Congerstone village

A Brief History of Gopsall


by John Matthews

(For information about a book detailing the 950 year history of Gopsall. click HERE)

The Lords of the manor

Gopsall, known anciently as Gopeshille in the Domesday book, is in the far west of the county of Leicestershire within the “deanery” of the Sparkenhoe hundred.  Since the Domesday census of 1086, the Gopsall Estate has been sold about seven times, with the last buyer being the Crown Estate Commissioners.  In 2017 the Estate was essentially split up and sold by the Crown with some parts now being owned by the sitting tenant farmers while the bulk of the “Shackerstone Estate” is owned by Chris Stamper, one of the brothers who founded the computer games company Rare Ltd.

Henry de Ferrers fought alongside William the Conqueror and was given Gopeshille and part of Cuningstone, amongst 208 other lands, in recognition of his support during the conquest.  The freehold of the manor was transferred to Roger de Grendon in about 1150 and remained within the Grendon family until it was bought by Robert de Langham in about 1393.  The Langhams were the Lords of Gopsall for 167 years before George Langham sold the estate to Sir George Hastings in 1560.  After passing to his grandson Henry earl of Huntingdon the manor again changed hands in 1618 when it was purchased by Sir Thomas Merry.  Gopsall was the possession of Thomas Merry senior and junior until 1677 when they sold the estate to Sir John Lowther.  His Lordship was short-lived as the estate again changed hands in 1685 when it was purchased by Humphrey Jennens, a rich industrialist (iron-master) from Birmingham.  In addition to his commercial properties, Humphrey Jennens owned a town house in High Street Birmingham, a country house in Warwickshire (Erdington Hall) and the manor of Nether Whitacre.  When he died in 1690, never having lived at Gopsall, the estate was inherited by his eldest son, Charles Jennens, who became the first of the family to take up residence.  Upon his death in 1747, only two of his seven children from his two marriages were still alive, Charles and Elizabeth.

The 17th Century Hall (above) & the Hall built by Charles Jennens jnr in 1750 (below)

Charles Jennens (junior) was a friend and patron of Handel and refused to swear allegiance to George I, believing that Bonnie Prince Charlie was the rightful heir to the throne.  He used his position and wealth to feed and protect many other like-minded individuals (known as non-jurors).  Charles had the old house at Gopsall demolished and replaced it with a new Hall (demolished in 1951) surrounded by landscaped gardens and parkland.  It is reputed that the Hall cost £100k to build with a further £80k being spent on the gardens and parkland.  It was during this time (c. 1755 – 1765) that the temple was constructed in the Racecourse wood and the organ, designed by Handel, was installed in the Hall.   Charles did not marry and when he died in 1773 the estate was left to his 16 year-old grand-nephew, Penn-Assheton Curzon.

Penn-Assheton Curzon married Lady Sophia Charlotte Howe, eldest of Earl Howe’s (1st Earl Howe of the first creation) three children (all daughters).  When he died in 1797 he had three children including two sons who were only 9 years (George Augustus William)  and  9 months (Richard William Penn) old respectively.  George died when he was 15 years old and Gopsall was finally inherited by Richard when he came of age.  Richard assumed the name of Howe and was created Earl Howe in 1821 (1st Earl Howe of the second creation).  It was his Coat of Arms that had the motto “Let Curzon holde what Curzon helde”.

Richard (1st Earl Howe of second creation) died in 1870 and the title and Gopsall passed to his son George Augustus Louis Curzon Howe.  The 2nd Earl Howe died 6 years later leaving the estate to his brother, Richard William Penn, the 3rd Earl Howe.  His son, Richard George Penn Curzon Howe was born in 1861 and succeeded to the title of Earl Howe in 1900 on the death of his father.  It was Richard, 4th Earl Howe who had royal friends and had extensive alterations done to the Hall, including the installation of the famous “silver” bath, specifically for the visit of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandria in December 1902.  The 4th Earl’s wife, Lady Georgiana Spencer-Churchill, died in 1906 after a long illness.  Shortly afterwards he moved to his property in Penn (Buckinghamshire)  and, in 1918, sold the estate to Sir Samuel (later Lord) Waring of Waring and Gillow.

Lord Waring made little success of the Estate, the majority of which was eventually purchased by the Crown.  During this period ownership of the Estate appears to have reverted in part to the Earl Howe due to mortgage agreements drawn up to enable Lord Waring to buy Gopsall in the first place.  It is at this time (1932) that plans were put forward to build a motor racing circuit in the Park.  The 5th Earl Howe was a keen and capable racing driver and was one of the patrons of the Gopsall Park Club (Motor racing circuit, aerodrome and country club) and was a member of the advisory committee along with Sir Malcolm Campbell.  The Hall and gardens were sold separately from the “outlying” buildings and lands and became Crown property in 1951.  The Crown Commissioners were the “Lords” of Gopsall until 2017 when some farms were sold to some of the sitting tenants and the bulk of the land purchased by Chris Stamper.

