Exploring Wiltshire with Pevsner: The Estate Villages of Joseph Neeld

The estate villages of Joseph Neeld are a remarkably complete set in the picturesque styles of the earlier nineteenth-century. They are often left in the metaphorical ‘shadow’ of the history of Grittleton House but in this piece Wiltshire guide author Julian Orbach leaves Neeld’s impressive mansion aside, and instead focuses on the complex architectural makeup of the villages themselves which stemmed from a unique collaboration between Neeld and his architect: James Thomson.

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In 1827, aged 39, Joseph Neeld, a lawyer in Hendon, inherited the fortune of his great-uncle, Philip Rundell, whom he had looked after for many years. Rundell, Bridge & Rundell were the leading silversmiths of the age, and Philip Rundell one of the few known millionaires of the era. Neeld purchased the Grittleton Estate near Chippenham in 1828, and then everything went very publicly wrong. His marriage with Lord Shaftesbury’s daughter in 1831 broke up within months in a storm of accusation, but at the root was possibly Neeld’s illegitimate daughter, whose descendants eventually inherited everything. Neeld lived on for twenty-five years, as landowner and M.P., having bought himself into parliament in 1830, representing Chippenham until his death in 1856. He gave the town a town hall in 1833.

James Thomson: Architect

Over those twenty-five years Neeld enlarged Grittleton House to enormous scale, surrounded with stables and lodges, and rebuilt most of the villages of Grittleton, Alderton, Leigh Delamere and Sevington; scattering model farms over the land between. His villages were provided with churches, schools, vicarages and many cottages. Nearly everything that Neeld built was designed by one architect, James Thomson (1800-83), a Scot from Melrose assisting John Nash on the Regent’s Park terraces before being picked in 1827 to ‘improve’ a sketch by Neeld for a memorial school in Rundell’s native village of Norton St Philip, Somerset.

Designing Neeld Estate Cottages

Estate villages combine the personalities of owner and architect. Neeld began in the 1830s with cottages in pairs mostly, designed to a standard of utility rather than ornament, and each with a generous piece of garden and a pig-sty. The house was enlarged at first with caution. By the 1840s both client and architect had found confidence in their architectural vision, evolving a more picturesque style of gables, oriel windows and turrets. The contrast can clearly be seen when comparing the plain school of 1832 at Alderton (1) with its replacement of 1844-5 (2), which has medieval pieces from the village church reused in a pretty tower. Thomson was already straining for effect on two lodges of 1835 in Grittleton, each with impossibly tall turrets (3) reputedly for when announcing Neeld’s approach by semaphore – a good story marred by the fact that the essential tower on the house was not started until 1847.

(4) Sevington, Neeld Estate Cottage, c.1849-50, with Thomson’s typical triangular bay windows.

By the time Neeld rebuilt Leigh Delamere and Sevington in 1846-50, Thomson was showing a fondness for triangular bay windows and oriels, indeed for oriels in general, both in cut Bath stone and timber. Triangular bays appear on the Leigh Delamere almshouses of 1848 and several of the Sevington cottages of 1849-50 (4), little triangular oriels on West Sevington Farm, 1849, a half-round oriel on the Leigh Delamere vicarage of 1846, and square oriels on West Foscote Farm of 1850 over a triangular stone porch (5). The two farmhouses are very grand indeed, with the domed stone cupola of West Foscote rising over the flat country still visible south of the M4. 

(5) West Fostcote, Farmhouse, 1850, with triangular oriels and a towering ashlar cupola.
(6) Sevington, Sevington School by James Thomson, 1848-9, incorporating parts from Leigh Delamere church.

Archaeological & Architectural Accuracy

The story of Leigh Delamere church and the school at Sevington shows a cavalier attitude to medieval buildings already suggested in the reuse of parts from Alderton church in the school there. Thomson wrote a sensitive account of the medieval Leigh Delamere church in 1848 and said that everything that could be preserved had been, which does not explain why the salvaged pieces were preserved on the school at Sevington rather than on the reconstructed Leigh Delamere church. Thomson copied the church’s fourteenth-century bellcote and south arcade at Leigh Delamere, but the mighty original bellcote, the chancel arch, the reredos and some tracery are all down the road on the school (6), the chancel arch serving as a porch in a strikingly picturesque composition.

Finishing Grittleton House

(7) Engraving of Grittleton House from The Builder (Vol. XI – No. 534), 1853.

Thomson was never archaeologically correct and it seems that Neeld did not mind until, in 1853, The Builder published an engraving (7) of Grittleton House as intended to be finished. The confusion of Italianate and neo-Romanesque elements seems to have inspired ridicule, such that Neeld replaced Thomson with Henry Clutton, who tidied up the design with Jacobean gables. But Neeld soon felt that he had been happier with the previous arrangement, sacked Clutton and returned to Thomson who finished the house after Neeld died in 1856. The central crossing of the hallways, rising through three storeys, is one of the unforgettable spaces of Victorian England and memorial to the long collaboration (8) of Neeld and Thomson.

(8) Grittleton House, stair hall, by James Thomson, 1847-52. Photo by James O. Davies.

All photos taken by Julian Orbach unless stated otherwise.

Julian Orbach is author of the revised edition of Somerset: South and West (2014) and co-author of Pembrokeshire (2004), Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion (2006), and Gwynedd (2009) in The Buildings of Wales series.

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