In this second excerpt from their new book Catholics and their Houses, Peter Stanford and Leanda de Lisle pay a visit to Ince Blundell Hall in Merseyside
Catholicity survived in Lancashire not only because of the staunchness proper to its people, the tenacity with which the cling to old traditions, but :because the Faith itself is the 'very marrow of their being. Dom FO Blundell, "Old Catholic Lancashire" STANDING BEHIND ITS high red brick wall as an island of space and order amid the clutter of the suburban sprawl of Liverpool, Ince Blundell Hall and its 50 acre park were for many generations the home of one of Lancashire's leading recusant families, the Blundells. Here behind an imposing three storey brick and stone facade, they maintained until the latter half of the twentieth century an aristocratic and devout life.
Like many Lancastrians from all levels of society, the Blundells who had inhabited the manor of Ince since the thirteenth century, refused to compromise in their allegiance to the Pope at the time of Henry VIII's break with Rome. When Elizabeth's spies and pursuivants hounded them in their twelfth century manor house the shell of which survives to this day in the park the Blundells secretly built a small chapel deep in the woods, where, in the shadow of its cross-shaped windows, they continued the practice of centuries.
For the main part the family worked away quietly, profitably but unspectacularly in the professions. However, with the gradual relaxation of the penal measures against Catholics, Robert Blundell felt confident enough hi 1720 to begin the construction of a new home 100 yards away from his manor house.
Ince Blundell Hall is designed along Georgian lines and in imitation of the original Buckingham House in London. Though Robert may have been comfortable with parading his wealth by building such a handsome new home, he still saw the need to maintain a low profile when it came to religion. Sensitive to any suggestion of evangelising, he did not feel able openly to include a chapel in the grand design. Instead, at the end of what was the servants' block, behind the main house, you can still climb the staircase that once led to a small oratory hidden away, with no outward show, under the gables.
The steps today lead to an organ loft, pan of the grand nineteenth century chapel, designed by JJ Scoles, which replaced the earlier place of worship once all remaining fears and prejudices had been overcome. In the eighteenth century, the Blundells played host to the Jesuits who used the hall as one of the centres of their Lancastrian mission.
In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, Henry Blundell added Ince Blundell's Pantheon, its most intriguing and ostentatious architectural feature. Its scale was another indication of the growing confidence of the English Catholic gentry who were now given legal rights by the Relief Acts of 1778 and 1791 to buy and inherit land. The day of full equality was still fifty years away but Henry Blundell saw no need to temper his taste for display.
The Pantheon was designed to house his extensive collection of antiquities which he built up in rivalry with his Catholic neighbour, Charles Townley of Townley Hall. While Blundell may have commissioned the grander showcase, Townley amassed the more interesting collection and his treasures are now in the British Museum. Blundell's legacy was given to the city of Liverpool by his descendants in 1959, In 1837 Henry's heir, Charles Robert, died and the male Blundell line came to an end. The estate could not he inherited by a woman so it passed to a distant cousin, Thomas Weld, a junior member of the recusant clan of Lulworth Castle in Dorset. The one condition for the inheritance was that the heir changed his surname to WeldBlundell.
Charles Blundell's two sisters both married into long-standing Catholic families, one to a Stonor and the other a Tempest of Broughton Hall resolved to contest the will, so passionately did they feel about their home. They launched what became a celebrated legal battle and were finally defeated in the House of Lords (One sister had died by the time of the court case but her nephew continued the fight).
The ruling turned out to be a Godsend for Ince Blundell, for Thomas Weld-Blundell oversaw extensive renovations to the house. He employed the celebrated interior designer Crace to adorn several of the main rooms with pretty Raphaelesque motifs and fashioned a perfectly proportioned gallery which is today used as a chapel for private prayer.
Thomas and his wife Teresa were both deeply devout and are recalled by stained glass windows of their patron saints in the main chapel. Their twelve children and numerous grandchildren continued to live at Ince Blundell while the hall was a landmark for the local Catholic community at a time when Liverpool was welcoming wave after wave of Irish immigration. The main chapel acted as a parish church and is today owned by the archdiocese of Liverpool.
The last two Weld-Blundell male heirs died during and shortly after the First World War. For forty years the house entered something of a twilight zone, home to their two grieving sisters for their lifetime but fated to be sold on their deaths. Proud of the family tradition both women insisted unusually for the time that they kept their maiden name when they married.
The two were determined that the house should be used for religious purposes and persuaded the heirs, their Weld cousins from Lulworth, to favour some kind of apostolic work for the future of Ince Blundell. In 1958 when the second Weld-Blundell sister died, John Carmel Heenan, the then Archbishop of Liverpool and later Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, managed to persuade the Augustinian Nursing Sisters, a French order, to buy the property despite interest from the Littlewoods founder, John Moores.
The sisters continue to run it as a home for retired priests and lay people and have been sensitive when carrying out essential alterations to maintain the character of what was for many years on of the grandest Catholic houses in Lancashire.
Ince Blundell stands on the A565 halfway between the centre of Liverpool and the seaside resort of Southport. Mass is said in the chapel each day but the house itself is not open to the public.