Woolton Hall, Liverpool, finished drawing for a house for Nicholas Ashton, c1775, executed with minor alterations (1)
Nicholas Ashton was born in 1742, the son of John Ashton (1711-1759) and Elizabeth, the daughter of John Brookes of Liverpool. Ashton’s father John is recorded in the profession of bailiff and later as the proprietor of a salt works in Hale. Salt proved to be a lucrative business for the family and young Ashton initially worked for his father but eventually went on to develop a career as a privateer, owning interests in ships such as the Marchioness of Granby. In around 1763 Aston married his first wife Mary (d 1777, the daughter of John Philpot of Hefferston Grange. Following the death of his first wife Ashton was eventually remarried to Catherine Hodgson who died in 1806.
Ashton seems to have supported the anti slavery movement and promoted the election of abolitionist William Roscoe for MP in 1806. Ashton fulfilled a number of roles in the county, beginning with his appointment as High Sheriff of Lancashire at the age of 28. He also stood as a Trustee of the Bluecoat Hospital and was appointed President of the Liverpool Dispensary. With a clear interest in cultural pursuits he was appointed President of the Liverpool Academy of Arts and was one of the founding members of Liverpool’s Athenaeum.
A resident of Woolton Hall for over sixty years, Nicholas Ashton died in 1833 at the age of 91. He was buried at Childwell. Ownership of the Woolton Hall estate can be traced back as far as the sixteenth century when it was in the hands of the Brettarghs family. By the eighteenth century the estate was in the possession of Richard Molyneaux (later 5th Viscount Molyneux) who built a new Palladian-style house on the site of an earlier seventeenth-century building. Constructed by an unknown architect, Molyneux’s house dates to c1704 and remains today incorporated into the north portion of the current building. This area of the property also retains a number of early eighteenth-century interiors and panelling. Although the architect for the northern part of the building is unknown, it is thought that Molyneux also employed the same architect at his Croxheth Hall estate, which is stylistically similar. Following Molyneux’s death the property passed to his widow Mary and the executors of her estate sold Woolton Hall and its surrounding lands in 1771 to Rev. Bartholomew Booth for £6100. In 1772 the estate then came into the ownership of Nicholas Ashton.
Adam’s scheme for Woolton Hall is thought to date to c1775, just three years after Ashton had purchased his estate. Only a single drawing remains for the scheme, a design for a new principal front. Ashton’s extensive rebuilding project is recorded by Aiken in 1795, who noted: ‘Woolton Hall is a noble mansion, purchased from the Molyneux family by Nicholas Ashton, Esq., who has made large additions to it'. As Harris highlights, it was Neale in 1823, who first attributes the work to Adam: ‘The carriage front is of a more modern character, having been erected by the present proprietor about 1780. It looks towards the south-east and is indebted for the arrangement of its elevation to the taste of Mr. Robert Adam'.
Harris makes comparisons between the surviving Adam drawing (SM Adam volume 30/45) and the plate published by Neale of the east facade c1823. The plate records Woolton Hall prior to nineteenth-century alterations and shows the Adam scheme to have been executed with minor alterations. The central relieving arch in Adam’s design was omitted and a Tuscan semi-circular porch, similar to the one executed for Mistley Cottages, was inserted in place of the rectangular design. King also notes the addition of a frieze across the central three bays, along with architraves for the windows.
Significantly Neale’s account also details the interiors, noting the presence of a library ‘of an octagon form’. Harris and King note the survival of Adam-style ceilings in the library, breakfast room and hall, along with further plasterwork elements on the first floor. However King suggests that the ceilings of the breakfast room and library are missing their original painted insert panels. King suggests Adam’s seven-bay east front was constructed using five-bays of an earlier building for the north end and central section, with two new bays built at the south end to create symmetry.
Following the death of Nicholas Ashton, Woolton Hall passed first to his son Joseph and then to his grandson Charles. Charles Ashton sold the estate in 1865 to James Raddecliffe Jeffery of Compton House, Liverpool. It was around this time that the Tuscan porch was removed and replaced with a larger, heavier porte cocheré and the second floor windows were adjusted. In 1869 Woolton Hall was put up for auction, but it failed to sell and remained empty until 1877 when it was purchased by shipping line owner Frederick Robert Leyland. In the early twentieth century the east front was extended and the house was adapted by Peter McGuffie into a hydropathic hotel. During the Second World War, Woolton Hall was requisitioned for use by the armed forces and in the 1950s it was converted into a girls school, overseen by the Convent of Notre Dame in Mount Pleasant. In 1980 Woolton Hall was purchased by John Hibbert who undertook a restoration project, the house having fallen into disrepair. Woolton Hall then served as a private venue for events, but this ceased to operate in 2006. The building is currently in a state of disrepair and the interiors possibly suffered smoke damage following a fire in one of the estates annex buildings in May 2019.
Literature: W. Enfield, An essay Towards the History of Leverpool, 1773; J. Aiken, A description of the country from thirty to forty miles around Manchester, 1795, pp. 331; J. P. Neale, Views of the Seats, Mansions, Castles, etc. of Noblemen and Gentlemen in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, Volume 6, 1823, pp.168-169; S. A. Harris, ‘Robert Adam (1728-1792) Architect and Woolton Hall Liverpool’, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, Vol. 102, 1950, pp. 161-177; G. Williams, History of the Liverpool Privateers and Letters of Marque with an Account of the Liverpool Slave Trade 1744-1812, 1967; D. King, The complete works of Robert and James Adam & unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume I, pp. 9, 179, 212-13, 405, pls. 303-4; A. Weston, ‘Neglected state of GradeI listed Woolton Hall exposed after fire tore through 300 year old building’, 22 December 2019, www.liverpoolecho.co.uk; M. Clements, ‘Amazing photos of abandoned Liverpool mansion seemingly frozen in time’, January 2020, www.liverpoolecho.co.uk; ‘Woolton Hall’, www.historic-liverpool,co,uk; ‘Woolton Hall’, www.historicengland.org.uk (accessed March 2021)