The title Earl of Shrewsbury was held first by Roger de Mongomerie, a senior figure in the court of William the Conquerer, made Earl in 1074. The third Earl forfeited this title in 1102 as a result of a rebellion against Henry I. The title was resurrected in 1442 for John Talbot, later sometimes known as The Grand Talbot who was also created Earl of Waterford in the peerage of Ireland and Lord High Steward of Ireland in 1446 - the two Earldoms remain connected to this day.
At first the Alton Estate was just one of a large number of estates owned by the Talbot family and the house on the site was little more than a hunting lodge, called Alveton Lodge. Alveton Lodge as it stood in the latter part of the Eighteenth century was basically a modest three storey house, largely rectangular in plan, though incorporating the one remaining tower from a much earlier fortified building which is still present in the plan of the current Alton Towers. Its East front, seen in contemporary illustrations was a typical early Eighteenth century symmetrical facade of twelve windows, some of which are also still part of the current building and can be seen alongside the East entrance near the Plate Glass Drawing room and the Doria Apartments. This facade itself probably represents a rebuilding of the property to keep up with architectural fashion as the lodge certainly existed as early as the late Seventeenth century and there was probably a building on the site even before this. The Lodge was divided into two properties one of which was occupied by a tenant, the other half being for the use of the Talbot family on their visits to the estate.
It was the Fifteenth Earl, Charles Talbot who first saw the potential of the Estate for improvement and began the work on the lodge which ultimately resulted in the House we see today. The programme of expansion and improvement began on a relatively modest scale in the first decade of the Nineteenth century, when the existing building underwent refurbishment and repair with a view to making it more suitable to become a regular summer residence to the Fifteenth Earl and his family. At this time extra rooms began to appear on the plans, a Drawing room, Dining room, Bedroom and passage. In 1810 the foundations for the building now known as the Flag Tower were laid to the West of the house on the brow of Bunbury hill, though it was to be some considerable time before this was completed.
In 1811 work began on more ambitious schemes for the building including much demolition, new building and expansion. This was accompanied by a change of name to Alton Abbey, although there are no known monastic associations with the site, there were ruins of a Cistercian abbey founded by the one of the Earl's ancestors in a valley to the south of Alton. The name did however herald a new era for the Estate and house, the adoption of the newly-fashionable Romantic architecture of the period, the early Gothic Revival style. This first phase of major reconstruction was to take ten years and would more than double the previous size of the buildings. At this time the first Chapel was added to the eastern end of the North front, and the principal entrance hall with its magnificent Gothic traceried window above the North entrance with its soaring stepped gables were added, along with the Dining room to the west of the entrance hall, Long Gallery of 72 feet running north-south along the West Front and the Great Drawing room and the first Library on the South Front. In later years the Chapel would become the Plate Glass Drawing room and the Entrance Hall the Principal Dining room we know today. Services such as kitchen, scullery, storage etc were accommodated in the basement of the building below the principal rooms. Architects known to have worked on Alton Abbey at this time are Thomas Hopper, William Hollins and Thomas Allason. Hopper's work includes Margam Castle in Glamorgan and Penrhyn Castle near Bangor, Gwynedd. Local architect Joseph Ireland is traditionally credited with the Flag Tower, though this is not recorded.
The early 1820's saw a reduction in the scale of building work on the house and a greater emphasis on the landscaping of the gardens and the erection of most of the major garden buildings, the Gothic Prospect tower, the Pagoda Fountain and the garden conservatory. Many of these buildings were built in, or incorporated large quantities of, cast iron. These features helped to emphasise the already dramatic valley location of the main ornamental gardens, although they were not to everyone's taste, some contemporary observers commenting that the emphasis was more on follies and garden structures than on planting. This is an opinion which is hard to agree with when the gardens are viewed with a modern eye, which serves to demonstrate that the Fifteenth Earl was a foresighted man who perceived that although the buildings he set up would dominate the gardens when new, the planting would mature over time rendering the garden structures less of a distraction to the eye and serving to enhance the landscaping. No discussion of the gardens, however brief, would be complete without mention of the bust of the Fifteenth Earl himself, sculpted by Peter Hollins, under its sheltering, cast iron pillared, dome. Around the top of the plinth, below the columns is the inscription "He made the desert smile".
