WOODBANK HALL, WOODBANK MEMORIAL PARK, STOCKPORT
Stockport Heritage Trust is concerned about the welfare and future use of Woodbank Hall, a Grade II* statutorily listed building, dating from 1814, and designed by Thomas Harrison in the Greek Revival style for Peter Marsland, a leading Stockport industrialist.
The Hall is on Historic England’s Heritage-at-Risk list, and grave concerns were recently raised by both the Victorian Society and SAVE Britain’s Heritage and referred to in local media. Stockport Heritage Trust is currently in the process of nominating Woodbank Hall for the World Monuments Fund’s international Heritage Watch List 2022.
1. CURRENT OWNERSHIP
1.1 In the early 20th century, first the Park, then the Hall and pleasure grounds, then additional fields and water meadows, were all successively vested for free in the borough of Stockport (legally, via land deeds to its corporation, now council) for the use and enjoyment of its population.
2.0 BUILDING’S CONDITION
2.1 The listed building is in a terrible state of decay. Numerous, longstanding, rainwater leaks caused by theft of roof coverings and gutter linings, combined with blocked rainwater pipes, have led to saturation of the masonry walls and consequent large outbreaks of fungal attack (both Brown Rot and Dry Rot) that have destroyed wood frames, joists, beams, floor boards and the lath behind decorative and plain plastered interior wall surfaces.
2.2 The interior situation has been compounded by old-fashioned, drastic attempts by the Council’s contractors to stem the fungal attacks by demolishing valuable historic surfaces, and irrigating the brick structure with chemical fungicides – without first ensuring that the roof coverings and rainwater goods continue to function.
2.3 Externally, the sandstone portico is covered in damaging white salts revealing that the porch roof is leaking or missing. At the rear, northeast corner, the masonry is covered in green algae, mould and moss because the cast iron rainwater pipe is blocked and overflowing.
2.4 Despite the Council’s efforts to secure the building from illegal entry and vandalism (e.g., placing plexiglass over the sash windows), all the exterior stone paving at the rear of the premises appears to have been stolen.
3.0 RECENT BACKGROUND
3.1 The Hall was last in Council use as a functioning building for museum collections storage in 2009. Successive councils (both Lib-Dem and Labour) since then have failed to find alternative uses for the property, or to ensure its welfare by appropriate ‘mothballing’ including security, maintenance and good housekeeping.
3.2 The subdivision of departmental and council subcommittee responsibilities for the Council’s physical assets (e.g., splits between green spaces and buildings), and the inevitable privatisation of maintenance work under central government pressures, has meant that Woodbank Park and its Hall have not been addressed together as a single entity for mutual public benefit. As a result, new accommodation in the Park for sports and social service facilities, subsidised by central government grants, have grown up willy-nilly instead of being directed to the joint reuse and repair of the Hall.
3.3 Attempts to market the building for use by third parties failed to solicit any serious interest because of the Council’s deed-gifted ownership (though the provision of long-term repairing leases could have avoided such impasses). As a result, and in case of last resort, the previous Lib-Dem administration approached the Charity Commission (which polices charitable deed conditions) in 2005, and gained permission to sell the Hall outright to a third party – provided that any proceeds from the sale were ploughed back into Woodbank Park for supplemental public benefit. However, given the poor condition of the building, little if any proceeds would have come from such a transaction. And no takers have since been found that have been attracted to this facility. The Charity Commission’s details for Woodbank Memorial Park can be viewed here and for the King George V Playing Field here.
3.4 The current Labour administration has stated publicly that it does not intend to sell Woodbank Hall. It will remain an asset of Stockport Council held on its residents’ behalf. However, it can find no viable current or future public use for the building that would attract both capital and revenue funding to first restore and then sustain the building. So, it aims to offer the building on a long repairing lease to another economically viable user
3.5 Local groups have suggested that the Hall might be reused for museum, cafeteria and/or wedding hire uses. But none of these options constitute an economically viable long-term plan because they would raise insufficient income to pay for the building’s continuous operation and upkeep. And the Council does not have resources to pay for the building’s full restoration.
