Beeston Hall and the History of the Preston Family


Beeston Hall, today the home of Sir Ronald, 7th Baronet, and Lady Preston, was built in 1786 in place of an earlier mansion on a different site. It is in "Gothick" style, castellated and faced with squared knapped flint - an unusual feature for a country house inviting special attention. A glass-panelled front porch was added in late Victorian times.

"Gothick" was an 18th and early 19th century movement based on fantasy and elegance inspired by the art and style of the true Gothic of the Middle Ages.

The present Hall is attributed to the architect William Wilkins, the elder of Norwich (1751-1815) who, among other works, restored Norwich Castle. His more famous son, Sir William Wilkins, R.A., designed the National Gallery in London. Beeston was built for Jacob Preston (1740-1787), a Norfolk squire, whose forbears purchased the Beeston Estate in 1640 from the Hobarts of Blickling Hall.

Sited to "Command the Prospect"

In the 18th century, for the first time, the sites of new country houses were chosen for their attractiveness, not merely for practical reasons. They were often placed on rising ground "to command the prospect" and this seems to be true of Beeston with its fine all-round view of the countryside.

Also typical of the period is the location of the kitchen garden with its high brick wall, some distance away out of sight of the house.

Fun Gothic

Gothick and castle-like from the outside, Beeston Hall in fact has the ground plan of a typical Georgian mansion and neo-Classical as well as Gothick interiors. Such a mix did not worry 18th century exponents of Gothick who unlike their more serious-minded successors, the Victorian Gothic Revivalists, put comfort and the needs of the social life of the times before purity of style.

Facing north and looking out towards Beeston St Lawrence Parish Church on the edge of the park, the entrance hall and library are, appropriately, in a restrained Gothick style, while on the south and garden side of the house a gayer note is struck with Georgian interiors for the principal rooms including a finely proportioned drawing room and a charming oval-shaped anteroom.

A fine dividing double-door has Gothick mouldings on one side and classical panelling on the other, while the sash windows on the south side appear Gothick from the outside and Georgian from within.

A Link with the Parish Church

The entrance hall has a plaster ceiling which is coved and ribbed in exactly the same manner as is the plaster vaulting in Beeston St Lawrence Church symbolizing the Preston family's close connection with that church where many of its members are buried and which was re-roofed and redecorated in 1803 by Thomas Hulton, later to become Sir Thomas Preston, 1st Baronet.

The village of Beeston, which the church served, was an ancient one being listed in the Doomsday Book as "Besetuna." It survived into the 18th century but has since disappeared and is numbered among the 130 or so "lost villages" of Norfolk. At the time of the Doomsday survey (1085) the land at Beeston belonged to the great Benedictine Abbey at Cowholme on the Broads, founded by King Canute in 1034 and now a scanty ruin.

The Park

The park, now largely given over to farming but still bearing the imprint of the original plan, seems to have been laid out in the late 1770s. Armstrong's history of Norfolk (1781) refers to it as being "well wooded and watered and lately much extended and otherwise improved." In 1823 it was described in Neale's "Views of Seats" as "extensive and possessing all the natural advantages of wood, water and varied ground further embellished by the skill of Mr Richmond."

Richmond was a contemporary and follower of Capability Brown, the great landscape gardener. Humphrey Repton, Brown's famous successor, was among Richmond's admirers. This emerges from a letter Repton wrote to a friend in which he coupled the name of Richmond with that of Brown and William Kent in a tribute to their works as the "places of my worship."

The view at Beeston showing the old hall (demolished in 1784) seen from the lake was the subject of one of Repton's drawings which appeared as an engraving in "Seats of the Nobility and Gentry" published by W. Watts of Chelsea. At that time Repton was living at Sustead, near Cromer, and had not yet taken up landscape gardening as a career.

The Cult of the Picturesque

In their designs, these men abandoned the classical notion of regularity and symmetry which dominated earlier garden and park plans in favour of the picturesque and irregular aspects of nature, striving for an effect of cultivated wildness.

The Gothick style of architecture for the mansion, the focal point of the vista, was considered to go well with and heighten the romantic character of this kind of landscaping and was much in vogue at the time. Beeston Hall and its surroundings belongs to this tradition and still retains something of the old atmosphere.


Thomasine Preston, widow of Jacob Preston of Old Buckenham, Norfolk, bought the Beeston Estate in 1640 (two years before the outbreak of the Civil War) from Edward Hobart, younger son of Sir Henry Hobart, Lord Chief Justice and 1st Baronet, the builder of Blickling Hall, from whom he inherited it fifteen years earlier.

Thomasine died in 1658 aged 82, and her son, also named Jacob (1613-1683) combined landowning with the law - he was called to the Bar at Lincoin's Inn and was Justice of the Peace - a pattern of life also followed by all but one of his 18th century descendants.

Roundheads and Royalists

Jacob married in 1639 Frances, daughter of Sir Isaac Appleton of Waldingfield, Suffolk, who was a staunch and active supporter of Cromwell and the Commonwealth; Jacob almost certainly shared his father-in-law's political sympathies. Sir Isaac's like-minded brother, Samuel Appleton, had in 1635 joined the "great migration" of Puritans, mostly from East Anglia, to the first settlement of New England taking with him across the ocean his wife and five children.