Charles Talbot, the Fifteenth Earl died in 1827 and was succeeded by his nephew, John Talbot, who commenced the next major building phase. It was John who changed the name of the building to the one we know today, Alton Towers, in 1832.
The Octagon, 45 feet across and modelled on a medieval chapter house was under construction in 1824, along with an extension to the house conservatory to meet it and join it to the main building and the Drawing room. In 1829/1930 the Armoury which was to form the main, grand entrance to the building with its tower, containing the main doors, was developed out of coach houses, as was the billiard room adjacent to it. Immediately beyond the Armoury to the west the picture gallery was constructed to connect the Armoury and Octagon. These rooms were used to contain the Sixteenth Earl's extensive collections or art, arms and armour and sculpture and together formed a spectacular and dramatic formal entrance to what was truly becoming a magnificent private home. This was necessary as at the same time the old main entrance hall was being converted into the Principal Dining room, with the door on the ground floor blocked and replaced by a window, the south entrance to the hall also being blocked to allow the construction of the passage which was to link the new Chapel which was being constructed at the east end of the towers with the rest of the house.
The new Chapel is generally believed to be the largest private chapel in the country. It was designed to hold a large congregation as at the time there was no local Catholic parish church so the chapel also served the local Catholic community. This was built to replace the earlier Chapel on the North front which was remodelled and converted to become the Plate Glass Drawing Room, so called because of the large sheets of glass which replaced the bottom parts of the earlier Gothic windows to allow the spectacular views over the estate from this room to be better enjoyed, uninterrupted by glazing bars or leading.
From the end of the Library, the building was further extended with the addition of the Music room, joined by a pair of flattened Tudor arches to the new Library, the old Library becoming the Little Library. At the end of the Library and set at a 45 degree angle to it was the poets bay, a small space by comparison to the library in a tower at the end of the North front.
At right angles to this and forming the east side of the Star garden, containing the Star fountain were the great State apartments, the state bedroom and boudoirs and also the West Library. On the upper floor of this range were the Chintz Bedroom and the Arragon Bedroom and Boudoir. In the centre of this range of rooms was a grand staircase, linked to the library and rooms by the Oak corridor. This completes a description of the plan of the house at 1835.
In 1837, probably the most significant period in the house's architectural history began because this year marked the beginning of the involvement in the Alton Towers project of a young architect called Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin who visited the Towers in September of that year, staying for four days.
The floor plan of the house was, by 1837, substantially complete, but there was still much work to do with the interiors incomplete in several parts of the house and much work remaining to bring the house to it's final state. Despite this, due to other commitments, it was 1839 before Pugin fully assumed responsibility for the completion of the Earl's vision.
The 16th Earl was a prolific collector of paintings, sculpture and other objects d'art and so in 1839 work began on building the Talbot gallery to the West of the Octagon and in line with the Picture Gallery, Armoury and Entrance tower to the East. This room had no windows in the walls but was lit from above by ground glass panels set into cast iron frames. It terminated in a tower built to reflect the entrance tower at the opposite end of the range and enclosed the Star garden. A corridor, called the Talbot Passage, was built to link the gallery to the southern end of the Oak corridor in the West wing. Two magnificent Gothic stone fireplaces were installed to provide heat and the room was lit at night by brass and gilt Coronae or Chandeliers. Pugin personally designed all the decorative elements of this room as he did with all the new and renovated rooms for which he was responsible at the Towers, from the printed patterned wallpaper right down to the tiles in the fireplaces and the handles on the doors. This created a unified and consistent style of decoration far removed from the previous hotch-potch of styles which was previously evident throughout the house. It was this approach to a building as a unified whole, making no distinction between structure and decoration, but instead viewing them as one and integral to each other which was to prove so influential in both architecture and interior design for many years to come.
