The Red Hall

The Red Hall

The architect and builder are unknown yet their legacy remains with the Red Hall which dates back to the early 17th century. It has a chequered history as a home and institution, even as part of a Victorian railway complex, yet survived 100 years of vibrations from steam locomotives and rolling stock to become our most famous secular building which has been Grade II* listed since 1977.

The house is believed to have been built for a wealthy businessman, Gilbert Fisher, and is typical of the new style of residence being constructed for prosperous gentlemen of the early Stuart period, remaining in his family for almost a century although the evidence is that the high costs involved also put them deeply in debt because the building was heavily mortgaged for several years afterwards and the liabilities were not finally settled until the family vacated the property over ninety years later.

The favoured designer of the Red Hall is John Thorpe (circa 1565-1655), one of the foremost architects in Britain during the time of Elizabeth I. A volume of his architectural drawings survives [in the Soane Museum of architecture in London] and these enable us to judge his work and to say with some certainty that he was responsible. The house was built on similar lines to Dowsby Hall, also designed by Thorpe about the same period, and was set in formal gardens. In fact, the original plans show a striking resemblance not only to the preliminary studies for Dowsby Hall, built for Sir William Rigdon between 1603 and 1610, but also to a whole series of drawings by Thorpe who was consulted by a circle of landowners about house building projects in this part of England, particularly in the Kesteven area of Lincolnshire.

The building of the house is not documented but construction is assumed to have been between 1600 and 1610, with 1605 being the favoured date. There is, however, a theory that it could have been a decade before, suggested by David L Roberts in his pamphlet (undated) which appraises John Thorpe's designs for Dowsby Hall and the Red Hall. "It would appear improbable that the rather coarse quality of the Red Hall could be contemporary with the relative polish of the work at Dowsby", he writes, "and an earlier date, possibly nearer 1595, might be more appropriate. Could Sir William Rigdon have built the house and then sold Dowsby to cover his expenditure?"

No documentary evidence survives to identify the builder but the first tenant was undoubtedly Gilbert Fisher, a London grocer, who had amassed a sufficient fortune to finance such an ambitious project that would give him a standing in the community. He was the son of Richard Fisher, who died in 1597, who had been chief constable of the hundreds or wapentake [an ancient division of the county] and was therefore a man of some importance while his son had made a success of his business and was classed as "a gentleman" in the parish register.

The house, as with Dowsby, was set within formal gardens and the design was conceived on the double pile principle with rooms two deep, a practice that was less common than the more traditional design of a hall with one or two cross-wings and two storeys with garrets.

The walls are made of locally produced hand-made bricks of a distinctive deep red with stone detailing and ashlar quoins, hence the name, and the original intricately carved oak staircase with attractive turned balusters remains intact. The house is many gabled and has a fine Tuscan porch. The four main rooms on the ground floor comprised an entrance hall and dining parlour at the front with the kitchen and buttery-cum-pantry in the rear. Above these, on the first floor, were four bedrooms, while on the second floor, running right across the front half of the building, was the high gallery. It is interesting to see that the two main living rooms downstairs were without beds, as we would expect them to be nowadays, but in that period it was still quite usual to find parlours that were used for sleeping in. It is therefore apparent that Gilbert Fisher and his family were well up with changing trends. There were also a number of outbuildings attached to the Red Hall, the most important of these being a kitchen or scullery, a brew house, and a dairy.

The interior furnishings of the Red Hall show how the standard of domestic comfort was rising and this is reflected in the growing prosperity of families such as the Fishers. When Gilbert Fisher died in 1633, an inventory of the house showed that in the hall stood a table, stools and a pair of andirons. The dining parlour had a green cover for the table, green chairs, two needlework chairs, stools with covers, cushions, two green curtains and rods for the windows. The kitchen contained 42 pieces of pewter with brass pots for cooking, and a warming pan. The bedroom on the first floor had tapestry coverlets, silk curtains and hangings while one had a china basin and ewer. The so-called high gallery contained not only spare beds, but also stores of cheese and butter. He also owned 97 sheep, 10 kine [cows], 16 calves, 17 young beasts, a heifer, steer and bull, four yokes of draught bullocks, eight draught horses and a filly. There were also hens, a sow and some pigs, while barley, peas and oats in the field were worth £90. He also had £230 worth of land on lease, the smaller lot containing 90 acres, and a larger quantity being unspecified.

