The ladies and gentlemen of Sunnycroft, Shropshire Wellington

PUBLISHED: 16:39 23 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:46 20 February 2013

Joan Lander in 1951

Joan Lander in 1951

Sunnycroft in Wellington is England's best-preserved gentleman's residence and the only one open to the public. It's a house that speaks for itself... as readers will discover in this <br/><br/>article compiled with a little help from Ingrid Finch

Sunnycroft in Wellington is Englands best-preserved gentlemans residence and the only one open to the public others have been demolished or converted to family homes or businesses. It was left to the National Trust by Joan Lander and since it opened to the public in 1999 the staff and team of volunteers have gained an ever-increasing fund of knowledge about its history.

Ingrid Finch has been a volunteer guide from opening day: I love every minute
of my time at Sunnycroft. It helped fill the lonely gap in my life after my husband died
and it gives so much pleasure to visitors, its not like a stately home, this is a place people
can relate to, they say it reminds them of the houses their grandparents owned.

Its a house that speaks for itself as readers will discover in this article compiled with a little help from Ingrid Finch


Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Sunnycroft and I am a Victorian villa in Wellington. For the past 10 years I have been looked after by the National Trust. I am nurtured by my custodian and cherished by my army of volunteers.

JOHN WACKRILL

When I was built in 1880, I was the responsibility of John Wackrill, owner of the Shropshire Brewery which was one of my neighbours. It stood opposite the former Old Hall School and was later owned by O. D. Murphy.

John Wackrill bought the land on which I now stand from Groomes, the timber merchants of Wellington, in 1878 and then found a notable builder to do the rest. He didnt have to look far to find Mr Roper for he was a neighbour in New Church Road. John was in a dilemma at the time because he didnt have sufficient room in his old house to accommodate his wife and five daughters; two of whom were living with grandparents in Devon. However, along I came and solved the problem.

John, his wife Clara and daughters, Edith, Florence, Evelyn, Gertrude and Amy, together with their domestic servant, Jane Holbrook, a 40-year-old widow, became my first occupants in 1881. Sadly I saw the demise of poor John on 27th August 1893. His family left me and moved to Essex and I was offered for sale. I had to wait until January 1894 for someone else to fall in love with me.

MARY JANE SLANEY

The second part of my story unfolds with the entrance of my new and beloved owner, Mary Jane Slaney. Mary was an astute business woman, the widow of a wine and spirits merchant who owned four businesses known as Slaneys Vaults, two in Wellington, one in Broseley and the other in Oakengates. She became my owner in January 1894 and turned out to be quite a woman and so stylish. Mary had been used to a much grander house than me and that worried me because in those days I was quite square and ordinary. But I need not have worried, for I had reckoned without the drive and ambition of this remarkable lady who let nothing stand in the way once her mind was set. She entertained a lot and held lavish dinner parties, but understandably she found my size rather inhibiting. In 1899, on the eve of the 20th century, Mary swung into action engaging the services of my original builder, Mr Roper, to add substantially to my size.

In this late Victorian period it was very fashionable to have a billiard room, a totally male domain, so Mary made sure she had one. While her gentlemen friends, following a dinner party, relaxed with their port, cigars and a game of billiards, Marys lady friends would retire to my drawing room where they could catch up on the latest gossip over a game of cards. Nothing, excuse me for saying so ladies, has changed in that direction.

In addition to the billiard room my extension included a large dining room, the centrepiece of which is a Queen Anne-style oak fireplace. Above the billiard room and dining room she built a spacious master bedroom, a dressing room and further bedrooms. These are accommodated on my turret landing, the exterior of which stands tall and proud over my entrance door.

However, my pride and joy is my staircase hall, a true testimony to Marys vision and style. My neo-Jacobean staircase became the talk of Wellington! When I eavesdrop on my present-day visitors, who usually pay it appropriate compliments, I say a silent thank you to my late owner.

Im glad that the Trust repainted my hallways in the same shade of red as they were in the days when my gas lamps cast a flickering and delicate glow after dusk and my blinds were drawn, shutting out the world and leaving my interior feeling safe and cosy.

All the materials used in my transformation were first class; Mary saw to that. She didnt stop with my interior, for she also worked her magic in my garden too. Having moved my rather modest front entrance to where you see it today, she re-aligned my driveway and planted young lime trees and redwoods on both sides. Over the years I have proudly watched them grow into the magnificent Wellingtonia Avenue you see today. As you explore my garden, I am confident that you will be impressed by my Victorian conservatory. No expense was spared here either, for my conservatory and glass houses were the work of a firm called Halliday. They also built glass houses for the Rothschild family at Waddesden Manor,Buckinghamshire. Pardon the name dropping!

