Period Property of the Month - November 2008
Sunnycroft was home to one family for nearly a century. Now, this charming late Victorian villa in Shropshire is forever captured in time.
Keeping it in the family
Tucked quietly down an ordinary road in Shropshire is a remarkable house. It's easy to miss, positioned among modern homes and encroaching development. But walk down the twisting tree-lined path towards Sunnycroft, a delightful Victorian suburban villa, and you travel back through the years. For behind its doors are the fascinating stories of three generations - the family to whom it owes its survival.
With its solid, red brick façade and conservative style, Sunnycroft makes no claims to being great architecture. The name of its designer is unknown. Although its preservation has made it unique today, it was similar to thousands of other houses built towards the end of the 19th Century for the prosperous middle class on the outskirts of industrialised towns. Wellington, near Telford, was one such town and it was there that Mary Jane Slaney, widow of a rich businessman, bought Sunnycroft in the 1890s.
Mary Jane decided to extend and remodel the house in 1899. She added reception rooms on the ground floor, plus a turret wing with new 'best' bedroom, and laid out the grounds, creating a mini estate with productive gardens. She chose fittings and decoration according to the conventional taste of the time, with all the features that befitted her prosperous middle-class status. The house was filled with patterned tiles, coloured rooflights, ornamental light fittings, expensive parquet floors and Axminster carpets.
After Mary Jane's death in 1912, Sunnycroft was bought by her brother-in-law, a solicitor, John Lander, whose family would remain there for over 80 years. A colourful character, John was immediately recognised by everyone each day on his walk to work, wearing his trademark white bowler hat and sporting a cane. He and his wife Mary would socialise with other villa owners at charity balls or private dances, but they also hosted their own regular events.
Sunnycroft was a lively home, with tennis on the lawn, bridge evenings and dinner parties, topped off with games of billiards, an essential pastime for the country gentleman. John's children had grown up by the time he moved to Sunnycroft, but they would often bring their own youngsters to visit. Rachel and Joan, daughters of his younger son, Offley, would enjoy homemade cakes and delight at being chased around the hall by their grandfather, disguised under a bearskin rug.
When John died in 1943, Offley moved to Sunnycroft with his wife, Muriel. The director of his own iron foundry in Coalbrookdale, Offley was less flamboyant than his father. A careful businessman, he ran his household in the same frugal manner as he did his foundry and with punctual efficiency, especially at mealtimes. He and Muriel were highly regarded in the community - he as a JP and she as founder of the local Townswomen's Guild. They were good hosts, as John and Mary had been before them.
It was not until 1947 that the house was converted to electricity, although Wellington itself had only been connected a few years earlier. The two world wars had brought big social change and the era of households, brimming with servants to fetch and carry, had long gone. Convenience was improved at Sunnycroft: the kitchen range was replaced by a more efficient Aga (manufactured by Offley's company), bedrooms were fitted with wash-basins and a second bathroom installed.
In the 1960s, after the death of his wife, Offley became ill and his unmarried daughter, Joan, came to live at Sunnycroft to care for him. Inheriting the property, she continued to maintain the estate in the same thrifty way as her father and managed to preserve its furnishings as much as possible - she made few alterations beyond some redecoration of everyday living rooms. But it was as an expert embroiderer that Joan would leave her own special legacy to the house.
She had been in the Red Cross during the Second World War, but afterwards she embarked on a career in needlework. Extremely talented, she had received a gold medal at the end of her training and was chosen to work on the Queen's coronation robe before joining a firm specialising in ecclesiastical embroidery. In the 1980s she began to teach her skills, which included classes around the dining table at Sunnycroft. Many examples of her work are displayed in the house.
Recognising the importance of Sunnycroft as a rare surviving example of its period, Joan bequeathed the whole estate to the National Trust. Since her death in 1997, it has remained largely as she left it, with the many fascinating details of her family's life. The medicine cabinet on the landing reveals intriguing bottles and tinctures from across the decades. The dining room contains original Edwardian menus from an age when turtle soup and saddle of mutton were common fare from the Lander kitchen. Offley's driving gloves are laid out on the bed, his black Daimler still parked in the garage.
However, an important decorative change needed to be made after Joan's death. During the conversion of the house to electricity, the large hall had been painted cream. The room was originally designed as a fashionable 'living hall', not only announcing the importance of its owners but, with a fire glowing in the grate and comfortable chairs and rugs, it was where the family would congregate and entertain their guests.
Paint scrapes revealed an earlier scheme of dark red; a choice better suited to the Victorian Axminster stair carpet, tapestry curtains and tiled floor. It would have created a warm, opulent ambience and a striking backdrop to the Lander collection of family portraits on the walls and landing. With the stunning colour reinstated, so too was the 'wow' factor that crowned the place in its heyday.
Today the house and estate hum with activity just as they did before. The chatter of visitors again fills the rooms. Children can play croquet on the lawn while their parents enjoy tea on the veranda. There are special events, from embroidery classes to a Michaelmas fair. This is no period curiosity - Sunnycroft lives.
Sunnycroft, 200 Holyhead Road, Wellington, Telford, Shropshire TF1 2DR.
For opening times and events, telephone 01952 242884 or visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk