House and Family

A Talk by Terry and Jennie Stevens

Originally the talk had been advertised as being given by Chris Nelms, who in the event was unavailable for family reasons, so we welcomed Terry and Jennie Stevens in his place. They had been volunteers with the National Trust at Tyntesfield since September 2002 shortly after the purchase went through and well before the house and its surrounding estate were opened to the public, so they were "in on the ground floor", in a manner of speaking. Apparently the project started with thirty volunteers. The present number is in excess of nine hundred.

Tyntesfield estate sits on the Tickenham - Failand Ridge, about 9 km west of the centre of Bristol. Following the death of the 2nd Lord Wraxall in 2001, the future of the estate hung in the balance. He had never married and in his will left the estate to nineteen beneficiaries. This meant that the estate would have to be sold. A major national funding appeal was launched in April 2002 by the National Trust to enable purchase of the house and estate because of its perceived national importance. Within fifty days over £ 8 million had been raised from public donations. There was a further £ 17.4m from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. The transfer was completed later in 2002.

However, to quote our Secretary's preface, "The Trust was keen from the outset to provide life enhancing opportunities for individuals and for the public to share in the excitement of discovery together with the problems of conservation and restoration. Never before has a restoration project of this magnitude been carried out whilst staying open to visitors." The other advantage, to the Trust, was that it therefore started to generate revenue, albeit initially limited, sooner than if a more conventional approach had been employed.

It became clear that the house, and the surrounding estate, and the family were very much interlinked, and its importance is due to the fact that not only was its development very representative of its age, but that the family seemed to have thrown very little away over the years and even brought furnishings and furniture etc down from their London house when that was sold, so it is in effect a wonderful time capsule. There are tens of thousands of artefacts in the inventory.

Largely due to the success of his family business in the guano trade, in 1843 William Gibbs bought the original house, apparently a late-Georgian creation, as a country residence. At that time he had his family living in London and running his affairs from there. He was reputed to be the richest commoner in England by the mid-1800s. This meant that he could engage an architect, John Norton, who doubled the size of the house in the High Victorian Gothic style. Later, using Arthur Bloomfield, the chapel was added by William, between 1873 and 1875. He died in 1875 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Anthony (1841 -1907). He did not enter the family firm, but concentrated on running the estate. He built Home Farm and after he inherited in 1887 on the death of his mother, Henry Woodyer was employed to alter various parts of the interior of the house somewhat. A lift was installed together with the latest technology, especially innovative in that he bought a generator and installed electricity throughout the house.

Anthony died in 1907 and was succeeded by his son George. Born in 1873, he made his mark in politics, becoming the 1st Lord Wraxall in 1928. He and his wife did some redecoration in the house to bring it more up-to-date. His first wife died in 1920, having borne a daughter, and he remarried in 1928, and Richard was born the same year. Richard, 2nd Lord Wraxall, had a career in the army, following which he made managing the house and estate his life's work. Of necessity he shut up much of the house and made very conservative use of the rest, with a minimal staff until his death in 2001. He was succeeded in the title by his younger brother, Eustace, 3rd Lord Wraxall.

It has clearly been a major project which is still on-going, making the house fully weatherproof, updating services, cataloguing the vast archive and generally making the property an attractive proposition for visitors, and of course maintaining it to the Trust's high standards.

The talk, amply illustrated by numerous and interesting photographs, demonstrated not only the Stevens' affection for Tyntesfield, but also their commitment and breadth of knowledge of the house and family, and will no doubt have inspired members to visit this remarkable house to see it and its contents for themselves. More information can be obtained from the National Trust publication Tyntesfield © 2012, which has been referred to as an additional aide memoire for this report. Photographs of the house and its interiors may be seen at and purchased from ntprints

Andrew Smith