Lytham Hall - Lancashire's Downton Abbey

PUBLISHED: 09:54 07 January 2011 | UPDATED: 23:55 23 October 2015

Lytham Hall - Lancashire's Downton Abbey

Lytham Hall - Lancashire's Downton Abbey

Meet the colourful characters that have shaped the future of Georgian mansion, Lytham Hall, which is now the subject of a £5 million fundraising campaign to save it. Emma Mayoh reports

John Talbot Clifton parked at the north entrance of the hall with friends. They are about to set off to the Paris-Vienna car rally in the 1900sJohn Talbot Clifton parked at the north entrance of the hall with friends. They are about to set off to the Paris-Vienna car rally in the 1900s

Meet the colourful characters that have shaped the future of Georgian mansion, Lytham Hall, which is now the subject of a £5 million fundraising campaign to save it. Emma Mayoh reports

If you were one of the millions who tuned in to watch the comings and goings at Downton Abbey then you will love the real life drama of Lytham Hall’s renowned Clifton family.
Violet Crawley, played by Dame Maggie Smith, was opinionated, proud and loyal to her son, Robert. Step in Violet Clifton, a dominant, matriarchal figure, who was the last person to live in the Grade I listed mansion.

Despite the family’s previous wealth, it was Violet’s son, Henry de Vere Clifton, known as Harry, who decimated the hall and estate. He sold off whatever he could to pay for his lavish lifestyle and gambling debts.

Treasured objects including his mother’s favourite mural, valuable antique Gillow furniture and significant trinkets were taken from under his mother’s nose so he could maintain his opulent existence. Eventually, in the 60s, the estate was sold and it is believed he died almost penniless.

Shooting PartyShooting Party

But the decline started with his father, John Talbot Clifton, according to Paul Hodgkiss, the lottery heritage project manager raising £5 million to restore the historic building.
He said: ‘Harry is the one who always hits the headlines. He’s the one people love hearing about because he was a very colourful character and basically the one responsible for selling off most of the estate.

‘It was probably quite brave of him because I believe Violet, who adopted the name Lady Violet, was quite a formidable woman. It was Harry’s father John, though, who neglected the estate in the first place. Like his son, he lived an extravagant lifestyle and travelled around the world. He also spent more and more time at his other estate in Islay in the Hebrides which meant Lytham Hall was neglected.’

There are several stories about John. These include him shooting many rare animals and then eating them. It has also been said that he once ate a dinner of mammoth, which had been recovered from ice in the Arctic and he also shot a Canadian ox and then used its head as a pillow.

Today, there are very few surviving members of the Clifton family. Some remain in America. Hamish Clifton, Violet’s grandson who lives in Oxford, remembers far more genteel times spent on holiday at Lytham Hall.

The original Italianate parterre in the 1930s. This area, currently a car park, will be reinstatedThe original Italianate parterre in the 1930s. This area, currently a car park, will be reinstated

The 55-year-old, a director at the University of the Arts in London, said: ‘It was a wonderful place and I was just like any other little boy and I would love roaming around in the grounds. I remember throwing paper planes from the windows on the second floor to see how far along the lawn they would go.

‘I remember my grandmother as a very spiritual woman who was very tall and very kind to me. I do laugh sometimes when I think back. I was once taken to the local swimming
baths in a chauffeur driven car. I also remember the long gallery which would be filled with paintings of my family. I have very happy memories of my time there.’

Despite the later misfortunes of the Clifton family, they were at one time a force to be reckoned with. In the 12th century the land was the site of a Benedictine Priory used by monks who were attached to the main order at Durham. But they left after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII and in 1606 the land was bought by Cuthbert Clifton. Eventually to become Sir Cuthbert, he built the first manor house, a Jacobean hall, on the land.

From the 1700s and for the next two centuries the Cliftons enjoyed prosperous times. Their estate, at its largest, was 8,000 acres and they would have been one of the richest families in the country. They helped shape the future of the estate but also the local communities in Lytham and St Annes.

