Restored and reimagined – Wentworth Woodhouse’s historic Camellia House blooms again

by | 27 April 2024 | Community facility, Heritage, Rother

Visitors can now take tea where the ladies of the house did in 1738, and beside some of the oldest camellias in the Western world.

From derelict shell on the Heritage at Risk Register to beautifully restored global tea house… a new life has dawned for Wentworth Woodhouse’s Grade II listed Camellia House.

Set in a secluded spot in the gardens of their prestigious stately home in Rotherham, the building served as a peaceful retreat for its aristocratic owners from 1738.

It was originally built as a tea house where the Marchioness of Rockingham Lady Mary Finch and her wealthy friends would sip the most fashionable drink of the day. It later became home to some of Britain’s first camellias to arrive from China, each of which reputedly cost keen collector the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam the equivalent of a housemaid’s annual wage.

In the 20th century, it was still a beloved family haunt; Lt Col Burton ‘Bertie’ Gething chose the Camellia House as the idyllic setting to propose to Lady Donatia, third daughter of Billy and Maud Fitzwilliam.
But after the family departed in the 1980s, the Camellia House fell into decline and its blooms were forgotten.

When Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust bought the mansion for £7million in 2017, it was one of many buildings close to dereliction.

In 2019, a discovery by Head Gardener Scott Jamieson found many of the 19 camellias existing from a collection once numbering up to 30 were originals, likely dating from the early 1800s. They were deemed some of the oldest surviving in the Western world by the International Camellia Society.

Now, thanks to a year-long, £5million restoration funded primarily with £4millon from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and just over £614,000 from Historic England, the Camellia House has been saved and its precious plants protected.

Officially launched on Friday 22nd March, the Camellia House opened on 2nd April as a tea house where people can take tea among camellias still thriving after 200 years.

The menu features teas from across the globe and a food offer includes international tapas. In the evenings, the venue will serve as an events space.

Mondays are reserved exclusively for charities and community groups. Partnering with Home Instead, monthly Memory Cafés will run for people living with dementia.

With the support of architects Donald Insall Associates and York-based construction specialists William Birch Ltd, the restoration has set a new benchmark for sustainable design in heritage and listed buildings, winning best Innovation in Environmental Improvement in the Green Apple Environmental Awards 2023 and shortlisted for the RICS Award 2024.

Numerous heritage conservation challenges, not least the protection of the historic camellias, were overcome. Wherever possible, original materials and features were retained – including some of the country’s largest Georgian sash windows.

Energy-conserving methods introduced include carbon-neutral heating and a rainwater harvesting system, which irrigates the camellia plants and provides water for the WCs.

Sarah McLeod, the Preservation Trust’s CEO, commented: “Saving the Camellia House and giving it a new life is a huge achievement for us. It’s a significant step in our mission to build a financially sustainable long-term solution for Wentworth Woodhouse, so it can be enjoyed and used by local people for many years to come.