The earliest building on the site was a Jacobean brick house constructed by the Russell family. After the Civil War the house was sold to Thomas Foley, an ironmaster. He erected two towers on the north side of the house and his grandson Thomas Foley, the 1st Lord Foley added the wings which enclose the entrance courtyard.
In 1735 the 2nd Lord Foley constructed a new parish church to the west of this courtyard, an undertaking begun by his father. The church was given a remarkable baroque interior in 1747 when he commissioned James Gibbs to incorporate paintings and furnishings acquired at the auction of the contents of Cannons House. This was the magnificent Middlesex home of the Duke of Chandos from where the artwork was shipped by canal to Great Witley.
In the second half of the 18th century the park was landscaped. This included sweeping away the village of Great Witley, which came too close to the south front (rear) of the house. The village was re-located to its present position.
In about 1805 the 3rd Lord employed John Nash to carry out a major reconstruction of the house, including the addition of huge ionic porticoes to the north and south fronts. The portico on the south front is probably the largest on any country house in England.
In 1837 serious debt forced the 4th Lord to sell the estate to the trustees of William, Lord Ward, later Earl of Dudley, who had inherited a great fortune from the coal and iron industries in the Black Country. In 1843 Witley Court was lent to Queen Adelaide, the widow of King William IV, who required the pianos in the house to be tuned. A local man, who had recently moved from London to set up his own music dealership and piano-tuning business, was recommended. That man was William Elgar (Edward Elgar's father), who was then to display the royal warrant on his business stationery. Edward Elgar became a friend of the Dudley family thereafter due to his fathers work at the house and would perform for them on the piano in the ballroom.
In the 1850s, Lord Ward (the Earl of Dudley) engaged the architect Samuel Daukes, who had already altered his London house, Dudley House on Park Lane and the church at Great Witley, to remodel the house in Italianate style using ashlar stone cladding over the existing red brickwork. He also commissioned the garden designer William Andrews Nesfield to transform the gardens. This was Nesfield's 'Monster Work'.
In 1920 Witley Court was sold by the 2nd Earl to Sir Herbert Smith, a Kidderminster carpet manufacturer. Sir Herbert only kept on a skeleton staff to manage the house whilst there and away, and many areas were left unused. The property needed to be sold again following a major accidental fire in September 1937 due to the insurance company not paying out for the major damage. The fire started in the bakery, situated in the basement room of the now worst preserved tower whilst Sir herbert was at another of his houses. The servents tried to put the fire out by the use of the ancient fire pump, which was connected to the fountain, as this had not been maintained for many years it failed to work. Thereafter the estate was broken up and auctioned, and with the exception of the church were allowed to fall into ruin. The mansion didnt realise the amount it was thought to be worth due to the nearing Second World War. Following the sale only one wing of the house was gutted by the fire of 1937, the rest was almost intact. The house was bought by scrap dealers who stripped what they could from the structure of the house, leaving it in complete ruins. In 1972 the remnants of the house and garden were acquired by the government. Almost 70 years after the devastation, its ruins are still spectacular, and today the property is in the care of English Heritage. Great Witley Church, which is attached to the ruins, survived the fire, and so visitors can still view the paintings.
The two immense fountains designed by Nesfield and carved by the Gibbs brothers of Glasgow, have survived. The largest, the Perseus and Andromeda Fountain has been restored to working order by English Heritage. For working times, see the Witley Court English Heritage website (link below). The remnants of Nesfield's magnificent parterres can also be seen.
In 2003 Witley Court's owners, the Wigington family, placed the freehold for sale on Internet auction site eBay for £975,000. However, the arrangement with English Heritage would remain unchanged, irrespective of any change in ownership regardless of who buys the site, and Witley Court will continue to be a visitor attraction.
In more recent times, the original plans and designs for the formal gardens have been discovered, and are in the process of being restored. The main area of the gardens, the South Parterre, between the house and the Perseus and Andromeda fountain, has already been completed. Meanwhile, work is ongoing on the East Parterre region.
- English Heritage