Situated in a river valley in the heart of Staffordshire, Shugborough’s location is decidedly magical. It is little wonder that the Anson family should choose this idyllic setting to create the grandeur that is now this important estate. In 1624, the land formed part of the estates of the Bishop of Lichfield. Eight acres of land together with a Manor House were purchased at the time by William Anson, a local lawyer, for the princely sum of £1000.
But the story of Shugborough really begins 300 years ago in 1693 when William’s grandson, also called William demolished the manor house and built a three-storied house, which forms the centre of the house today. The transformation of that medium sized country house into a magnificent Georgian Mansion was carried out between 1745 and 1748 by the architect Thomas Wright, who added the pavilions either side of the 17th century block.
It was the two great grandsons of the first William Anson who were responsible for these important changes. Thomas, born in 1695, inherited the house, and it is his passion for the classical arts, influenced by his grand tour of Europe, that we see reflected in the house today, particularly in the rococo plasterwork of the dining room and library. But it was his daring and adventurous brother George, born in 1697, who provided the funding for these alterations.
George Anson joined the navy at the age of 14, and through his exciting navy career brought fame, fortune and prestige to the Anson family name. In 1747 he was created Lord Anson and in 1751 was promoted to the first Lord of the Admiralty. We remember him best for his incredible voyage of circumnavigation of the globe between 1740 – 1744. He bought back with him a beautiful collection of Chinese wares, which is still displayed in the house today.
During that eventful voyage, Anson’s ship, the Centurion, after encountering many hardships and losing most of its crew, successfully fought and captured a Spanish treasure galleon. The treasure amounting to £400,000, was one of the largest prizes ever taken at sea by an English captain. Some of his fortune was used to develop Shugborough and acquire more land. George Anson married Lady Elizabeth Yorke, daughter of the first Earl of Hardwick in 1748. They had no children and on his death his brother Thomas inherited the fortune. With this fortune Thomas was able to further his passion for classical architecture.
He was a founder member of the Dilettanti Society, established for the encouragement of Greek classical art. His friend James Stuart was commissioned to build a series of eight monuments in the parkland.
In addition to creating this magnificent country seat, Thomas also collected antique sculpture, paintings and books. Sadly much of his collection was sold in 1842. Thomas Anson was a well-known local figure; he became MP for Lichfield and among his friends were many prominent names, including, Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood and James Brindley.
He never married and on his death the estate passed on to his sister’s son George Adams. George Adams assumed the name and arms of Anson; when he died the estate became his son Thomas'. Thomas Anson made great changes to Shugborough. For a gentleman of his standing it was essential to follow the current vogue for 'improvement'. The classical rococo style which had influenced the re-decoration of 1745 was replaced by the elegant and restrained neo-classical manner.
Beginning in 1794, the architect Samuel Wyatt further transformed the house into a fashionable neo-classical mansion. The exterior of the house was encased in slate, sanded to look like stone. But perhaps the greatest external change, completely altering the entrance, was the addition of eight massive ionic columns forming the grand portico.
Thomas Anson, MP for Lichfield was created Viscount Anson in 1806. In the same year he married Anne Margaret Coke, whose father had a great influence on the development of the Park Farm. Viscount Anson also made many changes to the parkland. The village of Shugborough was no more; the remaining villagers were re-housed in the neighbouring village of Great Haywood. The main Stafford to Lichfield road was diverted away from the estate to give more privacy. On his death in 1818, his son inherited a title and a wealthy estate, which with the addition of Park Farm was almost self-sufficient.
The second viscount was created First Earl of Lichfield in the coronation honours of William IV in 1831. This Earl led an extravagant life, entertaining lavishly at Shugborough. One of his purchases, the estate at nearby Ranton, was developed into a great sporting estate and centre of lavish hospitality. This lavish spending, together with huge family expenses and the Earl’s love of gambling, led to his financial collapse in 1842. The entire contents of the house were sold in a sale lasting two weeks. His son, the 2nd Earl, had the task of completely re-furbishing the house although he could do little to reduce the huge mortgage.
In 1892 the 3rd earl inherited the title along with the heavily mortgaged estate. He did much to save Shugborough from financial crisis by good management and outside investments. It is due to this careful running of the estate that on his death his son did not have to face the debt of so many local landowners.
It was the wish of the 4th Earl that the house be opened to the public. On the 4th Earl’s death the house, park and contents were offered to the National Trust in lieu of death duties. The property was then leased to Staffordshire County Council. The 4th Earl’s son died two years before his father therefore the title passed from grandfather to son, the late Patrick Lichfield, who became the 5th Earl of Lichfield.
A visit to the mansion house and the grounds are very much worthwhile upon a sunny day and there is enough of interest to withstand a second visit, if, like me, you enjoy exploring every nook and cranny. First encountered is the walled garden dating from 1805, a work in progress as restoration started in 2006 and plans are seemingly afoot for further development. Also dating from 1805 is a working model farm museum complete with a working watermill, kitchens, a dairy and rare breeds of farm animals. The hall itself contains the historic servants' quarters, and within these, a brewhouse which can be smelt before arriving. Restored in 1990, this is England's only log-fired brewery that still produces beer commercially. Whilst on the subjects of smells I overheard two guides, the one was telling the other that she would occasionally sniff a whiff of cigarette smoke, but with smoking not allowed in the hall its source would always remain a mystery; she would later be told it was "The Fourth Earl" - dead for many years. Within the mansion house the State Dining Room is laid out ready to receive guests, the table is dressed with the striking family silver, including a three-foot high solid silver candlebra. Perhaps my favourite of rooms and the most appealing is the Library with its wonderful plasterwork ceiling by Vassalli - a room of illusion with secret concealed doors and mirrors giving the appearance of continuous book shelves. I had the most strangest sense of deja-vu as I walked between the library and the Anson room past the various heights of family members etched onto the door surround, a feeling that still lingers! The Saloon provided the family a large room for entertaining and leads into the Verandah Room which houses the magnificent 18th century Chinese porcelain Anson armorial dinner service, of 208 pieces, commemorating Admiral George Anson’s circumnavigation of the globe in his flagship HMS Centurion.
Within the grounds are eight monuments of national and historical importance from the enormous neo-classical arch crowning the hilly Shugborough skyline to the puzzling Shepherd's Monument.
Shugborough Hall: shugborough.org.uk