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Hitchin Priory, Hertfordshire, for John Radcliffe, designs for alterations to a house for John Radcliffe, c1772, unexecuted (5)

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 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 in St. Albans until his death in 1783. In every vote Radcliffe was seen to support the opposition, his attendance to the House becoming more frequent from 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.

In 1317 lands in Hitchin were granted to the order of Carmelite Friars by King Edward II. Additional land was presented to the brothers by John de Cobham and a small monastery was built. On 17 October 1538 the Prior John Butler took an oath recognising royal supremacy and all properties were surrendered to the Crown. In 1546 a survey of the estate recorded that the priory had consisted of a small church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the ‘old Hall’, cloisters, chambers for lodgings and a range of domestic offices. The priory also held tenements in Bridge Street and Bull Street. The survey noted that several of the buildings were ‘ruinous both in timber and tile’, the church steeple broken and the bells removed along with all lead and glass. Only the manor house remained in good condition.

Following the survey the estate was promptly sold to Sir Edward Watson and Henry Herdson for £1,541. In 1553 Watson and Herdson sold Hitchin Priory to Ralph Radcliffe (1519?- 1559), a school teacher and playwright. Ralph was the first of the Radcliffe family to establish himself in Hertfordshire and he is buried in the church at Hitchin. The estate was inherited by Edward Radcliffe in 1720 and after his death in 1727 he was succeeded by his sons Ralph, Edward and Arthur. Arthur Radcliffe died in 1769 without surviving issue and his estates passed to his nephew John.

The manor house was altered in the late seventeenth century and largely rebuilt c1775, but it retains some features of the earlier priory including parts of the fifteenth-century cloisters.

Adam’s scheme for alterations to Hitchin Priory is undated. The drawings possibly date to c1772, which coincides with payments made by Radcliffe to Adam. Although these designs were unexecuted, substantial alterations were carried out and were completed c1775. The southern portion of the house was rebuilt to include a new principal suit of rooms along with a Palladian-style façade. The project was said to have cost Radcliffe upwards of £30,000 and included payment to Adam for plans alongside transactions with the Adam office foreman. It is possible that the alterations at Hitchin Priory were carried out to an unknown Adam scheme. However King notes the work to be uncharacteristically plain for Adam and suggests that if further designs were supplied they were altered by the builders in execution.

Ultimately the expense of the Hitchin Priory project left Radcliffe in difficulty. As a result he could not afford to live at the manor house and relocated to the family dower house, Highdown in Pirton. Following Radcliffe’s death in 1783 the estate was inherited by his sister Penelope and her husband Sir Charles Farnaby. At the beginning of the twentieth century the estate still remained in the Delmé Radcliffe family. Hitchin Priory is now a hotel and events venue.

See also: Highdown House, Pirton, Herts.

W. Page (ed.) ‘Hitchin: Priory Church and Charities’, A History of the County of Hertfordshire: Volume 3, 1912, pp. 12-21; 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; D. King, The complete works of Robert and James Adam & unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume I, pp. 12, 386; Volume II, pp. 79,80, 127; L. Namier, ‘Radcliffe, John (1738-83), of Hitchin Priory, Herts.’, www.historyofparliamentonline.org; ‘Delme Radcliffe family of Holwell’, www.bedsarchivescat.bedford.gov.uk; ‘The Priory – North Hertfordshire’, www.historicengland.org.uk; ‘Hitchin Priory before the Radcliffes: 1317-1553’, www.hertsmemories.org.uk; ‘Hitchin Conservation Area: Character Statement’, July 2011, pp. 1-55, www.north-herts.gov.uk; ‘Hitchin Priory Hotel’, www.chartridgevenues.com; (accessed March 2021)

Anna McAlaney, 2021
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