How Britain's country homes became hosts to scandals and secrets

Scandals and secrets of our racy stately homes… Lions on the loose, discreet royal liaisons, and the Rolling Stone who nearly drowned in a moat – the riotous stories revealing how Britain’s country houses swapped footmen for frolics

Circus boss Jimmy Chipperfield was watching animals in the wild in Africa when the idea came to him of enabling the British public to see them at close quarters — not in cages in the zoo, but roaming free (or free-ish) in the landscape.

In a safari park, in other words: ‘To be able to drive about among lions would be a tremendous attraction for the public’, he said. ‘Everyone likes to court death a little, without getting too near it.’

A country house estate would be ideal, he thought. Since he wasn’t in a position to buy one, he looked around for a landed partner — and was introduced to the Marquess of Bath, owner of Longleat.

To begin with, Lord Bath was slow to grasp the idea: ‘The cages will have to be awfully big if the cars are going to get into them at the same time as the lions,’ he said. 

But as Chipperfield outlined his scheme to allow up to 40 lions to roam free in the Capability Brown-designed park, Bath’s enthusiasm grew. 

They agreed to split both the costs and the profits 50–50, and Lord Bath obtained planning permission to put up a fence ‘to contain animals’, while Chipperfield looked for lions.

Almost all were acquired from zoos and circuses, then — as word went round — a film company cabled to say they had ten lions left over from filming Born Free: they didn’t know what to do with them.

Chipperfield offered £100 for the lot, and the offer was accepted.

Between 1966 and 1971 Keith Richards (pictured right), Bill Wyman, Eric Clapton, John Lennon, George Harrison, Mick Jagger (pictured left) and Roger Daltrey all bought historic country houses (Pictured: Richards’ Redlands estate)

When the plan leaked out, all hell broke loose. Questions were asked in Parliament. An editorial in The Times roared: ‘Cattle, sheep and deer ought to be good enough for a Wiltshire man!’ One MP prophesied the lions would escape and start ravaging the sheep.

Lord Bath’s PR officer claimed (with some truth) that, ‘most of the neighbours would rather face lions than the 15,000 screaming teenagers at pop concerts here last year’.

In the 1960s, if a British aristocrat found his house was costing him too much to run, he told his butler to have a talk with the three footmen and come back with a list of economies.

‘It just didn’t occur to him,’ observed the author of a study on the aristocracy, ‘that three footmen was going it a bit. When the butler came back, the first thing on his list was: “No cooked breakfast.” ‘

At that time, the Financial Times estimated the cost of service in ‘a well-appointed household’ at £6,300 a year — about £150,000 in today’s money. 

That included a live-in butler at £500 a year (£11,775 today), two footmen at £350 each, £250 for builders and odd-job men, a head housemaid at £300, two junior housemaids at £250 each, £400 for the cook (cooks were expensive), a kitchen maid at £250, a lady’s maid at £300, and three daily helps at £150 each.

Add to that the chauffeur, who expected to be paid enough to have his own place, at £650. Then there was the heating, electricity, food and other living expenses: call it £2,000. For all but the wealthiest, such an annual wage bill was out of the question.

But it was taken for granted that a family with a rambling country house would need paid help to run it. 

What’s more, servants didn’t only cook and clean; they were evidence of status. Life without servants was quite unthinkable. 

It wasn’t just the cost of staff that threatened the future of Britain’s finest houses — with death duties running at 65 per cent after World War II, many estates were on the brink of catastrophe.

In 1950, the 10th Duke of Devonshire, ‘Eddy’ to his family, was indulging in his favourite pastime of chopping wood in an outhouse when he suffered sudden chest pains. 

He managed to reach the hall of the house before he collapsed and died. He was only 55, and his death was not just a blow to his family; it was a disaster for the Devonshire fortunes.

As a financial strategy to ensure the family’s great country house, Chatsworth in Derbyshire, stayed in the family, he had transferred a large part of his assets to a trust.

But the law said a statutory period had to elapse after the gift was made or death duties would be incurred. 

