HISTORY: Home to the good, the great, the brave - and the fraudulent…
- Credit: Archant
Blackmore Hall was a fine Regency house in the centre of Sidmouth, sadly now gone. John McCarthy tells its story.
Blackmore Hall was a substantial property in the centre of Sidmouth, noted for the beauty and seclusion of its gardens.
Recent archival research by the Arts Society Sidmouth throws light on its early history.
In 1813, the Reverend Philip Story purchased around two acres of land from the Manor of Sidmouth and built Blackmore Hall, possibly as a holiday home for him and his family.
He was a wealthy landowner from Lockington in Leicestershire.
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The house was built in a plain Regency style, arranged over two storeys. The portion containing the main reception rooms and principal bedrooms was set forward, fronting on to the gardens, whilst a spacious ‘service wing’ was set back behind.
Documents held by the Devon Heritage Centre describe the ground floor in terms of a spacious inner hall with a ‘handsome principal staircase’, a ‘lofty and well-proportioned drawing room’ with French windows opening on to the verandah, a dining room and a large morning room.
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The service wing included kitchen, scullery, larders, housemaid’s and butler’s pantries, servants’ hall and wine cellarage.
The gardens were enclosed within high walls, most of which survive today. The main garden was divided entirely across the middle by a chevron-shaped brick wall, portions of which also survive. The land closest to the house was planted for visual enjoyment, whilst the plot beyond the dividing wall was the kitchen garden.
Following the death of Reverend Story in 1819, the house was purchased by Sir John Kennaway, the owner of nearby Fort House (now Kennaway House). In 1845, his descendents sold it to Esther Cornish, a relative of the prominent Salcombe Regis family, and she lived at Blackmore Hall until her death in January 1861.
The next owners, the Strahans, arrived as outcasts from London society following one of the most notorious banking scandals of the 19th century. It wasn’t the biggest bank failure of the age, nor were the financial malpractices involved the worst, but the bankruptcy struck hard at the Establishment.
The old banking house of Strahan, Paul and Bates had been particularly favoured by the aristocracy and senior clergy.
William Strahan (born William Snow) came from a banking family and lived with his wife Elizabeth at Hill Street, Mayfair, in a house with nine servants. He had been an accomplished sportsman at Eton and Cambridge, and later played cricket for Surrey and the MCC. In 1829, he not only rowed in the first ever University Boat Race, as the Cambridge captain, but it was he who was tasked to write to Oxford laying down the challenge.
His downfall came in 1855, when he and his two partners tried, and failed, to trade the bank out of a solvency crisis by using assets belonging to their clients. They were arrested for fraud, placed in Newgate Prison and tried at the Old Bailey.
Found guilty, they each received a sentence later described by the Daily Telegraph as ‘cruelly severe’ - transportation for 14 years.
In the event, William Strahan served only four years, in Millbank Prison. He and Elizabeth then arrived at Blackmore Hall in early 1861 with six children and four servants.
For people wanting to retreat a long way from London and to a house with grounds shielded from the public’s gaze, then Blackmore Hall must have seemed ideal.
William and Elizabeth Strahan remained at Blackmore Hall for at least 11 years and perhaps up to 15. They then went to live in Italy, where they both eventually died.
The next significant owners were George Scott, who was retired from the Bombay Civil Service, and his wife Augusta. Mrs Scott stayed on after her husband died in 1902, and she purchased the fields adjoining Blackmore Hall to ensure they weren’t built on.
After Augusta Scott’s death in 1913, the house was sold to Sidmouth Urban District Council (SUDC), which in turn sold it in 1914 to Colonel The Honourable John Pleydell-Bouverie and his wife Grace. Significantly, however, SUDC retained ownership of the Blackmore Fields, later to be bowling greens and tennis courts.
The Hon John Pleydell-Bouverie (born 1846) was the fourth son of the Earl of Radnor. He became an officer in the 17th Lancers and served with them in the Zulu war of 1879 in South Africa, fighting in the decisive battle at Ulundi.
His regiment was then sent to India for an extended period, which was not a new experience for Mrs Pleydell-Bouverie as she had been born there.
Colonel Pleydell-Bouverie died in 1925 and his wife continued to live at Blackmore Hall until 1952, when she sold the house back to SUDC. She moved across to Devonia on Coburg Terrace and died there in 1953.
Having taken ownership again, SUDC opened the gardens as a public park in 1953 and then, in July 1955, decided to demolish the house because of its poor condition. The site has been used as a car park ever since, although parts were sold off for the building of the Methodist Church Hall and the St John Ambulance centre.
Nevertheless, a fragment of the house still survives - the stone plinth and tiled floor of the verandah. This is now used as the platform for a row of seats. The same place William Strahan would have sat, pondering his fate, or the Pleydell-Bouveries, thinking of India.