Stockton House: Revival of an Elizabethan Gem

  • | Robert Dunton

The architecture of south Wiltshire owes much to the prosperity of the woollen industry at the end of the 16th century. Some of the most memorable and picturesque towns and villages in the region owe their architectural character to the proceeds of this once lucrative trade. Some, such as Bradford on Avon, display the best of provincial 17th century building in their lavish steep-gabled houses, inspired by the Flemish weavers who brought their skill as well as their Protestant faith to the region.

The sheep farms of Salisbury Plain made fortunes for their owners, one of whom, John Toppe, leased the old Stockton House around 1565, whilst his great nephew, also John Toppe, enlarged it and reconstructed it to become a palatial dwelling from 1596. He continued the local tradition of building walls in alternating bands of Chilmark stone and black flint to dramatic effect on the many-gabled elevations, but it was his fascination with elaborate plaster ceilings which remains his most visible legacy today. Local tradition has it that Stockton’s ceilings shared their craftsmen with those of nearby Longleat House, which would have been nearing completion in 1582. He also commissioned a series of extraordinary chimney pieces, many displaying unusually intricate Elizabethan ‘strapwork’, some allegorical and some purely heraldic.

Historical Development

Architectural historian Andrew Foyle has endeavoured to find documentary evidence to explain the evolution of the house, but records have proved scarce. He believes the house of the 1590s may have been of a fat ‘L’-shape on plan, with the final corner completed to form a rectangle soon after 1600. A chapel appears to have been added during the Commonwealth period, using the more common local ‘chequerboard’ wall pattern of alternating squares of flint and stone. Next, we find a series of alterations for owner Harry Biggs, who married in 1802, by Wyatville who, having completed a new staircase at Longleat during his 1806-13 alterations, replaced Stockton’s old oak stair with a ‘flying’ stair composed of opposing pairs of flights at each level, joined by a ‘bridge’ flight which ‘flies’ between them. A new landing beside it and the small dining room below were embellished with the latest Regency joinery and details, and many window cills were lowered to bring in more light.

The simple Elizabethan form remained largely unchanged until 1877, when Major General Arthur Godolphin Yeatman-Biggs embarked upon an enlargement project under the direction of Benjamin Ferrey, primarily to add more domestic accommodation. A water tower articulated a series of new north wings and connected the 1820s stables to the house to create a new courtyard, once more using the banded flint and stone wall treatment. Internally the house was enriched with neo-Jacobean ceilings and wall treatments in the grander ground floor rooms and a lantern brought light into a new octagon beside the staircase. Ferrey even finished the water tower skyline with strapwork tracery echoing the Elizabethan original on the west porch!

The 20th century brought mixed fortunes to the house, for during the ownership of Oswald Toynbee Falk (1927-34), much of Ferrey’s neo-Jacobean detail was stripped out at ground floor level and Falk instigated a late-medieval atmosphere in the hall with a simplified ceiling, an imported early 16th century fireplace and some late 15th century plank doors, allegedly from a Welsh house. Finally, the purchase of the house by Lady Lacey in 1951 followed the separation of much of the farmland, and saw the demolition of the greater part of the kitchen wing back to the water tower.

Safeguarding the Future

Our client acquired the house in late 2013 with the intention of ensuring that its history would be safeguarded well into the future, whilst providing a comfortable house particularly suited to entertaining, including adding a swimming pool on the site of the large fish pond. This would require studying ways of arranging the second floor as a series of suites and improving the facilities of the great state rooms on the first floor. It would also require converting the former domestic East Wing into a generous maisonette and the Chapel Annex into a housekeeper’s flat and importantly, bringing the disjointed mechanical and electrical services up to modern standards and insulating to minimise energy usage.

Once appointed, our brief became not only to ensure that our client’s vision could be realised, but also to understand the historical development of the house and how this might affect its condition and approach to repair. It became clear the roof coverings, installed by Ferrey in the 1870s works, were now at the end of their life despite being on a new roof structure which had replaced the Elizabethan trusses.

However, they were found to be supporting a significant bat colony, so renewal had to be planned around major ecological mitigation work to allow their survival and ability to return on completion. If planning the bat relocation was to be disruptive, a greater menace appeared when initial opening-up works revealed fibrous asbestos spread throughout several floor voids. Further investigation showed this to be widespread, suggesting surplus insulation mixed in the 1960s had been dumped in the floor voids: a major asbestos removal contract began to influence much of the remaining programme.

Unfolding Histories

As work developed, more and more of the history began to unfold. Rumour had it that MoD occupation during the 1940s had resulted in the construction of a swimming pool and, sure enough, it appeared beneath the fish pond, which itself contained much of the pennant paving of the demolished south terrace! Wyatville’s symmetrical octagon layout appears in the sale details of 1906 and though lost in Falk’s 1934 alterations, we have now been able to recreate it from the photographs, returning Regency calm to this previously unbalanced part of the interior. Ferrey’s water tower has long ceased to perform this function and so we have removed the tanks to provide a room with a commanding view from this elevated vantage point. The only Georgian suite of rooms had an improbably over-ornate cornice, removal of which revealed fragments of the original 1772 ceiling and cornice above, which has now been recreated. The work to the house is now complete and the pool by the end of this year, returning Stockton House to a comfortable family home, of which John Toppe could only dream!