3.6 In 2015, Stockport Council’s Conservation Officer gained 100 percent funding from English Heritage to commission local conservation architects, Lloyd Evans Pritchard, to undertake a condition assessment of the Hall and to suggest potential new uses for the property. The architects reported in early 2016 and estimated that structural and waterproofing repairs, reinstatement of missing features, and general fit-out of the Hall and outbuildings would cost £1,978,332 (excluding Value Added Tax). This equates to about £2.66 million including VAT at current 2021 prices.
3.7 Historic England (as it had then become) then held talks with Stockport Council about the possibility of the national heritage body offering a Heritage-at-Risk grant to help pay for phase one major roof repairs. Council budgets were then allocated to match the grant. But Historic England’s financial offer fell through principally because the Council still had no viable long-term plan for the building’s future.
3.8 Stockport Heritage Trust is of the opinion that full restoration costs, including purpose-made fit-outs for new uses, and associated works to grounds around the curtilage, will cost a good deal more than the conservative estimate cited above. And that all delays will exacerbate the Hall’s poor condition and inflate costs still further.
4.0 CURRENT SITUATION
4.1 Stockport Homes has now approached the Council about taking on Woodbank Hall for residential use. It has hired one of the best conservation architecture firms in the country, Donald Insall Associates to work up feasibility studies. The same architects were responsible for the award-winning rescue and repair of Staircase House in Stockport Market.
4.2 A previous, and now defunct, limited sketch design for housing use in Woodbank Hall created by Stockport Homes’ in-house designers, Dash Architecture, recently surfaced on the architects’ website and was picked up by the Manchester Evening News and then social media. But the scheme is not current and has been discarded by Stockport Homes. Dash Architecture (there are several similarly-named firms in London and overseas to be found on the web) has no expertise in the adaptive reuse and restoration of historic buildings.
4.3 Donald Insall Associates told Stockport Heritage Trust that its designs and details of the scheme are still in preparation and are not yet ready to be presented for wider consultation. The architects and Stockport Homes are presumably liaising with Homes England, Historic England, and the National Lottery Heritage Fund about potential grant aid for repairs and adaptation of the building that preserve and restore its architectural and historic interest, provide high standards of housing use, and deal with the issue of property leasehold tenure and other constraints that will safeguard the preservation of the Council’s freehold ownership. The Charity Commission will also need to be consulted about the latter issue.
4.4 Stockport Homes and its consultant architects are then likely to consult Stockport Council’s planning department and its conservation officer over the merits of the draft scheme and any options that might elicit the grant of planning permission and listed building consent from the Council. In turn, the Council will have to address important issues regarding the management of its Memorial Park on questions of boundaries, vehicular access, night time and other security measures etc.
4.5 At that stage, and hopefully before any formal planning applications and park management changes are solidified, there will be widespread public consultation over the scheme as a whole, including consultation with park users, local residents, and with the wider public including Stockport Heritage Trust.
4.6 Until that time, Stockport Heritage Trust remains concerned about the immediate short-term welfare of the Hall but pleased that Donald Insall Associates are working on potential rescue plans. The Trust is aware of the pitfalls that can impact adaptations of old buildings to new uses, and hopes that the expert architects can avoid them without compromising the Grade II* status of the Hall.
4.7 The Trust also acknowledges the park users and local residents’ concerns about changes to the access to the Hall through the park. Trust members are also park users and local neighbours. But the Trust remains neutral on these issues, pending sight of overall plans. Compromises will need to be reached by all parties if there is to be a successful resolution of a longstanding problem.
