]

Sir George Holford circa 1910.
Lady Holford circa 1890
Sir George Holford (far left) with Royal Party of King Edward and Queen Alexandra.

George was the only son of Robert and Mary Holford (see above). In 1873 he went to Eton and was there for four years. At the age of 20 in 1880 George obtained a commission with the 1st Life Guards where he remained for almost 30 years. During this time he was closely associated with royalty and court life. From 1888 to 1892 he was Equerry to Prince Albert, Duke of Clarence.

From 1892 George was Equerry to Prince Edward. Soon after the Boer War began in 1899, George decided to temporarily relinquish his post of Equerry and rejoin his regiment the 1st Life Guards who were at the front in South Africa. George's departure is mentioned in a publication of the time and he is praised for his decision. It said "it certainly speaks much for the patriotic spirit which is so rife in the country at the present time, when men like Captain Holford volunteer for active service."[12] The "New York Times" also made similar comments saying "Among the latest distinguished men going to South Africa is Captain Holford who is one of the closest friends of the Prince of Wales and his equerry. The Captain sails January 6 to join his regiment, the First Life Guards.".[13]

When King Edward died in 1910, Holford was Equerry-in-Waiting to Queen Alexandra and was Extra Equerry to King George.[14] The photograph of the Royal Party of Edward and Alexandra shows George (far left) in uniform.

When Robert Holford died in 1892 George inherited Westonbirt House and Aboretum. He also inherited Dorchester House in London and the art and book collection that were housed within it. He did not have his father's interest in art and books but he did have a passion for gardens and orchids so he devoted much of his time to his property at Westonbirt.[15] The Times made the following comment about him.

"He was indeed, one of the most successful amateur gardeners of the time, and though famous as a grower of orchids, amaryllids and Javanese rhododendrons, his garden and estate show a wide catholicity of taste. The arrangement of the many rare and exotic trees there and the skilful use of evergreen species as background and to provide the shelter so needful in a cold district like the Cotswolds, have rarely been equalled; there is no crowding of the trees; each is able to show its true form and all have been well cared for. On few estates has the autumnal colouring of deciduous tress been so cleverly used by harmony and contrast, as, for instance, in the planting of Norway maples and glaucous Atlantic cedars."[16]

Country Life magazine wrote extensive articles about Westonbirt Gardens and Arboretum in 1905[17] and again in 1907[18] when George was the owner of the estate. They outlined in detail the beauty of the gardens and made the comment.

"Captain Holford has carried on the work in the same spirit and with the same tradition (as his father) and Westonbirt is now more luxuriant and more beautiful than the late Mr Holford ever knew it. The gardens have been planted not to give an effect for one season only but to be invested with beauty at every time of the year."[19]

Although he was always considered an eligible bachelor George did not marry until late in life and had no children. In 1912 he married the recently widowed Susannah Menzies. Susannah was the eldest child of Arthur and Mary Wilson. The Wilsons were an extremely wealthy family who had made their money from a shipping line. Susannah's grandfather Thomas founded the Wilson Shipping Line in about 1840.[20]

Her childhood appears to have been carefree and filled with the activities of wealthy British families. She was taught to ride and hunt at an early age as her father was very involved in this sport and became later the Master of the Holderness Hunt.[21] She was also involved in amateur dramatic productions.

Susannah married John Graham Menzies (Jack) in 1887 and they had three sons. Unfortunately their marriage did not appear to be a success. By 1903 Jack had made some disastrous financial investments principally in a diamond mine in South Africa. He also gambled heavily at cards and on the racetrack and was said to be an alcoholic. In 1906 Susannah left him and returned to Tranby Croft. It seems that in reality the marriage was over although there was no divorce or formal separation.[22] In 1911 Jack Menzies died of tuberculosis.[23]

In 1912 a year after Susannah was widowed she married George in the Chapel Royal, St James. She was 48 and he 52 years old. George V, Queen Mary, Queen Alexandra and Princess Victoria were present.[24] Although they had no children, it seems that George regarded her three adult sons with affection. They frequently stayed at Westonbirt and Stewart Menzies was allowed to use Dorchester House as his London residence. He also left them some money in his will.[25]

From the south-east

In 1926 George Holford died having suffered for some time with emphysema.[26] As he did not have any heirs his property passed to his blood relatives in accordance with the will of his father Robert Stayner Holford. The main part of the estate went to George's nephew the 4th Earl of Morley.[27] However Susannah was well provided for as George left her his personal goods such as jewellery and furniture and also an annuity of 10,000 pounds sterling per annum which was a very large sum of money at that time.[28]

