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Dorfold Hall

During the Tudor period the spelling of Lauton changed to the form we know today. Having purchased the Abbot of St Werburgh’s share of the estate from the crown, William died 5 years later. His son John Lawton 1521 – 1598 pre-deceased his father so the estate passed to his grandson, William Lawton 1553 -1617 who built a ‘fine Jacobean Manor house’ on the site of the current front lawn. Unlike the hall today, it faced south/east towards the lake (or river as it was then) with its back to the church. There is no known visual record of the house but it’s not unreasonable to consider that it would have been built in the style of Dorfold Hall (6 miles away) built by Ralph Wilbraham at the same time, although it is unlikely to have been quite so grand as Dorfold. There is however a description of it by the renowned academic  George Ormerod in volume III of his work ‘The history of the County Palatine and City of Chester’ 

 “Lawton-hall is a handsome and spacious building of brick ; the offices are disposed as wings. In front of the house is a sheet of artificial water, and the grounds extend to the parish church at the back of the mansion. The natural surface of the country in the immediate neighbourhood possesses considerable undulations, and in the distance of a very few miles rises into the wild chain of hills which form the boundary of the county. The appearance of the greater part of these are naked and monotonous, but the view is agreeably varied with a wooded hill in Staffordshire on the right, and the artificial ruins and plantations on Mow Cop on the other side of the prospect”.


The following 200 years saw the Lawton estate prosper through a very unsettled period in English history. The successive Lords of the Manor bought, sold and exchanged lands. They built mills, leased salt pits, ran pubs and farmed the estate. This continued through the reign’s of James I, Charles I, Charles II, James II, William & Mary, Queen Anne, George I, George II, George III, George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria! During this turbulent period, the family experienced many ‘ups and downs’ of their own along the way through the family’s many notable characters!


At William’s death in 1613 the estate extended well beyond Church Lawton and consisted of:- The manor of Balterley with appurte-nances, two messuages, two tofts, two gardens, 60 acres or (arable) land, 24 acres of meadow, 46 acres of pasture, 4 acres of wood, 50 acres of fues of turbary, 8 pounds of rent, and view of francpledge and whatsoever to the view of francpledge both appertain and belong, as waifs, strays, freewarren, goods and chattels of felons and fugitives, ward marriages, releases, heriots, excheat fines, and wandering fairs, markets and tolls, with their appurtenances in Balterley and Tunstall in the county of Stafford. And also of two messuages, five tofts, one watercourse mill, seven gardens, 50 acres of (arable) lands, 100 acres of meadow, 300 acres of pasture, 40 acres of wood, 12acres of land covered with water, one coal mine, 160 acres of moor and turves, 100 acres of heath and furze, and three shiilings rent with appurtenances in Church Lawton. Also the manor of Church Lawton with appurtenances, and 16 messuages, 20 tofts, one watercourse mill, one dovecote, 36 gardens, 1030 acres of (arable) land 200 acres of meadow, 1000 acres of pasture, 60 acres of wood, 60 acres of land covered with water, 1000 acres of moor, 500 acres of fues and heath, and 8 shillings of rent, and view of francpledge, wards, marriages, releases, heriots, excheat fines, and wandering fairs, markets, toll, waifs and strays, freewarren, goods and chattels of felons and fugitives, with appurtenances in Church Lawton and Alsager, or Alger, and the advowson of the Church of Church Lawton in the county of Chester. And also of ten messuages, 10 tofts and 10 gardens 14 acres of land, 2 acres of meadow, with the appurtenances, in Shepperton, Littleton, Laleham, Holborn in St Giles and St Clement without the new Temple Bar in the County of Middlesex. …..A very sizable estate indeed!


This estate passed to the only surviving of William’s two sons John Lawton 1606 – 1654. John was only 7 at the time of his father’s death. During the term of his minority the estate was managed by Ralph Sneyd of Keele in Staffordshire, who received the courtesy title of Lord of the Manor in the court leet records. At coming of age, John Lawton married Ralph’s daughter Clare and they had three sons. John lived in the time of the English civil wars and was 35 at the formal breakout in 1642.  Both John and his father were fervent royalists. In 1647 John was compounded to pay a fine of £680 to Parliament for their support of the Royalist cause (£158,000 today!). 


Upon John’s death in 1654 the estate passed to his son William Lawton 1630 – 1693 who in turn had 11 children. William’s eldest son John Lawton 1656 – 1736 was born just after the English civil war while King Charles II was in exile. Whilst in hiding Charles visited Lawton Hall, and remained concealed in the house ‘for some time’. The King honoured John at his baptism by acting as sponsor to him. He presented the child with his drinking cup as a christening gift, remarking at the time that he had nothing else to bestow. This cup was duly inscribed but later removed from Lawton by John’s mother Hester during her widowhood, and became amongst the heirlooms of the Earl of Longford’s family, into which it came through marriage. The King also gave his snuffbox, which was carved from boxwood and ornamented with his royal arms and cipher on the lid and the Lawton arms carved on the bottom. King Charles also gave two portrait paintings, one of himself and another of the young Duke of Monmouth both painted by Sir Peter Lely. Both paintings were known to still be hanging at the hall as late as 1873.


