The tale of the Fonthill estate

ruined building

We take a look at the ups and downs of the Fonthill Estate in Wiltshire – extended, demolished and rebuilt multiple times by both fate and its many owners.

In 1533, Sir John Mervyn purchased the Fonthill estate near Salisbury in Wiltshire, and moved into a house within the substantial park. One hundred years later the property was in the hands of Lord Cottingham, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the reign of Charles I, a wall was built around the park and a large stable block was added. The property changed hands again during the Civil War, being passed via Oliver Cromwell to the Lord President of the parliamentary commission that tried the king, John Bradshaw. The Cottingham family eventually returned to Fonthill upon the crowning of Charles II in 1660.

So far so good, but Fonthill estate’s fortunes were about to change.

In 1745, the estate and its house were sold to Alderman William Beckford, then Lord Mayor of London. He added to the landscape, built a banqueting house and removed the church of St Nicholas that had been built close to the house, replacing it with Holy Trinity Church at Fonthill Gifford.

Ten years later the house burned down, much of its stonework used to build a new house with a grand archway entrance, known as Fonthill Splendens, on higher ground a mile from the site of the original house.

In 1770, the Fonthill estate passed to his son, also William Beckford, described by Lord Byron as ‘England’s wealthiest son’, who added amongst other things, a boat house and grotto. Beckford junior was the author of a gothic novel, Vathek, the story of a blasphemous hedonist who builds a tower tall enough to be able to survey all the kingdoms on Earth, defying seventh heaven and condemning himself to eternal damnation and expulsion to the underworld. Beckford even hired a dwarf to open the 38-foot-high front doors so as to make the doors seems even bigger and more impressive and to startle the infrequent visitor by increasing the illusion of their height

The estate was sold in 1823 to a gunpowder contractor from Bengal in India, John Farquhar, but within two years the house fell down. He died intestate in 1826 but had already passed the Pavilion to his nephew, George Mortimer. The Pavilion, renamed Little Ridge and later Fonthill House, is the only remaining part of the original Fonthill Splendens.

In 1829, Mortimer tried to sell the property and rented it to James Morrison. Morrison bought the property and his descendants live on at the estate to this day.

Morrison was a wealthy haberdasher and entrepreneur from London, who was MP for Ipswich and later Inverness Burghs. It is said his business activities achieved an annual turnover of £200 million in today’s money. He improved the park, repaired some of the existing structures and built additional cottages, but by 1844 Morrison had moved to Basildon Park in Berkshire, due to his commitments in London and the lengthy eleven-hour journey to Fonthill.

In 1846, Morrison passed the estate to his second son, Alfred, who enlarged it and built more cottages, and also lived in the house all his life. Alfred’s son, Hugh, inherited the house in 1897 and built a new house nearby based on a partially ruined 17th century manor house which he moved stone by stone from Berwick St Leonard.

In 1921, the original Pavilion building was demolished – the fifth house on the estate to be demolished or replaced – and the new house was now given the name Fonthill House. Hugh’s son John Morrison, First Lord Margadale, demolished this building in 1971, replacing it a year later with a smaller house.

The western part of the Beckford estate was not purchased by James Morrison, and was bought in 1859 by the Marquess of Westminster. Here he built Fonthill Abbey, but the Scottish baronial style house was, you guessed it, demolished in 1955.