Southcote House
Reading St. Mary, Berkshire

Although owners of Southcote House (or Manor) are known as far back as the Saxon Brictward who lived in the reign of Edward the Confessor, it is not clear how often they were in residence until the building of the first house platform and associated residence in the early 13th century. It had a large inner moat and a smaller outer one fed by the nearby Holy Brook. This seems to have been constructed for the Belet family who originally came from another moated manor, Balsdon Castle at Inglewood in Kintbury, at the other end of the county. Michael Belet was apparently in residence at Southcote in 1337, when he established a rabbit warren there to feed his household. His probable daughter and heiress, Alice, married Thomas Restwold, perhaps a younger brother of Ralph Restwold of High Head Castle in Cumberland, whose main southern home was the small manor of Lee in Sindlesham. Their grandaughter and heiress, Lucy, married Laurence Drewe (d.1417) of Seagry in Wiltshire, King’s Attorney to King Richard II and a member of his Royal Council. He was at the head of much of the legal administration of the King’s affairs at the end of his reign, including organising equipment for the famous Irish expedition and reporting its progress to Parliament. He was lucky to survive the King’s unhappy demise, but, after a short period in custody, was able to live a more rural life in Berkshire and Wiltshire. In 1387, he was fined for failing to repair a causeway and associated ditch at Southcote (presumably that which still exists just south-east of the site), as well as the ‘Stokyng Bridge’. His granddaughter and heiress, Margaret, married Walter Sambourne of Fernham, part of Shrivenham, in North Berkshire, and Lushill, just over the border in Wiltshire. It was probably Walter who, around 1450, built the first of the structures that survived as part of the early 20th century complex: the arch-braced south wing and chapel, three chalk cellars and the north-eastern brick guard-tower. It is often supposed that there was originally a tower at each corner of the platform connected by the surrounding wall, but there seems to be no clear evidence for this. There was, however, a large manor house built around a courtyard, probably with a small towered entrance and at least one grand bay window to catch the morning Sun.

In the early sixteenth century, Walter’s great granddaughter, Margaret Sambourne, married William, 2nd Baron Windsor. The couple lived at their much grander residences at Bradenham in Buckinghamshire and Southcote was rented out to tenants. In 1595, their grandson sold the place to Anthony Blagrave of Old Bulmershe Court in Woodley. His father, John, had established the family’s fortunes around Reading when he inherited considerable former abbey property from his step-father, William Grey. Anthony remained at Bulmershe, but, in 1596, leased Southcote to his younger brother, John, for nine-six years. He was a well-known and respected mathematician of the age, as well as an early accurate map-maker. He wrote several books, at least one at Southcote, and left a sketch of the house and its associated buildings which has survived. It probably shows his rebuilding of much of the medieval structure, with large gatehouse, two southern and western wings and a north-eastern ‘Solar Tower’ where he apparently pursued his study of the heavens. This was almost certainly the detached building at the eastern end of the later main frontage. It was demolished around 1900. In his will (1611), John Blagrave refers to Southcote House as “my old dwelling house at Southcote which was first builded”. Perhaps he found the medieval parts of the building a little restrictive and old fashioned, for, by this time, he was living at Southcote Lodge, a dwelling he had recently erected. Presumably, this was on the site of the present house of that name, on edge of the estate, off the Burghfield Road. Mervyn Tuchet, 4th Earl of Castlehaven, a nephew of Lady Davies of Englefield House, was living there in 1665. It was later in the hands of the Noakes from the Castle Brewery. The current building, originally called Calvespit House, was probably built by their eventual heir, George Noyes, in the mid-18th century. Gen. Lawrence Shadwell (1823-1887), of Crimea fame, retired there.

