Historic Ridley House in Felixstowe is linked to an Indian maharajah and the world’s most famous diamond
PUBLISHED: 15:22 17 April 2020 | UPDATED: 16:37 28 October 2020
Nigel and Maureen Weir tell the amazing story of their period property, Ridley House in Felixstowe, which they are lovingly refurbishing and restoring with the help of local firm SEH French
It’s a perfectly scripted Games of Thrones style epic. In fact, it’s so hard to believe that this story – entwined with intrigue, mystery, bloodshed, beauty and bling – must be told. And it’s all revealed in the recent refurbishment of an Italianate style villa on the Suffolk coast.
The story begins thousands of years ago, deep in India’s alluvial mines, where a slave sifting through the river sands discovered a diamond so large that the owners of the land believed it may carry a curse.
This gem, the size of a hen’s egg, would come to be known as the Koh-i-Noor Diamond and, throughout the centuries, has caused remarkable tales of woe.
Its recorded history is littered with owners who have been blinded, poisoned, tortured, burned in oil, threatened with drowning, crowned in molten lead, relieved of their genitals, bludgeoned to death with bricks and stabbed to death by members of their own family.
It now sits proudly in a glass case in the Tower of London. It was last seen in public in a crown placed on top of the coffin of the Queen Mother, but there’s little doubt that its journey there has been fraught with bloodshed.
Its first owner was the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan, who insisted it became encased in the head of a glistening gemstone peacock that sat at the top of a magnificent throne that cost four times as much as the Taj Mahal.
The Mughal Empire retained its supremacy in India until Persian ruler Nader Shah invaded Delhi in 1739, taking all the treasure and removing the Koh-i-Noor diamond from the throne to wear on an armband.
When Lord Dalhousie, the British governor-general, first seized the gem from ten-year-old Sikh Maharaja Duleep Singh, following the East India Company’s conquest of the Punjab in 1849, it was still encased in this armband. This is how it was first transported into the hands of the British monarchy.
An Orcadian naval surgeon called Sir John Spence Login was charged with protecting India’s two most significant possessions – Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, and the Koh-i-Noor diamond. It was his job to transport the gem to Queen Victoria, the first in a succession of monarchs to wear it in a crown.
And this is where the fascinating story winds its way towards Suffolk and beautiful Ridley House. Login was entranced by the Suffolk seaside and during visits to the UK, spent much time in the county.
When he escorted Duleep Singh to England in 1854, Login told the 15-year-old about East Anglia and expressed his delight at the green fields, wild coastline and fresh air of the region.
It’s understood that when Login fell ill in India a few years later, during his last ‘term’ there, he returned to England to recuperate in Suffolk at the former home of Sir Robert and Lady Arethusa Harland. Sir and Lady Login rented the property for 15 years from August 1863, after Robert Harland died in 1848 and Lady Harland in 1860.
The original farmhouse property, which dates back to the 1700s, was bought in 1843 by the Harlands, whose main residence was Orwell Park in Nacton.
They had converted it to an Italianate style ‘marine residence’, which was very fashionable at the time, and named it Vernon Villa, inviting their well-connected friends to enjoy the space as a country get away.
Login’s bedroom boasted incredible views of the sea and it was here, looking out on water that no doubt glittered almost as brilliantly as the diamond he had been entrusted with, that he took his final breath.
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Local coastguards in Felixstowe carried his coffin one mile to St Peter and St Paul’s Church in Felixstowe, where Duleep Singh had installed a magnificent memorial in his honour, and the tombstone was engraved with words chosen by Queen Victoria.
Neil Pryke, contracts manager at SEH French, who have sympathetically extended and refurbished the property, said: “In my line of work, we frequently hear stories to explain the significance or history of a period property. But nothing has quite trumped the tale of this particular house.”
In 1933 the property was sold by auction to Felixstowe College, an independent girls’ school, and became a boarding house for the girls. Known as Ridley House, it was named after Nicolas Ridley, one of the religious martyrs burnt at the stake in the 1500s.
The college closed in 1994 and languished empty and unloved for almost a decade, becoming entirely derelict in 2007. It was rescued by a former owner and tastefully restored into a beautiful and treasured family home.
“When Nigel and Maureen Weir bought the property in 2013 and introduced us to their plan to upgrade the external fabric of the property, we were excited to be a part of enhancing its appearance for generations to come,” says Neil.
“Nigel uncovered the fascinating history of the home and how well-loved it has been over its history, including both the Harlands and Logins.
“I felt it was important for the developers to fully understand its story, which, working closely with Robert Allerton Architects, allowed us to protect and refurbish the period property with that extra level of care and sensitivity.”
The project team installed a new roof, weatherproofing and thermal insulation, re-rendered where required and put in new windows throughout. Other tasks included re-modelling the interior to provide better functionality of the rooms and finding ways to introduce more natural light into central spaces.
To do this, the kitchen was relocated from the centre of the house to the outside, overlooking the sea, with a new balcony above. “Top of our agenda, once we heard the incredible history of the building,” says Neil, “was finding every way possible to maintain and enhance the architectural features and safeguard its heritage.”
Nigel says: “We are delighted with the quality of work and caring approach of our building contractors.
“We feel entirely confident that thanks to SEH French, this building – once connected to a man who held the largest diamond in the world in his hands – will remain a gem in its own right.”
Adds Neil: “It was a diamond of a project. And we were thrilled to play a part in protecting it for generations to come.”