Work has begun at Lydiard House on the south tower and behind the scenes in the conference centre a kitchen refit is underway – encouraging signs of Swindon Borough Council’s intentions, having dramatically cancelled the outsourcing project at Lydiard Park in February 2018.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the sale of the Lydiard estate by the St John family. Lady Bolingbroke died in 1940 and soon after her son Vernon, with his mother’s cousin Edward Hiscock, moved out of the dilapidated mansion house and into Brook Cottage, the former gamekeeper’s home.
Back at Lydiard House a huge clear out took place with much of the furniture (including the original state bed) ending up on a bonfire and 500 years of paperwork going into a wartime skip.
‘I have personally handled and compiled some two and a half tons of War Salvage which the Wootton Bassett RDC collectors tell me constitutes a record for any house in their district,’ Lord Bolingbroke wrote to his solicitor Mr Dale of H. Bevir & Son dated January 13, 1943.
What went into that wartime skip? The everyday inconsequential paperwork of running a large estate, no doubt, but what other priceless gems were lost in the dispersal and why did Vernon, Lord Bolingbroke throw out so much of not only his own family history but that of the local community as well.
In 1943 Lydiard House was in a state of near dereliction with collapsed floors and ceilings, dry rot, wet rot, woodworm and death-watch beetle. With most of the rest of the estate mortgaged there was little Edward Hiscock, the remaining trustee of Lady Bolingbroke’s will, could do but put Lydiard House and Park on the market.
When Cllr Francis Akers bought the property at auction he told the Herald and Advertiser (August 6, 1943) ‘that it would have been a great pity had this glorious old English home passed into the hands of people who were not concerned with the future development of the country surrounding Swindon’.
Cllr Akers agreed he had purchased the estate in the hope that it would be acquired by Swindon Corporation who had already named the price they were prepared to pay for the mansion house and parkland, exclusive of farms and agricultural land. The local authority had to justify the expenditure of public money during the middle of the Second World War.
So, seventy-five years on, what were the original plans for the Lydiard Estate?
During a great wave of post war interest and emphasis on further education it was felt that Lydiard House offered a unique opportunity for the young people of Swindon.
The mansion and park had opened to the public in 1955 and in 1962, at the end of fifteen years of repair and restoration work, visionary Town Clerk David Murray John wrote to the Chairman and Members of the Development Sub-Committee about the future of the estate.
Day conferences and meetings were already taking place in the House and a hostel for young people had been established in the stables. That same year the youth hostel had been booked for 19 weekends with numerous enquiries from other groups, however it was felt the stable accommodation was unsuitable for these bookings.
Murray John provided the Development Sub-Committee with an estimated cost of £12,650 to adapt and equip the conference centre for further use. The reconstruction of the dam, the dredging of the lake, surfacing of the road and the building of a swimming pool would cost a further £11,820 bringing the total cost to £24,470. Building work, it was estimated, would take between one and two years.
But with no projected source of income, the venture was indeed a leap of faith.
Murray John concluded his letter with words that the Friends would endorse today:
“The importance and value of the estate to the town have become recognised and its potentialities realised. The time seems opportune to complete the work and make the estate fully available for the use and enjoyment of the people of Swindon.”
Well done, Mr Murray John!