architecture, eyecatcher, Folly, garden, garden history, Grotto, hampshire, landscape, public park, Summerhouse

The Shell-House, Leigh Park, Havant, Hampshire

Sir George Staunton bought the Leigh Park estate in 1820, and set to work remodelling the house and ornamenting the park with an eclectic range of garden buildings. Many are sadly lost today, but a programme of restoration, in what is now Staunton Country Park, is bringing some of the survivors back to life. One of the loveliest of the garden ornaments is this exquisite little Shell-House.

Sir George (1781-1859) travelled to China as a child, and later became a great expert on the country during a career in the East India Service. In 1819 he bought the Leigh Park estate.

John Hoppner RA, Portrait of Lady Staunton with her son, afterwards Sir George Thomas Staunton Bt (1781-1859) and a Chinese attendant holding a chest of tea, c. 1792. Sold at Sothebys, London, 23 September 2020.

The house was then less than 20 years old, and had been extensively remodelled by local architect John Kent at the beginning of the century. The sales particulars described the surrounding park as a ‘perfect ferme ornée’, but its character would soon change as Sir George added ‘numerous objects of decoration and interest’.

The mansion after remodelling by Lewis Vulliamy, including the new Gothic Library to the right. Joseph Francis Gilbert; Leigh Park House, Havant; Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services;

The park became home to a Chinese Bridge, Chinese Summerhouse, Turkish Kiosk, and Obelisk, as well as classical temples, rustic shelters and bridges. An artificial lake had three islands – one housed the gardener, one was home to the swans, and the third had a sham fort (with the Chinese flag flown when Sir George was in residence). 

View of the park by Joseph Francis Gilbert, 1836. This is one of a series of views by Gilbert that have informed the restoration. The Shell-House is top centre, nestled in the trees. Courtesy of a private collection.

James King composed Poem on Leigh Park in 1829 extolling the virtues of the spot. The Folly Flâneuse will give just a brief taste from the near 40 pages:

The glorious strife of Art and Nature see,
Within thy Paradise, most lovely Leigh,
An art that glows with every nameless grace,
And emulates the charms of Nature’s face,
An art, O Staunton, by thy genius fired,
By thee with sweet variety inspired…

In 1836 a detailed prose account of the house and park was published: Notices of the Leigh Park Estate tells us that the Shell House was built in 1828, and the design was based on a print of the ancient Chichester Market Cross. Sir George used the architect Lewis Vulliamy (1791-1871) for many of the parkland structures, and the Shell House is therefore attributed to him.

Chichester cross as shown in an 1814 view (detail) engraved by Matthew Dubourg after Joseph Francis Gilbert, who also painted a number of views of Leigh Park, including the two shown here.

The building was covered in decorative panels of knapped and coursed flint, each filled with pebbles, and inside the walls were ‘encrusted with shells’. Despite Sir George’s connections with far-off lands, these were not exotic specimens shipped home to England, but the spoils of days on the beach at nearby Hayling Island. The Shell-House was used as a museum to house Sir George’s natural history collection. The Notices gave a complete list of the contents, but to summarise there was an extensive collection of minerals, ceramics including Roman pottery and ‘Wedgewood’s designs’, and a ‘small stuffed crocodile’.

Sir George died in 1859, and his obituary recognised his career in China and his subsequent service as a politician. But the writer felt that above all the local community would remember Sir George for ‘the fact of his beautiful gardens and grounds being open to the inspection of all applicants’.

In 1861 William Henry Stone, MP for Portsmouth, purchased the estate and built a new house. In the process of remodelling he demolished one of the landscape buildings, a temple which Staunton had built to house busts and dedications honouring his friends and family. A number of the inscribed plaques were removed to the Shell-House, and hence it became known as the ‘Staunton Memorial’.

The house at Leigh Park, as rebuilt in the middle of the 19th century. Image courtesy of Lost Heritage.

Leigh Park was requisitioned for use by the Admiralty during the Second World War. In 1946 it was purchased by Portsmouth City Council as land for new housing and a public open space, and in 1959 the house (by then a Victorian replacement) was demolished. Leigh Park was renamed Staunton Country Park in 1987, and as in Sir George’s day visitors are once more welcome to enjoy the grounds.

The Shell-House, or Staunton Memorial, in 1944. Image courtesy of Historic England Archive.

A 1944 photograph of the Shell-House shows it was largely intact at that date, but as the century progressed vandalism became a major issue, and by the millennium the grade II* listed folly was looking ‘the worse for wear’. All but one of the wall plaques had disappeared, the shellwork was lost, and the roof had collapsed.

John Malaiperuman’s original proposal for the restoration. Sadly the crockets on the buttresses had to be omitted for budgetary reasons. Courtesy of the artist. Thanks also to John for the introductory photo.

