Lilleshall Hall

Lilleshall Hall

Lilleshall Hall is a large former country house and estate located near Lilleshall in Shropshire, England. It was founded as an Augustinian Abbey in the 12th century, with its estate running to some 30,000 acres (120 km²). The ruins of the original abbey are protected today by English Heritage.

Now run by Leisure Connection Ltd on behalf of Sport England, Lilleshall is one of five National Sports Centres. It lies between Telford and Newport, off the A518, in the Bridgnorth district (though surrounded on two sides by the borough of Telford and Wrekin) and the Wrekin constituency.

Early history

The estate was purchased after it ceased to be an abbey in the dissolution by James Leveson in 1543 with the family living in the house until the Civil War. The royalists gained the estate until 1645 when it then fell to the Parliament troops. The estate returned to the family, who grew their power through a series of marriages and allegiances.

Sir William Leveson-Gower, the fourth baronet, married Lady Jane Granville, daughter of the Earl of Bath, which raised the family from baronetcy to marquisate. They built a new country residence in the village but their son George Granville Leveson-Gower after his marriage in 1765 considered it too small and so decided to build something better. His wife instructed the architect Sir John Wyattville and local builders and the present Hall was completed in 1829, three years before the newly elevated Duke of Sutherland's death.

The approach to the Estate from the main Wolverhampton to Chester Road is through the "Golden Gates", an exact replica of those adorning Buckingham Palace. The gardens include many bridges, the original canal, an Ornamental garden, a Grecian Temple, ponds and the Apple Walk (about half its original pergola length). The high Obelisk was built in 1833 in memory of the 1st Duke of Sutherland and designed by G.E. Hamilton.

Herbert Ford

In 1915, one year after the fifth Duke succeeded to the seat at the age of 25, he decided on the outbreak of the First World War that it was unwise to have so much of his riches tied up in land and property. He sold the entire estate except the Hall and 50 acres of gardens. He then decided he wanted to live closer to London and sold the remainder of the estate in 1917 to Sir John Lee.

Herbert Ford was a local man who acquired his wealth from the industry of the Ironbridge Gorge, added to by his marriage to Alice Perrins of the Lea and Perrins Worcester Sauce fame. In 1927 he bought the estate and decided on a business plan based on an "early Stately Home". From 1930 until 1939, the Hall had pleasure gardens for the public, including an amusement park, a narrow gauge railway, tea dances, and children's playgrounds. He added an additional nine holes on the existing nine hole golf course (designed by the noted golf course architect, Harry Colt and later becoming Lilleshall Hall Golf Club http://www.lilleshallhallgolfclub.co.uk/) but it was not played on for 20 years owing to a rent dispute with farmers that resulted in cattle on the course. He even increased attendance by advertising that the German airship Hindenburg would fly over the estate even when its route was nowhere near; he explained that the lack of an airship was due to bad weather in a self-sent telegram!

Second World War

At the outbreak of the Second World War the pleasure gardens closed, an air raid bunker was built and wooden classrooms erected. This accommodated both Cheltenham Ladies' College and later Dr Barnardo's used the facilities as an orphanage. The land and gardens were intensively farmed throughout this period.

After WW2

Many estates were left in ruin after World War II and Lilleshall was no exception. Repairing them to pre-World War II state was expensive and the social revolution that had occurred meant they were very much more expensive to run. Mr Ford struggled on but in 1949, the Central Council of Physical Recreation were seeking a second National Recreation Centre to serve the North of England to complement Bisham Abbey in the South.

In 1949, a sale was agreed for £30,000 for the Hall and ten acres, made possible by a financial gift from the people of South Africa to Clement Atlee's Government. Mr Ford then gave another ten acres on condition he and his family could stay in residence for at least another ten years or until his death.

The sports centre was opened in 1951 by HM Queen Elizabeth II (then HRH the Princess Elizabeth). Jim Lane, a member of the Marylebone Cricket Club became the first warden. He started a number of cricketing courses and the first Conference of cricket coaches was held there in December 1951. Annual summer schools were held from July until September for the governing bodies of many major sports, including cricket, archery, athletics, fencing, judo, weightlifting, basketball, soccer, netball, and tennis.

Sports centre

Following the success of the summer schools, more and more governing bodies came to look upon Lilleshall as their own national and regional coaching or squad training centre. In twenty-one years as a National Recreation Centre, the governing bodies of Cricket, Rugby League and Rugby Union, Lawn Tennis, Badminton, Hockey, Lacrosse, Netball, the Professional Golfing Association and Association Football all were based at the centre:

  • The 1966 England team trained for two weeks prior to their success in World Cup of 1966. Sir Alfred Ramsey returned in 1967
  • The ten acre field purchased in 1949 was extended by a further ten acres and developed as a playing field. HRH Prince Phillip opened the Pavilion built with a grant from the South African charitable trust in November 1954
  • Originally a gymnasium, movement and dance studio, King George VI Sports Hall was a square multi-purpose hall. Funded by a grant of £56,000 from the King George VI memorial foundation, it opened on 31 October 1955
  • Funded by B.A.G.A, a pitted area for gymnastics was added in 1979
  • In 1985 the King George Hall and the pitted area became the permanent home for British gymnastics
  • In 1986 the Football Association took over the gymnasium for use as the International Sports Medicine Institute and Rehabilitation Centre
  • The UK's first Human Performance Centre opened in 1988
  • The Sutherland Hall, with the opening of the National Centre at Crystal Palace becoming the principal athletics facility, was converted in 1983 for cricket, archery and indoor bowls
  • Ford Hall, originally a stable block and then converted by Henry Hall into a ballroom, is now used for table tennis and martial arts
  • Wenlock Hall was opened in 1986, a multi-purpose sports facility, incorporating the William Morgan Development Centre for International Volleyball. The Hall was named after the town of Much Wenlock, where it is believed the idea of the modern day Olympic Games was conceived. The Wenlock games are still held annually to this day
  • During the 1950s and early 1960s, a new hall of residence was built. It was refurbished in the 1990s to provide ensuite accommodation
  • Five squash courts (two glass backed)

The centre also boasts externally:

  • Four grass tennis courts
  • Four floodlit all weather tennis courts
  • Ten acre floodlit playing field
  • Six lane flat green Bowling Green
  • Floodlit water based Astroturf pitch

The Football Association

The Football Association's School of Excellence was established at Lilleshall in 1984 and closed in the Summer of 1999. Most Premiership football clubs have now established their own centres of excellence based on the Lilleshall model. The school came in for some criticism due to its centralist and perceived anti-club agenda but its star pupils included Jermain Defoe, Michael Owen, Joe Cole, Scott Parker and Wes Brown.

Today

Now run by Leisure Connection on behalf of Sport England, Lilleshall is one of five National Sports Centres. Lilleshall houses the administrative headquarters for many leading British sporting associations including the Football Association's Medical Education Centre, the Grand National Archery Society and the British Amateur Gymnastics Association. The Centre is a British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences accredited laboratory and is staffed by fully qualified sports scientists who are specialists in exercise physiology and biomechanics. Lilleshall also offers residential accommodation, seminar and banqueting facilities.

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