In 1994 a wealthy London businessman named Jon Hunt acquired a very big house in the country. Rescued from an unfortunate recent past, majestic Heveningham Hall (r) is the very model of a stately stately, designed by Sir Robert Taylor with impeccable interiors by James Wyatt. Further to the restoration of this house as a private family home, an unexecuted parkland scheme by Capability Brown has since been realised and two more fine houses and thousands of acres beyond gradually acquired to create a cultivated wilderness.
Such an extravagant entree into the landowning echelon might easily attract the pejorative epithet ‘new money’ but then, of course, plenty of ‘old money’ was new itself once upon a time. Heveningham (pro. Henningham) Hall was begun in 1778 for Sir Gerard Vanneck, member of a wildly successful family of London merchants of Dutch origin (formerly ‘Van Neck’), the estate having been purchased by his elder brother, Sir Joshua (d. 1777), twenty-six years earlier. And, while ‘only a handful of the richest men in mid-C18 London were seeking permanent entry into the ranks of the landed elite’, this corner of East Suffolk had already attracted another.¹
Some thirteen miles north-east of Heveningham stands Sotterley Hall (r), built c.1745 by one Miles Barne and today the home of his direct descendant, Miles Barne. Although the prodigiousness of the Vanneck house (and their acquisition of a baronetcy in 1751) suggests some disparity of wealth and ambition, for over half a century these City arrivistes would find common cause in a crumbling coastal settlement a few miles to the east.
From its Middle Ages zenith as a significant port town of 3,000 people and eight churches, rampant coastal erosion had by this time reduced Dunwich to a small village with just one. Crucially, however, one number had never changed: Dunwich still returned two members of Parliament. The archetypal rotten borough, ‘political affairs [here] were virtually reduced to a series of financial transactions’, the tiny number of voting freemen always alive to value of their situation.
With the encouragement of this electorate (numbering about fifteen at the time), three years after his arrival in the area Miles Barne paid unpopular local property owner Sir George Downing £1,200 for one of the two seats.² Being Dutch-born, a seat in Parliament was an impossible aspiration for Sir Joshua Vanneck at nearby Heveningham but he formed an alliance with Barne securing a seat each for their sons thenceforth. For the Barne boys, however, this was to prove rather more a burden than a privilege.
Miles Barne was a scion of another of those mercantile families who had prospered, inter-married and rotated the mayoralty of the City of London during the previous two centuries. In 1744, the year after his father (also Miles, a director of the East India Company until he ‘became insane‘) died, Barne, 25, signalled a new direction with his purchase of the 930-acre – today 3,500a – Sotterley estate.
This place had been owned since 1475 by the Playters family whose fortunes had suffered at the time of the Civil War. Royalist Sir Lionel Playters endured ‘many acts of plunder and persecution’, the latter including a charge of ‘eating custard in a scandalous manner’ (plainly no trifling matter under the Commonwealth).³ A fine collection of Playters memorials are to be found in Sotterley parish church (left).
Miles Barne lost no time pulling down the Playters’ old house and replacing it with the brick mansion which stands, little altered, today. In a county where ‘major C18 country houses are few and far between … Sotterley Hall is a pleasant and complete example of its date’.4
No architect has been ascribed but a confident hand is evident: three-bay pediments feature on all sides of the H-plan house. On the N facade (left) a Venetian window and door arrangement interrupts the regular fenestration.
‘It is capacious and contains some good apartments,’ noted local artist Henry Davy in compiling his truncated survey of Suffolk seats (1827, right). ‘But,’ he went on, ‘according to the usual mode of constructing houses in those days, a great deal of room is wasted on halls and passages.’ The most obviously purposed of these spaces, the entrance hall, features the best of several ‘exceedingly good fireplaces‘.4
As his new house was going up Miles Barne took a bride, Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of controversial ex-governor of Madras, Nathaniel Elwick. Alas, she would have little chance to enjoy life as lady of the manor, dying just two years later but having produced an heir, Miles. The latter would in due course inherit not just the Sotterley estate but also most of Dunwich (acquired 1754, dispersed at auction in 1947) and the Elwick property (May Place in Kent, sold 1938). Not forgetting, of course, the family seat in Parliament.
A retiring home bird, young Miles ‘refused to succeed his father [as MP] in 1777 because he ‘preferred living in the country”. Helpfully, however, his step-mother had produced a steady supply of half-brothers; less helpfully, they weren’t overly keen on going up to Westminster either though their reluctance stemmed from that awkward affliction of the gentry, younger son syndrome.
