September 24, 2005
Nocton Hall - A History
First published in MACLA News Magazine 20. - Autumn 2005.
Nocton Hall – A Journey Through Time
Come October it will be a year since the tragic Nocton Hall fire. The Hall is best remembered as a stylish country mansion dating back to the 19th century but that is only part of the story as in truth it is enshrouded in history going back much further with close association with the monarchy and politicians spanning nine centuries.
Here in a nutshell is that history ...
Presumably it all began with the Romans and a Consul was set up on the site of the present Hall once Agricola, had given us the Car Dyke, near Nocton. When they left, the Domesday Book suggests that a Saxon, Ulaf settled down on the same site. The country slipped into a state of turmoil until 1066 when William the Conquer arrived. Two years later one of William’s leading soldiers Norman de Adreci (D’Arcy) arrived to be allotted 33 parishes choosing Nocton as his base to enjoy over four decades here.
His son Robert introduced Benedictine Monks into a Priory on Nocton’s Abbey Hill which saw holy men here for some 400 years. Following Roberts death came three generations of Thomas D’Arcy’s with the second marrying Alice D’Eyncourt of Blankney. D’Arcy’s were much hated by King John and twice the Sovereign ventured into Lincolnshire seeking vengeance, with both ending in disaster. October 1215 his “entourage” strayed from a firm route across the Wash to be lost in the quick-sands, thus losing the entire Royal heritage. Then a year later, his trip proved fatal, as he suffered dysentery which turned to pneumonia and he died. In 1263 Norman D’Arcy took ownership of the estate and along with Simon de Montfort he showed radical democratic views during the reign of Henry 3rd which saw Simon lose his head but Norman, more fortunate, only lost his land. Some time later this was returned to him and in 1283 Edward 1st made him Lord of Nocton.
Following Norman’s death only one further D’Arcy, Philip, lived in this Lincolnshire Estate thus concluding 260 years of D’Arcy’s. Philip also fell foul of the monarchy with the land forfeited but once again it was reinstated under certain rules of loyalty. In 1350 Nocton was divided between Julianna and her sister Agnes, daughters of Philip. Sadly Nocton suffered through these ladies ownership as their spouses had little love for the estate, being large landowners in their own right.
Almost a century later a sparkle returned to Nocton when the Wymbishe’s, descendants of Julianna, took ownership, Firstly Sir Nicholas Wymbishe became the first “master” to be a Priest. Highly knowledgeable, he lacked estate experience but turned things around following neglect, including the rare introduction of an Ale house for the Priory, known as the “Halfour Inn”. When Sir Nicholas died his nephew Thomas Wymbishe took the reins and Nocton continued to flourish until his death in 1477 when the estate was again broken up to provide for his three sons with the eldest, John coming to Nocton Hall, Nicholas to Blankney and Thomas to Metheringham. John farmed Nocton for almost fifty years but his son Christopher only saw four years as head with his nine year old son Thomas inheriting Nocton on his death.
At twenty Thomas married the beautiful, Elizabeth Tailboys, soon to become a Baroness in her own right. This marriage saw the first attendance at the Hall of a Sovereign with Henry VIII, wishing to find how such a charming young lady should have avoided the call to the Court, making a visit in October 1541. Accompanied by his fifth wife Katherine Howard a chestnut tree was planted near the Hall to mark the occasion. Thomas, through his debauchery, saw life come to an end in 1552 when only 31. He left debts which took over 12 years to clear. His wife quickly joined the “ladies” at Hampton Court and married the Earl of Warwick releasing all claim to Nocton passing it to her sister-in-law Frances, wife of Sir Richard Towneley.
Sadly the fate of the Nocton Park Priory had been sealed around 1535 when Henry VIII closed it on financial grounds. He gifting it and some 300 acres of land, to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, grandfather of Lady Jane Grey, the young girl who became Queen for just nine days, but was executed at 16 in 1554 the same year she should have inherited the Priory. Over many years Nocton Hall was believed to be haunted by the Grey Lady – was Lady Jane Grey the Grey Lady ?
Back to the Hall; the Towneley family, were to see it in their hands for the next 130 years until 1660 with the fifth generation, another Richard Towneley, having to sell it to recover massive debts. The 17th century was an unsettled period for them in a time of Civil War with members heavily involved in soldiering or politics. When their era came to an end ownership went to Lord Charles Stanhope, who, had taken voluntary exile abroad during the “war” from his home Harrington Hall, near Horncastle. The War had seen much divide between families and in an effort to bring his family back together Charles willed his estate to a distant relative, Sir William Ellyes the son of Ann (nee Stanhope) and Sir Thomas Ellys. Sir William and his wife Isabella created Nocton into a home to rank amongst the greatest in England.
