Killerton is an 18th-century house in Broadclyst, Exeter, Devon, which, with its hillside garden and estate, has been owned by the National Trust since 1944 and is open to the public. The National Trust displays the house as a comfortable home. On display in the house is a collection of 18th- to 20th-century costumes, originally known as the Paulise de Bush collection, shown in period rooms.
The estate covers some 2590 hectares (25.9 km2, 6400 acres). Included in the Estate is a steep wooded hillside with the remains of an Iron Age Hill fort on top of it, also known as Dolbury, which has also yielded evidence of Roman occupation, thought to be a possible fort or marching camp within the Hill fort.
Killerton House itself and the Bear's Hut summerhouse in the grounds are Grade II* listed buildings. The gardens are Grade II* listed in the National Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.
*** – History – ***
The manor of Columb John in the parish of Broadclyst was purchased by Sir John Acland (d.1620), MP and High Sheriff of Devon. The adjoining estate of Killerton was purchased a short time thereafter from Sir Thomas Drewe (d.1651) of The Grange, Broadhembury, Sheriff of Devon in 1612, by his nephew Sir Arthur Acland (d.1610) of Acland in the parish of Landkey as jointure for his wife Eleanor Mallet. The present Georgian Killerton House was built by Sir Thomas Acland, 7th baronet in 1778. The chapel was built in 1738 to the designs of Charles Robert Cockerell.
The garden was created in the 1770s by John Veitch, one of the leading landscape designers of the time. It features rhododendrons, magnolias, herbaceous borders and rare trees, as well as an ice house and early 19th-century summer house.The surrounding parkland and woods offer a number of circular walks. Plans attributed to William Sawrey Gilpin (1762-
1843) for a new drive from Killerton to Columbjohn (1820) were not implemented; a short play about of the meeting between Veitch and Gilpin was commissioned by The National Trust in the gardens of Killerton in mid 2016.
Killerton was given to the National Trust by British politician Sir Richard Dyke Acland, 15th Baronet, and in September 2015 The National Trust commissioned a short drama to be staged on the site entitled The Gift, written by Eileen Dillon, telling the story of Sir Richard's decision to hand over his estate.
In 2016 an archeological dig discovered what is believed to be a footprint of an intended replacement home to the current Killerton. Reports believe that this is what has been known in history as the lost house of Devon, of 240 years, designed by architect James Wyatt.
It is a shortish walk from the current site, but still within the grounds, and its existence was obscured by a copse that looks to have been deliberately planted to hide it. Killerton have placed woodwork in all four corners of what they believe would have been the corners of the intended property above the footprints found. They have also placed a door and frame on what they believe would have been the entrance to the intended billiard room. Killerton’s information boards on the site state that there is an intention for further archeological digs in the future
*** – The House – ***
The house at Killerton is now closed until further notice. The National Trust look forward to welcoming you back in the future, and while the house is closed read on to find out about its history.
A brief history of Killerton house.
'There's no point in having a nice place like this unless we can get it full of people' - Sir Francis Dyke Acland, 1923
Sir Francis loved to use his home for large parties, with rooms full of people enjoying Killerton. This is still so today, after Sir Richard Acland donated Killerton to the National Trust in 1944, the house is still a place for people to enjoy the gift that the Acland's gave to everyone.
There has been a house on the site since 1610, however in the late eighteenth century this was replaced with a simple, well-proportioned rectangular two-storey house, designed by architect John Johnson. This house was to be a temporary residence for the family of Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, 7th Baronet, until a grander residence could be built.
James Wyatt designed a new house for Sir Thomas Acland at Killerton, Exeter, in 1772. However, the building of this grand Palladian-style mansion met with many difficulties and was never finished. The temporary residence became the permanent family home and was greatly modified, with extra rooms added as the family grew and in the late 1890s electricity and heating added. The final modification of Killerton came in 1924 when Sir Francis Acland, the 14th Baronet, had the entrance porch, which you enter through today, built.
*** – Exploring Killerton House – ***
Entrance Hall. Following a fire in 1924 Sir Francis, 14th Bt, rebuilt this as an open space suited to this large, hospitable family.
Study. Sir Charles, 12th Bt, built the study in 1900. Tenants and employees used the door at the far end so they would not disturb the household. Later generations used the study for more light-hearted activities including wood-turning, boat-building and darts.
Music Room. Originally the Dining Room, the room is named for the chamber organ installed for Lydia Acland, new wife of Sir Thomas, 10th Bt. They also added the bay window to make room for their family of ten children. In the 1920s and 1930s this room was the centre of family life. Sir Francis and his family had breakfast and tea here, and gathered after dinner for music and conversation.
The corridor. The long corridor runs through the house from the original front door. Hardly altered since 1778, it shows Johnson’s simple, elegant design.
Drawing Room. Sir Charles created this room for balls and grand functions, moving the front entrance away from here and opening out the front lobby into the adjoining room. However, the family used it properly only once.
