Gopsall Hall could safely lay claim to being the grandest Georgian country house in Leicestershire with its size, grand pediment, impressive interiors, and royal patronage.
Gopsall Hall was built in 1750 by Charles Jennens (b.1700 – d. 20 November 1773). John Jennens (b. ? - d. 1653) set the foundations for the family's rise from merely well-off to rich when he obtained permission from the Duke of Newcastle in 1666 to obtain wood and produce charcoal in Kirkby Wood, followed by the completion of a iron furnace (for which huge quantities of charcoal were required) in 1671. By the 1650s/1660s, the Jennens were wealthy enough to have built a replacement for the original Erdington Hall in Erdington, Warwickshire. It is recorded that in 1693 2,034 tonnes of cast iron were sold by the Jennens - though that particular furnace went out of use shortly afterwards. This wasn't unusual because as the surrounding woods were felled and burnt it was easier to move the furnaces. The Jennens then obtained land rights in the Tame valley - midway between the Arden woods and the iron ore mines - and established another smelting furnace and carried on. With each move they acquired more land - and also invested the profits in property in both town and country. The close proximity of Birmingham, that powerhouse of the industrial revolution, which required huge quantities of cast iron, and their property investments generated great wealth for the Jennens family. By 1798 their land alone was valued at approximately £650,000 (approx. £53m - 2007 value) with a further £500,000 (approx. £40.1m - 2007) held in stocks and cash.
It was this wealth which enabled Charles Jennens, son of Humphrey, to build the new Gopsall Hall. There had been a manor at Gopsall since the Norman Conquest which eventually became part of Merevale Abbey. In 1560 it was sold to Francis Hastings, Earl of Huntingdonshire, who in turn sold it to Sir Thomas Merry in 1618. The Merry family held it until 1677 when it was sold to Sir John Lowther who only held it for eight years before selling it to Humphrey Jennens in 1685.
Charles was born in 1700 and lived with his father in the original Gopsall Hall until his father's death in 1747. On inheriting the vast Jennens wealth, and dissatisfied with the old house, that same year Charles resolved to build a new house more in keeping with his status and views and commissioned designs. Charles was an educated man with a particular interest in the arts, who may have felt the design of the original Jacobean house very old-fashioned. Perhaps the neo-classical design of the famous Gopsall Temple had more to do with the preferences of the son than the father.
According to one account2, the architect of the new Gopsall Hall was John Westley of Leicester but more recently the design has been attributed to either William or David Hiorns, the leading architects and masons from Warwick3. In turn their design would have been heavily influenced by the new trend for 'pattern books' published by the likes William Halfpenny and Batty Langley which facilitated the much wider dissemination of the fashionable designs of influential architects such as Inigo Jones, William Kent and even drawing on Palladio. These books were published enthusiastically and widely in the 1730s, and can be considered one of the most significant reasons for the quality of Georgian house building in general. The site of the house was carefully selected to provide the best views both from and of the house, sitting as it did on a highest ground in the centre of the estate. Work started in 1750 and no expense was spared with the final total reputedly amounting to £100,000 (approx. £14m - 2007).
The Hiorns' design was executed almost exactly as shown in their proposal4 with only the roof being altered to give a lower profile. The following description of the splendour of Gopsall Hall comes from 'A Topographical History of the County of Leicester' by John Curtis5:
The House: "In the centre of the south front are six Corinthian columns of fine proportions, supporting a vow of balustrades, behind which there is a receding pediment, (part of the wall of the house itself) having a ship in a storm carved in white stone, with a haven in the foreground, and an inscription over the entrance, "Fortiter occupa Portum." On each side of the centre of this front is a wing (that on the left forming the Chapel and the other the Library), projecting 27 feet from the front, the whole length of which, including the two wings, is 180 feet. The principal entrance is at the north front, and there is a small stone portico over the door which leads into the Entrance Hall".
Interiors: "...this [Entrance] hall is about 28 feet square, and at the south end is a Gallery supported on five Corinthian columns, the balustrades of which are richly carved and ornamented, forming a passage to the sleeping rooms above, and the ceiling is exquisitely chased in compartments, bearing various devices. The Library is a splendid room about 52 feet 6 inches long by 24 feet 6 inches wide, and very lofty ; the window at the south end is of painted glass, the painting of which was executed by the Baroness Howe, and is particularly beautiful, both from the excellence of the painting as well as from its situation. The Music Room, which is about 40 feet long by 25 wide, contains a very large organ, in a mahogany case, (occupying nearly the whole breadth of the room), the open diapasons of which are the gilt speaking pipes in front and which are about 1 6 feet long. Between the library and music room is an Anti-room, 18 feet by 24, and by means of folding doors these three rooms can be laid into one. The Dining Room, 32 feet by 23, is lighted by four windows, and four smaller ones above ; there is an elegant centre piece, occupying nearly the whole of the ceiling, representing Neptune riding in a Nautilus shell drawn by horses, and accompanied by a small figure playing on a conch before him, the remainder of the ceiling is beautifully stuccoed, as indeed are the whole of the «eilings throughout the house : there are several fine Paintings in this room ; amongst which are the Portrait of Mr. Jennens, and a full-length figure of Handel, who composed his Messiah and some of his other works at Gopsal ; the chimney piece is very splendid, having for supporters two Angels in Parian marble with their wings folded across their breasts. The Chapel is perhaps one of the most beautiful in England, its length is 36 feet, and breadth 24 feet, the seats, altar, and wainscoting are entirely of cedar, richly and tastefully carved, except the standards of the communion table, which are made out of the oak in which Charles II. concealed himself after the battle of Worcester ; the chimney piece is most exquisitely carved in marble, and over it hangs a fine Painting of our Saviour's Crucifixion, by Van Dyke ; the ceiling is tastefully chased with flowers in various compartments, similar to those of the rest of the house ; the Reading Desk or Pulpit, is partly formed of a golden eagle, with its wings expanded, and the other parts of it are cedar elaborately carved and decorated."
