Residents of the High Wycombe area are no doubt familiar with the red brick manor house that stands majestically at the far end of the Rye. Many may have used the rooms inside for community gatherings and local society meetings and some will remember its ancient history from their school days. However, few will probably have read the memoirs of Fred Skull which throw a fascinating light on the manor's restoration during the 1930s.
Fred Skull was the eldest son of Charles Edwin Skull and the grandson of Walter Skull, renowned furniture manufacturers of High Wycombe. He had joined the family business, as indeed did his younger brothers, after leaving school but his growing interest in antiques led him to leave the firm and set up in business on his own as an antiques dealer. With a need to expand not only his interest in all things historical but also his increasing demand for storage and workshop space his eye was drawn to Bassetsbury Manor.
The Manor, circa 1950
The time was the late 1920s and Bassetsbury Manor lay derelict after long service as a gentleman's country residence. It had been owned by both the Dashwood family of West Wycombe and the Carrington family of High Wycombe but after conversion to tenements and later to a grain storage facility the house was a shell of its former self. It had no internal sanitation, no water service and no artificial light.
Fred and his wife Nellie lived at Fairwood Cottage, overlooking Rye Mead, and so he knew the area well. Although the manor had fallen into a dilapidated state he admired the grandeur of its architecture and quickly saw its potential. In earlier times it had been a fine example of a small Charles II manor house but the years of neglect meant heavy restoration costs and many would-be purchasers, including Sir Winston Churchill, were dissuaded from possible ownership. However, Fred Skull was a tenacious man and saw it as an opportunity not to be missed.
He sold Fairwood Cottage (which became, in 1930, a Quaker Meeting House) and bought the manor, its outbuildings including stable block/garages, barn, corn mill and mill cottages, and two acres of land. He and Nellie then lovingly restored the buildings to the elegance of former days. It was this passion which led Fred to write a detailed record of the renovation work, and his subsequent acquisition of furniture and antiques, in his memoirs.
Fred's familiarity with High Wycombe appeared to stand him in good stead during the period of renovation. He was always first in the queue for timber, plasterwork and stained glass when properties of a similar age were demolished. He acquired the entrance doors and panelling from the Old Quaker Meeting House, the roof tiles from Wycombe Guildhall, and the circular window from a Queen Anne chapel in Crendon Lane. Other finds came from further afield, the dining room chimney piece from Carrington House, Whitehall, the pair of columns from the arcade in Nottingham Market Place, two lead figures from Madame Pitt's Park, Bath, and a statue of Neptune which adorned the front lawn from Kent House, Richmond.
He had amassed a large amount of antique furniture, china, textiles and works of art as part of his profession. Although he was very successful in the antiques trade he was also reluctant to part with his favourite pieces and these he found a home for in his new manor house.
He was a visionary, and decided to furnish each room in the style of a different historical period, believing that it brought history to life - an idea which was later used in many museums. Consequently, his memoirs refer to the Chippendale dining room, the Queen Anne living room, the Charles II bedroom and the Georgian entrance hall. His new extension to the house became a breakfast room with interior decoration in the style of James I, gracious living indeed.
Fred's niece, Ruth Nicholson Peace, now 85, remembers her visits to the manor as a child: "We were invited to play tennis during the summer holidays and although I never really noticed all the antiques I remember the large double bed in the middle bedroom where my cousin Jean and I slept. There was a funny cupboard in the bedroom wall which was like a walk-in wash area. I remember that it was on one of these visits that Jean showed me the merits of wearing a bra as opposed to the humble liberty bodice!"
In addition to the tennis court there was a semi-walled kitchen garden where Nellie took great pride in her vegetables. She was a keen gardener and she and Fred took great pains to restore the grounds to a formal layout remininscent of the time of Charles II, complete with pigeon cote. Although much of this work is no longer there the grounds include the stream and water wheel which still enables the water "to fall as a soothing cascade", so much admired by visitors to the manor in the 1930s. There was also a lily pond with a fountain designed by Fred. This had, in its centre, a winged angel with one arm raised to hold a gilded trumpet to his lips. As one of their visitors remarked: "Not every owner possesses a winged angel to blow his trumpet for him."
The old corn mill and adjoining cottages, now salubrious riverside dwellings, were used by Fred as antiques showrooms and furniture restoration workshops.
"I used to fix Fred's car for him" recalled nephew, Arthur Skull, (1914-2000). "I rarely went into the manor but I well remember the restoration workshop in the mill where they'd make two old broken chairs into one decent one. They'd call it an authentic antique of course."
Fred left the running of his antiques business in the capable hands of his business manager, known simply as Collins. This allowed Fred the freedom to pursue his passion for seeking out antiques wherever he went. He would travel to America at least twice a year to find buyers for his collection. Fred wrote: "Existence at once began to take on a new meaning. The zest of pursuit became strangely thrilling and successful finds the greatest tonic in life."
It is comforting to learn, however, that even Fred could not always identify a true masterpiece. He relates that during one of his antiques forays to the West Country he bought a painting for £5, an ideal present for Nellie. Before either of them had the chance to study it a wealthy American dealer had persuaded Fred to sell it for £100. Too late, Fred found out that it was an important work by Sir Joshua Reynolds and was later sold on the American market for fifty thousand dollars (10,000 guineas). Poor Fred and Nellie!