The best architects were used and designed a virtually new Hall in the shape of the letter “E” to depict the initial of their surname. The two wings were capped with cupolas, with solid stone winding stairs. The centre section which housed the front door hosted an even greater octagonal cupola with leaded windows which gave the effect of a lantern house when lit at night. The structure of the Hall was in brick with stone principles, except for the extreme north wing which retained the original stone of the Hall dating back to the eleventh century. Stone from the now demolished properties of Charles Brandon was extensively used. Having been active in Parliament for 25 years Sir William passed the house over to his eldest son Richard and he followed the family tradition in politics. He married twice, first to Elizabeth Hussey of Doddington, who died when just 36 and then to Sarah Gould of Iver, Buckinghamshire.
During his life Richard acquired a collection of 10,000 books which were housed in the library in Nocton Hall. On his death this library was willed in its entirety to Lord Hobart of Blickling Hall, Norfolk. Sarah, a widow for only four years, surprised everyone when she married the notorious Francis Dashwood, viewed as the “sex symbol” of the 18th century and involved in the infamous Hell Fire Club. In 1751 Dashwood instructed the building of Dunston Pillar, the “Land Lighthouse” on the notorious west edge of the Estate. Having no children from her first marriage, Sarah and Sir Francis stepped aside with the Hall passing on to Richard’s second cousin, Lord George Hobart. George and his wife Albinia arrived at Nocton Hall in 1765. She had a great weakness for gambling but George could say little as she had wealth in her own right. Mindful of her habit he set to work on increasing his land ownership by fencing of vast parts of the heath and fen, with it rising from 4,500 acres to over 7,000. The crunch for the Hobart’s came in early 1786 with debts amassed seeing their Branston estate sold and Nocton re-mortgaged. The total loss of the estate had been prevented but effectively Albinia had wiped out the family fortune.
Two of their offspring Robert and Henry were to further enrich life in Nocton following their parents’ death. The youngest, Henry became the vicar of Nocton, then later the Dean of Windsor where he was to become the only Dean to bury three Monarchs, namely George III, George IV and William IV. Robert, the fourth Earl Hobart, who had one daughter, Sarah saw action in the American Civil War and then politically, before becoming Governor of Madras, but he died at 56 when he was thrown from his horse while riding in St James Park in February 1816.
The Nocton estate passed to his daughter Sarah who married Frederick John Robinson, the second son of the Earl of Grantham. Sarah’s life was littered with tragedy, but she possibly had the greatest impact on Nocton. Her tragedies began with her losing her mother in child birth soon after the family had moved to India. Then her father was so tragically killed. Her first child Eleanor was born on 22 May 1815 but a year later a baby son died only two days after birth. In 1826 their daughter Eleanor was to die. Sarah’s husband Frederick was a leading light in the political world and in 1823 the Robinson’s took up residence at 11 Downing Street where he became the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1827 he was made Viscount Goderich of Nocton and that same year the Sovereign made him the Premier and the Robinson’s moved into Number 10, albeit for only 34 days, resigning in January 1828. That same year Sarah gave birth to a son George who would become one of the country’s greats.
He was already unique in history being conceived in 11 Downing Street and born in Number 10. On standing down as Premier, Frederick was created Earl of Ripon. Despite their lifestyle the Robinson’s devoted great love to Nocton but further tragedy was only just around the corner for them. Firstly the Nocton Mill, located near the main Sleaford Road was burnt down in 1833 which encouraged the Earl to purchase the most modern of Fire Engines to safeguard the Estate. A year later tragedy struck yet again when at 9.00 pm on Tuesday 15th July 1834 flames licked under the eves of the Hall roof. Every available body turned out in an effort to save the Hall. The new Fire Engine was utilised but proved totally useless as the blaze spread rapidly. After fifteen hours it was extinguished but only a small portion of the north wing remained intact. In a “true grit” style Sarah began the task of rebuilding the Hall with a close friend, architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott, providing the new design. Much of the stone came from the estate quarry on the Lincoln to Sleaford road but the more durable roofing struts came from Ancaster. The foundation stone was laid by Sarah and son George on the north side just seven years later, on 26th October 1841. In gratitude the Lady Ripon set about rebuilding almost the entire village including the Church of St. Peter. The new named All Saints Church, built 1862 was in memory of her husband Frederick (d. 1859) (born on the 1st November - All Saints Day) and he became the only Premier to be laid to rest in Nocton.
