Google the words ‘Neo-Gothic house’ and up will pop pictures of Fonthill Abbey, Woodchester Mansion and Tyntesfield. Many in this area will be familiar with the ethereal beauty of Tyntesfield, but Fonthill Abbey was another beast entirely; a nightmarish Gothic monstrosity that fell upon itself soon after completion, its owner somewhat relieved since it was hellish to live in and maintain. Woodchester Mansion sits somewhere between the two. It has a mysterious Gothic appeal but would have been ruinous to maintain and chilling to live in (had it been completed) hidden away in its gloomy, sunless valley. Liz Davenport told the tale to the December Zoom meeting of Thornbury History and Archaeological Society.
Is Neo-Gothic a vision of hell or heaven? The celebrated architect Augustus Pugin thought the latter and adopted the style for his anglo-catholic driven designs, and William Leigh engaged Pugin to produce drawings for his new house. William Leigh was a wealthy, Oxford-educated son of a Liverpool merchant, who had been inspired through the Oxford Movement to convert to the catholic faith. He bought the Woodchester estate from the Ducie family in 1843 and decided to rebuild the existing Georgian house, which had fallen into some disrepair. He also wanted to build a church and monastery on the estate, in order to convert the misguided people of Stroud to the catholic faith.
Pugin’s drawings for a lavish and very large house have recently been discovered in an attic in Brighton. It seems that the not-overly-businesslike Leigh was so enraptured by Pugin’s design that he failed to read the small print. He might otherwise have noticed that the projected costs had been totalled incorrectly (so much for an Oxford education). Anyway, the overly ambitious and over-worked Pugin was soon replaced by the architect Charles Hansom (who’s brother designed Birmingham Town Hall and the Hansom cab). By 1853 the church and monastery were completed but poor William was still living with his family in an estate cottage while trying to scrape together the money for the house.
Leigh’s son, William, was sent out to Australia to sell off some land holdings (having some rare old adventures while off the leash, being shipwrecked on Kangaroo Island at one point), and designs for the house were scaled back by a more pragmatic Benjamin Bucknall, a young associate of Hansom. The house building stuttered on piecemeal until William senior’s death in 1873. William junior was advised that the house would be expensive to complete and maintain, so it was left unfinished, sense prevailed and the cottage was developed instead.
Today you can marvel at the tall pointed arches, gothic vaults and gargoyles, and wonder at the beauty of the chapel’s rose window, as the unfinished house, looking as though the stonemasons have just popped down to the local for lunch, is maintained in suspended inanimation by the Woodchester Mansion Trust. A large colony of Horseshoe bats contributes to the eerie gothic atmosphere utilised by film-makers (recently for His Dark Materials and The Crown) and investigators into the paranormal. When you go, make sure you know what time the sun sets. Many thanks to Liz for the interesting talk. NB; during the uncertainty caused by Coronavirus pandemic the Society is not holding meetings at St Mary’s Hall but Zooming their meetings free of charge! Please contact Jenny Ovens, Secretary at for log on details.
The January talk, on Tuesday the 12th at 7:30, is by Helen Roberts on Newark Park. The February talk, on Tuesday the 9th at 7:30 is ‘A History of Death in our Society’ by Dr. Helen Frisby.
The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.