Speke Hall is one of the most famous historical features on Merseyside. Its distinctive black and white appearance, highlighting its amazing timber structure, make it a memorable sight for visitors.
Speke Estate is centred on Speke Hall, and although much of that estate has been cut off from the Hall in the last 100 years, the landscape we see today has been shaped by the presence of the building.
Speke Hall’s owners
Long before our present Speke Hall was built, and at the time of the Norman Invasion (1066), Uctred, a Saxon, held the manor of Speke. But King William granted the lands, along with a vast tract of the hundred of West Derby, to Roger of Poitou, a prominent supporter.
By 1170 the manor was under the control of the powerful Molyneux family. The Speke estate itself was owned in two halves by the Hazelwall and Erneys families, and the Noreis (Norris) brothers, Alan and John, married into each.
John and his wife Nicola had a house in the Clough by 1314 (this is the first documentary mention of a home on the site), and Sir Henry Norris united the two halves of the estate alongside his wife Alice later in the 14th century.
Eventually the Norris family married into the Beauclerks, in whose hands the estate descended, until it was sold (the only time in its history) to the Watt family in 1795.
This was a low point in Speke Hall’s history, as the Watts bought an empty house, which had been neglected by its owners for some decades. The Watts left the house to tenants, for a while, but came back to Speke Hall in 1856 and began a restoration project to bring it back to its former glory. This was the first of several phases of restoration, which can be seen happening right up to the National Trust’s efforts today.
Adelaide Watt was the last owner of the house before the National Trust, and she inherited the estate well before she came of age at 21. Until that time it was leased to Frederick Leyland, manager of the Bibby Shipping Company. Bibby also put a lot of money into restoration and redecoration, and added many of the Arts and Crafts features that tourists see today, like the William Morris wallpapers in the Blue Drawing Room.
Adelaide Watt, when she came into full ownership of the Hall, set to developing the farm complex, even as the 20th Century was bringing with it drastic changes to the landscape in the form of industry and the aerodrome. She died in 1921, but having been determined to protect the house in the face of what she saw as the encroaching city, Speke Hall was passed on to the National Trust in 1942. The Hall had remained under the management of Thomas Watmore, Adelaide’s butler, and a number of house staff, in the intervening years.
Speke Hall was administered by Liverpool Corporation until 1986, at which point the National Trust took on full responsibility.
Speke Hall in its landscape
Speke Hall sits on a platform of red sandstone (like much of Liverpool), surrounded – originally on all sides – by a moat. The house is on the site formerly occupied by another building, of which little is known. The choice of spot is a strange one, and it’s not easy to understand why it was chosen for a house.
At the time this building was built, the fashion for defended houses was disappearing. Castles were almost completely obsolete, but many new dwellings were designed to look defended, or to have decorative stonework which was suggestive of defence, but which provided no real protection at all. However, the wattle and daub materials, and the timber frame of Speke Hall are out of character. Many of the Tudor houses known from other parts of the country are in towns, such as the Dutch House in Bristol or the Chester Rows just over the water. Speke Hall was a literal and figurative outlier.
The previous building on the site would have been Medieval, and the kitchen of the current Hall incorporates some of the features of this older structure. The moat surrounding the Hall was part of this older setting, and would have formed what is known as a Medieval Moated Site – a small yet defended rural house of a local landlord. Perhaps Speke Hall’s location was chosen simply because of the existence of this previous building in an attractive spot.
Speke Hall’s estate
The house sits on low, flat ground which slopes gently into the River Mersey. Originally the Hall would have had excellent views over the river and into North Wales, and the estate stretched right to the water’s edge. However, since the aerodrome, and later Liverpool Airport, were built the Hall has been cut off from the coast.
When the new Liverpool Airport was built in 1967 a large earthen bank, the Bund, was built between the Hall and the airport land to protect the structure from the noise and visual pollution. Even today you can see the taxiway which joins the sites of the current and former airport facilities, and the National Trust hopes to take this back into ownership and allow visitors to enjoy the whole of the land between Hall and Mersey.
The Forest and woodlands
On a wider scale, the Speke Estate was once part of the vast Lancashire forest. The local area was described in 1275 as ‘wood, plain and meadow’, and included areas of marsh too, with peat cutting taking place. The term ‘forest’ was more a reference to the laws which applied in the area; the amount of tree coverage would have been more patchy.
The Clough is an area of trees which still shelters the Hall from the weather, and has seen periods of felling (by the Air Ministry in the 1940s) and replanting (with beech and oak by the National Trust in recent years). Stockton’s Wood, named as ‘the heath called spekgreves’ in a deed of 1385, was probably used as cover for shooting parties.
How the topography has affected the landscape
The flat, open land close to the river has made it an attractive spot in the last 50 to 100 years for several very modern usages. The first aerodrome in Liverpool made use of the clear land for easy take off and landing, and an early air mail service to the Isle of Man and Ireland operated from here for some years.
The Air Ministry took over the aerodrome in the Second World War, and aeroplane parts were shipped in from America to the Liverpool docks, and stored on The Walk, just to the north east of the Hall.
In the build-up to the Second World War, Royal Ordnance Factories (ROFs) had come to Liverpool, with the Rootes factory at Speke producing Halifax bombers. The sites of these factories was later seen to be useful to emerging heavy industries, what with the flat land with room for expansion. The Ford factory at Halewood is perhaps just the most famous of the establishments which have inherited this function in Speke and the surrounding area.
At the same time, housing estates were created by Liverpool Corporation and City Council to house those evicted from the ‘slums’ cleared from the city centre in the 20th century. Huge numbers of houses could be built on the open landscape, and the new arrivals were conveniently located to work in the new factories.
And so Speke Hall and the estate have morphed from an attractive, out-of-town location for wealthy families and businessmen into an expanding residential and industrial area with close connections to the River Mersey, the railway, and the airport. The forethought of Adelaide Watt meant that Speke Hall itself, this outstanding example of Tudor architecture, remains intact and provides a haven for Scousers and visitors alike.
Speke Hall, Garden and Estate, http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/speke-hall-garden-and-estate, accessed 5th February 2016
My Home, by Tom Whatmore, https://web.archive.org/web/20111009091731/http://www.tomwhatmore.webspace.virginmedia.com/index.html, accessed 5th February 2016
Speke Archive Online, http://spekearchiveonline.co.uk/, accessed 6th February 2016
Munitions Factories, Liverpool Museums, http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime/exhibitions/blitz/munitions.aspx, accessed 6th February 2016
Cousens, B., 2009, Speke Hall Guide Book, The National Trust