1896 – Knebworth House, Hertfordshire

SM 30 – Nov 13

James 2 died on 11th August 1898, and, in its edition dated 29th August, the ‘Hertfordshire Mercury’ published an obituary that reads:

‘We regret to announce the death of My James Pulham (the head of the well-known firm of Pulham and Son) terracotta manufacturers and rock workers, of Finsbury Square and Broxbourne, which took place, after about a week’s illness, on the 11th inst at Tottenham, where he had resided for the last fifteen years.   The late Mr Pulham was born in Woodbridge, Suffolk, in 1820, and commenced his business in Tottenham, and afterwards moved it to Hoddesdon, and subsequently to Broxbourne, where it has been carried on for the last 45 years.

‘He was actively employed until within about a week of his death, and it is through his untiring industry and perseverance, maintained through a long life, that he succeeded, with the assistance of his son (Mr James Pulham) in raising the business to the eminent position it now occupies as one of the leading firms of its kind in the kingdom.   Some thirty years ago, he did much work in the county in the way of restoration of churches, schools and mansions, and recently important works have been carried on at Knebworth House.   The artistic work of the firm has added to the attractiveness of some of our watering places (notably the Aquarium at Brighton, Scarborough etc) and the grounds of Sandringham House, and many of the nobility and gentry in various parts of the British Isles have had their beauty enhanced by the picturesque rockwork which was introduced by, and is now quite a speciality of the firm.   At the International Exhibition of 1851, the highest award was conferred on Mr Pulham for the ‘Resuscitation of Terracotta’ in the country, and, at the Paris Exhibition of 1867, he was awarded the silver medal for the execution of the Science and Art Department’s design for Mulready’s Tomb.’

It is rather strange that the firm’s work at Knebworth House should have been highlighted in this obituary, because it was actually one of their smaller commissions, but it is nevertheless of sufficient interest to qualify as a Site of The Month.

Knebworth House has been the home of the Lytton family since the 15th century, and it had been subjected to many modifications and developments as each successive generation imposed their own personalities on those of their ancestors.    Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton inherited the estate in 1843,[i] and, in 1846, he invited James 2 to tender for some work that included the construction of some balustrading around the terrace.   It is perhaps worth pointing out here that, at the time, James 2 was still only 26 years old; had only just started his new business in Station Road, Broxbourne, and that he did not bring James 3 into the business to form the firm of James Pulham and Son until 19 years later, in 1865.

The price quoted by James 2 was apparently the highest submitted, but Lord Lytton’s Agent nevertheless offered him the work, provided that this price could be reduced.   James 2 declined this suggestion on the basis that the best work should be priced properly, and he was not prepared to work to a sub-standard specification.

 5-10-30-1 - Knebworth House Letter

 Fig 1 – Letter from James Pulham and Son to G Wigley, Land Agent and Surveyor to Knebworth House, dated 1st May 1896   (Reproduced by permission of Knebworth Archive Library)

It then transpired that, in 1896 – the date referred to in the Hertfordshire Mercury obituary – James Pulham and Son received a request to quote for the restoration of this balustrading that had, in the event, been constructed by someone else.[ii]   In response, James 2 reminded the Agent who submitted the request that ‘he’ (the writer) had:

‘. . . estimated for the erection of the balustrade when it was first done nearly fifty years ago . . . (and that he had quoted) to do the work in a thoroughly substantial manner, so that he could guarantee its durability, but tho’ he was offered somewhat more than others, he declined, feeling that he could not do it for a less sum than he estimated, being very anxious to do it if possible.’

5-10-30-2 - Knebworth Old Balustrade
a)       The original balustrade, erected by an unknown contractor in 1846

5-10-30-3 - Knebworth New Balustrade

b)   The replacement balustrade erected by James Pulham and Son in 1896

Fig 2  –  The balustrading at Knebworth House

Then came the sting in the tail:

‘It is needless to say that, had the work been done in a substantial or durable manner in the first instance, it would not have needed repairing now, for many of our jobs in Herts and other counties which have been done quite as long as the balustrade in question are as perfect as they were the day they were completed.’[iii]

In other words:  ‘This is entirely your own fault, because, if you had engaged us to do the work in the first place, it would not need to be restored now!’

This exchange was followed by quite a lot of haggling about a number of minor details – including the type of sand to be used – but James 2 eventually did the restoration work, having first suggested that:

‘. . . as a matter of taste, and with your kind approval, it would be very effective if a lower balustrade were substituted in the bay opposite front door where the iron railings were, thus: (illustration added), which would not shut out the extensive view beyond.’

A copy of this letter is reproduced in Fig 1, with an illustration of the balustrade pattern affixed.   This suggestion was accepted and the balustrade was duly erected, as can be confirmed from the photographs – Fig 2 – that I took during my visit in 2004.


[ii]    Thomas Smith 1798-1875, An Architect of Note by John Corfield, published by the Hertford and Ware Local History Society

[iii]    Copies of correspondence from the Library Archives at Knebworth House

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