My garden was laid out to Marys style and remains the same today. My plants and lawn are now tended lovingly by a National Trust gardener and his team of volunteers. Everything is carried out organically as it was so many years ago. Everything that made me into what I am now, referred to as a mini estate, was done by Mary. Of course, in her heyday, transport was by coach and horses, so she built my coach house and stables, the domain of George Webster, Marys esteemed coachman.

Certain events from the past dominate my thoughts and I shall never forget them. One in particular was the wedding of Marys daughter, Florence, and I felt honoured that she held her wedding breakfast in my new dining room. What an occasion that was and Mary spared no expense in ensuring that it was a day to remember. Anyone who was anyone was there and my walls were stretched to capacity fitting everyone in, as well as the vast array of wedding gifts from family, friends and staff. In 1902 I played host to another wedding. This time it was Marys parlour maid who married the local postman. The fact that she was invited to hold her wedding in this way reflects the benevolence of my owner and the esteem in which she was held by her employees.

I think my halcyon days were when Mary owned me and I was so sad when she died in 1910 at the age of 60. For two years I was cared for lovingly by her son Jack until the arrival of a new owner. Regrettably, like so many young men, Jack was killed in the First World War.

JOHN VERNON THOMAS LANDER

The year 1912 saw my introduction to the first of the Lander family in whose ownership I was to remain until 1997.

John Vernon Thomas Lander (or JVT as he was affectionately known) was in fact Marys brother-in-law, a respected man who was the head of a firm of solicitors in Wellington called Lander and Son. In addition, he was County Coroner and Registrar. John had not followed in his familys footsteps, career-wise, for they were farmers and land owners from High Offley near Eccleshall in Staffordshire. Farming however was in Johns blood and he made the most of my fertile soil to grow produce. He was a true disciple of self-sufficiency and in further pursuit of that he bought extra land on which to graze cows.

My owner was quite a character too. When he met young boys on his travels to and from work he would address them as Tommy. In similar vein he would call all parlour maids Frances, although I only ever remember there being one girl of that name! He also delighted in his grandchildren who brought his fun loving nature to the surface when he used to play what he called a game of bears. He chased after them wearing a bearskin rug!

John and his wife loved to host tennis and croquet parties in the warmer months with friends and family gathering together on my lawn. This evoked a scene of early 20th century tranquility and gentility, so rare in todays manic world. Christmas was also a time of fun and laughter with themed fancy dress parties. These provoked great hilarity around my Christmas tree which pointed majestically towards my Victorian skylight.

JVT was married twice. His first wife was Mary Elizabeth Higgins; their son Jack followed him into the legal profession and joined him in his solicitors practice. Following the death of his first wife, he married Mary Hammersley Slaney, the sister-in-law of my second owner, Mary Jane Slaney. From this second marriage there came a son, Thomas, and two daughters, Dorothy and Gwendoline. As a true Victorian gentleman, Johns tastes were quite different from those of Mary Jane Slaney. He hung not only family portraits on the walls of my staircase hall, but also shields and swords.

When John died in December 1942 at the age of 87, the Second World War had already begun. I remember accommodating evacuees at the beginning of the war. My cellar was designated as an air raid shelter, though I must confess that I dont think it was ever used.

THOMAS OFFLEY LANDER

In 1943 even more change took place when Thomas Offley Lander, the second of Johns sons, bought me. He was married to Muriel and had two good-looking daughters, Joan and Rachel.

Offley, as he was always known to his friends, had served in the First World War and was injured at the battle of Arras in northern France in 1917. In the Second World War he served in the Wellington Home Guard. As with all the Lander men, he was educated at Shrewsbury School and later graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge. He was an engineer and turned his experience towards the iron industry, gleaning invaluable knowledge from the iron foundry known as James Clay (Wellington) Ltd. He started his own business known as Sinclair Iron Works at Coalbrookdale, later named the Allied Iron Foundry. Sometimes when my visitors are around, I hear one or two of them mention the fact that they were employed by the Iron Foundry. The Iron Foundry is also a thing of the past, a museum piece rather like me.
Offley travelled to and from his work in a Daimler car. I still have this vehicle in my garage but it is not so much the car, built in 1955, that generates interest, but its number plate AW1. This was the first registration number to be issued in Shropshire, in 1904 to be exact. This particular plate was owned by the Coalbrookdale Company, and they presented it to Offley on his retirement in 1960.

JOAN MARGARET LANDER

I like the ladies, even though, strictly speaking, I am known as a Gentlemans Suburban Villa and it was nice to be in the ownership of a lady again when Joan Lander inherited the house from her father.

Joans mother Muriel died in 1964 and Joan returned from her work in London to live with me shortly before her father Offleys death in 1973, aged 83. Joan was a product of her upbringing, the elder of Offley and Muriels two daughters, she was quiet, reserved and hardworking; idleness was unheard of. During the Second World War she became a Red Cross nurse and later worked as a radiographer. In 1947 she enrolled at the Royal School of Needlework in London. I have heard her say that these were some of the most rewarding and exciting times of her life.

