THE EDEN FAMILY
The building known Ballingdon Hall was built in the early 1590s. Its original position was south of the Stour at the base of Ballingdon Hill where the river curves round the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Sudbury. The early history of this hall is rendered complex by the fact that three generations of Edens were all called Thomas. The hall we see today was commissioned by Thomas Eden, MP of Sudbury. He was the son of another Thomas Eden who had been clerk of the all-important Star Chamber under King Henry VIII. This elder Thomas, whom we might call Thomas Eden I was granted the Priory Estate in Sudbury by Henry when the monasteries were dissolved (1536-41).
The former priory in Friars Street remained the home of the Edens for some decades but in 1589, during the reign of Elizabeth I, the son of Thomas Eden I became an MP (Member of Parliament) Thomas Eden II now had the wealth to build a great hall, wealthy enough to build a “prodigy” house even which he intended for his son, also called Thomas.
“Prodigy house” is a twentieth-century term coined to describe houses of the Tudor and Jacobean period that were built with the specific intention of impressing neighbours and visitors.
Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, started in 1590, just before Ballingdon Hall was a prime example of the Elizabethan prodigy house. Its windows were so extravagantly big that the whole house was described as “more glass than wall.”
There was an old grange at the base of Ballingdon Hill that had caught the MP’s eye. Granges were outlying landholdings farmed by monasteries in order to supply them with food. Above it, near the top of the hill there bubbled up a spring of water so pure that King
Richard II had given permission for it to be conveyed by pipes under the River Stour to the old priory where the Edens currently lived. In the early 1590s Thomas Eden II (the MP who was not yet knighted) bought this grange and arranged for it to be demolished. Here on a site with good views over the Stour to Sudbury, the MP built an imposing prodigy house as a wedding present for his son, the third Thomas Eden (who for the sake of clarity I’ll call Thomas Eden III). Thomas Eden II, the builder of Ballingdon would go on to be made High Sherriff of Suffolk by Elizabeth I in 1596 and was knighted by her successor James I in 1603.
As I mentioned previously, the early history of Ballingdon Hall is rendered complex by the fact that three generations of Edens were all called Thomas. We don’t even have portraits of them to make it clear who is who. Put simply, Thomas Eden I made his fortune under Henry VIII and acquired the disbanded priory in Sudbury. His son, Thomas Eden II used this wealth to become an MP and High Sherriff and would eventually be knighted by King James I. And it was for his son, Thomas Eden III that Ballingdon Hall was built in 1593.
All that remains today of the house is its North Wing, which explains why there is no grand Elizabethan entrance to Ballingdon Hall. The original Tudor mansion was built to the fashionable “H” floorplan with its main entrance lying along a central axis (now demolished) that linked the north and south wings.
This central, main portion of the H was probably constructed in brick whereas the north and south wings were timber-framed. The South Wing was probably intended for guests. The North Wing was for the Eden family while the main block not only housed a great doorway but in all probability an impressive grand staircase. That staircase would have ascended to the Long Gallery, which ran the full length of the North Wing on its first floor.
Long galleries were a common feature of a great houses in Tudor times. They were designed to give an unobstructed space along which members of the family could exercise, fencing, play bowls, and generally have fun together in bad weather. Long galleries needed good natural light, which explains why windows of one-third and two-thirds of the height of the outer walls run all the way along the North Wing. There were also four bay windows that allowed people to withdraw from noisier entertainment for quieter pursuits such as cards or chatting.
There were even longer galleries at houses like Longleat, Aston Hall in Birmingham, Charlton House in Greenwich, Montacute House in Somerset, and of course Hardwick Hall. It is believed that Thomas Eden III and his wife Mary Darcy moved into the newly-completed Ballingdon Hall in May 1593. Their initials “TME” can be found on a lead downpipe next to the current front door (a twentieth-century addition) along with the – as yet unexplained – date of 1613.