Over the next 13 years Pugin was to go on to add an extra 1849/50 to the main building over the Small Dining room and Long gallery bringing the house up to four storeys at that point. The Octagonal stair turret on the North front was raised to provide access to these new rooms. Above the Drawing and music rooms Pugin also added the rooms now known as the Pugin Rooms, although they were not completed until after his death in 1852.
On the Marriage of the Earls daughter Gwendalyn in 1839 to Prince Doria Pamphili, Pugin planned a new suite of rooms for the Prince and Princess to be built above the Plate Glass Drawing room. This suite, now in ruins and without floors or ceilings comprised four rooms looking out over the corner of the North and East fronts, the Doria Tower Room, Doria Boudoir, Dressing Room and Bedroom. With the completion of this work the North front had nearly reached it's final state with only the work on the Great dining room outstanding.
While this work had been going on, the first phase of the renovations to the Towers chapel was taking place. A Reredos – a kind of high, decorated screen – was added to the existing altar, with scenes depicting Saints and the Earl and his wife in Medieval costume. This can still be seen in a church in Bromsgrove, just south of Birmingham in the Midlands. Around the archway at the entrance to the bay in which the altar stood, Pugin also added a magnificent wooden altar screen which was richly and beautifully carved and reached nearly the full height of the wall. In 1849/1850 this scheme was continued by the addition of tall panels in a matching style to the altar screen added under each of the cast iron angels which supported the roof trusses and the installing of a painted screen between each angel.
Pugin now turned his attention to the Dining room, which had originally been the entrance hall and which retained most of its decoration from that time. The floor in this room was also about 10 feet lower than in the rest of the main rooms in the house so that the room was accessed from a gallery at the back of the room via a large spiral staircase in white stone with a brass handrail. Above this gallery was a second gallery which may have contained the pipe organ which is known to have existed in this room. The ceiling was plaster shaped and painted to resemble a pointed, ribbed vault. Pugin had the floor level raised to match that of the rest of the house, creating a new basement area beneath. The East wall was strengthened and increased in thickness to accommodate two enormous 4' 6” deep fireplaces with carvings of the family's emblems and heraldry deeply carved on them. The ribbed plaster vaulting of the ceiling was done away with and replaced by a gilt and painted wooden ceiling which can still be seen to this day. In the centre of the ceiling a large wood and glass lantern rose from the roof, from the centre of which hung a great ornamental chain suspending an enormous brass chandelier which now hangs in the Houses of Parliament though it's chain remains at Alton in situ. The crowning glory of the room is the huge, full height bay or Oriel window of 27 lights which Pugin had made in the North wall of the room and which depicts the crests and armorial bearings of the Talbot family and other families associated with them. This window, like the ceiling, is substantially intact and can still be seen by visitors to the towers.
Much decorative work was done in the rest of the house to make it unify with Pugin's schemes in the new additions and renovation. Wallpaper and tiles designed by Pugin were used extensively throughout the building and the final state of the house must have been truly breathtaking.
The Sixteenth Earl died on the continent in 1852 and just seven months later Pugin also died at the age of Forty, having spent a brief stay in the lunatic asylum known as Bedlam in London as a result of a breakdown caused by overwork.
Bertram, cousin to the late Earl, inherited the title and estates with the works on the Towers still incomplete and artworks and the great chandelier for the dining room stored in the Billiard room by the entrance tower. The Pugin rooms at this time were also being used for the storage of panelling awaiting installation in other parts of the house. Pugin's son, Edward Welby Pugin, was engaged by the new Earl to complete the works. Bertram, now the Seventeenth Earl sadly also passed away at the age of 24 in 1856, and no further additions were made to the house after this time.
The Seventeenth Earl left no direct heir, but according to the wishes of his uncle that the House and Title should remain in the hands of a Catholic family, Bertram willed the Title and estates to the Infant son of the Duke of Norfolk, Lord Edmund Howard. This was challenged by Henry Chetwynd Talbot of Ingestre Hall and so began a three year legal battle over the succession, which Henry won in 1860, finally being created 18th Earl in that year and taking possession of Alton Towers in the process. The will had not been challenged on the question of furniture, collections and other movable items in the house and so the executors of the will had these items auctioned in 1857, the sale lasting from 6th July until 8th August and comprising 4000 lots. The house was never again to be furnished in the lavish style of former years as it was no longer the main residence of the Earl, he already having his home at Ingestre Hall.
