Fairfax House: Discover the Forgotten Story of Ann Fairfax in York

I recently visited Fairfax House with a friend. Fairfax House is a remarkable Georgian townhouse located in the heart of York. There is a fascinating…


I recently visited Fairfax House with a friend. Fairfax House is a remarkable Georgian townhouse located in the heart of York. There is a fascinating exhibition that uncovers the true story of Ann Fairfax, a remarkable heiress whose life has been largely dismissed due to her gender, status, and assumptions about her mental health. Most of this stemmed from the fact she never married or had children. I personally think she’s a hero! But things in the 18th century were different.

We spent a lot of time talking to the guides in the rooms, so a lot of this is information straight from them. It’s a fascinating history and I would love to know what the house was like back then!

This York Fairfax House review will delve into the life of Ann Fairfax, the unique visitor experience at the historical house, and why this York attraction is a must-visit for anyone interested in history, architecture, and the forgotten stories of remarkable individuals.

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About Fairfax House in York

A Remarkable Georgian Townhouse

Fairfax House, nestled in the historic heart of York city centre, is considered one of the finest Georgian townhouses in England. It was built in the 1740s, and purchased by Charles Gregory Fairfax, 9th Viscount Fairfax of Emley, in 1759, and significantly remodelled by architect John Carr between 1761 and 1765. The house showcases the grandeur of Georgian architecture and design, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the luxurious lifestyle of York’s wealthy Georgian population. And wow, what a beautiful house. I would love to have lived there!

Staircase at Fairfax House
Staircase at Fairfax House

A Museum Dedicated to Preservation

Today, Fairfax House is a museum dedicated to showcasing its richly decorated rooms, incredible stucco ceilings, and the lives of its previous residents. York Civic Trust, a charity that buys and restores significant historical buildings in York, bought the house in 1980 for £1. They then spent £750, 000 restoring it to how it looks today. The house is preserved for guests to visit and learn about all about it. Fairfax House is a testament to the importance of preserving historic landmarks and sharing the stories of the individuals who once lived within its walls.

Before York Civic Trust took over the house, it was previously a cinema, a gentleman’s club and a dance school. In 2008, York Conservation Trust bought the house from York Civic Trust and leased it back to them at a nominal rent. This arrangement relieved York Civic Trust from the burden of maintaining a Grade 1 Listed building, so Fairfax House Museum could continue. This strategic move secured the long-term preservation of the property and guaranteed that ownership would remain within the city of York.

The Ceiling Stuccowork at Fairfax House
The Ceiling Stuccowork at Fairfax House

Ann Fairfax: The Forgotten Heiress

A Life Overshadowed by Gender and Status

The exhibition is all about Ann Fairfax, the daughter of Charles Gregory Fairfax, who was born in 1726 and became the unexpected heiress of the prosperous Fairfax estates after the death of her father in 1772. As a single, Catholic woman in her 40s without an heir, Ann defied the societal conventions of her time. Her role as a spinster led many, including her own family, to question whether she was fit to manage the estate, and her story was often overshadowed by assumptions about her mental health.

Uncovering the True Story

The exhibition at Fairfax House, titled “If Walls Could Talk: The Forgotten Story of Ann Fairfax,” seeks to uncover the true story of this remarkable woman, who has been dismissed as insignificant for centuries. Drawing on new research and rich archival documents, the exhibition brings to life the tumultuous events that impacted Ann’s life after her father’s death and introduces visitors to a cast of characters who played influential roles in her life – both for good and bad.

Staircase at Fairfax house
Staircase at Fairfax house

If Walls Could Talk: The Exhibition Experience

An Immersive and Interactive Journey

The “If Walls Could Talk” exhibition at Fairfax House offers an immersive and interactive journey through the house’s historic interiors, where visitors can meet the characters who influenced Ann’s life and uncover the world she inhabited. Through interactive storytelling, audio, and innovative new interpretation, the exhibition brings to life a world where being a single woman was seen as a curse, displays of emotion were deemed irrational, and being an heiress in charge of her own estates was seen as an impossibility. There are volunteers in most rooms who know the most fascinating facts about Fairfax House. Their knowledge is incredible and they have a real passion for the history of the place. We asked them many questions and they just had answers for everything.

Staircase at Fairfax house
Staircase at Fairfax house

Meeting Ann’s Friends and Foes

New for 2023, visitors can meet Father Bolton, who valiantly sought to protect Ann but was spitefully punished by her detractors with imprisonment and a charge of treason. The exhibition also introduces visitors to Ann’s friends and foes, shedding light on the challenges she faced and the remarkable resilience she demonstrated in the face of adversity.

The Rooms at Fairfax House

Due to the house going through various changes over the years before the trust took over, some of the rooms are not the same room as they were at the time of Ann Fairfax. But thanks to the details and records kept by the Fairfaxs and the housekeeper, they were about to restore it to how it would have been back then.


Fairfax House is home to the extraordinary Noel Terry Collection, showcasing remarkable English furniture and clocks. Donated to York Civic Trust in 1980 after Noel Terry’s passing, this collection boasts some of the finest examples of British cabinet-making and horology.