Family tradition has it that this Jacob Preston was one of four gentleman assigned by Cromwell to look after Charles 1st in captivity who, when on the scaffold, presented Jacob with an emerald ring in token of his esteem. This story and other versions of it are disputed and how the Preston family came by the ring, a genuine 17th century one, remains to be authenticated.

But not all the Preston family were roundheads - Jacob's first cousin, Thomas Preston, must have been of royalist opinions as he was sent by Charles 1st in 1630 to Ireland to inform the Lord Justices of the birth of Prince Charles. He was then a herald and in 1633 was appointed Ulster King of Arms.

Supporter of the Revolution

Jacob's son, Sir Isaac Preston (1640-1708) seems to have had the same political leanings as his father. A banister by training, he became Haven Commissioner of Norfolk, actively supported the cause of William of Orange in the Revolution against James II and was Knighted by the former in Whitehall in 1695. Isaac's first wife, Elizabeth, was the daughter of Charles George Cock, one of Cromwells' Judges of the Admiralty and a zealous sequestrator of royalist property in Norfolk.

The Stanfield Hall Murders

Another Isaac Preston (1711-1768) Sub-Steward of Yarmouth, may be said to have precipitated a chain of events which ended in the murder at Stanfield Hall, near Wymondham, in November 1848 of two of his descendants.

It all arose out of a deal Isaac made in 1754. The Stanfield Hall estate was to come to the Prestons under the will of William Jermy, Isaac's brother-in-law, who died childless. However, the will also provided that the estate should in certain circumstances revert to Jermy heirs, a possibility which Isaac, a wiley lawyer was anxious to prevent. He therefore, bought out for a paltry sum, the possible future Jermy heirs to the estate in favour of his own descendants. The legality of the deal was disputed two generations later by two members of the Jermy family who claimed to be the rightful owners of the estate.

The victims were Isaac Jermy-Preston, Recorder of Norwich, and his son. They were murdered together one dark and stormy night in November by James Blomfield Rush, a disgruntled farm tenant, who supported the Jermy claim in the hopes of exploiting it for his own purpose. The trial and public hanging of Rush outside Norwich Castle caused a sensation at the time, earned Rush a place of honour in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's and was given more lasting notoriety in Staffordshire pottery.

The Builder of Beeston Hall

Isaac's son Jacob (1740-1787) squire and Lieutenant-Colonel in the East Norfolk Militia, demolished in 1784 the old Beeston Hall, then described as a "large and irregular building with some good apartments" and repaired to Norwich with Mrs Preston while the present hall was built on a more prominent site. He barely survived to see his new and more elegant mansion completed before falling dead from his horse while giving instructions to his carpenter.

The Boston "Tea Party"

On the death of Jacob's widow in 1805, the Beeston estate passed to his nephew, Thomas Hulton (1768-1823) who changed his name to Preston by royal licence.

Thomas was the son of Elizabeth, nee Preston, and Henry Hulton, His Majesty's First Commissioner for Customs and Excise at Boston, Massachussets, who had the unenviable task of collecting unpopular taxes from George III's rebellious American subjects at the time of the Boston "Tea Party." Thomas spent his childhood in America during those troubled times and returned to this country with his parents and four American-born brothers after the British defeat in the American War of Independence.

Later in life, as colonel in the East Norfolk Yeomanry, Thomas Hulton marched his men from Norwich to the South Coast in 1799 to help man the defences against a feared invasion by Nappleon which never came. He had by his second wife, Jane, nee Bagge, two sons and ten daughters eight of them arriving before the first boy. He was created baronet in 1815.

Victorian Squire

Sir Jacob Preston (1812-1891) 2nd Baronet, was a prominent figure in the affairs of the county - he was Justice of the Peace, Deputy-Lord Lieutenant and High Sheriff of Norfolk and a stern Victorian father at home. In 1861 he was farming 1000 acres at Beeston employing 25 men and 10 boys. He had a household staff of 13, including coachmen and groom, looking after a family of five daughters and two sons. Sir Jacob was also a keen yachtsman and at the age of 80 was still seen sailing his famous lateen rigged "Maria," the fastest yacht on the Broads, now preserved in the Yarmouth Maritime Museum.

Sir Jacob's grandson, Lt-Colonel Sir Edward Hulton Preston, D.S.O., M.C., 5th Baronet, served with distinction with the Royal Sussex Regiment in World War I and concerned himself with county affairs becoming, like his grandfather, Deputy-Lord Lieutenant, Justice of the Peace and High Sheriff of Norfolk.

Gold Prospector and Diplomat

Sir Thomas Preston, O.B.E (1886-1976), 6th baronet, succeeded his first cousin late in life after spending most of it overseas. As a young man, he went on mining expeditions in northern Siberia prospecting for gold and later joined the Diplomatic Service. He was British Consul in Ekaterinburg (now Sverdlovsk) at the time of the murder in 1918 by the Bolsheviks of Tsar Nicholas II and the Russian Imperial family. His efforts to protect them and avert the tragedy proved of no avail and earned him the death sentence from which he was only saved by the timely capture of the town by friendly forces. On his return to England he was summoned by King George V to a private audience to tell of his experiences. The Tsar was the King's first cousin.

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Ref: Preston, Sir Ronald. circa1980. Beeston Hall, Beeston St Lawrence, Norfolk. 8pp.