As Bletchingdon Park, Oxfordshire goes on the market for a cool £20,000,000, I thought I would construct a small piece of research for my own records. However, I was ultimately distracted by a smaller house nearby – Heathfield House. After some internet searches I found I liked it a lot; it was an easy thing getting hooked by its particularly unpretentious history.
As the name suggests, Heathfield House was built on scrub or wasteland. This pocket of land originally belonged to Lord Arundell of Wardour ‘a Count of the Holy Roman Empire’ whose tenants had partially reclaimed the land for farming at the end of the eighteenth century. The land was then sold to Thomas Richard Walker (c.1780-1837) in 1814 for about £10,000, and it was he who built the present structure. Walker was an Oxford banker – the nephew of Thomas Walker from whom he had inherited the partnership of Thomas Walker & Co. or the University and City Bank shortly after 1800. The Walker family men were wealthy individuals who held sufficient influence in Oxford and the county. Thomas Walker had been town clerk of Oxford between 1756 and 1795, as well as being made town clerk of Woodstock in 1767. He was well established with successive Dukes of Marlborough and acted as agent for several great local families. Thomas Richard Walker carried on where his uncle had left off; maintaining strong connections with the leading Oxfordshire landowners as well as promoting himself to the status of landowner with use of private wealth gained through the family banking business.
By the time Heathfield House had been completed in 1816, the Walkers had become a part of the local elite; their home was gracious and habitable, it had everything a family required with its private gardens, shrubbery, stabling and outbuildings, as well as views over the Oxfordshire countryside. Their neighbour at Bletchingdon Park, Viscount Valentia, would grow eager to know them.
In his Annals of Bletchingdon in the County of Oxford, (1872), architect and surveyor, William Wing said of Heathfield House,
Mr. Thomas Richard Walker, a banker of Oxford, by judicious draining, fencing and road making, reclaimed the land, erected a commodious mansion, or rather maisonette … this estate known as Heathfield, has two good lengths of frontage to turnpike roads, two lodges, suitable farm buildings and dwellings, ranges of stabling, loose boxes and the like… (p.54)
Regrettably there are no surviving building accounts, but there are later records which add flavour to the description given by Wing in 1872. Upon Thomas Richard Walker’s death in 1837 Heathfield House and other real estate passed to his eldest son Rev. Henry Walker (born about 1810). Henry probably didn’t live at Heathfield but due to the requests of Thomas Richard Walker’s will, and perhaps as an attempt to keep the house occupied and in the hands of Walker family members, another of his sons, George Richard Walker bought the house from his brother Henry in 1842 for nearly £14,000. Most of the surviving records date from this period, and reveal just how commodious and yet comfortable the house was at this time. Census returns of 1851 and 1861 show a simple set-up of George, his wife Charlotte and two or three servants at the most. George and Charlotte had no children and so their domestic arrangement contrasted greatly with nearby Bletchingdon Park with its eight or nine family members and 14 servants for those same years respectively.
When George became a widower in 1863 he devoted his time to the study and experimentation of horse diets; something he even published a pamphlet on in 1865 (the full title is given below). Yet, Heathfield may well have seemed lonely, and it likely he started to contemplate a move. The most gorgeous of the surviving documents is certainly a couple of inventories which were intended as material documentation by George Richard Walker when he eventually sold Heathfield to the 11th Viscount Valentia in 1868 for the generous sum of £21,890 (the National Archives calculate this to be about £1 million in today’s money). George compiled a full inventory of the house and contents with estimated values listed in the right hand column. He then wrote out the items which were to remain at the house after the sale and passed this volume to Valentia.
My favourite is the drawing-room which contained amongst other things ten carved chairs with stuffed cushions in chintz covers, an Easy chair, an elbow rosewood chair in green morocco leather, a pair of mahogany card tables, a rosewood centre table with worked velvet and satin cover, and six cushions in needlework. The list of chattels in the Hall also evokes images of how Heathfield once operated, there was a chiffonier (what I coarsely call a sideboard), a double set of croquet mallets and Balls, a pair of camp stools, painted hat stand, and ironwork to stove and hot air chamber. Even the servants’ quarters were well equipped; Painted chest of four drawers, dressing table with two drawers, curtain rail, three Bamboo chairs, painted washstand and white basin, mahogany corner washstand, mahogany bidet, painted dressing table with drawer, and a pole fire screen.
