Ellenborough Park as an estate has been described as a ‘pretty manor place’ in 1533 by the King’s Antiquary and in 1796 as “one of the greatest curiosities in the country” by Samuel Rudder. The main house is mostly early sixteenth century with priceless masonry and woodwork which gives the building old-world charm. Amendments have been made over the past 500 years and this has created a truly unique country house hotel.
Building work on Ellenborough Park was started in the early 1500s by Thomas Goodman, and it was known for many years as Southam House. The timbers in the roof space were clearly designed to be seen from the ground floor and their style suggests a very early sixteenth century date at the latest, as the style was already going out of fashion. This fits very well with Goodman’s period of building.
Thomas was a local farmer who also leased Southam Manor, which was owned by King Henry VII and covered two thirds of the land in the village. In fact, the original manor house, from which stone was taken to build Southam House, still stands in Southam Lane and is now known as Pigeon House.
Thomas stamped his identity on Southam House by placing his coat of arms and initials on the hall door, which can still be seen today. He also commemorated Henry VII and his Queen, Elizabeth of York, in the stained glass windows of the Dining Room. Then, around 1520, for reasons not now known, Thomas sold his unfinished house to Sir John Huddleston from Millom in Cumbria, who at the time was constable of Sudeley Castle.
It was therefore Sir John, and not Thomas Goodman, who completed the original Southam House – which remains as the heart of the now extended Ellenborough Park, with its Great Hall, open to the roof, a porch and a two-storey cross wing to the south, with two bay windows. John Leland, the Royal Chaplain and King’s Antiquary who was commissioned in 1533 to ‘examine the antiquities of the whole country’ described the house as ‘a pretty manor place’.
De La Bere Era
The next phase of Southam House’s history begins 1554 when Eleanor, the granddaughter of Sir John Huddleston, married Kinnard de la Bere from neighbouring Prestbury. The coat of arms which can still be seen above the mantelpiece in the ‘parlour’ represents the marriage of the two families. The house then descended to Eleanor and Kinnard’s son, Richard de la Bere.
In 1609, Richard also bought Southam Manor with its lands and, possibly to show his new status as landowner in Southam, made considerable changes to Southam House. A new cross wing was added at the southern end, the magnificent staircase was inserted and many rooms were panelled in oak. To mark these improvements, the de la Bere coat of arms was displayed on the panelling in the library, where it can still be seen today. Some records show Southam House also becoming known as ‘The Manor House’ or Southam Manor at this point.
Richard and his wife Margaret had no children, so the house descended to his father’s nephew also called Kinnard de la Bere. It then stayed in the family through descent for 150 years until a much later Kinnard de la Bere was succeeded by William Baghot, his nephew. At this time William assumed the additional surname of de la Bere, making the family name Baghot-De la Bere. William died in 1764, leaving the house to his son Thomas Baghot-De la Bere. It was around this time, in 1788, that George III visited Southam Manor during his long stay in Cheltenham. Thomas was succeeded by his two sisters, Grace Webb and Sarah Baghot-De la Bere, who were then succeeded by their cousin, Thomas Edwards in 1829.
The Ellenborough Era
In 1833, Thomas sold the estate to Edward Law, later Viscount Southam, 2nd Lord Ellenborough and 1st Earl of Ellenborough, former Governor General of India. It is from this period in the building’s history that the new Ellenborough Park Hotel takes its name. Edward Law bought the house with its lands, and also the land of a smaller property in the village, Oxenton Manor, to form one large land holding. It is said that it was whilst he was on a visit to Cheltenham that he was particularly attracted to the house because Sir John Huddleston was a distant ancestor.
Edward Law was a Tory politician who had already made a name for himself in the Duke of Wellington’s government of 1828. Yet when his political career is remembered today, it is chiefly as Governor General of India from 1842 to 1844, at a time of the expanding British Empire. After his return he also served other high offices including First Lord of the Admiralty. His short time in India was fraught by unrest and to many people he seemed arrogant, with impractical ideas. Nevertheless, India’s loss was Southam’s gain as he made further improvements to the house – extensively rebuilding the north range of buildings, adding two towers and building a new porch on the site of the original one. Thus he created the historic Southam House as it stands today. During this time, in 1865, the house became known as Southam Delabere.
