The building of POLTIMORE HOUSE on this site did not start until the 1550s, long years after the first mention of the manor of Poltimore in the Domesday Survey of 1086.
By the time Richard Bampfylde began building his Tudor mansion, the estate had been held by Bampfyldes for more than three centuries – after John Bampfylde was bequeathed it by a Canon of Exeter Cathedral in 1298.
That first great house can still be seen at Poltimore today – the three-gabled north front, the fine Tudor staircase tower in the corner of the central courtyard. Attic windows and fragments of Tudor fireplaces are still visible – in some cases revealed as a result of its damaged condition today.
When Richard Bampfylde died in 1594 his will describes the house and its fittings, and mentions ‘the Parlor Chamber the Sollar Chamber the Hall Chamber and the Chamber over the Kitchen.‘ Still there at Poltimore, though covered over with more recent changes, the locations of these key rooms of a Tudor house can still be identified.
Successive generations of Bampfyldes built, rebuilt and added to the house. In 1646 the end of Civil War in the south west was negotiated at Poltimore, and the Treaty of Exeter was signed in the Great Hall at Poltimore – in the fine east-facing room re-modelled in about 1740 as the Saloon.
As described in Jocelyn Hemming’s A Devon House, the story of Poltimore (2005), ‘For over six centuries the Bampfylde family lived at Poltimore, and every hundred years or so, successive generations pulled down and rebuilt or extended the mansion and modernised their estate.’
The remarkable building history of the house closes once Augustus Bampfylde, the second Baron Poltimore completed the addition of the outer west wing in 1908, housing new comfortable rooms and the grand ballroom.
But by 1921, following the death of the third Baron Poltimore in 1918, the house was surplus to the family’s needs, and it was put up for auction. Failing to sell, it was taken over by a girls’ school which renamed itself Poltimore College after its new home. And when Poltimore College finally closed in 1939, the boys of Dover College moved in, evacuated to the comparative safety of Devon from their front-line position in Kent.
In 1945 it was eventually bought by two Exeter doctors who recognised the urgent need for new hospital bedspaces, and for a maternity hospital to cope with the post-war baby boom. In 1962 it became the property of the South West Regional Hospital Board, as part of the National Health Service, who, until 1976 when it was sold, and the estate yet further dismembered, leaving only 13 acres of grounds with the house today.
From 1976 to 2000 this great building, sorely in need of care, repair and security, had none of that. Passing from owner to owner, with many fine elements of the house stolen, water coming through the leaky roof and an arson attack in the west wing, Poltimore House in 2000 was a sorry sight.
The Poltimore House Trust was formed in May 2000, with support from East Devon District Council, and a remit to restore and return the house to the people of Devon. In 2003 Poltimore House featured on the Restoration programme, and many people understood for the first time what a predicament faced the Trust.
By 2005 a new scaffold and massive protective roof had been erected, funded by English Heritage, under which the house is safe and dry for the first time in near 30 years.
In 2009, English Heritage, which has never lost interest in Poltimore, awarded a grant of £500,000 to the Poltimore House Trust, to start the long process of repair.
The story of this repair and its new uses will form the next chapter of the history of Poltimore House.
A full history of the house and the Bampfylde family, written by Jocelyn Hemming (daughter of the Exeter doctors who set up the Poltimore Hospital) is available – and can be ordered on line through the Shop section of the website – and bought at any of the many open days at Poltimore.