The Rise and Fall of a Victorian Palace
by Ray Sturdy
One of the joys of hearing a talk from an expert on his or her subject is the opportunity of learning a little bit of fascinating information that you may not see in official sources. Readers who have visited Witley Court recently will have seen the magnificent Perseus and Andromeda fountain which English Heritage has restored to working order. What people may not realise is that after the disastrous fire of 1937 which led ultimately to the abandonment of the Court, Billy Butlin wanted to buy the fountain and put it outside his holiday camp in Skegness! Fortunately for us, the deal fell through (as did Bing Crosby’s attempt to buy the fountain; he was put off by the logistics of dismantling it and transporting across the Atlantic and across the United States to his home in California).
These were some of the snippets imparted to members of the Vale of Evesham Historical Society at its last talk, held on the evening of 30 March. Ray Sturdy was the speaker, and a very interesting speaker too.
He traced the history of the house from its acquisition by the ironmaster Thomas Foley in the 17th century through generations of the Foley family to its sale in the 19th century to the Dudley family. The first Dudley owner, William, became earl of Dudley in 1860. It was during his ownership and that of his son that the house reached the summit of its magnificence as a palatial residence at which British and European royalty and the cream of London Society were entertained.
The decline of fortunes at Witley Court began with the economic consequences of the Boer War and the First World War, and was hastened by the tragic death of Rachel, the wife of the second earl, in 1920. After WWI the earl spent less and less time at the Court, and in 1920 he sold the house and parkland (the house being fully furnished) to Sir Herbert "Piggy" Smith, a carpet manufacturer. In September 1937, in the owner’s absence, a fire broke out which destroyed much of the building. Sir Herbert did not rebuild, but sold everything – buildings, land, furniture and fittings.
The property was taken into the care of English Heritage in 1988. The Perseus and Andromeda fountain is now working, the gardens are being restored to their original 19th century design, and it is hoped, said Ray, that the smaller Flora Fountain (facing what were the royal apartments) will also come back into use.
Lively discussions afterwards focussed on the sources of the fortunes of the Dudley family (the first earl apparently owned 200 coal mines!).