Whenever I mentioned that I was visiting Gunby Hall as part of this week’s itinerary, I was met with blank faces as very few people appear to have heard of the place. This is perhaps due to its relatively recent public opening. Although it has been owned by the Trust since the 1940s, it was still occupied by the woman who donated it, Diana Montgomery Massingberd, until her death in 1963 and was then tenanted until 2010 so it was only fully opened to the public in 2012. There is still some way to go to build up the visitor facilities as the car park is just a small area of field and the tearoom and tiny shop are combined in a small part of the stable block and are relatively low key. But we certainly didn’t starve and everyone was very friendly and helpful.
The house at Gunby was built at the end of the 17th and start of the 18th centuries, with the stone carving over the door giving the date 1700. A two-storey extension was added in 1873 and this was further stretched by two more window bays in 1898. The extension is very much in keeping with the rest of the house so the only adverse impact on its appearance is that it ruined the symmetry!
Inside, the house is more homely than ornate, with a very ‘lived-in’ feel and only a few noteworthy items of furniture and art… that is, noteworthy in the eyes of the wider world; as far as Gunby itself is concerned, a lot of the contents have much to say about its various owners and their interests, whether it be Pre-Raphaelite art, the worlds of music and literature, or the military and politics.
The map of the house that is handed out to visitors includes a very useful timeline, so I will use the same format here to give a rundown of Gunby’s most important and interesting residents. One thing that becomes clear when looking at the family tree is that all of the women who inherited managed to persuade their husbands to take the Massingberd family name. This says something about the strength of character in the Massingberd female line… or perhaps about their wise choice of husbands.
- 1495: Sir Thomas Massingberd married Joan de Bratoft, gaining control of lands at Bratoft and Gunby.
- 1660: Sir Henry Massingberd had his baronetcy reconferred by Charles II despite the fact that it was originally given by Oliver Cromwell – no one knows how he managed this but I thought it was worth mentioning as he was obviously a very clever, very ingratiating or very lucky chap.
- 1700: Sir William Massingberd – the 2nd baronet – built Gunby Hall, moving the family seat from nearby Bratoft.
- 1735: Sir William’s grandson, William Meux Massingberd (whose mother had inherited before him – hence the arrival of the Meux name in the line) adds the coach houses.
- 1802-1830: Another fiddly descent leads us to an Elizabeth Massingberd, who marries Peregrine Langton and they become the Langton Massingberds. Peregrine shaped the parkland and planted hundreds of trees, which are all logged in the Gunby Tree Book, on show in the family exhibition room.
- 1844-1855: The Langton Massingberds’ grandson, known as ‘Naughty’ Algernon, inherits at the age of 16 and brings Gunby to the brink of financial ruin. He’s my favourite character in the Massingberd clan, becoming involved in dodgy dealings surrounding horse trading and gambling, then supporting a radical Hungarian revolutionary and being thrown out of the English army as punishment for his political views, before heading off on international adventures and disappearing without a trace in South America in 1855. There is a cherubic marble bust of a 7-year-old Algernon on display in the Library and he looks like butter wouldn’t melt; however, you may feel that a later painting of him in his naval uniform hints at the naughtiness to come – there’s something a little cocksure about him and a subtle glint in his still pretty eyes.
- 1863: Charles Langton Massingberd – Algernon’s uncle – finally inherits Gunby having spent the preceding years trying to convince the High Court that Algernon was dead. His dedication to researching his nephew’s travels was admirable and he was finally successful. Having much better financial sense than Algernon, he was also able to pay off the prodigal nephew’s debts and it was he who added the extra wing in 1873.
- 1887: Emily Langton Massingberd inherits from her father. She doesn’t have to change her name as her husband was a cousin and was also called Langton. She didn’t live long at Gunby, preferring life in Bournemouth, and she let the house after a couple of years. However, she was a notable member of the family: a teetotal political activist who campaigned for women’s rights and preferred to dress as a man. In 1889, she became one of the first women to stand for election to local government and three years later founded the Pioneer Club social institution for women.
- 1898: Emily’s son Stephen moved to Gunby shortly after his mother’s death. He was perhaps most interesting because of his wife Margaret Lushington, whose father Vernon was associated with the Pre-Raphaelite painters, having first introduced Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones to each other in his college rooms. He also supported the artist Arthur Hughes, who painted a musical ensemble of the Lushington girls as well as a later portrait of Margaret (in the Gunby gardens that she loved). The latter can be seen in the house, as can a print of the ensemble and some of the original charcoal studies drawn for this painting.
- 1936: Stephen’s sister Diana Montgomery Massingberd inherits and moves into Gunby Hall with her husband Field-Marshal Sir Archibald Montgomery Massingberd, who followed tradition and took on the Massingberd name. There is a lot to learn about Archie in the house as he was a significant member of the British Army, serving in the Boer War and later rising up the ranks during WWI. He wrote a number of important books about military history and strategy and was friends with Rudyard Kipling (whose books were perhaps a little easier to read!) We mustn’t overlook Diana either. She was a musician and singer who once sang at a party that included the composers Bruch, Saint-Saens and Tchaikovsky. She was also a cousin of Ralph Vaughan Williams so the musical pedigree was strong. One story in the guidebook that I found particularly funny about Diana was that she remained tall and graceful into old age and after receiving wolf whistles from soldiers in the park she asked their officer to remind the men that ‘I may look 18 from the back, but I am 80 at the front!’
- 1943: The most important contribution that Archie and Diana made to Gunby Hall was its continued existence. The house was threatened with destruction in 1943 when the Air Ministry wanted the space to facilitate the landing of bombers on the neighbouring airfield. Archie campaigned vigorously, including writing to the King (the letter is in the exhibition). He was ultimately successful and he and Diana then gave the house to the National Trust a year later to ensure its continued survival.
As you can see, there is a lot to learn about the Massingberd family and there is perhaps more that the Trust can do in the future to fully open up these stories to visitors.
One of Gunby’s most pleasant surprises was its garden. I really don’t expect a lot from a garden in early October but Gunby was still flourishing, with beautiful beds full of colourful asters and dahlias and a kitchen garden brimming with produce. We had a chat with one hard-working gardener and she told us that it is the work of just three full-time staff and 12-13 volunteers, so hats off to all of them.
After leaving Gunby, we decided to make a quick visit to Skegness, just to say that we had been there at least once in our lives! We had learned that Skegness was once part of the Gunby Estate until Algernon’s financial troubles reduced the size of its holdings. Ironically, Algernon himself may well have appreciated the pleasure beach and roller coasters that now stand on the land he lost. Other Massingberds may not have been quite so impressed!
Highlights: The gardens, the cast of colourful characters
Refreshments: Pot of tea and half a flapjack; chicken Caesar wrap with crisps and lemonade
You may have noticed (but probably not!) that I had ‘Gunby Hall Estate: Monksthorpe Chapel’ on my list as I thought I could do it as part of the Gunby Hall visit. Although evidently on the estate, it is actually about four miles from the Hall and isn’t closely related to the property in any obvious way. As a result, I removed it from the list but we did a quick drive-by to see it. It is actually fairly interesting in that it is a Baptist chapel built in 1701 during times of religious persecution so it was built to resemble a barn and thus avoid discovery. We didn’t go inside but I took a picture and we saw the outside baptistry in the chapel grounds. (If you would like to look inside, you can borrow the key from the Gunby Hall tearoom after leaving a £20 deposit.)