However, life was not without its difficulties and Fisher died in debt, his goods totalling £663 13s. 4d. but his liabilities and funeral charges exceeded that amount and he owed, £282 2s. 4d. to the Earl of Exeter and £45 10s. in rent to him as well as other small debts. He also had his share of bereavements. A son, also Gilbert, was born in December 1610 and died the following May. His wife, Catherine, was buried in August 1612 but he married again and in 1615 they had a son, John, who was baptised and buried a week later. Another son, also Gilbert, was christened in 1616 but he too died when he was nine years old. The couple had several more children and one of these died in childhood, another was buried five days after her baptism.

After Gilbert Fisher's death in 1633, his family remained in occupation until 1698 when the Red Hall was sold by his grandson, also Gilbert Fisher, first to Richard Dixon and then to Richard Warwick and subsequently passed into the hands of the Digby family when James Digby (1707-51) married Warwick's daughter and heir, Elizabeth, circa 1730. After James died, his eldest son, John, became tenant and when he died in 1777, ownership passed to his younger brother, James. He achieved some distinction in the county, becoming Deputy Lieutenant of Lincolnshire, clerk to the Turnpike Trust for the south east district of the road between Lincoln Heath and Peterborough and treasurer of the Black Sluice Drainage Commissioners.

James Digby was also twice married, firstly to Mary, daughter of Francis Green, of Dowsby, in 1757 but she died in 1792, and in 1796 when he was 60 years old, he married Catherine, 23-year-old daughter of the Rev Humphrey Hyde, Vicar of Bourne, and it was to the Red Hall that he brought his young bride who was 37 years his junior where they seem to have lived in some style and comfort with many servants and a wine cellar stocked with fine wine and port. James Digby outlived his two other brothers, George and Richard, and by the time of his death in 1811, he had built up a considerable estate in Bourne and Dyke and a fortune reputed to be around £200,000. The Red Hall and a portion of his lands remained in the possession of his widow, then known as Lady Catherine, together with a legacy of £500 and an annuity in the same sum, until she died in 1836 when under the terms of her late husband's will, ownership passed to his youngest sister, Mrs Henrietta Pauncefort.

An inventory of the Red Hall from this time also survives to give a glimpse of the way the family had lived during the early 19th century. The ground floor rooms were now known as the hall, drawing room, dining room, breakfast room and kitchen while the next floor comprised four bedrooms, three of them being designated by colours, namely green, yellow and blue. On the top floor was a storage garret and rooms for the men and maid servants. The rooms, as in a previous period, seem to have been somewhat over-furnished, the dining room containing mahogany and claw furniture with two ottomans and a dozen chairs. In the drawing room were a sofa, two ottomans, numerous small tables, seven elbow chairs and four Swiss chairs. Four-poster beds with hangings were still to be found in the bedrooms upstairs while there was a six-foot bath in the closet.

There is evidence that the next tenant was Charles Sleith Esq, the Red Hall being described as his seat in 1841 in Pigot and Company's Trade directory for that year, and it is assumed that the property was leased to him and ownership remaining with the Duncomb family. Duncomb died in 1849 and his property was inherited by his son, also named Philip Pauncefort Duncomb, who lived in Buckinghamshire. For ten years, the Red Hall was leased for use as a private boarding school for young ladies, firstly under the direction of Miss Elizabeth Sardeson and then Miss Eliza Wood, and in 1859-60 Duncomb sold the property, together with the adjoining buildings and five acres of land, to the Bourne and Essendine Railway Company for £1,305 and so it came about that the town's railway station arose almost on the doorstep of this famous building.

While conversion work was going ahead, a disastrous fire that might have destroyed the Red Hall was narrowly averted. Shortly after 5 pm on Sunday 27th November 1859, the alarm was raised when smoke was seen coming from one of the rooms. The town fire engine was called out and its prompt attendance and help by others who were already at the scene prevented more serious damage. A subsequent investigation revealed that the fire had started in a room that had been occupied the previous day by men employed on converting the building for use as the railway premises.

They had lit a fire in the fireplace to keep warm but there had been a large quantity of wood and other rubbish in the chimney, probably lodged there by jackdaws while the hall was unoccupied, and this caught light, the flames then spreading to a large beam and to several of the floor joists. A fire brigade official said that the blaze could easily have spread to a quantity of old timber that was lying around the premises and had the outbreak occurred a few hours later when no one was about, it was probable that the entire building would have gone up in flames.