In 1949, at the end of her two-year course at the Royal School of Needlework, Joan had become so accomplished that she was awarded a gold medal and was chosen as one of 12 women to embroider the gold thread work on Queen Elizabeths Coronation gown, the Purple Robe of Velvet.

Whatever Joan turned her hand to she did it to the best of her ability and expected the same of everyone else. This was never better illustrated than when she held embroidery classes around my dining room table. She would unpick embroidery that didnt meet her high expectations and by the time the pupil had re-done it a few times, she knew she was on the way to becoming a good needlewoman.

Joans old bedroom has now been turned into an exhibition of her work and a collection of Leek Embroidery. On show are cushions made from kits that Joan Lander designed. She was a familiar sight with her stall at local events, including the Shrewsbury Flower Show and the West Midlands Show. In 1997 she exhibited with the Rural Crafts Association. After the Second World War, the domestic scene changed dramatically, as live-in staff barely existed and this was the death knell of many of my contemporaries. Although Joan had a live-in companion, it was a quiet life. Jams and chutneys were made from fruit, and chickens were kept. Surplus commodities, including fruit from my orchard and vegetables from my garden were sold to local people either at my back door or at market. Waste was not a word that sat comfortably in the Lander vocabulary. One thing I dont miss, however, is the pungent aroma that used to pervade my kitchen every afternoon when scraps of vegetables were boiled on my Aga. These were mixed with meal to feed the chickens and I well recall Joan clad in an old coat and Wellingtons trudging off in all weathers to feed them. Local people of a certain age today will remember Joan more than any of the Lander family because it was only in 1997 that she died at the age of 80. She was a familiar figure shopping in and around Wellington and on summer evenings when she and her companion used to walk their dogs on the Bowring Recreational Ground.

When Joan Lander died I was tormented by demons of developers who might at best change my character, but at worst demolish me altogether! I need not have worried for Joan had probably suffered the same nightmares and as a result decided to put me in the capable hands of The National Trust.

THE NATIONAL TRUST

It was strange at first when the National Trust took me under its wing. I had all sorts of people coming and going and deciding what had to be done to bring me in line with modern requirements. I was prodded and poked, rewired and painted and so on and so forth. I also felt the loss of a real family living within in my old walls. Even though Joan and her companion were my only occupants in my later years, Joan was still part of the family that I had known and loved.

However, things never stay the same forever and I was grateful that I was being cared for. It was quite exciting especially when it was time for me to open to the public. Lots of enthusiastic people volunteered their time to sort through and catalogue my contents. Ladies from the Embroidery Guild carefully and lovingly sifted through Joans needlework ready to put it on display to my new visitors.

The Trust appealed for volunteers, some of whom were to guide people around and relate my history, while others worked in my garden which I must confess was in need of lots of
tender loving care. My once velvet lawn and tennis court played host to more than a few weeds, now gladly a thing of the past. My glass house and conservatory had fallen into partial disrepair but were restored to their former glory. They still produce the almost wax-like arum lilies every spring, some of which are given to St Eatas Church at Atcham for Easter. In July 1999, I was opened to the public and was delighted that Joans sister, Rachel, was invited to perform the opening ceremony.

The rest, as they say, is history. There have been some changes since the Trust took me over, but essentially I retain the Victorian and Edwardian charm created by my owners so many years ago. I do, however, have a Victorian tea room in what used to be my smoke room. Last year it was nominated for the Marsh Heritage Volunteering Award and gained second place in the national competition. I felt a surge of pride from my back stairs to my turret landing.

I am a major attraction in Wellington and I feel a warm glow of satisfaction when I recall the years past and think of all that I have seen and heard since I began life with John Wackrill and his family in 1880.

I feel an even greater satisfaction that I can interest the present generation and, hopefully, generations to come. I do hope youll visit me soon.


2010 at Sunnycroft


Sunday, March 14: Mothering Sunday. Free drinks for ladies.
Friday April 2-Monday April 5: Easter Egg Trails around the garden.
Saturday May 22 and Sunday May 23: Bug Hunting.
Saturday June 5: Leek Embroidery Day with Jane Dew.
Saturday June 26: Leek Embroidery Day for beginners with Jane Dew.
Sunday June 20: Fathers Day. Free drinks for gents.
Tuesday July 6: Green Fingers Tour.
Saturday July 10 and Sunday July 11: Garden Fete and Kaleidoscope Theatre.
Saturday August 7: Beadwork demonstration with Jane Dew.
Saturday August 21: Leek Embroidery workshop for advanced students with Jane Dew.
Saturday September 11: National Heritage Day.
Saturday September 25: Michaelmas at Sunnycroft.
Saturday November 13: Christmas wreath workshop.

(Please note, some events carry an extra charge and require booking. For more information and opening times: 01952 242844. www.nationaltrust .org.uk/main/w-sunnycroft)

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