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Thursday, April 15, 2010
Imposing and sober, Peckover House sits on Wisbech’s North Brink as solid as a bank. Which is appropriate really . . . For well over a century this fine Georgian building was known as Bank House. The name reflected the profession of the Peckover family who settled in Wisbech in the late 18th century and made a huge contribution over several generations. The frontage is deceptive. It hides a wonderful garden spreading way beyond the confines of one house, full of little nooks and crannies and some very human clues as to the nature of the family who lived there.
The early history of the house is sketchy. We dont know who was the first owner or the architect, but it was built in about 1722. Henry Southwell, an important local man who had been High Sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, lived there from the 1750s. Wisbech was entering perhaps its most prosperous era, following Vermuydens altering of river courses and the land reclamation of half a century earlier. The port, previously junior to that of Lynn, took on a new lease of life as a corn exporter. The river was freed of the hitherto crippling silting-up process that impeded river traffic. As a result population and wealth increased, and grand houses along the North and South Brink on the River Nene grew up. It was a good time for a young Quaker grocer and shopkeeper to arrive from Norfolk. Jonathan Peckover left Fakenham to head over the border in 1777. With him he brought a strongbox, and soon people were flocking to store their gold and silver coin with him.
Quakers the Society of Friends had gone from being a distrusted and persecuted religious minority to some of the most trusted people in the country. Modern banking as we know it was unknown, but the transparent honesty of Quakers meant people felt safe to leave money with them. Jonathan issued promissory notes (the forerunner of bank notes) to people who left specie (gold or silver) with him. It was informally termed Peckovers bank and it lasted more than a century. He signed a partnership deal with the Gurney family of Norwich. They were fellow Quakers who had also gone into banking the forerunners of todays Barclays Bank. By 1794 Peckover realised he needed a substantial front for the business, now officially entitled the Wisbech and Lincolnshire Bank. He bought the property from the Southwells, and called it Bank House. It was ideal for his purposes. The exterior spoke of material success allied to clear respectability, and Peckover built a banking chamber south-west of the house. The dynasty thrived through several generations, and the business stayed there until 1879 when the bank moved to the Old Market.
The three-storey house was originally decorated in classic Regency style. Its fine plaster and wood rococco decoration remains intact, and visitors can get an idea of what family life was like. The most impressive room is the library. A later member of the family, Alexander, Lord Peckover, was a learned man. He built a large library, 52ft by 21ft, fitted out with bookcases, fire surround and a huge mirror. A keen bibliophile, Alexander acquired early printed books and manuscripts, bibles and atlases. You can see a portrait of genial-looking Lord Peckover, first non-conformist Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgehire, here. Upstairs is the Museum Room. Used as a bedroom by the family it now reflects their eclectic interests. For example,the original agreement signed between Jonathan Peckover and the Gurneys is on show.
Down in the kitchen a staff of 12 laboured away. The servants quarters and butlers pantry were austere, and the kitchen was set well below the level of the river so may have suffered from the damp. The cellar provides a sad tale for wine lovers. Lord Peckover maintained a large collection of wines and spirits, mainly for entertaining. This was despite the fact members of his family supported the Temperance movement. On his death in 1919, his formidable sister, Algerina, is said to have poured the contents of the cellar onto the garden to the dismay of his grandsons, then in their twenties.
Perhaps the highlight of the house is the large walled garden. Made up of several distinct areas divided by internal walls, it was once several gardens bought up by the Peckovers during the 19th century and added to the main. The family owned a number of properties along the North Brink. During the Victorian era 17 gardeners worked there, later much reduced. Look out for the orangery, croquet lawn, summerhouse, roses, herbaceous borders and fernery. Much of the estate beyond the walls is now used by local sports clubs. The Peckovers, keen collectors, introduced a number of foreign plants. Tucked away is a cats cemetery, with a number of family pets from the 1920s buried there. The rose garden is named after Alexandrina, last of the Peckovers, who left the house minus the contents to the National Trust in 1948.
Many were sold off, and the furnishings seen today have either been bequeathed for example the John Sell Cotman paintings in the Breakfast Room or are on loan. Nevertheless they give a flavour of the times and the familys tastes. Lord Peckovers book collection was scattered, and those in the library now were introduced in 1998 to give an idea of the original contents.
Peckover House is open to the public from March to November. Telephone 01945 583463 or log on
The 17th century barn is available for weddings and functions.