Saving Cragside for the Nation: the work of Mrs Sheila Pettit

Honorary Historic Buildings Representative, Northumbria

Jo Moody  - Honorary Historic Buildings Representative, Northumbria

Throughout the 1960s until the 1980s, one remarkable woman brought her passion, energy and skill to the care of National Trust places in the North East: Sheila Pettit OBE, a woman who played a pivotal role in the acquisition and restoration of Cragside.

Mrs Sheila Pettit

On 14 April 1976, Sheila Pettit approved the Treasury’s list of contents to be passed to the National Trust from Lord Armstrong. It marked one of the final steps in the transfer of Cragside to the National Trust, some two years after serious negotiations had begun and still more than a year before the final deal was signed.

By this time, Sheila was already a seasoned Historic Buildings Representative (HBR), having organised the successful transformation of Wallington, Lindisfarne Castle, George Stephenson’s Birthplace and Washington Old Hall in the previous decade. She had begun her time with the National Trust at Wallington, as chairman of the House Committee, later becoming a member of the Regional Committee, before finally creating the HBR role.

" It was only because of the unshakeable resolve of the Trust’s local Honorary Historic Buildings Representative, Sheila Pettit, that [Cragside’s] acquisition was finally approved. "
- Merlin Waterson, in ‘A Noble Thing’.
Sheila Pettit welcomes US President Jimmy Carter to Washington Old Hall, 6 May 1977
Sheila Pettit with Jimmy Carter
Sheila Pettit welcomes US President Jimmy Carter to Washington Old Hall, 6 May 1977

Now she was turning her skills and energy to the challenge of Cragside – one of the finest and most complete Victorian houses in the country, albeit not in the finest condition. The transfer, though, was an inevitably complex business, with issues ranging from the proportion of the original estate to be considered, to the condition of the buildings, to which collections were to be included. There were valuations to be agreed and partnerships to build, with discussions continuing from year to year. Despite some hesitancy at the time about the value of Victorian architecture and interiors, Sheila was convinced Cragside was of national importance. 

" …the importance of Cragside to the Trust, both nationally and locally, cannot be over-emphasised. Much better people than me have expressed the same view in even stronger terms …"
- Sheila Pettit in a letter to a regional colleague, 1974.

Preparing for handover

Against this backdrop of uncertainty, Sheila was still able to maintain a good relationship with the Armstrongs and so was already at work in the house before the handover.  In a letter of 1976 she reported to a colleague and friend that the library had been catalogued, photography from the Monuments Record had been commissioned, and she had begun the task of acquiring objects to replace those being removed by the family. She began to rearrange collections – particularly to bring items back into main rooms from forgotten stores – and to close curtains on her visits in an attempt to reduce light damage. All of this early activity was carried out with the family’s blessing – Sheila told a colleague that “I come and go as I wish and [Lord and Lady Armstrong] appear happy at the changes I have wrought in their home”.

" “…as only three or four of the original pictures [from the drawing room] remain in the house now, we are going to have further difficulties in re-creating anything ‘authentic’ anyway. What we do have is five huge portraits which are the wrong shape, the wrong colour, the wrong century etc. etc. and which will hang nowhere else in the house…I think it can be done, but we will have to experiment…”"
- Sheila Pettit to Simon Jervis, Deputy Keeper at the V & A, 1976.

Making ready

In May 1977 the transfer of Cragside was completed and activity could begin in earnest. Sheila had only two years to prepare for the official opening and many unsolved problems. There were collections to rearrange, furniture and metal work to conserve, lights to rewire, carpets to source and walls to redecorate. She drafted in a team of volunteers to form the ‘Cragside Care Group’ who, with specialist supervision, stitched and darned Cragside into order.  Among their many tasks was the conversion of 225 metres of material into 96 pairs of casement curtains, to protect the collections from sunlight.  Mackays of Durham made a new carpet for the stairs and first floor passage, to match the original; Whytock and Reid of Edinburgh carried out re-upholstery; Hepplewhite and Manuel of Newcastle worked on the electric wiring; the Natural History Museum oversaw cataloguing of the shell collection. Meanwhile, Sheila continued to find objects in out of the way places, such as the Shaw-designed writing table which she returned to the library from a still room store.

" “Sheila was a great people person... [and]. . . always treated everyone with equal respect. Although essentially an amateur . . . she was remarkably professional - setting new standards of documentation for the Trust with her scrapbooks, inventories (etc) . . . . . she was a giant in the NT at a time when it was turning from an amateur to a professional organisation and she set standards of presentation in our historic houses which still hold up today”"
- Roger Carr-Whitworth, former National Trust Historic Buildings Representative

Sheila also embarked on a hunt for Victorian wallpapers: sometimes she found original coverings lurking under layers of paint, but in many cases she worked to identify the patterns from surviving scraps behind radiators and furniture. In the Boudoir, it was possible to print new paper from Victorian blocks in Coles’ Cowtan Archives, closely matching a surviving scrap. The original stencil work on the ceiling (which had been painted over) was exposed and restored.  In the Yellow and White Bedrooms, Sheila was able to arrange for original Morris blocks to be used to print new wallpaper – ‘Bird and Trellis’ for the White Bedroom and ‘Fruit’ (‘Pomegranate’) for the Yellow. The Cowtan order books at the Victoria and Albert revealed the original Dining Room paper, so Sheila commissioned a near-match pattern in specific colours. Elsewhere, such as the Gallery, work was more limited to the re-instatement of original colour schemes by removal or addition of paint.

Wallpaper sample from the Yellow bedroom
 bedroom wallpaper
Wallpaper sample from the Yellow bedroom

After the opening

Cragside was officially opened by the Duke of Gloucester on 4 June 1979, but the work didn’t stop there. Sheila continued to restore Cragside, including a fourth redecoration and redisplay phase, in 1980, which focused on the Owl Suite, kitchen, scullery and butler’s pantry, the latter three being completely bare at handover.

By the time she retired from her post, in November 1983 the value of Historic Buildings Representatives had been recognised through the creation of professional, paid roles. Sheila received an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List of December 1982 in recognition of her work. She had set a template for the role which endured in the following decades and it was from her that the next generation of HBRs in the region learned their craft.

Mrs Sheila Pettit welcomes the Duke of Gloucester at the opening of Cragside on 4 June 1979
Mrs Sheila Pettit with the Duke of Gloucester at the Cragside opening on 4 June 1979- web resize
Mrs Sheila Pettit welcomes the Duke of Gloucester at the opening of Cragside on 4 June 1979