Susannah remained at Westonbirt until it was sold in 1927. She then moved to London and lived in a very palatial townhouse in Upper Brook Street in Mayfair until 1940.[29] After that she moved to a large house called Dassett near Woking which still exists today. In 1943 she died at Dassett at the age of 80 and was buried at Brookwood Cemetery.[30] A Memorial service was held for her at St Marks Church, North Audley Street, London on 30 December 1943 and another a few days later at Westonbirt Church.[31]

Westonbirt House in 1905


Main article: Westonbirt Arboretum

Robert Stayner Holford, the rebuilder of Westonbirt, also founded the Westonbirt Arboretum on former common downland across the road from the house, a mile away. The arboretum was developed over the next few decades by him and his son Sir George Lindsay Holford. Since the younger Holford did not have children, the house and arboretum passed to his eldest sister's son the 4th Earl of Morley, who sold the house by 1928. The family gave the arboretum to the nation in 1956.[32] It is in state ownership and is open to the public on a regular basis.


  1. ^ Westonbirt House
  2. ^ Lee, Rev. Alfred (1857) 'The history of the town and parish of Tetbury', John Henry and James Parker, London, pp. 219–20.
  3. ^ Obituary of G. P. Holford, The Gentleman's Magazine, July–Dec 1839. London
  4. ^ 'Jones views of the seats of noblemen and Gentlemen of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland', Jones and Company, 1829, London.
  5. ^ Register of Parks andGardens of Special Historic Interest, (1999) 'Westonbirt, Gloucestershire, Cotswold' Ref No 1426.
  6. ^ Dod, Robert (1857) 'The Parliamentary Companion for 1857', Whittaker and Company, London, p. 208.
  7. ^ Cancellor, E. B. (1908) 'The private Palaces of London: Past and Present', Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., London, p. 250.
  8. ^ Dod, Robert (1857), p. 208.
  9. ^ Marquis of Ruvigny and Raineval,(1994) The Plantagenet Roll of the Blood Royal: The Clarence Volume, Genealogical Publishing Company, p. 248.
  10. ^ a b The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, 27 February 1892.
  11. ^ Goldring, W., 'Westonbirt', The Garden: and Illustrated weekly journal of gardening in all its branches", 20 Feb 1886, p. 157.
  12. ^ "The Country Gentleman: Sporting Gazette Agricultural Journal and The Man about Town", 20 Jan 1900, p. 70.
  13. ^ "The New York Times" 31 December 1899"
  14. ^ 'Obituary for Sir George Holford' The Times, 13 September 1926, p. 15
  15. ^ Morris, L. A. 1988, "Rosenbach Abroad: In pursuit of Books in Private Collections", Rosenback Museum and Library, Philadelphia, p. 16.
  16. ^ "The Times", 13 September 1926, p. 15.
  17. ^ "Country Life', 25 March 1905, p. 414-423.
  18. ^ "Country Life", 22 June 1907, pp. 911–917.
  19. ^ "Country Life", 22 June 1907, pp. 911–2.
  20. ^ Attwood, G. M. 1988, p. 12.
  21. ^ Attwood, G. M., 1988, p. 57.
  22. ^ Brown, A. C. 1987, ' "C" The Secret Life of Sir Stewart Menzies', Macmillan Publishing Company, New York p. 30.
  23. ^ Brown, A. C. 1987, p. 44.
  24. ^ "Sir George Holford and Mrs Graham Menzies", The Times, 18 July 1912, p. 9
  25. ^ Brown, A. C. 1987, ' "C" The Secret Life of Sir Stewart Menzies', Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, p.157.
  26. ^ Brown, A. C. 1987, p. 156.
  27. ^ UKForestry Commission, "History of the Collection" http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/INFD-6XDCU8, (accessed 15 January 2010)
  28. ^ Brown, A. C. 1987, p. 157.
  29. ^ British Phone Books, 1880–1984.
  30. ^ "The Times, 20 December 1943 in Death Notices and Obituary.
  31. ^ "The Times" 31 December 1943 and 3 January 1944.
  32. ^ Christopher Stocks. "Gardens: Log On", The Independent on Sunday, 22 May 2005.


External links[edit]

Coordinates: 51°36′19″N 2°11′51″W / 51.60528°N 2.19750°W / 51.60528; -2.19750