World War One and the great country house

By 1914, the future of many once grand country houses was already in doubt – then came the upheaval of the First World War.  Jeremy Musson looks at how the conflict hastened the decline of six great estates. 

Gloucestershire floods

Witley Court


Country houses changed forever

Castle Drogo


Edwin Lutyens began building this vast, romantic country pile in Devon for Julius Drewe in 1910. It contains a room dedicated to Drewe’s eldest son, who died at the front in 1917. The estate passed to a surviving brother and then his son but was later given to the National Trust.  

Gwydir Castle, Wales

Built around 1490, the castle was extended in the 1540s and 1590s. Sir Charles Barry designed further additions to it in the 1820s. It was the principal seat of the Marquess of Lincolnshire, who lost his only son at the battle of Ypres in 1915. The loss left him a broken man and he sold the estate. Much of the house’s panelling was stripped in 1920 and sent to the United States. It has recently been restored by its current owners the Welfords. 

Stowe House, Buckinghamshire

Richard Morgan-Grenville (grandson of the 3rd Duke of Buckingham) ran the Stowe estate from 1908, but was killed at the front just before Christmas 1914. His clergyman brother inherited the estate but was unable to cope with its massive debts, so sold it all in 1921. It became a school in 1923.

Temple of Ancient Virtue

Lost treasures

Panshanger, Hertfordshire

This romantic Gothic house was inherited by Lady Desborough in 1905. Her eldest son, Julian Grenfell, was killed in action in 1915; his brother, Gerald was killed two months later; and a third son, Ivo, died in 1926 in a car accident. Lady Desborough never really recovered and after her death, in 1952, the estate was sold in lots by auction and the house demolished in 1954.

Thirkleby Hall, Yorkshire

Neo-Classical Thirkleby Hall was designed by James Wyatt for Sir Thomas Frankland-Russell and completed in 1799. The house and estate passed eventually to Sir Ralph Frankland-Payne-Gallwey, who was a famous sportsman and writer on shooting. His eldest son was killed in the First World War, the estate sold by auction and the house demolished in 1927.

Witley Court, Worcestershire

Now a romantic ruin, Witley Court in Great Witley, was once a palatial mansion. The home of the coal-and-iron rich Earls of Dudley was sold off in 1920 to avoid increased taxation after the First World War.  Following a disastrous fire in 1937, Witley Court was stripped of much of the surviving materials and remains as a ruin managed by English Heritage. 

The country house at war:  where to learn more

The National Trust is marking the centenary with events and activities around England  and Wales. 

English Heritage is holding a series of  events explaining how the First World war affected its properties.  


The Historic Houses Association is running  a series of ‘wartime trails’ at heritage properties around the UK.