The History of Weston Park
Everything at Weston Park has a fascinating story to tell and begs yet further questions to be answered. How did all of these important paintings by some of the world’s finest artists come to be here? How many servants did the Victorian 3rd Earl and Countess have and what are their stories?
Weston is a remarkable House set in 1,000 acres of ‘Capability’ Brown Parkland with collections of international importance that give links to people from all walks of life and all different ages. It’s a place where, at every corner, echoes of different eras call out with a rich history that dates back to the Domesday Book but which is every bit as relevant today.
From the original building of the present House in the 17th century and the landscaping of the park and gardens by Capability Brown right through to hosting the G8 Summit of 1998, the story of Weston is one of excitement and which has something of interest for everyone.
Medieval – Dating Back to the Domesday Book
The land on which Weston stands was first mentioned in the Domesday Book. The principal survivor of those times is the park which includes one of the original medieval deer parks and some impressive trees of majestic size. The King and Queen Oaks, recently freed from twentieth century conifer plantations harken back to this era. The Church of St Andrew, which remains the Parish church and is not owned by the Foundation, retains parts of its medieval fabric and, in its position next to the House, occupies the medieval site of Church besides Manor House. The land at this date was held by the de Westons, who took their name from the lands. Monuments can be seen in the Church, placed in their present positions in the seventeenth century by Elizabeth Mytton who herself was a descendant, through the female line, of this ancient dynasty.
16th and 17th Centuries – Origins of the House
The story of the present house begins on 29th June 1651 when the twenty-year-old Elizabeth Mytton married Sir Thomas Wilbraham, a Cheshire landowner and baronet. The house at Weston Park was her vision. Traditionally described as the House’s architect, Lady Wilbraham was in reality a very interested patron of the building which was overseen by the architect William Taylor, whose Minsterley Church in Shropshire has strong similarities with Weston. Taylor was also probably responsible for the Stable Block, rebuilding of the Church’s nave and also for the re-building of Woodhey, the Wilbraham’s Cheshire seat.
Lady Wilbraham kept a close eye on the expenditure, making detailed annotations of costs in her copy of Palladio’s Book of Architecture which remains in the collection at Weston.
The Collections Begin
Elizabeth’s daughter Mary married Richard Newport, the 2nd Earl of Bradford of the first creation. Richard’s father, the 1st Earl and his brother Lord Torrington assembled an astonishing collection of Old Master paintings and also portraits of people they had known in the Civil War and Restoration era – many of them being remarkable works of art by some of the most important painters of their time. Most of them were brought to Weston from the family’s London house by Countess Mary in 1735 and have remained at Weston Park ever since. Mary and her husband were also patrons of the arts in their own right, as a fine pier table that was probably made by Royal maker James Moore and also some fine collections of silver that – like the table – are ornamented with the Newport family’s unicorn crest testify. The Bradford title was a reference, not to the Yorkshire town but to the largest of Shropshire’s administrative divisions, the Bradford Hundred.
The Bridgeman Era
The 2nd Earl and Countess of Bradford’s sons died without legitimate issue and so Weston Park passed to their daughter Lady Anne Newport. She had married Sir Orlando Bridgeman, 4th Baronet and it was their son, Sir Henry Bridgeman 5th Baronet who came to live at Weston in the 1760′s.
The Bridgeman family were originally from Devonshire but in the late 16th century John Bridgeman, Bishop of Chester, sold the family’s ancestral properties and purchased the Great Lever Estate at Bolton in Lancashire. His son, Sir Orlando Bridgeman, 1st Baronet, Lord Chief Justice and Keeper of the Great Seal of England married the heiress Judith Kynaston which brought the family extensive estates in North Shropshire.
Orlando also purchased Castle Bromwich Hall estate in Warwickshire for his son John (later Sir John Bridgeman, 2nd Bt.) The 3rd Baronet, another John, added to the family’s land holdings through his marriage to the Llanyblodwell and Llanymynech heiress Ursula Matthews, and it was he who laid out the superb gardens at Castle Bromwich which can still be seen today at: www.cbhgt.org.uk
On inheriting Weston, Sir Henry Bridgeman 5th Bt., is said to have spent the huge sum of £12,000 on improvements, which included the architect James Paine’s alterations to the House, the building of the Temple of Diana, the Roman Bridge, the Great Barn (which is now the Granary building) and the laying out of the Park by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. In the House, Sir Henry added to the collections, with the painting of horses by George Stubbs, furniture probably supplied by Chippendale, new services of silver and the spectacular Gobelin tapestries that he commissioned when in Paris.
