A house of history…
Kitley House has a rich family history dating back over 500 years, encompassing armoury, heraldry, literature, architecture and the fine arts. The manor started life as the ancestral home of relatives of the Bastard family, who still run it today. A Grade-One-listed building with unique character and charm, Kitley is an elegant blend of architectural styles and influences.
Thought to have been built during the reign of Henry VII by Thomas Pollexfen (pronounced Poulston), the house has early Tudor origins and is believed to have been built between 1457 and 1509. The Pollexfens lived at Kitley until 1710, when Edmund Polloxfen died. Anne, the heiress of the estate, married William Bastard of Gerston Manor, an estate near the Kingsbridge estuary.
The Bastard dynasty
The family became tied to the Bastard line, which can be traced back to the Norman conquest of 1066. William Bastard was MP for Dartmouth and recorder of Totnes from 1603-1625 when King James I was on the throne.
Lt. Colonel Edmund Bastard, the second son of Colonel William Bastard, eloped to Gretna Green with Jane Pownoll, heiress to the fortune gained by her father after capturing the Spanish frigate La Hermoina in 1763. Captain Pownoll and HMS Apollo brought back half a million pounds, a tremendous fortune at the time. A model of HMS Apollo can be found on the galleried landing, at the top of the magnificent 18th-century wooden staircase.
Colonel William Bastard himself was respected for his command of the East Devonshire Militia in 1779. His son Edmund Pollexfen Bastard became Colonel of the same regiment in 1799. In 1782, Edmund had become MP for Truro and he remained a member of the Tory party throughout his life. His nephew, also called Edmund, succeeded him in 1812.
Figures of military and political aptitude, the Bastards were influential and fashionable. The family witnessed huge cultural and social change over the centuries, and the house became associated with many different spheres of influence.
Kitley’s design credentials
Kitley’s Tudor origins are still identifiable, although influenced by renovations in 1820. The grounds, in particular, were enhanced by ‘Late Georgian’ taste, particularly by the construction of a dam across the tidal waters of the Yealm estuary to create a freshwater lake.
With its 600 acres of grounds and mile-long driveway, the house itself stands as a remarkably clear construction. With its tall tapering shape, it’s as striking in daylight as in moonlight.
George Stanley Repton (1786-1858), the son of the great English landscape designer Humphrey Repton, brought his influence to bear on the interior of the house. He had previously worked under John Nash (1752-1835), one of the foremost architects of the Regency and Georgian eras. Kitley’s ‘Late Regency’ interior combined the old and the new, mixing tradition and trend – incorporating the most sought-after elements of any fashionable country home at that time.
In 1820, Repton started work by making water-colour drawings of his plans for the house from each aspect. The H-shape of the original 16th-century house is still visible, its courtyard filled in by a low wing added by Repton. Behind this is a large window, added in the 18th century, above the staircase in the Great Hall, which is dominated by a clock and belfry on the west side.
Repton’s reworking of the property was extensive and radical; the ground floor of the Tudor house became the basement of the Georgian one. A terrace was designed to conceal the basement level on the south side, where the ground drops. The east side saw a saloon added to the forecourt, but the Georgian entrance on the north side was altered only slightly. Repton replaced the hipped roofs and sashes with gables and mullions, and added pinnacles to the parapet.
The thickness of the internal walls in the middle of the house proves that much of the Tudor structure was integrated into the 18th-century rebuilding, but the north and south fronts were then rebuilt. This, coupled with the changes to the surrounding landscape, was designed to enhance the natural beauty of the area and capture the trend for picturesque homes and gardens.
Kitley’s entrance hall bears testament to its family ancestry. Its mock heraldic shields and banners illustrate the pedigree of the family tree and the proud reputation of its early Tudor age. Pre-dating Repton’s work is the grand central staircase, which was an unusual feature for a 17th century Devon house. With its fluted and spiral balusters, arched doorways, fielded panelling and inlaid steps, Kitley sets a grand tone and demonstrates excellent craftsmanship.
