Our history : Up, Up and Down – The Staircases of Middleton

When taking visitors on a tour of Middleton Hall, when we reach the fourth (and last) staircase that we go up I normally say “be glad that you weren’t here in the 19th century as the Hall had 62 staircases then”! Harry Potter has nothing in comparison to Middleton when it comes to staircases moving or changing although I will concede that ours didn’t change of their own accord. Nonetheless, the volunteers’ legs are very glad that we don’t have that many staircases anymore!

The oldest known staircase at Middleton Hall was built in 1285 and it was an external stone staircase attached to the south end of the Stone Building. It was the main entrance. This staircase is thought to have been demolished in the 16th century.

Staircases were a feature of solely stone-built structures until the 16th century. Second floors for timber buildings did not develop until the 15th century and at that time they were accessed by ladders. However, within a century, staircases soon became a common feature in most multi-storeyed buildings.

Middleton Hall can boast three different styles of staircase construction: the winder; the newel; and the cantilever.

First you have the winder staircase. These are often known now as spiral staircases. They rise in a spiral form around a central post. The steps are angled and narrower as you get closer to the central post.

Great Hall staircase in 1993 (photograph by Beryl Ellerslie)

By the 17th century, the newel staircase had become the most favoured design. This type of staircase has separate treads (the horizontal part that you stand on) and risers (the vertical bit that gives the height of the step). In a newel staircase all of the treads and risers were the same shape and angle. They were supported by large corner end posts, which were called newels. The newel post was affixed to the floor.

The original spindles on the Great Hall staircase were badly damaged. New ones were hand-made by volunteer, Geoff Fox.

In Georgian times, the cantilevered staircase developed. A cantilevered staircase is only fixed to the wall that it is adjacent to. It is now often known as a floating staircase. The grand staircase at Middleton Hall is a cantilevered staircase. Its construction was severely tested when the Hall was in its ruined state. One night vandals decided to ride their motorbikes up and down it. The impact of this act of vandalism was that the staircase was then described as “swinging freely” from the wall. Thankfully it has been restored to its former glory along with all the 128 spindles that had to be re-made by volunteers. The spindles are in an alternating barley twist design and were a reproduction of the design visible in old photographs of the Great Hall.

 

In terms of the historical location of the staircases:

  • The Great Hall grand staircases which are of a Georgian construction that replaced an earlier Tudor staircase.
  • There was also a staircase from the Great Hall down into the building to the north of it. When that building was removed in 1925, that staircase was replaced by a concrete version and is now the main entrance to the Hall.
  • The main stair section is thought to have been constructed in about 1647. It was affixed to the west face of the John Ray Building. This had stone stairs going down to the cellars and stairs going up to access both the first floor and attic level. This section was demolished in 1925.
  • There was a second staircase to access the first floor between the Great Hall and the John Ray building. This was also demolished in 1925.
  • To the north of the old kitchen was a staircase that descended to access the cellars.
  • In what we call the Annexe (the bit between the Stone Building and the South Wing) there was another stair section that provided access to the South Wing and Stone Building, which was demolished in 1925.
  • In the area that is now Willughby’s Tea Room, there was another main stair section. This stair section was added in the 19th century and provided access to the first floor of the West Wing.
  • In what is now the Trust kitchen, adjacent to the Old Kitchen, there was a narrow staircase to provide access to the laundry (now restoration room) in the room above it. This was removed by 1925 and moved into the Old Kitchen (at that time it was a garage).
  • There is an obscured staircase in the Peel Museum which leads up to the West Wing attics.
  • In 1925, John Averill added another staircase into a projection off the West Wing to access the first floor, which is still there today.
  • John Averill also added staircases against: the internal west wall of the Jettied Building (still there); the internal west wall of the John Ray Building (not there); and the internal wall in what we call the Cottage (currently RSPB office, not there but another staircase has since been added to this area).
  • The external staircase between the John Ray Building and the Stone Building was constructed by Middleton Hall Trust.

However, this rather obviously does not come to 62! We are yet to find the location of them all. We were told that there were once 62 staircases by Mrs I. E. March who was the granddaughter of Egbert de Hamel (tenant of Middleton Hall from 1886 to 1924). She spent much of her childhood at the Hall and reported that she used to count the staircases. However, she didn’t say whether her total included all the little steps and the external buildings.

When you are next at Middleton, how many can you count? And just be glad that there are no longer 62 …! Oh and don’t ride a motorbike up a cantilevered staircase … it is not good for its structural stability!

Debbie Jordan, Middleton Hall Trust Volunteer & Historian