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TYNTESFIELD  HOUSE

by Suzanne Rayfield

Tyntesfield House is 8 miles west of Bristol, near the small village of Wraxall. The National Trust described it as one of Briton’s greatest Victorian mansions in the Gothic style and the house is full of valuable paintings and other collectables.  

The 43 bed roomed house belonged to the wealthy Gibbs family for over 200 years -the late and last Lord Wraxall died in 2001. There were 19 heirs but Lord Wraxall knew that the house was in serious need of extensive refurbishment in the 1970’s he invited the National Trust & Victorian Society to view & assess the house & contents. The National Trust put it on their “To Be Saved” list. 

The agents wanted a sale within one month to highest bidder. £24 million was the price but realistically, in excess of £35 million was required taking into account the renovations needed. Funds were eventually acquired by National Trust and the Government waived inheritance tax as it was sold to a ‘society’; further funding was provided by the National Heritage Fund who gave their largest ever grant of £17.5 million. A further £10 million was needed for immediate repairs & to develop facilities for opening the house to visitors e.g - toilets, disabled access etc. but amazingly the house was opened to the public in just 6 weeks.    

Gramps at 

Jubilee Cottage

 

As a child I spent most weekends and holidays with my Grandfather who was the head game keeper on the Tyntesfield estate.  We had the whole estate to explore and play as long as we didn’t go near the big house. My Mother was born on the estate and my Father worked as an under keeper to my Grandfather for a few years and almost all my relatives on both sides of the family worked and lived there too. 

 George Abraham Gibbs, born 1718, was an eminent surgeon in Devon and he invested in his son’s ventures as a shipping agent; however, Anthony did not do well and became bankrupt - his Father lost everything. Disgraced, Anthony left for Spain to try to salvage his business, he eventually returned to London where his sons Henry & William joined the family business. The business flourished and all the debts were paid off. Whilst in Spain Anthony could see the potential of the Spanish Colonies in South America opened an office in Australia. This was because the journey took just 66 days from Melbourne to South America plus he was able to hire his cousin’s ships one of which was the SS Great Britain. The valuable cargo that was to give the Gibbs family their great wealth was extracted from the islands off Peru – and the clue to the valuable cargo is expressed in this Ditty.  

“Mister Gibbs made his dibbs”

“Selling the turds of foreign birds”  

Trading in guano started in 1842 coinciding with the industrial and agricultural revolutions. A clever promotion by William Gibbs assured success and the country was desperate to enrich the soil and increase the food yield. Guano was first tried & tested at Wraxall & increased the estates wheat yield after 1 year. At first ships were overloaded with guano and often sank but a clever young agent suggested drawing a line on the side of the ships when empty – this later became known as the ‘Plimsoll line’. Henry died suddenly 1842 and his brother William became head of the company. William was a confirmed bachelor & diligent worker also a frequent visitor to his sister & family who lived at Belmont House that was adjacent to Tyntesfield.  

He loved the countryside & frequently walked through the woodlands where he found boards pinned to the trees inscribed with poems composed by Hannah More, one of the first Victorian poets. My school in Bristol was named after her.

In 1839 William surprised everyone when at 49 years of age, he married his cousin Matilda. 3 years after his 1st shipment of guano in 1843 the couple bought Tyntes Place. This would be their country home while their main house was at Hyde Park Gardens, which was said to be healthiest place in London. Prior to Brunel’s GWR rail link between Bristol and London in 1842 the journey took 2 days but after it was just a short coach drive to Bristol Temple Meads & a few hours by train to London. They met Sir William Boxall, an architect, who introduced Gibbs to John Crace, an interior designer & decorator. Crace made a big impression on William & Matilda and they asked him to draw up plans for the refurbishment of Tyntes Place - their favourite residence.

John Crace was commissioned to redecorate the whole of Tyntes Place from formal rooms to the servant’s rooms. Gibbs was horrified at the size of the bills and delays. He also collected paintings, largely English landscapes, and most of these are still at Tyntesfield today. They also bought paintings on holidays abroad with elaborately carved gilded frames that were shipped from Florence to London.  

Aged 74yrs Gibbs decided to have Tyntesfield rebuilt & extended; the work took 2 years to plan & 3 years to execute. An architect friend advised a £70,000 budget. The charming outline of the Rev Seymour’s Tyntes Place was replaced by the powerful Gothic you see today. It doubled in size and soared upwards into another storey while the roof gained towers, gables & pinnacles. Some walls were left plain while others were ornamented by Gothic naturalistic carvings. The east side was given wings to form a noble entrance court; the south wing had a terrace, & the west – the most varied with a double height drawing room balanced by a ‘crystal palace’ style conservatory. John Norton a renowned Gothic architect designed many West Country churches & his first drawings showed how he could graft his new chapel onto existing house. William Cubitt, builder of Queen Victoria’s Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, was commissioned to carry out the work.  

