Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Homes of the great Liberal leaders

In a feature on famous ancestors of twenty-first century personalities, The Word magazine mentions that actress Helena Bonham-Carter has recently bought the Oxfordshire home of her great grandfather, the Liberal prime minister H.H. Asquith.

I imagine this must be The Wharf at Sutton Courtenay (pictured right). Despite his image as very much an establishment figure, Asquith came from a relatively modest middle-class background and was never particularly wealthy. Indeed, he declined the leadership of the Liberal party in 1899 in favour of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman because the need to earn his living as a barrister to support his family meant that he could not give enough time to politics.

The Wharf does not look particularly grand, but even so its upkeep was too much for Asquith's widow Margot, who sold it in the 1930s , claiming to be 'dog poor'. Call me sentimental, but I like the thought of the house being back in the family. I was saddened to see, while on holiday in the New Forest a few years ago, that Malwood, home of the nineteenth-century Liberal leader Sir William Harcourt, is now in institutional use by a utility company or similar and bears not even a plaque to mark its first owner. Campbell-Bannerman's home, Belmont Castle is now a Church of Scotland 'eventide home', although I haven't been there to see whether there is any reference to 'C-B'.

The loss to the country of Liberal prime minister Lord Rosebery's seat at Mentmore Towers, which contained one of the great collections of art and furniture in Europe, in the 1970s is testimony to the philistinism and incompetence of the Callaghan government. It is still standing and was for many years the headquarters of the Natural Law party. The other Rosebery pile, Dalmeny House on the Firth of Forth, is still lived in by the Seventh Earl, and is open to the public (although apparently closed for refurbishment during 2008).

Gladstone's home of Hawarden Castle in Flintshire is still owned by the Gladstone family, but is not open to the public, although I am lucky enough to have seen inside his study, the 'temple of peace', when I attended the 'Gladstone Umbrella' conference at St Deiniol's library (which houses Gladstone's collection of books) last summer. Lloyd George's boyhood home, Highgate, in Criccieth is part of the Lloyd George Musuem.

I doubt whether it is Helena Bonham-Carter's intention to keep The Wharf as anything other than a private home. But perhaps she might be persuaded to open it occasionally, for example for Heritage Open Days, the annual event in which properties that are normally closed to the public open their doors for one weekend. As an Asquithian, I would make the effort to go.


dynamite said...

Lovely post - thank you.

Anonymous said...

This is The Boathouse at the bottom of the garden. Here is a picture of The Wharf which Asquith had built fronting the street in 1912. It contained seven bedrooms plus reception rooms but Margot Asquith's famous weekends often overflowed the house and she had the Boathouse (which was much older than the house proper) remodelled to add additional bedrooms for guests. Helena Bonham-Carter did not buy the Wharf but the Mill House, another property owned by the Asquiths with lovely gardens designed by Violet Bonham-Carter (Asquith)

Anonymous said...

For some reason I couldn't seem to add a picture. However, I've found a number of pictures of the facade of the Wharf on the internet - both historical and modern