Edgcumbe House, Lostwithiel (Grade II*)

Buildings can be at risk for many reasons. Edgcumbe House in Lostwithiel is a Grade II* listed townhouse with an uncertain future. Beyond its architectural credit lies an interesting history which gives the property great historic significance and a heritage asset any town would be proud. However, since the town council stopped using it as offices the building has been left empty and signs of deterioration are now evident. This is the story of building with a remarkable past.

In 1733 a new town charter marked the end of mayoral control by the Johns family placing  the Edgcumbe family firmly in control of the corporation for the next one hundred years. Two generations in particular played a key role in Lostwithiel’s rising fortunes: first, Richard Edgcumbe (1680-1758) elected MP in 1734, created a capital burgess in 1736, elected mayor in 1738 and raised to the peerage as 1st Baron Mount Edgcumbe in 1742 and second, his sons Richard (1716-1761) and George (1720-95) (2nd and 3rd Barons), the former created a capital burgess in 1743, elected mayor the following year and served as MP between 1747 and 1754 while the latter was elected capital burgess in 1761 and mayor in 1762.

In tandem with their combined civic aspiration came architectural ambition, in this case focussed primarily at the higher-end of Fore Street. Such ambition  was described by one commentator as being ‘grand urban gestures in a small market town’; hence, between 1740 and 1781 the family built the Guildhall (1740), Edgcumbe House (c.1760) and the Dower House (c.1761) while the Old Grammar School and Market house in Queen Street is dated 1781, the year the 3rd Baron was raised to the rank of Viscount. All were in the prevailing Classical style.

Edgcumbe House, Fore Street, Lostwithiel

In 1740 Thomas Pitt declared that the ‘headquarters’ of ‘Mr Edgcumbe [was at] Lostwithiel’. It is likely therefore that the Edgcumbe’s acquired Taprell House from the town corporation and lived in it prior to c.1760 when they commissioned a new frontage onto Fore Street to replace the outdated 16th century courtyard house. In doing so they created one of the finest mid-18th century town houses in the county. Edgcumbe House is built of granite ashlar with a slated mansard roof. The five-bay house sits on a moulded plinth, has a string course between ground and first floor and is surmounted by a heavy cornice. The two downstairs rooms, in particular, are of high quality and are comparable in style to country house commissions of the period.  The open string staircase with columned newel posts is a good feature. 

Good plasterwork and staircase features survive intact.

Between September 1762 and May 1764 Thomas Edwards of Greenwich received three cash payments totalling £241 6s 9d from Thomas Jones, the 3rd Baron’s steward (CRO ME 3221). This amounts to some £26,000 today and marks the final payments of a building project or projects, one of which appears to be for the 3rd Baron himself while the other two were paid for by the 3rd Baron but on behalf of his ‘late father and brother’ (i.e. the 1st and 2nd Barons). As these works do not have any immediate relationship to any ongoing work at Mount Edgcumbe it would be tempting to think that the payments relate to Edwards working in Lostwithiel, which, if proved to be the case, would represent some of the architect’s last Cornish commissions.    

Building a compelling case for Edwards involvement is not that difficult as the principal room, now the Mayor’s Parlour, has excellent plasterwork echoing design features found at Carclew and Tehidy, both by Edwards. As convincing is the Chambereque fireplace with frieze above that has a strong resemblance to the same feature in the east bayed room at Trewithen, installed by Edwards between 1753 and 1758. Further research, in particular comparison with the Edwards built Mansion House in Truro, which shares similar detailing and overlaps timewise, would prove fruitful.

Beyond the significance of the Edgcumbe family to the town, the civic connection between the townhouse and the Guildhall, the architectural relationship between Edgcumbe House and Taprell House and the role of Thomas Edwards in this work, is a further interest with what is today called the Dower House. No date survives for its construction however the building remains contemporary with Edgcumbe House and extends work across the Taprell house plot. It was unlikely to have originally been built for a dowager Lady Edgcumbe as the 1st and 3rd Barons wives died in 1721 and 1807 while the 2nd Baron died unmarried.

It appears logical that the first payment of £41 6s 9d, paid to Edwards on 25 September 1762, was in relation to work done for the 3rd Baron, possibly for his own town house, now known as the Dower House, which if commissioned in 1760 or 1761 would overlap with his brother still living in Edgcumbe House and just prior to his election as burgess. The latter two payments therefore might relate to outstanding debts for the building of Guildhall and Edgcumbe House. More needs to be done on these relationships.

The so called Dower House, Lostwithiel.

Some historic building analysis might well focus on some of these relationships and would undoubtedly hone in further on the significance of Edgcumbe House and associated sites. On first inspection there are some outstanding features in this building which would draw more comparisons and provide compelling evidence that Edwards was Edgcumbe’s architect in Lostwithiel. 

Plans for a future re-use of Edgcumbe House or possible sale on the open market are currently being discussed by Lostwithiel Town Council. Dower House is in private ownership and is not deemed to be at risk.

Published by buildingsatrisk

Since 1969 the aims of the Cornish Buildings Group have been to stimulate interest, appreciation and knowledge of good building in Cornwall, and to encourage the erection, protection, repair and recording of such buildings. Like any amenities group, we depend on numbers, strength and support of our membership, who provide the force and knowledge that have made us effective for over fifty years. We encourage the protection and repair of historic buildings whether these are listed buildings or simply good examples of traditional building. We aim to encourage good architecture and to raise the general standard of building throughout the county. We hope that our generation may leave behind it buildings which will be looked back on with that same pleasure and enjoyment that we experience when we look at the architecture of past ages.

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