The Twentieth Earl was the first to make any serious attempt to make the estate into a tourist attraction with Fetes, Fireworks displays and other attractions in the 1890's. The gardens were maintained to a high standard and were an attraction in themselves. He involved himself in a number of businesses, founding the Talbot motor car company in the early 1900's. In 1913 a Talbot was the first car to travel 100 miles in an hour.
In 1924 the connection of the Talbot family with the Alton estate came to an end with another auction of the contents of the house and the sale of the house and estate to a consortium of local businessmen, the Alton Towers Company. The principal rooms, Dining Room, Drawing Room, Music Room and Libraries became café's to accommodate the large numbers of visitors who came to enjoy the gardens and events which took place.
At the outbreak of World War Two the House and grounds were requisitioned as an Officer Cadet Training Unit, although most of the house remained out of use, with the Cadets being accommodated in huts in the grounds. Some of the smaller family rooms at the East end of the building continued in use under the army as these were easier and cheaper to heat. The Towers were not handed back to the owning company until 1951, six years after the end of the war.
By this time the house was still largely in the condition in which it had been left in 1924 when the Earls sold it, although a lot of maintenance had been neglected and the roofs were leaking in several places leading to damage to the décor on the upper floors. The army have often been blamed for the damage to the house which resulted in it being stripped out but a 1952 survey of the property by the National Monuments Record shows little evidence of this although it does display some of the damage done by water getting into the building in some places. The more likely cause would seem to be that after the war materials needed for repairs would have been expensive and in short supply and ultimately it would seem to have been simple economics which caused the loss to the nation of such an important series of sumptuous and historically important, if by now rather faded, interiors.
In 1952 the stripping out of everything saleable from the house began. Even plaster was stripped from the walls. Panelling and stained glass, doors, lead from the roofs and even the roofs and floors themselves were all removed. What could not easily be sold was piled in the family rooms at the East end of the house and set fire to where it stood which accounts for the now dangerous and ruinous state of this part of the building. With the lack of floors and walls in most of what is a very tall building it is a testament to the builders that parts of the house did not collapse completely due to the effects of wind and weather in the years after these events. The Armoury remained in use as a Gift shop and the Chapel was used to contain an enormous model railway layout, but otherwise the rest of the house was abandoned.
In the 1970s what remained of the house was given grade II listed status and concrete floors were installed to allow public access to the house. The ceiling of the Dining Room which survived the gutting of the building was restored.In 1978 John Broome bought the estate and started the process of turning it into the theme park we know today. Corkscrew was opened in 1980 and more and more rides were installed in the park in the ensuing years, though the magnificent gardens in the valley to the North East of the house remained, and continued to be maintained. The park changed hands again in 1990, becoming part of the Tussauds group and since then much restoration and repair has taken place at the Towers, not least the repairs to the Picture Gallery and the Octagon to allow them to become part of the ride Hex. Much of the stained glass in the Music room bay window, facing onto the Star garden has been reinstated to the original designs and the main part of the window reglazed with plate glass. In the Chapel the ceiling has been restored and the stained glass in the bay window where the altar once stood has been replaced to a modern design which, though striking, is not representative of what was there before, nor, it must be said, is it to everyone's taste. The current design was created by a student of the Leek School of Art. The small window above this in the same wall is the original which survived the stripping of the house intact and in situ. A lot of the stonework has been repaired and stabilised, most recently in the oldest part of the house where family apartments once were, to allow people to continue to enjoy the building with its magnificent and dramatic skyline which has become iconic thanks to its use in advertising for the Towers for many years. Although many may feel that too little has yet been done to protect this spectacular building this must surely represent a good start and we can only hope that more will be done to restore some of the splendour and majesty to this spectacular and much loved building.