Our December 2016 talk - reviewed by Mike Chitty

Anna Alexander - a volunteer guide at Speke Hall - came to talk to us on 4th December. She wore the costume that she uses for her tours. Her illustrated talk took us from room to room through the house, and by the end we were fully informed about William Norris, Frederick Leyland, Adelaide Watt and others who, in their very different ways, made their mark on the present-day Hall.

We heard about Adam and Eve, the yew trees in the entrance courtyard which are between 500 and 1,000 years old. We read the inscription 'EDW N ANO 1598' which was put there by Edward Norris, alongside the 'Eavesdropper Hole' which allowed him and his servants to find out who was calling, and what they were talking about, before opening the door. Those were the days of religious persecution, and the Norrises were Catholics. We saw the room where Masses had secretly been held, and the Priest Hole where the celebrant could hide if necessary. Anna showed us the ornate plasterwork and over-mantle commemorating William Norris's 19 children.

By the 18th century Speke Hall was a ruin, with cows living in the Great Hall and the roof collapsing. But Richard Watt of Wigan, who had moved to Liverpool and owned sugar plantations in Jamaica, saw its historical value and its potential. He spent £73,500 of his profits from the slave trade (the equivalent of perhaps £6.5 million today) on buying the building and setting about its repair and restoration.

In the 1870s, his descendant Miss Adelaide Watt rented out the building to Frederick Leyland, who had taken control of the Bibby Line and used his wealth to assemble a collection of artworks including paintings and furniture, for which Speke Hall provided the ideal backdrop. His visitors included Dante Gabriel Rossetti and James McNeill Whistler. Whistler's mother nursed the Leyland children through bouts of scarlet fever.

It was Adelaide Watt who, in the 20th century, decided to bequeath the Hall to the National Trust. Anna explained how the Trust has sought to preserve as much as possible of the building's original fabric, while highlighting later additions such as the kitchen with its Edwardian range, the servants' hall with its bells from 1856, and the bathrooms (including one with William Morris wallpaper). Although much of the old furniture had been sold off and dispersed long ago, the Trust has been able to acquire replacements - including a billiard table (from a Garston working-men's club) which it is believed was the very one purchased by Frederick Leyland from Waring & Gillow of Liverpool.

Anna explained that she shows adults round the Hall on Sundays, and children during the week. The children come from schools in Wales and Lancashire as well as Merseyside. They always want to hear ghost stories. Anna has concluded that one of the best-known Speke Hall stories - about the baby thrown into the moat, and his distraught mother who stabbed herself to death - was probably invented by Adelaide Watt; but that doesn't stop people asking to hear it.

At the end, Anna showed us extracts from the 'Rental of Thomas Norris', a 20ft long document that mentions numerous people and places which she is hoping to identify. Anna's enthusiasm was infectious, and many of those present were, as a result, looking forward to taking a 'fresh look' at Speke Hall in 2017.

Visit the National Trust's SPEKE HALL, GARDEN AND ESTATE web pages

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