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Halls at Eaton

Eaton has been the home of the Grosvenor family since the early 1440s, when Ralph Grosvenor of Hulme in central Cheshire married Joan, the heiress to the estate.

Eaton Hall has been rebuilt several times, reflecting the architectural fashions of each era. In the 1660s the family lived in a comparatively modest manor house. A classical restoration mansion was built on an adjacent site in the 1670s (the Samwell Hall), replaced in the early 1800s and again in the 1870s by vast Neo-Gothic Structures (the Porden and Waterhouse Halls), replaced again in the early 1970s by a modernist house more suited to twentieth century needs (the Dennys Hall), and extensively altered to the present French chateau style in the early 1990s (Eaton Hall).

The Early Hall pre 1675

Little is known about the house or houses before the Samwell Hall. Sporadic references occur in the archives at Eaton but they give scant details. One document contains a reference to a grant, made on 31 August 1543 by Sir Thomas Grosvenor (d.1549) to his brother Richard, of “iiij Pastures p[ar]cell of Eaton Halle called Clay felde and payment Haye Okefeld and grenefelde” In particulars of the estate of the same Sir Thomas, compiled following his death in 1549, mention is made of “uno Capitali messuagio co[mmun]it[er] vocat[o] Eaton Halle” (a capital messuage commonly called Eaton Hall).

The Samwell Hall 1675

Some sources name John Vanbrugh (1664–1726) as the architect of this new Hall, but this is clearly a mistake – Vanbrugh would then have been only eleven years old. The architect chosen by Thomas was William Samwell, one of the gentleman architects of the day, whose works included a new residence for King Charles II at Newmarket and the remodelling of Ham House in Richmond, Surrey, for the Duke of Lauderdale. In the summer of 1675 Samwell visited Eaton – he was paid £15 for the journey to and from London. Plans were probably settled in London shortly afterwards and a model of the proposed building was sent up to Eaton in January 1676. Samwell was not to see the execution of the plans as he died in 1676 when building work had barely begun.

The Porden Hall 1802

Robert Grosvenor’s chosen architect was William Porden, who had been a pupil of James Wyatt. Wyatt was the most successful architect of the day and he had been the surveyor of the Grosvenors' London estates since 1784. Porden was asked to draw up plans and produced several schemes. At least one scheme was in the classical style, proposing the re-facing of the Samwell Hall, with a portico and two three-bay blocks added symmetrically to the existing structure. Porden clearly preferred the Gothic style, writing to the Earl in 1803.

“Of Gothic Architecture, though it is now better understood than it was a few years ago, the majority are comparatively ignorant, yet every one is delighted with its richness, and sensible of its imposing character. Its expenciveness, or the opinion of its being so, has prevented it from becoming common, as well as the difficulty there has been of getting workmen to execute it. It therefore is preferable on the score of preserving that distinction to Rank and Fortune, which it is the habit of the age to diminish. As to convenience and comfort it may be made equally excellent with the Grecian. With regard to splendour it is far superior, and its variety is infinite. Were I to be asked, in what Stile I would construct a Building if my Commission was unlimited in magnitude and expence, I should answer in the Gothic. Externally considered its picturesque beauties are supereminent, and enrich the appearance of a Country far beyond the Grecian.”

The Earl opted for the Gothic style, and would express his pleasure with the completed building, commenting that Porden had “consolidated the rich variety of styles of our ancestors into one perfect and most beautiful order of architecture”.

The Waterhouse Hall 1870

Waterhouse is perhaps remembered more for his public buildings than private houses – such as Manchester Town Hall and his best known work, the Natural History Museum in London – and the finished Eaton Hall was certainly a grand palace rather than a cosy country house. Indeed, the Duke commented somewhat wryly, “Now that I have built a palace I wish I lived in a cottage, we had better let this daily”. Ironically this was exactly what was eventually to happen.

The new Eaton Hall was basically an encasement of the Porden Hall, and the original Samwell block with its nine bays formed the central core. Waterhouse's chapel with its 175-feet clock tower was linked but not attached to the Hall. The Duke commissioned G F Watts to build in bronze in the centre of the forecourt an equestrian statue of his namesake, Hugh Lupus, 1st Earl of Chester. The statue still guards the entrance to the present Eaton Hall.

The Dennys Hall 1971

On the death of the 4th Duke of Westminster in 1967 the title and estates passed to his younger brother Robert (1910–1979), whose family home was then Ely Lodge on an island in Loch Erne in County Fermanagh. Whilst Ely Lodge was retained and was again to become the home of the 5th Duke and his Duchess, succession to the Dukedom prompted a move to Eaton.

Rather than live at Saighton Grange as his brother had done, the 5th Duke opted for building a new Eaton Hall on part of the site of the Waterhouse Hall. Until the new Hall was ready for occupation the family lived in Eatonwood Cottage, a temporary wooden ‘Colt’ house erected to the north of the site of the old Private Wing.

The architect for the new Hall was John Dennys, brother-in-law to the Duchess and formerly an army major. He was not well known as an architect in Britain – his work was mainly abroad, designing buildings in America and Malta, though in Britain he had been part of a team responsible for the town centre of the new town of Corby, Northamptonshire.

Eaton Hall 1989

The history of previous Eaton Halls again repeated itself, as the Dennys Hall was not demolished but altered and encased. The architects chosen for the works were the Cardiff-based firm, the Percy Thomas Partnership (PTP) and with guidance from Sir Hugh Casson. PTP had recently established an office in Chester following their contract to upgrade and expand the St. Michael’s Shopping Precinct there. Eatonwood Cottage became the family’s temporary home, from October 1988 until the completion of the new Hall in 1991.

Following a presentation to the local press in May 1988, The Chester Observer published the following article:

“Plans to transform the appearance of Eaton Hall – home of the Duke and Duchess of Westminster have  been submitted to Chester City Council, it was revealed last week. The hall, which has been the subject of much adverse comment because of its austere and hard line, will benefit from the addition of another storey under a steeply sloping slated roof. And perhaps the most controversial feature of all – the marble chippings with which the present hall is cladded – will be replaced by local red sandstone. The object is to give the hall a profile more in sympathy with the surrounding buildings and gardens, and also accommodate a housekeeper’s flat, and provide additional storage space to cope with the family’s changing needs. ‘We are taking a long hard look at the design of the house in order to achieve greater harmony with its surroundings,’ said the Duke of Westminster. Work on the hall, which was built by the 5th Duke of Westminster in the early seventies, is due to start in November and it should be finished in 12 months. Although no details have been given, it will certainly far exceed the £500,000 spent on building the existing hall. The modified hall will be surrounded by a deep terrace and there will be softer lines to the windows and arches. Explained the agent for the Eaton Estate, Mr Brian Bowden, ‘What we will have is a contemporary house, with historic detail.’ And he emphasised that it had to be looked at in relation to its immediate surroundings at the heart of the 2,500 acre estate. ‘It will be in total sympathy with the buildings nearby’, he said. While the work is taking place the Duke and Duchess and their children will move into Wood House – the Canadian ranch style residence built by the 5th Duke to provide accommodation when the present hall was being built.”