Penn House

Since 1918, the Earls Howe have been based at their Penn property.  The 5th Earl Howe died in 1964 aged 80 and was succeeded by his only son Richard.  The 6th Earl died in 1984 and succeeded by his second cousin, Frederick Curzon, 7th Earl Howe.  Although no longer owner of the Gopsall estate, Earl Howe was still patron of the living in 1996 (ie. with the approval of a Bishop, he could appoint a person to be the Rector of Congerstone).

The Hall, park and gardens

The only information about the manor houses at Gopsall prior to the 18th century Hall built by Charles Jennens is contained in an undated map held at Leicester Records Office.  The map depicts a 7 bay Jacobean house which probably dates from about 1650.  It was this house that was demolished in about 1748 to make way for Jennen’s lavish Hall.

Although the building history of the Hall is confused, the body of the house was finished in 1749-50.  It was designed by John Westley, a local architect, and built by the Hiorns brothers of Warwick. The design was grand but old-fashioned and based on an H-plan with the North wings housing the kitchens and music room and South wings the library and chapel.  The chapel was wainscoted in cedar and contained cedar pews, a pulpit adorned by a burnished gold eagle and a communion table made from the Boscabel oak in which Charles II is said to have concealed himself after the battle of Worcester (1651).  Service pavilions were added in the 1750s.  It is believed that the park and gardens were started simultaneously with the building of the house and were laid out by the Hiorns according to original designs by Jennens himself.  A plan dated 1749 shows the partly constructed house surrounded by very formal gardens including a square pond, a fountain and a 7 acre lake (between the Hall and the Racecourse wood).  However, there was no indication of any temple structures.  The majority of the building works at Gopsall were finished in 1759-60 and in 1767 it was said that the house was “situated in a delightful park”.  In 1789 Gopsall is said to have extensive pleasure grounds consisting of lawns, groves and temple forms, enriched with water.

It is thought that the Hall, gardens and park changed little from the time of Jennen’s death in 1773 until after the estate was inherited by Richard William Penn in 1818.  Plans were drawn up by Wyatville in 1818-19 to make alterations to the house and to construct an entrance to the estate (at Twycross) modelled on the Arch of Constantine.  The latter was constructed but the other alterations were not carried out.  The offices were altered in 1835 and later, between 1863 and 1878, the Hall was extended by adding the single storey billiard room and picture gallery extensions on the North front.

The gardens and parkland immediately to the South of the Hall underwent extensive changes during the 19th Century.  Little is know about these alterations but the changes must have included the construction of the walled kitchen garden and glass houses, draining of the lake to the South of the Hall (either planned or due to failure of the dam) and development of the site to produce a 9 hole golf course.  The latter, said to be one of the finest in the country, had the last green within a few yards of the Hall entrance.


The Silver Bath

In 1901 Gopsall Hall became one of the first houses in England to have a domestic electricity supply.  The generator was installed in a building just to the North of the Hall and all the candelabras were converted to electricity.  This coincided with extensive refurbishment of the interior of the Hall, including the installation of a silver bath, in preparation for the visit of King Edward VII, Queen Alexandria and Princess Victoria in December 1902.


The Hall and park changed little until they were taken over by the Army and used as a vehicle depot and radar training school.  The gardens were maintained by two gardeners for a period prior to the War but were soon became neglected, the glass houses were demolished and many of the training huts were installed in garden areas close to the Hall.  The Hall was in a poor state of repair by the time it was vacated by the army and was demolished in 1951 along with the Constantine gate at the Twycross entrance to the estate.  At that time most of the remaining parkland was put to the plough and incorporated into Gopsall Farm, one of several Crown administered farms that incorporate land previously part of the Gopsall Estate.

Today, there are no visible remnants of the Hall itself although parts of the stables, walled garden and ha ha remain.  The head gardener’s house is now Gopsall farmhouse and the power station is used for storing farm equipment.  The saw mill by the lake is gone as is the Viennese bridge.  Both were uncovered in 1998 by Brian and Barry Stoney while working in the woods surrounding the lake.

Viennese Bridge in 1998

The Temple

The temple, situated on a gentle eminence at the edge of the Racecourse wood, would have provided an important focal point in the view south across the ornamental lake from the Hall and formal gardens.  There were no temple structures in the original plans for the gardens and formal parkland dated 1749.  The original plans for the temple were drawn up by James Paine who also produced designs for the Hall interiors, most of which were not executed.  Plans produced for Charles Jennens in about 1755 by William and David Hiorn depict an open temple which appears to be a simplified version of the elaborate and decorative structure favoured by Paine.  This simplified version conforms to the structure in existence today which must have been constructed in the late 1750s as the Hiorns finished work at Gopsall in 1759/60.

