The Norris Family, Builders of Speke Hall
The Norris family had a house at Speke from the 1300s, but only hidden fragments of this now remain in the present hall. The earliest parts of the house that we see today are in the south range and were built by William Norris, who inherited the estate in 1524. In 1530, he had the Great Hall constructed and, a year later, added the Great Parlour. Visitors can see his image in the Great Parlour today along with his two wives, father and 19 children. These two rooms would have been too grand to have been in everyday use, they were largely status symbols to display the family’s wealth and power.
By the time he died in 1568, he had expanded the Speke estate considerably to include property in Garston, Hale, Halewood, Allerton and Much Woolton. As a knight and a Member of Parliament from Liverpool he had positioned the family to be a very powerful presence in the area for hundreds of years to come.
His son Edward had the east and north ranges built. It is probably at this time that various priest holes were installed, including ones in both the Green and Blue Bedrooms, the latter of which also had a spy hole. Once Queen Elizabeth I was excommunicated by the pope in 1570, the position of Catholics in the country became very tenuous. The historical records show that Edward was fined £15 as his wife refused to attend Protestant church services. More seriously, he was found guilty of harbouring Richard Britain, a Catholic priest.
Edward’s son William was variously described as a “gallant and high spirited soldier” and a “quarrelsome spendthrift”. Financial troubles forced William into taking a mortgage out on the property, which meant he took an inventory of the contents in 1624. This gives us an intriguing snapshot of what it was like at the time. Twenty-six of the rooms were listed as having a bed in them. Sir Thomas Gerardo, a neighbour from Cheshire, had his own guest bedroom (now the Blue Bedroom) hung with blue and yellow taffeta. ‘My Lords Chamber’ (now the Oak Bedroom) had green and yellow damask bed hangings, two of the window seats were fitted with cushions of cloth of gold and cloth of silver. The Blue Drawing Room had all its upholstery, curtains and table carpets in blue. It was clearly very much in everyday use as the records show it having backgammon and chess boards, as well as toasting forks for preparing a light snack while gaming.
William was not without troubles over his religion. He was summoned to the Star Chamber after he hit a Protestant magistrate who had queried his lack of church attendance. This resulted in a huge fine of £1000, which he managed to have reduced to £250. This was still a large amount, and he found himself having to sell off parts of the Speke estate to pay it. He even tried to disinherit his son and sell the house he was living in.
The Beauclerk Family
The male Norris family line ended and Mary Norris married Lord Sidney Beauclerk, bringing the estate to the Beauclerks. Lord Sidney, known to some as ‘Worthless Sidney’, was the grandson of Nell Gwyn and son of the Duke of St Albans. In turn, their son Topham inherited but he was only an occasional visitor to Speke, preferring to live in London. As a great collector of books he had 30,000 titles in his Bloomsbury library. When Topham died at the age of 40 the property passed to his six year old son. When he came of age and took over his inheritance, he quickly sold all of his Lancashire estates, including Speke. The house then went into a period of decline, often being lived in by tenants and farmers.
The Watt Family: The Three Richards
Richard Watt bought Speke in 1795, shortly before his death. He had made his money as both an owner of sugar plantations worked by slaves in Jamaica, and as the director of a shipping company that traded slave-produced goods. His great-nephew (also named Richard) inherited the estate, the plantations and slaves, along with £100,000 in cash. He strongly opposed William Wilberforce’s efforts to bring an end to the slave trade and emancipate slaves. Richard married Hannah Burns and set about repairing and restoring the house. The Great Hall and Drawing Room, along with some of the bedrooms, were completely refurbished.
At his death his son, another Richard, inherited the house, but was too young to occupy it. A timber merchant called Joseph Brereton became the tenant and during his occupancy the hall again became badly run down and neglected. The Great Parlour was described as a complete ruin with the inlaid oak floor removed, windows boarded up and ivy forcing its way inside. When Richard came of age, the hall was empty as all the furniture had been left by his father to Richard’s brother.
Richard married Adelaide Hignett of Chester. Together they oversaw the restoration and refurbishment of the hall, commissioning locally made heavily carved oak furniture from local producers, had tapestries hung, and the kitchen refurbished. It was during their time that the gardens we now see were laid out.
His wife predeceased him and he himself died at the age of only 30, about to leave for the West Indies on a new yacht. Their daughter Adelaide inherited the estate. As a minor she was brought up by her great-uncle, a Mr. Sprot. The hall was then leased.
Frederick Leyland: A Tenant with Ambitions
In 1867, Frederick Leyland took over the lease for Speke Hall. During his lifetime he had worked his way up from shipping clerk to owner of a shipping company. He set about doing a huge restoration of the hall, much of which we can still see today. Just some of the changes he implemented include the setting up of the present Billiard Room, which had been in a total state of disrepair. It features Pugin-designed tiles manufactured by Mintons, and would have been where he would have hung some of his pre-Raphelite paintings. The scullery was converted to the present library and this features William Morris wallpaper and chairs. The Blue Drawing Room was redecorated, and the corridors too. Keen on his privacy, he had the north and west lodges built to keep away unwanted visitors and employed guards to prevent people cutting holly from the trees at Christmas.
Frederick Leyland saw himself as a patron of the arts. He had a collection of old masters and pre-Raphaelite paintings, and he commissioned new pieces by J.A.M. Whistler and Dante Gabrielle Rossetti. Both Whistler and Rossetti were visitors to the house, which Rossetti described as “a glorious old house, full of interest in every way”. The relationships soured though, as when Frederick and his wife had marital difficulties, Whistler took his wife’s side. Rossetti did not help matters by spreading a rumour that Frederick’s wife and Whistler were going to elope. Frederick threatened to “publicly horsewhip” Whistler if he came near his wife again.
Adelaide Returns – the Last of the Watt Family
Frederick Leyland’s lease ended in 1877 and he moved to Woolton Hall. The next year, Adelaide Watt came into her inheritance and moved into Speke. In the years before she took up her ownership, a tight grip had been kept on the tenants who worked the land by her guardian Mr. Sprot. When their cottages needed improving, Sprot stated that he did not approve of parlours for poor people. On being forced by the local authority to improve sanitation, he wrote “ the philistines are upon us”. A new church was built at Speke in memorial to Adelaide’s father, Richard, and Mr Sprot was able to approve every part of its construction.
Adelaide kept up this tight control and would herself instruct tenants on how to vote in political elections. She took complete charge over the building of a new farm complex. After her death, the farm site became the Liverpool aerodrome in 1930. The farmhouse was the terminal and some of the outlying buildings converted into aircraft hangers. Adelaide’s will ensured that the house was passed on to the National Trust in 1943. They have overseen the management and restoration of Speke together with Liverpool Council and the Merseyside Corporation.
The house and estate is now open for everyone to visit. Although it has many Victorian restorations in parts, there is still much of the original Tudor buildings and fittings to see. The National Trust do an excellent job of maintaining both the hall and its surrounding gardens, and it is well worth a trip for anyone interested in Lancashire’s historic halls.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2018
There is a charge to enter the house and grounds. See the National Trust website for the entrance fee here
Speke Hall, Belinda Cousens (1994), National Trust . Booklet available from Speke Hall.
Lancashire Halls, Margaret Chapman (1990), Printwise Publications Ltd, Salford