Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:42 am
The first sight of Gawthorpe Hall may strike a chord with fans of Downton Abbey, the period soap-opera that follows the fortunes of the Crawley family and those that serve them. I’m sure those of the true Fellowes’ faith will correct me, but doesn’t this Lancashire house look a little like Highclere Castle, the real stately home that doubles for Downton? OK, Highclere is probably four times the size of Gawthorpe, and considerably grander too; but aside from these trivial discrepancies, the buildings seem to superficially share some architectural genes. This might be because they had a rejuvenating Victorian architect in common, Sir Charles Barry – whose other projects included the Houses of Parliament.
In medieval times, Gawthorpe was a small agricultural settlement in the Royal Forest of Pendle. A four-storey pele tower is thought to have been built there in the early 14th century as a defence against Scottish raids. The surrounding land, on the banks of the River Calder, was held by Ughtred de Shuttleworth from 1388 and the estate remained in Shuttleworth hands until 1970, when it was passed to the National Trust. It is leased from the Trust by Lancashire County Council.
I race ahead…by Elizabethan times, the Shuttleworths had become quite wealthy. In 1596, Sir Richard Shuttleworth, a successful London barrister, set about developing a comfortable high-end contemporary home around the old pele tower. The architect is believed to have been Robert Smythson, who also designed Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire and Longleat in Wiltshire. Sadly, Sir Richard did not live to see his dream pad. He died in 1599 and the project was completed by his younger brother, the Reverend Lawrence Shuttleworth, between 1600 and 1605 or 6.
Lawrence can scarcely have enjoyed the place, though, because he died in 1608 and Gawthorpe Hall passed to his nephew, another Richard Shuttleworth, who lived there for 60 years. He and his wife raised 11 children there. And Richard was a celebrity of his day, serving as High Sheriff of Lancashire and MP for Preston. He is rumoured to have played a part in the Pendle Witch trials of 1612, but I’m far too lazy to find out whether there’s any truth in that, or what he is supposed to have done. However, as a Colonel in the Parliamentary Army during the Civil War, he is widely credited as seeing off a Royalist Army of 4,000 troops commanded by the Earl of Derby with a force of just 400 musketeers at the Battle of Read Bridge in 1643. In reality, this obscure skirmish may have been won by the men themselves, who were unhappy to retreat in the face of vastly superior numbers and persuaded Shuttleworth to make a stand. More research needed, I think. Even so, Gawthorpe Hall would have been a focal point for those sympathetic to the Parliamentary cause in Lancashire.
After the Colonel’s death in 1689, the Shuttleworths preferred to live at another property, Forcett Hall in North Yorkshire, and leased Gawthorpe to tenants. Our story picks up again in 1842, when the young heiress Janet Shuttleworth married Sir James Kay of Rochdale. James was a man with a social conscience who had medical training and was a pioneer in education. He published a pamphlet, “The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester” some 13 years before Friedrich Engels’ better-known “The Condition of the Working Class in England” and in 1840 helped establish the first teacher training college in Britain, Battersea College. James and Janet changed their surname to Kay-Shuttleworth and went on to have five children, but grew apart; Janet left and eventually settled in Italy. It was James who commissioned Charles Barry to redesign Gawthorpe Hall and its grounds.
Much is made of Gawthorpe Hall’s association with Charlotte Brontë. It is even part of a ‘Brontë trail’, or ‘Brontë way’, a 43-mile long distance footpath. Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth certainly sought Charlotte’s company, yet the novelist only visited Gawthorpe twice. She also stayed with the Kay-Shuttleworth’s at their summer home, Briery Close between Windermere and Ambleside in 1850, where they introduced her to Elizabeth Gaskell. Mrs Gaskell became a good friend and wrote the first biography of Charlotte. It was during Charlotte’s second visit to Gawthorpe in January 1855 that she is said to have caught a chill from which she never recovered; she died, with her unborn child, two months later on 31 March just short of her 39th birthday. In fact, it is believed that her death was caused, not by the damp and cold of Lancashire and Gawthorpe Hall, but by acute dehydration resulting from excessive morning sickness.
