Thorington Hall is a perfect example of the smaller country house which should never have been demolished. Not only architecturally pleasing it was also the centre of one of the larger estates in Suffolk and was typical of the successful landowning family. Yet in the dark years following World War II no long term use for Thorington Hall could be seen and so it joined the long list of houses lost in Suffolk.
The house was built in 1819 for Henry Bence Bence to replace another house which had been situated a short distance away on the same estate. The original estate had been owned by Sir Edward Coke, from whom Earls of Leicester are descended, but when the family inherited the Holkham estate in 1691, Thorington was sold to the Bence family. The Bences had originally made their money in trade at the seaside town of Aldeburgh and had then invested their profits in extensive land holdings including the Carlton, Ringsfield, Benhall and Heveningham.
Although wealthy, building a house the size and quality of Thorington Hall would require greater resources. Luckily, in 1815, Henry Bence Bence (the double surname the result of a convoluted inheritance settlement) married Elizabeth Starkie, the joint heiress to estate of Nicholas Starkie of Huntroyde Hall in Lancashire and East Riddlesden Hall in Yorkshire. Planning must have begun soon after for the new marital home as it was reported in 1819 by T. Cromwell in his 'Excursions through the county of Suffolk' that 'the old hall in now demolished and the new one erecting'1.
The architect of the grand new house at Thorington has not been positively identified but it has been suggested that it is the work of Thomas Hopper2 - though Howard Colvin doesn't include it as even a possible in his 'Dictionary of Architects'. Hopper (b. 1776 - d.1856) was a prolific architect best known for his 'Gothic Revival' designs but he was a particularly versatile designer, able to turn his hand to any style which his client might demand. Construction started in 1817 and was mostly complete by 1819 with the final cost said to be £16,000 (2008 approx value - £1m).
What particularly enlivened the design of the two-storey house was the dramatic use of columns. On the 7-bay garden front the central three windows were framed by giant pilasters with the central window flanked by two Ionic pilasters. These two reflected the four columns used on the grand portico which dominated the 5-bay entrance front. To the north of the house, a lower wing contained the service areas of the house. The house was surrounded by gardens which required the services of three full-time gardeners.
The interior of the house was equally impressive, with a paved entrance hall off which were the main rooms of the house including the salon with its plaster-domed ceiling and circular roof light, the drawing room, dining room, library and smoking room. Each room was highly decorated with extensive plaster ceilings and cornices. The grand staircase rose two flights which gave access to the five principal bedrooms and six secondary bedrooms in the north wing.
Henry Bence Bence died in 1861 having been able to enjoy living at Thorington Hall for over forty years. The house then passed to his eldest son, Henry Starkie Bence, who lived there until his death in 1881. Having had no sons, the house was inherited by his eldest daughter, Ida Millicent (b.1860 - d.after 1951), who became Bence-Lambert following her marriage in 1884 to Guy Lambert (b.1857 - d.1930). Due to a riding accident Ida was unable to have children and so the house was left without an heir.
Ida lived on in a grand style at Thorington Hall until 1940 when the house was requisitioned by the Army for the next 2-3 years. Usually to have soldiers billeted in a house was the worst possible outcome as they, more than other services, caused immense damage with reports in other houses of carvings being hacked off, panelling and furniture used for firewood and general mistreatment. However, a local resident has said3 they were very well behaved and left the house in a good condition. There were a few near misses from enemy bombs which left huge craters in the parkland but missed the house by over half a mile.
So despite the house surviving World War II relatively unscathed by our troops or the enemies bombs, Thorington Hall was still demolished. Undoutably there would have been a significant backlog of basic maintenance on the house which would have proved difficult to complete due to the restrictions on building materials for 'non-essential' projects. However, the social changes were perhaps a greater factor. Without an heir to take on the estate, the prospect of moving back in a managing the house was too great for the elderly Mrs Bence-Lambert. Indeed, it would have been difficult to find the staff necessary even if the house was habitable but the economics of running a house of this type had changed and so Mrs Bence-Lambert put the house and 876 acres up for sale in August 1945.
Despite being a relatively manageable size, it seems that the sale was unsuccessful - indeed the problems facing Mrs Bence-Lambert were the same as those faced by other families and so few houses put up for sale at this time found buyers. The failed sale was the death knell for the house and it was sold to Palmers of Saxmundham for demolition which was completed in 1949. One local report says that the firm recovered the cost of the purchase through the sale of the mahagony doors alone. The demolition was the end of over 300 years of ownership for the Bence family but was also the loss of another fine and elegant Suffolk house, which if it had survived today, would undoubtably be worth millions.
1 - as quoted in 'Lost Country Houses of Suffolk' - W.M. Roberts (2010, The Boydell Press)
2 - suggested by Peter Reid in 'Burke's and Savills Guide to Country Houses - Vol III' and also by Brown, Haward, and Kindred in their 'Dictionary of Architects' as referenced in the 'Lost Country Houses of Suffolk' - W.M. Roberts (2010, The Boydell Press)
3 - research for the TV programme 'Restoration Man' which features the rescue of the beautiful Thorington Hall lodge house (series broadcast from 21 March 2010 on Channel 4). I'm grateful to Tiger Aspect who kindly shared their research with me.