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History of Shugborough Estate

Painting of Admiral Sir George Anson, Baron Anson of Soberton by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA at Shugborough, Staffordshire. Oil painting on canvas.
Painting of Admiral Sir George Anson, Baron Anson of Soberton by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA at Shugborough, Staffordshire. Oil painting on canvas. | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Returning from his Grand Tour around Europe, Thomas Anson came home and wanted to make Shugborough his own perfect paradise. He embarked upon transforming the house, garden and wider estates, establishing the Anson name and positioning Shugborough as a pioneering example in garden design.

Thomas Anson

Originally trained in law, Thomas Anson abandoned this on his father’s death and decided to go on a Grand Tour, visiting places such as Rome, Naples, Alexandria and Cyprus. Thomas was a man of intellectual refinement and taste and in 1732, became a founding member of the influential Society of Dilettanti, a society of scholars and noblemen sponsoring the study of ancient Greek and Roman art, and the creation of new works in the style.

At Shugborough, he set about expanding the property by gradually purchasing the remaining church and household and some slopes of the Cannock Chase.

From the late 1740s, enabled by newly attained wealth from his brother George’s naval escapades, Thomas set about renovating the estate. He commissioned new buildings, created an ornamental lake, bridges and cascade and undertook planting that re-fashioned Shugborough into one of the most outstanding Rococo landscapes in Britain, elements of which still survive today.

Chinese House in June on the Shugborough Estate, Staffordshire
Chinese House in June on the Shugborough Estate | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Thomas Wright’s creations

After his travels around Europe, Thomas Anson came home and wanted to make Shugborough his own perfect paradise. His landscape creation was ground-breaking as it included some of the first neo-Greek structures in the country by architect Thomas Wright.

The Chinese House

Wright’s first creation was the Chinese House in 1747. This was designed to celebrate George Anson’s visit to China and triumphal return to Britain. It was based on original sketches taken from garden architecture Anson and his crew saw in Guangzhou (formerly Canton) in 1742.

Once complete, this building was part of a scheme which included two ‘Chinese style’ bridges and a boat house. It was among one of the first garden buildings in Britain to reflect the wider fashion of Chinoiserie.

Shepherds monument

Between 1748–58, Thomas erected the Shepherds monument. This monument was inspired by an oil painting by Poussin, Et In Arcadia Ego. If you look closely at the monument, you can see the Latin phrase ‘even in Paradise, I too [Death] am here’.

As you walk round to the formal gardens behind the house, look out for the ruins down by the river. It was built in 1750 and once sat opposite the colonnade that was swept away by the great flood of 1795.

The Cat's Monument

Wright’s final monument, the Cat’s Monument, is thought to be made at the same time as the ruin. It’s believed to either commemorate George Anson’s cat or Thomas’ Persian Cat, Kouli Khan.

The monument is made of Coade stone. First marketed at around 1770, it was considered the first ‘artificial stone’. The material is actually a mixture of clay, terracotta, silicates and glass which is then fired in kilns for four days at a time and its recipe was a closely regarded secret.

The Shepherd's Monument on the Shugborough Estate, Staffordshire.
The Shepherd's Monument on the Shugborough Estate, Staffordshire. The Monument was designed by Thomas Wright and was probably built c.1750. It takes its name from the marble relief sculpture based on an engraving after Nicolas Poussin's painting `Et in Arcadia Ego' | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

George Anson

Hailed as the father of the British navy, Thomas’ younger brother George Anson was a prominent figure, both for his adventurous travels and reforms.

George Anson is widely credited as father of the British navy as we see it today. The navy was essential in the expansion of the British empire and the successful control of colonies, trading routes and strategically important parts of the globe. The Navy protected British slave ships carrying captive Africans across the Atlantic into slavery in the colonies, ensuring vast wealth for Britain, and control of these waters extended British naval dominance.

Climbing the ranks of the Navy

George was the second Englishman after Sir Francis Drake to circumnavigate the globe from 1740–44, in an epic military undertaking against the Spanish. Anson joined the navy at the age of 14 in 1712 and quickly rose through the ranks to become Captain at the age of 25. In 1737 he took command of the Centurion, a 60-gun ship and in 1740 sailed to plunder the Pacific coast of South America and conquer the Spanish.

