The History of the Gardens
In 1888, Thornton Manor became the home of William Lever, the world’s greatest philanthropic industrialist. In the same year, Lever began construction of Port Sunlight factory and village for his workers, arguably the finest surviving example of early urban planning in the world. Over the next 25 years, here in Thornton Hough, Lever rebuilt this magnificent historic country estate which remains virtually unchanged to this day. During his lifetime he achieved world wide recognition but after his death he became almost unknown. After the death of the 3rd Viscount Leverhulme in the year 2000, the Manor House and nearly all other buildings on the estate became empty and along with the historic gardens fell further into disrepair. The present custodians have undertaken a huge ongoing restoration and maintenance project which commenced in 2005. For the first time in its history, the house and grounds were made available for hire to the public for events. So far, almost all profits from events in the house and marquees in the grounds have been spent on ongoing restoration, maintenance and improvement. By holding your event at Thornton Manor, you will be helping to preserve this historic site for future generations.
William Lever first moved to Thornton Manor in 1888, renting the modest Victorian house so that he could be close to Port Sunlight. He bought it in 1891 and began a campaign of works on both the house and gardens. The acclaimed garden designer, Thomas Mawson (1861-1933) was invited to advise on the garden in 1905 and work on house and grounds continued until the First World War.
Thomas H Mawson has become recognised as one of the most successful Edwardian landscape architects who gave us some of the most delightful landscape gardens of the late Victorian and early 20th century. In 1901, during the time he was designing the grounds at Thornton, Thomas published his book, ‘The Art and Craft of Garden Making’ which is now regarded as the foundation of modern landscape architecture.
The plans and design features for the kitchen garden at Thornton are exampled in this publication (Fig 365 | The Art & Craft of Garden-Making) as well as the canal, which lead to the the swimming pool at the far end of the property. A gentle man and devout Christian, Mawson stressed the importance of gardens to the enrichment of the lives of all mankind in his writings.
Just over 15 years ago when we took over the estate, the historic garden at Thornton Manor was sadly neglected and in need of loving care and restoration. The work on this important piece of garden history has been an exciting and rewarding adventure of discovery.
We recruited the services of a Landscape Management Consultancy and researched the garden. Having referenced maps of the original designs and of course, ‘The Art & Craft of Garden-Making’ book itself, we set about the restoration to breathe life back into this living museum of Mawson design.
A tour of Thornton Manor Estate
From the south front of the house you look out onto a terrace which is divided into geometrical beds by a system of wide paved walks. Alongside this terrace Mawson designed an imposing columned pergola known as The Forum – a rectangle of elegant paired Tuscan columns enclosing the lawn (Fig 429 | The Art & Craft of Garden-Making)
On the north-west side of the house, an intimate area is formed between the house and kitchen garden. This area is screened from the terrace by yew hedges and our famous lime tree walk running from the dining room window to the wall of the kitchen garden.
On the path running alongside the Forum lies a stone loggia with a balustraded roof walk giving views over the kitchen garden, the gardens and the park (Fig 193 | The Art & Craft of Garden-Making). This is not shown on Mawson’s plan but was designed, along with the gatehouse, by renowned architect and Lever’s godson, Lomax Simpson in 1912. A large ornate door within leads to the Kitchen Garden.
The large walled kitchen garden was originally designed with formal paths dividing the garden into square and triangular areas, as illustrated by Mawson’s plan, photographs and written description in The Art and Craft of Garden Making (Fig 351 | The Art & Craft of Garden-Making). It was ornamented with various urns and a fountain as well as arched pergolas. What survived of these arrangements was sadly lost after the garden was leased out in the 1980’s for commercial use however many of the original decorative items, including the cast-iron pergola hoops shown in Mawson’s photographs, have since been reused in other parts of the garden. Some of the pleached fruit trees around the inner walls still survive.
Past the Forum, the path continues westwards through an area with raised geometric beds, to a sunken circular rose garden with a belt of trees on the southern edge screening it from the park. A path runs north from the rose garden to a door in the northern corner of the kitchen garden. Another path leads west to a footbridge formed from a stone structure called The Lookout designed by Douglas & Fordham with the decorative statues, The Shepherd and The Shepherdess (Fig 222/223 | The Art & Craft of Garden-Making).
The footbridge leads over a public footpath to a path into the woods beyond. The main path continues south from this point along the edge of the park to another footbridge leading to the woods and the lake to the west. The path returns eastwards along the edge of the parkland to the heart of the estate known as The Dell. This tranquil woodland dell has two ornamental pools and hand carved footbridges. The path continues back to the house leading through charming woodland and emerges at the south-east end of the formal gardens having taken a route around the parkland. This is the circuit that Lever would take for his daily exercise and to clear his mind for the great business and philanthropic activities that occupied his time for the majority of the day.
An area of informal parkland to the south of the house is overlooked by the terrace and is characterised by loose planting of trees as individuals or in clumps. This was laid out as a golf course by the first Viscount Leverhulme with a cricket pitch and cricket pavilion situated to the south-west of the house.
The remainder of the estate to the west is on the other side of the public footpath which runs roughly from north to south across the site. It consists of a wooded area with a large lake which is situated in the north-west corner of the site. The lake was originally designed with three large islands – a number of smaller islands were added later (Fig 280 | The Art & Craft of Garden-Making)
Surrounded by woodland and connected to the lake is a canal, designed by Mawson, which runs westwards almost to the western edge of the site (Fig 281 | The Art & Craft of Garden-Making).
Sadly the boathouses commissioned by Lever at the far end of the canal have not survived the years (Fig 290 | The Art & Craft of Garden-Making) but we hope to re-build them in the future. The lake and woodland are now a home for herons and a rich resource for wildlife.