Skip to content

The history of Hinton Ampner

The House and lily pond at Hinton Ampner
The lily pond at Hinton Ampner in spring | © National Trust Images/Zoe Cotton

Hinton Ampner is a home developed over centuries by many different owners. From humble beginnings as a Tudor farmhouse to the lavish influences of the neo-Georgian period, they each brought their different styles. Discover where to look for clues that point to its long and varied 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.

Some Tudor elements 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 Stawell Bilson-Legge 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 the house.

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.

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

A story of waterworks

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 rainwater from the roof, which amused his young grandson 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 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.’

The Neo-Georgian house

John Dutton's grandson, Ralph, inherited Hinton Ampner in 1935 and wasted no time 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 in the neo-Georgian style. Work began in 1936, despite Ralph's precarious finances and the increasing threat of war.

Tackling the project

Most interior walls were retained, with only the wall between the library and dining 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.

As a fan 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 into 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.

Topiary in the Orchard in July at Hinton Ampner, Hampshire
Topiary in the orchard at Hinton Ampner | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Designing the garden

In creating his idea of a rural idyll, Ralph Dutton designed a series of tranquil garden 'rooms', each with their own distinctive identity. It is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of 20th-century garden design, mixing formal and informal planting with fine vistas throughout.

Another one of Ralph's early endeavours was to create a rose garden for his mother. The area chosen is now known as the Yew Garden and is situated on the eastern side of the property. The rose selected for the garden was a tea rose; a very elegant strain of rose with large, sumptuous blooms. However, they struggled with varying temperatures and the cold Hampshire clay was a problem. As a result, the roses had to be replanted biennially. Eventually Dutton admitted defeat and replanted with annual bedding displays.

The fact that roses did not grow well in the colder Hampshire weather stayed with Dutton and it wasn’t until talking to the creators of Hidcote and Sissinghurst gardens that he was convinced to start growing some of the more robust rose varieties seen today.

The war years

During the Second World War, 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) 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.

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.

Firefighters scale ladders with hoses to battle the 1960 fire at Hinton Ampner, Hampshire
Firefighters scale ladders with hoses to battle the 1960 fire at Hinton Ampner, Hampshire | © NT/Christopher Hurst

A fire breaks out

On Sunday 3 April 1960, Ralph took to the woods for a walk after lunch. When he returned across the park an hour and a half later, he saw a thin column of smoke rising above the trees. As he drew nearer, the house that he'd left in serene tranquillity just a short time ago was surrounded by fire engines.

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. A spark from the library fireplace had leapt over the guard and settled on a nearby sofa which, in those days, would have been made from highly flammable materials.

While the fire was contained for a time in the library, it soon burst through the ceiling where, fanned by the strong winds, it soared upwards to spread like a mushroom through the attics and eventually into the bedrooms.

Salvaging the house

The next morning revealed the extent of the devastation. The house was now largely a blackened shell with gaping windows, through which scenes of fallen beams and destroyed furniture could be glimpsed. Littered in front of the house were the few objects that had been lucky enough to be rescued and these, together with any other items that could be salvaged from the wreckage, were transferred to various outbuildings.

Rising from the ashes

Inside, almost all the Victorian features had been destroyed, and Ralph took the decision not to recreate them. Instead, a demolished house in Ashburnham donated its 18th-century chimney pieces and a pair of fine door cases, while new cornices, pillars and entablature (the horizontal moulding that rests on top of the pillars) were constructed from modern fibrous plaster in an 18th-century design.

The library was restored much as it was before, although it was some time before Ralph found a suitable chimney piece at an antique dealer in Paris. The Adam ceiling in the dining room was partially destroyed, although enough original plasterwork survived to allow the missing sections to be reproduced. The roundels, however, had been completely destroyed, so Ralph commissioned artist Elizabeth Biddulph to produce a new set in the 18th-century style.

Despite the heart-wrenching destruction, by May 1963, exactly three years and one month after 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.

The south front at Hinton Ampner, Hampshire

Discover more at Hinton Ampner

Find out when Hinton Ampner is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

You might also be interested in

The fireplace in the Entrance Hall, with red armchairs and oil paintings

The house at Hinton Ampner 

This is a house that has sprung up from the ashes. With lavish interiors and beautiful collections, you’ll go on a journey through centuries of design influences.

The path in the walled garden, framed by blooming rose pergola

The garden at Hinton Ampner 

Discover clipped topiary contrasting with brick walls, lilies floating on the surface of a pond and flower borders that transform throughout the seasons.

Views of the parkland and South Downs beyond at Hinton Ampner

The estate at Hinton Ampner 

Choose from a range of different walks to explore this wide-ranging estate. Find out about the ancient trees that make their home here or an important battle from the Civil War.

Visitors in the Sunken Garden at Hinton Ampner, Hampshire

Family-friendly things to do at Hinton Ampner 

Hinton Ampner is the ideal place for a family day out. Discover more about the activities and events taking place.

Overhead view of an octagonal table with the figure of Silenus, a drunken follower of Bacchu, in The Library at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire


Learn about people from the past, discover remarkable works of art and brush up on your knowledge of architecture and gardens.

A set of four Staffordshire figurines from the late eighteenth century at Hinton Ampner, Hampshire. Each figurine representing a different season and holding cornucopiae of flowers, a sickle, a sheaf of corn

Hinton Ampner's collection 

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Hinton Ampner on the National Trust Collections website.