The full inventory shows there was once a portrait of Thomas Walker by Gainsborough which hung in the dining room. Not surprisingly, George Richard Walker took this with him, but I wonder where it is now?
By 1868, Heathfield had been in the Walker family for over half a century, and it may initially have been with some reluctance that George made the decision to leave. There is no substantial proof, but I believe that Valentia saw some great advantage in the property and perhaps nudged Walker to part with the place after Charlotte’s death. Moreover, and given that the families had been close neighbours for over 50 years plus Valentia’s standing amongst the Oxfordshire elite, it seems rather cynical of George to note him in a Statutory Declaration made in 1868 as ‘Rt. Hon Arthur Viscount Valentine’ rather than ‘Valentia’.From this date though, the house was completely in the ownership of the 11th Viscount Valentia, who leased the property to Hon. Cecil T. Parker (a son of the 6th Earl of Macclesfield) and his family for a short-term, before setting the house up as a dower house for his mother Flora and her second husband Major General Hon. George Talbot Devereux. In 1901 Charles J. Stratton (a descendant of George Stratton, Governor of Madras) and his wife Florence resided at Heathfield. The 11th Viscount Valentia died in 1927 and the Heathfield estate passed to his son Caryl Arthur James Annesley (12th Viscount) who attempted to sell the property to Col. John Alsager Pollock in 1928. Pollock had borrowed money from Valentia in order to buy Heathfield, but defaulted on his payments and eventually fled his many creditors, and the country before 1935.
After a couple of years, and with great difficulty and expense, Valentia sold Heathfield to Violet Blanche Ruck-Keene, widow of William George Elmhirst Ruck-Keene. There is little evidence to suggest Violet lived at Heathfield House, but the house would certainly have suited her needs. Even today, it rests quietly beyond the busy A34 and M40 roads.
Needless to say, Heathfield has become the ideal location for its present-day use as a privately run care home with renowned high standards maintained by Clive and Pippa Hawes. It is neither flashy nor drab and sits snugly in the landscape. I admit to liking the magnificence of large country houses that impose themselves on the landscape and alert you to their presence through the avenues of trees and gaps in stocky park walls. And yet, Heathfield is the kind of country house which almost defines the ideal of country living. It is unpretentious, and that has everything to do with the vision of the Walker family, but it is also genteel and indeed commodious. Perhaps one day, I could discover more about the Walker family and their mark upon the Oxfordshire landscape. Like many late eighteenth century professionals their aspirations to join the elite meant hard work and self-promotion through clever land purchases and building work. Places like Heathfield therefore retain their stature, and can often make themselves ‘useful’ in modern times because of their size and functionality. The small country house might not have all the necessary associations with local grandees and their political hosting, but they nonetheless have influence on their surroundings and the social hierarchies of the time.
May the purchaser of Bletchingdon Park know their local history. . .
Heathfield House Nursing Home http://www.heathfield-house.co.uk/
The development of modern Oxford, with references to Thomas Walker http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=22805&strquery=
A look at those country houses for sale in 2012 including Bletchingdon Park http://countryhouses.wordpress.com/2012/05/15/so-you-made-the-sunday-times-rich-list-2012-a-selection-of-country-houses-for-sale/
The pamphlet George Richard Walker wrote on the care and diet of horses is, Horses, Their Rational Treatment, Causes of Their Deterioration, and Premature Decay: Race Horses, Their Mismanagement, the False Aims of the Jockey Club, and of Trainers Considered and Explained. Reflections on the Objects, and Result of the Grants of Public Money for Queen’s Plates (Slatter and Rose: Oxford, 1865).
William Wing, Annals of Bletchingdon in the County of Oxford, (1872).
Walker family papers and those of the Viscounts Valentia are held at the Oxfordshire History Centre.