The history of Woodhall Manor

The Background

Woodhall Manor at Sutton in Suffolk, sometimes called ‘Wood Hall’ and ‘Sutton Hall Farmhouse’ in records, has spent much of its life as a satellite farm of the Sutton Hall Estate. It is a building listed Grade II* by English Heritage as a dwelling of ‘architectural and/or historic interest’. The star suffix denotes an especially fine example within its class and is applied to less than five percent of all listed buildings.

The oldest parts are medieval, although as the date on the eastern porch attests, restoration and additions were made in 1566, the sixth year of the reign of Elizabeth I. The 16th century H-shaped part of the house, still in evidence on the east  and west facades of the garden front – which was formerly the entrance front- was considerably enlarged in a loose Tudor style in 1903. The E-shaped portion to the right is of 1566 but the porch and fenestration are of 1903, to designs by W. Kemp, whose architectural drawings hung in the entrance hall here as late as 1988.

A battlemented parapet has at its centre a recessed circular panel with moulded surround bearing a shield with the initials CQ. These almost certainly stand for ‘Cuthbert Quilter’, who was the owner [but not the occupier] of the house in 1903. A wide corridor of this date now runs along the eastern front of the house between the two formerly projecting wings. The staircase to the left of this has moulded Jacobean balusters and square panelled newel posts with ball finials.

A ground floor room boasts some richly moulded Jacobean wood panelling, although it seems likely that this was brought from elsewhere. The brickwork of the walled garden is as old as the house, except for that top range which was added circa 1903 in order to raise the height to ten or twelve feet. The open loggia facing on to the walled garden has walls and a ceiling formed of moulded ceiling beams which were probably removed from the old part of the house during the early 20th century alterations. The barn is of 16th or 17 th century origin.

The Occupiers

Its size and craftsmanship suggests that Woodhall Manor has always been a house of importance. Nearly all dwellings constructed before 1750 were considered grand in their day, not least because by modern standards the number of people needing a place to live was small. When this house was built there were only about 3.5 million people in England and Wales – half the population of modern-day London – of whom more than half were the labouring poor. The poor either lodged with their employers or were housed in flimsy huts ‘of the kind which a man may build in three or four hours’. These cabins lasted no more than a generation or two before they needed rebuilding.

Early occupiers of houses such as this were separated from the cabin-dwellers by their wealth and status. They stood some way above the poor but below the gentry. Most were small landowners, farmers or yeomen. Most avoided privation but few had much left over with which to indulge in great displays about the home. They would have held this property from their Lord of the Manor not for a term of years but for a series of lives – most commonly, their own, their son’s and their grandson’s. This interest was termed ‘copyhold’ because details of it were, literally, copied into the Manorial Court Rolls.

It was quite common for the chief copyholder to issue sub-leases of his interest from which under-leases could sprout with such complexity that it is sometimes almost impossible to say who the physical occupant of a property might have been. In this case we know that in 1612 the copyholder was William Anders and in 1644 John Anders.

The Sutton Hall Estate was subsequently owned by ‘Thomas Short [1635-1685], Doctor of Physic’. A son of the Rev. William Short, he was born at Easton, Suffolk. He was sent to the grammar school of Bury St. Edmunds, and then to St. John’s College, Cambridge. He graduated B.A. in 1653, and was created M.D. by Royal mandate on 26 June 1668. He settled in London and was admitted a candidate at the College of Physicians in December 1668, but was not elected a fellow till 26 July I 675, perhaps because he was a Catholic, against whom there was then a strong prejudice.

By an order of the House of Lords, on 14 April 1679 Short was summoned to attend a meeting of the College of Physicians. ‘He did so, but the feeling of the College was against intolerant proceedings … and no steps were taken’. He attained a considerable practice.  Thomas Sydenham [1624-1689] one of the most famous of English physicians, found Short’s ‘genius disposed for the practice of physick’ and praised both his learning and practical shrewdness. Sydenham prefixed to his A Treatise of the Gout and Dropsy a letter to Short in which there is a famous passage on the nature of posthumous fame which Fielding quoted in Tom Jones.

Short died 28 September 1685 and was buried in St. James’s Chapel, London.  He may  have been poisoned – oddly enough by other Catholics for having dared to suggest  that Charles II, who died in the same year, had been poisoned by Catholics in order that his very Catholic brother, the short-reigned James II, might succeed to the throne.

Bishop Burnet certainly believed that Short died in this manner, but whether there is any truth to the story will  now never be known. He was certainly unwell for some time before his death. Short’s will, which was proved 17 October 1685, survives in the Public Record Office. Short describes himself as being ‘sick and weak of body but of good mind and memory’. To his ‘dear  wife,  Elizabeth Short’, he devised his Sutton Hall Estate, including Woodhall, ‘for the terme of her natural life’. Everything was then to go to his oldest son, Peregrine Short.

The good doctor seems to have been a rich man because he left £2,000 each to his youngest son, William, and to his daughter, Frances. Until they attained their majorities at twenty-one, the money was to be invested by their mother, ‘upon such securities as she shall think fitt and if any of the said monies soe put out by her shall be lost by bad securityes shee shall not be responsible for the same but the said losse shall  be equally  borne by  the said Legatees’. If any of ‘the said Legatees’ married before the age of twenty-one without the express permission of their mother they were to forfeit all rights to their legacies.

In 1710 the occupier of ‘the farm of Wood Hall’ was Frederick Jones, succeeded about 1735 by his son, also called Frederick, here until about 1770. The farm then passed into the occupation of a family named Edwards, who were to occupy it through several generations. They held it on lease from the Waller family. Thomas Waller of Sutton Hall was the owner from the late Georgian period until about 1880. Then or subsequently it passed to the absentee William Naunton Waller [b.1833] the second son of the Rev. Charles Waller of Trimley St. Martin, Suffolk, who in later life lived at Little Bealings, Woodbridge, Suffolk.