4.8 In addition, and as suggested to local Labour ward councillors recently in a public meeting, the Trust would encourage the Council to take two immediate steps towards safeguarding Woodbank Memorial Park and its Hall:
- Organize emergency works to temporarily fix roof and gutter leaks, and clean and repair rainwater pipes to facilitate the drying out of the building that could take a very long time
- Commission a Significance Assessment of Woodbank Park as a whole from a qualified landscape historian expert on post World War One Memorial Parks, with a view to articulating Woodbank’s values and significance sufficient to warrant Historic England adding the Park to the National Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. Thereby, the park may then become eligible for grants from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to prepare a Conservation Management Plan to address consensus-built, long-term management of the Hall, pleasure grounds, park, sports arena and water meadows as an integrated historic asset, no matter what ancillary uses are involved.
HISTORICAL SUMMARY OF LAND OWNERSHIP AND USAGE
Peter Marsland bought the land 1809-10 but had to move away from his town centre house while the hall was built as his home was vandalised during textile worker riots in 1812. He developed Woodbank Hall, pleasure grounds and park beyond the suburbs along the natural escarpment overlooking the River Goyt and some of his mills and waterworks. There he pioneered steam-heated greenhouses to raise exotic fruits, and developed reservoirs and tunnels to move water to other land.
HISTORIC ENGLAND’S LISTING DESCRIPTION OF WOODBANK HALL
MATERIALS: Built of sandstone ashlar masonry with slate roofs.
PLAN: Compact villa with central stair hall around which principal rooms are located. Link corridor on west side to recessed service wing. Secondary stair in service wing.
EXTERIOR: Main block of two storeys with basement; ashlar with a plinth, plain frieze with moulded cornice, and a hipped slate roof, with a brick stack on the west side. South, entrance front is of three bays with a central curved hexastyle portico with Greek Ionic capitals. Double doors of eight fielded panels under rectangular glazed fanlight, with tall, narrow light to either side. Flanking bays have tripartite windows with stone mullions and segmental-headed tympana. Moulded string course between ground and first floors. Three unadorned flat-headed windows to first floor with 3-over-6 pane hung sashes. East elevation is of three bays with an attached colonnade on the ground floor with each bay separated by two Ionic columns, supporting a frieze and cornice. Three tall windows with 6-over-9 pane hung sashes. Bays on first floor separated by slightly projecting panels with rectangular sunken panels to centres. Three flat-headed windows with 3-over-6 pane hung sashes. North elevation is of five bays, with attached colonnade on ground floor, with each bay separated by a single Ionic column supporting a frieze and cornice. Five tall windows on ground floor and five windows on first floor, both similar to those to west elevation. Service wing of two storeys with basement; ashlar with a plinth, sill bands, moulded cornice, and hipped slate roof with two wide brick stacks running north-south. South elevation is of three bays with a recessed single link bay to right. Flat-headed hung sash windows on both floors; 6-over-6 panes on ground floor, 6-over-3 panes on the first floor. West elevation is of three bays with a raised central doorway with six-panelled door and a flight of stone steps rising against wall from south. Flight of stone steps down to basement doorway below. 6-over-6 pane hung sash window above, cutting first-floor sill band. Outer bays have 6-over-6 pane hung sashes on the ground floor and a 6-over-3 bay window to the left on the first floor; window to the right is blind. Tripartite basement window to the right bay. Modern single-storey outbuilding (not of special interest) built against left bay, obscuring basement level. North elevation is of two wide bays with a recessed single link bay to the left. Link bay has inset doorway with sunken panels to either side, plain frieze and moulded cornice, with segmental-arched fanlight over. Part-glazed timber door. First-floor window with 6-over-3 pane hung sash with sill band. Service wing bays have tripartite windows on the ground floor and 6-over-3 pane hung sashes on the first floor.
