St Giles House, Dorset

The house has resumed its role as the ancestral home of the Earls of Shaftesbury, breathing new life into the estate and village of Wimborne St Giles and providing a source of local employment and a popular venue for events and functions.

Where: Wimborne St Giles, Dorset

Years on register: 1998-2014


Abandoned and boarded up

For 700 years St Giles House was the ancestral home of the Earls of Shaftesbury and their forbears, at the heart of a large and thriving country estate. However, the changing circumstances of its owners in the mid-20th century, and a doomed attempt to eradicate dry rot from the building, led to the family moving out of the house.

In the 1970s the house was largely abandoned with windows boarded up, the scars of recent demolition work crudely blocked, and Georgian panelling stacked up in rooms. The apparent disinterest of the owner in the decaying condition of the Grade I listed house made it a national conservation cause celebre. Many took it to be a symbol of the impending obsolescence of the English country house in the later 20th century.

See St Giles House on the National Heritage List


External photograph of large red brick country house under storm clouds
The Grade I listed St Giles’ House, Dorset , before the start of repair works in 2003. The repairs were finally completed in 2015 and the house removed from the HAR register. © Historic England JOD6198

Addition to the register prompts new action

However, staff of Historic England never gave up on the house’s restoration and its addition to the Buildings at Risk Register in 1998 prompted new discussions with the Shaftesbury estate. Not only did we invest in a full condition survey and urgent repairs to the house, we also contributed considerable expertise to research into its history and significance.

A new Earl and new commitment

A double family tragedy in 2004-5 stalled those discussions but proved to be the catalyst for dramatic change, with a new Earl taking control of the estate. Despite his recent personal misfortunes, and lack of experience in running a historic estate, the 12th Earl brought fresh energy and commitment to the challenge of bringing St Giles House back to life.

An initial phase to restore one wing as a home for his young family, was then extended to repair the whole external envelope of the building, using traditional techniques and skilled craftsmen. That approach was then developed further in the refurbishment of the principal rooms to the house. Here, more of a ‘conserve as found’ philosophy was adopted, in some rooms leaving exposed the building’s many layers of history.

Internal photograph of formal dining room with portraits on the walls.
The walls are partly freshly plastered and decorated, and partly left as bare brickwork. In some of the principal rooms, a “conserve as found” philosophy was adopted, leaving the building’s many layers of history exposed. © Historic England DP167054

Award-winning revival

St Giles House is now restored as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the Wimborne St Giles estate. The building that once felt gloomy, abandoned and decaying is now a home filled with light, colour and activity.

The revival of the house, as both the Shaftesbury family home and a sought-after venue for weddings and events, has helped to rejuvenate the wider estate and proved to be a catalyst for the restoration of other historic buildings within it. It shows how the most intractable of cases can be resolved by the timely intervention of one dedicated individual with the necessary vision, determination and energy.

This achievement has been crowned with the recognition of several prestigious national conservation awards and a recently published book describing this extraordinary project.

How we made a difference

Our involvement with the house over a 10 year period allowed us to undertake extensive research into its history, significance and physical condition. Access to this knowledge proved vital to the new owner when he was making plans for its restoration.

20 years of the Heritage at Risk Register

This year we are celebrating 20 years of the Heritage at Risk Register, Historic England’s tool for shining a light on the listed buildings and places in England that need the most help. Looking back over the last 20 years, huge progress has been made in saving our heritage and giving it new uses.

See more of our top 20 heritage rescues

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