Literature and Art: Kitley’s cultural influence
Dr Samuel Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds
Kitley has connections with many famous names, particularly those linked to art and culture. The writer Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) stayed at the house during a sojourn in the South Hams in 1762 with his friend, the renowned portrait artist Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), who hailed from nearby Plympton. Then aged 39, Reynolds was already an established portrait artist in London and the West Country. He had painted a striking portrait of Anne Bastard about five years earlier. The work certainly leaves a lasting impression. With her hand on her hip and her gaze looking outside the frame, Anne appears elegant and striking, embodying the poise so admired by Reynolds in classical Greek and Roman art. A self-portrait of Reynolds hung in the drawing room until a few years ago.
Old Mother Hubbard
Sarah Catherine Martin (1768?-1826) was an aunt to the Pollexfen-Bastard children, following the marriage of Edmund Pollexfen Bastard to her sister, Judith Ann Martin. She is said to have written her famous poem The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog to amuse the children. It’s thought that the character of Old Mother Hubbard is based on Kitley’s resident housekeeper at the time, whose cupboard was in her sitting room (now the basement). In 1806, after sending her manuscript to John Harris, a London-based publisher, Sarah was asked if his company could create 10,000 copies to distribute. And the rest, as they say, is history! Sarah subsequently wrote another adventure for Old Mother Hubbard and her dog.
While Sarah’s tales of Old Mother Hubbard charmed generations of children, Sarah herself captured the hearts of some very prestigious admirers including Prince William Henry, who later became King William IV. At 17 years old, she could have married into royalty and become Queen of England, though she declined his proposal.
William Butler Yeats
Susan Pollexfen was the mother of Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), one of the foremost figures of 20th-century literature. Yeats writes of his maternal grandfather, William Pollexfen, in Reveries over Childhood and Youth: “for all my admiration and alarm, neither I nor anyone else thought it wrong to outwit his violence or his rigour”. Yeats looked up to the ‘Lear-like figure’ that influenced his young life and provides an interesting account of the military background that dominated his grandfather’s reputation. Kitley’s Irish connections had begun generations before Yeats’ birth when his great-grandmother, Elizabeth Pollexfen, married Irish merchant William Middleton when she was just fifteen.
The Tall family’s Kitley connections
Delyse Upton and her son Martyn, who now lives in Australia, visited Kitley House for a celebration dinner following research into their family history. They had discovered that Delyse’s great grandfather, Joel Tall, and his wife Elizabeth had both worked for the estate in the 1800s and 1900s. They lived at Kitley Quay Cottage for at least 20 years. Delyse and Martyn kindly sent us some information on their family’s long relationship with Kitley: Joel Tall-Kitley Quay Cottage history
We hope that this short account of Kitley’s fascinating past has piqued your interest. If you would like to find out more about the history of the house, we can recommend the following publications:
- Simon Jenkins’ England’s Thousand Best Houses (London: Penguin Books, 2003) provides an excellent introduction and also lists other local houses of note. Kitley is placed within the top 200 best houses in England!
- B Yeats’ Reveries over Childhood and Youth (which can be downloaded from www.gutenburg.org/ebooks) is an honest, lyrical recollection of the poet’s childhood memories.
- Fascinating information regarding Dr Johnson’s trip around Devon with Reynolds in 1762, including a recreation of the steps taken by the two men, can be found at thejohnsonsociety.org.uk
- Mike Brown’s A Guide to the Heraldry at Kitley House.
Also at Kitley…
Fresh food prepared by our chef and his team, using local ingredients, many from our own estate. Try our new à la carte menu for dinner, a bar-style lunch or indulge in a cream tea on the terrace.
The ultimate mid-afternoon treat. Indulge in a Devon cream tea or a full afternoon tea in our restaurant, in one of our quiet reception rooms or on the Terrace with views of the estate and lake. Freshly-brewed tea or a glass of bubbly are the perfect accompaniment to our finger sandwiches, scones and cakes.
We found Kitley House to be a gem hidden away within acres of woodland just waiting to be explored. The house is full of historic charm and the rooms and service were faultless. Worth the drive from London and will be returning.
Mark Bush, guest
The last time we stayed at Kitley House it was excellent. Service, food, entertainment - All First Class!
Kitley has a very different feel to it now. It is cosier and visibly more cared for now that it is a family run hotel. The staff are still as friendly as they have ever been but the place itself now appears to be being loved.
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