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The history of Dudmaston Hall

The West Front of Dudmaston in Shropshire from across the Big Pool at sunset. The 8-acre garden is sloping to the lake from the red brick houses which include the main block, domestic range and Brew House.
The West Front of Dudmaston from across the Big Pool at sunset | © National Trust Images / Michael Caldwell

Dudmaston’s story spans almost a millennium, lived in by the same family through inheritance and marriage for over 875 years and never sold. It started with a Norman knight and today Dudmaston is home to the Hamilton-Russell family, and its story continues to revolve around the rhythms of the local community.

The early days of Dudmaston

Dudmaston first appears in a deed of c.1127 when Helgor of Holgate granted a manor called Dodemannestone with half a hide of land to a Norman knight, Harlewyn de Butaille, whose family then adopted the local name of Dudmaston.

The Wolryche family

The Wolryches arrived on the scene nearly three centuries later, when in 1403 the heiress Margaret de Dudmaston married William Wolryche of Much Wenlock.

Francis Wolryche (1563–1614) was only a small child when he succeeded his father in 1566 as head of the Wolryche family. In 1588, at the age of 25, he married into the world of high-flying Elizabethan lawyers and politicians, a connection that was to prove important for the next generation.

Francis Wolryche’s oldest son Thomas was 16 when his father died and studying at Cambridge. He was taken under the wing of his uncle, the Exchequer lawyer Edward Bromley, who was a trustee of the estate under Francis Wolryche’s will. Life for Thomas and Ursula Ottley, the lady he married in 1625 was not straightforward, thanks to a series of upsets in his local and political life.

Into the late 17th century

Francis, the eldest son of Sir Thomas, studied at Cambridge and inherited Dudmaston Hall in 1668 at the age of 41, but was incapacitated by mental illness.

By an Act of Parliament in 1673 he retained the title until his death in 1689, but afterwards the estate was settled on his younger brother John who was a member of Gray’s Inn and, like his father, was elected MP for Much Wenlock. He married Mary Griffith, the daughter of the royal chaplain Matthew Griffith.

Young heirs of Dudmaston

Sir Thomas Wolryche, 3rd Baronet (1672–1701) was only 13 when he inherited Dudmaston and any plans for rebuilding the house were put on hold. It was his marriage to Elizabeth Weld in 1689 which prompted action.

Before Sir Thomas’ fine new house was completed, tragedy struck; he died from tuberculosis at the young age of 29 and the title passed to his 10-year-old son. John, 4th Baronet, grew up to be an irresponsible spendthrift, drowning in the river after celebrating a winning day at Chelmarsh races in 1723.

Heavy debts

The estate, left with heavy debts and no male heir, was eventually settled in 1741 on John’s sister Mary for payment of debts to the sum of £14,000, worth over £1.5m in today’s money, or 2043 horses. On Mary's death, the estate passed to the nonagenarian Colonel, who bequeathed Dudmaston to a distant cousin, George Whitmore.

A view of the East Front of Dudmaston Hall with the sun shining on the hall which is framed by trees and a manicured lawn
The East Front of Dudmaston Hall | © National Trust Images / Michael Caldwell

The Whitmore family

In 1775 William Whitmore (1745–1815), the 30-year-old son of a Southampton wine merchant inherited the hall from his uncle George and found very little in the house; furniture and silver had been given away.

William Whitmore made gradual repairs and improvements to the house and the estate. He added new stables, extended the brewery and made a start on rebuilding the Dudmaston farms.

William Wolryche-Whitmore

William Wolryche-Whitmore (1787–1858) inherited Dudmaston on his father’s death in 1815. In 1810 he had married Lucy Bridgeman, daughter of the Earl of Bradford, who brought a welcome dowry. The young couple clearly found Dudmaston gloomy and old-fashioned, and in the 1820s alterations were commissioned for local builder, John Smalman of Quatford.

William Wolryche-Whitmore died in 1858 leaving Dudmaston to his brother-in-law, the Rev. Francis Laing, vicar of Quatt, who was married to Mary Dorothea, William’s sister. The house was let to an Australian sheep farmer, and it was only in 1864 that it was again occupied by the family.

Kitchen maid to suffragette: Violet's story

Violet Ann Bland, born 17 December 1863 in Bayston Hill, Shropshire, to William Henry Bland, a railway fitter, and his wife Violet, worked at Dudmaston as a kitchen maid after she left school. Little is known about Violet's time here, but some details of her later life have emerged. After her time at Dudmaston she went on to manage a ladies’ college and later to manage several hotels.