There were now 3 independent driveways leading to main house which met in courtyard in front of east façade of house. The drives traversed through the estates and parklands. The cloister entrance was topped by a mighty tower with a clock that was lit by gaslight at night. It is Continental Gothic rather than English and reminiscent of a tower on the bridge over the River Danube in Prague. The left wall was left plain apart from the incised family arms and motto of “I place my trust in God” & “Peace to those who enter and farewell to those who depart”. From the porch they passed through Gothic doors to a further 3-bay cloister with vaulted ceilings carved with local wild flowers. The floors were tiled by John Minton, brightly chequered & bordered in style of an Oxford museum. Columns supporting the cloisters are in British rock and some limestone from nearby Hot Wells in Bristol – almost 30 different colours are used. 

The library is a high & light room lined with golden polished oak bookcases, with hinges inscribed with “Spoken words fly away”. It contains a fireplace in brightly coloured native polished stone with side twin pairs of twisted dark red Cornish serpentine columns. The library was also used as a family room & for amateur dramatics.

Coat of Arms

Door to the Dining Room

Norton installed an innovative heating system that consisted of 3 boilers in the basement which provided heat to halls, corridors, principal rooms & conservatory. Ducting pipes opened ½ way up walls and are still visible in morning room today, adjustable by turning a small tap in form of miniature hand. The Saloon was transformed into an Ante room to the new drawing room beyond. The Conservatory was 80 feet long by 50 feet wide almost double the Drawing room it was just as ornate with a gilt & copper cupola modelled on San Marco in Venice some 50 feet high with pale green tinted glass as designed for Kew Gardens & floored with Minton tiles. All flowers grown here were used in house for lavish dinners & receptions. The kitchen, offices & servants quarters underwent extensive remodelling, a pantry was fitted with cupboards, & specially lined sink for washing precious objects. The kitchen was divided into 2 main areas 1st for cooking with large range & gas ovens, a central table & huge dresser. A house keeper’s window in her room looked onto exterior courtyard so that she could keep an eye on daily activity. Servant’s quarters were carefully thought out with male servants living in a series of bedrooms above servant’s hall each room had its own coal fire. Female servants were quartered on the 2nd floor over kitchen. A corridor housed washroom for clothes a lift system for binging dirty washing & laundry from different floors throughout the house there were also extensive drying areas with heated & ventilated ducts. With increased house water consumption water was pumped from the river Yeo to deep wells via 2 miles of pipes to a reservoir on hillside someway above house & a ½ buried tiled water tank fed house by gravity. Soft water was also collected as a conservation measure & used on estate. 

William’s later years were clouded by the deaths of 4 of his 7 children. His faith intensified and the house became like a church with all staff, family & visitors attending prayers in Oratory twice daily. It was suggested that a chapel be built at Tyntesfield - it cost £15.000 & took 3 years to complete. The fine stained glass windows glittered in the sunlight & for evensong flickering gas lights & candles showed sumptuous mosaics. It was William’s intention that it would be burial place of the Gibbs family for generations to come. The Vicar of Wraxall church who feared that his congregation would be split and he wrote to Bishop of Bath & Wells to make his fears known – the consecration at Tyntesfield was withheld. Eventually a compromise was achieved & chapel was consecrated but regular services were not to take place nor the hoped for burials. The crypt would remain empty & only memorial services to their dead were allowed to take place discreetly & memorials to be placed along walls in the nave. Shortly after the consecration of the chapel in 1875, aged 84William died. His coffin was carried in relays of estate workers to All Saints church in Wraxall 2 miles away where he was buried. A wrought iron cross in enamels, gold thread, rock crystals & precious stones was set up in nave of his Tyntesfield chapel. His ‘kingdom’ was left to his beloved Blanche with provision that if she wished then she could sell the house & estate. However, she had no intention of selling & continued her good work building alms houses, a village club, a cottage convalescence home and an inn known as The Battle Axes. Blanche died in 1887 & was laid to rest in family vault at Wraxall church.   

At 47 Anthony had now inherited the role of landowner educated privately followed by Oxford he was content to play & enjoy role of country gentleman & tended more toward the arts turning his talents to carving ivories & wood. In 1887 Anthony, Janet & children gathered at Tyntesfield to celebrate their first Christmas there since Blanche had died – the house was in turmoil. He too had radical plans to improve house & bring into tech age – it was to take 3 years & 3rd time in half a century that house had under gone radical change. He wanted to integrate entrance hall, library, vestibule & study into main body of the house. New Gothic doorways were created leading into the dinning room & study, Anthony & Janet’s coat of arms were placed above them. The Morning room was given a new carpet this time with Anthony’s & Janet’s initials. Billiard room now possessed grandest billiard table where baize rested on a steel block cushioned heated by hot water pipes below. Scoring was controlled electronically activated by buttons around cushion linked to score board on the wall. Brand new heating system was installed along with revolutionary electric lights.  May 1890 Anthony spent the night alone in the house to test the electrics – there were just bulbs and no shades as the brilliance was not to be obscured. By now of course motor houses or garages had to be built and these plus the stables had electricity & light.   

