Thorpeness, a Short Centenary History

Photo of G Stuart Ogilvie, 1917

G Stuart Ogilvie, 1917

Thorpeness was the brainchild of Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, who visualised a unique holiday village and playground for wealthy families.

At the turn of the 20th Century Thorpe was a small fishing hamlet on the Suffolk coast with only a few houses not taken into the sea through erosion. Alexander Ogilvie, a civil engineer originally from Scotland, made a fortune as a railway engineer around the world. He bought Sizewell House as a holiday home in Suffolk in 1859 which after subsequent embellishment and enlargement was renamed Sizewell Hall. He and his wife Margaret expanded the Ogilvie estate to over 6,000 acres along the coast, extending from Dunwich in the north almost as far as Aldeburgh, just south of Thorpe, and inland to Leiston and Aldringham.

Son of Alexander and Margaret, one of eight children, Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, a wealthy barrister and playwright, inherited the estate in 1908 after his mother's death.

Bordered to the south and west by the Hundred River, the Meare, originally an Elizabethan safe shipping 'Haven' to the west of Thorpe, had silted up over the centuries. When this area flooded in November 1910, G Stuart Ogilvie was inspired to block the river permanently to create the 64 acre Meare. This helped him with his idea of creating a fantasy holiday village for the upper middle classes, initially family and friends, between the Meare and the sea. So Thorpe was renamed Thorpeness to distinguish it from the many 'Thorpes' in the country and his plan was put into action.

With its long, safe, sandy beach the village had already become an attractive holiday resort for those with some means, and Seaside Bungalows Ltd (the Company) was formed to develop Thorpeness. The intention was to provide houses to be leased to wealthy holiday makers in a resort offering the best facilities, and William Gilmour Wilson and Frederick Forbes Glennie were employed as architects. The layout of the village was well considered with streets planned and spaces allocated for future development.

Mock Jacobean and Tudor style houses were designed and built in natural settings of gorse, heather and heathland. Large houses were situated along Lakeside, overlooking the Meare, and smaller 'bungalows' erected nearby and in other parts of the village, or adapted from cottages and the Old Barn. The Crown Inn was extended, refurbished, renamed and opened in 1913 as the Dolphin Hotel (the original Dolphin was burned down in 1996 and the current Inn was built in its place). A Post Office and Stores were originally housed opposite the Inn, where, in the 1920s, the Workmen's Club (later the Ogilvie Hall) was built. The Ogilvie Hall is now destined to become accommodation. In 1926 Thorpeness' Almshouses were erected opposite the Workmen's Club as staff residences. At the north of the village a garage sold fuel and garaging was provided for the numerous vehicles which overcrowded the streets as houses were leased and other people visited.

The Country Club, known as the Kursaal, was built on the highest and best location in the village, overlooking the sea, and according to plan, easily accessible to Members - holiday makers, residents of Thorpeness, Aldeburgh and further afield. Refreshments were served, and the large lounge in the centre of the building could be used for entertainment. Balconies at the front and rear afforded views over the North Sea, gardens, tennis courts, a croquet lawn and bowling green. It was opened in May 1912 and provided visitors and local people with a venue at which to socialise, enjoy sporting activities, the gardens and the nearby beach. In 2012 we celebrated the centenary of the opening of the Kursaal and the first year village holiday homes were leased to visitors.

Following the flooding of the Meare, land in Thorpeness was acquired by the Company and over the winter of 1912-1913 a shallow lake was dug by hand to a maximum depth of two feet, six inches. It's centenary was celebrated in 2013. J M Barrie was a family friend of the Ogilvies, and the Meare was partly themed around his story of Peter Pan, with islands and places created such as the Pirates' Lair, Wendy's House, Crocodile Island, Peter Pan's Island and the Fort, where children were encouraged to play. Inspiration was also taken from Treasure Island and the Water Babies. A picturesque Boathouse with a clock tower was built, rowing boats made available for hire, and teas served by the landing stage. Thorpeness Meare was opened in June 1913, for the enjoyment and entertainment of the young and young at heart, a true Children's Paradise.