Photographed circa 1920

The Red Hall was eventually converted for use as the stationmaster's house and ticket office for the railway line but in 1891, the Great Northern Railway Company decided to extend the installations at Bourne and to demolish the building to make way for new sidings. This provoked an outcry, not only in the town but throughout the country, and a petition to the directors endorsed by local citizens and conservation groups was raised in an attempt to save it. On Friday 18th December 1891, in response to the petition or memorial as it was called, the directors came to Bourne by special train to inspect the property with the result that the decision was eventually reversed.

The building was not only saved but the company ordered extensive refurbishment over the next few months to ensure that it was kept in good order for the future and the Nottingham Evening Post reported on Wednesday 7th September 1892: "The restoration of the old Red Hall at Bourne, better known to historians as 'Guy Fawkes' Mansion', has been completed. It will be remembered that the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings petitioned the directors of the Great Northern Railway Company with a view of saving and restoring the building, which had previously been doomed to demolition on account of the new Midland and Great Northern Railway extensions at that point."

In 1920, the owners (then the London and North Eastern Railway company) decided that the hall was too large to be occupied solely by one family and so the available living accommodation was divided up to provide rooms for two more members of staff and their dependants. But in 1931, it was reported that the combined gross rental from the two new occupants was £33 per annum which "involved a loss to the company of about £7 per annum".

This was regarded as uneconomic and the company began looking around for new uses to which the property could be put and a local clergyman, the Rev Gerald Davis, Vicar of Thurlby (from 1925-31), applied to lease the house with a view to it being restored and used partly as a museum and partly as headquarters of a local welfare society, the public being allowed to inspect the property at reasonable times. Mr Davis told the railway company that he would find alternative accommodation in Bourne for the railway staff and their families and a 21-year lease was agreed at a peppercorn rent of £1 a year but he was unable to find anyone who would act as trustees who were prepared to accept responsibility for restoring the house and the local authority, then Bourne Urban District Council, also refused to become involved and so the scheme was dropped.

When the station closed in 1959, the future of the Red Hall again came under review and the company expressed an intention to give the building away but no one wanted it and many councillors, including some from Bourne, suggested that it should be left to fall down. But help was at hand, notably through the efforts of the late Councillor Jack Burchnell, and after a long and determined fight, he ensured that Bourne United Charities acquired the freehold in 1962 and they remain the owners to this day. The hall was in a dilapidated condition when they took over, the chimneys having been dismantled in 1957 because they had become dangerous although the remainder of the building was intact, and with the aid of local funds and grants, it was carefully and sympathetically restored to its former elegance under the guidance of the Lincolnshire architects Bond and Read and re-opened in December 1972 as a museum, community centre and the offices of Bourne United Charities.

The Red Hall from the rear

Most visitors see only the front facade of the Red Hall and few take the trouble to walk round and inspect it from the back. It is equally attractive from here and despite the financial problems it created for Gilbert Fisher, we are grateful for his architectural legacy that has become one of the delights of this small market town. The Red Hall must be one of the great treasures from 17th century England because the exterior and, more particularly the interior, have remained relatively untouched for 500 years.

The first impression during a tour of the house is that very little has altered since Gilbert Fisher and his family moved there in 1605. It has a sense of permanence, thick walls, seasoned wood, solid flooring, and a magnificent staircase that takes you to the very top floor and to the long gallery where the family would relax in the evenings and at weekends or to entertain their guests.

 The long gallery
Part of the long gallery on the top floor of the Red Hall

This room is the finest of all in the Red Hall, still redolent of its past, and to walk its length is to experience an expectation of meeting past occupants. The long gallery and upper rooms have been refurbished in recent years but the work has been so well executed that it is hardly noticeable except for small plaques that remind us of recent philanthropy, one on the top floor hallway (left) and another inside the door of the long gallery:

The restoration of this gallery and the adjoining rooms was begun in 1963 through the generosity of Mr and Mrs T L Brodrick , Mr H Delaine-Smith, Dr J A Galletly and Mr and Mrs H M A Stanton, all of Bourne, and of the Rt Hon the Earl of Ancaster. 