‘England offered relatively few opportunities for the impoverished remittance man and gentleman of leisure, other than hanging about the house dependent on the bounty of their elder brother. The majority had to rely on their talents, being launched into the world by their parents with little more than a lump sum and perhaps a fitting education. Worse still, there were relatively few respectable jobs open to the crowd of aspirants.’¹
Second son Barne Barne took the Dunwich seat in 1777 but was always seeking a salaried post as he was ‘anxious to marry and could not do so without employment’. (His schemes to boost the value of the family estates would also incur big debts.²) Eventually appointed a commissioner of taxes, Barne resigned his seat obliging squire Miles to step into the breach for a period. But ‘it is clear he was a reluctant member for he left no trace of activity in the House and retired on grounds of health’ at the first opportunity.
Brother Snowdon, a struggling barrister, now took his turn as MP, ‘a situation to which my circumstances are hardly equal’. He, too, sought paid office which he eventually secured in 1812 to be succeeded – ‘somewhat reluctantly .. my private fortune being too small to [establish] myself comfortably in London’ – by his soldier sibling, Michael. ‘Of the four Barne brothers in the House, Michael was the only one who married,’ and his only son, Frederick, would be the sitting family member when the unconscionable constituency was finally abolished in 1832.
Though the parliamentary seat had gone (and having inherited Sotterley) Frederick – a conspicuous man of the turf – would remain seated in Dunwich, which had been maintained as an estate village. He resided at another Barne family property, Grey Friars (r), a house much enlarged ‘in the Victorian seaside style’ for son Col. St. John Barne after his father’s death in 1886. And Frederick Barne would be interred, along with many other family members, at the church of St. James in Dunwich and not in St. Margaret’s which stands close to the Hall at the centre of Sotterley Park.
A designated SSSI, the roughly circular 200-acre park ‘contains a large number of magnificent oaks, some with girths in excess of eight metres suggesting they must have been planted in the late Middle Ages’.5 As at Ickworth House in the west of the county, ‘these give, as they were doubtless meant to do, the air of a Plantagenet deer-park. But each contains a parish church, which no genuine deer-park ever did’.6
In 1886 the churchyard of St. Margaret’s was closed to new burials (“except in such vaults as are now existing”) ostensibly on public health grounds. Suggestions of an ulterior motive took hold, however, and would later resurface in the London prints after the ‘big house’ had instigated a move – ultimately unsuccessful – to now close the church itself. This from the Pall Mall Gazette 15 August, 1889:
‘When Sotterley people died nothing could prevent their relatives from carrying their dead to the churchyard. But was this not too bad, to have a funeral procession of tearful clodhoppers passing through your park gates and under your very windows, asking no leave but taking it in quite a brutal fashion.’
A replacement cemetery and octagonal brick chapel had been provided just beyond the bounds of the park (left). Warming to his theme the dyspeptic scribe ventured some architectural criticism, describing the chapel as ‘looking like a ginger beer stall in a cricket ground’ and Sotterley Hall itself as ‘an ugly white-brick mansion of no pretension’.
Today, the ‘beer stall’ is appreciated as a ‘virtually intact and very unusual cemetery chapel of the late C19′, one that is still functioning thanks to the efforts of a dedicated preservation trust. Meanwhile, still ‘surrounded on all sides by a continuous belt of plantations and woods providing that air of privacy so typical of C18 parks’,5 the lauded husbandry of Sotterley’s current owner (left) continues to ensure that the sensibilities of unwary passers-by are not affronted by unexpected sightings of the (Grade I listed) ‘ugly mansion’…
¹ Stone, L.,Fawtier Stone, J. An open elite? England 1540-1880, 1986.
² Lawrence, R. Southwold River: Georgian life in the Blyth Valley, 1990.
³ Lloyd, R. Welcome to Sotterley, 2007.
4 Bettley, J., Pevsner, N. The buildings of England: Suffolk: East, 2015.
5 Williamson, T. Suffolk’s gardens and parks, 2000.
6 Rackham, O. The history of the countryside, 1986.
Kenworthy-Browne, J. Burke’s and Savills guide to country houses: East Anglia, 1981.
Suckling, A. The history and antiquities of the County of Suffolk, etc., 1846.