Campaigning for women's suffrage

During her time as a hotelier in Bristol early in the 20th century, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, a militant organisation campaigning for women’s suffrage (the right to vote in political elections). Several prominent suffragettes stayed at the hotel, and she hosted fundraisers there.

After a move to London, Violet’s involvement became more active, first arrested and released for her part in the ‘Black Friday’ demonstration in 1910, then arrested in 1912 and sentenced to four months in prison. She joined a hunger strike in Aylesbury prison and was force-fed. Like all hunger strikers, she received a medal and commendation from Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Suffragettes.

‘They twisted my neck, jerked my head back, closing my throat, held all the time as in a vice.’

– Violet Ann Bland, Votes for Women newspaper

Violet died on 21 March 1940. Although unmarried, she has family through her seven younger siblings who have been proud to share her story, photographs, medals and letter of commendation.

A new 200-acre wood for Dudmaston

Geoffrey Wolryche-Whitmore (1881–1969) became agent of Dudmaston estate in 1908 at the age of 27, having trained on the progressive estates of Apethorpe and Buscot. Full of enthusiasm for his new role, he travelled to Germany to study modern methods of forestry and his vision and pioneering work saved Dudmaston from economic ruin.

In 1910 he planted 200 acres of woodland on sandy soil not suitable for farming and established a sawmill at Holt. His interest in trees grew beyond forests to ornamental planting too.

Geoffrey was among the first in England to grow the dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) from seed collected in 1948 after its rediscovery in China. His forestry use of different conifers, such as Douglas fir and Corsican pine, was pioneering (the government’s Forestry Commission was only established in 1919) and he became recognised as one of the country’s leading experts.

Festival of Britain

It was the planting and harvesting of fast-growing trees that helped Dudmaston to survive during the long agricultural depression. At the 1951 Festival of Britain, a model of Dudmaston was chosen to demonstrate an estate with integrated farming and forestry. Geoffrey was President of the Royal Forestry Society in 1944–6 and received several of the society’s medals, including one of their first Gold Medals, in 1961.

Geoffrey planted fast-growing conifers on the light sandy soil north and west of Comer Wood, where the agricultural land was of poor quality, and mixed them with broadleaf trees on the heavier soil around the pools and in Comer Wood. Though Geoffrey's work succeeded financially, some of the new and expanded plantings concealed the earlier history of the landscape.

Today, the ranger team is working to recover some of the lost views in the Pleasure Grounds and reinstate some of the original landscaping.

The Labouchere family

Geoffrey Wolryche-Whitmore had no children. It was agreed in 1952 that Dudmaston would be inherited by his niece Rachel with the understanding that the estate would ultimately pass to the National Trust. But for Rachel, Dudmaston was a distant dream for many years.

In 1943 she had married a diplomat, George Labouchere, whom she had met in 1940 while working at the Admiralty. In 1966, on Sir George’s retirement, the Laboucheres made Dudmaston their home, but with the intention of displaying the house to the public.

The Dudmaston Estate, Shropshire
Dudmaston Estate with the lake in the foreground | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

The National Trust at Dudmaston

Dudmaston was gifted to the National Trust in 1978 by Rachel, Lady Labouchere and after she died in 1996 the mansion, as she had specified, became the family home of her Hamilton-Russell cousins who live at the home today.

Meet the Family

Mark, Elfrida, Rachel and Oscar now live at Dudmaston. When Lady Rachel Labouchere left Dudmaston to the National Trust in 1978, she asked for the Hall to remain a family home forever. Now home to the Hamilton-Russell family, Dudmaston is not perfect and pristine, but much-loved and lived in.

‘Throughout the changes in Dudmaston's history, I find it remarkable that there has been no break in family lineage. Having succeeded my Great Aunt upon her death, we, and my parents before us, are still continually finding new and exciting places to explore in this peaceful and tranquil corner of the county.'

'It is our hope that, working together with The National Trust, we continue to add to the fusion of old and new which gives Dudmaston its unexpected unity – and Elfrida, I and our children Oscar and Rachel welcome you to our home and hope that you get as much enjoyment from the estate as we do.’

- Mark Hamilton-Russell

A visitor admiring a bookshelf full of leather-bound books in the Library at Dudmaston, with a couch, lamp and paintings visible in the background

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