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The Shell House

The Grade 2 listed Shell House dates from 1845. Constructed from irregular lumps of flint and with a rough projecting eaves cornice and rustic castellations, the Shell House has an almost primeval appearance.

The Shell House is a rustic flint and limestone grotto in the form of a circular, single-storey structure containing a south-west-facing circular room overlooking an early 19th century rockery constructed from large blocks of rough stone. The rockery is symmetrical on plan and has a central circular pool containing a gravity fed fountain in the form of a rocky cairn. Between the large blocks in the rockery, tree ferns stand tall with an underplanting of some smaller ferns.

Shell collecting became a popular pastime in the Victorian era, long before commercialisation turned an apparently harmless hobby into a matter of global concern for the marine environment. As the ease and affordability of foreign travel increased, so too did the desire for obtaining ever more exotic specimens.

Step inside the Shell House to view the extensive display together with a short film mapping out the history of shell collecting and our fascination with these as an art form.


The Lord of the Manor at the time, Lord John Rolle, had inherited cotton plantations from his father, Dennys Rolle, on the Exuma archipelago  in the Bahamas, where the abundance of marine life in the sub-tropical waters surrounding Exuma’s 365 islands and cays offered rich pickings for shell collectors, and many examples were brought to Bicton.

Rolle’s plantations, totalling around 7,000 acres (2,832ha), were largely run by enslaved African labour comprising some 350 men and women. Yet John Rolle himself never set foot on Exuma, choosing instead to follow the example of many other plantation owners to run their operations remotely.

Lord John Rolle was one of the few landlords in Devon to support the abolition of the slave trade. Years before slavery was abolished through the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 he freed all of his slaves and gave them the land that they worked. We will never truly know exactly why John Rolle did this, perhaps it was down to a sharp decline in cotton prices or maybe he finally realised it was such an unethical violation of human rights. 

However, the Rolle name has never left Exuma, and following the custom of the day, many enslaved workers adopted the surname of  their master. It is estimated that around 60% of local residents still have the last name Rolle, along with places such as Rolle Town and Rolleville that still exist today. There is even a local Facebook community page for Rolle’s who live on Exuma!

A legacy from darker times that must not be forgotten. Not unlike so many of the great country houses and lavish formal gardens enjoyed today, we owe their very existence to wealth acquired by means that rightly so no longer have a place in society.

The Gardens Await

ABBA and Fleetwood Mac

Thursday – August 1st

Bohemians + K2

Thursday – August 15th

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