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History of Killerton

A view across the park to the house in the background at Killerton, Devon
View across the park at Killerton | © National Trust Images / Clive Nichols

Killerton was the home of one family, the Aclands, from the late 17th century until 1944. In that time the family transformed the great house and its grounds from its late Tudor roots into a grand Georgian, and then Victorian, estate. There are still Tudor elements to be found inside the house, while its surrounding garden reveals Georgian landscaping techniques and stories of 19th-century exotic plant collectors.

History of Killerton house

At the heart of the great estate at Killerton is the house. While the house is widely known as a Georgian building, there’s evidence of earlier houses dating back to the late Tudor era hidden inside.

There were essentially three major alterations in the history of the current house. Firstly, there was the 17th-century mansion that Sir Thomas Acland 7th Baronet expanded in 1778-79.

Then, Sir Thomas Acland 10th Baronet and his wife Lady Lydia had the house altered to fit their growing family in the early 19th century. By 1819, many of the room uses within the house had changed.

20th-century alterations

The final major alteration was carried out by Sir Charles 12th Baronet and his wife Lady Gertrude at the turn of the 20th century. Mostly done C.1898, these renovations included combining rooms and changing the layout of the staircase. The current house, however, reflects the 1920s and the time of Sir Francis, 14th Baronet.

A view of the bookshelves and table with the draped windows in the background, inside the Library at Killerton, Devon
Inside Killerton's Library | © National Trust Images / Andreas von Einsiedel

The entrance hall

The entrance hall is the newest part of the house. It was designed in an Arts and Crafts style by the architect Randall Wells following a fire, which started in the servants’ area in 1924. It became an open welcoming space, suited to this large, hospitable family.

‘[It] never stayed tidy for long: the large central table, neatly arranged every morning with folded newspapers and two fresh buttonholes for Sir Francis, was usually littered with mackintoshes, fishing rods, maps and torn envelopes by the end of the day.’

– Lady Anne Acland, remembering the entrance hall

The music room

What is now the music room was the dining room during the 19th century. Sir Thomas Acland 10th Baronet had the bay window added to enlarge the room in 1819. However, the use of the room was changed when the house was remodelled 80 years later, and a new porch was added onto the bay window.

The chamber organ was moved into the room at the start of the 20th century and the room later became known as the music room. This room was the centre of family life in the 1920s and 1930s.

‘The family would gather in this room before breakfast and after dinner. There was often an unfinished jigsaw puzzle and despite vain efforts by Sir Francis to dislodge them, a dog or two on the sofa.’

– Lady Anne Acland, remembering the music room

Drawing room

What is now the drawing room was originally the entrance hall, the breakfast room and the strong room in the 1779 house. While the breakfast room became a morning room in the 19th century, the other uses remained the same.

Sir Charles 12th Baronet had the entrance to the house moved during the 1898 alterations. This change meant that the former entrance hall, morning room and strong room were combined into one large open room, becoming the new drawing room that stands today.

The library

The current library used to be the little parlour after Sir Thomas Acland 7th Baronet did his initial renovations in the 1770s. It went on to become the drawing room in the 19th century and, strangely, by 1898 the two south windows had been blocked. After the renovations that same year, this room became the library.

‘It was a haven of peace where it was always possible to read or write letters, away from the hustle and bustle in the rest of the house’

– Lady Anne Acland, remembering the library

The dining room

The dining room was initially known as the Great Parlour and was elaborately decorated. This then became a library in the 19th century, complete with a hidden room.

Sadly, the secret room has since been dismantled, but it’s mentioned in a contemporary account: ‘connected with this room is a private library and sitting-room, the entrance to which is through a bookcase, forming a hidden entrance.'

Then, this room was turned into the Aclands' dining room during the 1898 changes. The ceiling was replastered for Sir Charles Acland 12th Baronet, with scenes of the four seasons in agriculture in each corner. Cameos of Charles and Lady Gertrude can still be seen above the fireplace and window.

The study

The study was built during the 1898 house alterations. Originally designed to be a billiard room, it quickly became Sir Charles 12th Baronet’s study. Tenants were able to enter through the side door without disturbing the rest of the house.

History of Killerton’s garden

Sir Thomas Dyke Acland 7th Baronet set about creating a landscape at Killerton that reflected his family’s high position in society, in the late 18th century. Together with the landscaper John Veitch, they left a lasting impression on the Killerton landscape and their ancestors went on to plant several specimen plants and trees.

John Veitch and Killerton’s garden

John Veitch grew up in Scotland, where he helped his father manage the woodland on the estate of Ancrum House. He went on to learn the trade of gardening and landscaping at two nurseries in London when he was just a teenager.

Veitch became an apprentice at Robert Dickson & Son in Scotland before apprenticing at Vineyard Nursery in Hammersmith, London, which was run by James Lee. It was Lee who recommended the young landscaper to Sir Thomas Acland at Killerton, who hired him in 1771.

The Bear's Hut surrounded by daffodils in spring in the grounds of Killerton, Devon
The Bear's hut at Killerton | © National Trust / Malcolm Jarvis

Designing the estate

Veitch was influenced by the 18th-century landscaper Capability Brown and had worked at the nearby Luscombe Castle in Dawlish. His initial garden designs for Killerton included a mix of winding paths, open views and rustic buildings, such as the Bear’s hut and ice house, and a classical orangery, which was later removed.

