History

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From Stately Home to Arts Centre

Over the years the various owners of South Hill Park have made their mark on its Grade II listed building. These links with the past are particularly important in the context of a new town where any connection with history is at a premium.

The Early Years

1600s
1750
1760
1819
1600s
Before the 1600s the area of South Hill Park was part of Windsor Forest. This was a mixture of heath and woodland over which the Crown had rights of timber and deer pasturage. In the mid-seventeenth century it was, probably, illegally enclosed. This must have been after 1607. The survey map of Windsor Forest by John Norden didn’t show any enclosure or building at south Hill. The name does appear below that of Gallmoar Pond. A title deed of 1683 indicates that enclosure and some building had taken place. The deed shows the leasing of ‘the mansion house known by the name of south Hill’ to William Samrooth by Ann Bagley.
1750
By 1750 Brice Fisher owned the house and renamed it Fisher’s Lodge. A map accompanying his new lease granting permission to enlarge, shows a house in the centre of his landholding. The house was a rectangular building with two wings on the south front with the entrance drive to the north. Other map evidence of the estate from 1757 and 1761 shows the estate much the same as it appeared on this map.
1760
William Watts, who owned the south Hill Park in 1760, had been a senior officer of the Bengal government. He also wished to enlarge the estate and in return for permission to take in a further thirty acres he provided for the poor of the parish. People thought that he built the original house but the earlier maps showing the outline of the house disproved this. He did remodel the existing house as a classical villa and it is likely that he moved the farm buildings further away from the house.
1819
The earliest known view of south Hill Park, although dated to 1819, shows the house much the same as it was when it was rebuilt by Watts. It had the entrance front at the north side of the house and a long pool in the foreground.

The George Canning and Sir William Hayter Years

1801
1853
1878
1801
George Canning (1770–1827) owned the estate in 1801. He was a politician and holds the record as the shortest serving Prime Minister of this country, serving only 119 days. In 1801 Canning commissioned sir John Soane to design alterations to the house. The plans included:

  • minor alterations to the library and the hall,
  • the construction of a conservatory on the south elevation overlooking the garden,
  • and adjustments to the service quarters.
1853
During the first half of the nineteenth century the estate the Earl of Limerick owned the estate. He enlarged the estate from 148 to 346 acres and began to develop the pleasure grounds to the south of the house. In 1853 Sir William Goodenough Hayter (1792–1878) bought the estate. In 1853 a remodelling of the house was undertaken, which may have been the result of a fire.
1878
During December 1878 Sir William became depressed and on 26 December was found drowned in one of the lakes at south Hill Park. He was succeeded by his only son, Arthur Divett Hayter (1835–1917). It was Arthur Hayter who would remodel the house into what we largely see today.

The Temple Moore Years

1891
1897
1891
In 1891 the noted architect Temple Moore (1856–1920) remodelled the house. In 1893 he remodelled the hard landscaping near the house. Work began in early 1891 and was largely completed by November 1892 at a cost of £17,700. The east wing of the house remained and a major extension added westwards. It was of red brick with stone dressing throughout. The approach was from the north, with the main entrance offset towards the east under a four-storey tower.

The main display was on the south side overlooking open parkland. Here the façade was not quite symmetrical. The main features were an open arcade of single and coupled Tuscan columns on the ground floor with shallow oriels above.

1897
In 1897, Moore added a conservatory front and in 1898 a billiard room bay. In 1893 Moore began, what is believed to be, his only garden work. This comprised a terrace on the garden side and a two-flight staircase ascending out of the flower garden on the east side.

Twentieth Century

WW1
WW2
1946
1952
1960s
WW1
During the First World War South Hill Park was used as a war work collection centre. People from surrounding villages brought woollen garments which were then sent to France.

Sir Arthur died in 1917 and his widow continued to live in the house until she died in 1929. The estate then passed to her nephew, Major Rickman. He was the last private owner of the house and unfortunately shot himself in the gun cupboard in 1940.

WW2
In 1940 the royal sea Bathing Hospital evacuated from Margate to South Hill Park, moving back in 1945. Dr John Coakley founded the hospital 1791. He also founded the Medical society of London in 1773.

As a Quaker he had a strong social conscience and the welfare of the poor concerned him. Using funds supplied by the Prince Regent, he set up the hospital in Margate using sea water to cure the poor of tuberculosis. When the hospital returned to Margate it remained open until the mid-1990s and is now a development of luxury flats.

1946
In 1946 Hunton and son of Bracknell sold the mansion and 800 acres to a New Zealander, Joseph Horn. His plans were to convert the mansion into high class residential flats. He had already converted an estate in Ascot before the second World War and wanted to repeat the process.

Without altering the exterior, he converted the interior into different sized, self-contained flats. Some of the larger original rooms remained as communal spaces with the original hall a reception room. There was also a spacious lounge, a library and a restaurant. Horn made the conversion plans in close co-operation with the Berkshire town Planning association. An article in Ideal Home of 1948 was full of praise for the conversion work.

1952
The conversion venture wasn’t entirely successful. On 23 October 1951 an auction was held, selling off the contents of the house (figure 14). This included furniture and ornamental items. The BBC purchased South Hill Park in 1952 from South Hill Park estates. This was the company run by Horn.
1960s
South Hill Park became part of a group of properties to provide services in the event of a national emergency. Its function was to operate as the European services section of the BBC. For this reason the BBC made plans for a control room, four studios and recording areas in the house. There were also plans for new buildings in the grounds close to the main building. These were to provide extra offices and accommodation for the 1000 staff who would be working on the site. The buildings were built to minimum austerity standards.

By August 1958 the house was empty of all BBC property. The Bracknell Development Corporation purchased South Hill Park on 19 December 1962. South Hill Park was included in the extension of the designated new town area.

