Nostalgia on Tuesday: Country living on

Hellaby Hall propped up.
Hellaby Hall propped up.
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At the dawn of the 20th century, the country house world started to fall apart.

The introduction of death duties, followed by hard economic times, brought and end to the Upstairs, Downstairs era. No longer could P.G. Wodehouse characters lead a charmed existence in giant mansions. Great houses were deserted, fell into dereliction and then demolished.

The relentless march of destruction was only made worse when many properties were requisitioned in the Second World War. Then came even more punitive taxation and it seemed that the end of the country house was nigh.

Nonetheless, a number of country houses have dodged the cull.

Hellaby Hall survived several scares and thrives as a hotel. Situated adjacent to the busy M18, Hellaby Hall was built around 1692, with a Dutch-style gable, by Ralph Fretwell. Allegedly, he was granted an export licence by Charles II to sell horses to Barbados to work on the sugar plantations. Fretwell died in Barbados in 1701 and left £5,000 to each of his three daughters as well as the Hellaby estate.

Nicholas Pevsner (1959) called Hellaby Hall, ‘A curious and quite dramatic house of c.1700.’ He also adds: ‘The front is of two storeys but with a third in a large, bold, but unquestionably awkward gable...The doorway has an open segmental entablature on Tuscan pilasters’.

Fretwell’s eldest daughter, Dorothy married John Pyott, and supposedly it was to her that the Hellaby estate and adjoining farmlands, descended.

In time, the Hellaby estate was owned by Sir William Eden and during the early to mid-19th century a number of occupants are noted in newspapers. These include a Mr Samuel Clarke and a Mr John Clarke.

The property came into the possession of T.E. Morrell around 1869. His obituary in the Leeds Inteligencer of Friday July 31, 1914 states he had resided at Hellaby for the last 40 (or more) years. He was an authority on agriculture and a breeder of hunters and hackneys.

T.E. Morrell left estate of the gross value of £29,785. His son, Edward Cecil Plumpton Morrell, succeeded to the Hellaby estate but in October 1922 was found dead aged 43 in a field with a gunshot wound. An inquest confirmed his death was an accident. By the following year, the Hellaby estate was occupied by P. Carnelly and during June 1926, he was offering building land for sale on the main Rotherham to Maltby road.

In more recent times when Hellaby Hall passed to Euroway Estates (North), the company had plans to convert the building and land into a sports and leisure complex but permission was refused in the early 1970s. The company then sought listed building consent to demolish the hall in 1976 but this was also refused and Rotherham Council was ordered to buy it by the Department of the Environment.

The building became a regular target for vandals. In August 1980 it was extensively damaged by fire and a year later it was sold to a local businessman for £500 on condition he restore it into a pub restaurant and hotel. He did not and at one stage extensive work had to be carried out to make the building safe.

The Hall then went to Frewvale Construction Ltd and, in the late 1980s, to the Lancashire and Yorkshire Assurance Society. It was redeveloped on their behalf by Whitley Geddes Developments as a hotel, and was opened during October 1991 in a blaze of publicity by the stars of TV’s Bergerac series, John Nettles and Terence Alexander.

Disappointingly, it closed within five months. Tomorrow’s Leisure bought the building for approx. £1.8 million reopening it as a hotel once more in August 1995. It still thrives today even though further ownership changes have occurred.

Another country house survivor in Yorkshire is Monk Fryston Hall also currently thriving as a hotel. Extensive alterations to an existing house were carried out c. 1740 under the supervision of David Hemsworth (1710 - 1788). Thankfully the south-east corner, dating from the 14th century, was left standing.

Benjamin Hemsworth (1848 - 1923) was the last of the male line to own the hall. In the late 19th century he and his wife, Mary, altered the interior and changed the garden. Sir Ernest George (1839 - 1922) was engaged to carry out this project.

Sir Ernest travelled extensively through Europe and took inspiration from there for features in the garden.

An unusual feature of the garden at the turn of the century was a zoo with exotic animals such as monkeys, wallabies and mongooses. There was also an aviary, housing exotic birds like a golden eagle, macaw and Chinese pheasants. Both house and gardens were opened to the public a small number of times during the early 20th century.

Following the death of Benjamin, the zoo was closed and the animals dispersed. His wife Mary continued to occupy the house until her own death just after the start of the Second World War. The manor was then left to a cousin, but he did not survive the conflict and afterwards the hall and lands, which stretched to just under 70 acres, were sent to auction. The buyer was a private individual, who held the deeds for under ten years (during which time the property was Grade II Listed) when selling to the 10th Duke of Rutland (1919-1999) in 1954.

Monk Fryston Hall subsequently changed uses from a private family residence to a hotel. In the late 1960s the hall was extended to increase the catering facilities and the number of bedrooms.

The Duke of Rutland – and his successor – held Monk Fryston Hall until the early 21st century. It changed hands again and was recently refurbished.