History of Speke Hall
Explore Speke Hall's unique place in the history of Liverpool and Lancashire and discover why its fascinating stories remain so important to us today. Since Sir William Norris began building it in 1530, its survival hasn't always been guaranteed. From a place of refuge for one family’s unshakeable Catholic faith to a Gothic revival mansion created using the spoils of colonialism and slavery, discover the story of Speke Hall and the people who have lived here.
A home for the Norris family
In 1524, Sir William Norris inherited a medieval cruck-beamed hall on the site where Speke Hall now stands, a place where his ancestors had lived as early as 1314. He started building Speke Hall as we know it in 1530, by building the lofty Great Hall. By 1546 he would extend this to create a long west range to accommodate his growing family. One of Sir William's last projects was to create an overmantel for the Oak Parlour featuring portraits of himself, his parents, his two wives and all 19 of his children.
Recusants at Speke
The gentry in Elizabethan Lancashire were known for their Catholic sympathies, risking the label of 'recusant' for failure to attend Church of England services. The Norris family were certainly one of these families, and in 1586 one ‘Rychard Brittaine a prieste’ was reported to have been sent to Speke by ‘younge Mr [Edward] Norrice’ and kept there.
It was common for Catholic families at the time to install hiding places for priests in their homes, and there was at least one ‘priest hole’ at Speke Hall, purpose-built behind panelling in the Green Bedroom. Edward’s wife, Margaret, was the daughter of Robert Smallwood MP, a Westminster brewer, who had supported Mary Tudor’s restoration of Catholicism.
Speke Hall is completed
When Sir William's son, Edward, succeeded him in 1568, he went about extending the east range and finally added a north range to create an enclosed courtyard. A red sandstone bridge was built across the moat to meet the north range's gatehouse, providing a suitably grand entrance to Speke Hall. The gatehouse is inscribed with the year 1598, when we can presume work was completed to create the Hall as it appears today.
Protestantism and Parliament
A century after the Norris family were reported for recusancy, Thomas Norris (1618–87), Edward’s great-grandson, converted the family to Protestantism. Four of Thomas’s seven sons lived at Speke, each elected as MP for the port city of Liverpool.
The East India Company
At least three of the sons made their money in trade with the East Indies and in commodities produced using slavery in the Caribbean.
As MP, Sir William Norris (1658–1702), the second son, expanded British trade in enslaved Africans, and later led an envoy to India for the ‘New’ East India Company with his younger brother Edward (1663–1726). This mission amassed the family considerable fortune, but cost Sir William his life after he contracted dysentery on the return voyage.
The fifth son, Richard (1670–1730), is remembered as an unscrupulous merchant, trading enslaved Africans to work on the sugar and rum plantations that produced his wealth.
The last Norris
Thomas's youngest son Richard died childless in 1730 and so the Speke estate passed to Thomas’s granddaughter Mary. She married Lord Sidney Beauclerk, son of the Duke of St Albans and grandson of Charles II and his long-term mistress, the actress Nell Gwyn. He was known as a predatory fortune seeker. Mary and Sidney spent most of their marriage at the latter's other substantial estate in Windsor, where their only son, Topham, was born in 1739.
Topham inherits Speke Hall
When Mary died in 1766, Topham inherited Speke and sold the Windsor estate. However, he rarely visited Speke, admitting to a friend that ‘there is nothing in this world I so entirely hate as business of any kind.’
Topham was described as ‘elegant and accomplished’ with a passion for science and witty enough to hold his own with Dr Johnson and James Boswell. At times his health was poor, and he could be lazy. He once infected a Blenheim house party with lice. Topham died in 1780 at the age of 40 and was buried beside his mother at nearby Garston. He left behind his six-year-old son Charles, whose first action upon coming of age was to sell the Speke estate.
Richard Watt of Jamaica and Liverpool
In 1795 the 2,400-acre Speke estate was purchased by Richard Watt (1724–96), a Lancastrian who reputedly started out as driver of hackney carriages. Moving to Jamaica in around 1750, Watt made his fortune from almost every brutal aspect of the transatlantic slave trade. He owned sugar, rum, and tropical hardwood plantations, ran factorages, trafficked enslaved Africans, and invested in slave-trading voyages.
With the profits, Watt bought three estates in England, including Speke Hall, purchased just a year before his death. In addition to these estates, and a reported £500,000 fortune, Watt’s great nephew, Richard Watt III, inherited his enslaved people – and their future children – through a system known as ‘descent-based’ slavery.
