Primary menu

You are here

Fitzharris Estate

History

(see long history)

Fitzharris Manor was just to the north of the historic centre of Abingdon. It was surrounded by ornamental grounds and paddocks, and also held farmland encircling the north and west of Abingdon, from Northcourt to Shippon. The house was demolished in 1953, but many professional record photographs and architectural drawings exist in the National Archives. One set shows the house while it was still occupied, with fine wood-panelling in some rooms, and another set shows the house in great detail shortly before demolition.  Nothing of the house now remains above ground, but its position is marked by a stone plinth. Although not of great architectural merit, it had interesting features and a long history, and would have been well worth retaining.

Fitzharris originated at the beginning of the twelfth century as a property of Abingdon Abbey, occupied by one of the thirty Norman knights providing military service to the King on behalf of the Abbey. It passed to the knight’s descendants until 1284, when the abbey recovered the manor from Hugh Fitz-Henry or Fitz-Harry.  The manor later became known by variants of this name, including Fitzharrys and Fitzharris . The Norman estate had a comfortable house and also a strongpoint on a mound or motte which may have been used subsequently as an ice-house,  

The property then became a home-farm of the Abbey, under the kitchener, and was later leased to tenants.  After the dissolution of the Abbey in 1538 the freehold passed to the new Borough of Abingdon and the tenancies continued for three centuries. The house was rebuilt in Tudor style and occupied by important local families such as the Tesdales and the Bostocks.  In the early nineteenth century the house was again extended and remodelled, with new north and east wings. Several photographs show that the sub-ground floor of this later house incorporated substantial features of the earlier Tudor house, including windows, the main doorway, and a fireplace.

 In 1862 the freehold was sold by the Borough and passed through a succession of owners. The farmland was gradually sold for housing development. The last of these freeholders was Major-General Sir Charles Corkran who died in 1939. After war-time occupation by a girls’ school evacuated from Kent, the house and its home-plot were purchased by the Ministry of Supply as the site for an estate of 140 houses for senior staff at the new Atomic Energy Research Establishment. No use could be found for the manor house, which became neglected and vandalised, and was eventually demolished. 

 Much of the boundary wall separating the estate from the town survives, running between Bath Street and the Vineyard.  The Norman Motte, situated between Fitzharrys Road and the Stert stream, is a major feature on the new housing estate. The house faced onto lawns which are now the open space enclosed by Stanford Drive and Fitzharrys Road.  Parts of the walled garden remain behind houses in Stanford Drive. The only surviving buildings, formerly the stables, coach-house and work-yard of the estate, can be seen on the south side of Letcombe Avenue.

The new estate was given an attractive low-density layout, with generous open spaces and only seven houses per acre.  Mature trees and shrubs remained from the old estate, and others were planted.

 

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms

© AAAHS and contributors 2013. Revised 2014

 

(see short history)

Fitzharris Manor House was just to the north of the historic centre of Abingdon. It was surrounded by ornamental grounds and paddocks, beyond which its farmland encircled the north and west of Abingdon, from Northcourt to Shippon. The house was demolished in 1953, but its position is marked by a stone plinth. Although not of great architectural merit, it had interesting features and a long history.

Fitzharris originated at the beginning of the twelfth century as a property of Abingdon Abbey, occupied by one of the thirty Norman knights providing military service to the King on behalf of the Abbey. It passed to the knight’s descendants until 1284, when the Abbey recovered it from Hugh Fitz-Henry or Fitz-Harry.  The manor later became known by variants of this name, including Fitzharrys and Fitzharris. The Norman estate had a comfortable house and also a strongpoint on a mound or motte.[1] 

The property then became a home-farm of Abingdon Abbey, run by bailiffs for the kitchener, and was later leased to tenants.  After the dissolution of the Abbey in 1538 the property passed to the new Borough of Abingdon, and the tenancies continued for three centuries.  The house was rebuilt in Tudor style and occupied by important local families such as the Tesdales and the Bostocks.  In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it was again extended and remodelled, with new north and east wings. Several photographs show that this later house incorporated substantial features of the earlier Tudor house, including windows, the main doorway, and a fireplace.

In 1862 the freehold was sold by the Borough and passed through a succession of purchasers. The farmland was gradually sold for housing development. The last resident freeholder was Major-General Sir Charles Corkran. He had had a distinguished military career and was serjeant-at-arms of the House of Lords, but died tragically in a shooting accident in January 1939.[2] During the war the house was occupied by a girls’ school evacuated from Kent.[3] Photographs of the house in 1942 for the Berkshire Architectural Committee show fine wooden panelling in some rooms, which is not on later photographs.[4]

