WALTON HALL, says Elizabeth Hamilton, tempering family pride with authorial detachment, is a melodramatic house with its own historical melodrama.
As the widow of Sir Richard Hamilton, the 9th baronet who, until his recent death at 90, owned the Walton estate of 4,000 Warwickshire acres, Lady Hamilton is not so much the current chatelaine as the house's watchful biographer, the chronicler of the deeds and misdeeds that have etched its history.
In 1870, only some 10 years after the fashionable architect Sir George Gilbert Scott rebuilt the original Georgian house in a whoosh of Gothic exuberance, Walton became the most notorious stately home in the land, a blast furnace of scandal that shocked Victorian society.
Sir Charles Mordaunt MP had commissioned his impressive new house for the enormous sum of £30,000 to mark his coming of age. Being a sociable cove and still in his early thirties, he enjoyed entertaining his friends there when he wasn't hunting, shooting or fishing - sporting pursuits that appear to have rendered his beautiful, younger wife Harriett bored rigid.
One sweltering summers day in 1868, Sir Charles returned home unexpectedly to find the young Prince of Wales eyeing Lady Mordaunt as she gave a charming demonstration of her carriage-driving skills in front of the house with a pair of prancing white ponies. Sir Charles, knowing the Prince's reputation as a philanderer, told him to leave and ordered his groom to bring the ponies down on to the lawn below the conservatory.
Then he dragged his wife from the house and made her watch as they were shot!
If Sir Charles considered this a sure-fire cure for wifely inattentiveness, he was wrong. Unknown to him,
Harriett had indeed been dallying with other men, not at Walton but in hotel rooms and summerhouses. But it was only when she gave birth to a blind baby daughter, Violet, in February 1870 that she confessed that he was not the father, and blamed the infant's affliction on a venereal disease. "Charlie," she sobbed, "I have been very wicked. I have done very wrong. With Lord Cole, Sir Frederic Johnstone, and the Prince of Wales and with others, often and in open day."
Sir Charles stomped off down Walton's great staircase, thinking hateful thoughts about his wife, whom he now despised, and about the Prince, on whom he vowed vengeance by threatening to name him as a correspondent in an action for divorce. Harriett's family disowned her. Her parents (it was her mother, Lady Louisa Moncreiffe, who famously warned: "Never comment on a likeness") declared that their wayward daughter must be mad.
She was whipped away from Walton and imprisoned in a series of rented houses beneath the hostile surveillance of suspicious servants while expensive doctors were hired to diagnose her mental state. Whatever it was, Harriett soon went crazy for real, starving then bingeing, smashing the china, eating coal and chewing the carpet.
The Mordaunts protested that she was faking, but after a few months Harriett was declared insane, thwarting moves for a divorce. The Prince of Wales gave evidence, denied impropriety with Harriett, and escaped any cross-questioning. In a subsequent action, Sir Charles finally got his divorce when Lord Cole (probably bribed by the Prince) admitted adultery. Disgraced and divorced at 28, Harriett spent the rest of her days in an asylum and died in 1906. Her daughter Violet, sight restored, grew up to become the 5th Marchioness of Bath, chatelaine of Longleat.
Sir Charles remarried. One of his daughters wed handsome Sir Robert Hamilton, whose eldest son Richard inherited Walton and the surrounding estate in 1961. By then the house had been leased to the Army, but Sir Richard, who had worked as a teacher of French, didn't relish the prospect of military manoeuvres in perpetuity on his ancestral acres and determined that his beautiful house should have a proper future.
He let it first to a girls' school, St Vincent's. When the school went bust, Walton was converted into a hotel, but that also failed. In the mid-1970s, Danny La Rue took it over, gave it a show business gloss, starred in his own cabaret there and let Liberace loose in the piano bar. But the venture crashed in 1983, leaving La Rue with personal losses of nearly £1 million. A developer stepped in, and the house is now leased to members of a timeshare company who run it as an apartment complex, hotel, conference centre and country club.
With its five-storied main tower, lofty windows of armorial stained glass and garden colonnade, Walton is a handsome house, even if, as Pevsner complained, it seems "far less imaginatively composed and detailed" than neighbouring Ettington Park. Sir Richard said he once counted a total of 72 bedrooms at Walton, but wasn't certain if that included the service wing with its cold-meat stores, dairy and game larder. The great dining-room where Sir Charles entertained his sporting chums is now the Mordaunt Restaurant and his billiard room a bar. Harriett's bedroom, where she planned her illicit assignations with the Prince and his cronies, has become the Royal Suite, with views over the balcony to the Warwickshire woods beyond.
Walton has been coy about giving up its story. It was only in the early 1960s that Elizabeth Hamilton ventured into the room where the deeds to the property were kept, she found four, large, dusty boxes of papers relating to the Mordaunt scandal. As a historical biographer, she immediately grasped the importance and value of the servants' diaries, letters, doctors' reports, court transcripts and legal bundles that lay within - material that eventually formed unique research material for her exhaustive book about the case.
Now 73, and the author of several historical lives, Lady Hamilton thinks Harriett probably faked her madness, at least at first. "But if you do feign insanity, it can become a habit, and you can genuinely go mad," she feels.
Although she has always lived elsewhere on the estate, Lady Hamilton seems drawn to the massive hall of golden stone, its melancholy rustling ghosts and the echoes of its cause célèbre. "When I first knew it," says Lady Hamilton, "Walton was empty and dilapidated, and certainly had an atmosphere of sadness. But I think Sir Charles planned this house as a place for people. And as soon as you get people around the house, it comes alive again and has a happy aspect."
Rosa Lewis, the so-called Duchess of Jermyn Street, once visited Longleat, and paused before a portrait of Violet, Marchioness of Bath, Harriett's little girl now grandly grown. The scandal at Walton would have blown over; Rosa declared, had "certain people" not written letters and if Sir Charles Mordaunt ("the dirty tyke") had observed basic decencies and accepted his wife's adultery without complaint.
As the worldly, old hotel-keeper crisply remarked: No letters, no lawyers and kiss my baby's bottom......㋡ ㋡ ㋡