Subject:Wembury House, Wembury

NGR:SX 5310 4920


The manor of Wembury was acquired by Plympton Priory at some time after its founding in 1121.  It was held until the dissolution in 1539 and was run as a 'grange', or farm, by lay brothers employed by the priory.
It had a chapel, licenced in 1335 and relicenced in 1535.

After the dissolution, it passed through the hands of several absentee landlords, until 1591 when it was bought by Sir John Hele, Sergeant at Law; a wealthy London lawyer, though of Devonian origins.
Between then and his death in 1608, he built the first mansion of Wembury House, said to have had a large outer court with a gatehouse, fronting a very large multi-storey mansion, recorded in 1674 as having 42 hearths.
The house (though not all of the surrounding land) was subsequently sold by the Heles to George Monk, whose son Christopher sold it to John Pollexfen in 1685.  Pollexfen made 'great alterations' to the house between then and 1701, possibly using the London architect and scientist Robert Hooke.  Later generations of the Pollexfens could not afford the upkeep and most of the building was demolished in 1803, when the present Georgian house was created out of a surviving part of the late C17 mansion by Thomas Lockyer, a Plymouth merchant.

Description:

On a very exposed hilltop site, evidently chosen for its wide views, the present Georgian house lies on the lower terrace of a split-level site, with about 2.5 metres between levels.  A large walled area to the west, apparently belonging to the late C16 period encloses a garden of varying levels with a gently sloping central lawn, scarped away to the present house.
A raised buttressed terrace at its west end was crenellated and seems to have formed part of a formal garden associated with Sir Warwick Hele's mansion.  Flanking walls and tree belts protect the house and its gardens from westerly winds, with a small gothic lodge to the north.  Many architectural fragments of the earlier houses are built into these walls.  Large walled gardens lie in the valley to the east, at the foot of which is a large tidal fishpond, apparently of the early C18.


Dating:

11592-1608.  Large, possibly double courtyard mansion built by Sir Warwick Hele.  Outer courtyard with large, probably storeyed gatehouse and flanking buildings, probably containing heated servants' lodgings.  Main building possibly arranged around an inner courtyard, with at least 30 heated rooms.
Formal garden probably on west side of mansion with raised terrace overlooking house and garden.  Crenellations on garden terrace, probably also on house and gatehouse.

1aShortly after main build.  Large buttresses added to east and west sides of raised garden terrace, to counteract bulging and settling of structure.

21685-1701.  Parts of Period 1 house demolished and remainder remodelled into a T plan house of 3½ to 4 storeys.  Head of T faced west across garden and shaft extended across present gravelled forecourt to east.  Extent of subsidiary buildings not known, but nearby Hele Almshouses seem to date from the same period.

2aLate C18.  Demolition/stripping of Period 2 house.  Building appears in 1780s watercolours by John Swete as a roofless ruin.

31803-c.1830.  Present house built on footprint of Period 2 west wing, re-using surviving Portland stone dressings.  Some parts of lower walls may belong to Period 2, especially on ends of main block.  Walled gardens and windbreak plantations added to north and south of period 1 walled garden.  Several associated outbuildings include gardeners' bothy (2), stables and associated buildings (3 & 5), orangery (4) and well-house (6).

Conclusions:

Wembury House has three well-documented periods of development, all associated with very large mansion houses.  Although only the third house to stand on the site is well-preserved, the evidence for the previous ones from documentary and structural evidence is compelling.
The vast size and opulence of the first house and the possible connection of the second with Robert Hooke, are sufficient to make Wembury House of national importance, meaning that further survey work could potentially be very rewarding.

Wembury House