Anthony died age of 65 in 1907. His sons were sent to Eton and then on to Oxford or Cambridge before joining the army. From the family’s continuing wealth & expansion in society Tyntesfield became known as ‘dear old Tyn’ a happy country house that held lavish costume balls, dinners, shooting parties, hunting, tennis & tea parties on  lawns but they were no longer summoned to prayers as in their father’s day. Since William’s death his nephew Henry had presided over business trade in nitrate from deserts of S. America. Through extensive extraction the supply of guano was exhausted but he diversified to other comprehensive cargo. George Gibbs, Anthony’s eldest son & heir, now knew that as the world grew in technology there would changes that would affect Tyntesfield.   

George’s interests were country life & travelling - he had his own pack of beagles & opened a cricket field he created after an elaborate party. In 1894 Boer war broke out & he left to join the 48th company of Imperial Yeomanry known as North Somerset ’s. He continued his regimental command of North Somerset Yeomanry until 1909 when he took up a political career and, in 1901, married a Wiltshire girl from a titled family called Victoria Florence. They settled in Knightsbridge in 1906 as he entered Parliament. Once again Tyntesfield would see changes & in some ways George’s refurbishments would be more radical than father’s. The drawing room became the Venetian State Drawing room & almost a room of display with fireplace being replaced by Renaissance style in marble, walls covered in crimson & ivory silk with a 17th century pattern. Nurseries were updated but sadly Victoria had 9 miscarriages, & 2 sons died in infancy. The only surviving child was Doreen born in 1913 and she was understandably overly protected. With outbreak of WW1 George again commanded the North Somerset Yeomanry but, much to his frustration, when his men were deployed to France he remained behind. Victoria worked ceaselessly on charity but now her efforts were doubled and she received CBE in 1919 for her services to the Red Cross. Tyntesfield became a convalescent home for the wounded and a committee was set up to form camps for refugees. She ensured that every family had a nanny goat for milk. Milk from estate was requisitioned for the war effort as was iron work from conservatory which was demolished. After the war she organised a New Years dinner for all men on the estate who had served their country. They had lost 12 estate workers & more were severely injured. Worn out by her miscarriages & charity work Victoria died in 1920 aged just 39 years.   

George was bereft and often in London pursuing political ambitions. He fought & won 3 more elections to become the Government Whip. In 1921 he became Treasurer to the Royal Household & was greatly respected by Queen Victoria & Queen Mary. George then married Hon. Ursula Lawley (maid of honour to Queen Mary since 1912) couple met when both on duty at palace. Both of their Majesties the King & the Queen attended their wedding in July1927 and within 2 years she gave birth to 2 sons, Richard & Eustace; the Queen sponsored the eldest at his baptism. In 1928 George retired from House of Commons and relinquished his duties as Treasurer. For his great contribution he was created Baron of Wraxall and his family coat of arms would bear 3 battle axes. Lord Wraxall sadly developed throat cancer & 6 months later in October 1931 he died. However, Ursula did not retreat into long mourning but became very active with the Red Cross and maintained a tight grip on the running of Tyntesfield. This was not easy as the Gibbs Company had declined as a result of the chemical race to manufacture fertilizer in the1920s.  

In WW2 paintings & books were stored in cellars & air raid shelters built to make room once again for evacuees. Tyntesfield was at risk from bombing by German bombers flying up the Bristol Channel and targeting the Bristol docks. Furniture had been stored in chapel cellars & stables & in 1945 it was decided that a small auction would be held for excess furniture early on a Saturday morning this went on view to prospective buyers for just 1 hour!  

On leaving Eton Richard went into the Cold Stream Guards & served for 8 years partly in North Africa . After he entered the Diplomatic Service and served in Europe, SE Asia & South America. When not abroad, Richard spent over 50 years at Tyntesfield maintaining the shoot & upkeep of woodlands. Lord Wraxall sensed that house was closing in on itself & slowly doors to rooms were locked & the rooms not used again. He had a barrage of security alarms set up in 3 rooms where he finally lived with his one remaining servant, his butler. He died unexpectedly In July 2001 leaving his estate to be divided between 19 descendants.  

 This private kingdom reflects over 200 years of history, architecture, business, life, trade, religion and the aspirations of one family. This is a wonderful legacy now open for all to share.

 

 

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