Although the first stage of their journey around Cape Horn was a military disaster with the loss of two ships and over 600 men from scurvy, cold and privation, Anson still captured several Spanish ships and their cargoes. Eventually Centurion sailed alone reached Macao in November 1742, making George the first British man-of-war to visit China.

George the reformer

On his return in 1745, Anson was appointed Vice-Admiral of the White and joined the Whig opposition under the Duke of Bedford, 1st Lord of the Admiralty and the Earl of Sandwich. Together the three men undertook a series of reforms of the navy, including ship design and training. By 1747 he succeeded as First Lord of the Admiralty. In 1748, he married the Hon. Elizabeth Yorke, the eldest daughter of Philip York, Lord Hardwicke, who was then Lord Chancellor.


On 20 June 1743 Anson achieved his most notable victory, intercepting and attacking a Manila galleon, the Nuestra Señora de Covadonga that was sailing between Acapulco and the Philippines heavily laden with silver. Anson captured the ship which he later sold to the Dutch, along with 1,313,843 pieces of eight and 35,682 ounces of virgin silver, then valued at £400,000. This is the equivalent to around £35 million today, of which he was entitled to a staggering £13,125,000.

The treasure was so immense, that it was to ensure not only the success of the voyage, but his own fortune and that of his brother at Shugborough.

Triumphal Arch at Shugborough Estate, Staffordshire with a tree to the left. Constructed in 1765 and is a copy of Hadrian's Arch in Athens. It commemorates Admiral Anson.
Triumphal Arch at Shugborough Estate, Staffordshire. Constructed in 1765 and is a copy of Hadrian's Arch in Athens. It commemorates Admiral Anson. | © National Trust Images/David Goacher

James 'Athenian' Stewart

After the death of his brother George in 1762, Thomas began a second wave of transformation. This period saw the monumental additions to the park, created by James ‘Athenian’ Stewart, who was one of the leading exponents of Neo-classicism and in particular the Greek style.

Stewart came from humble beginnings but had immense talent. He self-funded his travels to Italy, where he learnt a Greek, Italian, Latin and studied Italian and Roman art and architecture. Examples of Stewart’s work are the Triumphal Arch, Tower of the Winds, and The Lanthorn of Demosthenes.

The Triumphal Arch

The Triumphal Arch is most likely to have been the first of the park monuments undertaken by Stewart and certainly the most prominent. Work started soon after 1761, and it’s based on the Arch of Hadrian in Greece.

In 1760, Thomas Anson suffered a huge loss, with the death of his close friend and sister-in-law, Elizabeth York, and again in 1762, with the death of his brother George. Thomas memorialised them both by adding their busts in the outer arches. In the central arch, Thomas added an ‘aplustre’, a commemorative plaque. It depicts naval trophies and other attributes linked to his brother’s illustrious life.

The Lanthorn of Demosthenes

The Lanthorn of Demosthenes is an accurate copy from a classical ruin which Stewart sketched on his travels. This monument was built between 1764–71.

The Tower of the Winds

The Tower of the Winds was completed about 1765. Originally, this tower sat in what was once, the village pond, surrounded by water, in the middle of a village that was once at Shugborough. The village houses were slowly bought up, as tenancies came to an end or inhabitants died. Some were moved to purpose-built architect-designed accommodation in Great Haywood.

In 1805, the lower two storeys of the Tower of the Winds were converted into a dairy for Lady Anson, by Samuel Wyatt. The octagonal tower was built to mirror the Horologion of Andronikos Kyrrhestes, named for the carved figures that were once on the top that represented the eight wind deities.