Duke of Monmouth

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King Charles II

John Lawton 1656 - 1736 was 37 when he inherited the estate from his father William. The fact that he was one of 11 siblings didn’t seem to put him off as he went on to have 21 children with his first wife Anne Montague and another son with his second wife Mary Longueville. All but one of Anne’s children died before their father. Fortunately the one that survived was his third eldest son John Lawton 1687 – 1740 who inherited the estate. Unfortunately, having waited 49 years for it, he died just 4 years later so it was then passed to Mary’s only son, Robert Lawton 1723 – 1777 who was only 17 at the time.


It was Robert Lawton 1723 – 1777 who was responsible for building the first part of the current Lawton Hall in c1755 in the new ‘Georgian Style’ which was the fashion at the time.

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Original Georgian Lawton Hall c1755

The new house was built whilst the Jacobean house was still lived in. Once completed, the majority of the fixtures and fittings, oak panelling, fire places etc from the old house were moved across to the new house and the old one demolished! In 1777 Robert died as a result of being kicked by a horse at Newcastle races. The estate then passed to his son John Lawton 1746 – 1804. John married Anne Crewe 1747 - 1810 (coheiress of Charles Crewe) with whom he had 5 sons and a daughter. The youngest son Robert and their daughter Sarah both died as infants. Their second youngest son was a lieutenant in the 83rd regiment but died on his way to the West Indies, leaving their 3 eldest – William Lawton 1769 – 1831, Charles Bourne Lawton 1770 – 1860 and John Lawton (Rev) 1774 – 1831. 


Their father John Lawton proved to be quite a disreputable character. Apart from producing 4 illegitimate children (2 sons and 2 daughters) by his housekeeper Mary Deare, his mismanagement of the estate’s interests coupled with the dishonesty of his steward Robert Cox almost bankrupted the estate! It had been suspected for some time that Robert Cox utilised his undue influence over John to procure beneficial leases for himself, his family and connections at well below market value but there was very little the family could do about it whilst he was still alive. By the time of John’s death in 1804 he was no longer living at the ancestral home. In 1807 Robert Cox died in his office at Bridge farm (across the canal). This fact having been communicated to Anne, she promptly went around to the farm and secured all the papers and documents necessary for the unravelling of all the nefarious practices. Typical of the dealings was a lease to Robert Cox’s son-in-law John Burgess for 1/3 of its commercial value! It was also found that certain colliery leases had fraudulent clauses added.


Anne together with her son William (now Lord of the Manor) took the matter to the Chancery court and in 1809 had the leases revoked and re-issued at a commercial rent determined by an independent arbitrator appointed by the court. The recovering of the estate’s ‘rights’ is celebrated by an amendment to a portrait of Anne originally painted in 1802. Rather than have a new portrait made (Anne was quite ill by then) the previous portrait had her left hand overpainted showing it holding a scroll to mark the occasion. Anne died 6 months later. 

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Anne Lawton (aged 55)

(Courtesy of Carolyn Lawton)

Due to her long suffering marriage and the embarrassed circumstances of her late husband, Anne used her personal inheritance to maintain, privately educate and bring up her children and hold the estate together. She was so highly regarded that even in a Georgian male dominated culture, the pall bearers at her funeral included esteemed dignitaries such as James Caldwell, Lord Crewe, Sir Thomas Broughton, Mr Offley Crewe and Sir John Heathcote. 


William Lawton was 35 when he became Lord of the Manor and he managed the estate’s affairs well for the next 27 years. 

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William Lawton (aged 33)

Although he made no significant alterations to the house, he was however responsible for creating the ‘pool’. Prior to 1812 the mere as we now see it was no more than a tributary of the river Weaver at the bottom of a valley. There was a water mill upon it and a dovecote higher up the bank on the other side, both built by his great, great grandfather William Lawton 1630 - 1693 (the remaining far wall of the dovecote can still be seen today). Between 1812 -1813, William with the help of his younger brother Charles replaced a bridge at the NE end of the estate with a dam to flood the valley and form the mere we see today. During the demolition of the mill, it is recorded that the millstone rolled down the bank into the river and was apparently left there. During the late 30’s further stones were added on top of the foundation to form the small island we see today.   


William never married so on his death in 1831, the estate passed to his younger brother Charles Bourne Lawton who was 61 at the time. Charles had a long and apparently somewhat disreputable life! Like father like son! He was educated at Trinity Colledge , Cambridge (courtesy of his mother Anne). He is recorded as being six feet four inches tall, stout and strong in proportion, a bit of a ‘ladies man’ and lived until he was 90!