 In 1946 the estate was recommended by the new Ministry of Town and Country Planning as the site for housing staff of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, which was being set up at Harwell to provide design data for the nuclear power project. The Ministry of Works (MoW), on behalf of the Ministry of Supply, organised the building of 140 semi-detached houses (70 with 4 bedrooms and 70 with 3 bedrooms). The target was to complete 20 houses by August 1947, and the full 140 houses by July 1948.The estimated costs were around £2000 for a 4-bed house and £1500 for a 3-bed.[5] Powers granted under wartime legislation were used to requisition the greater part of the estate and compel the owner to negotiate a sale.  The owner (then A W Hedges) was finally forced to negotiate in 1948, with the result that building work was virtually complete by the time the contract between Hedges and the Minister of Supply was signed.[6]

The houses were based on designs used elsewhere by the MoW for government housing estates.  A special concession was needed from the Ministry of Health for the 4-bed houses, which were larger than the current building regulations allowed. The houses were heated by early, rather temperamental, solid-fuel hot-air systems. At a time when wood for new houses was in short supply, there was an unusually large number of built-in cupboards. Most of the houses had brick-built garages.  The new estate was given an attractive low-density layout, with generous open spaces and only seven houses per acre.  Mature trees and shrubs remained from the old estate, and others were planted by George Jones, who had been the estate gardener under General Corkran.

'Spacious and leafy'_0.jpg © M Brod 2013

A spacious and leafy estate

The houses were allocated on the basis of attracting and retaining valuable staff.  Thus the occupants of some houses were of very senior grades, while others, less senior, had scarce skills or qualifications. A notorious occupant was Bruno Pontecorvo, the communist defector. Other estates were built elsewhere for junior and industrial staff. At first the houses were rented, but from the early 1960s the UK Atomic Energy Authority (successors to the Ministry of Supply) sold the freeholds to the tenants, and the houses became available on the open market.  The residents have retained a sense of community and have strongly resisted changes, such as infilling, which could spoil the appearance of the estate.

The manor house was used by a building contractor (Lavender McMillan) until December 1948. It then became increasingly neglected and vandalised, and a hazardous playground for children. During 1949 various attempts were made to find a use for it, but in June 1950 the Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments advised that it should be demolished unless a user could be found. In September 1951 the Ministry of Supply accepted that the house was only fit for demolition. In July 1952 they informed the Friends of Abingdon civic society, which then led a campaign for preservation of the house, involving several public figures of the time.[7]  Unfortunately, the protection of buildings by ‘listing’ did not apply to government property, but Fitzharris appears on a list of government buildings which would otherwise have been protected.[8]  The decision to demolish the house was announced in Parliament on 2 December 1952, and demolition began in March 1953.[9]

p. 107_0.jpg © English Heritage NMRC A1197/24 

Fitzharris Manor – derelict, 1951

Although no part of the house remains, there are many architectural drawings and photographs. In 1942 a set of photographs was made for the Berkshire Architectural Record. The MoW surveyed the site in 1946, producing detailed architectural drawings and photographs of the house. When demolition seemed imminent in 1951 they produced improved drawings, including cross sections of the house, and also made a new set of record photographs. Estate agents’ Particulars of Sale, from 1874 to 1939, are also a valuable source of information. During the demolition, various windows, doorways, fireplaces and other fittings were photographed, saved, stored by the Friends of Abingdon and eventually sold.

The plaque - straightened_0.jpg ©​ M Brod 2013

The Motte, at the centre of the estate

There are a few surviving features of the estate.    Much of the boundary wall separating the estate from  the town survives, running between Bath Street and  the Vineyard.  The Norman motte is a scheduled  ancient monument. The house faced onto lawns  which are now the open space enclosed by Stanford  Drive and Fitzharrys Road.  Parts of the walled  garden remain behind houses in Stanford Drive. The  only surviving buildings are the former stables, coach-house and work-yard of the estate, on the south side of Letcombe Avenue.

 

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms

© AAAHS and contributors 2013. Revised 2014.

 

 

[1] Dick Barnes, ‘Fitzharris Manor, Abingdon: from gentleman’s residence to demolition’, Berkshire Old and New Vol. 23 (2006) pp. 16-25.

[2] The Didcot Advertiser, 13 January 1939, ‘Tragic death of Sir Charles Corkran’; http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/lords/1939/feb/07/the-late-major-general-sir-charles (accessed 03 Dec 2013); Oxfordshire Record Office, Adkin Collection I/210, sale particulars 26 June 1939.

[3] Kelly’s Directory, Bromley, Kent, 1936 to 1940.

[4] National Monuments Record, photographs by P.H. Stokes, AA43/410 to 423, Fitzharris House, Abingdon, 1942 (now held by English Heritage, reference uncertain).

[5] The National Archives (TNA), AB 6/408.

[6] TNA, WORK 14/1851.

[7] The Times, letters 10, 11, 13, 16, 24, 26, 29 September 1952.

[8] Friends of Abingdon archives: Ministry of Town and Country Planning.  Berkshire.  Abingdon Municipal Borough.  Provisional List of Buildings of Architectural or Historical Interest for Consideration in Connection with the Provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947.   No. 752/11/A.  April 1947, pp. 3-4.

[9] The Times, 3 December 1952

Printer Friendly and PDF

Additional Details

Back to Top