Sarah died eight years later with Nocton deeply indebted to her. The new “lord” Viscount Goderich (later to become Earl De Grey of Wrest) saw his life mapped out in politics as he rose rapidly to Secretary of State in the War Office. In 1871 he was tasked with quelling a very delicate situation between Britain and the United States during their Civil War. In gratitude Prime Minister Gladstone made him a Marquis. He retired briefly from politics to spend time in the south of France at the home of a close friend George Hodgson an industrialist and banker from West Yorkshire. In April 1880 he came out of retirement to be made the Viceroy of India only to find himself in the middle of another critical situation, this time in the turbulent country of Afghanistan. Again through his diplomacy he turned a situation around to see stability in this country for some 40 years; how we could have done with such a politician in these times of similar confrontations. Lord Ripon never forgot his roots and during his ownership of the estate financed a new school but his major project saw the introduction of a railway line / station which opened on 1st August 1882.
One of his greatest friends was Lady Florence Nightingale and with their similar strong views he helped introduce the first Military Hospital at Woolwich for the care of the wounded from the Crimean War. How ironic it is that in years to come thousands of military personnel would pass through the grounds of Nocton Hall. In late 1888 life in Nocton was shattered in the news that Lord Ripon was to sell his estate to his great friend from Bradford, George Hodgson. Hodgson was a successful businessman in the loom making trade and already in his late 60’s he was never heavily involved in matters of running the estate He soon handed the reins to the eldest son John and his wife Ann, nee Craven. John’s first contribution to Nocton Hall was to create a lake which received fresh water from Dunston Beck. John’s health was in serious decline and he died in 1902 with son Norman, who had seen active service in the South African Boar War, taking over. Norman, never an accomplished horseman like his predecessors, had a reputation as a fine shot and game shooting soon became an important part of estate life. With the outbreak of War the village saw many of the local men folk lose their life on the western front but Norman was quick to utilise the service of prisoners of war who soon gained his respect. On the arrival of America into the conflict in 1917 Norman and his family move into Embsay House with the Hall being turning into a convalescent home for young American officers.
Towards the end of 1919 the hall and estate were sold to a man who had little affection for domestic life in the village, William H. Dennis. For 150 years the “lords of the manor” had received much support from tenant farmers but the new owners were to change this as they systematically gave them notice to quit, a sad sign of the brutal facts of modern day farming. Over 38 miles of light railway was constructed over the estate to speed up the transportation of beet and potatoes to Nocton station. Much to the glee of the locals the estate again changed hands and become the property of Smith’s Potato Crisps in 1936. Smith’s land agent John Ireson and his wife soon revived life in the area but once again occurrences on the larger scale were to change local life. A year into World War 2 Nocton Hall, having not been occupied since the Americans left in 1919, was acquired by the Air Ministry and turned into an RAF Hospital. For the first time in almost 1900 years, the Hall was severed from the outlying estate. The Hall itself was used as a “clearing station” until 1943. Then the Americans took possession of the Hall grounds for a second time with the premises known as the United States Army Seventh General Hospital with the Hall used as an Officers’ Club.
At the conclusion of War in 1945 the RAF selected Nocton Hall as their permanent hospital for the county. For 35 years Nocton Hall became one of the country’s undisputed RAF Hospitals but sadly on 31st March 1983 the government decided to close it for ever. The Nocton estate had been sold in 1974 to Tom’s Food but only two years later it was passed on to the British Field Products Ltd.
The warmth of the old tenant farming had long gone but is not forgotten. There is little chance that Nocton will ever again see these past glories. In 1984 for the third occasion Nocton Hall was leased to the Americans, this time as a wartime contingency hospital during the Gulf War. Some 1,300 US medical staff were sent there but fortunately only 35 casualties received treatment here. In its latter days just 13 American personnel remained here to keep the hospital serviceable but on 30th September 1995 RAF Nocton Hall was again handed back to the British Government to stand empty.
On Saturday 24th October 2004 a fire broke out in the now disused Hall with arson suspected. At the height of the fire 70 fire-fighters battled to bring the blaze under control but it was to no avail as only a shell was left of this once magnificent Hall but this time it really does look like it is