Born in York in 1889, Noel Terry hailed from a family renowned for the iconic Terry confectionary business – Terry’s Chocolate Orange. In 1916, he married Kathleen Leetham, the youngest daughter of Henry Ernest Leetham, a prominent York industrialist who had curated an impressive assortment of porcelain and jade. This connection to an established collector greatly influenced the aspirations of the young Noel Terry, as he sought to carve out his own path in the world of art and collecting.

The Library

This was sat up as if Ann had packed and was about to leave, with her belongings in boxes ready to go. There was a family tree on the desk which was fascinating as well as a portrait of her on the wall.

Fairfax House Kitchen
Fairfax House Kitchen

The Kitchen

This wasn’t the original kitchen – it would have been in a part of the house that is now knocked down. Back in those days, kitchens were kept separate from the house as it’s where most fires occurred. This kitchen had orders and invoices for feasts and lots of information about the type of food they ate, how much it cost and how much the staff were paid.

Fairfax House Lady Mary Belasyse's Room
Fairfax House Lady Mary Belasyse’s Room

Lady Mary Belasyse’s Room

Lady Mary Belasyse was Ann’s closest friend and often spent months at a time at the house. She was also single. She was quite a gossip and her Tattle letters did remind me of Bridgeton! I did wonder if maybe there was more to Lady Mary Belasyse’s and Ann’s relationship as they both never married. Though we will never know the truth.

Father Anslem Bolton’s Room

Father Bolton was the family’s chaplain, and Ann’s father left him to support and guide her. After Ann sold the house and they moved to the Gilling estate, Father Anslem was gifted Ampleforth Lodge and founded Ampleforth Abbey which still stands today. The Gilling estate, which was previously the prep school to Ampleforth College has recently been sold. It’s thought it may be turned into a spa.

The Drawing Room

The drawing room at the Fairfax House York is a stunning room with an original ceiling. The detail on the ceiling is amazing. This room was used for hosting guests and drinking tea.

Red Saloon at Fairfax House
Red Saloon

The Red Saloon

The Red Saloon is such a grand room! Another one for entertaining with card games set out. There was also a piano in the corner with Ann’s favourite song on the music stand.

The Dining Room

The dining room was set out ready for a feast and wow, what a feast it was. I love how the pies told you what was in them by either being shaped as the animal, or in the case of the pigeon, having bits of the animal on it.

Dining Room at Faixfax House

The table was beautiful. with so much detail and carving all around the edge. There was another piano in this room adding to the grandeur of the home. This was the last room we visited. I really enjoyed learning about Ann Fairfax of York

Visiting Fairfax House York: A York Attraction Worth Exploring

Opening Times and Ticket Prices

DayOpening Hours
FridayGuided tours at 11am and 2pm
Fairfax House York Opening Times

Fairfax House York Opening Times

Admission costs: £7.50 per person, and children under the age of 16 can enter for free with a paying adult.

Guided tours: £9 (every Friday at 11am and 2pm

Tickets are valid for 12 months from the date of issue, allowing visitors to explore the house and its changing exhibitions multiple times throughout the year.

Is Fairfax house suitable for children?

Fairfax House is not a museum aimed at children. Though older children who are interested in history may enjoy it. I’d be reluctant to take any children under the age of 10.

Planning Your Visit to Fairfax House

Fairfax House is located on Castlegate in York, between Jorvik Viking Centre and Clifford’s Tower. There are several transportation options for reaching the house, including car, bus, and train:

  • By car: Castle car park (YO1 9WY) is the largest and closest car park to Fairfax House, just a two-minute walk away.
  • By bus: Numerous bus services throughout Yorkshire offer routes to the city centre, with most stopping a short walk from Fairfax House. Alternatively, York’s park-and-ride network provides a convenient and cost-effective alternative to limited city centre parking.
  • By train: York Train Station is just a 15-minute walk from Fairfax House, making it easily accessible for visitors arriving by train.
Piano at Fairfax House

Things to Do in York: Exploring More of the City’s Rich History

York Museums and Historical Attractions

In addition to Fairfax House, York is home to lots of museums and historical attractions that showcase the city’s rich history and heritage. Some of the top York attractions worth exploring include the Jorvik Viking Centre, York Minster, the National Railway Museum, and the York Castle Museum.

York Sightseeing and Tourism

For those looking to fully experience the charm and beauty of York, there are plenty of sightseeing opportunities and guided tours available. From walking tours of the city’s historic streets and walls to river cruises along the Ouse, visitors can immerse themselves in the unique atmosphere of this ancient city. Christmas in York is especially magical. If you enjoyed this type of attraction, you will also love Beningbrough Hall.

Check out my things to do in York at Christmas post here

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  1. Fairfax House looks amazing! I used to walk past it all the time, but I’ve never been inside. As a history lover, I really want to check it out now. Thank you so much for sharing x

  2. This looks interesting and never been inside it before. Definitely worth visiting when I go there. Thank you for sharing!

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