Thursday, August 16, 2012

Coleshill House

A blow lamp used to remove old paintwork from dormer windows during renovation work set fire to Coleshill House in September 1952.  Within just four hours the magnificent 17th century building was reduced to a burnt out shell.  All that remained were eight huge chimneys, three of which had recently been renovated at a cost of more than £2,000.

Work on Coleshill House began in 1647 when Sir George Pratt began to rebuild his property, which had been, somewhat ironically, destroyed by fire.  But it was his cousin Sir Roger, an architect of some distinction, who called in renowned royal architect Inigo Jones to cast his eye over the site.

Sir Mark Pleydell recorded that Sir George’s house was “raised one storey, when Pratt and Jones arriving caused it to be pulled down and rebuilt.”

Coleshill was the first house to be built for a ‘minor’ gentleman in the classical manner. The plan of the house combined convenience with advanced designs of architecture.  Innovations included a corridor for separate access to all rooms and back stairs for the use of servants.  Rooms were grouped in suites in the French appartement system.

Sir George Pratt’s daughter Mary married Thomas Pleydell of Shrivenham in 1666 and eventually inherited the Coleshill estate.  The Bouverie connection came when Harriet, the daughter of Sir Mark Stuart Pleydell married William de Bouverie, 1st Earl of Radnor on January 14th 1747/48.

The property would remain in the Pleydell Bouverie family for almost 200 years until 1946 when it was bought by Ernest Edward Cook, partner in the firm of travel agents and grandson of the founder Thomas Cook.

As the 1952 fire took hold, farm and estate workers along with Coleshill residents rushed to the house and began the frantic task of removing the contents.  Valuable paintings, furniture and books were all saved.

“I think we managed to get everything of value out including 2 sets of chairs costing £2,000 which Mr Cook had purchased from the Pleydell-Bouverie family and left in the house,” Harold Williams of Home Farm told the Evening Advertiser.  “Only when the molten lead cascaded from the roof did we give up.”

The official fire report concluded that “large amounts of dry timber in the roof; heavy lead covering, also in the roof which insulated and retained heat in the upper parts of the house; extensive cavities between panelling and walls, which assisted fire spread and a glass cupola which collapsed into the hall at an early stage in the blaze, all contributed to the intensity and extent of the fire and to difficulties in fighting it.”

More than ten years before the fatal fire Coleshill House played a crucial role during the Second World War.  Following the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk and the subsequent fall of France, a British invasion by Nazi troops became a very real threat.  In July 1940 the British Resistance Organisation also known as the Auxiliary Units, a network of saboteurs who would attack invading German forces, was established at Coleshill House by Col. Colin McVean Gubbins.  Here Intelligence Officers trained civilian recruits, usually local farmers and landowners and members of the Home Guard, in the art of guerrilla warfare.

In 1952 fire brigades from thirteen nearby towns in Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire answered the call, but sadly the mansion was ultimately lost through faulty fire extinguishers and a shortage of water.  Today more than 3,500 acres of farmland and woods at Coleshill belong to the National Trust.

Read about Anne Pleydell-Bouverie, 3rd Countess of Radnor on Good Gentlewoman.

Images of Coleshill House fire are published courtesy of the Highworth Historical Society.  Coleshill House colour image is published courtesy of Swindon Local Studies Collection, visit the website on 

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