Kennaway House has become a centre of community activity
PUBLISHED: 07:00 02 June 2019 | UPDATED: 09:24 03 June 2019
Kennaway House is ten years old. Its founder, Michael James, looks back - and forward.
It stands at the heart of Sidmouth, close to the sea, a handsome Georgian building fronted by a well-kept lawn.
For ten years now, Kennaway House has been owned and run by a registered charity, as a centre for the arts and the community in East Devon.
The ground floor has high, light rooms which are now the Kennaway Gallery, used for art exhibitions - and wedding ceremonies. A growing number of couples marry there each year. The top floor has a number of meeting rooms for the many groups which use the house - from the book club to Buddhist meditation and classes in, for example, French, Tai Chi and Chinese brush painting.
But it is probably best known for its long Cellar Bar, a classic venue for parties (all ages) and other gatherings. It looks amazing set out for a wedding breakfast, but also hosts musical events and Meet the Author sessions - Colin Dexter was the first writer welcomed, to a packed Cellar in 2010, followed so far by almost 60 others, including Hilary Mantel, Margaret Drabble, Michael Holroyd, Joanna Trollope and Julian Fellowes.
In Folk Week, the lawn turns into a colourful street market, with music in the bar. The house and lawn are used for other big events like Daffodil Day and the Sidmouth Literary, Science and Food Festivals. Kennaway House has been busy right from its start in 2009. It buzzes with activity, with people doing things they enjoy, in a warm and welcoming atmosphere. In ten years, it has firmly established its new identity.
So what came before? The house was built in 1805, the year of the Battle of Trafalgar, and soon became the home of Sir John Kennaway and his wife Charlotte. In 1772, John and his brother Richard, aged 14 and 16, had been sent to India by their father, an Exeter serge maker, to enlist in the East India Company's army.
Over the next 20 years, John rose to be a Lieutenant Colonel, negotiated a peace treaty with Tipu Sultan of Mysore and was rewarded with a baronetcy - Sir John Kennaway of Hyderabad. Back in Devon, the two brothers bought the Escot estate, but the house was destroyed by fire, bringing John and his family to live in Sidmouth for the rest of his life. He died in 1836 and his son used the house until Escot was rebuilt.
The third baronet, Sir John Henry Kennaway, studied law at Oxford and practiced as a barrister. 1870 saw this country's first general election with universal (but only male) suffrage and he was elected, at the age of 33, as the first Member of Parliament for East Devon. He served for 40 years and was a popular local figure, touring his constituency on horseback, an imposing man with a magnificent beard.
Neglected and almost demolished, the house was bought by Richard Hatton Wood and in 1906 opened as 'Church House' - for 'Sunday Schools, Bible Classes, Church Lads Brigade, Lectures, Mothers' Meetings, Sacred Concerts, Choir Practices' and not for 'Dancing or such like ...'
Although used by Sidmouth Parish Church - with part of the house turned into a flat for a curate or caretaker - it was owned by a separate charity. For the next 100 years, it seems the church did not pay enough for its use of the house to cover the cost of maintenance and it became dilapidated.
Richard Hatton Wood left the house endowed with a number of nearby properties, to provide it with an income, but these were sold off to cover repairs. The records refer to the sale of Barton Cottage, Norton Garth and the land which is now the council's putting green. The freehold of another nearby property, 'Aurora', now converted into four flats, was sold for £3,500 in 1960.
Church House was requisitioned by the army in World War One and as an ARP centre in World War Two.
By 2001 it was derelict, there were holes in the roof and ceilings were falling in. There were no funds for repairs and the church trustees decided to sell it, probably for development.
But there was a public outcry at the loss of a Grade II* listed building in the middle of Sidmouth - followed by a popular campaign to raise the £1 million needed to restore it.
The funds were raised, half from the Heritage Lottery Fund, with generous grants from the town and county councils and the Garfield Weston Foundation. The Friends of Kennaway House were established and ran events which raised £110,000.
The restoration was carried out in 2008/9 and produced a beautiful Georgian house - but with a completely new roof, plumbing, electrical wiring, kitchen, licensed bar, lift, extensive repairs and underpinned by tonnes of concrete. A new charity, the Kennaway House Trust, was registered by the Charity Commission and became the owner of the house and garden.
Ten years on, it is hard to imagine the town without Kennaway House; and its Trustees are planning how it can best serve the community in the next ten years - and beyond.
To become a Friend of Kennaway House, or find out more about its work, drop in or phone 01395 515551, email: email@example.com
To read more features from East Devon Resident, click here.