Fairbourne is a small Welsh seaside town boasting an attractive two-mile stretch of golden sand and a Victorian miniature railway, and a not-very-Welsh name. Much like Westward Ho! in North Devon, the resort was superimposed on a quiet rural community during the 1860′s: in Fairbourne’s case, by the flour magnate Sir Arthur McDougal, upon a settlement originally called Morfa Henddol.
Mr and Mrs Booth’s commodious bungalow in Fairbourne provided several letting rooms for holiday-makers, and my parents were one of the young couples enjoying Mrs Booth’s bustling, motherly hospitality, bright and breezy hikes, and terrifying (according to Mom) ferry trips across the bay to Barmouth one year in the early 50′s.
Billeted in one of the other rooms were Ron and Betty Mowday from Birmingham. Ron was a bit older, and had seen active service at Montecassino. My dad had enjoyed his time in the First Battalion of the Welsh Guards, and was posted to the Middle East towards the end of the conflict. As is often the case with ex-servicemen, an easy camaraderie grew up between the two men, and the couples shared a wicked sense of humour and continued to socialise with each other when they returned to the Midlands after their holidays.
Ron didn’t drive, and weekend jaunts angling or walking were taken in “Old Bodge”, my dad’s 1935 Morris Eight tourer, registration number BOJ 473. When Betty and Ron moved from their flat at the top of a Victorian mansion in Handsworth to their own little place in Wharwell Lane, Landywood, the interesting old house known as Little Wyrley Hall was only a short distance away, and an ideal venue for an outing. My mother remembers a shocking quantity of animals’ heads gazing down glassy-eyed at her from the walls of a majestic beamed hall that afternoon….but little else. Which is a shame, because following a super evening in the Methodist Church Hall in Brownhills recently, listening to the knowledgeable and entertaining local historian Gerald Reece, I have a special interest in the old house, fascinating in its own right, which was home to the movers and shakers in the early history of mining in the Brownhills area.
Never mind – I retrieved one of my boxes, and blew on the top, raising dust like a puff of magic powder, because inside was a copy of Country Life nearly contemporary with my parents’ day out in “Old Bodge”, containing an illustrated article which describes the hall, and some of contents and occupants, in as much detail as anyone could wish for……
- LITTLE WYRLEY HALL, STAFFORDSHIRE
The Home of Mr and Mrs Frank Wallace. By Gordon Nares. (from “Country Life” magazine, 1952)
To the Tudor, Carolean, and William-and-Mary nucleus of his forbears’ house Phineas Hussey made numerous alterations about 1822, when he was High Sheriff of Staffordshire.
Many a country house, and often the most endearing, possesses character not because it is an unaltered example of a definite style or period, but because it has been built piecemeal at different times, wing by wing, or even room by room, as the size, wealth or ambition of the owner’s family increased. When such a house has been in the possession of one family for many generations and has been filled with the accumulated possession of one family of centuries – and Little Wyrley Hall is as good an example as any – it achieves a degree of liveableness that is the antithesis of the famous lines:
I find by all you have been telling
That tis a house, but not a dwelling.
The manor of Little Wyrley, which lies just to the south of the Watling Street mid-way between Lichfield and Wolverhampton, has belonged to the same family since the reign of Queen Elizabeth, descending in the female line through the Fowkes and the Husseys to the present owner, Mrs. Wallace. The Fowkes’ predecessors, either the Blunts or the Levesons, built the Tudor core of the house.
Soon after the Restoration of Charles II, Ferrers Fowke and his wife cased this old half-timbered building in red brick and enlarged it considerably, while at the same time they built the near-by farm buildings. In 1691 Dr Phineas Fowke added the rooms on the east side of the house. The house then remained unaltered until the end of the Napoleanic Wars, after which Phineas Hussey made various additions, notably to the interior. There is thus work of four periods embodied in the house. Of these the most prominent are the two middle ones, for most of the exterior and much of the interior was built in the late 17th century by Ferrers and Phineas Fowkes..
