Links with the Russian aristocracy, honeymooning royals, devastating fires, financial ruin and suicide – that’s just a small part of the drama and intrigue-packed 245-year history of Luton Hoo.
Peter Pugh is the historian behind the book Luton Hoo that gives a fascinating insight into one of the country’s great houses, the people who lived and worked there and its transformation into a luxury hotel, in which guise it continues today.
The book contains many previously unpublished photographs, documents and stories in its 246 pages, and Peter was commissioned to write it by the owners of Luton Hoo Hotel, Golf & Spa to mark its fifth anniversary in 2013.
Peter is an old hand at writing history books, having written a three-volume history of Rolls-Royce, one on the legacy of Margaret Thatcher and a book on Luton Hoo’s sister hotel, the Grand in Eastbourne – but how do you go about condensing 245 years into just one book?
“Luckily they’d been very good at keeping archive material,“ says Peter, “and there are people who have worked there for 30 years, from when it was still privately owned, who I was lucky enough to talk to. As writing company histories go, it’s been relatively easy.“
Luton Hoo was built in 1767 for the third Earl of Bute, John Stuart, who had been Prime Minister, not too successfully, from 1762 to 1793, by architect Robert Adam and landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.
The house was redesigned around 1830 by Robert Smirke, when Stuart’s grandson, the second Marquess of Bute, moved in. In 1843, a fire devastated much of the house and its contents and it remained in a terrible state until the estate was bought by Liverpool solicitor John Leigh in 1848. Leigh’s family owned the estate until 1903, when the diamond magnate Sir Julius Wernher bought it.
“The 3rd Earl of Bute was quite an important chap,“ says Peter. “He fell out with the king (George lll) so Luton Hoo was a bit of a retreat for him. It had a lot of different owners but the story really gets interesting when Wernher moved in.
“Julius and Alice Wernher’s son Harold married the daughter of Grand Duke Michael of Russia, Countess Anastasia Mikhailovna de Torby, who was also the great granddaughter of Tsar Nicholas I,“ Peter explains. “When the Russian Revolution came, George V initially instructed the royal family to get out of the country and then rescinded that decision – and we all know what happened to them, they were all assassinated. I think he had a guilty conscience so he became quite close to Harold and Anastasia, who was known as Lady Zia.“
Because of that royal connection, Luton Hoo was frequented by Queen Mary, George V’s wife, and the Queen and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, spent part of their honeymoon there in 1947 and returned briefly on their anniversary every year until the 1970s, when Harold Wernher died.
But the family drama didn’t end there. “Julius’ great great grandson, Nicky Phillips, committed suicide,“ Peter continues. “He borrowed £30million at the beginning of the 1990s to develop it as an industrial estate, because it cost so much to run and he needed the money, but of course there was the recession then and it all went wrong and he killed himself.“
Luton Hoo is available from Luton Hoo Hotel, Golf & Spa and from Icon Books Ltd, £35
Luton Hoo has appeared in many films including Never Say Never Again, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Eyes Wide Shut, Wilde, The World is Not Enough, Enigma, De-Lovely and War Horse.
The house was built for the third Earl of Bute in 1767, by architect Robert Adam. The mansion was redesigned by Robert Smirke for the Earl’s grandson, the 2nd Marquess of Bute. In 1843, the building was severely damaged in a fire, and was rebuilt by new owner John Leigh, a Liverpool solicitor, in 1848. Diamond magnate Sir Julius Wernher bought the estate in 1903 and made a number of alterations, and added his great art collection. In 1999, Luton Hoo was purchased by Elite Hotels and opened as a hotel in 2007.
Samuel Johnson visited in 1781; a number of royals have visited including Queen Mary, Edward VII and the Queen and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who spent part of their honeymoon at Luton Hoo; Winston Churchill addressed a 100,000-strong rally at the house during the war.