Witley Court was once of the great country houses of England, reaching its peak in the Victorian period when it was the setting for extravagant parties and royal entertainments. After a devastating fire in 1937, however, it became one of the country’s most spectacular ruins. Although the west side was unaffected, the then owner, Sir Herbert Smith, decided not to rebuild but to put the estate up for sale. Witley was never lived in again and was subsequently stripped and abandoned.
For nearly two centuries Witley was closely associated with the Foley family, whose fortunes were at first based on the iron industry. When Thomas Foley bought the Witley estate in 1655, Witley Court was a substantial Jacobean mansion, which had developed in turn from a medieval manor house.
The Foley’s – whose business began with manufacturing nails – gradually abandoned the industrial base that had made them rich, concentrating instead on being landed aristocrats and politicians.
By the early 19th century the family fortune was badly eroded. Thomas Foley VII (1780–1833), however – helped by an advantageous marriage – was able to commission John Nash, the leading Regency architect, to design a succession of ambitious alterations to Witley.
In 1833 the Foleys sold the Witley estate to the trustees of William Ward (1817–85). Although still a minor, Ward was one of the richest individuals in England. Like the Foleys, his fortune came from industry, in this case the income from more than 200 Black Country coal mines.
In the 1850s Witley Court reached its peak of grandeur when Ward, now 1st Earl of Dudley, commissioned it to be remodelled, this took approximately 10 years.
Lord Dudley’s immense wealth, generated largely by his industrial enterprises in the West Midlands, enabled his family to live an extraordinarily opulent life. An army of servants was involved in servicing the property and family. Their number was further swollen during the lavish house parties attended by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and his circle.Dudley’s fortune also funded the creation of an ornate formal garden at Witley designed in the 1850s by William Andrews Nesfield, the leading garden designer of his day, to complement the remodelled mansion. Nesfield described the gardens at Witley Court as his ‘monster work’ and his additions included the grand formal parterres and the Perseus and Andromeda fountain.