John and Angela Hodge, who bought the property in 1959 following their marriage, found this pipe in amongst the jumble of the old house and added their own initials and “1959” further down the pipe. This youngest Thomas Eden, the master of Ballingdon Hall became MP for Sudbury on his father’s retirement from the House of Commons in 1603. This Thomas Eden, third of that name was knighted by James I the following year. Becoming an MP was not difficult if you had wealth in Jacobean England. And being knighted by James I was not quite the high honour it had been under Henry VIII or even Elizabeth I. When James Stuart of Scotland became King of England and Ireland, following the death of his cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, he was desperately short of money so he generated income by pretty much-selling titles to the highest bidder.
Thomas Eden III, master of Ballingdon Hall and the second to be knighted died in 1616 at the age of 44. He was buried at All Saints Church where his father and mother had been buried, just north across the River Stour. It was a relatively young age for a man of his station. In the seventeenth century it was not unusual for the wealthy to live into their seventies and eighties. It was the poor who tended to die young.
The house now passed to St Clere Eden, oldest son of Thomas III, but he died, unmarried in May 1624 aged only 30. This was again a relatively youthful death but we have no explanation for his early demise. The house then passed to his younger brother John. John Eden lived to a much greater age. He married four times and had five children. Three of his wives predeceased him and so did all his children. John Eden died at Ballingdon in 1683 at the age of 76. He had not become an MP like his father and grandfather, but he was made Justice of the Peace for Essex in his middle years. Down in the old cellars of Ballingdon Hall (now grassed over) there were marks from the chains of shackled prisoners brought to Ballingdon Hall to be judged by John Eden JP.
Despite his four wives, a major influence on John Eden’s life was his mother, Mary Darcy, widow of the Thomas Eden III. Mary outlived her husband by almost 40 years and was a staunch Puritan, much addicted to sermons. She brought her son up to side with Parliament against the “papist” King Charles I during the English civil war of 1642-51. At one stage Justice John Eden, by then in his 40s, was captured by the royalist soldiers and held in nearby Colchester for some months before being rescued by Cromwellian troops.
THE LITTEL FAMILY
With the death of John Eden in 1683, Ballingdon Hall passed to his grandson, John Littel. Tragically, all of Eden’s children had predeceased him, but in 1655 his eldest daughter Anne had married one Jeffery Littel of Halstead Hall in Essex. This marriage produced a son, John Littel before she died in 1677. John Littel rose to be High Sherriff of the neighbouring county of Essex in 1694 and when he died in 1726 Ballingdon Hall passed briefly to his elder son, JohnEden Littel, who married but died without issue in 1728. The house then passed to his brother, John Littel’s younger son, George Sawbridge Littel, who was declared bankrupt in 1741. (We do not know how he lost his fortune but the family was clearly downwardly mobile by this stage.) Ballingdon Hall was then sold and passed out of the hands of the Eden family and their descendants after nearly 150 years of continuous occupation.
Around the time of George Sawbridge Littel’s bankruptcy, a major fire destroyed much of the south wing of Ballingdon Hall and the central brick block that connected the North and South Wings. Fires in great houses were not uncommon. These huge homes were heated by highly inflammable elements like logs, coal and candles. They were floored and panelled in wood, which was covered with heavy drapes and tapestries. The combination of these elements could be very combustible.
The fire-damaged building was bought by one John Piper. The Pipers were weavers and silk merchants in Sudbury. The appeal of the ruin probably lay in the fact that Piper was able to instal his son as vicar of All Saints Church in Sudbury. That gift had lain with the owner of Ballingdon Hall since the rise of the Eden family.
We do not know much about what – if anything – John Piper did at Ballingdon other than the fact that his initials “JP 1743” are carved into the large brick fireplace that stands in the entrance hall to the current Ballingdon Hall. That fireplace was moved into its current position by Angela and John Hodges when they removed the house up hill in 1972. Originally all the fireplaces in the North Wing were situated along the back (south) edge of the wing so that nothing interrupted the view from Sudbury of its two floors of continuous windows. Rotated 90 degrees to act as a room divider, this fireplace was rebuilt exactly as it looked when John Piper carved his initials (apart from the more recent addition of a royal coat of arms).
