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History of Berrington Hall

View of the East front of the house seen from the courtyard at Berrington Hall, Herefordshire
View of the East front of the house seen from the courtyard at Berrington Hall | © National Trust Images/Rupert Truman

Berrington Hall was created as a country retreat more than 230 years ago for city banker and businessman, Thomas Harley, who wanted to escape to the country. His grand design was to be the final work by famous landscape gardener, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Since then, only two other families have owned the property: the Rodneys and the Cawleys.

Thomas Harley

Thomas Harley bought the estate in 1775 after making his fortune as a banker and government contractor in London.

He had long family links with Herefordshire and by his mid-forties, he felt the urge to return to his county of birth as a relief from the hurly-burly of city life.

Harley commissioned ‘Capability’ Brown to lay out the park, which has spectacular views west towards Wales and the Black Mountains.

In 1778 he also called in Brown’s son-in-law, Henry Holland, to design him a new house in the latest French-influenced Neo-classical style, using the finest London craftsman.

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown

The most fashionable and iconic landscape designer of the Georgian era; 'Capability' Brown was commissioned to create what was to be his final landscape design at Berrington.

Brown had worked his magic at around 254 sites prior to Berrington and the skill in his craft can be seen in the mature park today. It’s likely that the landscaping work started before Harley's new house was constructed, with Brown advising the location.

He created his typical open sweep of grassy parkland from where the house was to be positioned, over a ha-ha and down to an eye-catching feature, the construction of a 14-acre lake.

The interior of the Marble Hall at Berrington Hall, Herefordshire, with its decorative marble floor, wooden doors and ornate plasterwork.
The Marble Hall at Berrington Hall | © National Trust Images / Andreas von Einsiedel

The Rodneys

Harley had no male heir, but was delighted when in 1781 his daughter Anne married the son of Admiral Lord Rodney, a great naval commander.

On Harley’s death in 1804, Berrington passed to the Rodney family, who lived there for the next 95 years through seven generations.

The 7th Lord Rodney

Lord George Rodney inherited the estate at the age of 7 in 1864. He spent little time at the house in his early years, leaving Eton to join the army and seeing active service in Egypt and the Sudan.

In 1891 he married the Honourable Corisande Evelyn Vere Guest, at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly. His bride came from a noble family and it was considered a good match.

Shortly after the honeymoon, a tower in rendered brick was built in the courtyard to provide bathrooms and lavatories. Corisande refused to move to Berrington until a bathroom tower had been built, having been used to plumbed-in baths where she'd lived previously.

There were a couple of fires at Berrington during the time the couple lived there, one costing around £700 in renovations (around £50,000 today).

The sale of the house and estate

Lord and Lady Rodney had four sons, George (1891), James (1893), Charles (1895) and William (1896) and initially enjoyed the social scene of the surrounding area. However, the 4,000-acre estate never recovered from the agricultural depression of the 1870s and the 7th Baron built up significant personal debts.

To raise cash, he sold the Gainsborough portraits which hung in the dining room and valuable books collected by Harley’s ancestors. More and more items were sold, until finally in 1901 he was forced to sell the house and estate.

The marriage turned sour and, in 1902, Corisande filed for divorce, citing cruelty and adultery as her reasons for petition.

Lord Rodney married again in 1903 to Charlotte Eugenia Probyn, whose family were Gloucestershire gentry, and died in 1909, in Denmark Hill, London, aged 52.

An interior view of the top of the Staircase Hall at Berrington Hall, Herefordshire, which has tall pillars and decorative plasterwork on the ceiling.
The top of the Staircase Hall at Berrington Hall | © National Trust Images / Andreas von Einsiedel

Lord Cawley

In 1901 Queen Victoria died. The country went into mourning which was good news for the new owner of Berrington, Frederick Cawley MP (later to become Lord Cawley). He owned the patent for a pure black dye which made his cotton finishing business the most successful in Lancashire.

Cawley was a self-made man who had also become a Liberal MP. He originally purchased Berrington as a convenient stop off between his Manchester base and politics in London. He became a Baronet in 1906 for services to the Liberal Party.

Redecorating the mansion

Around 1908, he began a comprehensive but sensitive redecoration of the mansion and many of his schemes still survive today. He replaced Victorian fire grates with more appropriate Georgian models, but otherwise did little to disturb Holland’s beautiful original design.

He added the Wedgwood plaques in the Drawing room and installed the Aubusson tapestries in the Marble and Staircase Halls, to replace the gaps left by the pictures sold by the Rodneys.

First World War

The family suffered hugely in the Great War, losing three of their four sons.

Second World War

The second Lord Cawley married Vivienne Lee, also from a cotton trading family, and took over the mansion upon his father’s death in 1937.

The Cawleys suffered again during the Second World War, losing a son at Tunis in 1943.

Surviving the war

Berrington Hall survived unscathed and was used as a convalescent hospital run from the temporary office in the Boudoir, by Lady Cawley.

After the war, she used the small room at the back of the house as her sitting room. Today the room is arranged to commemorate the family and reflect their lives.

In lieu of death duties

When the 2nd Lord Cawley died in 1954, the estate was handed over to the Treasury as part payment for the death duties. In turn, it was given to the care of the National Trust.

Lady Cawley continued to live at the house until her death in 1978, at the age of 100.

The interior of the richly decorated Drawing Room at Berrington Hall, Herefordshire, with its period furniture and ornate mirrors and frames paintings on the walls.

Berrington Hall's collections

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

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