The History of Bessingham Manor
Bessingham Manor has an amazing history in this graded area, we will cover the stories later in this article. When repairs went wrong, the decline of this manor house started. Seeing the building now highlights the significance of the damage. Three stories of flooring has collapsed, internal structure has failed and the roof is partly complete. There are significant plans to demolish this structure and build a new manor house, using many of the existing materials and original features. Unfortunately, as seems to be the fate of many properties, Bessingham Manor has been subjected to multiple thefts taking the very original features that would have been transferred into the new property.
The Spurrell family had farmed land in Thurgarton and Bessingham since Tudor times, a William Spurrell was mentioned on the Subsidy Roll of 1506. The family had connections to Epringham, also dating back 500 years. It has been suggested that the Norfolk family name is a derivative of Sporle, which is a village near Swaffham, in Norfolk. The transition from Sporle to Sporrell to Spurrell, seems to have occurred in the mid 16th century.
By the early 1800s, two distinct branches of the family had developed in Norfolk. Chief Constable William Spurrell (1700-1761) of Thurgarton Old Hall, had four sons. William who was to inherit Thurgarton, James and Charles moved to London to make their money in the Southwark brewing trade and John (1732-1803) who went on to purchased land at Bessingham previously belonging to the Anson family.
John, and his son, also named John Spurrell (1779-1837), built Bessingham Manor House. The manor was built of flint and brick, with a thatched roof. Also, it has been said that there was also a chapel on the estate. When his father passed away, John inherited his fathers house and land.
John married his cousin Elizabeth Joy in 1814 and they went on to have four children, Flaxman, Daniel, Elizabeth and Frances. Upon their father’s death in 1837, Flaxman, whilst being the eldest did not inherit Bessingham, but an estate at Sidestrand passed down from his grandmothers. Flaxman moved to Belvedere in Kent where he worked as a doctor. Bessingham was given to John’s second son Daniel Spurrell (1817-1906).
Daniel was only twenty years old at the time his father died and he continued to oversee the running of the estate for the next 70 years. Daniel married Sarah Frances in 1848, and within the first ten years of their marriage went on to have seven children: Emily, Blanche, Katherine, Sarah (who sadly died before her first birthday and is buried in her own grave at Bessingham), Robert, Mary and Edmund (who was also called by his middle name Denham). Daniel commissioned the build of a new Manor house and this was completed in 1870.
The three-storey house was built in red brick, had a vaulted cellar, eight main bedrooms, four servants sleeping quarters in the roof. The old manor house fell into disrepair and burned to the ground shortly after the new on was completed. In 1881 Daniel, named as lord of the manor was a principle landowner in Bessingham, with 300 of the 508 acres of the village belong to him. Bessingham was still very much a farming community, with around 330 acres of arable land, the main crops were wheat, turnips, barley and grass.On the 1901 census he describes himself as a “Retired Agriculturalist”, implying that he may have been interested in improving farming methods. Daniel’s obituary in the Eastern Daily Press 23 April 1906 says that he ‘came of a long-lived race’. In both senses of the phrase, this is right, he a few months short of his 90th birthday when he died. Daniel left Bessingham Manor to his youngest son, Edmund Denham Spurrell J.P. (1858-1952).
Edmund Denham Spurrell, is described as having been a bit of an eccentric. Upon his fathers death in 1906, Denham returned from India, with a great brown bear. The bear was kept in a stable next to the house and would be brought out to perform for guests at dinner parties. Unfortunately, one day the bear escaped injuring a housemaid amongst others. As a consequence the animal was shot and buried in the grounds. In 906 he also married Emily but their marriage was childless. Denham was a magistrate, local councilor, member of the Norfolk Yeomanry and Master of the North Norfolk Harriers.
Denham had little respect for modern forms of transport, he caused an accident by driving straight across a crossroads where he should have given way, his defence before the magistrates was that he thought the other cars would have stopped for him. He prefer the more traditional methods of transportation, his beloved horse is buried in the grounds of Bessingham Manor House – standing upright. His mistrust of modernism did not stop him learning to pilot a plane at the age of 91 so that he could fly to a friend’s house in Bournemouth. His return landing on a field near his Bessingham house was apparently met with cheers by the villagers.
