Speke Hall, Merseyside

In a most unlikely setting, at the edge of a modern industrial estate and bordering on the runway of Liverpool Airport, stands this enchanting black and white, half-timbered Tudor mansion. Having suffered long periods of desertion and neglect, it is little short of a miracle that the building has survived at all, but even more surprising is that is has remained virtually unaltered since it was first built for the Norris family some 450 years ago. It was William Norris II who began building the house as seen today, with funds accumulated from the spoils of war, and he also started the long tradition of Norris's becoming members of parliament for Liverpool.

Being a proud Catholic, and Royalist, family, the Norris fortunes tended to fluctuate throughout the reign of Elizabeth I, and again during the Civil War. By the end of the 17th century Sir William VI stabilised the family's standing, and secured Speke Hall for his descendants, when he received many valuable gifts as a result of his position as Ambassador to the court of the Mogul Emperor. Towards the end of the 18th century the house was abandoned by the family, who then preferred to live in the more fashionable environment of London, and the dilapidated estate was finally sold in 1795.

A local lad 'come good', Richard Watt, had made his money in Jamaica from the sugar plantations and decided to invest his hard-earned wealth in property. Leaving Speke Hall to his great nephew, who substantially refurbished this delightful country home, it was again vacated in 1813. After a period of tenancies, the house became thoroughly neglected and almost ruinous before Richard Watt V and his new bride began the arduous task of restoration in 1856. Both dying before they were 30 years old, and leaving only a young daughter to inherit on her coming of age, Speke Hall was leased to Frederick Leyland for 10 years.

As manager of the Bibby Shipping Company, Leyland was a relatively wealthy man, and ploughed a lot of money into the redecoration of this magnificent old house. His understanding and appreciation of the Arts and Crafts featured prominently in the Victorian refurbishment of Speke Hall, from his use of contemporary wallpapers by William Morris to his collection of Old Masters.

When Adelaide Watt came into her inheritance of Speke Hall, she set about developing a huge new farm complex, and was determined that such an historic property should be preserved for all time, irrespective of the massive amount of industrial development that was fast spreading out from the city. Having made a limited provision in her will to save the house, the estate was sold after she died in 1921, and the farm complex transformed into an aerodrome. It is amazingly surreal to be wandering along the uneven corridors of the hall, quietly absorbed in the atmosphere of a romantic Elizabethan courtyard house, when suddenly the throaty sounds of a 20th century jet rudely interrupt the visions of a more genteel way of life.

Recently this 16th century mansion has developed another curious link, this time with the 'sixties' pop phenomenon, the Beatles. Since the opening of Paul McCartney's childhood home, just a couple of miles away in Allerton, Speke Hall has been designated as a starting point for the tours.


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