Tortworth Court has a fascinating history that begins in the reign of Edward I. After a disastrous fire in 1991, Tortworth Court was left derelict for 8 years before being bought and sensitively restored to its former magnificence by Four Pillars Hotels.
Find out about the dramatic history of Tortworth Court. Throughout the years, Tortworth Court has been the home to a succession of Earls and, during the Second World War, even American servicemen. Discover how Tortworth Court has evolved over the years to become the much loved historic country house hotel it is today.
During the reign of Edward I the manor of Tortworth belonged to Sir Nicholas Kingston. It was subsequently in the possession of the de Veel family for two hundred years, and a deer park at Tortworth was held by Sir Peter de Veel at his death in 1343. The manor then passed to the Throckmorton family. Sir William Throckmorton was Lord of the manor in 1608. The estate was later purchased by Sir William Ducie.
The Tortworth Estate has been the ancestral home of the Ducie family for some 350 years. The first mention of the family’s residence at Tortworth was when the property was conveyed to Sir Robert Ducie, in 1620. He was an Alderman and Sheriff of London and eventually Lord Mayor in 1631. Sir Robert Ducie, purchased Spring Park at Woodchester in the Cotswolds, from the Huntley family, around about 1630. This was added to his already large Gloucestershire Estates, which included Frocester Court and Tortworth. His son, Richard, succeeded in 1637 and history tells us that his adherence to the Royal cause and the active part he took against Cromwell led to him being taken prisoner whilst serving as High Sheriff of Gloucestershire. Apparently, he got off with a fine of £846. 14s 0d! In 1660 he died unmarried and the Estates passed to his brother William, who was made a Knight of Bath at the coronation of Charles II and created Viscount Down in the Kingdom of Ireland. He also died childless and so the Manor passed to a relation, Matthew Ducie Moreton, descended from the family of Moretons, also of Staffordshire. ‘Moreton’ remains the family name.
In 1720, Matthew was made Lord Ducie, Baron of Moreton. He left a son, also named Matthew, who became 2nd Baron Ducie, and who in 1763 was made Baron Ducie of Tortworth. When he died in 1770, the Barony was passed to his nephew, Thomas Reynolds, who became 2nd Baron Ducie of Tortworth. He died in 1785 and the Estates and the title passed to his brother, Francis Reynolds, who became Baron Ducie. Captain Francis Reynolds-Moreton, Captain Reynolds, as he liked to be called was a brave, adventurous, swashbuckling and young ship’s captain, who made a lot of money privateering against the King’s enemies ships. On the 12th April 1782 his ship, The Monarch’, out sailed and out gunned the French ships. Nine years later, an Atoll in the South Pacific, was named in his honour, ‘Ducie Island’, by Captain Edward Edwards, in charge of H.M.S. Pandora in 1791. In 1800, Spring Park at Woodchester, was still the Ducie Country Home (not Tortworth). Captain Francis Reynolds entertained King George the Third at Spring Park in 1788, whilst Admirals Hood and Rodney also visited Spring Park.
His son, Thomas, the 4th Baron Ducie, was also created Earl of Ducie in 1837. He married the daughter of the First Earl of Caernarfon and was in due course succeeded by his son, Henry George Francis in 1840 who became the 2nd Earl of Ducie. The 2nd Earl, was the person responsible for severing ties with Woodchester. He sold Spring Park to William Leigh, the circumstances for the sale are in some doubt. There is a ghostly (banquo style) story about an appearance by the 1st Earl, at a dinner – occupying the 2nd Earl’s seat at the table. Equally, it is well known that the 2nd Earl had, from an early age suffered from rheumatism and arthritis. He hated the cold, dark and foggy winters at Woodchester, high up in the Cotswolds, whereas Tortworth is only a few hundred feet above sea level, rarely fog bound and certainly warmer in the winter.
Tortworth Court was designed by Samuel Sanders Teulon, and built from 1849-1853 for the 2nd Earl of Ducie. One of Samuel’s first jobs was to dam the river and create a lake, build a boathouse and stock the lake with fish. The Court is built at the highest point of the land away from the valley of the River Severn, to help relieve his symptoms. The 2nd Earl had also given instructions that the old Court should be torn down whilst timbers and stones should be used elsewhere on the estate for building and the place to be set on fire!
Tortworth Court appears to have been built on a green field site and was built in local stone with Bath stone trim and using earlier and less profuse detail, Tortworth is not so prettily pink and cream and lacy as Aldermaston; it has instead a characteristically Victorian seriousness. Tortworth Court was technically a very up to date house in many ways. It was equipped with new and innovative forms of light and heat – gas lighting and hot air central heating. Also the Court had its own gas works, gas lighting water works, laundry, gun house, slaughterhouse, stables, dairy, chapel, brewery, lift and finally warm air central heating. This was provided from a boiler house in the cellar and had its own railway to bring the coal to the furnaces.
