This week I paid my first visit to Cannon Hall near Barnsley in South Yorkshire. This large mansion, once known as ‘Roast Beef Hall’ due to its owners’ generosity at dinner, was the ancestral home of the Spencer-Stanhope family, who made their fortune in the local iron industry. Those of you familiar with the background of Thomas Atkinson will know that his father was head mason on the estate and that Thomas had a close relationship with the Spencer-Stanhopes, in particular with John and his brother, the Reverend Charles Spencer-Stanhope.
Like many similar estates, the upkeep proved too much for the family and the house and grounds were sold to Barnsley Corporation in 1951. Today Cannon Hall, along with 70 acres of beautiful parkland, is a museum with fine collections of Moorcroft pottery, paintings – including works by Constable and Canaletto – and glassware. Although some of the rooms still contain artworks associated with the Spencer-Stanhope family, most of that has now gone and it is not easy to imagine what life would have been like in the house’s heyday in the mid-eighteenth century when the likes of William Pitt, the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce and other grand figures were regular guests.
However, an insight into life at Cannon Hall can be gleaned from a wonderful book: Annals of a Yorkshire House from the papers of a Macaroni and his kindred, written by A M W Stirling and published in 1911. And before you ask, a macaroni was a kind of eighteenth century dandy, noted for their accentuated fashion, over-the-top hairstyles and exaggerated manner of speech. A quote from the book gives an idea of the extravagant entertaining that lay behind the nickname Roast Beef Hall during the days of Walter Spencer-Stanhope:
“Stanhope, after his marriage, kept open house, where the guests who came uninvited were as welcome as the invited guest and it was a recognised fact that despite the ever-widening home-circle which the years brought, his family party never dined without the addition of several friends present. As his sons grew older they used to be expected to bring men in to dinner, and John used to relate that he often wandered about not liking to go back till he had captured his own contribution to the merry evening party. Once when Mary Winifred complained to her chef of the extravagance of the house-books, the man replied “Do you know Ma’am, although you had no party, how many people dined here last week? – A hundred!”. The neighbours in Grosvenor Square (where the Spencer-Stanhope’s had their London town house-ed), however, maintained that Mrs Stanhope must have a rout every night, so continuous was the stream of company which invaded her, while several of the old letters describe her house as ‘the gayest in town’.”
From his humble beginnings as the son of a stone mason on the estate, Thomas Atkinson returned to Cannon Hall in 1860 as a guest of the family. It was, indeed, a remarkable turnaround for an uneducated Yorkshire lad. There are some small indications that the Spencer-Stanhopes saw the potential of the young mason and set him on his way to becoming an architect, even allowing him as a youth to take drawing lessons with the Spencer-Stanhope girls. That, like so many other aspects of this story, will be the subject of further research.