(Originally written for the Parish Magazine by Anne Kirby)
Our well-attended AGM has launched us into another year of varied and interesting talks and outings; all available for a modest subscription of £10 a year, which includes attendance at our monthly meetings and a discount on the charges for outings. We have an enthusiastic and friendly membership and are planning to publish a booklet – more later.
We started our year in style with a trip through Priory Park, Warwick, guided by Jeannette Oubridge, our deputy Chairman. The location: the meadow and wooded area behind the old police station at Northgate, stretching down to the Coventry Road, but alas no trace of the Augustinian Priory, founded by the Earl of Warwick in 1109.
The estate provided a welcome boost to Henry VIII’s coffers in 1536, when he dissolved the monasteries and sold the estate to Thomas Fisher, a high-ranking servant of the Earl. Fisher demolished the priory and used the stone to build a fine mansion. During the next 90 years new owners updated the house (as you do) with a fine Jacobean frontage. 100 years later the owner, Henry Wise a royal gardener, designed formal gardens and a terrace, which commanded a spectacular view of Warwick Castle and St Mary’s Church, captured for posterity in drawings by Constable and Canaletto.
In 1865 the house and estate were purchased by Thomas Lloyd of the well-known Birmingham banking family, but early 20th century was a crisis time for country houses and estates, because they attracted high taxation and unmanageable maintenance costs. The solution for some owners was demolition, or a sale to rich Americans who wanted to acquire the prestige of a fine old English house.
In this event buildings were demolished, the materials transported to the States and rebuilt. This was the fate of the remains of The Priory, following partial demolition. The Lloyd family retained the estate, but the remaining structure was sold for £3,500, taken down, carved fragile ornamentation was carefully packed in crates and several thousand tons of stone was used as ballast for the Atlantic crossing to a new site in Richmond, Virginia.
The owners of this amazing project were Alexander Weddell, 40 year old bachelor and US Consul General to India, and his new wife Virginia, a gifted interior designer, middle-aged widow and rich. Together they toured England with an architect to view period houses for ideas.
This led to the design of ‘Virginia House’, an amalgamation of styles inspired by Knole Manor (Kent), Redbourne Manor (Hertfordshire) and local Wormleighton and Sulgrave Manors. The central section, however, reproduces the design of Warwick Priory and includes a coat of arms commemorating the visit of Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1572.
Jeannette’s presentation included some fine pictures of the interior of ‘Virginia House’. An antiques dealer had successfully traced many original fixtures and fittings, including the wood panelling, a staircase and stained glass. These, combined with antiques the Weddells had collected during their extensive travels and Virginia’s flair for interior design, resulted in a tasteful interior which exuded history, quality and romance.
Sadly, after 25 years of marriage and approaching retirement at their dream home, both Alexander and Virginia were killed in a railway crash in 1948. They had bequeathed the house and its spectacular garden to the State of Virginia Historical Society. Back in Warwick the Priory estate was sold by the Lloyd family in 1940 to Warwickshire County Council and was bought by the Warwick Borough Council in 1951, when it opened as a public park. The new County Record Office was built on the site of The Priory in 1973.