Library. The library and the current dining room were the principal rooms in the original house. The library was the ‘Little Parlour’. It was so light that Henrietta Acland, the 9th Bt’s wife, considered putting paper panels over some of the windows. You're welcome to choose a book and read it in the library.
Dining Room. The dining room was the ‘Great Parlour’ – the only room Johnson decorated elaborately, with a frieze and columns. Sir Charles added images of agricultural work and silhouettes of himself and his wife, Gertrude, to the ceiling.
*** – The Laundry Room – ***
Killerton's laundry room gives a glimpse into the working days of the staff in the Victorian ages.
Killerton's laundry room was active until 1940, employing three full-time female staff and a number of part-time staff. Mrs Johns remembers joining Killerton’s laundry in March 1928, at 14 years old. She lived in Broadclyst, walking to work every day. She was paid 18 shillings a week - as she was the eldest of six, her mother was glad of the extra money.
Doing the laundry.
The maids did laundry for Killerton and people like Colonel Harris, who lived nearby in Broadclyst. They washed family clothes, servants’ uniforms, bed linen and household items. Luckily for them the nannies cleaned the babies’ nappies. Laundry came in on Monday morning and was divided into whites and coloureds, and laundry to be boiled or not. The maids had to be very careful afterwards to sort out what belonged to which family. They washed everything in large copper buckets. Mrs Johns remembers climbing into the coppers to wipe out green canker, which would stain the laundry. Laundry was dried indoors or outdoors, then pressed and ironed through the week.
The maids brought their own sandwiches and chipped in for milk and tea. During lunch and tea breaks the housemaids and the cook often came to chat. One of the cooks, a French woman, sometimes brought them soup or a sandwich.
Interacting with the family.
The maids had little contact with the Aclands, but when Sir Richard went shooting on Dolbury hill he would bring them a rabbit each. Mrs Johns says this thrilled them – meat was expensive in those days. The other maids had also known young Ellen Acland, who died in 1924. Ellen used to come and play with material in the mangle, sitting for ages and folding it into patterns.
End of the week.
On Friday the maids finished anything left, then carefully sorted the laundry so it went back to the right owners. In the afternoon, Mrs Johns walked from Killerton to Crabtree Cottage with the laundry for Miss Dudley and Nurse who lived there. She then walked on to her home for the weekend off.
*** – Chapel – ***
A day at Killerton isn't complete without a visit to Killerton's chapel. The grounds of the chapel are a quiet place to seek comfort and reflect.
In 1841, Sir Thomas Dyke Acland commissioned architect C.R.Cockrell to design the chapel you see today, as the chapel used previously at Columb John was inconveniently distant in poor weather. C.R.Cockrell was renowned for his classical style, but reluctantly agreed to copy the Norman chapel of St Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury. Cockrell and Sir Acland bickered often about the design and the construction.
The interior of the chapel is unusual for an English church, as serried ranks of seating face each other across the aisle rather than facing the altar. The congregation could all see each other; the Aclands, their guests, their senior servants, their lower servants, their estate workers and tenants.
The Aclands were a religious family who took their duties as role models very seriously. To Sir Thomas, attending church was a public act of ‘witness’, and he had a seat for himself to underline his central role as benign patriarch, with everyone expected to know their place in the social hierarchy. However, he could also be unorthodox. He invited the anti-slavery campaigner Samuel Crowther to the chapel, who afterwards became the first black bishop.
Sir Charles Dyke Acland, who inherited the chapel in 1898, read the lesson in chapel every Sunday, and shook the hands of his farm tenants after the service. If they did not attend one Sunday, a groom would be sent to their house on Monday morning, and requested to explain their absence face-to-face with Sir Charles. What may have been a brisk conversation was softened by a glass of whisky. Even in the 1960s, the chapel bell still rung out to call the men to work every morning.
*** – Bear's Hut and Ice House – ***
The bear's hut and ice house are unique features of the garden at Killerton awaiting discovery.
The Bear's Hut.
As you wander through the garden you'll notice a curious structure at the top of the lawn nestled beneath the trees. The bear's hut was built in 1808 by John Veitch on behalf of Sir Thomas Dyke Acland. Veitch was very fond of Sir Thomas' wife Lydia, and the two of them planned the hut as a surprise.
This hut was known at the time as the 'Lady Cot', which would act as a summerhouse for the family. The hut has a thatched roof and is constructed of timber from the estate. The beautiful stained glass window in the hut was collected by the Acland family on their travels. Each room is lined with different materials, from varying woods and deer skin, to matting and pine cones, with bark adorning some of the walls. The floor in the inner room is 'cobbled' with deer knuckle-bones.
The hut was renamed because in the 1860s it was used to house a black bear called Tom, which had been brought to Killerton by the 12th Baronet's brother, Gilbert, on his return from Canada.
The Ice House.
Cold winters were more common in the early 19th century, and fashionable houses relied on their ice houses. John Veitch designed the ice house on the Killerton estate in 1808. The structure was built into the back of the quarry, lined with brick, and the exterior was clad in earth and stone to create a natural-looking feature.
