I write about a house, well its more than a house really, a stately home in fact! Or at least it was once upon a time. Today that house is a ruin and its forlorn presence brings to mind its journey through history, its days of prestige and comfort that are now long gone, and the true meaning of the word forlorn in terms of architecture and heritage. But its history and that of its occupants is one that surprises and fascinates, and its forlorn and sorrowful appearance makes one interested to enquire about the reason for the shell like state that it has now become.
The name of the house I mention is Piercefield House, a property situated in Monmouthshire, Wales, quite close to the Severn Bridge, and at the mouth of the River Wye just outside Chepstow. Currently it belongs to the Reuben Brothers, British business men worth several billions of pounds who were born in Mumbai, India into a prosperous Iraqi Jewish family. It is claimed that these men are ranked as the 60th wealthiest people in the world, but for reasons unknown they choose not to rescue the relic of that forlorn property from its crumbling state.
To start at the earliest point, the first time a house was recorded on that estate was way back in the C14th, but the heirs of Piercefield finally decided after several centuries of ownership that it was time to move on, and thus in 1727 it began its journey through a variety of different hands of wealthy Georgians and Victorians, some of whom lost their fortunes and were forced therefore to sell, but not without first leaving their mark.
In the C18th Valentine Morris (1727–1789) became the second owner of Piercefield House, but he was the first notable owner. He was the son of a wealthy Antiguan sugar plantation owner and he bought the estate in 1740, whereupon he went to great lengths to establish parkland around the property. Valentine laid out walks so that the C18th tourists to that area could peruse his estate and view the River Wye at a time when tourism in Britain was just getting going. He added to the walks the features of a grotto, a druid’s temple, a bathing house and semi-circular giant’s cave decorated with stones and cinders in order to make the route more appealing. Owing to its position the park and house then gained a national reputation, which in some respects it still holds today, as the Piercefield parkland would become a focal point, especially for those walking up to the higher peaks of the nearby cliffs of Wycliff, to a place that is known as the Eagles Nest viewpoint. But despite Valentines efforts to establish himself in the local area, and his attempts to do good works and become an MP, his goal was never able to be fully achieved owing to the fact that local society would not accept him as an outsider. After running down his finances he returned to the Carribean where he was born and then became governor on the island of St. Vincent, where he tried to create something of an equivalent to Piercefield. Once again fate ran against him and he was forced to surrender the island to the French in 1779. By now Morris had run into poverty, and so he returned home to England where things descended even further into chaos. First his wife attempted suicide and then she was incarcerated in a mad-house, next Morris himself was jailed for debt forcing him to relinquish his much cherished house and lands at Piercefield. Thus the house was passed on to its next owner, and sold to a Durham banker called George Smith who had founded the Monmouthshire Bank in Gwent in 1788.
George Smith took his roll as local landowner as seriously as its former owner had done, and he continued to keep the walks open on the estate, but importantly he also ventured to improve the house by employing the celebrated architect Sir John Soane in order to extend it in the Neo-Classical style typical of that era. However Smith like his predecessor also ran into financial difficulties and so once again Piercefield was forced into new hands, this time those of a Colonel in the Bengal Engineers called Sir Mark Wood, Bt. who was already an established Member of Parliament for Newark on Trent. Wood was also the owner of Llanthony Priory situated high up in the Black Mountains relatively close by. But Piercefield did not rest long in the care of Wood’s hands and sure enough it was sold a few years later, this time into the hands of a man of ethnic origin; black as the ace of spades it was writ, but one whose gracious manners and style of behaviour allowed him to be accepted into the highest ranks of Georgian society at a time that made him unique.
The remarkable Nathaniel Wells (1779 – 1852) was the illegitimate son of a welsh merchant and a black slave, who was born on St. Kitts and sent to London at the age of ten by his father in order to be educated so that he could hope to gain a place at Oxford, which in the end he chose not to attend. Instead he remained in the country, inherited his father’s vast estates in 1794, and then married and purchased Piercefield House in 1802 for the Kingly sum of £90,000. In contrast to Valentine Morris the former owner of Piercefield, who had been rejected as an outsider, Wells went on to become a magistrate, passing judgement over white people at a time when most black people were not even entitled to a court hearing, as well a Justice of the Peace. Later he went further and was appointed as Sheriff of Monmouthshire. There is no evidence to show that this distinguished gentleman, who was even born out of wedlock, ever encountered any sort of discrimination either for the colour of his skin or his birth. Wells became a Church warden at the local church of St. Arvans, a positioned that he maintained for forty years, and later he gifted the distinctive octagonal tower to that church which was added on to it in 1820. But in 1840 at the grand of age of 60 Wells moved away from the area and into the city and the house was let. The walks of Piercefield were closed to tourists, and so began a slow decline of the property.
Piercefield House was sold once more in 1855 to its tenant, and then again in 1861 to a banker and brewer from Stoke-on-Trent called Henry Clay. It remained in the hands of the Clay family for quite a number of years until Clay’s son, also Henry became the last person to live in the property right up until his death in 1921 at the grand old age of 96, it was just after the First World War, but with the second on the horizon, which perhaps explains how it then became so dilapidated. Now the property was sold on to the Chepstow Racecourse Company, who opened a new Racecourse on the land, but the house was in such a poor state of repair it was stripped and abandoned and left to remain forlorn forever, although some emergency repairs were carried out between 2008-2009.
In 2013 a campaign was launched to save the building by Marcus Binney a British architect, historian and author in conjunction with Save British Heritage. As yet it has been unsuccessful in deleting the hopelessness of the situation of Piercefield’s current predicament, and thus it remains tumbledown, ramshackled and for the time being forlorn forever.