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History of Packwood House

A lithograph drawing of the east view of Packwood House, Warwickshire from 1868, listed as 'The seat of John Fetherston Esquire'.
Lithograph of the East View of Packwood House from 1868 | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Formerly the humble dwelling of yeomen farmers, Packwood House was transformed into the exquisite country house that exists today by Graham Baron Ash in the early 20th century. Discover how Baron Ash made his vision of the perfect English country house come to life, and read about Packwood's heyday hosting lavish parties and Royal guests.

The Fetherston family at Packwood

The Fetherston family owned land at Packwood from the fifteenth through to the middle of the nineteenth century.

In about 1570, William Fetherston built a new ‘great mancient howse’ which was later handed over to his son John in 1599. The house John inherited was tall, detached and nearly square in plan, with triple gables and a great brick cow barn to the north with further farm buildings to the east.

An historic drawing of Packwood House showing the original timbering on the exterior of the house.
Drawing showing the timbering at Packwood House | © National Trust Images/Claire Reeves

Expanding the estate

The Fetherstons were yeomen farmers and each subsequent generation expanded the estate through industry. John Fetherston II was a lawyer who built the stables and outhouses with their complex brickwork, cupolas and many sundials.

At the time of his son’s death in 1714 the Fetherston family commanded an estate of around 690 acres.

Packwood in the eighteenth century

Through the eighteenth century, the succession passed through the female line to the Leigh family and then to the Dilkes. The last of the line died in comparative poverty and Packwood was eventually sold to George Oakes Arton, a Birmingham solicitor.

When George died in 1901, the half-timbered mansion of the Fetherstons isn't what drew interest to the property. Rather, visitors were drawn to the mystical antiquity of the gardens.

The estate is sold at auction

On 29 September 1904 second generation industrialist Alfred Ash bought at auction the Packwood estate of approximately 134 acres. He is reported to have said: ‘I bought it because the Boy wanted it.’

The ‘Boy’ was his only son, Graham Baron Ash, who was just 16. For the next 40 years Baron Ash, as he liked to be known, was to be the meticulous restorer, furnisher, decorator and beautifier of Packwood.

A black and white photograph of Graham Baron Ash sat reading a newspaper in the window of the Great Hall, Packwood House, Warwickshire.
Graham Baron Ash seated in the window of the Great Hall of Packwood | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Baron Ash serves in the First World War

At the outbreak of war in 1914, Baron Ash volunteered for the medical corps. From there, he was transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, but wrecked four aircrafts during his tenure. Eventually he served as a Balloon Observation Officer.

Aged 21, Baron Ash travelled to America, Canada, Japan, Korea, China, Singapore, Burma, India, Egypt, Italy and Switzerland. He kept a diary in which he recorded the cultures he encountered. While in Amoy, he visited a temple, where he claims he intended to bribe one of the priests for one of his roof decorations. A long life of haggling with antiques dealers had begun.

Baron Ash transforms Packwood

Baron Ash returned to Packwood in November 1918 and continued restoring the house. Between 1924 and 1932, Baron Ash transformed Packwood.

Creating antiquity

His driving ambition to rid the old house of any trace of its Georgian and Victorian inheritance was in tune with the fashion of the times. The classical style of the eighteenth century and the dark, heavily furnished interiors of Queen Victoria’s reign were deeply unfashionable in inter-war England.

Baron Ash aimed to create a private world in which he could live the life of an English country gentleman. Over the years, many guests were invited to Packwood to enjoy Baron Ash's version of country house hospitality.

'I am proceeding with the utmost caution. I hope that my efforts will not provide the future with an object lesson of what not to do in restoring an old house!'

- Baron Ash, c.1931

Creating the Great Hall

In his vision of the perfect Old England country house, Baron Ash created a new Great Hall at Packwood.

A sepia photograph of the West front of Packwood House, Warwickshire, taken in the 1920s before the Long Gallery was added, the barn converted to the Great Hall and the windows changed.
The West front of Packwood House in the late 1920s | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Packwood in the late 1920s

In the 1920s, a large cow barn lay close to the manor house, divided by only a couple of hundred yards. Baron Ash would go on to use this space to create the Great Hall.

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Architectural salvage

In the 1920s and 1930s, features from demolished historic buildings were repurposed at Packwood. In the Great Hall, the fireplace came from a vintner’s shop in Stratford, while the table was bought from Baddesley Clinton. Some of the carved heads on the corbels supporting the roof beams are copied from originals in France.

Furnishing the perfect English country house

To furnish his perfect country house, Baron Ash had to find the perfect combination of antique textiles, polished wood, faded gold and extraordinary objects which would convey his ideal of timeless Englishness.

Freshly cut flowers were of the greatest importance, so much so that he made the provision of them mandatory on handing over Packwood to the National Trust in 1941.

'He…filled it [Packwood] with appropriate furniture, tapestries, stained-glass and ornaments of great beauty.'

- James Lees-Milne, c.1947

Parties at Packwood

Parties at Packwood were legendary. In the Jazz Age, invitations were sent as ragtime lyrics. Christmas saw huge gatherings with vast quantities of excellent food and drink, while the terrace was used for theatrical productions.

A Royal visit

The crowning event of Baron Ash’s social career was in 1927 when Queen Mary visited Packwood for tea. Despite a torrential downpour at the moment of the Queen’s arrival, all went remarkably well. The visit was memorialised in the preserved cup and saucer from which the Queen took tea. The room to which she retired to rest was subsequently renamed after her.

Prince George Chavchavadze

Glamourous Russian socialite Prince George Chavchavadze caused ripples in local society with his visit to Packwood. His recital on the late seventeenth-century spinet in the Great Hall at Packwood was the season's hottest ticket in 1931. The instrument, signed by Chavchavadze, is now in the Drawing Room.

Follies at Packwood

Concerts and plays in the Great Hall and in the gardens were a recurring feature and were known collectively as ‘follies’. The floor in the Great Hall was specially sprung for dancing.

Packwood for the nation

On 30 June 1941, Baron Ash gave Packwood, its collections, park and garden and £30,000 to the National Trust in memory of his parents.

In his ‘Memorandum of wishes’, Baron Ash stated that all furniture should be kept in the same position, that no extra furnishings should be added, and that freshly cut flowers should be placed in every room.

So long as Packwood was maintained as he instructed, it would remain his legacy to posterity, a meticulously restored country house of Old England.

The Long Gallery at Packwood House, Warwickshire. A long narrow room with wooden floors and ceiling, a large fireplace can be seen on the right and tapestries line the wall. Sunlight streams in through large windows on the left.

Packwood's collections

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

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Find out more about volunteering at Packwood and how you can join the team and play your part in keeping Baron Ash’s vision of an English country estate alive.

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