Much of the finance for these great improvements came from the increase in rents made possible by Sir Henry’s enclosures of heaths and commonland and by the exploitation of minerals on the family estates, with coal being mined at Bolton and limestone quarried at Llanymynech in North Shropshire. Such was the standing of Sir Henry Bridgeman that he was raised to the peerage as Baron Bradford.
19th Century – Growing Popularity
Orlando, the eldest son of Lord Bradford was part of the Prince Regent’s set. Married to the Hon. Lucy Byng, sister-in-law of the 6th Duke of Bedford and the 2nd Marquess of Bath, Orlando followed Royal fashions, employing Morel & Hughes to redecorate and refurnish Weston Park. He also acquired a number of items of furniture, clocks and other works of art from France, probably using the marchand-mercier Martin-Eloi Lignereux who was also a favourite of the future English King. In 1815, through his Royal friendship, Orlando was successful in having the Bradford Earldom revived and so was elevated within the peerage as the 1st Earl of Bradford of the second creation.
During his lifetime the family’s estates increased in size when, in 1803 his cousin the 7th and last Earl of Mountrath died leaving the Weeting Estate in Norfolk and the Walsall Estate to the Bradfords.
His eldest son, George, who became 2nd Earl of Bradford, added to the family picture collections following travels to Italy and added a new west wing to designs by Thomas Rickman, who was also engaged by the family at Castle Bromwich Hall.
In the Park at Weston, the landscape was embellished by the creation of Park Pool which the landscape gardener John Webb designed.
Tragedy at the house
During the 2nd Earl’s time, his daughters Lady Lucy and Lady Charlotte Bridgeman became early pioneers in the new pastime of photography. Tragically their lives were cut short in 1858 when their crinoline dresses caught light with a spark from the Library fire and they both soon died afterwards from horrific burns.
Weston and Prime Minister Disraeli
During the 19th century, political influence and Royalty featured strongly in the House’s fortunes. The 3rd Earl, who succeeded in 1865, was Master of the Horse to Queen Victoria and both he and his wife Selina were friends with the ageing Prime Minister Disraeli. One of Disraeli’s gifts to Lady Bradford was a yellow parrot which was believed to be male. The true gender was discovered when it laid 24 eggs in 23 days and then promptly died.
The arrival of the age of rail travel made it easier for guests to visit Weston Park from London. House parties, with a political or racing flavour – the latter especially since the 3rd Earl maintained a successful stud at Weston which produced his Derby winner Sir Hugo – brought increasing numbers of guests to the House. To accommodate them all and to provide a more fashionable sequence of grand rooms. The 3rd Earl employed the architect John MacVicar Anderson who added the Victorian or East Wing, Orangery and Loggia, created a Smoking Room and Billiard Room by roofing over an inner courtyard (which were later transformed into the Salons), whilst the Entrance Hall, Library, Drawing Room and Tapestry Room were all transformed.
The West Wing of the House, added by Rickman, was gutted through two floors to create the Dining Room, indicating the importance with which hospitality was regarded. The major impact of Anderson’s works was that the entrance to the House was moved from centre of the South front to the centre of the East front, where a magnificent port cochere was added. This transformation enabled the creation of the South terrace and its adjacent Italian garden, which lies before the Orangery – masterpieces of Victorian garden design which were entrusted to Edward Kemp.
In the next generation, the 4th Earl and Countess continued with their patronage of MacVicar Anderson who designed the great Marble Staircase for them in 1899.
20th Century – The National Leaders and Leading Writers
At the turn of the century, the 5th Earl served in the Boer War. He was later to serve as Private Secretary to two Prime Ministers – Lord Salisbury and Mr Balfour. In the 20′s, the humorist writer PG Wodehouse, the creator of Jeeves, used his boyhood memories of Weston, which he renamed Blandings Castle, in several of his books. The House itself once more showed its red brick elevations, as the Regency stucco was stripped from the exterior, and inside redecorations were carried out under the direction of the designer Guy Elwes, who was responsible for the present grained paint scheme in the Library.
