The great-grandson of the last people to live in a Downton Abbey-style mansion house revisited his family’s former home following an historical appeal from its new owners.
Photos of an Edwardian high society wedding, pictures of an appeal court judge and a 19th century family scandal were just some of the treasures and stories uncovered by Will Bankes when he came home to Soughton Hall near Northop, Flintshire.
Will met with Soughton Hall Hotel’s new owner James Ramsbottom whose company Elle R Leisure took over the former Bishop’s Palace a year ago and has since completed a £150,000 refurbishment at the luxury North Wales wedding venue.
He saw the request for information by James in the local press for people to come forward with memories, photos and artefacts which will help the new owners to preserve and share the story of the house.
It was built in 1714 by Edward Conway and remodelled by the famous Sir Charles Barry whose iconic work includes the Houses of Parliament and Highclere Castle of Downton Abbey fame.
Will, a 42-year-old solicitor and father-of-three, brought with him several hard bound books full of photos, newspaper cuttings and other records collected by his ancestors and now passed down to his care.
His visit followed on from a meeting with Hawarden grandmother Eve Taylor who also responded to the appeal because she spent much of her childhood at Soughton Hall and followed in her family’s footsteps by later returning to serve Will’s family as their cook. Her grandfather and great grandfather were both gamekeepers for the estate and her mother was a maid.
Will’s great grandparents, Wynne and Elizabeth (known to the family as ‘Te Te’) Bankes were the last people to live in the Grade II* listed building which was sold as a hotel in the 1980s and has since welcomed celebrity guests such as Richard Burton and King Juan Carlos I of Spain.
Will has carried out his own research into his family tree and their ownership Soughton Hall which came into their hands via marriage in 1752.
He returned to the area himself with his family from London five years ago and recalled the time he spent at Soughton Hall.
He said: “We used to visit my great-grandmother Te Te and have tea with her in the library at Soughton. She was just what you expect from a great-grandmother. Very kindly and interested in what you were up to as a little person. She was a lovely lady.
“We did spend a Christmas there one time when I was about five.
“I also have vivid memories of driving my grandmother’s car down the long drive, sitting on her knee. It was a fascinating place to visit as a child.”
It was Will’s great, great great, great uncle, William John Bankes, who was responsible for turning it into the magnificent building which visitors see today.
Will said: “He inherited Soughton Hall from his brother. William John was a well-known society figure and friend of the poet Lord Byron. He was also gay, something that was illegal in those times, and was caught dabbling with a guardsman in Green Park, London, and thereafter fled into exile to Europe.
“On his travels, he acquired a lot of art work and was passionate about getting them back to his homes in the UK. He was a pioneering traveller and collector. Many of his acquistions are still on show at Kingston Lacy in Dorset, which was the former Bankes family seat, now in the ownership of the National Trust.
“Some of his collection did make its way to Soughton Hall and in some of the photos I have, there are some grand tapestries hanging on the wall. I think they were sent back by William from his travels.”
William John Bankes was also friends with the great Sir Charles Barry who is largely responsible for the Soughton Hall here today. It is believed that William commissioned Sir Charles to revamp Soughton Hall sometime shortly after he inherited it.
New owner James Ramsbottom, whose company Elle R Leisure owns the successful Dukes 92 and Albert’s restaurants in Manchester and luxury boutique wedding venue Woodlands Hotel in Leeds, said meeting Will would help him to bring the history of the great hall alive to Soughton Hall’s many guests.
He said: “It has been a pleasure to meet with Will and learn more about his family who have played such an important part in Soughton Hall’s grand history.
“The purpose of our media appeal was to find out much more about the stories and people associated with Soughton Hall and my meeting with Will has been very enlightening.
“It is such a grand house and it is terrific to learn that it has such a grand history to accompany it. We are asked all the time by our guests about the history of the Hall and we feel it is part of our responsibility as the new owners of the building to tell them as much as we can about it.
“So I am very grateful to Will for sharing his stories and we hope to display many of the photos he has kindly given us permission to use. I am sure they will become talking points for our guests for many years to come.”
The spectacular venue is popular with brides and this was also the case back at the turn of the last century depicted by beautiful photos of a high-society wedding at Soughton Hall.
Will said: “My great grandfather’s sister Ruth held her wedding reception at Soughton in1912. She married a gentleman called Charles Dougdale – what a spectacular setting for a wedding!”
Will is a corporate law partner in Chester and follows at least five generations of ancestors who held senior positions in the legal profession.
Will said: “My great, great grandfather, Sir John Eldon Bankes was an Appeal Court judge and my great grandfather, Wynne Bankes, was Private Secretary to the Lord Chancellor. My grandfather, John Wynne, was a solicitor too so clearly the love of the law must be in the Bankes blood.”
His family also have a long tradition of serving in the Territorial Army, a tradition which Will maintains as a Major in the Cheshire Yeomanry.
The Bankes family were also known for their contribution to the local community with much evidence remaining today.
Will said: “My great, great grandparents Sir John Eldon and Edith Bankes cared greatly for the local villages. The village hall in Northop is named after Lady Edith. I believe they also donated the cricket pitch and land to Northop too.
“The Memorial Hall in Soughton was built by them in memory of their first son, John Eldon Ethelston Bankes, who I was told was killed in a riding accident in the grounds of Soughton Hall when he was in his 20s.”
Will said his return to see Soughton Hall under James’ family firm’s ownership has been very positive.
He added: “It is lovely to see the house being used, renovated and cared for. It is beginning a new and exciting chapter in its history under the ownership of James and I wish James and his team all the very best in running it.”
For more information about Soughton Hall Hotel, go to www.soughtonhallhotel.co.uk