Little Wyrley Hall can be seen much as they left it in an attractive little oil painting dating from about 1790, which hangs over the fireplace in the library. This view, from the south, shows Ferrers Fowke’s kitchen and brew-house wing on the left and the refaced nucleus of the house in the middle; the junction between the old part of the house and Phineas Fowke’s east wing can be clearly seen on the right hand side of the painting. The main block is shown with its original casement windows and without finials to the gables. The existing finials, hich are such a picturesque feature of the elevation, were copied from those of the Catolean brew-house dormers and were added by Phineas Hussey, who also substituted sash windows for many of the casements. Prominent in the painting are what the Rev Stebbing Shaw in his “Staffordshire” (1801) calls the “phalanx of elms and other large trees” – which stand to the north and east of the house and earned it the name of Wyrley Grove until 1928 – and also the charming cupola, which unfortunately had to be taken down in 1914.
The cupola originally surmounted Ferrers Fowke’s staircase, and its hexagonal wind-indicator can still be seen in position. The staircase is situated in the south-east corner of the entrance hall, which is probably the hall of the Tudor house and lies immediately inside the porch. The space in which the stairs make their ascent is more restricted than appears at first sight, for, although the stairwell has three bays, one of them is open to allow an uninterrupted view from the ground floor to the wind-indicator on the roof. In the other two bays the stairs make their tortuous journey from the ground to the second floor, providing at each landing and half-landing different views of steep mounting steps, sturdy newels, simple turned balusters and arcades. Despite the economy of space and materials, this staircase provides a remarkable visual effect by comparison with others of about the same size and date.
Opening off the hall at the foot of the staircase is the library, which occupies the south-west corner of the house and was formed by Phineas Hussey early in the 19th century. It seems likely that there were two rooms here before Mr Hussey began his alterations and that he made on large room out of them by driving a wide opening in the parti-wall. Some of the old ceiling beams were retained, but all the windows were altered and the walls were clothed from floor to cornice with bookshelves, which display the fine collection of leather-bound volumes collected by Phineas Hussey and his literary great-great uncle, Dr Phineas Fowke. Even the back of the door from the hall is panelled with dummy books. A door opens intot he smaller of the library’s two bays. Facing is a window, and on the left is the door into the drawing –room. On the right is the book-lined opening which joins the two parts of the library and which frames the view looking west towards Phineas Hussey’s bay window – a charming piece of Regency design with slender Gothick sashbars and a hand painted floral border in deep orange and sienna.
The scene of Phineas Hussey’s other principal contribution to the re-decoration of Little Wyrley is the dining room, occupying the north-east corner of the house on the ground floor of Dr Phineas Fowke’s east side. Doubtless it was once panelled with fat bolection mouldings, like the rooms on the first floor on this side of the house, but as it stands to-day it is a good example of plain late Regency taste, complemented by solid Victorian furniture. The ceiling is divided by a number of sparingly moulded transverse beams, which give it a coffered effect. The north wall is slightly bowed, with a central window (since removed) and flanking niches. The windows on the long east wall, containing the coloured heraldic glass, have red velvet curtain, and the walls are pale green. The central window originally held a further fine example of this heraldic glass, but unfortunately, when Little Wyrley was let to a family of local ironfounders after Phineas Hussey’s death, certain guests drank too much wine at dinner one night and hurled the empty bottles through the window.
On the the walls hang a number of portraits including those of Phineas Hussey, his second wife, Sophia Ray, and his brother, William, a surgeon in the Royal Horse Guards, who is said to have had a love affair with one of George III’s daughters. The last painting, which is in the manner of Hoppner and has been attributed to him, portrays the sitter against a pillar backed by a red curtain, one corner of which is folded up to reveal a distant view of St Paul’s Cathedral in a stormy sky. In his hands he holds an easily identifiable drawing of the Colosseum, across the bottom of which is written, “1803, Colosseo Hussey.”