A false start at Speke
Richard Watt III came of age in 1807 and married Hannah Burn of Hull a year later. The couple used his inheritance to repair and refurnish Speke Hall. Richard later recalled that ‘the interior of the house was very much destroyed by the people (farmers and others) that the Beauclerk family allowed to live there.' In 1812, Richard abruptly sold most of the furniture in the house and moved to Yorkshire to continue his father's passion for breeding racehorses.
A state of decay
While Speke Hall was occupied in the early 1830s by Richard Watt IV, eldest son of the racehorse owner, it became empty once again when he died in 1835. He left behind his wife Jane and their two infants, Richard Watt V and Sarah, who settled elsewhere in Liverpool. Shortly after, Speke Hall was let to a timber merchant called Joseph Brereton. Until the late 1840s Speke Hall became well known for its picturesque state of decay, attracting several painters drawn to its Gothic appearance.
The Gothic revival of Speke Hall
A period of rapid transformation began at Speke Hall when Richard Watt V came of age in 1856. He sold his grandfather's Yorkshire estate and married Adelaide Hignett of Chester. Together, they carried out major restorations, employing a firm on Bold Street in Liverpool to help them fit their Tudor mansion with fashionable Gothic Revival interiors. From exuberantly carved oak furniture and stained glass to suits of armour and tapestries, their enthusiasm spread across the whole house. Sadly, Adelaide died in 1861 and Richard followed only four years later, leaving Speke to their young daughter, also called Adelaide.
The Leyland years
While Adelaide went to Scotland to await her coming-of-age under the guardianship of her great uncle, Speke Hall welcomed a new tenant: Frederick Leyland, manager of the Bibby shipping line and a multimillionaire by today's standards.
Leyland made many improvements and changes during his first winter at the house, creating the Billiard Room, a scullery and the Library. He took on the expense of the work and directed the design, mostly incorporating Tudor-style features throughout. He also converted a timber-framed barn into a stable for six horses (now the Stable Tea-room), which was required for the many guests he entertained.
Artists in residence
Deeply engaged in the world of art, Frederick Leyland was a patron of many artists including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and James McNeill Whistler. As a founding member of William Morris's decorating firm, Rossetti likely advised Leyland to use the three Morris wallpapers still intact at Speke Hall. In 1868, Rossetti even visited his patron and described Speke Hall as ‘a very glorious old house, full of interest in every way’.
Whistler visited Speke frequently between 1869 and 1875, painting portraits of Frederick, his wife (and rumoured lover) Frances, as well as their children. When his lease of Speke Hall ended in 1877, Frederick purchased nearby Woolton Hall but lived mainly in London until his death in 1892.
Adelaide returns home
After a disciplined upbringing at Spott House, the Scottish mansion of her great uncle James Sprot, Adelaide returned to Speke Hall to take over the reins. With a sharp eye for detail, she quickly became an expert in running the estate, being equally adept as land agent, building surveyor and accountant. Adelaide had high expectations for any prospective tenants of the estate's farms and a strong concern for preserving Speke Hall's posterity.
Looking to the future
In 1885, Adelaide began an ambitious project at Home Farm to build an impressive new building containing all the latest farming technology. While Adelaide was known as a conscientious employer, she welcomed the advent of new machinery to replace men and horses. Her focus on the future of Speke Hall was also evident at the house, where she installed central heating and firefighting equipment. She also employed an estate constable to guard against trespassers.
Adelaide secures Speke Hall's future
Adelaide Watt died in 1921, after securing the future of Speke Hall. She named three members from the original Norris family as trustees, with a provision that the estate would pass to the National Trust after 21 years ‘in case future changes in the environs may be such that the owner or occupier of the estate might cease to care to reside there.’
Subsequently, the Norris trustees sold much of the estate to Liverpool Corporation, giving space for a new airport and the creation of a 'new town'. In 1943, the Speke Hall estate as we know it today was handed over to the National Trust but remained under lease to Liverpool Corporation for maintenance and public opening.
Under the National Trust's care
In 1986, the National Trust took on full management of Speke Hall. Since then, we have continued to care for its important collections, objects, garden and grounds, preserving this special place for future generations.
Discover the hall's fascinating objects and architectural features online and learn about the Norris family’s dangerous life under Elizabethan rule.
From peaceful strolls through colourful borders, to adventures in the woodland and spotting wildlife in the secret garden, there's plenty of seasonal joy to find at Speke Hall.
Home Farm restaurant is open every day for you to grab a drink or a bite to eat. Afterwards, pop into the second-hand bookshop to find a pre-loved gem.
Dogs on leads are welcome to explore most areas of Speke Hall's grounds. Find out where you can go with your dog, what facilities are available to them and other important information at this two pawprint rated place.
This pass scheme is available to residents of Speke and some parts of Garston. With the pass, you and your family will be able to visit Speke Hall for free throughout the year.