The grounds were equally impressive, with the house overlooking a park which covered 724 acres (2.93 km2) and featured two lakes, a walled garden, a Chinese boathouse and the famous Temple. In 1818 a grand entrance arch modelled on the Arch of Constantine to a design by Wyatville was added. The Temple's fame comes from its use by George Frederic Handel to compose one of the 18th-century's greatest pieces of music; 'The Messiah'. Handel was a frequent visitor to Gopsall Hall during the time of Humphrey Jennens - but it was Charles who developed a strong musical connection with their guest. In fact, Charles Jennens was a noted writer and acted as librettist, supplying to the words to not only 'The Messiah' but also Handel's 'Saul', written in 1737. 'The Messiah' was premiered in March 1743 at Covent Garden in London in the presence of King George II, who reportedly rose to his feet at the 'Hallelujah' chorus. The organ played by Handel which once graced the magnificent Gopsall chapel is now housed in Packington Church, Warwickshire.
Charles Jennens dies in November 1773, unmarried and without a direct heir. The house and estate passed, after some epic legal wrangling, to his cousin Hon. Penn Assheton Curzon (b. ? - d. 1797). On his death it passed to his son, Richard William Penn Curzon-Howe, the first Earl Howe (b. 1796 - d. 1870) and then through the family. In 1852, the house was described as an "...elegant and spacious mansion [which] contains a considerable collection of beautiful and valuable paintings..." which included works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Teniers, Cuyp, Vandyke, Murillo, and other Old Masters6. An indication of not only the importance of the Earl Howe but also the grandeur of the Hall were the regular visits by King Edward VII for the sport on the estate which culminated in a full Royal Visit by the King and Queen and various members of the Royal Family for a shooting weekend in December 1902. Despite the history and connections, the family sold the house in 1919, prefering to live in their smaller Buckinghamshire estate, Penn House.
The house was bought by Samuel James Waring, of the famous furniture firm 'Waring and Gillows', who already owned Foots Cray Place in Kent. Waring was awarded a baronetcy in 1919, before his elevation to Lord Waring of Foots Cray Place in 1922. The fact that Waring chose Foots Cray Place as his title rather than Gopsall indicates that he considered Gopsall either a temporary possession or as a mere country retreat rather than his main home. Lord Waring sold off most of the estate except for the house and the parklands to the Crown estate in 1927, before selling to them the house and remaining land in 1932. The house was never to be a stately home again and was shut up until the Second World War when it, in 1942, it became the No 1 Radio Mechanics School of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) who used the house and estate as an experimental radar base until 1945.
Following the war, the house was again abandoned as there was no family to take back possession and it was unlikely to have been in particularly good condition after three hard years as a military base. With no secure future, on 30 May 1951 news was given that Gopsall Hall was to be demolished7. The loss of Gopsall Hall was part of a sadly familiar story in the 1950s; a huge house built for a much grander age was impractical in those austere times. As many as one large country house was being demolished every two and half days in the 1950s so the loss of another just became part of the tide.
By 1952 most of the buildings were demolished.7. Gopsall Park Farm was built over most of the original site and is not accessible without invitation. All that remains today apart from the crude outline of the former parkland and avenues of trees are sections of the walled garden, an underground reservoir, the gatehouse and the temple ruins associated with Handel.
Further images are available from Norton juxta Twycross: Gopsall Hall gallery
1 - 'A Topographical Dictionary of England' - Samuel Lewis (Eds) (7th Edition, 1848)
2 - 'Select Views of Leicestershire' - J. Thoresby (1789)
3 - 'Georgian country houses' - pg.25 - John Harris (1968)
4 - 'Gopsall Hall (Leicestershire): Designs for rebuilding the house & offices and schemes for the interior decoration of some of the rooms, for Charles Jennens, ca. 1747' - RIBA
5 - 'A Topographical History of the County of Leicester' - John Curtis (1831)
6 - 'The British Gazetteer, Political, Commercial, Ecclesiastical, and Historical: Showing the Distances of Each Place from London and Derby' - Benjamin Clarke (H.G. Collins, 1852)
7 - Hinckley Times Newspaper (30 May 1951)