‘Scorrier House, Tregullow and Burncoose are fine examples of grand houses and estates built for mining industrialists. These predominantly belonged to one family – the Williams’, one of the greatest mining dynasties in the Old World.’ (2004)
No need for the past tense here because they still do – and rather more besides. Likewise, the family’s renown, originally founded on the exploitation of Cornwall’s subterranean bounty, also endures although more these days through endeavours overground. Their name could be said to be more widely known than ever, in fact; at this time of year chances are there’s a Williamsii abloom somewhere near you right now.
One sunny day early last month saw a presentation on the lawns of Caerhays Castle in Cornwall (r), owner Charles Williams accepting the award of Garden of the Year 2016 from the Historic Houses Association and prize sponsor, Christie’s. ‘Caerhays is very much a traditional Cornish spring flowering garden, open from February to the beginning of June.’
The Castle itself can also be visited during this limited season, Caerhays being the most accessible and architecturally extravagent tip of the wider Williams family’s West Country iceberg, extending to half-a-dozen houses and an estimated 20,000 acres.1
Allowing architect John Nash free rein to create this Picturesque vision on the south Cornish coast financially embarrassed owner John Trevanion so acutely that he was forced to abandon his ancient family seat and flee abroad. The virtually derelict house would eventually be acquired in 1853 by Michael Williams (1784-1858), the fourth generation of a family ‘who made the other mining magnates of Cornwall look like under-achievers’2 and was, as will be seen, a ‘bold, skillful architect of his own colossal fortunes’.
The gardens at Caerhays began as the private passion of Michael’s grandson, John Charles Williams (d. 1939), who, whilst waiting to inherit the Castle from his mother, purchased Werrington Park (r), fifty miles to the north, from the Duke of Northumberland. An ‘ancient house’ with significant Georgian and late-Victorian remodelling, both Grade I Werrington (‘admirably sited’ above a large landscaped park, ‘excellent interior decoration’) and Caerhays remain in the possession of JC Williams’ descendants.3 As does…
…Burncoose (left), some fifty miles south-west down the A30. The most modest of this trio, it would be the base from which, after acquisition in 1715, the Williams would ascend from tin and copper mine manager/owners to landed society, ‘their wealth rivalling that of potentates and nabobs’.4
‘The well-known nursery and woodland garden is open all year round but the house, remaining in the Williams family, is strictly private*.’5 Burncoose was inherited in 1775 by John Williams (d. 1841) ‘the greatest adventurer, ablest manager, best practical engineer of his time’ in Cornwall. John, however, would leave the early C19 development of this property to his son, Michael (who would later buy Caerhays), having built, in 1778, a new house four miles away…
… at Scorrier.
Today, Caerhays and its commercial counterpart Burncoose have the recognized horticultural credentials but could the profile of Scorrier House and its garden (whose annual open afternoon has just been and gone) be set to rise? For this spring has seen the publication of a new book by bestselling historical novelist Tracy ‘The girl with the pearl earring‘ Chevalier. At the edge of the orchard concerns a struggling fictional family of American settlers, one of whom strikes out for the West Coast where he falls in with real-life Victorian plant hunter William Lobb.
In the years immediately prior to his globetrotting missions seeking out exotic blooms on behalf of the Veitch nursery Lobb had been head gardener…
… at Scorrier and is ‘responsible for the rare and fine specimens in the grounds’.6. Until last year when it sadly succumbed to old age (r), these included the tallest monkey puzzle tree in the land.
Lobb’s employer at Scorrier, John Williams, handed the property on to his eldest son, the aforesaid Michael. Having already successfully diversified into copper smelting, a quick-thinking stroke of enterprise would see Michael Williams famously play up his fortune in 1845 (critically, just prior to the arrival of a national rail link).
On learning during a visit to London that the price of tin had suddenly gone through the roof Williams took the first coach back to Exeter, galloped the rest of the way on horseback and snapped up all available tin options before the news reached Cornwall. Buying low selling high turbocharged Williams’ finances, enabling the acquisition of Caerhays and also the expansion of Scorrier House eastwards overlooking the park (r).
The historical division of the Williams estates occurred upon Michael Williams death in 1858, Caerhays and Burncoose going to eldest son John Michael, Scorrier to his sixth, George. George’s son, John, inherited in 1891 and would return from the hunting field one afternoon seventeen years on to find Scorrier had been all but destroyed by ‘one of the most destructive fires ever recorded in Cornwall’.7
Scorrier House was quickly rebuilt, however, ‘the interior planned around a sumptuous, extravagant staircase and entrance hall’ adorned by pictures which were among the items rescued from incineration.3 (To Williams’ particular dismay the latter did not include the contents of the cellar. As one fireman told reporters, ‘bottles of champagne were hissing and popping off in all directions’.7)
The sound of popping champagne corks still regularly resounds hereabouts though in altogether jollier circumstances. For, while Scorrier ‘remains a private family home in the hands of Richard and Caroline Williams, their dogs and family’, the house and its ‘400-acre oasis of parkland and garden’5 are today a popular wedding venue. Now it’s not entirely inconceivable that the natural exuberance of such events may occasionally come to the notice of Scorrier’s next-door neighbour…
… being Tregullow House (left), presently the home of Richard Williams’ younger brother, James.
Tregullow was built in 1826 by William Williams, a younger brother of Michael (of Scorrier and later Caerhays), the proximity possibly explained by their having married the Eales sisters, Caroline and Elizabeth. The brothers’ architectural tastes, too, were seemingly not dissimilar: two-storey Classical houses, relatively plain but with imposing rectangular porte-cocheres.
With an inferno-free history, G.II Tregullow retains ‘numerous features of significant quality’ (r). In recent times both the house and its ‘truly secret‘ garden have felt the benefit of the present owner’s remunerative former career in international finance, undergoing a programme of substantial renovation.8
The builder of Tregullow ‘did even better in status if not in wealth’ than his brother (legendary tin speculator Michael), ‘acquiring not only a 6,000-acre estate but also a baronetcy’.9 Created Sir William Williams, of Tregullow, in 1866, that this title has already reached its tenth incarnation is due to the premature demise of the third baronet and each of his three sons between 1903 and 1917…
… a sequence of events which would precipitate the separation of house and title. Today, Sir Donald Williams, 10 Bt, ‘of Tregullow’, is in fact of Upcott House, near Barnstaple in Devon. ‘Set amongst gardens and woodland with far-reaching views across the Taw Valley, Upcott is owned by the Williams family, our home since it was built in 1752.’
This is not the family’s first outpost over the border, however. Another Devon house, Gnaton Hall, was owned and occupied by Michael Williams and his descendants through the second half of the C19. Much closer to home back in Cornwall the same line would also lease and significantly alter the two houses of the Beauchamps, Pengreep and Trevince (which remains in that family). And in 1809 the builder of Scrorrier, John Williams, acquired Sandhill House wherein he doubtless enjoyed his retirement (having remarried, aged 79, a Miss Edwards, 25).
Interviewed recently, Caroline Williams of Scorrier House remarked how, ‘when they left home [their now grown-up children] found it strange to live in houses that other people, rather than family, had lived in’. It would seem they would have to travel some way beyond the West Country simply to find one…