During the winter of 1809, 30 men worked for five days to fill it with 40 tons of ice from nearby ponds and the River Culm. The ice was crushed and compacted, and when required, chunks would be broken off with a pickaxe and taken to the kitchen in zinc-lined cases, where it was used to chill bottles and make yummy treats like ice-cream and bombes for the Acland family. The ice house is no longer in use, and has become more well known as a winter roost for Lesser-horseshoe bats.
*** – The Gardens – ***
Sir Thomas Dyke Acland wanted to create a landscape, garden and house at Killerton that reflected his family's importance and position in society. He hired John Veitch in 1772 as his gardener, and they worked together until Sir Thomas's death in 1785. Together they left a lasting impression on the landscape and a lasting relationship between the two families.
John Veitch grew up in Scotland, helping his father Thomas manage the woodlands on the estate of Ancrum House. He wanted to become a gardener and landscape designer, and as a teenager went to learn his trade at two nurseries in London. John apprenticed at Robert Dickson & Son in Scotland, then Vineyard Nursery in Hammersmith, run by James Lee, who recommended Veitch to Sir Thomas Acland.
John Veitch was influenced by Capability Brown and worked with Repton at Luscombe castle. His initial garden designs included a winding mix of paths, open views, and rustic buildings, such as the Bear's Hut and Ice House, and a classical orangery (which was later removed). The picturesque art movement inspired his landscaping and planting, and is still a major influence of the parkland and gardens you will find today.
He dramatised the hill behind the house by planting tall trees on it, contrasting below with a gentle sweep of lawn into the valley floor beyond. New paths and drives followed natural contours, placed to take advantage of breathtaking views in the distance.
Sir Thomas was so impressed with John’s work at Killerton that, in order to persuade him to stay for the long-term, he offered him the funds and land at Budlake to develop his own business. Sir Thomas also allowed John to act a freelance landscape designer, and encouraged him to marry and start a family (very unusual at a time when many staff were expected to remain single and loyal to their employers).
Alongside working for the Aclands, John developed his own reputation by working with other designers, even if only supplying them with plants. He was sent to Saltram near Plymouth to witness Capability Brown at work.
Veitch was inspired by his time with other designers and by the fashions of the day, including the picturesque movement. By 1801 the garden around the house was fenced off from the parkland and in 1808 when Sir Thomas, 10th Baronet, came of age, work developed quickly, and large numbers of ornamental trees were planted to emphasise the steep hill of the Clump and Park Wood to make Killerton a more dramatic point in the landscape. He added rustic buildings and features to make the views of the countryside all the more special.
John Veitch retired in 1813, but still had a hand in the family nursery, but with his son James at the helm. Veitch’s family and nursery went from strength to strength over succeeding generations, becoming one of the biggest and most prestigious nurseries in Victorian England. They sent plant hunters across the globe to bring back specimens.
The Veitchs continued to use Killerton’s grounds to test new plants right into the twentieth century. The garden is therefore an excellent showcase for plant hunters and their adventures around the world. The family still had a relationship with the Aclands 140 years later when Sir Arthur Acland and Sir Harry Veitch both served on the education committee of the Royal Horticultural Society.
The head gardener during the late nineteenth century was John Coutts. He developed an old quarry near the house into today's rock garden, inspired by alpine plants. The one hundred metre long terrace was built overlooking the rolling Devon countryside to the south of the house. It was originally planted with a large range of roses, and is now home to a half hardy border.
*** – Visiting – ***
The car park, garden, park, toilets and café takeaway at Killerton are now open, and the shop will reopen from Thursday 3 December. The National Trust have introduced advance booking to keep everyone safe and maintain social distancing. To avoid disappointment please book in advance, especially at busier times such as weekends and school holidays. However, where space is available on weekdays, pre-booking may not always be necessary. Click here to book now.
*** – The Acland Walk – ***
At just over a mile the Acland walk is suitable for pushchairs, ordinary shoes and people with little legs. This buggy-friendly circular walk follows surfaced paths through the parkland, garden and chapel grounds and is a great introduction to Killerton. Not suitable for dogs. The walk is classified as Easy, it is about one mile long and should take between 40 minutes and one and a half hours. A great route for families.
Start: Visitor Reception, Stable Block.
*** – Two Chapels Walk – ***
Taking in both of Killerton's chapels, historic parkland, the River Culm, open farmland and ancient woodland, this walk is great way to explore the wider Killerton estate. It can be muddy in places so is unsuitable for pushchairs. Dogs are not allowed in the chapel grounds. The walk is classified as Easy, it is three and a half miles long and should take between one and a half and two hours. Dogs are not allowed in the chapel grounds.
Start: Visitor reception, Stable Block.
*** – Facilities – ***
Location : Killerton House, Broadclyst, Exeter, Devon, EX5 3LE
Transport: Exeter Central (National Rail) then bus 7 miles. Bus Routes : 1, 1A and 1C. More information at stagecoachbus.com.
Opening Times : Estate Weekdays 09:30 to 17:00, Weekend 10:00 to 17:00.
Tickets : Adults £10.00; Children £5.00.
Tel: 01392 881345