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Highdown House, Hertfordshire, designs for a new house for John Radcliffe, c1770, unexecuted (8)

John Radcliffe was born in 1738, the third son of merchant John Radcliffe (b. 1691) and Anne Alcock, daughter of Laurence Alcock of Trotter Place, Sussex. The Radcliffe family were landed gentry with estates in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, with Hitchin Priory, Herts. forming the family seat from the sixteenth century.

John Radcliffe was educated at Eton and succeeded to his father’s estates in 1760, following the death of his elder brother Ralph. On 14 April 1768 Radcliffe married Lady Frances Howard, the daughter of Henry, 4th Earl of Carlisle. Following the death of his uncle Arthur Radcliffe in 1769 John also inherited the Radcliffe family estates and seat at Hitchin Priory.

In 1768 John stood as MP for St. Albans as Lord Grimston’s candidate. The election was uncontested, but was said to have cost Radcliffe £9, 000. He held the seat of St. Albans until his death in 1783. In every vote Radcliffe was seen to support the opposition. His attendance in the House became more frequent with the fall of the North administration. After the death of Lord Rockingham, John became a firm supporter of Charles Fox.

John Radcliffe died on 21 December 1783 at the age of 45. As he had no surviving heirs, his estates passed to his sister Penelope and her husband Sir Charles Farnaby, who subsequently adopted the name of Radcliffe.

Highdown manor house in Pirton dates to c1600, with a tablet bearing the arms of Thomas Docwra and the date 1599 preserved on the south side of the house. This compares with an inscription bearing the name of Docwra’s wife, Jane Periam, and the date 1613, which is preserved over the entrance gateway to the stables. A further tablet dated to 1504, and of unknown providence, bears the arms of the Knights Hospitaller and the name Thomas Docwra, Prior of the order of St. John of Jerusalem. This was inserted at a later date, possibly during the nineteenth-century alterations, into the gable of the north courtyard.

The house is two storeys in height with a basement and is constructed of plastered flint, with the principal wing on the south side of the building. Highdown House was enlarged later in the seventeenth century and a new staircase was installed. In the nineteenth century the house was reoriented with alterations to the south wing to create a new entrance porch. The interiors preserve a number of seventeenth-century features, including panelling and plasterwork, along with some eighteenth- and nineteenth-century additions.

In 1726 the Radcliffe family purchased the manor of Pirton and with it Highdown House, which is situated to the south-west of the village. The property is approximately two miles from the Radcliffe seat, Hitchin Priory, and was used by the family as the dower house. Following John Radcliffe’s extensive alteration to Hitchin Priory (c1775) he found he could no longer afford to live in the property and relocated to Highdown House.

Adam’s scheme for a new five-bay building was intended to replace the older manor house at its site on Highdown Hill. The designs are undated, but King suggests they may coincide with Radcliffe’s inheritance of the estate in 1769. It is also possible that the designs may be contemporary with those made for alterations to Hitchin Priory, for which a payment was made to Adam in 1772. The scheme for Highdown House was not carried out and it is likely that the project was abandoned in favour of the subsequent alterations to Hitchin Priory.

See also: Hitchin Priory, Herts.

W. Page (ed.), ‘Parishes: Pirton’, A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 3, 1912, pp. 44-51; A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume II, Index pp. 18, 84; N. Pevsner & B. Cherry, The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire, 1977, p.271; A. Rowan, Designs for Castles and Country Villas, 1985, pp. 44-45; D. King, The complete works of Robert and James Adam & Unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume I, pp. 12, 386; Volume II, pp. 79,80, 127; ‘High Down house with buildings and walls around courtyard on north side’, www.historicengland.org.uk; ‘Historic Environment Record Data for the Parish of Pirton - Hertfordshire County Council’, www.north-herts.gov.uk; L. Namier, ‘Radcliffe, John (1738-83), of Hitchin Priory, Herts.’, www.historyofparliamentonline.org; ‘Delme Radcliffe family of Holwell’, www.bedsarchivescat.bedford.gov.uk (accessed March 2021)

Anna McAlaney, 2021
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