When Eddy died, there were still 14 weeks to go. That gap of just under 100 days meant the entire estate was taxable at the maximum rate of 80 per cent. 

Child star and actress Tania Duckworth poses with a lion in bikini bottoms and a leather jacket in October 1967 at Longleat, the ancestral home of the Marquesses of Bath

Eddy’s heir, Andrew, was faced with a tax bill of £4.72 million. In the region of half a billion pounds in today’s money.

‘Chatsworth may not go on as a family home,’ the new Duke told his wife Deborah, youngest and most capable of the six Mitford sisters, while they wrestled with the prospect of maintaining the vast pile or surrendering it to the taxman. ‘But I don’t want to be the one to let it go.’

Ironically, the one member of the immediate family with a sound business head was Deborah; but as a woman, and one who had ‘married in’, Debo was excluded from discussions about the future.

She was reduced to sneaking a glance at lawyers’ letters her husband left lying around at breakfast if she wanted to find out what was happening to the estate.

The negotiations dragged on, with interest on the debt growing at a frightening rate of £1,400 a week, until, at last, in 1956 a way forward was found.

Nearby Hardwick Hall, a magnificent Elizabethan mansion also owned by the family, would go to the National Trust while nine important pieces from Chatsworth would be transferred to the Treasury and displayed in various national museums.

It still wasn’t enough. Christie’s held sales of books, silver, furniture and paintings in 1958. The final payment of death duties wasn’t settled until 1967 . . . even then, the Devonshires were paying off the interest for another seven years.

With the future of Chatsworth no longer hanging in the balance, Andrew Devonshire gave into pressure from his wife to move back to the vast house that he hadn’t lived in for decades.

His advisers warned him against the idea but, he said: ‘I decided that I was more frightened of my wife than my advisers.’

In the 1960s rock stars and stately homes went together like cannabis and cookies, or Rolls-Royces and swimming pools.

Between 1966 and 1971 Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Eric Clapton, John Lennon, George Harrison, Mick Jagger and Roger Daltrey all bought historic country houses.

Richards was first to sample the delights. One day in 1966 he was in West Sussex, ‘poncing around in my Bentley’, with a couple of estate agents’ brochures, having decided it might be fun to buy a country house. 

He took a wrong turn and called in for directions at Redlands, a Grade II listed timber-framed house with a thatched roof and a moat. He was entranced, and the owner, sensing a good thing, offered to sell the house on the spot.

Mark Howard, of Castle Howard (pictured), was killed in Normandy in July 1944, aged 26; his brother Christopher, a bomber pilot, was killed a few months later in a daylight raid over the Rhine. Castle Howard went to the sole surviving brother, George, who had himself been wounded in Burma in 1940

‘So’, recalled Richards, ‘I zoomed up to London, just got to the bank in time, got the bread — 20 grand in a brown paper bag — and by evening I was back down at Redlands, in front of the fireplace, and we signed the deal.’

Redlands became something of a base for the Stones, and the setting for countless bizarre anecdotes. Keith took up archery, but constantly missed the target, losing his arrows in the moat.

Eventually he bought a hovercraft, ‘so I can zip straight across the lawn, into the moat, pick up my arrows and skim out again’.

One day Mick Jagger and Brian Jones had a furious argument in the house over Jones’s impending court case for drugs offences. 

Richards and Anita Pallenberg were lolling around on the lawn outside when they heard Jones scream: ‘I’m going to kill myself! I’m going to kill myself!’

They watched in horror as he threw himself into the moat. As he disappeared beneath the waters, Jagger tied a rope around his waist and leaped in to save him . . . only to discover the moat was just a few feet deep. 

Furious, he dragged Jones out by his hair and slapped him. ‘Look at these velvet trousers. They cost me 50 quid, and you’ve ruined them!’

Years earlier, at the outbreak of World War II, the Committee of Imperial Defence requisitioned country houses for the military and for evacuees, but the cannier aristocrats did their best to forestall requisitioning by offering their homes to boarding schools.