This gallery was restored by Mr and Mrs H M A Stanton in memory of Mrs Stanton's mother and father, the late Mr and Mrs S R Andrews, Mr Andrews having been for many years Clerk to the Trustees, and having in his lifetime been mainly responsible in developing the Leytonstone Estate from which the Charities derive most of its income, and Mrs Andrews having been a trustee for 25 years.


Further restoration has been carried out in the boardroom where the trustees of Bourne United Charities hold their regular meetings to administer the various funds under their control. A small plaque here says:


This room was restored in 1972 in memory of Robert Arthur Gardner, J P, of Bourne, artist, 1850-1926.

Gardner, a former trustee. was also a talented artist and four of his framed watercolours are on display in this room.



Woodwork ancient and modern - the Jacobean staircase and the panelled boardroom where the trustees meet monthly.

The Red Hall continues in use today as the headquarters of Bourne United Charities but rooms are also used for a variety of functions by local groups and conservation organisations. The attractive period appearance also makes it a magnet for visitors and it must be one of the most photographed buildings in Bourne, almost as famous as the Abbey Church itself. It is not, however, easily accessible for public inspection. Visitors are unable to make a tour of the building without prior arrangement with Bourne United Charities and its interest is therefore restricted. Other public buildings such as the church, the Heritage Centre and Wake House, may be seen during opening times but no such facility exists at the Red Hall and its beauty is therefore only seen from the outside.


Gatehouse in past times

Photographed in July 2009

Gatehouse today

The gatehouse to the Red Hall is now a private house, standing in South Street at what was the entrance to the drive. The cubic building has lancet windows and was originally finished in the same distinctive hand-made red bricks but the outside walls have been rendered and painted and turrets which adorned each of the four corners of the roof were removed during the early part of the 20th century. As with the Red Hall itself, this is Grade II listed as is the section of wall with pyramidal caps on the two pillars that can be seen on the left of the building.

The gateway to the Red Hall (below) that once stood in South Street was demolished by prisoners of war in 1918 to make way for the garage premises of Tuck Brothers, motor engineers.

Red Hall gateway


Photographed in 2008

The earthquake which struck Lincolnshire in the early hours of Wednesday 27th February 2008 may have caused damage to the stone pinnacles on the gable ends of the Red Hall. Surveyors revealed that they may already have been unsafe and that the problem could have been made worse by the seismic shock which registered a magnitude of 5.3 on the Richter scale. Builders arrived on Wednesday 16th April to repair the damage using a 12-ton cherry picker to reach the roof sixty feet up and each of the limestone pinnacles was removed and then cemented back into place.



The restoration of the Old Red Hall at Bourne, better known to historians as Guy Fawkes' Mansion, has now been completed at a considerable cost. It will be remembered that the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings petitioned the directors of the Great Northern Railway with a view to saving and restoring the building which had previously been doomed to demolition on account of the now Midland and Great Northern Railway extension at this point - news report from the Morning Post, Thursday 8th September 1892.

The Red Hall, circa 1909


THE RED HALL was used for various railway facilities from 1862 until 1959, including booking office and stationmaster’s house, and the picture above dates from 1909 showing the footbridge to the platforms on the left. The incongruous bay windows on the ground floor were built as part of the station complex but removed when this unfortunate episode in the hall's history came to an end.
The new railway line between Bourne and Saxby was built between 1891 and 1893 and the original scheme proposed the demolition of the Red Hall to make way for new sidings to take freight traffic. The suggestion caused some outcry and a petition was duly raised by the townspeople and presented to the railway company in 1892 in an attempt to save the historic building from demolition. 
Feelings were so strong that the railway company relented and the Red Hall was preserved only to face further uncertainty half a century later. When the railway closed in 1959, the hall was in a dilapidated condition and in danger of being demolished but Bourne United Charities stepped in and through the inspiration of their chairman, Councillor Jack Burchnell, the trustees took over the freehold in 1962 and it remains one of the town's most attractive architectural assets to this day.

Red Hall and platforms

Red Hall footbridge

The Red Hall with footbridge and platforms running alongside.



Photograph courtesy John Nowell

See also

The myth of the Gunpowder Plot     The Red Hall ghost

Past owners of the Red Hall     The Red Hall in Past Times     Catherine Digby

Thomas Glendening     The petition of 1891     Bourne United Charities   

     Disposing of the Red Hall     The 1972 re-opening     The 1976 Tudor exhibition

The 1981 Heritage exhibition     The R A Gardner art exhibition of 1996

More photographs of the Red Hall

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