The outdoor staffThe outdoor staff

During the Civil War the family, who were Catholics and Royalists had to conceal their wealth and they had land confiscated from them. But in the 1750s things changed for the family and they were finally able to â display their affluence.

It was at this time that the current squire, Thomas Clifton, enlisted the services of renowned architect John Carr to build a new house, which took several years to complete. The hall features intricate and detailed plasterwork, including a stunning ceiling design with a depiction of Jupiter, a vast staircase that would have impressed visitors to the hall.

In 1963, the estate was sold to the Guardian Royal Exchange Insurance Company who used it as offices and ten years ago Lytham Town Trust, with help from a donation from BAE Systems, bought the hall back for the community. It is now run on their behalf by Heritage Trust North West.

Throughout the years it has been the location of royal visits and was used as a filming location for television series, Casanova, starring David Tennant. It is also believed that author Evelyn Waugh, who attended Oxford University with Harry Clifton, based his Brideshead Revisited character, Sebastian Flyte, on him.

The Main HallThe Main Hall

It is now Paul’s job, along with the help of a small number of staff and an army of around 200 volunteers, to help safeguard the future of the hall. The Lytham Hall Appeal has to raise £3 million by March 23rd in order to keep a further £2 million that has been pledged by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The money will pay for several things including extensive renovations in the hall, an Italianate parterre that would have once been located at the side of the building will be reinstated, a new John Carr Study Centre will be created for research and Monk’s Wall, thought to date back to the time of the priory, will be restored. Violet’s apartment will also be recreated on the first floor and luxury short stay accommodation will be created on the third floor. Archaeological excavations and other tests are being carried out to determine the true dates of different parts of the house.

A new tea room, with views of the garden, will also be built and the courtyard, thought to be the oldest part of the building, will have a retractable glass roof fitted to make it useable all year round.

A total of £1 million has already been raised through the support of local organisations, residents and businesses. More than 20,000 leaflets have been distributed to local residents encouraging people to donate to the appeal and it is also hoped that different events, including snowdrop walks held every Sunday from the first weekend in February to the first weekend in March, will help to reach the target.

Paul said: ‘There is a big challenge ahead but I am confident we will do it with the support we always get from the local community. Not getting the money is unthinkable. Lytham Hall is on the Buildings at Risk register and we need to do the renovation work now.

‘The effort it would have taken to build a house like this and the achievement is incredible. This is a place that should be enjoyed and we want to transform the hall into something for the whole community to enjoy. It was bought by the town trust for this purpose and we now want to make this happen.’

Lytham Hall: a timeline

12th century: A Benedictine Priory is the earliest building known to have existed on the site of Lytham Hall. A small group of monks, from the Benedictine order at Durham, lived here and created a self-sufficient community.

16th - 17th century: Sir Cuthbert Clifton negotiates the purchase of the estate, which had been sold by the Crown to a Sir Thomas Holcroft. It was Sir Cuthbert who is regarded as the founder of the Clifton family in Lytham and was responsible for building the previous manor house, a Jacobean hall, parts of which still exist.

18th century: In the 1700s Thomas Clifton commissioned renowned architect John Carr of York to build the current Lytham Hall. This would have been a clear sign of the family’s affluence. There were also a handful of refurbishments done over the years.

19th - 20th century: There was a downturn in the family’s fortunes, which was compounded by the efforts of John Talbot Clifton and his son, Henry, who lived opulent lives and frittered much of the estate away. In 1963 the hall was bought by the Guardian Royal Exchange Insurance Company, who used it for their offices for 30 years. In 1996 the company decided to sell and, following a strong campaign by Lytham Town Trust, the Friends of Lytham Hall and a £1 million donation from BAE Systems, the hall was bought for the local community in 1997.

21st century: Some work, including renovating the West Wing to the rear of the hall was carried out. In 2010, The Lytham Hall Appeal to raise £5 million for much needed renovations is launched. The deadline for reaching the target is March 23rd.

From the archives

Photographer John Cocks took this photo of pupils of Lytham Hall Park County School outside Lytham Hall in 1992

Latest from the Lancashire Life