Real-life Downton Abbey rediscovered in Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 06:30 28 January 2012

Gunton Hall, near Suffield.

Gunton Hall, near Suffield. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY


A picture of the Downton Abbey style lifestyle at a north Norfolk stately home has been revealed by a mountain of dusty papers.

Sumptuous meals and shooting parties for the well-heeled gentry contrast with the rather meagre lifestyles of the downstairs and labouring staff at the Gunton estate.

Details of life there from the 13th to the mid 20th century are revived through a collection of hundreds of thousands of documents which were saved by Norfolk’s Archive Centre in the 1980s. Hours of painstaking conservation and research work has now paid off, with an insight into life at the estate being showcased at a three-month long exhibition called A Norfolk Estate: Its People and Places.

County archivist John Alban said the records from the Gunton estate in north Norfolk painted a picture of “Downton Abbey writ large”.

“Access to this archive is sure to give fresh historical insights – we have already unearthed a number of individual nuggets – and it may even lead to a rethink about the way estates were run,” he said.

An image of distinguished gentlemen at a royal hunting party and lavish menus for dinners at Gunton Hall are in stark contrast to the humble lifestyle of tenants and labourers, as evidenced by a 19th century surveyor’s report offering a graphic insight into living conditions in the small estate cottages.

And while generations of the Harbord family and their well-to-do guests enjoyed shooting game on the estate land between Cromer, Aylsham and North Walsham, letters from the estate’s agents to tenants sternly warn about poaching.

Documents in the three-month display – which was opened yesterday at the centre next to County Hall by county council chairman Shelagh Hutson – even reveal how estate labourers were paid two old pennies (2d) to take part in patrols to catch poachers.

Records in the exhibition, a key stage in the Record Office’s long-term programme to safeguard the Harbord of Gunton archive, also include pay sheets for work done on the estate and rental records from estate cottages.

Additional highlights include a colourful book of maps made in 1784 that depicts every field, road and wood on the estate, and a game book that contains a weekly record of every rabbit and game bird killed in 1911.

While some papers in the archive date back to medieval times, the record focuses on the social and political rise of the Harbord family and the splendid Gunton Hall built for William Harbord in the 1740s by eminent architect Matthew Brettingham.

Harbord Harbord, given the title of Baron Suffield by William Pitt in 1786, following his 30 years service as Norwich MP, later commissioned the Wyatt Brothers to make significant additions to the building.

Dr Alban said: “The Harbords were successful politicians and their rise was assisted by marriages into other influential families which brought more land in Wales and the north-west.”

Meanwhile, the papers also show the Harbords making Christmas donations of beef to poor families on the estate.

A ginger beer recipe found in an estate cook book has also been successfully recreated in a school’s project.

The archive also sheds light on important historical trends, such as the evolution of agriculture, including the tendancy towards larger farms and more sophisticated crop rotation.

It documents the Harbords’ diversification away from the land to have a major influence on the development of Cromer.

The Royal Cromer Golf Club was opened on estate land in 1888, with Lord Suffield becoming the first president.

The family also had shares in the rail company which built the line from North Walsham to Cromer in 1877 and were behind the Cromer Building Company in the same era.

The story of Gunton Hall itself brings a tragic twist to the epic saga.

Almost destroyed by fire in 1882 – and never rebuilt despite lavish plans on display in the exhibition – it was only renovated a century later by Kit Martin, who transformed the building into apartments.

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