Happily, a £3.8 million investment by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Big Lottery Fund and Hampshire County Council has seen the Shell-House and other structures restored by an expert team, including Conservation Architect John Malaiperuman, who first introduced the Folly Flâneuse to this fascinating park.

The restored Shell-House on a dull December day..

The Shell-House’s lost lantern was rebuilt in reconstituted Portland Stone, with natural Portland Stone pinnacles, and the missing flint and pebbles have been restored with materials that match the originals.

The restored pebble pathway to the Shell-House.

In July 2021 the restored park was formally opened. There is an excellent Follies Trail, highlighting both extant and lost structures, including the Chinese Bridge and the Belvedere, pictured here.

The rebuilt Chinese Bridge.
The restored Beacon. It was designed by Lewis Vulliamy in 1830, and constructed partly from materials salvaged from the demolition of Purbrook House.

UPDATE APRIL 2022: The Folly Flâneuse is always pleased to receive feedback from readers who visit follies as a result of seeing them featured here. But she was particularly delighted to learn that a recent post had inspired something much more exciting than a day trip: Alan and Claire Terrill were so charmed by the recently restored Shell House that Claire challenged Alan to build a miniature version as a house for the family’s tortoises Diogenes, Loosestrife and Ephebe. Whilst the Shell House had an interior embellished with shells, Alan decided to put the his shell decoration on the outside, and when temporarily stumped by the construction of the roof, he turned to Jon Malaiperuman, conservation architect for the restoration of the Shell House, who was happy to help. Alan also decided to incorporate silhouettes of noble tortoises standing on pedestals in the blank arches on the sides, in the manner of the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe. As you can see, the tortoises are already very much at home.

Steve Jones has written a full history of Leigh/Staunton Park, which includes a transcript of the Notices

… and a comprehensive account of the life of William Henry Stone

And for all the latest news visit the Friends of Staunton Park website

Thanks to Matthew Beckett for permission to use the photo of the Victorian mansion before demolition. His ‘Lost Heritage’ website records the lost houses of England and is well worth exploring

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12 thoughts on “The Shell-House, Leigh Park, Havant, Hampshire”

  1. Gand says:

    So pleasing that the follies in Havant haven’t been lost but in some cases restored for all to savour.

    1. Editor says:

      Good morning Gand. I see you Havant missed the chance of a bit of wordplay!

  2. John Malaiperuman says:

    Thanks for a fascinating article. You have discovered a wonderful photograph from 1944 showing the shell house with a timber crown roof which I have never seen before. This is probably not the original (which is shown much larger on the 1832 Gilbert watercolours). Historic England were happy to allow the replacement of the crown roof in GRC. Hopefully it will weather down to a duller colour over time so as to better blend in.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello John. I’m pleased you enjoyed the post, and thanks again for introducing me to this lovely little building.

  3. V. Snow says:

    Thank you so much for an absolutely wonderfully written article on what is my favourite existing folly in Leigh Park Gardens. I am a rather enthusiastic and obsessed with the place local, and I cannot tell you how overjoyed I was when I found they were restoring this! My only wish was that the other follies remained, I would have loved to see the Turkish Kiosk or the Chinese Summer House in all their glory. They have also uncovered what remains of the Chinese Fort on one of the little islands in the lake. I was rather hoping that would be restored too, but it looks doubtful.

    And as for the miniature Shell House for the tortoises, I absolutely adore it!

    Thank you once again!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello and thank you for the very kind comments. I am delighted that you found my post, and enjoyed it so much. It is a lovely building, and so pleasing to know it has been restored and secure. It would be great to see other buildings in the park brought back to life too, but as ever I suspect funds are not easy to find. The mini version as a tortoise house is wonderful!

  4. James Arnott says:

    I must have missed this fascinating article when first published and first wrote about Staunton Park in my thesis on the ‘Uses and interpretation of Follies’ in 1991, whilst undertaking the Heritage Interpretation diploma at Strawberry Hill. In those days it was in a sorry state of repair, but now it is in the care of Hampshire Country Council who are gradually (and I mean gradually) restoring features in the park, although from your feature and comments above, it seems they still have a long way to go! The Gothic Library there is also worthy of note, as it stands as a separate structure (I believe it was once connected to the Regency House?) and again is in want of repair and restoration.
    The site is sadly prone to much vandalism, as it now sits in the middle of the largest council estate in Europe, built after the Second World War, but there we are – it still survives as a testament to Sir George, a fascinating man!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello James. Yes, a fascinating man and a fascinating landscape, it deserves to be better known.

  5. Edmund (Ed) Stone says:

    Sorry for delay responding to this article. I was so pleased to read about the Staunton folly’s. Hampshire County Council have done so much more in the last year or so, especially considering Covid restrictions etc.. Check out “Friends of Staunton Country Park” for more updates etc.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Ed. Yes top marks to the local authority and to the Friends for a great achievement

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