The Story of Hinton Ampner

While the Hinton Ampner of today is unashamedly Neo-Georgian in its architecture, if you know where to look there are clues that point to the site's long and storied history, one that stretches back nearly 500 years.

The Tudor manor

Hinton Ampner's story begins with a large Tudor manor, believed to have been constructed in the 1540s. Although no records exist to say who built it, we know that in 1597 Thomas Stewkeley took over the lease from the Dean and Chapter of Winchester. A 1649 survey described the house as being E-shaped with two main floors, attic rooms for the servants, some 21 bedrooms and an extensive range of outbuildings.

On the death of Sir Hugh Stewkeley in 1719, the estate passed to his daughter, Mary. She married Edward Stawell that same year, thereby passing the estate into the Stawell family where it remained until 1793, when it was demolished by Henry Stawell Bilson-Legge.

However, some Tudor elements still remain such as the stables (now the café) as well as parts of the walled garden and the lime tree avenue. In fact, some of the trees you can see today date back to around 1720!

The Georgian house

Replacing the Tudor manor, Henry built a Georgian house from plain yellow brick 60 yards to the south. It was built at a slight angle to capture the sun, although this placed it on a different axis to the surrounding buildings, something that can still be seen today.

In 1803, the Dutton family entered the story when Mary Bilson-Legge married John Dutton, son of the 1st Baron Sherborne. Mary married well - not only was her new husband heir to the Sherborne estate, but on the death of her father in 1820 she inherited Hinton Ampner and the Stawell properties, earning her the unofficial title of 'The Hampshire Heiress.'

They, like the Stawells before them, only used Hinton Ampner occasionally, preferring to let it to a succession of tenants. However, when their second son John Thomas Dutton moved in with his wife Lavinia in 1857, change was on the horizon for Hinton Ampner.

The Victorian house

John's first thought was to demolish the Georgian house and start again, but after rejecting proposals from two architects he engaged a local builder, Mr Kemp, with a simple brief: "there must be a large drawing room, a very high kitchen, about 30 bedrooms all told and no bathroom." That last stipulation was apparently because Dutton had once caught a cold using a bathroom, and hated them ever since.

The house at Hinton Ampner in the Victorian era
House at Hinton Ampner, Victorian era
The house at Hinton Ampner in the Victorian era

Kemp devised a plan to encase the existing Georgian structure in an elaborate Tudor Gothic extension, in effect turning the current house into little more than an entrance hall. Work began in 1865 and took three years.

True to Dutton's request there were no bathrooms, and although five WCs were installed, only two worked. Water for these came from a tank filled by rain water from the roof, which amused a young Ralph Dutton endlessly:

" In wet weather all sorts of curious things were swept off the roof into the tanks and so found their way into the WCs, thus greatly adding to their interest, but unfortunately frequently blocking the pipes."
- Ralph Dutton

The house featured an early form of central heating with two coiled water pipes, one in the entrance hall and one in the north end of the drawing room, heated by a small boiler in the cellar.

Drinking water came from the old Tudor house well, raised by means of a horse-driven pump.  Ralph recalled: "Every morning this elderly Dobbin was led off to his dreary task of walking round and round on a narrow path dragging the beam of the pump."

Hinton Ampner in the Victorian era, viewed from the North
North view of Victorian Hinton Ampner house
Hinton Ampner in the Victorian era, viewed from the North

The Neo-Georgian house

John Dutton's grandson, Ralph, inherited Hinton Ampner in 1935 and wasted little time in converting what he described as a "building of exceptional hideousness" into something far more comfortable.

He engaged architects Lord Wellesley and Trenwith Wills with the intention of uncovering the original Georgian structure beneath the Victorian alterations, creating a new block on the west side, and giving the whole building a more 18th century appearance. Work began in 1936, despite Ralph's precarious finances and the increasing threat of war.

" Fortunately, I was still young enough to take no notice of sensible advice."
- Ralph Dutton

Most interior walls were retained, with only the wall between the library and dinning room moved, while the drawing room and dining room were both given semi-circular bay windows to complete the symmetry on the south side. The work had the effect of reducing the overall number of rooms by ten, leaving the first floor with seven principal bedrooms - and a generous supply of bathrooms.

Renovation of Hinton Ampner House began in 1936
Hinton Ampner house renovations, circa 1936
Renovation of Hinton Ampner House began in 1936

"When I altered the house in 1936 and the floor of the kitchen was taken up it was found that the stone flags were precariously lodged over a fairly deep well. Fortunately this happened to be in the middle of the room, and so under the massive kitchen table. Had it been otherwise the cook might at any time have disappeared suddenly into the underworld," recalled Ralph.

As an appreciator of the Georgian period, Ralph was in his element. He spent his time scouring the country for any features that could be incorporated into the new house, from doors and architraves to window shutters and chimney pieces.

With the threat of war increasing it was becoming difficult to source materials, so in the summer of 1938 Ralph moved in to an incomplete house. The last workmen left in 1939, and although the walls were still bare plaster, Ralph was able to lay carpet and retrieve at least some of his furniture from storage.

The craftsmen involved in the renovation of Hinton Ampner, just before the war
Hinton Ampner rebuild staff, 1938
The craftsmen involved in the renovation of Hinton Ampner, just before the war

The war years

That summer, Ralph was offered the choice of accommodating 40 children who had been evacuated from London, or giving the house to the Portsmouth Day School for Girls. He chose the latter, and with 48 hours' notice the principal rooms were cleared of furniture and carpets, ready for the arrival of 100 camp beds.

When the house was returned to him in 1945, decorating restarted, although rationing meant that permission had to be sought on a room-by-room basis.

The drawing room was allowed to retain some of its Victorian features with its 1867 cornices and mouldings, large Tudor-style plaster ceiling star, and white marble chimney pieces. The library, however, was updated in the Regency style, with pilasters (a decorative detail that resembles a flat column), marbled like porphyry (a hard rock with large-grained crystals) so as to match the chimney piece. The Robert Adam ceiling in the dining room, meanwhile, could finally be painted, having been left white after its initial installation.

The Victorian South Drawing Room at Hinton Ampner
Hinton Ampner Victorian South Drawing Room
The Victorian South Drawing Room at Hinton Ampner

Work he anticipated might take three years in fact took more than 15, and by 1960 he was looking forward to spending the rest of his days enjoying what he had created.

Fate, however, had other ideas.

The fire

On Sunday 3rd April 1960, Ralph took to the woods for a walk after lunch. As he returned across the park an hour and a half later, he saw a thin column of smoke rising above the trees. Drawing nearer, the scene that greeted him was one of chaos and devastation. His precious Hinton Ampner - only just completed after 15 years of work - was on fire.

Despite the heart-wrenching destruction, Ralph vowed to rebuild his home, and by May 1963 - exactly three years and one month on from the fire - the house was habitable once again.

The Hinton Ampner of today remains true to the work conducted during this period, but to a larger extent it represents the life-long ambition of one man - Ralph Dutton, the 8th and last Lord Sherborne.