Samuel Sanders Teulon was born in 1812. After being articled in his youth to George Legg, he was working in the office of George Porter of Bermondsey when he won a competition for the Dyers Almshouses in 1840; this good fortune allowed him to set up for himself. His career was still only getting under way at the time he undertook Tortworth. It was in the late 50’s and 60’s after his work had become characteristically, and at times ever brilliantly, High Victorian that he attained prominence. But of the boldness of his most mature churches and houses there is at first sight little trace here. Aristocratic clients were not yet ready to sanction conspicuous originality in their mansions. Lord Ducie need have expected nothing unusual from his architect when he decided to spend some £30,000 on a new house – eventually it was to cost him at least half as much again. It was built round an enormously tall square central hall, which was 130 feet high, the very top of which was deemed the most suitable place for the nursery. The tower, subsequently, had the spire on top removed and the room was used as a ballroom (today it is known as Teulon’s Room at the Top). The tower has a wooden Gothic staircase which winds around all four walls, with balconies on each floor and large octagonal newels, supported on high-carved pierced brackets. The ceiling is panelled with octagons and quatrefoils. The entrance front is approached through an archway, which has on it the word WELCOME.
In 1875 a small wing was added to the East elevation. Rumour had it that this was for the 3rd Earl to reach his quarters without using the main entrance. Incidentally there are two other staircases, one rising to the first floor and the other one rising to the second floor (both undestroyed by the fire in 1991). In the court’s heyday one staircase was for male staff and the other for female!
The conservatory (now called the Orangery) was added in 1899 replacing a chapel formerly on that site. This was designed by Ewan Christian and is similar, though considerably smaller, than Crystal Palace built for the Great Exhibition in 1851. The Conservatory housed exotic plants and palms and had the benefit of under floor heating from its own boiler in the cellar.
The 2nd Earl of Ducie, died in 1853 before the Court was completed, aged 50 years old. He was succeeded by his son, Henry John, who achieved much and lived to a great age. He was in his time Lord Lieutenant of Gloucestershire, Captain of the Yeoman of the Guard and Lord Warden of The Stannaries. The 3rd Earl of Ducie, planted the grounds with hundreds of trees including many rare specimens, to complement the existing ancient trees on the site. He started planting in 1853 and carried on until his death. In its day Tortworth Court rivalled Westonbirt the famous arboretum nearby. Today the park is an extremely important arboretum and is recognised as one of the finest of its type in the British Isles.
Henry John Moreton died in 1921, aged 94. Unfortunately, his son, Lord Moreton, had pre-deceased him and so the title passed to his brother, Berkeley Basil, who had been farming in Australia since 1855, and had also held a number of Government posts there. He died in 1924 and was succeeded by his son, Capel Henry Berkeley, 5th Earl of Ducie. He also had been farming in Australia for many years, and during his earldom was resident partly at Tortworth and partly in Australia.
In 1938, the 5th Earl of Ducie, decided to go back to Australia for a holiday with his wife, the countess and her two sisters. While they were away Mr Diment and his wife were left as caretakers and lived in the court. When war broke out Lord Ducie, unable to get back to England, offered the court to the Australian Navy. This offer was accepted, but Commonwealth troops in need of hospital treatment were not being sent to Great Britain. It was used instead by the British Navy in 1940. Alterations were made and the house became a training establishment for coding and signals. The Navy called it a ‘Stone Frigate’ and it was named HMS Cabbala. Incidentally the ceremony of the flag took place daily where Reception is now sited in the main hall. This was done inside the building to avoid drawing attention to what was, at the time, top-secret premises. It was left to Mr Diment to arrange for all the furniture in the Court to be put in store. At the end of the war the contents were sold at auction.
In 1942 HMS Cabbala moved to Warrington and Tortworth Court became home to American servicemen. A hospital was built in the grounds and the doctors and nursing staff lived in the house. Regrettably, at this time, some of the trees were lost due to petrol spillage from military vehicles, which were hidden amongst the trees.
On the 26th November 1943 the 91st and 128th Evacuating Hospital Units arrived with hundreds of wounded from the North African Campaign. Trains would arrive at Charfield and Thornbury full of wounded Americans. From June 1944 until March 1945 other American General Hospital units, including 224th and 225th, were temporarily stationed in Tortworth Court looking after American Service personnel.
