Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Sponsorship
Marks Hall near Coggeshall, Essex, one of the lost great mansions of Britain, is a site that now offers particularly exciting opportunities for exploring the reconstruction of heritage and its educational and recreational appeal.
During the twentieth century, Britain lost a third of its greatest country houses. Hundreds of mansions were pulled down because proprietors could no longer afford to maintain or repair them. Most houses were lost in the straitened decade of the 1950s, following wartime damage and occupation by service personnel. Essex alone lost more than 100 mansions between 1946 and 1966.
The aim of this project is to for the first time bring together the local community and general public with academics and heritage, archaeology and horticultural professionals in a multi-faceted redesign of a lost mansion site to offer a virtual recreation including innovative conservation and planting (to recreate with plants original walls and architectural features in the context of the gardens surrounding the site), integrating new displays, exhibits, holographic interpretations, university learning resources, community open archaeological digs, a new guide book and academic study of the whole project, with contributive public engagement to refine and extend academic research and debate.
Dramatically demolished in 1950 after wartime use as a military base, Marks Hall's contents from roof tiles and floorboards to its Jacobean panelling, staircases and fireplaces and family portraits were sold off in a week-long auction immediately prior to demolition. Marks Hall was then surrounded by an on-going Nissen Hut community, before the gardens of the larger estate (left to the nation in the will of its last private owner) were restored by the Trustees.
Together with a new arboretum the gardens (and—until recently—neglected mansion house site) are open to the public throughout the year. In the last two years, the Trust has turned its attention to the lost mansion site. This major new interpretative project integrates volunteer and community involvement, a local established archaeological group and the expertise of the nearby University of Essex.
Currently the 'lost' worlds of the British country house are reclaimed by dramas and documentaries ranging from highly popular films and television such as Gosford Park and Downton Abbey to more sober (and accurate) recreations of the social and economic history of great estates and the design, living arrangements, and day-to-day upkeep of their houses.
This project will address a reclamation challenge of a very different kind, one that can very productively and interactively bring together different knowledge and user communities — that of rescuing and interpreting the sites and material presence of destroyed mansions that lie just beneath the surface of estates open to the public (and with contents — like those of Marks Hall — often sold off and surviving in different sites around the globe; and with post-war histories — also like those of Marks Hall — linked to local homelessness and emergency housing).
The task is also urgent given that the optimal strategy is to integrate archival and archaeological evidence with the memories of those living and working in or near the estates during or just after the Second World War, when demolitions peaked. Many of these witnesses are now in their eighties (or older). The integration of virtual recreation, archaeology and recorded oral history has enormous potential, offering not only a rich story of the reasons for the demolition of the mansion, its wartime history and post-war Nissen Hut families, the dispersal of the staff and material artefacts (including whole interiors), and the change to the local rural economy and society, but a gateway to what are invariably ancient sites of habitations with layers of earlier local and national history waiting to be peeled back to the continued and diverse involvement of the public and interaction with academic expertise.
Archaeology combined with oral testimony from those who remember the destruction, surviving photographs and film (including the representation of the country house interior in popular films of the 1950s) and archival research offers an opportunity for reconstruction and explanation to all ages and to inform current public debate about heritage interpretation and popular history. In addition, much oral testimony, once archived, cross-referenced and made accessible, will offer conflicting histories of the life and demolition of the house, ably demonstrating that history is a written, constructed and on-going communal art that turns upon the vantage point, fallibility and resourcefulness of evidence, whether written, material or recorded (and interviewed) witness.
The project opens a gateway to further historical interests in the long term history of such estates and lost great houses. Personal history is linked to family history and local history, and in turn linked to national and international history, all (as detailed below) inviting innovative community and academic involvement, knowledge transfer and learning opportunities to all ages (and diverse interests). No other such multi-faceted rescue project of a lost mansion from the twentieth century exists and there are multiple stories to tell and exploit to be added to by the involvement of members of the public.
The Marks Hall Trust, with historically no major additional endowment or annual income adequate by itself to support such a project, is both able and delighted in addition to its cash contribution, to offer experienced staff secondment and support by office space, equipment loan and additional exhibition space and facilities in the Estate Visitor Centre (some distance from the mansion house site but offering a 'visitor gateway').
New paths and a toilet block near to the mansion site allow full and disabled access with other facilities (eg a mobile large hut for working archaeologists and volunteers, a coach house reception room for on-site conferencing, and desk-space and facilities in the nearby estate office for the researchers and new part-time Knowledge Exchange Office and the archiving of an access to records.
Nothing like this has been attempted before, integrating the archival, oral historical and archaeological record, with a digital, horticultural and sensory re-creation of a lost mansion house and its modern and earlier history linked to wider national questions of lost heritage. The lost gardens of Heligan in Cornwall were restored with huge impact, several rescues of great houses in Ireland have attracted great interest as has a restoration in Essex (Copped Hall) but access here is restricted and the object is material restoration rather more broadly conceived and interactive 're-creation'; the ambition at Marks Hall where the buildings (with the exception of the coach house and some cottages and outbuildings) are physically completely lost is much larger — the opportunity remains for the virtual recreation of the physical and historical narrative of the house, its social and economic and cultural life, its construction and demolition, contributing to broader understanding and involvement in the writing and creation of local and national history at exactly the time of great general public interest in the world of the country house.
The recovery of the site in what is today a major estate attracting 35,000 visitors a year to its gardens and arboretum (but largely oblivious to the history of the mansion) will explain local history, and, through the archaeology, redesign and partial and virtual reconstruction of the site, provide a gateway to its history that goes back to Domesday. Like many such country house sites, the lost Jacobean Marks Hall mansion stood on a ancient site of habitation. The archaeology reveals a site stretching back to Saxon, Roman and bronze age times, with recovered remains that can open up a historical record of continuity to support the re-creation of the post-Elizabethan house and estate.
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