It is commonly thought that Handel composed some of his music while sitting in the temple, admiring the view across the lake to the Hall.  However, Messiah (1741) and Gopsal (c1744), the tune to the Charles Wesley hymn “Rejoice the Lord is King”, could only have been composed before the “new” Hall, temple and gardens were started and when the 17th century house was still standing.    Although Charles Jennens wrote the libretto for Messiah before the building of the ‘new’ Hall, Handel may well have composed some of his later music at Gopsall.  It is very unlikely that he ever saw the temple or sat in it as he became blind in 1753 and died in April 1759, some years before its construction.

The temple was erected as a memorial to a friend of Charles Jennens, the classical scholar Edward Holdsworth (1684-1746).   It was octagonal externally but internally circular, with eight columns and surmounted with a domed roof.  The whole structure was surrounded by a brick-built ha-ha and entered via steps on the south side.  A statue of Religion (Roubiliac, c 1760) adorned the domed roof and a cenotaph (Richard Haywood, 1764), with inscriptions in memory of Holdsworth , stood within.  The temple collapsed in 1835 and the cenotaph was moved to the formal gardens to the east of the Hall.  The statue of Religion was donated to Leicestershire Museums and Art Galleries by Richard Penn in 1857.  Both the statue and cenotaph are now on display at Belgrave Hall, Leicester.

Today the temple is a ruin.  It was listed by English Heritage in 1996 but is seldom visited, even though there is now a permissive footpath to the temple which stands in the privately owned Racecourse wood.  Signs of the wartime “occupation” of Gopsall are carved into some of the stones:

“Chad” is also featured on several stones as are messages and initials left by prisoners of war and local people before and after the war.

The Handel Organ

There appears to be even more confusion surrounding the organ designed by Handel for Charles Jennens than there is about the temple.  Handel wrote a letter to Jennens in 1749 in which he gave detailed specifications for a “good grand organ without reedstops” and recommended that the organ be built by a Mr Bridge.  He also said that he would willingly give Jennens his opinion of the organ when it had been built.  The organ was built by Thomas Parker to Handel’s specifications and it must be assumed that Handel did play it and give Jennens his opinion of the instrument.  It is here that confusion and speculation begin.  Most people have assumed that this organ was installed in the Chapel at Gopsall.  This is probably because late 18th and early 19th century references to the Chapel indicate it’s elegance and the fine workmanship required for the wood and plaster-work.  However, the 18th century Hall also had a music room (or salon as it was then called) which could have housed the instrument.

When Charles Jennens died in 1773 he left all his music books and musical instruments of all sorts to his friend the 4th Earl of Ayelsford of Packington Hall, Warwickshire.  The organ was originally installed in the music room at Packington Hall but was later moved to the uniquely designed, red brick Church of St James, Great Packington (now the private Chapel of St James).  The Chapel stands in the centre of the park surrounding Packington Hall which forms part of the Forest of Arden.

Chapel of St James and the Handel Organ

In 1957, to celebrate the bicentenary of Handel’s death in 1759, CBS recorded the sixteen organ concertos of Handel, played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult.  The recording was made in St James Church and the organ, fitted with a temporary electric blower, played by Mr E Power Biggs.   The organ is still in good working order and regularly played at family services.

The organ at St James conforms exactly to that designed by Handel and a sketch by the Italian architect Bonomi, dated about 1795, clearly shows this organ installed in the music room at Packington Hall.  Interestingly, a 1795 engraving of Gopsall Chapel by Longmate does not show the presence of a pipe organ of any size.  Furthermore, the detail of the panelling and plaster freezes may indicate that the Handel organ was never in the chapel but was installed in the music room at Gopsall.  Photographs of the chapel taken in the early 1900’s show a small pipe organ which is believed to have been installed in 1901.  What is certain is that neither of the organs in the Hall during the war was the Handel organ.


Primary sources

The History & Antiquities of the County of Leicestershire.  Nichols J, 1809-1811.

A history of Gopsall. Oakley, G. Private publication printed by Barncraft Printing, Sheepy Magna, 1995; reprinted 1996.

The Bosworth and Gopsall Estates.  Oakley G & Croman L eds. (ISBN 0-9529639-0-6) Bookcraft (Bath) Ltd. 1996.

A Temple at Gopsall Park.  Parry TV.  BA thesis, Victoria University of Manchester, 1981.

The Packington Story. Compiled by Hammond SEF for the St James Great Packington Trust, Packington Hall, Meriden, Warks CV7 7HF.

Gopsall Hall: ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair’. Brenda Sumner. MA thesis, University of Leicester, 2009.


© John Matthews 1997 & 2019