John Derby-Allcroft was a wealthy Victorian merchant whose father (Jeremiah Macklin Allcroft) went into partnership with glovemakers, Messrs J & W Dent & Co. This business was so successful that both families were able to invest in large country estates on the proceeds, the Dents at Sudeley in Gloucestershire and the Allcrofts at Stokesay in Shropshire. But in contrast to the Dents, John Derby-Allcroft decided to build a modern house, rather than try to adapt Stokesay Castle. Allcroft bought the estate in 1867, and in 1874 he followed this purchase with a smaller estate known as The Stone House. This land contained a medium sized house, but it was not suitable for his large family. The site he chose for his new home, which commanded panoramic views of Ludlow and the Clee Hills, lay outside the estate and the owner refused to sell to him. He therefore waited patiently until she died in 1886, whereupon he acquired it from her son. The house was finally started in 1889, and completed in 1892, some six months before John Derby-Allcroft’s death in 1893. The old Stone House (which Allcroft had lived in and renamed Stokesay Court in the intervening years) was demolished following the completion of the present house. Stokesay Castle remained in the Allcroft family until it passed to English Heritage in 1992 following the death of Jewell Magnus-Allcroft.
John Derby-Allcroft was a philanthropic entrepreneur, and an evangelist Christian. He built a number of London churches, most notably St Matthews in Bayswater, St Judes in Courtfield Gardens and St Marks, Gospel Oak. There were over 60 bibles in the house at the time of the Sotheby’s sale in 1994. He was a major benefactor to, and Treasurer of, Christ’s Hospital School.
At the time it was built, Stokesay Court was at the cutting edge of technology. Its architect was Thomas Harris. Harris had designed industrial buildings and used this experience to incorporate modern features, such as ducting and trunking throughout the building, and underfloor heating in the Great Hall. Stokesay is one of the earliest houses in England to have been built with integral electric light, which was installed by Edmundsons Ltd in 1891. Much of this original installation is still visible today. But it is the attention to detail and the magnificence of the architecture (in particular the woodwork) evoking the Victorian era, which catch the visitor’s eye.
The house is laid out around a central block with three wings: a bachelors or Gentlemens wing, a ladies wing at the opposite end, and a service wing. The interiors (excluding decoration) remain virtually unaltered since the house was built. This is partly due to the fact that the house was fully used for only a relatively brief time before the First World War brought an abrupt end to everyone’s peaceful existence, and partly to the effects of the both World Wars on its occupants as described below.
Following John Derby-Allcroft’s death, the house passed to his eldest son, Herbert. Herbert married Margaret Russell, daughter of Sir William Russell of Charlton Park in Gloucestershire in 1900. They had two children, Russell who died in 1950, and Jewell who was subsequently to inherit. Herbert Allcroft died in 1911 and in 1916 Margaret married Brigadier General Sir John Rotton, but they did not have children.
During the First World War the house was used as an Auxiliary Military Hospital for convalescent soldiers and the family moved into the Stable House. They moved back in between the wars. In World War II it was occupied by Lancing College for two academic terms in 1940 when they were evacuated from Sussex. It then became a Western Command Junior Leaders’ School. The family kept a foothold in the house in the Ladies Wing and lived there throughout the war.
In 1943 Jewell married Sir Philip Magnus Bt, biographer of Kitchener, Gladstone and Edward VII, and uncle of the present owner. She and her mother (Margaret Rotton) remained at Stokesay while Philip served in the army overseas. Margaret’s health failed and she died in 1946. Russell too was unwell and Jewell found herself in charge of the house which became hers after her brother’s early death in 1950.
After the Second World War, Jewell and Philip lived in just a few rooms of the house. Most of the furniture and other contents had been stored in the attics and cellars and were never again to see the light of day until after both had died. Keeping up large houses was particularly difficult in the post war years, a time of severe shortages while the country got back on its feet. A double dose of death duties within four years added to Jewell’s burden. Many large country houses were abandoned or demolished as their owners gave up the struggle. While Philip wrote, Jewell grew prize carnations and looked after the gardens, and they ignored the inevitable need for repairs and maintenance, helped by the fact that the house had been so solidly built that problems took a long time to appear. Thus nothing was changed.
Jewell Magnus-Allcroft died in 1992. Following her death, the entire contents of the house were sold in a massive four day operation by Sothebys.
The present owner – niece of Sir Philip Magnus – moved in to the then completely empty house in 1995 after the Sale. At that time the roof leaked so badly that buckets were kept permanently under it and checked every time it rained. The house also needed complete rewiring – some areas had no power at all; in others the original was still in use and long past its sell by date. The plumbing too had many shortcomings. Though regrettable in many ways, the sale provided essential funds to begin repairs.
Having survived the first freezing winter with antiquated and inefficient central heating, erratic hot water and much of the house unusable, a programme of repairs was put in place. The roof is now sound, the wiring has been replaced and most of the central heating overhauled. There remains a great deal more to do, particularly with regard to redecoration. Watts of Westminster have copied some of the surviving original wallpaper and fabric designs and produced a “Stokesay Court” collection.
And finally “Atonement”, which is a most important chapter in the history of the house, and has contributed so much to its revival. Working Title Films and Joe Wright, cast and crew made the summer of 2006 a truly memorable – and enjoyable – experience.
Learn more about Stokesay Court’s recent history in the “New York Times”