The Duke of Devonshire invited the girls of Penrhos College in North Wales to take up residence at Chatsworth, reasoning that ‘if the house is full of schoolgirls, the authorities will not allow soldiers anywhere near the place’.

Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire —whose owner Lord Brocket’s enthusiasm for the Nazis was so great that one of the bedrooms was named after Joachim von Ribbentrop — was requisitioned as a maternity home.

By their nature — walled, gated and usually a discreet distance from other houses — country houses also lent themselves to use by the secret services. One running joke was that SOE did not stand for Special Operations Executive but Stately ‘Omes of England.

The wanton vandalism carried out by soldiers, sailors and airmen while they were billeted in country houses is the stuff of legend.

James Lees-Milne of the National Trust complained that at Netley Park in Surrey the ‘licentious soldiery’ had smashed gilt-framed mirrors in the drawing room, while tales abound of Jeeps driven down grand staircases, garden ornaments used for target practice and family portraits turned into makeshift dartboards.

MI5’s presence at Blenheim Palace was an open secret, to the extent that bus conductors on the route from Oxford to Woodstock used to call out as they reached Blenheim: ‘Anyone for MI5?’

The war affected our country houses in ways more profound than smashed statues on the terraces. In 1947 Debrett’s published its Final Roll of Honour, listing all those members of families included in the Peerage and Baronetage who had been killed in World War II — some 1,400.

Billy, the eldest son and heir of Andrew, the Duke of Devonshire, was leading his company outside the Belgian village of Heppen when he was shot by a German sniper. 

One of his men wrote to the Duke, saying how angry they had been: ‘We took no prisoners that day.’

Mark Howard, of Castle Howard, was killed in Normandy in July 1944, aged 26; his brother Christopher, a bomber pilot, was killed a few months later in a daylight raid over the Rhine. 

Castle Howard went to the sole surviving brother, George, who had himself been wounded in Burma in 1940.

The 1st Baron Stamp died when his house in Beckenham, Kent, was hit by a bomb in 1941. His wife perished with him, as did his son and heir. 

British law decreed that, since no one knew whether the son lived even a split-second longer than his father, their deaths were recorded as occurring in order of seniority.

Thus, for the briefest moment, the heir became the baron, and earned a place in the record books as the man who held a peerage for the shortest length of time.

The unfortunate 3rd Lord Stamp not only lost his father, his mother and his older brother, but had to pay two sets of death duties.

Three months before the 21-year-old Princess Elizabeth married Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten in 1947, Buckingham Palace announced Sunninghill Park, a 25-room Georgian mansion on the edge of Windsor Great Park, would be their weekend residence.

Workmen moved in to begin repairing and redecorating the house, but one midnight, just days later, a keeper in Windsor Forest saw flames coming from the house.

By morning the house was almost completely destroyed. The cause was a cigarette end dropped by one of the workmen in the newly timbered library.

As a result, the newlyweds took a two-year lease on Windlesham Moor in Surrey. It was relatively small for a country house, with just four reception rooms and only seven main bedrooms.

The couple lived at Clarence House during the week, and Princess Elizabeth had an office in Buckingham Palace. Philip was posted to the Royal Naval Staff College at Greenwich.

When duties and public engagements permitted, they drove to Windlesham on Friday evenings, returning to London on Sunday after lunch.

And in a pattern which would be repeated throughout their early married life, Philip sometimes went down to Windlesham during the week. He would roar up in his open-top MG accompanied by a good-looking, well-spoken young woman. A woman who clearly wasn’t his wife.

The couple would talk and laugh together over beef sandwiches and gin and orange. ‘We gossiped as staff do,’ a footman remembered years later, ‘and jokingly referred to her as his fancy woman, or lady friend — even though I never saw them kiss or canoodle.’

Adapted from Noble Ambitions: The Fall And Rise Of The Post-War Country House by Adrian Tinniswood, published on October 7 by Jonathan Cape at £30. (©) Adrian Tinniswood 2021. To order a copy for £27 (offer valid until October 9), go to or call 020 3308 9193.

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