However, Earl Ellenborough is not chiefly remembered locally for his political career, or for rebuilding Southam House. Instead he is remembered for his colourful private life!In 1813 he married Lady Octavia Stewart, sister of the great nineteenth-century statesman, Lord Castlereagh. It was a happy marriage, but sadly cut short by her early death from tuberculosis in 1819. Five years later he married Jane Digby, a ‘scandalous society beauty’ who was seventeen years younger than himself.
In 1828 their son Arthur was born, but sadly he died just two years later in 1830 – the same year that the marriage ended as a result of Jane’s adultery with an Austrian prince. And to add to any misery the Earl might have felt, she let it be known that she considered the prince was Arthur’s real father! Her subsequent life was even more colourful – with three more marriages and at least four more affairs, until she finally settled down with a Bedouin chief, Sheikh el Mazrab, twenty years her junior. For six months of every year she adopted his traditional nomadic way of life, and for the other six months she lived in Damascus, where she died of fever and dysentery in 1881.
It was not in Earl Ellenborough’s nature to play the wronged husband for the rest of his life. He continued to immerse himself in both local and national Government, and he also found time to oversee his extensive local estates with a benevolent paternalism. He might not have matched his ex-wife’s string of affairs, but he did have at least two mistresses, and seems to have genuinely cared for them and their children.
Surviving documents give clear evidence of two families. The 1851 census shows that one of them, a Hebe Coleman, was living in The Lodge by the main road. She bore him three daughters – Eva, Ida and Agnes. Then in 1856 he bought a house in Belgrave Street in London for a Mary Richmond – who bore him a son, Edward, and a daughter, Ellen. The 1871 census records the eighty-year old Earl at home in Southam with Eva aged 18, Ellen aged 15 and Agnes aged 12 and – plus 17 live-in servants, and the children’s governess Ann Webster.
The Earl’s will showed a continuing concern for his offspring, as he provided generously for them and their mothers. On his death in December 1871 all his lands passed to his extended family (he was one of nine children) but Southam House and Oxenton Manor were bequeathed to his son Edward, a captain in the Hussars. It’s no surprise therefore, that Edward’s coffin has a place in the Earl’s mausoleum attached to the church in Oxenton.
The 1900s and beyond
We have now reached the last stage of the story. Southam House and the landed estates – the principal landholdings being at Southam, Oxenton and Prescott, both to the north of Southam – were rented out after Edward’s death. We do know that from about 1906 the house was lived in by Mrs C M Ratcliff and her daughter, until the estate was broken up in 1927 – as was also the case with many others in the changing society after the First World War.
In 1947 a Miss Bellamy opened The Oriel Private School for Girls on the site. It existed for just twenty five years, after which time the property was again sold, to become the Hotel Delabere until that too closed in 2008.
The restoration of Ellenborough Park commenced in early 2008 and took three years to complete. The initial brief was to create a racecourse hotel which would be unsurpassed within the United Kingdom. Specifications for every aspect of the work were of the highest quality and finish. Phase one was the removal of the 1970s buildings from the old hotel, which were replaced by new accommodation buildings, designed to complement the Main House restoration. Prior to 2008, the building was situated in just ten acres of land, including gardens which had belonged to the estate since its initial development in Elizabethan times. This was expanded to encompass ninety acres in total, placing the house in the centre of an estate stretching down to the edge of Cheltenham Racecourse in the South West and across thirty acres of Cleeve Hill in the North East.
A workforce of over 100 contractors, tradesmen and craftsmen worked on site each day, with up to 140 people at times working together as a team. This included 20 highly skilled stonemasons, who used Cotswold stone from the nearby Stanleys Quarry in Chipping Campden, to bring the manor house and the Ellenborough Memorial, now named The Gazebo back to their former glory.
All oak panelled rooms and ornate plaster ceilings were fully restored, as was the magnificent staircase which was added by Richard De la Bere in the early 1600s. This acts as a centrepiece to the Main House but was suffering from beetle and decay, so it was completely dismantled, removed and fully restored before being replaced into its original setting with no hint it had ever been disturbed. The staircase has now also been enhanced by the addition of an impressive ceiling height mural, commissioned by Nina Campbell to create a ‘whimsical Cotswold scene’.
The original landscape design has been carefully respected, with herbaceous borders that evoke a sense of the English country manor house and a beautifully crafted Knot garden which echoes the building’s Elizabethan roots. To the West of the main house, a row of magnificent oak trees marks the line of the long since vanished road which ran between Prestbury and Bishops Cleeve.