From at least 1896 to about 1900 Woodhall was owned by his widow, Edith, the daughter of Sir Francis Knight of Melbourne, Australia. Shortly after the turn of the century, the Sutton Hall Estate became the property of Sir (William) Cuthbert Quilter [1841-1911] whose collection of art included Holman Hunt’s Scapegoat. When this painting was sent to the Royal Academy in 1856  ‘it arrested attention but puzzled the critics. Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the  police  force, offered £250 for it’. Quilter, who was an ardent countryman, was  President of the Suffolk Horse Society and Vice President of the Suffolk Sheep Society. He was also a director  and one of the founders of the National Telephone Company. For twenty-one years from 1885 he sat in Parliament as the Liberal Unionist member for the South or Sudbury Division of Suffolk.

When Quilter died, 18 November 1911, aged seventy, his estates ant title devolved upon his eldest son, Sir (William Eley) Cuthbert Quilter [l 873-1952] a kindly gentleman but a largely absentee landlord. He is less remembered today than his younger brother, the composer, Roger Cuthbert Quilter [1877-1953] who always admitted that his early years at Sutton  had  a  profound influence on his artistic development. ‘He learnt from his parents, to whom he was devoted, to cultivate kindness and restraint and his mtistic impulses were fostered in particular by his mother’. His notice in the Dictionary of National Biography states that: ‘by the time of his death in London, 21 September 1953, he had decorated a page of English musical history with a distinctly individual mark. The National Portrait Gallery has a portrait by Glehn.’

Having looked at the owners of Woodhall, we can now pick up the story of their tenants. The 1841 census places the house in the occupation of Henry Edwards, ‘farmer’ and Hannah his wife, the descendants of the Edwards family here in the late 18th century, mentioned above. Patt of the house was sub-let to Elizabeth Bristow, a woman of independent means. A county directory for 1844 lists it under Henry Edwards and his brother, Thomas, although the latter seems to have lived elsewhere. In the spring of 1851 Henry Edwards was a sixty-seven-year­ old widower. He described himself as ‘farmer of 1,000 acres employing 30 labourers’. Born at Sutton in 1784, he lived here alone apart from four resident domestics and a housekeeper.

When Henry Edwards died about 1857 the tenancy of Woodhall passed to his son, Thomas [b.1811] who was newly retired from the service of the East India Company, which then served as the agent of British administration there, despite the unfitness for political power of a company formed for trade. It used its private army to police India and to enforce its edicts. This force, which exceeded those of most sovereign states, was afterwards incorporated into the British Army.

The East India Company was a national institution with ornate offices in Leadenhall Street. It had grown from a loose association of Elizabethan merchants into ‘the Grandest Society in the Universe’. As a commercial enterprise it came to control half  the world’s trade and as a political entity it administered an embryonic empire. A tenth of the country’s revenue derived from duty on East India Company imports. Without it there would have been no British India and no British Empire.

Thomas Edwards was succeeded at Woodhall by his elder brother, Robert Vertue Edwards [1808- 1887] who in 1871 described himself as a ‘farmer of 750 acres employing 24 men and 2 boys’. When Edwards moved to Essex about 1878 his landlord, Thomas Waller, was unable to find a new tenant for the farm, probably due to the onset of a long-lasting agricultural depression. The high returns resulting from the Crimea and Franco-Prussian wars had long  since receded. The fall was precipitated by the bad harvest of 1875, which involved the country in a loss of £26m.

Two poor harvests followed and 1878 was little better. The national loss rose to £80m. Between 1865 and 1874 the average price of English wheat was fifty-four shillings. For much of the decade which followed it was forty-six shillings. By 1894 it was less than twenty-three shillings. Although Waller did find a tenant for Woodhall between about 1879 and 1895 in the person of Henry Orford, when the latter died, the old problems again manifested themselves.

In consequence, the house stood empty for almost twenty years except for brier periods when it was utilised to accommodate agricultural labourers and their families. Not surprisingly, it fell into a state of disrepair and was several times close to being demolished.

It was rescued from this fate at the end of the First World War when it was restored as a dower house for the Quilter family. Between 1922 and 1925 it appears in the county directories as ‘the seat of the Dowager Lady Quilter’, the widow of the first baronet. When Lady Quilter  died about 1926 it was let by her son to a prosperous engineer, Eric S. Hervey.

By 1939, the last year for which records have been searched, Sir William Quilter, who lived chiefly ay No.28 South Street, Mayfair, and at Methersgate Hall, Woodbridge, Suffolk, had rented it  to Alexander Nmman Carruthers [a son of Sir William Carruthers, a director of Barclay’s Bank] and his American wife, Olive nee Buttrick, who had married at Concord,  Massachusetts, in June 1928.

A New Era

In 2007, Woodhall Manor was bought by Tammy Madge and Michael Chittenden, the owners of Heritage Rocks Group. Their mission was to restore Woodhall Manor back to its former beauty, embracing the manor’s history and unique character. Under their ownership, Woodhall Manor has become an exclusive use wedding and events venue.

Heritage Rocks is a collection of luxury historic venues, all in beautiful locations across the UK. Alongside Woodhall Manor, the group also owns Manor By The Lake and Seckford Hall Hotel & Spa. Every venue is unique and steeped in history, but all share Heritage Rocks Group’s high standards of service. You can find out more about the group on the Heritage Rocks website.


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