Leighton Hall has been owned for generations by the famous Gillow family of Lancaster. It is a popular tourist destination for those who appreciate its fine Georgian style and Gillow furniture. However, it has not always had such a peaceful existence.

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Leighton Hall

Early Turmoil

Like many of Lancashire’s ‘stately homes’, the families living at Leighton Hall were Catholics, which often led them to fall foul of the ruling authorities. Of the twenty-six recorded owners, only one was not a Catholic.

Sir George Middleton was a Colonel in King Charles I’s army. During the Civil War he was knighted and made a Baronet at Durham, at the time of the Battle of Piercebridge in 1642. His loyalty to the crown meant that he was subsequently fined by Cromwell’s government. He did attend Protestant church services, but his wife remained a devout Catholic throughout her life. Much of the hall from their time has now been altered or replaced, but a garden sundial with his and his wife Ann’s initials, dated 1647, remains in place in the garden.

A later owner of Leighton Hall was Albert Hodgson, who supported the Jacobite uprising of 1715. He was captured at the Battle of Preston, taken to Liverpool Castle and locked away for 15 years. When he was finally released from prison, he came back to Leighton to find it in a sorry state, fire damaged, its contents stolen courtesy of King George I’s army. The ownership of the property had been confiscated from him and a friend had bought it back on his behalf, but he now was saddled with a large mortgage.

The Present Hall

Things improved when Albert’s daughter, Mary, married George Towneley of Towneley Hall. George was wealthy, and had the house rebuilt in a fashionable Georgian style, designed by John Hird. It consisted of a central block flanked by two open wings. When George moved into the hall it would have been shrouded in woodland, but the style of the day was for open parkland. Cutting down the trees revealed the natural bowl amphitheatre in front of the house, and this landscaping that was instigated in 1763 has been retained up to the present day.

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The classic open parkland view from the front of the house

When George died, the hall was sold on and, in 1822, it was bought by Richard Gillow, the grandson of Robert Gillow, the founder of the famous Gillow furniture dynasty. Richard’s father had grown the firm into a very lucrative business, and Richard himself was a wealthy man. He had the house extended by enclosing the open wings. A limestone facade was put on to the building, giving it its present appearance in the Gothic style. Richard and his wife Elizabeth had 14 children, and their son Richard Thomas Gillow inherited the property from them.

Richard Thomas added the three-storey Victorian wing and its neighbouring tower, along with the conservatory. The well-known Lancaster architectural firm of Paley and Austin designed the extension. By the time he was 70, Richard Thomas decided that no further maintenance or repairs would be necessary, as he would not live long enough to see their benefit. Ironically, when he died in 1906 he had reached the age of 99, by which point the property was in a poor state.

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Tower added by Paley and Austin

His grandson Charles Richard Gillow inherited. He died in 1923, but his widow Helen lived on there until her death in 1966. Their daughter Helen married James Roskell Reynolds and during the 1950s they opened the house up to the public, turning it into a tourist attraction, partly due to difficult financial circumstances. When their son Richard married Caroline Susan Kenyon (known as Suzie) she began to work with her father-in-law James to develop the tourism side of the house. They cast around looking for something to offer the visitor in addition to a tour of the house. A hopeful letter from a man who offered to do bird displays was eagerly accepted. It became a staple of the visitor experience, at a time when bird displays were rare events in the country.

The house has diversified into event hosting over the years, both public and private. Notably, in 1984, Leighton Hall was converted into Ridling Thorpe Manor, for an episode of ITV production of Sherlock Homes, The Adventure of the Dancing Men. The story of how Suzie grew the diverse tourism side of the business is detailed in her book Keeping the Roof On: Stories from a not very stately home, available at the hall’s gift shop. It takes the reader through the perils and pitfalls of running a historic house as a business, and looks at the enormous problems that can occur, such as the discovery of extensive dry rot. Today, her daughter Lucy has joined her in the tourism business.

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The Long Garden historically used for archery, and a deep flower border on the outside of the walled garden

Visiting Today

There is a wealth of Gillow furniture within the house. Pieces of particular interest include: an eight-leaved daisy table for playing cards, where each ‘petal’ can be folded down, perhaps when a player retires; eighteen walnut chairs designed by Robert Gillow, the founder of the firm; the Imperial dining table patented by Richard Gillow as one of the first extendable tables of its time; a games table with a reversible top featuring a backgammon surface inlaid in ebony and ivory; and Elizabeth Gillow’s work box for storing silk, wools and embroideries that also functioned as a writing desk.

Tours are conducted through the rooms that the family use on a daily basis. The hallway features the original cantilever staircase put in place by George Towneley. The present dining room was the billiard room (once a necessity in so many stately homes), which is revealed by it having a skylight. The principal bedroom has furniture that was brought by James Reynolds from the home of his parents near Liverpool, including the bed that James and his 12 brothers and sisters were born in. The Victorian music room hosted the famous Lancashire singer Kathleen Ferrier, who gave her last private recital there. The old kitchens are now the hall’s tea rooms, and keen-eyed diners will be able to spot the original meat hooks that are still in place.

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The vegetable growing section in the extensive walled garden

The gardens are laid out to be as they would have been in Victorian times. The long narrow lawn would have been used for archery. The walled kitchen garden still has part of its original small orchard, and a well-stocked vegetable and herb garden. Climbing roses cover its walls and it is a delight to walk through.

A woodland walk leads to a monument marking the family burial ground. Before Catholic emancipation the family were buried here, but the bodies were later relocated to Yealand, where George Towneley had established a church.

Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2022

Access

Usually open May through to September, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday 2pm-5pm. Check the website before you visit. Website link here

References

Leighton Hall: Historic seat of the Gillow family (2008) Jarrold Publishing. Available from Leighton Hall gift shop.

Keeping the Roof On: Stories from a not very stately home, Suzie Reynolds (2021) Guerilla Books. Available from the Leighton Hall gift shop.

visitheritage.co.uk