Sampson Society

Martin Mallinson

Notes for ‘House Appreciation’ visit, Sampson Society, 4 October 2012

Picture of Bickwell Valley, 1906/07

Picture of Bickwell Valley, 1906/07

Road construction was started 1900. Longwood is the house in the centre-right foreground.

Rapid success of the Bickwell Valley scheme was very much down to the close working relationship between the Manor Estates (as landowners) Robert Sampson (architect) and Skinners (builders).

The Skinners building business was set up in the 1880’s between 2 brothers – John Jennings Skinner and Richard Wyatt Skinner. They came from a long established local family – their father was a fisherman, a trade which one of their brothers continued.

John and Richard, however, decided to go into building, John was a joiner by trade and Richard a bricklayer. The search for work took John to Newcastle and Richard to London in the early 1880’s, but they both returned to Sidmouth about 1885 to set up the business.

It was initially decided to build 3 houses to demonstrate to future purchasers the type of development which would take place in the Valley. Skinners were to be the builders of all three (and indeed all of the original houses in the Valley), but they were also to finance and continue to own one of them (i.e. Longwood).

It was George Sampson (Robert Sampson’s father) who paid for the other two (Southfield and Maple House). Building started almost immediately on these 2 houses, and formal leases were completed in 1901. So keen were the Manor Estates to get the scheme off the ground that initial payments to buy the leases were waived, and a ground rent of just £5 per year charged for the 999 year lease. George Sampson never lived in either house, preferring Hastings in retirement, but owned the houses until his death in the 1920’s.

The building of Longwood was more fraught than George Sampson’s houses due to the untimely death of Richard Wyatt Skinner, late in 1901, while still in his forties.

John Jennings Skinner took sole control of the building business, and there was clearly much to sort out in family and business affairs. It appears that the Manor Estates initially took on the cost of building Longwood, as the lease with John Skinner was not signed until June 1903, by which time the house was substantially complete. The 999 year lease was backdated to December 1901 (the same date as George Sampson’s 2 houses). The capital payment was again waived, but the ground rent was increased to £6 per year (possibly the ravages of inflation ?)

On acquiring the lease (and probably in settlement of his taking control of the building business) John Skinner took out a mortgage with his Aunt Emma (Richard Skinner’s widow) and another of his brothers, Alfred Frederick Skinner. The latter played no part in the building business and had been employed as a gardener at Escott before becoming the Estate Bailiff at Highclere House in Hampshire.

Some work continued on the house after John Skinner took ownership. This evidence for this comes from the tradesman’s signature and date on a piece of timber rescued from a sash window removed from the back of the house when the conservatory was added - it states “Charlie Till – April 1904”

Photo of builders at Trow Hall 1902/3

Photo of builders at Trow Hall 1902/3

– This is a photo of the Skinner workforce – likely to be the very same people who built Longwood – Charlie Till is probably among them. Many of the men show their trade by something they’re holding (e.g. a pot of paint). John Skinner is probably one of those in the centre of the photograph. Next to him would be William Luxton of Ottery St Mary. Luxton’s building business was established about 30 years before Skinners, and is still trading today (although now known as much for burying people as building work). Trow Hall was such a big contract that both sets of builders were involved. There was a close family connection in that Alfred Frederick Skinner (the one who became the Estate bailiff) had married William Luxton’s daughter.

Design of the House

The 3 houses are all similar in design, with only slight variations. Longwood is built with the local soft orange brick, with ½ timbering to the upper floors, and roofed with Sampson’s beloved plain clay tiles. As usual, the roof pitch is steep, and there are deep overhangs with exposed rafters. The attics are cantilevered out slightly in the gable ends – again a very common device used by Sampson at the time.

In accordance with Sampson’s design principles, the owners’ rooms (living rooms and bedrooms) were to face south or west to gain maximum sunlight. The servants’ areas (kitchen, scullery etc) and bathroom were located to the north and east. (i.e. the side or front of the house)

This presented Sampson with a problem in that the front of the house would have nothing but secondary windows, giving a bland and uninteresting appearance. He solved this by placing the staircase in a forward projecting bay at the front, with a feature window from top to bottom of the house. The same feature appears in the other 2 houses, and it was a device used by Sampson in one form or another in many of his houses – giving lots of light on the half landings and into the centrally placed hall area.

He was able to do this because of the move away from sash to casement windows. Sash windows restrict the size and proportion of window openings, whereas casement windows gave Sampson complete flexibility. Longwood is interesting because it marks the transition between the 2 – there are plenty of sash windows, but Sampson experimented with casements – not only on the staircase, but also in the living room with the small window at the front – this has more of a ‘cottage’ feel about it- a style much loved by arts and crafts architects. A further experiment in window size and shape can be seen in the ‘porthole’ window in the porch.

The internal layout follows Sampson’s usual design – the spacious centrally placed hall and landings allowing easy access to each of the rooms.

The living room was originally about ⅔ of its present size, having been extended in the 1980’s. It’s a ‘through’ living room, unusual at the time, but common in Arts and Crafts houses. As in the dining room, the fireplaces are probably original.

The dining room originally had a bay window. This was removed when the conservatory was built about 10 years ago.

The study beyond suggests that the house was built with 3 reception rooms, but this was not the case. It was in fact originally the kitchen, at one time having a hatch through to the dining room. This is likely to have included a range, but this has long since gone. The lack of coving to the ceiling demonstrates that this was a ‘working’ room and not a reception room. The window was originally to the side of the house overlooking the yard area (now built on with a utility room) – This arrangement would also stop the servants gazing out into the owners’ back garden area!

The first (smaller) part of the present kitchen formed the scullery off which was the larder. The back door would then have entered into a yard area, with outbuildings, now forming the main part of the kitchen.

There are three double bedrooms on the first floor and sadly all the fireplaces have long since been removed. The en-suite was originally a small single bedroom (possibly the servant‘s room). Two further double bedrooms and a box room area are at the attic level. The attic is fairly spacious and obviously accessed by the main staircase. It is therefore likely that the larger of the bedrooms would have been occupied by a family member, rather than a live-in servant.

The 1911 census record indicates that a Mrs Charlotte Watson and five of her adult children lived in the house, with one general servant. Mrs Watson was the widow of a vicar, and had moved from West Bay to Sidmouth following her husband’s death. The family appears to have been affluent and well educated. Only one of the daughters felt the need to work (as a private governess). Mrs Watson had a private income and her eldest son was an undergraduate at Oxford.

None of the Skinner family ever lived at Longwood. The different branches of the family lived at various houses in All Saints Road, mainly in Jubilee Terrace which presumably had also been built by them. The Skinners business was originally conducted from Jubilee Terrace, before moving to Cheese Lane and then to its present site at the Station Yard.

Although not originally known as Longwood, the name of the house may have been derived from Long Orchard. This was the name of the field now occupied by the original 3 houses and another to the north (that house is actually called Old Orchard – a clear reference to the original field name and use of the land). There is one surviving old apple tree in the front garden of Longwood.

18 Oct 2012