Grey Towers, Nunthorpe

 

In the late 1990s, Grey Towers, a large Victorian house known locally as part of Poole Hospital, was earmarked for preservation and development.  During this transformative process, a number of important discoveries were made, discoveries which have led to an exciting re-evaluation of the role this local house played in the wider history of architecture and design.  Underneath its wooden panelling, Grey Towers was found to house the most complete remaining example of the pioneering decorative work of Edward William Godwin, internationally acclaimed architect and designer of the late 19th century.[1]

Grey Towers, built for William Randolph Innes Hopkins, ironmaster, in between 1865 and 1867, was designed by John Ross of Darlington.  According to an article in the Victorian architectural journal, The Builder,

The building is faced with blue flint stone, from Quarries in the neighbourhood, and the dressings are of a warm yellow local sandstone. The principal staircase is of oak, and the chief rooms on the ground-floor have panelled wood ceilings; that to the main staircase being enriched with curved and moulded ribs, shields, &c, and surmounted by a lantern-light glazed with richly-cut glass. The whole of the building has been carried out in a handsome and substantial manner, and the arrangement for water supply, heating, and ventilation are very complete. There are in all about thirty bed-rooms, including dressing-rooms.  The mansion has been erected by Messrs. Oliver & Johnson, contractors Middlesbro’. The clerk of the works is Mr. W. Freeman.[2]

At the time of Grey Towers’ building, Hopkins was at the height of his career, head of the vast Middlesbrough ironworks trading under the name of Hopkins, Gilkes & Company Ltd.  He had been Mayor of Middlesbrough for two consecutive terms of office (1867-69), and in 1864 had married his second wife Everald Catherine Elizabeth Hustler of Acklam Hall.  In 1873 he commissioned the very expensive high-end London firm of Collinson and Lock to decorate Grey Towers, and they in turn contracted Godwin to design decorative schemes and furniture.[3]  In 1873, The Builder also reported on the very elaborate stable buildings, also designed by Ross, with the stable yard completely roofed by glass.

Hopkins’ success and good fortune were, however, relatively short-lived.  ‘Failures in the Cleveland Iron Trade’ were reported in the newspapers in May 1879, identifying Hopkins’ central involvement in the failing Lloyd & Co.[4]  Hopkins, Gilkes & Company’s contract to provide iron for the construction of the Tay Bridge, which failed disastrously in December 1879, ruined Hopkins, although he had already put the Grey Towers estate up for auction in July of that year.[5]

Sadly, there were no takers for this large idiosyncratic house, and the mortgage was secured by Hopkins’ brother-in-law, William Thomas Hustler of Acklam Hall.  Grey Towers remained empty, give or take a few short term tenancies, until being bought by industrialist and iron manufacturer, Arthur J Dorman in 1895.  Dorman made quite dramatic changes to the interior of Grey Towers and to the surrounding parkland.  He had internal walls panelled, and ceilings plastered, fashioning a more ‘traditional country house’ look.  Outside he created a typical country gentleman’s estate, with plantations, rock garden, rose garden, fishpond with a boat house, pheasantry, pavilion, and shooting lodge.  Dorman and his wife lived there until his death in 1931.

On Dorman’s death, the house and 77 acres of parkland were bought by T Gibson Poole, a Dudley born Middlesbrough jeweller, Councillor (1896), Alderman (1910) and three-time Mayor (1907, 1909, 1927). Poole and his wife then gave Grey Towers to ‘the people of Middlesbrough’ expressly to be used as a tuberculosis sanitorium.  For some years the increase in cases of tuberculosis had exercised the Council; current treatment required nursing in residential accommodation and plenty of fresh air.  Poole’s gift was timely and gratefully received.

Structurally, Grey Towers was little altered in the transformation.  An open-air veranda was added, and rooms partitioned and repurposed to serve as wards (for 35 adults and 10 children), living accommodation for nursing staff, and a dispensary.  Sadly, this provision was soon rendered inadequate by a continuing increase in incidences of the disease.  In 1942, Grey Towers became the administrative centre for a new Poole Joint Sanatorium built within the grounds.

Poole Hospital closed in 1989, and Grey Towers was left empty and vandalised for about a decade, until its long overdue redevelopment in the late 1990s/early 2000s into flats or apartments.

 

[1] Pieces of wallpaper were rescued and conserved, and ae now housed at The Dorman Museum, Middlesbrough.

[2] The Builder, Vol. 25, p.923, 21st December 1867.

[3] Susan Weber Soros (Ed.), E W Godwin, Aesthetic Movement Architect and Designer, Yale University Press (1999), p.73

[4] ‘Failures in the Iron Trade’, York Herald, Saturday, May 31, 1879; pg. 7; ‘Great Failures in Darlington and Middlesbrough’, The West Sussex Journal, Tuesday, May 20th 1879.

[5] ‘Grey Towers Estate’, The Northern Evening Mail, Friday, July 11th 1879