It is believed that at some point in the late eighteenth century John Piper’s daughter was given the ruins of Ballingdon Hall as her dowry when she married into the Sperling family of Dynes Hall in nearby Mapleford. All that was left of the great hall at this stage was the North Wing. Just the brick chimneys remained from the former central block.
Worse was to happen to Ballingdon Hall in response to Parliament’s imposition of a window tax (1696 -1851) which led many property owners – including the Pipers – to block off windows to save money.
Thus the great expanse of windows that ran the width of the North Wing was filled in on the ground and first floors and in even the attics. Two low doors were inserted into the north façade between the bay windows because the old main entrance was long gone. The North Wing, designed to impress the people of Sudbury down below took on a sorry appearance.
The Sperling family took an antiquarian interest in Ballingdon Hall but did not live in it or restore it. The hall declined in the nineteenth century, and was referred to by visitors as resembling a farmhouse with livestock invading the ground floor. Sketches show the lawn in front of the North Wing given over to chicken coops.
THE HODGE FAMILY
At the beginning of World War II the National Monument Office – fearing an architectural Armageddon in Britain at the hands of the Luftwaffe – photographed every architecturally significant building in the hope that, if necessary, much could subsequently be rebuilt. These photos show the second floor (attic) of Ballingdon Hall as a long empty space where servants might live behind cloth screens but without any permanent partitioning.
After 1945 the hall was bought from the Sperlings by a Mrs Garner who ran it as a hotel. In 1954 the author and artist S. R. Jones visited Sudbury and sketched the property for his book East Anglia and Fenland. Jones described meeting Harry Slender, a Romany elder who had purchased rights to the land at auction and was raising horses in Ballingdon’s grounds. Mrs Garner maintained Ballingdon Hall Hotel as best she could, but in 1959, she sold the house to John and Angela Hodges.
The Hodges did not set out to be the owners of a grand country property. He was a partner in a London law firm and they had recently married. In 1959 John Hodges brought this bride to Suffolk to visit friends however at the time they were also looking to purchase a weekend country cottage. When the opportunity to buy this imposing fragment of a Tudor ruin came up, both of them fell in love with Ballingdon. John insisted on putting his wife’s name on the deeds along with his own, joking that Ballingdon Hall was her wedding present.
The house needed a lot of work. After the eighteenth-century demolition of the fire-damaged central block – and the South Wing – all manner of architectural accretions had accumulated on the back of the remaining north wing including a lean-to kitchen.
The Hodges put a lot of money into the house and reopened the long line of windows on the north-facing facade that had been closed up since the eighteenth century. Then in the early 1970s the development company Wimpy bought the land that led pretty much up to the doorstep of Ballingdon from its drive down on Middleton Road.
Nowadays development within the curtilage of a listed building would not be allowed, but back in the 1970s there was no legal reason why a modern development should not be created either side of the long drive of plane trees leading up to Ballingdon Hall.
The person who sold the land for development was a Mrs Crossman who coincidentally soon afterwards sold 50 acres higher up Ballingdon Hill to John Hodges. Ballingdon Hall’s moment of international fame was about to occur.
John and Angela Hodges were not happy to have their Tudor home enveloped by the modern estate we see today below Ballingdon. They considered the possibility of dismantling the timber-framed building and reconstructing it elsewhere but were told it would probably not survive such a process. Instead, they decided to move the house – intact – to the higher ground that John had recently purchased. A UK company called Pynford (now Abbey Pynford of Luton) were contacted and contracted. The four-bay windows had to be dismantled and each brick numbered for later reassembly up the hill. The brick chimneys were also removed. Then the house was encased in a steel frame and lifted it off its foundations. By this time the structure which was lowered onto caterpillar tracks was essentially a timber building with a tiled roof.
