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History of Leith Hill Place

The three-storey Leith Hill Place house at Leith Hill, Surrey
Leith Hill Place at Leith Hill | © National Trust Images/John Miller

From 17th century merchants to modern musicians, Leith Hill Place has had a long and interesting history. With connections to the Wedgwood family, Charles Darwin and famous composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, the house has had some fascinating inhabitants. Explore the history of this wonderful home and discover some of its stories.

House closed

Please note that Leith Hill Place is closed until 2024 for essential conservation work.

The history of the house

Leith Hill Place is an elegant early 17th-century property, which was added to and improved in the 18th century by Lieutenant-General John Folliot. In 1754 it was sold to Richard Hull, a Bristol merchant, who built Leith Hill Tower. After he died in 1772 the house was owned by various people, including a Reverend Rusden who ran it as a school.

The history of Leith Hill Tower

Leith Hill Tower was built in 1765 by Richard Hull as 'a place for people to enjoy the glory of the English countryside'. The many hollows on the nearby slopes are thought to be where materials were quarried to build it. The tower was sealed up in 1800 and the stairwell was added in 1864 to provide access to the roof. It was reopened in 1984 after the cement and rubble were dug out.

A flowering bright-red rhododendron spills over a wooden fence in the Rhododendron Wood, Leith Hill, Surrey
A flowering bright-red rhododendron spills over a wooden fence in the Rhododendron Wood, Leith Hill | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

The Wedgwoods move in

In 1847 Leith Hill Place was bought by Josiah Wedgwood III. Having retired from the family pottery business in Staffordshire, he brought his wife and three young daughters to live in the Surrey Hills. Josiah was married to Caroline Darwin, and her brother Charles, the famous naturalist, often used to visit.

Charles Darwin involved his three nieces - Sophy, Margaret and Lucy - in his earthworm experiments in and around Leith Hill Place. In the parkland below the house you can still see his 'worm stone' which sits next to one of the orange trail markers.

Margaret Wedgwood married Arthur Vaughan Williams, but was widowed early and moved back to Leith Hill Place with her three young children. Her youngest son, Ralph, went on to become the well-known English composer.

Caroline’s garden vision

Caroline Wedgwood created the beautiful Rhododendron Wood, transforming two areas of field and woodland into formally planted park and garden.

When Caroline moved to Leith Hill Place in 1847 it was fashionable to collect exotic specimen plants from all over the world. As the sister of the famous naturalist, Charles Darwin, Caroline had also inherited a love of botany and had connections to experts such as her brother’s great friend and Director of Kew Gardens, Joseph Hooker.

A choir performing in the Terrace Room at Leith Hill Place, Surrey
A choir performing in the Terrace Room at Leith Hill Place | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams grew up at Leith Hill Place, surrounded by the beauty of the Surrey Hills. His Aunt Sophy taught him to play the piano and he also learnt the violin, viola and organ. After University he studied at the Royal College of Music with Sir Hubert Parry (composer of Jerusalem), where he specialised in composition.

He became one of the most prolific English composers of the 20th century. ‘The Lark Ascending’ has twice been voted the nation's favourite classical piece. Just as importantly, he was a teacher, lecturer, conductor, writer and friend to other composers and musicians.

Music for all

Although born into a privileged family, Vaughan Williams was down to earth and passionate about bringing music to everyone. He began collecting English folksongs, and these helped to inform his approach to composition.

He edited the English Hymnal even though he was an atheist and helped to start the Leith Hill Musical Festival – an annual choir competition which is still going strong today. He wanted people to make their own music, however simple.

A generous donor

Having lived here as a child, Ralph Vaughan Williams donation Leith Hill Place to the National Trust after he inherited it from his brother in 1944. Vaughan Williams’ cousin, Sir Ralph Wedgwood, then lived here as a tenant, followed by his son John. The family opened several rooms to the public and displayed items of antique Wedgwood china.

Becoming a boarding house

In 1972 the building became a boarding house for the nearby Hurtwood House School. When the school left, there were some interesting items left behind, including graffiti in the cellar.

Visitors at Leith Hill Tower, Surrey. Two people are sitting on a bench with their dog and two bikes.

Discover more at Leith Hill

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

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