In 1910, King George V and Queen Mary visited Gawthorpe Hall, guests of James and Janet’s son, Ughtred James Kay-Shuttleworth. Both of Ughtred’s sons were killed in the First World War and two grandsons were killed in the Second. The estate passed to a cousin, who moved in the 1950s to Leck Hall, near Kirkby Lonsdale. Rachel Kay-Shuttleworth, Ughtred’s daughter, lived on at Gawthorpe until her death in 1967 and was the last family resident.
You’ll find Gawthorpe Hall on the edge of Padiham, a medieval market town that grew on its Victorian cotton mills, just a few miles north-west of Burnley. The sat nav took us on an exciting tour of a residential estate before turning past a gatehouse that had seen better days and along a single-track road to an unpretentious, gravelled, parking area. Next door, a swanky-looking facility with a striped security pole turned out to be the training ground for Burnley Football Club; they should do well. There are some out-buildings, now serving as toilets, tearoom and offices, and Gawthorpe’s Great Barn – an aisled barn built at the same time as the early 17th century house and said to be the largest barn in Lancashire, possibly even in Europe. Gosh. Gawthorpe Hall itself emerges through the trees, looking (have I mentioned this?) rather like a miniature, humble, Highclere. On the tower, you can make out the Shuttleworth motto, Prudentia et Justitia – prudence and justice.
Inside, the house is a little treasure. There’s a 14th century sword chest in the entrance porch and oak panelling everywhere. One section of panelling in the entrance hall is medieval and was found languishing in an outhouse when the National Trust took over. Note the fireplace with a window over it – a common Barry feature, apparently (the chimney goes to one side). There are portraits throughout on loan from the National Portrait Gallery and original 17th century features coexist alongside Barry’s innovations and furniture and wallcoverings designed by Pugin. The floor tiles in the entrance hall are said to be similar in design to those in the Houses of Parliament. The dining room, once the great hall, features an Elizabethan minstrels’ gallery, with doors either side to enable performers to enter and exit smoothly. The ceiling plaster here features entwined KS initials. The ceiling in the drawing room, however, is ornate 17th century work, featuring fantastic creatures with a frieze that includes plaster figures of the barrister, Sir Richard Shuttleworth and his wife Margaret. It was created by two Yorkshire plasterers, Francis and Thomas Gunby. At the top of the house is an elegant long gallery and one of the bedrooms contains an original 17th century bed.
Almost one entire floor is occupied by the Gawthorpe Textiles Collection. This collection was gathered by Rachel Kay-Shuttleworth from all over the world and consists of more than 30,000 items, of which some 10% only are on display. One website claims it is the largest collection of textiles in Britain outside the V&A in London. Not really my bag (I don’t know cross-stitch from crochet), but there is an enormous variety of stuff to see, including lace, whitework and embroidery – some of it very beautiful. The Gawthorpe Textiles Collection is an independent charity.
Whilst Gawthorpe Hall is a little grander than Chez Britain, it is unlikely to stimulate your happy visitor bone for very long – unless you’re turned on by textiles. Of course, there are stories of the Shuttleworths recorded in its walls. The entrance hall, dining and drawing rooms and the long gallery are unquestionably lovely. And the room guides, it must be said, were really good. Outside, there are woods to walk in, much favoured by local dog-walkers. There is also a small artificial lake for people to fall in. The gardens are neat, but modest – a few beds and a paved formal area to the rear of the house, overlooking the river. In days gone by, the front lawns were laid out in formal fashion – the ethereal outlines of beds and paths emerging in rare dry weather.
Which brings me in a completely uncontrived manner to the subject of ghosts. For ‘tis said that Gawthorpe Hall is haunted – by the spirit of Colonel Richard Shuttleworth, Rachel Kay-Shuttleworth, or a young woman who was murdered there. Maybe all three. Allegedly, visitors describe being gripped by a sudden chest pain that has nothing to do with the stodgy carrot cake they’ve just devoured in the café. Crayons get moved in the former nursery, chandeliers swing dangerously and…