This audacious move was intended to take a week but in fact it took almost a year of very slow, very cautious manoeuvres to get the manor house up the hill. Crowds of onlookers came to watch this remarkable feat and Angela charged them admission, donating the proceeds to a local church. TV cameras also arrived to witness the event and Ballingdon made the ITV News, as well as the BBC’s popular children’s show Blue Peter. It then took a further six years to fully reassemble and renovate the house in situ. The cost of this relocation – which had made Sudbury famous around the world – was estimated to be about the price of building Ballingdon Hall again from scratch, but John and Angela had rescued their home and were able to hide it away in 27 acres and 1,000 trees at the top of Ballingdon Hill.
The move also allowed for the back of the North Wing to be reimagined. As the hall was put back together, chimney breasts were moved into the main body of the building, creating the fireplaces we see today. The low single-storey extensions – nineteenth and even twentieth-century additions – were demolished. Angela designed a new kitchen which doubled the size of the small western lip of the North Wing. Today from the outside the current front door you can see the join between the old and new buildings in a small sinuous scar that runs from roof line down towards the ground.
While restoring the great façade of the North Wing to something approaching its original Tudor lines, the Hodges reworked the interior significantly. A new bedroom (now called the Queen Mary) was added over the kitchen extension and a new grand staircase was built at the west end of the wing using original oak stairs recovered from the former home of the British bandleader, Stanley Black.
As mentioned previously, the chimneys were moved from the back of the old North Wing and fireplaces were reorientated to create room divisions on the ground floor. On the first floor, the partitioning that Mrs Garner had installed to create many hotel bedrooms was swept away. Unfortunately the Hodges could not restore the Tudor Long Gallery to its original open proportions or they would have had only two bedrooms (known today as the Queen Mary and Prince of Wales) so three new en suite bedrooms and a freestanding bathroom with terracotta tiles were created on this floor. The corridor that links them gives an impression of what the Long Gallery might have looked like. On the top floor the couple had inherited an unpartitioned attic so Angela designed more bedrooms and bathrooms, including the unforgettable Blue Bathroom with its wallpaper of half-naked 1970s dollybirds. The wallpaper was a gift to Angela and John from Daphne Fairbanks, daughter of Douglas Fairbanks Jnr and a family friend.
According to Angela, her husband was never happy about its rather racy design, particularly as his office was nearby on the top floor. In its new secluded location, showered with love and attention by John and Angela and their children, Ballingdon Hall achieved a renaissance. It returned to something approaching its original Tudor glamour, albeit with modern conveniences and a kitchen that featured on the front cover of Vogue.
THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
Sadly in January 2019 John Hodges died and Angela was faced with continuing to live in the mansion on her own. Eventually she decided to sell up and approved the purchase to Dr Aamer and Mrs Lesley Khan who moved into Ballingdon in March 2020. Dr Khan and Lesley bought many items with the house, including two four-poster beds that are now in the bedrooms known as The Queen Mary and Prince of Wales. The Queen Mary room takes its name from the carved bed that seems to celebrate a royal couple, Philip and Maria English inscription at the top of the headboard “I will lay me down in peace and take my rest for it is thou Lord only that makeste me to dwell in safety, Amen”. The bed which is thought to have come from France has a carved inscription at the base of headboard that links Philip IV and Maria with the countries of Ang (England) Fra (France) Hib (Scotland) and Hisp (Spain).
With the move uphill the hall lost its ghosts, which included young Sally, the daughter of a cook who once worked at the hall and a bearded old man of no fixed identity who, well into the twentieth century used to sit quietly on people’s beds.
Today Ballingdon Hall is a family home to Dr and Mrs Khan who have plans not only to preserve but also further restore this beautifully appointed sixteenth-century Elizabethan Manor House as its new custodians.