The first appearance of a house at Fonthill comes in 1533, when Sir John Mervyn purchased the estate and lived in a house surrounded by a park. A hundred years later Fonthill House, sometimes called Fonthill Antiquus (location map), was owned by Lord Cottington, Chancellor of the Exchequer in Charles I’s reign.
The house and estate was sold to Alderman William Beckford, Lord Mayor of London, in 1745. He altered the house which was known as Fonthill Redivivus (location map), redesigned the lake and built a temple and a pagoda.
But within 10 years the house burned down. A new house was built by him, known as Fonthill Splendens (location map).
Recently acquired drawings of Fonthill Splendens by Hedrik-Frans De Cort (1742-1810).
Splendens was near the site of the old one, and this was the property inherited by his son, the notorious William Beckford, in 1770. He was the author of “Vathek”, builder of Fonthill Abbey and called by Lord Byron “England’s wealthiest son”. He developed the Park, extended the Lake and built the grottoes, boathouse and new stables.
William Beckford decided to build Fonthill Abbey (location map) on high ground a mile south-west of Fonthill House in deep woodland and away from public roads. He demolished large parts of his former house for building materials for his new one, building a 12 foot high wall to enclose his new structure and 524 acres around it.
He commissioned James Wyatt to build it in 1796 and it took many years to complete, housing his superb collection of furniture and antiquities.
In 1823, William Beckford sold the estate to John Farquhar, a gunpowder contractor from Bengal, India. Within 2 years of this sale Fonthill Abbey fell down and Farquhar tried to sell all his land but died in 1826 intestate.
By this time Fonthill House was only the west part of the original house built by Beckford and it became known as The Pavilion (location map). The sale particulars of 1829 described the estate “If Elysium can be contemplated on earth, the claims of Fonthill will be irresistible” and the landscape of the estate is still considered an “Arcadian idyll”.
In the summer of 1829 the house was rented to James Morrison and his growing family. The holiday was a great success and he bought the property from Farquhar’s heirs – the Mortimers – after protracted legal difficulties.
James Morrison had by this time become a very successful haberdasher and entrepreneur in London with a house in Harley Street and a seat in the House of Commons as Member of Parliament for Ipswich and later the Inverness Burghs. He was described at the time as the “Napoleon of Shopkeepers”.
In 1857 James Morrison’s agent wrote that visitors to Fonthill went on to Stourhead and later told him “Stourhead was not worthy compared to Fonthill”.
In 1839 the Fonthill Estate had ceased to become his main country home. He had bought Basildon Park in Berkshire (now National Trust). His commitments as MP, investment banker and haberdasher “extraordinaire” were extensive and he had found Fonthill too distant from London, the coach taking 11 hours.
He handed it over to his second son Alfred, who lived in it all his life with Mabel his wife and family. The house was altered considerably, and raised by one storey with an Italianate tower built in 1848 to house his growing collection of china, medals and manuscripts.
Much of the western part of Beckford’s estate, including the site of the Abbey, was not acquired by James Morrison. It was eventually bought by the Marquess of Westminster, who by 1859 had built what was then called Fonthill Abbey (location map), 500 metres south-east of Beckford’s fallen folly. This house designed by William Burn in Scottish baronial style was demolished in 1955.
Much of Fonthill House/The Pavilion was demolished in 1921, by which time Alfred Morrison’s son Hugh had in 1902 built a new house, first called Little Ridge (location map), on land in the Parish of Chilmark east of the old house. It was designed by Detmar Blow and incorporated at its centre was the 17th century façade of Berwick St Leonard Manor House.
This house was much enlarged in 1921 and largely destroyed in 1971, by which time it was known as Fonthill House. It was replaced by John Morrison, the first Lord Margadale, in 1972, with a smaller house in classical style, designed by Trenwith, Wills on the centre block of its predecessor.
The estate first bought by James Morrison in 1830 consisted of 1200 acres. It is now 9000 acres. It descended from Alfred (died 1897) to Hugh, MP for Salisbury (died 1931), then John, MP for Salisbury, later Lord Margadale in 1964 (died 1996). James, 2nd Lord Margadale, his eldest son (died 2003) and is now owned by Alastair, 3rd Lord Margadale.
Great Ridge Wood was bought by Alfred Morrison in 1875 from Edmund Fane of Boyton.