The will of John the Mathematician was so complicated and exact that a considerable time was spent in deciphering it to the complete satisfaction of the legatees. The lease of Southcote was left to his brother, Alexander, and then his sons, in a particular order. Alexander only outlived John by a year and the next to inherit should have been Daniel Blagrave, but his elder brother, John, managed to briefly take possession until the old mathematician’s ghost appeared and told him to leave! And so the rightful heir was able to take up residence at Southcote. Daniel Blagrave was a Staple Inn attorney and almost certainly the man who instigated a major rebuilding programme at Southcote, perhaps when he came of age in 1624. This included the building of the main slightly e-planned northern frontage, so well-known from old photographs. He was elected MP for Reading in 1640, which did not place him in good standing with the King when the Civil War began two years later. The Royalists were initially in charge of Reading, so Daniel was ejected from Southcote and it was handed over to one more sympathetic to their cause. However, during the subsequent siege of the town by Parliamentary forces, Daniel was able to take back his home, allowing the Earl of Essex to make it his headquarters when he arrived on the scene in in April 1643. He is said to have held a Council of War in the old oak panelled room before marching to raise the siege. One can imagine the figures of Cromwell, John Hampden, Essex and Blake, all stern visaged and immobile, sitting at a documented table, their faces clouded with care and anxiety, while standing about the tables are officers with strange and worried looks. Daniel later became one of the infamous Regicides and was obliged to flee abroad after the Restoration.

Daniel Blagrave’s family lived mostly in London and never recovered the lease of Southcote. It seems to have reverted to the owner, Sir John, the son of Anthony Blagrave, the original purchaser. He let his younger brother, Anthony, live at Bulmershe and moved into Southcote himself. After his death in 1655, his widow, Rose, Lady Blagrave, lived there for a while, before the Regicide's brother, John, was allowed to move in. He was Steward to Sir Bulstrode Whitelocke, and was followed at the property by his son, Alexander, until his death in 1690. The place then reverted to old Sir John's nephew, another  John Blagrave. He favoured Bulmershe, so other family members may have lived at Southcote House until it was given to his second son, Anthony, and then the latter’s son, John. By the 1750s, repairs at the old house at Southcote may have become increasingly expensive. In 1759, John Blagrave purchased Calcot Park in Tilehurst from the heartbroken Benjamin Child. He remained at Southcote for only a few years more while Calcot’s water-damaged house was rebuilt. It was during this time that his father-in-law, Sir George Cobb baronet, accidentally fell in the moat and was drowned on 29th March 1762. He was an old man of ninety. Perhaps this sad event finally persuaded the Blagraves to leave Southcote and never return. 

The family continued to own the manor house, but rented it out to tenants. In 1813, it was empty. From 1828 until 1850, it was the home of Charles and Frances Lutyens and, briefly afterwards, of their son, also Charles, who had been born there. The latter became the father of the famous architect, Edwin Lutyens. It is tempting to think that he may have visited the old family home and been inspired by the architecture - perhaps when building Deanery Gardens in Sonning. After the death of the Governor of Jersey, Major-General Godfrey Mundy in 1860, his widow, Louisa, moved to Southcote House with her two young sons. She was the niece of the Earl of Carnarvon from Highclere Castle, near Newbury. The eccentric recluse, Wastel Brisco (1824-1891), was living there in the 1870s and 80s, when he spent considerable sums in renovating the dilapidated parts, particularly the exterior. In 1891, he pulled down the south-western timber chapel and had a large twin-gabled seven-bay west-wing built. Presumably this was the large ball-room often referred to. The interesting so-called 'clock' tower on the west side of the main facade (with little sign of a clock) was also his work. However, the full plan was never completed as he died on 2nd October that year , in the middle of the construction schedule. Ten years later, there was only a caretaker living there when the Blagraves tried to sell the place. They were, however, unsuccessful due to it being in need of extensive maintenance. Despite continuing decay, the local people had a great fascination for the old house and it was often visited by interested groups. However, when demolition was proposed, their outcry was not enough to prevent it and the house was demolished in 1921. The large stable block-cum-gatehouse outside the moat remained until 1960, but eventually went the same way. There was a small excavation of the site prior to the present flats being built within the, now dry, moat in 1964. Only this medieval defensive measure remains today to reminder us of the site’s former grandeur.

Click here for a 1905 Description of Southcote House


    © Nash Ford Publishing 2001; Revised 2015. All Rights Reserved.