Shaw House: Berkshire’s Hidden Gem


Guest post by Sarah Somerville 

Shaw House is an Elizabethan manor built in 1581 for Thomas Dolman II, who had made his wealth through the cloth trade. The House is a prodigy house, built to impress, show off wealth and with the hope of attracting a visit from royalty. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth I did visit Shaw House in the summer of 1592.

Beyond this time the House has survived Civil War battles, become a Dukes retreat and, in more recent times, was requisitioned by the War Office and later became a school. From 1985 the House stood dormant and was falling into a state of disrepair. Luckily the House was saved and carefully restored in the early 21st century. It now provides a vibrant and unique space for events, exhibitions, heritage open days, conferences and training. 


Shaw House Feb 2017

The beginnings of Shaw House in the 16th century show that it was built with much wealth. The Greek motto on the porch to the south of the House translates to ‘let no envious man enter’. To this day, the building showcases recognisable architectural elements of up and coming Elizabethan design. The Tudor age brought about great social change in England which is reflected in the statement architecture produced at the time. New country houses were being built and in the place of raised battlements, moats and gatehouses, they instead had welcoming landscapes, inviting interiors and lavish large glass windows. The gentry were no longer afraid of attack and could therefore be much more extravagant and playful with their designs, using their homes as a way of displaying and increasing their status and wealth. New Tudor homes provided increased comfort for those who could afford it, with fabrics on the walls, the introduction of chimneys for fire places and a high number of glass windows allowed rooms to be flooded with natural light.

Much of what we know of the early years at Shaw House comes from an inventory made in 1622 following the death of Thomas Dolman II. The fascinating document provides an insight into the use and decoration of the rooms, as well as providing clues as to the daily life of the Dolman family in the early 17th century. The details go as far to include ‘downe feather pillows’, ‘curtain rods’ and even the number of napkins (489 in case you’re wondering).

Six generations of the Dolman family lived at Shaw before the House was sold to pay off debts. In 1728, the estate was purchased by the Duke of Chandos. Later owners include the Andrews and Eyre families and lastly the Farquhar family. Sir Peter Farquhar sold Shaw House to the council for its use as a school in 1945, ending its 364 years as a family home.

Although few changes have been made to the exterior of Shaw House through time, internally many decorative changes have taken place. The installation of Georgian panelling by the Duke of Chandos covered, and therefore preserved, much of the Elizabethan fabric of the buildingincluding doorways, windows and fireplaces.During restoration each of the Georgian panels were removed and carefully restored. When returning the panels to their original positions, a few were put on hinges to allow us to open them up during our public open days. The few chosen were those hiding secrets of particular interest, secrets that had been hidden for centuries. One panel, situated in the Hall, reveals an Elizabethan door that originally led to the buttery, a room used for storing beer. If you look closely at the wooden frame, you can see a ‘witch mark’, carved to protect the House from evil spirits.


Shaw House Feb 2017

Perhaps the biggest discovery made during this time was the Elizabethan Bake House. This was discovered located beneath the kitchen, now our Café, and features two beehive style bread ovens, a series of cooling shelves, basement windows and evidence of a staircase. In the late 16th century and throughout the 17th century, fresh bread and pastries would have been made here for the family on a daily basis. The room is of particular significance as usually a Bake House would have been located some distance away from the main house, mainly due to the high risk of fire, thus making it a unique example of its kind.

Beyond restoration, the House has been open to the public since 2008. Restoration not only helped to preserve this historic house, but also allowed for the introduction of minimal 21st century changes. These have allowed ShawHouse to be used for business meetings, conferences and training, as well as increasing accessibility. For example, lifts were introduced to allow disabled access to all floors. 

In addition to delegate use throughout the year the Househosts a year round programme of events for people of all ages, including annual fairs, outdoor theatre and family activities.

New for 2021 is the ‘Dressed for Shaw’ costume exhibition. Admire the recognisable ruffs of Elizabethan England, the flamboyant frills of the Georgian gentleman and the weathered wool of the Edwardian era. By following the trail throughout the House, visitors can discover the personal stories of those who lived, worked and energised the House over the last 400 years, as well as exploring the changing fashions since the House was built in 1581.

The majority of costumes were handmade for the exhibition using portraits and inventories from the archives as inspiration for designs and details.

Shaw House Feb 2017

The Tudor couple, Mr and Mrs Dolman,feature as the first of the characters you will see on your visit. They display traditional Elizabethan clothing with Thomas Dolman wearing a ruff around his neck, a cloak and trunk hose. Thomas’ wife, Margaret, wears a dress of the highest quality featuring a pulled in waist, puffed and slit sleeves with a farthingale underneath designed to make the skirt fall to a rounded shape. Movement was not the priority whendesigning Elizabethan clothing!

Although the image of 16th century fashion may be recognisable, very little of the clothing from this era survives. Much of the information we do know comes from portraits, inventories, wills and tailor requests.

The ‘Dressed for Shaw’ costume exhibition includes royalty, an 18th century duke, Edwardian gardener, World War II soldier and a Shaw House School pupil, all of whom present stories of very different times spent at Shaw House.

Entrance is FREE to the House and Gardens, as well as the ‘Dressed for Shaw’ exhibition which runs until the 26thSeptember, 2021. Open on weekends and during school holidays, please check our website to confirm our opening times –

About the Author

Sarah @SarahGJS studied Museum and Gallery Studies at Aberystwyth University and has worked in historic houses for over 10 years. She started working at Shaw House in 2019and recently published the first guide book for the House. In addition, she has written about the War Years and School Years, as well as giving talks and tours to local history groups.

All images copyright of Shaw House.

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