Creating Killerton’s garden

Veitch brought some drama to the hill behind the house by planting tall trees, contrasting with a gentle sweep of lawn into the valley floor beyond. He created new paths and drives that followed natural contours and took advantage of breath-taking views in the distance.

Sir Thomas Acland was so impressed with Veitch’s work at Killerton that, to keep him here long term, he offered him funds and land at Budlake so he could develop his own business. He even encouraged Veitch to marry and start a family. This was unusual, as at the time many staff were expected to remain single and loyal to their employers.

Inspiration and influence

Alongside working at Killerton, Veitch worked with other designers, even if only supplying them with plants. He also went to Saltram, near Plymouth, to witness Capability Brown at work. Veitch was inspired by other designers and by the fashions of the day. The picturesque movement particularly inspired his landscaping and planting.

19th-century changes

By 1801, the garden around the house was fenced off from the parkland and when Sir Thomas 10th Baronet came of age in 1808 work developed quickly.

In a bid to make Killerton a more dramatic point in the landscape, lots of ornamental trees were planted to emphasise the steep hill of the Clump and Park Wood. He also added rustic buildings and features to make the countryside views even more special.

Experimenting with exotic plants

After John Veitch retired in 1813, his son James took up the helm. James had worked with his father from a young age and, once he took over, the family nursery expanded and began employing plant collectors.

These plant collectors would travel the globe in search for exotic plant specimens, many of which found their way to Killerton’s grounds.

Exotic plants at Killerton

Killerton was a particularly useful place to plant newly arrived seeds and saplings. Sheltered from northerly winds – thanks to the Clump (Dolbury Hill) – and with rich acidic soil and a south-facing slope, Killerton has a microclimate that’s excellent for plants, such as camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons.

The Veitch family would often trial these plants at Killerton before selling them though their nursery.

Bringing the world’s trees to Killerton

Exotic trees were also brought to Killerton. In fact, with trees from every continent except Antarctica, the grounds became a botanical garden and one of the first arboreta in the country. There are over 100 species of rhododendron, the first deodar cedar grown in Britain and magnolia that can be seen from miles away when in bloom.

Some of England's first giant redwoods were first planted at Killerton. They were brought back from California by one of Veitch’s apprentices, William Lobb, in 1853. The tallest one is 41 metres high and more than two metres wide.

Building a gardening empire

Veitch’s family nursery went from strength to strength throughout the 19th century and became one of the largest and most prestigious nurseries in Victorian Britain. If you wanted exotic plant specimens, the Veitchs were the family to speak to.

The Veitch-Acland legacy

Even 140 years after John Veitch and Sir Thomas Acland began working together, the two families were still collaborating. Sir Arthur Acland and Sir Harry Veitch both served on the education committee of the Royal Horticultural Society.

Plus, the Veitchs continued working at Killerton’s grounds, testing plants here right into the 20th century. That’s why the garden is an excellent showcase for plant collectors.

Later developments to Killerton

The head gardener at Killerton in the late 19th century was a man called John Coutts. It was Coutts who, inspired by alpine plants, developed an old quarry near the house into the rock garden that stands today.

The 100-metre-long terrace was built overlooking the rolling Devon countryside to the south of the house. Originally planted with a large range of roses, it’s now home to a half-hardy border.

The Bear’s hut

The Bear’s hut that still stands in Killerton’s garden was built in 1808 by John Veitch on behalf of Sir Thomas Dyke Acland. He built it as a summerhouse, which he presented to Lady Lydia as a wedding present.

In later years it was used to rehome a bear that was brought to Killerton by the 12th Baronet’s brother, on his return from Canada. Tom the bear called the hut home until he became too large and was relocated.

The chapel

Among the impressive collection of plants and trees on the Killerton estate is its chapel. The Grade-I listed building was designed by the architect C R Cockerell, who was commissioned by Sir Thomas Dyke Acland 10th Baronet in 1841.

Designing Killerton's chapel

Sir Thomas Acland wanted a chapel that could accommodate his whole family. He and Cockerell had frequent discussions about the design and, while Cockerell was renowned for his classical style, he agreed to base the design on the Lady Chapel and Crypt of Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury. It cost at least £3,000 to build.

Unusually, the pews inside the chapel face each other rather than the altar. This meant the congregation could all see each other: the Aclands, their children, guests, senior servants, estate workers and tenants.

The Aclands and estate life

The Aclands were a religious family, who took their duties as role models in the community seriously. For Sir Thomas Acland, attending church was a public act of ‘witness’ and he even had a seat for himself to emphasise his role as benign patriarch.

However, he could also be unorthodox and often voted against his fellow MPs and supported causes like religious liberty. He was a keen supporter of Wilberforce and invited the abolitionist campaigner Samuel Crowther to the chapel, who later became the first black bishop.

Sir Charles Dyke Acland

Sir Charles Dyke Acland, who inherited the chapel in 1898, was similarly devoted to his religion. He read the lesson in chapel every Sunday, shook his farm tenants’ hands after each service and, if a tenant didn’t attend, they were expected to explain their absence face-to-face with him.

The chapel was a central part of the estate and even in the 1960s, its bell still rang out to call people to work every morning.

Two visitors admiring a laid table in the Dining Room at Killerton, Devon

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