The 5th Earl of Ducie died in Australia in 1952 and, as he had no issue, the title passed to his nephew, Basil Howard Moreton, the 6th Earl of Ducie, a sugar cane farmer from Queensland. Upon inheriting the title and the Estate, he returned to Tortworth and became actively engaged in its management.
The 6th Earl found the Estate in a parlous financial condition in 1952. Basil, Lord Ducie, spent time acquainting himself with his inheritance. He walked every field and talked to the tenants and came to the conclusion that he would bring his family to Gloucestershire and make it his life’s work to safeguard the future of the Estate.
During the next four decades, the 6th Earl achieved his goals, and the respect and affection of the tenants. Some disposals had to be made to meet tax liabilities and to help finance various improvements to farms and the extensive cottage refurbishment programme. Any income was ploughed back into the fabric of the Estate. Lord Ducie died in November 1991, at his desk in the Estate Office. He left a well-maintained Estate with a stable tenant population.
The 6th earl was succeeded by his son, David Moreton, the 7th Earl of Ducie. Lord Ducie and his younger brothers, the Hon. Douglas Moreton and the Hon. Robert Moreton are farming tenants on the Estate, their sister Lady Jeannette Stewart lives in Canada. Lord Ducie is the current Chairman of the Estate Company and the Hon. Robert Moreton is the current Company Secretary.
Over the centuries, the family owned other estates and the Tortworth Estate itself was considerably larger but, as has been the fate of many Estates over the past century, there has been a reduction in the Estate holdings due to economic pressures, particularly tax liabilities.
In 1991 the property was bought by controversial entrepreneur Phillip Stubbs who started to convert Tortworth Court into luxury flats and houses. Soon after that there was a disastrous fire, which virtually destroyed the main body of the house apart from the principal rooms (mostly facing the lake) and the main staircase and room at the top. All that was left of the rest were the tall chimneystacks and outside walls. Work on the conversion stopped and the house remained virtually derelict for the next eight years.
After a colossal fire destroyed a portion of Tortworth Court in 1991, Four Pillars Hotels bought it and embarked on a huge project to sympathetically restore it to its former glory. Find out more about the restoration of Tortworth Court here.
The task to rebuild was embarked upon. It had to be a sensitive conversion of an old building, with the old and the new blended so carefully that it would be difficult to differentiate one from the other. The restoration project was a daunting task and a nightmare of planning and conservation. Materials had to be the same as originally used. The first job was to make the building safe and a steel frame was lowered by crane into the burnt out section. Following the demolition, the salvage teams were able to go in and clean out the rubble of the collapsed building. This was then sorted and items unbroken such as roof tiles were saved and put aside.
The ceiling height on the ground floor is 19 feet, so in part of the building, used mostly as offices and kitchens, a mezzanine floor has been added housing offices, ladies changing rooms and the gymnasium.
Former stables are bedrooms, the circular meat-hanging room is now a black and gold honeymoon suite and the Orangery transformed into a restaurant. The vast library now functions as the main dining room. The white walls of the roomy bedrooms (189 in all) offset the heavy heraldic furnishings and oak beams. The Westminster Suite is a completely new building in a style to match the existing house. In the corridor leading to the suite one can see a Magnolia Tree that had to be protected under the planning rules, thus the glazed walls were put in place. There is also a large indoor swimming pool, a spa pool, a well-equipped gym and a beauty salon. The gardens and park were in a neglected state in 1999 and the Head Gardener, John Hunt, and his team, have been extremely busy restoring them to their former glory as seen in some early photographs taken around 1930. The steps on the lower terrace were added in 1978 for the visit of the Queen, this might explain why they are not central.
Much of the grounds were covered with brambles and rough grass. All the paths were grassed over and it was not until clearing began that the pets cemetery was discovered. This lies just beyond and to the right of the Wisteria and Laburnum tunnel now restored. The trees have all been documented as to their name, size, age and condition. They have also benefited from the attention of a tree surgeon where necessary. Each tree is now labelled with a number and there is a booklet obtainable from the Hotel Reception, which identifies all the trees, many of which are very rare and several are the best example of their species in England. There are two superb specimens of DAVIDIA INVOLUCRATA, the Paper Handkerchief tree and it is suggested that the tree numbered 143, ZELKOVA CARPINIFOLIA (Caucasian Elm) may be the largest in the British Isles with a girth of 6.52m and well over 30m high. The Earl had another passion “The Grey Lady” who, when spurned, threw herself out of the window of the tower room. There have been no recent sightings of this ghost as of yet.
Since 1853 Tortworth Court has seen many changes. The total cost of our restoration project was in excess of 20 million pounds and it is our sincere belief that, since the hotel opened, the building has been given a new lease of life.
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