In Temple Wood, the Pool was now overlooked by a new Ionic Aedicule seat, designed by Lord Gerald Wellesley, Duke of Wellington and the interior decorator prepared schemes for a tented interior at the Pink Cottage. The latter was never executed as the outbreak of the Second World War prevented the work and marked a halt to much work on the estate.
The Modern Look of Weston
After the War, Gerald, the 6th Earl, used his expertise on forestry to plant around the park and pools. A Gold medallist of the Royal Forestry Society, the 6th Earl added greatly to the plantations in the Park and across the family’s estates. Much of this work has now matured and adds to the allure of the grounds. His wife, Mary Montgomery, Countess of Bradford undertook the redecoration of the House, and her work can be seen today in the present Dining Room, Drawing Room, Salons and Breakfast Room. She also finally created a tented interior, not at the Pink Cottage as John Fowler and her mother-in-law had intended, but in one of the House’s bedrooms which is appropriately known as Tent Bedroom.
Today – A Gift to the Nation
In the second half of the twentieth century, the 6th Earl and his son Richard, the 7th and present Earl of Bradford, encouraged ever-increasing public use of Weston.
In 1986, following the death of his father five years earlier, the 7th Earl gifted the House, Park and Gardens and the historic collections to the nation with the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund. Weston Park is now in the care of the Trustees of the Weston Park Foundation.
Historical Talks Throughout the Year
Throughout the year, the Learning Department offers talks and study days covering specific points of interest and history. For further information please look at the events section of this website.
The Creation of the Gardens and Park
Today, Weston stands astride the Shropshire / Staffordshire border in almost 1,000 acres of Parkland. Yet it has taken over 300 years of development to achieve such remarkable grounds and gardens.
A survey back in 1658, twenty years after Elizabeth Mytton inherited Weston, shows an upper and lower park existed but little else is known of early park history other than red and common deer roamed free.
In 1765 Sir Henry Bridgeman commissioned Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to rework what was until then probably a formal landscape crossed by avenues. Brown’s work was aimed at creating the impression of a natural arcadian landscape around the House which appeared to be at one with nature. He created the deep ha-ha around the south side of the House, and in 1766 continued his work to the side of Temple Wood and the Shrewsbury Walk as pleasure grounds which remain as rare survivors of this type of landscape gardening.
Major Works in the Gardens
Sir Henry also commissioned architect James Paine in 1770 to design the Temple, which he described as “the Greenhouse at Weston.” Paine also built a Roman Bridge over a “limpid small stream” which he dammed to create Temple Pool.
The nineteenth century saw much expenditure on the gardens and the planting of a great many trees, some 38,000 in 1802 alone. In the next twenty years, the landscape gardener John Webb added further plantings and also created Park Pool in the southern part of the park.
From 1855, when the family bought the Tong Castle Estate, plans were put in hand for the expansion of the Park to include Tong Knoll, and then in the next generation, new terraces, a Conservatory and the Tower on Tong Knoll were among the many features that were added.
In more recent times, the Italian garden (or broderie) was recreated by Elizabeth Banks in 1989 with a more labour-saving scheme of planting. The Weston Park Foundation also commissioned Nada and Fred Jennet in 1991 to redesign the terrace planting. The wider landscaped park of nearly a thousand acres is also subject to continued planting and re-planning under the aegis of the Landscape Agency who have furnished the Foundation with a 25-year master-plan for its conservation and restoration. With so many more landmarks throughout these much-loved and admired gardens, it’ll take many enjoyable visits to discover the endless delights of Weston’s grounds.
The latest development at Weston is the renovation of the Granary, the last unused building on the estate.
The Granary building was built for Sir Henry Bridgeman in 1767 and is a masterpiece of the 18th century agricultural revolution. Through Heritage Lottery funding and support from Advantage West Midlands it has been restored and now includes not only the main visitor entrance to the House, Park and Gardens, but also a Deli & Cafe, Art Gallery and Granary Grill. The Granary is open all year round, meaning there is something for everyone all year round at Weston.