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The history of Beningbrough

A 1751 painting of a view of the main north front of Beningbrough Hall, seen from ground level and at a slight angle
The North Front of Beningbrough Hall by John Joseph Bouttats, 1751. | © National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

Despite being one of the most remarkable baroque houses in England, with richly carved and finished interiors, relatively little is known about the history of Beningbrough. Discover what we do know about the hall, from its Elizabethan beginnings to wartime billet.

Over the years Beningbrough has posed more question than answers. There are very few archives for an estate of this age. Curators, Archaelogists and Historians are continually work to piece together more of the jigsaw.

One example is this historic painting by Bouttats, is it a true representation of how the hall once looked? A way to show off? Or a plan for the future?

A brief history of Beningbrough Hall

1556 +

The Elizabethan house

Ralph Bourchier inherited the Beningbrough estate in 1556 and began building the first house on a site approximately 300 metres south-east of the present hall. This was the family home for around 150 years.

Surveys suggest that it was timber framed with fine panelled interiors, some of which were re-used and can be seen in the present hall.  

A painting at  at Beningbrough Hall showing Lady Chesterfield wearing a white dress and pink shawl with fields behind her
A portrait of Lady Chesterfield hanging at Beningbrough Hall and painted by Ellis Roberts in 1900. | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

The Second World War

Beningbrough was requisitioned for use as a billet for aircrews stationed at the RAF base at nearby Linton-on-Ouse. Lady Chesterfield temporarily moved out into Home Farm, and the hall’s furniture and pictures were put into storage.

An encounter with Lady Chesterfield

Clifford Hill, one of the men billeted at Beningbrough, recalls an encounter with Lady Chesterfield:

‘I met Lady Chesterfield twice, both times in the grounds, once in the vegetable gardens … she accused my companion and me of treading on her beds. She was most irate. We apologised and Lady Chesterfield terminated our conversation with…’

Good luck boys, and keep off my vegetables

A quote by Lady Chesterfield

Domestic staff

RAF and WAAF domestic staff looked after the aircrew at Beningbrough as cooks, kitchen hands, stewards, drivers and officer supervisors. There were about 20 women and six airmen on the staff. In the basement of the hall, the WAAFs had bedrooms, a sitting room and a bathroom, alongside the kitchen and other utility rooms. The airmen had rooms over the laundry where the holiday cottage now it, although it's fair to imagine the furnishings and mod cons were rather different than today.

Race to the bar

All sorts of capers were dreamed up to relieve mission stress. If you could run from the bar, the full length of the house, up the stairs, along the top floor and then back down to the bar in one minute, you won a free pint. At bar opening time, there was a mad rush to get downstairs, usually on push bikes, and on at least one occasion, a motorbike to try and win the pint.

Black and white historic image showing airmen stood by a statue with white y-fronts on it
Having fun by day, then risking their lives on nighttime missions | © National Trust Archives

A wartime love story

WAAF Dorothy Preston (Gipsy) and Canadian airman Harry Olsen (Olie) met in late 1941 at the Alice Hawthorn pub in Nun Monkton.

Their time together was short. In March 1942 Olie was transferred to 405 squadron, based at RAF Pocklington. Without transport, they had little way of seeing each other but they stayed in touch and continued to exchange letters but never met again.

Olie's plane was shot down on 8 June 1942 during a bombing raid against targets near Essen, Germany. He managed to bail out safely over the village of Heteren in the Netherlands and was taken prisoner. After the war, he was flown back to the UK before returning to Canada.

Secret graffiti

Unknown to anyone, this moment in time had been marked in the hall. Graffiti above the drawing room fireplace has their names and originally a heart; now faded through human touch over the decades. It's now protected to prevent further loss of the inscription.

Interestingly during the conservation work on the hall in 2022, further graffiti has been uncovered in the loft with Dorothy Preston's name and a heart. Was Olie responsible for the markings?

The story behind the graffiti was a mystery until a visit from a lady in 1987. When shown the graffiti by a room guide, she was overwhelmed to see it, and revealed that she was 'Gipsy' and shared their story.

It was love at first sight. Everyone who was there that night knew it!

A quote by Dorothy Preston Gipsy

The National Trust at Beningbrough

On Lady Chesterfield's death in 1957, Beningbrough Hall was offered to the Treasury by her executers to pay death duties. In 1958 the National Trust acquired Beningbrough, devoid of most of its contents, several overdoor paintings remained as part of the fixtures.

First opening in 1962, with live-in custodians and caretakers, and later tenants, who looked after and lived on the estate. Visitor numbers were low, with records showing just 7,000 in 1977.

A new lease of life

In 1979, the Trust formed a partnership with the National Portrait Gallery to hang many of their 18th century portraits. In this year, visitor numbers jumped to 69,000 as Yorkshire residents enjoyed the opportunity to view artwork from the national collection.

After nearly 40 years, their 18th century portraits returned to London and visitor feedback led to the development of galleries on the first floor. This allows art to readily change without damaging the fabric of the building.

Beningbrough today

Beningbrough now welcomes over 120,000 visitors each year whilst maintaining and improving the conservation of the hall, collection, garden and parkland. Artwork from international artists and lenders is now displayed in changing exhibitions in the first floor gallery with Beningbrough's history shared on the ground floor.

Your visits, membership and volunteering help to achieve this, keeping Beningbrough fit for future generations to enjoy. Thank you.

Overhead shot showing countryside, gardens, hall, walled garden and tree lined avenue

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

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