BRACON HALL

This Grade II listed building and related outbuildings date from 1833, according to Historic England. 'Built of red brick with a black pantiled roof, the house has a rather fine painted stone porch with a pair of Tuscan columns' - but no hint is given that it might have been built on the site of an earlier hall.

This information suggests the current Hall was built by and for the Berney family as their own permanent home in Bracon Ash.  We also know that they rented Mergate Hall for many years. All the 19th Century directories describe Bracon Hall as 'a modern dwelling' and in the 1851 census it is listed as 'New Hall' - which offers the intriguing possibility that there was an 'old hall'! Now more information has come from the current owners that sheds new light on Bracon Hall, although there are still many mysteries to be solved.

The antiquarian Rev Francis Blomefield (1705-1752) began a mammoth work on the history of Norfolk, 2 parts of which were published in his lifetime and the 3rd completed by a friend in the 12 years after his death. The set was then reprinted in smaller volumes, in the early 1800s, but how far it was revised is uncertain. Volume 5 (first printed 1806) includes Bracon Ash and states, 'John Appleyard.... settled here and built Brakene-hall (which is now demolished, and was a very large building)'. If only we could define that word 'now' we would have a time period for the building and demolition of Bracon Hall!

The print shown above still hangs on the wall of Bracon Hall and was believed by the family to show the 'old' Hall - as indicated by the description on the back (below). However, on closer inspection this looks remarkably like a picture of Mergate Hall, which we know Mrs Elizabeth Berney had leased from the Kemps when she moved from Hockering to Bracon Ash around 1796. At that stage her father-in-law John Berney and his second wife, Margaret, were still living at Bracon Hall. 

John Berney had married Susanna Trench in 1745 and it seems they were looking for a more suitable estate not too far away. From baptism records of their children in Swardeston (to 1750) and in Bracon Ash (from 1751) it is safe to guess that they moved house in 1750, and the first burial in the Berney mausoleum attached to Bracon Ash church was that of John Berney's mother-in-law Susanna Trench in 1750. The move continued with tragedy - their second son, John, the last child to be baptised in Swardeston, died in Bracon Ash in 1854 aged 4, and the following year his mother, Susanna, died, and both are buried in the mausoleum. By the time John Berney died in 1800 all his sons had died, so his many estates were held in trust for his only grandson, Thomas Trench Berney (1784-1869), son of his third and only married son, Thomas and his wife Elizabeth who seem to have lived at Hockering, 

Thomas Trench Berney inherited the property in 1805 at the age of 21, but we do not know how much longer he lived there. He hosted a reception there for Bishops and various clergy in 1808 when the church was rededicated after substantial repairs. But by 1813 he was living in Morton Hall  (now the dinosaur park near Attlebridge!) which he had enlarged and modernised, probably in preparation for his marriage in 1812. Did he have the same ambitions for Bracon Hall? More likely his mother and his unmarried sister, both named Elizabeth, had grand plans for the house, having become Lord of the Manor of Bracon Ash. 

The old Bracon Hall was demolished in the early part of the 1800s when plans were drawn up by the Norwich architect Francis Stone for a grand modern hall - part of which was built but later the plans for the house were scaled down to the more modest home which still exists.

Francis Stone (1769-1835) was Architect & Surveyor for Norwich and the County of Norfolk and practised in partnership with John Brown. He is credited with saving Norwich Castle, which had fallen into considerable disrepair by 1807 when he was architect and surveyor of improvements, and his delightful watercolours survive (example above - note signature bottom left). He designed many bridges that still stand - including Bawburgh's 3-arched brick bridge; Thetford's iron Town Bridge cast at the nearby St Nicholas Wroks of Charles Burrell & Sons; and the 'New Fye Bridge' in Norwich. His book on Bridges of Norfolk, written with his son-in-law David Hodgson, Secretary & Vice-President of the Norwich School of Artists, is a masterpiece illustrated by his detailed and accurate drawing. Stone could also undertake 'grand designs' - including the magnificent but functional buildings of St Andrews Hospital, the Norwich Mental Asylum, in Thorpe, whose plans are in the Norfolk Record Office.

Unfortunately there are no existing plans of Bracon Hall, which would have been a private commission. But the stable block, which was built first, has all the marks of a 'grand design'. The magnificent brick buildings, with distinctive arches is on two sides of a courtyard. If the planned house was to be grander than its stables it would have been very grandiose! But taste or finances or ambitions must have changed, because the house that was built around 1833 (according to Historic England) is much more modest and cosy, overshadowed by the stables and only ranking as a Grade II listed building today! 

Bracon Hall, looking much as it does today
Bracon Hall, looking much as it does today

We don't know if Mrs Elizabeth Berney (nee Jackson) managed to move in to her new Hall before she died in 1839. It passed to her unmarried daughter who was living there with Ellen Jackson (a widow) in 1841. Some time after Miss Elizabeth Berney died in 1847, it was taken over by Rev Thomas Berney (1815-1895), second son of Thomas Trench Berney, who moved from Hockering to  become Rector of Bracon Ash in 1855 but much preferred living in the Hall as Lord of the Manor of Bracon Ash. (See the Berney family page for more about him!)

The garden in Edwardian times, as photographed by Tom Nokes.
The garden in Edwardian times, as photographed by Tom Nokes.

After Rev Thomas Berney died in 1895, his younger brother - and the only surviving son of Thomas Trench Berney - Augustus (1831-1910) unexpectedly inherited the house and the title Lord of the Manor for 15 years. He had sought (and found) his fortune in Australia and returned to England with his family. He is buried in the mausoleum and also commemorated by a plaque on the north wall near the back of the church where a carving of his head by his daughter Dora graces the back pew. His widow, Matilda Lavinia (nee Gibbes) continued to live in the Hall until she died in 1916. It then passed to members of later generations and continues to be firmly in the hands of the Berney family today.