|Evening Telegraph, 30th May 1981, transcribed by Gill Hollis
Our Landmark Gets An Overhall
The most famous and historically interesting of all Rushden’s buildings is again to become part of the life of the town and the county.
Rushden Hall, first known of as a manor in the thirteenth century, looks set after a £100,000 facelift to become the new offices for East Northants Council.
Interesting and important though that news itself is, it’s also a point of pleasing symmetry for the town whose history is ancient, varied and very rich.
The first mention we have of the Hall was as a manor in the Domesday Book, published by the recently arrived Norman King, William I in the eleventh century.
There was land for twelve ploughs, 30 areas of meadow and a mill in the village of Rushden, which originally took its name from the situation of the Saxon settlement along the banks of the brook which still runs through the middle of the town. The ‘rushy valley’ was the home of several families dependent upon agriculture for their livelihood.
They were joined by the Danes and at the time of the Norman Conquest, they had their own priest and were an established church. From then on, life at Rushden Hall flourished.
Though a private manor, by the early 13th century, it seems certain that it was associated with officers of Higham Castle and later with the son of Edward III, the notorious and hugely rich John of Gaunt. John was probably the most powerful man in England of his day and probably far more feared even than his father.
Who knows what sinister and far-reaching conferences may have taken place within the walls of Rushden Hall forever affecting the life of the nation.
Then came the Pemberton family, who occupied the house for 200 years. The first of them, Robert Pemberton, arrived in 1461, becoming High Sheriff of the county in 1480, and usher of the chamber to Richard III. The last of the Pembertons to live at the hall was another High Sheriff, Sir Lewis who died in 1639. It then became the home of a John Ekins from Irchester.
The Ekins were a family steeped in political tradition, and this was never clearer than during the bloody Civil War.
They ignored the calls of Charles I and stood squarely behind Oliver Cromwell.
A change of heart came about with the Fletcher family, who occupied the Hall from 1755. Thomas, the father, appears to have been the very model of a Georgian squire. Bluff and hearty, he loved nothing better than the gentlemanly pursuits of hunting, shooting and fishing.
Rushden Hall thus became, for the moment, a far less political establishment.
Thomas also took a great interest in horse racing, and there are strong reasons to suggest that he gambled more heavily than ever a man of his means could afford.
In 1836, his descendant John Fletcher was forced to sell the hall ‘for the benefit of creditors.’
By now, the hall had established itself as the kind of home in which any man of fame and fortune would be proud to settle.
Thomas Williams, a man of great wealth, came to live there in 1822, becoming High Sheriff in 1829. Not only was he rich. He was also a devoted father and, in the best tradition of nineteenth century England, he liked his families large. By the time of his death in 1881, the grand old man, then 85 had married twice and produced 21 children. But the Williams’ were the last of the great dynasties to live in the hall.
Various families came and went until in 1931, Rushden Urban Council purchased it from John Todd.
The diversity of its owners, their changing fortunes, and the originality of its own history, are all clearly reflected in the hall.
Architecturally, it is a complex mixture of styles, both inside and in the face it presents to the world.
Happily, the early 16th century arches within the front hall survive from the great hall of the Tudor house.
The imposing east front with its ‘Dutch’ gables and semi-circular bay windows, definitely post-Jacobean, were probably additions by Sir Lewis Pemberton, in about 1630.
Thomas Williams, as a rich Victorian might have been expected to carry out many alterations.
The centre bay was added to the east front and he remodelled the south facade, erecting the embattled porch and divided the great hall into other rooms something today’s purists can only deplore.
The old lodge and gates date from this period, and Thomas added the arms of the Williams, Berthon and Cunningham into the ceiling of the front hall.
A later owner, F. U. Sartoris added the gabled projections to the north-west, incorporating a new kitchen and servants’ quarters, a second bay on the south front and a stable block.
The interior of the hall has far from lost the reminders of its ancient past, however.
The two staircases possess original balustrades from the seventeenth century, reconstructed, and the linen-fold panelling and ‘Flemish’ overmantle came back from Bristol.
As a reminder of its more ancient associations, the fire-back beneath the overmantle depicts the arms of Edward VI, the boy-King and son of Henry VIII, and came from Higham Castle.
The present century has not treated Rushden Hall much more kindly than it has treated any-where else.
World wars and ravaging inflation dealt a stunning blow to the building which was fortunately arrested before it grew too dilapidated.
It was the rear half of the building which suffered most, but a £50,000 renovation scheme several years back improved matters dramatically.
Tory councillor Alan Goulsbra estimated that the total cost of restoring lingering problems to the structure and preparing the way for the council’s arrival would be about £100,000 but a majority decision has now been reached in the chamber to undertake the conversion.
Rushden Hall is a listed building, but even so Mr. Goulsbra admitted that it is the new positive role as an office for it that has made him personally feel justified in voting that the money be spent on the restoration.
But then, again, he said that there is “something rather pleasing” about the work of government being done in what is both a practical and historic setting.
Though it is true that the torch-lit conspiracies and battle plans laid by medieval chieftains in Rushden Hall are a long way different from those of modern councils, it has to be added that the main difference is really one of time.
New priorities have taken their place in the governments, local and national, of today.