Rarely has the demolition of a country house excited so much interest as when it was revealed that Radford House near Plymstock was to be pulled down. After playing a central role in local history for over 600 years, the pulling down of the old walls held the possibility of revealing the truth behind some of the legends of the old house which included lost treasure and secret tunnels in the grounds and in the walls.
The lands were originally held by William le Abbé during the reign of King Henry III (1216-1272). His successor, Walter le Abbé, took the name Radford. The remains of two Norman-style abbeys (St Kevin and St Anthony) are situated on the lower part of the estate. It descended through the Radfords until it passed to the well-regarded Harris family during the reign of Edward VI (1461-1483).
Radford was essentially an Elizabethan 'E'-plan house which had been significantly altered with the addition of new wings and Georgian facades. It consisted of a central block with two long wings, one at the south-west and the other at the north-east, partly enclosing a forecourt. North-west of the central block was a small courtyard between a north-west extension of the two wings. The east wing was slightly smaller than the north and west wings and was probably the oldest part of the house. Comprising over 50 rooms it was one of the largest houses in the area with an architectural style and prestige on a par with Lanhydrock in Cornwall and the original core (now called the West Entrance Court) of Ashton Court near Bristol.
The house and estate were owned by the Harris family for over 500 years. During the reign of Elizabeth I, Sir Christopher Harris (b. c1553 - d.1625) represented Plymouth in Parliament and was also Vice-Admiral of Devon. His naval connections meant that he regularly entertained at Radford the finest captains in the fleet including the victory celebration of those who fought against the Spanish Armada attended by Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Howard and Hawkins amongst others.
A measure of Harris' wealth was that of the 'The Armada Service' which was also the origin of one of the 'lost treasure' legends which were associated with the house. Now in the British Museum, this fabulous collection of twenty-two silver dishes was made for Sir Christopher between 1581 and 1602 and represented the success of his work as an Admiralty official during the Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604) where he was presented with the silver reputedly captured from New World trading ships, principally Spanish. However, there is no firm evidence to support this claim. The silver was lost during the English Civil War when to avoid their seizure by the Parliamentary forces, the Harris family hid the collection on Dartmoor - and then couldn't find it again. The collection was only found in in 1827 by a farm labourer who put his pickaxe through one of the dishes. The collection was sold in 1911 for £1,500 (approx. £110,000 - 2007) and then again to the British Museum in 1992 for £900,000. Harris also stored at Radford '...some gold and silver in blocks...' which Drake had brought back from his South Seas voyages. Another source for the stories of 'lost' treasure.
The banqueting hall was equally impressive, richly panelled in oak and with large tables built into the walls at each end. It was in this room that Sir Walter Raleigh was held in 1618 for eight to ten days following his arrest and led to its naming as the 'Sir Walter Raleigh Room'. Following the demolition of the house the panelling disappeared and, despite a false lead that it might be in North Carolina, its whereabouts remain a mystery.
The colourful period of Radford's history when the Harris family were of considerable political and military influence in the Westcountry is vividly portrayed in Daphne du Maurier's novel "The King's General" (written in 1946). Ms. du Maurier later recorded in 1976 that she had not in fact visited the house prior to its demolition, but had based her fictional account upon numerous references to Radford in the Rashleigh Family papers which she had researched at her Cornish home "Menabilly" prior to writing the novel. Hence the rather harsh description of Radford as she imagined it in the 1600's, as being "A great barracks of a place, outside Plymouth", having been a reflection of the house's size rather than its later picturesque setting.
The house itself went through several stages of alterations. As mentioned earlier, the original Elizabethan building was significantly updated during the Georgian period during which time internally almost all traces of the earlier house were removed or covered up. During the middle of the eighteenth century the south-west wing was added following on from the addition of the north east wing in the late seventeenth century. During the later alterations the large sash windows were inserted and the external walls plastered. The semi-circular bay in the south-west wing was probably added at the same time. The older north-east wing still retained the architectural features which marked it out as an earlier building with dormer windows, hipped roof, numerous lofty brick chimneystacks and a wooden-pillared colonnade in the rear courtyard. The colonnade supported a projecting upper storey which were slate-hung. From this courtyard there was access to the very oldest part of the house - steps led down to the wine cellar which was part of the first house and featured three stone rectangular mullioned windows.
The house passed through generations of the Harris (and later Harris-Bulteel) family until it was sold following the bankruptcy of the 'Harris Bulteel & Co Naval Bank' in August 1914. The estate was bought in 1917 for £11,000 (approx £440,000 - 2007) by William ("Billy") A. Mitchell (b. 1861 - d. 1930), a prominent local businessman, dignitary, tidal corn miller and landowner known locally as the "Uncrowned King of Plymstock". As he preferred to live in his other house, a modern Edwardian villa residence nearby called "Rockville Park", Radford was let to various tenants including a Col. Parker and Mrs Jarrett-Bell (widow of the Director of HM Royal Dockyard, Devonport). The final tenants were the estate lodge keepers, a married couple, who conducted guided tours of the house which were apparently enlivened with tales of treasure and tunnels and who probably are most responsible for the legends.
In 1930, Mr Mitchell died suddenly of a heart attack whilst addressing the County Council at Exeter Castle. Much of his estate was donated to charities but Radford House passed to his 15-year old son, W.A. Gordon Mitchell (b. 1915 - d.1968). By this time the condition of the house was deteriorating fast through lack of use and vandalism. The theft of many internal fixtures and fittings only accelerated the decline. The son's trustees, his mother and a Mr Everson, employed experts to assess the house and suggest possible uses. However, the structure of the house was judged to be so compromised that it had passed the point of economic repair.
So, as with many houses in the 1930s, the end was due to a combination of factors not least of which was the immense cost of maintaining such a large house. A report in the Western Morning News, date July 27 1935, describes as 'a rambling old ruin...falling into a state of irreparable dilapidation' which is '...of such a size that no modern landowner would purchase it for his own use...'. He also describes how "Recently intruders have broken into the house and have damaged the walls and mirrors in an attempt to take away some of the more valuable fittings.". After attempts to sell the property had failed enquiries were made with a view to a historical organisation taking it over but these efforts were also unsuccessful. In 1937 the work started with a team of seven men in six days reducing the house so that nothing remained on site leaving only the gardens, lodges, farms and cottages. In the late 1940s a new house was built in the higher end of the estate and took the name of Radford House and contained a large Elizabethan granite fireplace lintel removed from that famous dining room.
The park was then sold for housing though a news report stated that '...development...will be controlled, and the estate of fine treelands, reaching down to Radford Lake, with the old abbeys, will be preserved intact.". In 1956 Gordon Mitchell transferred the lodges, lake and most of the north park to the council for use as a recreational area and in the 1960s what remained of the estate was sold for housing. Today the parkland and lake, despite further development, is still intact, providing a poignant memorial with its mock castle gateway, beautiful lake and fine trees to the loss of one of the most historically interesting houses in Devon.
The information and images for this page and the gallery was kindly supplied by N. Mitchell - grandson of W.A. Mitchell.
Copies of the sale documents and maps showing the location of the house are available on a local history website.