Downton Abbey? More like ‘Downton Shabby’!

Glorious Highclere Castle near Newbury and Basingstoke in Hampshire
Glorious Highclere Castle near Newbury and Basingstoke in Hampshire

It isn’t quite Downton Abbey, but Hopwood Hall is a Grade II* listed manor house in Middleton, north Manchester, that dates back to 1426. From 1923, the Hall was no longer home to the Hopwood family, which had lived in the property for 500 years. During the second world war, the property was used by the Lancashire Cotton Corporation which was set up by the Bank of England in 1929 to rescue the Lancashire spinning industry. The hall was later used for the education of Roman Catholic teachers before eventually falling into disrepair and being added to English Heritage’s ‘at risk’ register.

In 2017, the Hall was purchased by a member of the Hopwood family, aptly named Hopwood DePree, an American writer, actor and filmmaker based in Hollywood Hills. DePree hopes to save the derelict building and restore it to its previous, rather grand, glory. 

But these days the mansion is far removed from the likes of Highclere Castle, used to portray TV’s Downton Abbey: “What I’m doing is more like ‘Downton Shabby,'” said DePree.

The boyish blond, blue-eyed actor said that he had always found his forename, Hopwood, a source of embarrassment and called himself Todd instead – although he did feel a sense of pride knowing he shared the name with his grandfather. He had been told of the old family home in England but had never realised it still existed until he did some research on the property and found the contact details of its custodian of fifteen years, Bob Wall, who had been fighting to protect the hall’s future. Wall was so passionate about saving the building that he saved each bit of crumbling plasterwork in the hope of using it in when the hall was finally restored.

DePree eventually visited Hopwood Hall and discovered that his 14th great-grandfather had been born there. Wall said he felt sorry for the American, having flown 5,000 miles to find the building a ‘complete tip’. DePree has now moved permanently to Rochdale.

Some of the rooms in Hopwood Hall were opened to the public on a free of charge Heritage Open Day in 2017 to inspire the public to support the restoration. DePree applied for grant funding to help with emergency work to make the hall structurally sound and watertight, that will prevent further deterioration that could make its eventual repair unachievable. A £276,000 grant from Historic England was matched by Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council, which had already spent nearly £190,000 maintaining the hall in the previous six years and now agreed further funding. It is estimated that up to £10 million may be needed to complete the restoration of the building.

DePree says he felt instantly at home in his ancestral home but has admitted to finding the move to England a challenge. He is slowly getting used to British life although he has amused the locals by asking the local chippie to take American Express and along the way acquired a waxed jacket and two ‘brollies’. He is coming to terms with ‘trying to take up a lot of tea’, driving ‘on the wrong side of the road’ and eating fish and chips ‘all the time’. English language and slang, including the use of the word ‘bullocks’. He has learned that drinking copious amounts of tea means you can fix just about anything.

“I remember one time,” he said, “when Bob the caretaker said to me, ‘The ceiling in the long corridor just collapsed, water is pouring into a leak in the Georgian room and a window in the chapel was just smashed by a rock thrown by a vandal. Can I get you a cup of tea?'”

In support of his efforts to save the Hall, DePree has created a new multimedia stand-up comedy show, “The Yank is a Manc! (My Ancestors and Me)” illustrating his experiences and finding comedy from his efforts to save Hopwood Hall. In it, he tells the story of how he left ‘Tinseltown’ to save the building and details ‘family history, culture clashes, community spirit and plenty of calamities’. The comedy show is currently touring the UK at the Brighton Fringe, Manchester, London and the Edinburgh Fringe.

If you’re thinking of saving a crumbling wreck of an older property, even if you aren’t planning on moving into the ancestral home of your forefathers, ask a Chartered Surveyor for a building survey for a full assessment of the extent of any work required and a survey report on the condition and structural elements of your new property.

Back to May 2019 Newsletter