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Heydey and history of Suffolk's homes

PUBLISHED: 23:19 26 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:32 06 July 2010

IN their heyday numerous county houses across Suffolk echoed to the sound of laughter and the clink of champagne glasses.

But, before long, dozens had bitten the dust.

IN their heyday numerous county houses across Suffolk echoed to the sound of laughter and the clink of champagne glasses.

But, before long, dozens had bitten the dust.

Author Bill Roberts has been fascinated by the loss of 40 of Suffolk's big houses and his book, Lost Country Houses of Suffolk, reflects on the great houses that have disappeared over the years.

Retired accountant Mr Roberts, from Long Melford, has spent many hours combing through documents to research the lost era.

His subsequent book, very much a labour of love, tells the stories of these majestic country piles; who built them, who lived there, and how and why the end came.

The reasons for losses were many, he explains, but the sociological and economic background was similar.

“The place of the country house and its owners in English society had changed. The abolition of the 'rotten boroughs' by the Reform Act of 1832 and the moves towards a universal male franchise as the nineteenth century progressed reduced the power of landowners in national government.

“In the second half of the century, the creation of elected local government bodies removed from them and the clergy their dominant places in local politics and in rural society, so that the 'big house' ceased to be the centre of authority,” explained Mr Roberts.

Grain and meat imports led to a decline in landowners' income and the value of their estates. The introduction of death duties in 1894 was a further blow.

The Great War of 1914 to 1918 heralded the end of the sumptuous lifestyle.

Of estate workers who left to fight, many lost their lives or failed to return to the land. Many women who went to work in factories did not go back to domestic service.

Too little spare money and too much work needing to be done led to a spate of country house demolitions between the wars, with a good trade in architectural salvage developing, mainly with the United States.

The Second World War saw many houses requisitioned by the forces or turned into nursing homes or schools.

Sadly, neglect and misuse sometimes “verging on vandalism” damaged the fabric and hastened decay.

Of the Suffolk houses in Mr Robert's book 33 suffered demolition - 24 of them after 1945.

One of the lost houses featured in the book is Henham Hall, near Southwold.

The Elizabethan house, with its walled entrance courtyard and frontage embellished with towers at each corner and a central towered entrance was destroyed by a fire in 1773.

A replacement hall was designed by James Wyatt and remodelled by Edward Middleton Barry who converted it into an Italianate building in 1858 and subsequent years.

During the Great War the house was used as a military hospital with Lady Stradbroke as matron. In the Second World War the house was again requisitioned for military use.

In 1946 there was a fire at the house but was not serious with damage mainly restricted to the dining room.

By 1953, however, the fate of the house was sealed. Complications over the succession to the estate coupled with the deterioration of the fabric during the war left the family with no alternative but to demolish the house.

The Lost Country Houses of Suffolk by W M Roberts, is published by Suffolk-based Boydell Press at £29.95.

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