The two brothers bear little resemblance to each other. William is handsome, tall and spare; Phineas short and corpulent. The latter is painted sitting at a table, with one arm resting on an open book, and he is staring sternly at the spectator. A mor human picture of him is given in Mrs. Charles Bagot’s memoirs, “Links with the Past” (1901), in which she recalls that “The squire (of Little Wyrley) was one of the last of the old sort of country squires. As a child, I dreaded his dining at Hatherton, and after dessert chasing me round the dining-room table to kiss my. I always thought then that he had dad too much wine, as had been the fashion of his youth.” In the same work Mrs Bagot quotes an extract from the diary of her aunt, recording (rather patronizingly) a visit to Little Wyrley in 1827. She describes the house as “a curious dwelling of red brick, gable ends, small windows, and heavy stone ornaments,” and her hosts “seemed to take me back a hundred years at least, as to civilization. Great cordiality and hospitality, a love of good cheer and field sports.” She goes on to express her surprise at “a fine collection of print which have been amassed at great expense by the master of the mansion.”
Phineas Hussey was twice married: first to Mary Fowler, who died when he was quite a young man and is commemorated in the garden at little Wyrley by an urn on a pedestal, and second to Sophia Ray, who bor him a son and heir in 1822, in which year he was high Sheriff of Staffordshire. It seems likely that the re-decoration of the house took place in preparation for his shrievalty. Among Mr Hussey’s friends was Anna Seward, the Swan of Lichfield, who enjoyed a considerable vogue as a poetess, although Horace Walpole associate her with Helen Williams and “a half a dozen more of those harmonious virgins” whose “thoughts and phrases are like their gowns old remnants cut and turned.” One of her rings, inscribed with her name, was given to Mr Hussey, presumably after her death in 1809, and is preserved at Little Wyrley with a number of other literary relics, such as a lock of Garrick’s hair surrounding a miniature of Shakespeare in a diamond locket.
Phineas Hussey seems to have been an extravagant man, and his estate was seriously embarrassed after his death in 1833 at the age of 71. Little Wyrley was for a time in Chancery and the house was let, but the heir, Phineas Fowke Hussey, was a minor when he inherited and the family finances had evidently improved by thetime he attained his majority. At all events, he returned to live at Little Wyrley, and turned his attention to cattle-breeding .
About 1850 he married Elizabeth Clementine Carmichael, who bor him two daughters before she died giving birth to a son in 1857. The son and mary, the elder daughter, died as infants and Little Wyrley devolved upon the younger daughter, Elizabeth, after her father’s death in 1867. She married Lachlan Andrew Macpherson, of Biallid, Inverness-shire, in 1885, and died in 1927. Owing to the untimely death of her two sons, the manor of Little Wyrley has now descended to her eldest daughter, Elizabeth, the wife of Mr Frank Wallace. His collection of big game heads is housed in the near-by barn, a fine timber-roofed building which was built by Ferrers Fowke and his wife Frances, whose triple F initials and the date 1664 are on a shield set in the north gable.
It is a far cry from the Little Wyrley of the 17th century to the Little Wyrley of to-day, but Ferrers and Phineas Fowke would have no difficutley in recognizing the exterior of the house, and the interior must contain much that they would remember. Phineas Hussey, indeed, would be quite at home: his furniture is still in its place, his books on their shelves, his pictures and engravings on the walls. Changing times have nevertheless brought changes to Little Wyrley; for instance, Ferrers Fowke’s kitchen and brewhouse wing which in his and Phineas Hussey’s day would have teemed with servants, has now been converted into several flats. The most significant changes, however, have taken place in the house’s surroundings. According to Ekwall’s Dictionary of English Place-Names, Wyrley(pronounced Wirley) is derived from the Old English wir-leah, meaning “bog mytle glade,” but the impression created by this delightful name is dispelled even as early as 1801, when Shaw published his Staffordshire. The best that he can say about the neighbourhood of this “picturesque and curious specimen of the hospitable mansions of our forefathers’ is that the “situation can by no means be extolled wither for the beauty of its prospects, or excellence of soil.”
One wonders what Shaw woud say to-day, when the prospect westwards from the front door is terminated in the middle distance by a monumental slag-heap and when colliery workings have encroached to within a few hundred feet of the east side of the house. In the 1920s, indeed, it was proposed to mine underneath the house itself, but this threat has so far happily been unfulfilled and the old red-brick house still stands, witnessing to the old way of life amid its predatory surroundings.