He died in 1952 aged 93 having run the estate for almost half a century. During his time at Bessingham, many of his siblings also lived with him there, and most of them were laid to rest in Bessingham Churchyard. Blanche lived all her life at Bessingham Manor House and died unmarried.
Katherine lived her whole life at Bessingham Manor. She married her cousin Flaxman Charles John Spurrell in 1912, he was a geologist and archaeologist, and had worked with the famous egyptologist Petrie in Egypt. In 1895 he had presented a number of pre-historic remains to the Natural History Musuem and later donated material to the Norwich Castle Museum. He retired to Bessingham, with Katherine, largely withdrawing himself from the world before he died in 1915.
Robert rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, serving in Afghanistan, India and South Africa and during the First World War commanded the 13th Royal Sussex Regiment. He lived his remaining years at Glandyfi Castle, Wales. In 1893 he married Mary Maude, daughter of Major-General James Lawtic Fagan, but they had no children. Robert is buried at Bessingham, where his wife erected a memorial to him and put in the east window.
Mary married Frank George Armstrong Hitchcock, a solicitor in 1882, with whom she had six children. Mary is burried next to her husband in Bessingham Churchyard. Bessingham Manor was inherited by her only surviving son, Denham’s Nephew, Ronald Victor Hitchcock (1884-1970).
Both of the last owners were very much opposed to modernisation, forbidding electricity cable to be laid across their grounds to heat the church.
In 1970s the Manor house was bought by Robert Gamble, a WWII fighter pilot and his glamourous Swedish wife, Mary. They lavishly decorated the manor, introducing beauty and splendor into the grand building. Serving in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces had required Robert to train pilots in the Middle East, and he regularly received gifts from eastern princes, including exquisite Persian rugs. These remained unopened until he could no longer live independently and was moved to a nearby nursing home. Robert would sleep all day whilst living at the nursing home, this was so that he could stay up at night to listen to Radio Four, as he believed all the best programmes were broadcast overnight.
Robert brewed his own wines using bullace and plants from his gaden, lining the cellar with demijohns of wines in jewel like colours. Mary was an artist, under the name Mary l’Anson, she held local exhibitions of her paintings. She also played the organ, this was one of her favourite things to entertain guests.
Mary died in 1980 and Robert became increasingly eccentric in his grief. He left their home exactly how it had been whilst his wife was alive, keeping each room as it had been and losing any real interest in maintaining the house. A poor quality roof repair which failed, led to significant water damage to part of the house which in time caused the partial collapse of the second floor. In 1980 permission was sought from the council to change the use of the Manor from a private dwelling to a residential school, although this was never denied, it was also never approved. Between 1980 and 2009, 30 acres of land were sold from the Bessingham estate. In 2009 English Herritage dismissed an appeal to gain listed status for the Manor house.
Bessingham Manor was finally put up for Auction in September 2009 optimistically with the view to reach £900,00, knowing that a £1m bill was also likely to fully restore the house.. Unsurprisingly, it failed to reach even the reserve of £640,000 from a starting price of £400,000. To add to the problems, thieves also broke in and stole an ornate stone fireplace from one of the ground floor rooms, as it awaited sale at auction.
Bessingham Manor was sold to Norwood Developments in 2010. The company have released the designs by SMG Architects for a new Manor house, after plans were approved by the council to demolish the existing building and rebuild due to the problems raised in the structural report. Norwood, intends to recycle the construction materials from the existing house, use traditional building methods and following the original 19th century architectural drawings. The new Manor is to be set the centre of 4.5 acres of landscaped gardens which will incorporate the structures of the cellars from the previous two houses, to retain the history of the Manor. The new house would have galleried landings, baronial fireplaces and a lantern window in the roof above. The ground floor would boast five reception rooms, a study and service areas along with an enclosed courtyard and garaging. The upper floor would total seven bedrooms, including two suites and a master suite. In addition a self contained two bedroom apartment that will be linked to the house at ground and first floor levels.