Charles was 38 when in 1808 he married his first wife Anne Featherstonehaugh. Unfortunately she died at childbirth in 1814 together with their child. By two years later he had married Marianne Piercy Belcombe (with whom Charles was alleged to have had an earlier affair whilst his wife was still alive). He was 46, she was 26 and was at the time the lesbian lover of Anne Lister (See Anne Lister). 


Charles and Marianne’s marriage bond

They never had any children.


It was during Charles Bourne Lawton’s lordship that most of the alterations to Lawton Hall were made. At the beginning of the Victorian period a new enthusiasm for showing off your wealth by extending your house was in full swing. Charles was keen to get started, but to an architectural purist, Charles’s alterations might be considered to be ill thought through. Firstly he sealed up the central direct access to the main entrance hall to convert it into a dining room. He then diverted the staircase and built a new entrance and portico to the right of the original entrance  This has the effect of visually unbalancing the building because of the entrance now being off centre. A new wing was then added to each side with the one on the right being longer than the one on the left in order to give the illusion of the entrance being re-centered within the building as a whole. Further confusing to the purist is the fact that the storey height on the new wings is lower than in the central building. 

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Lawton Hall c 1850

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During Charles ‘Lordship’ there was a tendency to live beyond his means. Apart from the cost of modifying the hall, the tythe map of the estate in 1839 shows the extent to which Charles kept land for his own use rather than leased out for income. 

Tythe map 1839 (showing areas kept for personal use)

At that time the estate consisted of 41 acres of land in Rode, and 1,256 acres of land in Church Lawton which represented 92% of the total acreage for the township. When you consider that the remaining 8% was shared between 34 tenants, 23 of whom were renting 1 acre or less! It is clear to see that there would have been a lot of administration for very little return. Combined with his overall extravagant lifestyle, by the time of his death in 1860 the estate was valued in his will at less than £10,000 (£1.19m today) and was largely re-mortgaged. Hence, considering his social standing as Lord Lawton his personal effects left to his wife Marianne were extremely modest. They include:- … “my Brougham Carriage with one horse and harness, my pony carriage and the two horses belonging to it. Also her riding pony, Pianoforte and three Alderney Cows of her selection."  There were also a few shares in the railway and canal companies and his dwelling house, then used as a public house known as ‘The Bleeding Wolf Inn’ in Hall Green” (see Bleeding Wolf Inn). 


Probably the final blow to the estates finances was caused initially in 1829 just prior to Charles’s taking over as Lord of the Manor. As a result of the overturning of the mis-sold leases on 1808, a settlement to modify the terms of the trust deeds regulating the transfer of the Lawton estates and the provision of jointures had to be made before Charles could inherit. The settlement appears to have been unsatisfactorily drafted and inconsistently applied. This caused disputes within the family as Charles was clearly delaying the inevitable for his own ends. His death in 1860 brought matters to a head and had to be resolved prior to his nephew inheriting and taking over the reins. The cost of the settlements were £2000 each (£149,000 today!).


The need to raise further capital initiated yet another major ‘house clearance’ sale scheduled to occur between 3-10 July 1860. This was then cancelled following the acceptance of his *nephew John Lawton 1821 – 1864 taking on the role of Lord of the Manor, which he did in August of that year.

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*the title would have passed to Charles’s younger brother Reverend John Lawton 1774 – 1831 but he died in the same year as his older brother William so it passed to John’s son, Charles’s nephew. 

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Having added a ‘Billiard Room’ to the N/E wing, John unfortunately died just 4 years later. Trying to keep a heavily indebted country estate solvent with a diminishing income was a difficult (if not an impossible task.) The family’s financial standing never recovered to its previous status. At the death of John’s successor William John Percy Lawton in 1883, his son John William Edward Lawton was only aged 10. At which point the estate was considered no longer viable and in 1884 the Staffordshire Advertiser of 13 December reported …The seat of the ancient family of Lawton of Lawton… is to be let! It read:- "This is a good sporting property, there being 2,300 acres of shooting and some good fishing on the large mere in the park. Lawton Hall is a modern red brick house, with no great architectural pretensions, but very commodious and comfortable. Apply to Mr Robert Clemisson, Land Agent, Endon, Stoke-upon-Trent".


The building then went through a varied but fragmented period. In 1906 it was leased and marketed as a hotel with its own golf course! (see Life as a hotel) During the first World War the hall was requisitioned as a hospital. Between the wars it was advertised as Lawton Hall Hydro – “A charming residential spa hotel set within 200 acres. A magnificent old mansion with priceless antique furniture and paintings. The terrace overlooks a beautiful lake, tennis, golf, fishing, billiards, dances and a garage for 12 cars. Terms from 4 guineas per week inclusive”. 

During the second World War it was used to billet the Civil Defence Reserve and the Fire Service. After the war it was used briefly as a school for the disabled, then from 1950 – 1986 it became a private school, during which (1952) the Hall was listed as a grade 2 building. After the school closed, the building gradually fell into dereliction and was subject to vandalism, theft and fire until its redevelopment by Gleesons started in 1999 (see Before and After).

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As a hotel c1922

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