The Manor itself was never on show except to invited guests. With the restoration completed Country Life magazine wrote articles about the house in their September and October issues of 1933: "The glint of Waterford glass, the hues of porcelain, the patina of small bronzes, the charm of well-chosen pictures and of mirrors that reflect other old-world treasures, all have their place in this little world of past glories."
An educational film was also made about this fine example of English country life which was shown on the Cunard White Star Line transatlantic crossings and daily at the British Pavilion at the Great American Exposition. A copy remains in safe keeping at the Wycombe Museum. It is believed that the gentleman opening the front door is Fred himself and the little dog that follows at his feet belonged to Nellie.
News of Bassetsbury's restoration reached Queen Mary. The Queen, herself a keen antiques collector, visited the manor in April 1934 to admire the house and its contents. Rumour has it that she had a tendency, on such visits, to acquire pieces for her own collection by admiring those belonging to others. On this particular visit she apparently admired and acquired Fred's collection of portrait miniatures and later thanked Fred and Nellie for their hospitality by sending a signed photograph of herself, still kept by the family, remarking that she hoped it would not be too modern for its surroundings. It was one of the proudest days of Fred's life.
Other distinguished visitors included Sir Edwin Lutyens, the President of the Royal Academy and George Parker the celebrated baritone. Sadly Fred and Nellie had no children of their own to whom they could pass down their love of the past. It would be rare, however, to find any child as captivated by antiques as Fred appears to have been. His memoirs relate the following tale:
At fifteen Fred had been deeply impressed with the charm of an old sideboard that stood in the parlour of the George and Dragon Inn in Princes Risborough - his age obviously being no restriction to entering such a hostelry. It was a memory which would haunt him for many years. At regular intervals he would return to the pub to refresh his memory of this exquisite piece until he was sufficiently able, both in knowledge and finances to purchase it. Alas, he was told that it belonged to the lease of the premises and could not be sold. He continued to visit the pub to "keep the article under observation" until the day when he found that the premises had changed ownership and the sideboard had been removed. Devastated at the loss he could hardly contain his disappointment but fortunately the greatest luck was to hand.
"After seven days of regrets ... my weekly cycling outing took me to Thame, where to my delight, the long admired sideboard occupied the centre of the antique dealer's window. There and then this Shearer specimen became mine and many years of satisfactory ownership have in no way impaired the early judgement of its quality that had been made by a mere boy. It is said to be the finest known example of its type."
As Fred and Nellie advanced in years they decided to give Bassetsbury to the National Trust in the hope that the house and its contents would be kept 'as one'. Unfortunately they were not in a position to bequeath additional money for the building's upkeep and the Trust declined their generosity. Fred took this as a great slight. It was, after all, his life's work.
As their health declined they had no alternative but to sell their precious antiques to raise the necessary funds for nursing care. After Fred's death in 1952 the contents of the house - furniture, paintings, textiles and ceramics - were auctioned by Christies. The house itself was sold at an extremely fair price to Wycombe District Council as a goodwill gesture. Nellie died in a nursing home in 1955.
For the remainder of the twentieth century the house has been used for local society meetings, drama rehearsals, play schemes and senior citizen's events but has recently undergone structural renovation. The council has been keen to remove all post-Victorian partitions and Frank Catchpole, Leisure Division Officer, says: "New work has been carried out on the upper floors making the old servants quarters and adjoining bedroom one large spacious area and the barn has a new roof. There are now six rooms available for hire at any one time. In 1997 the manor was licensed for marriages and at weekends is a sought after setting for wedding receptions as well as being a popular party and events venue."
Fred and Nellie may not have envisaged their home put to such a use but would surely welcome the continuing admiration for its elegant dignity and olde worlde charm. It may not be the The National Trust but its the next best thing.
My own memories of Bassetsbury Manor begin when I was a child with my parents (John Godfrey Peace and Ruth Nicholson Skull) telling me stories about Uncle Fred (Skull) and Auntie Nellie (Peace). These were further endorsed by my 'Aunt' Margaret, my father's cousin, who visited Nellie regularly at the manor and was always proud of her upwardly mobile aunt and uncle.
On our way to the open air swimming pool in the 1960s I remember stopping to look over the hedge to admire the immaculate lawns and the splendour of the house - it was a peek at another world to me even then.
When I became an art student at Bucks College in the 1970s I sketched the house as part of my studies on the local environment. Much later, when I was a community arts development officer for Bucks Arts Association, I would use the rooms at Bassetsbury for meetings and theatrical rehearsals. At that time it was in a very poor state of repair and I was given a complete tour of the building by the District Council's leisure team (for whom I worked briefly as part of the Outreach Team in 1989) to discuss the possibility of art workshops.
It is a pity that at the time of my own marriage in 1994 the improvements and the granting of marriage licences had not yet come into being as no doubt I would have chosen to have had my wedding there.
Sally Scagell nee Peace, March 2000, updated September 2003
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