The Tower of the Winds on a misty morning in June on the Shugborough Estate, Staffordshire. The Tower was completed about 1765, a copy of the Horlogium of Andronikos Cyrrhestes illustrated in James Stuart's 'Antiquities of Athens'.
The Tower of the Winds in June on the Shugborough Estate, Staffordshire. | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Thomas Anson II

Thomas Anson died unmarried and with no children in 1773, which meant that the Shugborough Estate passed firstly to his nephew George Adams, under the condition he changed his name to Anson. His daughter, Mary Anson (d.1837) married Sir Francis Ford (1758–1801) who owned up to seven plantations in Barbados. Shugborough then passed to Thomas Anson II in 1789 who became first viscount of Lichfield.

This was the beginning of more major and highly significant changes to the estate which took place in two distinct phases over the turn of the century. The new development was probably precipitated in part by Thomas Anson II’s marriage in 1794 to Anne Coke, second daughter of Thomas William Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester of Holkham, but also in 1806 when he was created Viscount Anson.

Thomas Anson II set about completely redeveloping the park, spurred on by a flood on the River Sow in February 1795 which destroyed many of the original Rococo park features.

Improving Shugborough's agricultural practices

As well as altering the landscape, Thomas Anson II also reworked his agricultural estate, adopting similar methods to those used by his father-in-law, Thomas Coke of Holkham, the pioneering agricultural improver. Anson also employed Nathaniel Kent one of the first, and highly influential, agricultural advisers.

In common with a number of neighbouring Staffordshire landowners at the end of the 18th century, Anson transformed the management of his land by adopting new techniques of production and animal husbandry, far exceeding all others in the county, in terms of both quality and scale.

Samuel Wyatt

Engineer and Architect Samuel Wyatt, whose family originated from Lichfield, was employed by Thomas Anson II to extend the house and create an impressive farm.

The house

Wyatt began by enlarging the side wings of the house, and added a vast portico of eight Ionic columns, made from timber, slate and Coade stone in front of the front door. Wyatt had a fascination with new materials that were associated with the emerging industrial technology and faced the exterior walls with slate, polished and painted to look grey, like ashlar, and installed new window bars made from copper alloy.

Wyatt’s work was also designed to make the house more comfortable and the transformation of the entrance hall was particularly ingenious, creating an oval space from a square room, lined with scagliola columns. The same material was used in Wyatt’s new saloon which replaced Anson’s former dining room.

The most impressive space is the enormous red drawing room created in 1794. It remains Wyatt’s largest and grandest surviving interior. An impressive suite of seat furniture, almost identical to a set at Waddesdon and made by upholsterers to George III, was commissioned to furnish the interior.

Park Farm

Samuel Wyatt was tasked to design a model farm, Park Farm, and a walled kitchen garden, around 1805. Park Farm was located in the centre of the park, close to the Tower of the Winds, which Wyatt also partially converted into a functioning dairy. In the early 19th century, the farm operated on a grand scale with over 2,000 acres being cultivated.

Pigsties and farm buildings on the Shugborough Estate, Staffordshire
Pigsties and farm buildings on the Shugborough Estate | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

John Webb

Beyond the house, Thomas Anson II set about redeveloping the parkland and garden. He was spurred on by a flood on the River Sow in February 1795 which destroyed many of the original Rococo park features.

Between 1799–1805 landscaper John Webb was employed to repair the flood damage and to create a ‘naturalistic’ parkland design, more in keeping with Thomas' taste. Webb set about digging a new channel for the River Sow in 1804, creating an island on which you can now see the arboretum.

Webb established new plantations to create views and vistas through the parkland and then created three new carriage drives, to make an elegant approach with extensive views across Shugborough.

Webb's walled garden

You can still enjoy Webb's walled garden. This garden was state of the art, designed to grow the finest quality produce for the tables of both the family and wider household. It included a large gardener’s house, with glasshouses for plants and flowers, together with a vinery, fruit stores and bothies.

This garden became a centre for education for budding horticulturalists. William Pitt described the garden as ‘an academy for the study of horticulture in which young men entered without pay to develop their skills and knowledge.’

The result of this was the creation of an estate and landscape which combined beauty with utility and reflected contemporary ideas of ‘Improvement’. With the survival of many of its components, the estate remains a highly significant example of this period in agricultural history and landscape design.

Visitors walking towards the house at Shugborough Estate, Staffordshire.

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