To the south of the Boathouse, more or less surrounded by curves of the Meare, playing fields provided an open area for a variety of sports. An 18 hole Links Golf Course was built and opened in 1923 at the north west of the village, with a small wooden Club House located near the Workmen's Club. A larger and much more impressive Club House was opened in 1930 at the end of Lakeside, providing all necessary facilities for members and visitors, as well as accommodation*.

The original Estate Office, where village administration was undertaken, stood near the Boathouse, and is now a holiday home. In 1925 Barn Hall was built on the east side of Remembrance Road, opposite the Boathouse and became the Estate Office. Barn Hall was later used as a cafe, restaurant, emporium selling antiques and crafts, with accommodation above. In 2012 it was demolished and replaced with modern development. To the north of Barn Hall, leading towards the Country Club, lie 1-4 The Dunes which, as a unit, formed the "singles" guest house in old days; between them and the sea to the east is Sandy Lodge which was the old "tea house" of the village. The Benthills with its great elevated houses then provides a magnificent uphill route to the Kursaal. 

Water was initially provided from a well by a wind pump, but in 1923 the corn mill was moved from Mill Hill in Aldringham to Thorpeness. The mill was adapted to pump water to the newly built 'House in the Clouds', a cleverly disguised water tower, with what appeared to be a small house covering the tank at the top. In 1943 the House in the Clouds was accidentally hit and damaged by an English shell aimed at a low flying F1 German bomb. The House in the Clouds is now distinctive holiday accommodation and, as the Mill, is a village attraction.

Thorpeness was not very accessible, with no railway station and only one metalled road, from Aldringham. In 1912 there was just a track south from the village, over the Haven Bridge to Aldeburgh, which was surfaced some time later. Leiston had the most convenient station for Thorpeness and visitors came from London on the Great Eastern Railway. Special arrangements had to be made to transport them to the village so the Company provided the 'Thorpeness Vitesse', a powerful adapted Daimler car, with a canvas covered wagonette body to accommodate passengers, this towing a small bus, the vehicles together able to carry more than 40 people.

In 1914 Thorpeness Halt, a small railway station, was opened where the Leiston to Aldeburgh GER line crossed the Aldringham to Thorpeness road. The Golf Course now crosses the road at this point. The Halt provided minimal facilities, all being housed in redundant GER passenger coaches, and remained so until the station was closed in 1966. The platform can still be found buried beneath vegetation alongside a public footpath which runs through the old station, and the length of the old railway line can be walked from Aldeburgh to Leiston.

In August 1912 the first Regatta took place on the Meare, and continues as an annual tradition in the village. During the day boat races and other competitions take place in and on the water, which is lit at night by Chinese lanterns on boats, and a finale of fireworks ends the festivities as dark falls.

Thorpeness village was formally opened in 1914, although the first houses in the village were leased in 1912, and construction of more accommodation and other planned facilities continued after World War I. Despite the depression following the war development was sustained in the village during the 1920s and on into the 1930s, by when Thorpeness was regarded as a high class holiday resort.

Sadly G Stuart Ogilvie didn't live to see Thorpeness in its heyday and complete as he'd planned. He died in March 1932 and is buried in St Andrew's Church yard, Aldringham, together with his first wife, Helen.

This unique village is one of only two purpose built holiday villages in the UK, the other being Portmerion. The village is still a distinctive holiday location, it's population swelling dramatically in the summer as visitors fill the abundant accommodation and day trippers add to their numbers. Thorpeness slowly continues to develop and evolve though its unique character remains, and is indeed protected by its status as a Conservation Area.


* If you would like to learn more of the golf club and course the excellent 'A History of Thorpeness Golf Club' will enlighten you. You can obtain of copy of the book through its compiler, Michael Wood, email All proceeds will go to the golf club.

Many thanks to those who have contributed additions to this story and for welcome comments.

Louise Chadwick

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1 Comment

  1. By Brenda Moss on June 18, 2014

    At the end of the II World War as a young child of about 5 I would come with my family and cousins to Thorpeness for a holiday. We stayed at a cottage down a little lane near the windmill and I remember our neighbour was Polish. We would walk to the beach via the post office and shop and buy ovaltine tablets as a treat. On the beach there was a defunct railway line with some old open carriages. The children would sit in the carriage and my Dad and uncles would push us along the beach. I saw an article on Thorpeness in The Sunday Times and I keep thinking I would like to do a walk, but I think I would probably be disappointed.

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