The purchaser of the Woodchester Estate for £170,000, in 1845, was William Leigh, a wealthy convert to Roman Catholicism from near Liverpool. At an early age he had inherited a large sum of money from his father, a successful merchant trading in salt, tobacco and foodstuffs. He married, was received into the Catholic church and moved to Gloucestershire with the aim of creating a Catholic community. His first action was to start building a Catholic church and monastery at South Woodchester, adjacent to the eastern end of his estate. In 1846 Leigh asked the pre-eminent Victorian architect A.W.N. Pugin, another devout Catholic, to survey the existing house in order to refurbish it. Of the opinion that Gothic architecture was the only true Christian style, Pugin concluded encouragingly “... a more hopeless case of repairs I never saw” and recommended a complete reconstruction. He sent a design for a new house and then resigned from the project the same year. Leigh turned instead to the Bristol based Catholic architect Charles Hansom (brother of the creator of the Hansom Cab) to build the church and monastery. The Church of the Annunciation, very much in the Pugin style, was completed in 1849 and the monastery in 1853. Meanwhile, the Leighs lived in an extended gardener’s cottage on the south side of the valley towards Nympsfield, known as “The Cottage”, which remained the family home until the First World War and is still standing.
Work on Woodchester Mansion began in the mid-1850s. The exact date at which work commenced is unknown. At Leigh’s request, Benjamin Bucknall, born only in 1833 and a recent Catholic convert at the Church of the Annunciation, was employed in Hansom’s office and eventually took over as principal architect. It seems that he based the design on Pugin’s earlier ideas, with the addition of influences from designs by Viollet-le-Duc (whom Bucknall consulted in 1862 about the glazing in the chapel).
The Mansion is built largely from local limestone. The main rooms on the ground floor all have stone vaulted ceilings, very unusual in a domestic building and perhaps owing something to Leigh's religious beliefs. The south front, lit by extensive glazing, is decorated by four splendid gargoyles, symbols of hunting: two dogs, a fox and a wild boar with spines and a twisted nose. Local Cotswold influence is evident in the gables and stone roof tiles.
The interior is interesting precisely because it is unfinished. The missing floors mean that it is possible to view unimpeded the arches holding up the roof and interior walls, and so clearly illustrate the purpose of the exterior buttresses. Of the principal rooms, only the drawing room is complete, and this was finished for a visit from Cardinal Vaughan in 1894.
The chapel is one of the finest parts of the Mansion. The roof bosses depict local flora. Exceptions are the large boss with four dogs heads, said to represent the pet dogs owned by William Leigh’s daughter, and two green men.
In the bathroom is a bath carved from a single block of stone, with two taps, also in stone. In the corner there is a water cure room, essentially a stone shower cubicle providing cold water only through a carved stone leopard’s head. Upstairs the second floor corridor permits views of how the Cotswold stone tiles are attached to the roof and the oak roof timbers. And since there are no floor boards, the top of the ceiling bosses and the original scribing marks (to scribe is to mark an outline into wood by scratching with a metal point) in the ground floor corridor are visible.
Progress on construction was slow because the workforce was withdrawn at intervals to do other work on the estate, and funding was piecemeal. Furthermore, William Leigh was a noted as a perfectionist who actively supervised all the work, a trait that, together with his religious zeal, would not have encouraged fast work. So, on his death in 1873, the mansion remained unfinished