Ferranti leased the site in 1965 and used it as offices and laboratories until early 1972. Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti (1864–1930) set up Ferranti in 1882 to manufacture the alternator. The company specialised in the application of new technology to solve problems. From 1948 they were leaders in the computer industry. Ferranti had opened a research facility in Bracknell in 1963. They developed the first European microprocessor (F-100L) in the town. They went into receivership in 1993.

Arts Centre

In 1949 Bracknell became a new town. In 1969 Bracknell Development Corporation started looking into proposals for an arts centre. South Hill Park was one of the sites under consideration for the arts centre. Bracknell Development Corporation selected South Hill Park in 1970. Peter Stark was appointed its first director in the autumn of 1972. A 125-year lease was then granted to south Hill Park Trust who converted the house into an arts centre.

As the building has three floors and close to 60 rooms, conversion was a complicated process. It was divided into two phases. Phase 1 was making the building fit for public use and Phase 2 involved converting the ‘safe shell’ into a functioning centre.

It opened in October 1973 with a range of courses and activities whilst conversion work continued. The terrace bar opened in June 1974. This was despite dry rot, the national energy crisis and the three-day week all causing delays to the project. By the beginning of 1975 all the general facilities were open.

Wilde Theatre, Bracknell Gallery and Dance Studio

1982
1983
1984
1988
1982
A theatre was first proposed when south Hill Park became an arts centre. It didn’t become a reality until the construction of The Wilde Theatre 1982–4. The design brief was to be able to cater for small and large events, formal and informal.

The architect was Axel Burrough of the architectural practice Lewitt Bernstein. He and Iain Mackintosh designed the theatre on the principal of a courtyard theatre as used in Shakespeare’s time.

A partnership of the local community and businesses provided the funding. To keep costs down there was never any intention to build in the existing style of South Hill Park. Red bricks, like those in the main house were used though.

Building work began in November 1982. John Amis and Sir Henry Lushington, whose ancestor was an owner of South Hill Park, moved the first sod.

1983
Sir Michael Tippet laid the foundation stone, with a £1 coin, on 23 april 1983. At the ceremony musicians on the scaffolding premiered Sir Michael’s “The Wolf Trapp Fanfare”. St. George’s day celebrations followed.
1984
In March 1984, 400 people attended a testing of the acoustics. During the test they were exposed to a variety of noises to test levels of absorption in all parts of the auditorium.

On 15 May 1984 Princess Anne officially opened the theatre. Due to the local association with Oscar Wilde the theatre was named after him. The first performance was “The Importance of Being Earnest”.

From March to May 1984 an exhibition was held in the main gallery to coincide with the theatre opening. The exhibition was called “Rediscovering the Courtyard: The architectural evolution of the Wilde Theatre”.

1988
Following the success of the theatre the council gave the go-ahead for Phase II of the works in 1988 and 1989. This consisted of the following:

  • a new art gallery,
  • dance studio,
  • bar extension,
  • extra dressing room,
  • rehearsal and storage space.

The Bracknell Gallery opened in 1991. The gallery offers a busy programme of contemporary fine art and craft exhibitions. These include many internationally acknowledged artists.

South Hill Park Today

2002
2004
2008
Today
2002
In 2002 the Arts Council of England National Lottery Board and Bracknell Forest Council donated £3 million and £1 million, respectively. This funding transformed South Hill Park.

These funds allowed the mansion spaces to re-develop and focus on artistic activity. A new atrium bar opened, allowing for the serving of food and drink to alongside art and music performances.

2004
The John Nike suite opened in 2004, allowing digital media to be fully explored.

Artist Martin Donlin created several artworks for the building. These can be seen in the tall hall and the courtyard ceiling.

2008
In June 2008 a second award from Heritage Lottery Funding enabled design improvements to the park.

An additional award of £3.6 million transformed the exterior setting. The works included the following:

  • restoration of stonework and metalwork,
  • repaving the terrace and restoring the Italian garden and fountain,
  • tree management and planting,
  • new pathways and signage.

The works made great emphasis on, and attention to, the site’s sensitivity and biodiversity.

Today
After its long and intriguing history, South Hill Park is a prominent centre for arts within the South East region and beyond. The park’s reputation has grown over the years, ensuring it is known as a hub of artistic significance.

As a registered charity South Hill Park offers its guests 3,000 artistic, musical and theatrical events a year. The events feature a range of personalities from internationally renowned to emerging new talents.

South Hill Park also offers artistic residencies in silversmithing, printmaking, ceramics and live art. They contribute to the running of over 2000 courses alongside 250 varied workshops. Visitors can learn anything from salsa dancing to youth drama, from printmaking to digital animation. All this attracts an average 250,000 visitors a year to the park, and ensures many lifelong patrons.

The Ghosts of South Hill Park

South Hill Park is a building steeped in history and as always happens with old buildings, many intriguing stories have been formed around the place as the years have gone by.

The ghosts of South Hill Park have been discussed and speculated about for longer than anyone remembers.

To read more about the ghostly goings on follow this link.

Thanks

We would like to thank Alison Boyd and Outi Remes for curating the original “The History of South Hill Park” leaflet.

We would also like to thank the following for their contributions to the information above:

Berkshire Record Office, Bracknell Library, Alison Cable, East Kent Archives Centre, Nick Day, Winchester School of Art Library, Robert Elwall, RIBA, Heather Gordon, English Heritage, Victoria Nisbett, Bracknell Forest Borough Council, Susan Palmer, Sir John Soane Museum, Justine Sambrook, Jan Shearsmith, Museum of Science and Industry, Jeff Walden, and BBC Written Archives Caversham.

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