INTERIOR: Main entrance doorway opens into an entrance hall with cornice and coved ceiling with plaster panels and central light rose. Symmetrical door arrangement with architraves, panelled reveals and soffits, and six-panelled mahogany doors. Rectangular plaster relief panels above. Stone diamond-set flag floor. In centre of north wall is a marble commemoration plaque dated 29 August 1931. Door to right leads into central stair hall lit by domed lantern. White marble cantilevered staircase with metal balustrade and swept timber handrail. Recessed panels with moulded plaster frames to walls and ceiling, empty wall niches, plaster relief panels, moulded cornices. Stone diamond-set flag floor. Four original ground-floor reception rooms, the north-west room now subdivided by partition wall. Two sets of double doors between two rooms on north side of house. Six-panelled mahogany doors, with panelled reveals and soffit between. Marble chimneypieces in south-east and south-west rooms. Moulded cornices and plasterwork. First floor retains six-panelled doors, architraves, moulded cornices, timber chimneypiece in south-west room. Various plaster relief panels and roundels. Ground and first floors of service wing were not inspected. Large basement with coved ceiling rooms to both main block and service wing.
SUBSIDIARY ITEMS: Greek Revival drive entrance portico on west side of grounds; sandstone ashlar in form of distyle in antis portico, with two fluted columns supporting an architrave set between square flanking pilasters. Iron fencing between columns and pilasters, with pedestrian entrance through centre of columns. Sans serif bronze lettering spelling WOODBANK MEMORIAL PARK fixed to frieze, possibly dating from the 1930s. Matching half of entrance, on opposite side of drive, is missing.
HISTORY: Thomas Harrison was a leading Greek revivalist, pioneering baseless Doric and a simplified Ionic order. He designed a great range of building types, and domestic architecture was a small, but important part of his practice. It is likely that he also designed the entrance portico. Peter Marsland, for whom the villa was built, was a major cotton manufacturer, who owned Park Mills in Stockport. In 1921, Sir Thomas Rowbotham J.P. bought the house and grounds and presented it to Stockport as a First World War memorial. The house opened as a museum in 1931. The grounds are still used as a public park, but the house is not presently open.
SOURCES Peter Arrowsmith, Stockport A History (Stockport, 1997, reprinted 1999), 127, 177, 195 Moira Rudolf-Hanley, Harrison, Thomas (bap.1774, d.1829), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/12451, accessed 6 May 2009]
REASONS FOR DESIGNATION Woodbank is designated at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:
- It is a highly refined early C19 Greek revival villa by Thomas Harrison, an architect of national renown who pioneered a severe Greek Revival style for both public and domestic commissions
- The building uses high-quality craftsmanship and materials to enhance the visual simplicity and purity of the design
- The interior contains high-quality plasterwork, fixtures and fittings, such as a fine cantilevered marble staircase, doors, architraves, fireplaces, and numerous relief wall panels with classical themes to compliment the Greek revival style of the architecture.
This List entry has been amended to add sources for War Memorials Online and the War Memorials Register. These sources were not used in the compilation of this List entry but are added here as a guide for further reading, 25 October 2017.
ARCHITECT THOMAS HARRISON
The son of a joiner, Thomas Harrison was born in Richmond, Yorkshire (baptised, 7 August 1744 – died, 29 March 1829) and was an English architect and bridge engineer who trained in Rome, where he studied classical architecture. Returning to England, he won the competition in 1782 for the design of Skerton Bridge in Lancaster. After moving to Lancaster, he worked on local buildings, received commissions for further bridges, and designed country houses in Scotland. In 1786 Harrison was asked to design new buildings within the grounds of Lancaster and Chester castles, projects that occupied him, together with other works, until 1815. On both sites he created accommodation for prisoners, law courts, and a shire hall, while working on various other public buildings, gentlemen’s clubs, churches, houses, and monuments elsewhere. His final major commission was for the design of Grosvenor Bridge in Chester.
Some of Harrison’s designs, including his buildings at Lancaster Castle, were Gothic in style, but most were Neoclassical, particularly those at Chester Castle. He was regarded at the time, and since, as a major influence in the emergence of the Greek Revival in British architecture. Many of Harrison’s structures have survived, most of them now designated as listed buildings. Despite his work being nationally admired, he spent his entire career in northwest England, visiting London only occasionally; most of his buildings were in Lancashire, Cheshire, and the nearby counties.
Further information can be read at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Harrison_(architect) and