An occurrence now seemingly as regular as Christmas, a legislative stand-off last month between the elected and non-elected chambers of the British parliament once again revived that hoary constitutional perennial, demand for the reform of the House of Lords. So far the only significant development to this end has been the substantial culling, in 1999, of the hereditary titles, now reduced to a rump of ninety or so who have been elected by, well, their peers.
Considered a hideous anachronism, the ‘hereditaries’ remain the softest of targets for reformers but one of their number at least has long served to confound the stereotype. On paper, Raymond Hervey Jolliffe, 5th Baron Hylton, 83 – Eton, Oxford, Guards – ticks all the ‘wrong’ boxes. Worse still, he is the inheritor of a sizable landed estate which includes a gracious Grade I mansion with ‘many fine features’ inside and out. Hardly the typical profile of a dynamic campaigner for peace and the interests of the vulnerable and the marginalised.
The plight of migrants and refugees; social housing provision; conflict resolution – defining themes of an active House of Lords career spanning some 44 years and counting: ‘Lord Hylton has spoken in 44 debates in the last year and received answers to 235 written questions — well above average amongst Lords.’ Hylton’s ancestor Thomas Samuel Jolliffe, builder of the aforesaid mansion, was himself a member of the legislature for some years but there the similarity ends: ‘There is no record of his having spoken.’
But while he may have been a man of few parliamentary words, Thomas’s physical legacy – the Ammerdown House estate in Kilmersdon, north Somerset – speaks for him.
The manor of Kilmersdon was acquired in 1659 by Bristol merchant Gabriel Goodman and would soon pass, via his daughter Sarah’s marriage, to the Twyford family. In turn, the marriage one century later of the Rev. Robert Twyford’s daughter Ann yielded this property to the Jolliffes, specifically Thomas Samuel, who had perhaps learned the art of bagging an heiress from his twice-married father, John.
In March 1731 John Jolliffe wed Catherine Michell who had lately inherited the bulk of the estate of her father, landowner Robert Michell, MP for the pocket borough of Petersfield, Hampshire. Three months later Catherine was dead. Jolliffe was now in a position to facilitate a seat in parliament for his uncle, Sir William Jolliffe (and for the next 150 years most MPs for Petersfield would be of this name). A grateful Sir William would later bequeath part of his large estate to the sons of John Jolliffe by his second wife, Mary, herself co-heir with her sister to the sizable fortune of their father, Samuel Holden, governor of the Bank of England.
A fine series of horse paintings commissioned from James Seymour (‘one of the first true sporting artists in Britain’) formed part of Sir William’s legacy and would later serve as fitting adornment for the house that Thomas Samuel built. Wasting little time following the death of his mother-in-law, Thomas (right, note) relocated to Somerset, securing the services of architect James Wyatt who would spend three days visiting Kilmersdon in 1788 composing his thoughts for a new house on a raised site, hitherto open sheep tract. ‘Of Bath stone, three storeys with a tall rusticated ground floor. Only the E front (below) is in its original state.’¹
For while Ammerdown ‘retains the appearance that Wyatt gave it, it has twice been enlarged, in 1857 with remarkable skill, and in 1877 with less’. The earlier expansion of which Country Life magazine approved was westwards, a recessed entrance (r, since in-filled) being created by shallow wing extensions which elongated the original cube. ‘Both elevations are models of the refinement of which Wyatt was master.’²
Pleasing as they are, a visitation shortly after this mid-C19 enlargement asserted³ that ‘the interior of the mansion is more striking than its external appearance’, a statement at once tantalising and frustrating since, as Lord Hylton once owned, ‘Ammerdown House is seldom opened’.4
In fact the one and only public opportunity to see inside came briefly one week in the summer of 2012 when funds were sought to restore the fine Georgian ceilings. ‘The dining room (r) is as Wyatt left it’,¹ the fittings all commissioned from top London craftsmen aside from the Bacchus chimneypiece which was acquired from Lord Egremont’s house in Piccadilly apparently in exchange for two racehorses.5
‘The staircase is unique in its form and structure. A circular dome, embracing a considerable part of the central roof, is supported by Ionic columns [since glazed]. A flight of steps ascends the elliptic space.’³
Contemporaneous with the original house, Wyatt’s Orangery and a walled garden were contained spaces within otherwise naturalistic, rolling parkland established from scratch by Thomas Samuel Jolliffe.
Though bang on trend for the 1780s such an open setting, it was later thought, ill-served the elevations of the house. In the early years of the last century Edwin Lutyens was offered ‘his first chance to give a fine English house a formal garden. Ammerdown acquired an Italianate ‘star’ sculpted out yew, with paths radiating outwards’.6 ‘It would be difficult to cite another house of the style or period where gardens have been added with such a true understanding of the architectural requirements.’²
Within this cultivated embrace stand several mythological sculptures all appearing quite at home despite being originally conceived as adornments to a rather more peculiar Ammerdown Park landmark. Not the half-moon-shaped, naturally fed bathing pool still to be found down in the woods. Nor the stadium created to promote athletic competition amongst the local youth (a worthy initiative sadly undermined by ‘the indisposition…
… of candidates to endure the necessary discipline and severities of training’).³ No, the figures had once occupied plinths around the base of a monumental structure likely to have elicited excitement even amongst those mid-C19 teenage slackers. Designed by Joseph Jopling with echoes of the Eddystone lighthouse, creating the Ammerdown Column would preoccupy the last years of Col. John Twyford Jolliffe as he sought to memorialise the achievements of his father, Thomas Samuel.
Standing 150ft high and topped by a glass and iron belvedere affording limitless vistas to those able and willing to ascend the spiral staircase, this edifice was unfinished at the time of the colonel’s death in 1854. A last-minute codicil obliged his heirs ‘to keep in complete repair the Column now being erected’ on pain of disinheritance, a burden which fell immediately to his childless brother, Thomas, but which was plainly not binding thereafter.7 (The estate next passed to a cousin, Sir George Hylton Jolliffe, later first Baron).
Handed on guesses that the present Lord Hylton would be underwhelmed at the thought of being remembered by so ostentatiously pointless a gesture. In fact, his legacy at Ammerdown is already in place: not spectacular views, merely far-sighted vision. Since 1969 most of the estate’s residential property has constituted a rural housing association in order to assist the provision of affordable local housing. And in 1973, again at Hylton’s initiative, Wyatt’s stable block became the Ammerdown Centre, an ecumenical retreat and study centre promoting inter-faith dialogue and world peace whilst also recognizing the restorative powers of homemade cake…
¹ Foyle, A. and Pevsner, N. The buildings of England: Somerset: North, 2011.
² Hussey, C. Ammerdown House I/II, Country Life, Feb/Mar 1929.
³ Anon. Description of the mansion, marbles and pictures at Ammerdown, 1857.
4 Little, B. and Aldrich, A. Ammerdown: the house and the centre, 1977.
5 4th Lord Hylton, letter to Country Life, 2 July 1964.
6 Brown, J. Lutyens and the Edwardians, 1996.
7 Bath Chronicle, 11 Nov 1858.