Brian Wilson, who was living in a caravan in the grounds of Seighford Hall, let Andrew Potter take the “decorative piece of wood”, an employment tribunal heard. The oak overmantel, which was removed from the Grade II Listed Building in 2020, was said to be “rotten” and “riddled with wood worm and dry rot”.
The artefact, thought to be more than 400 years old, was valued at up to £5m. It was listed for sale last year but Stafford Borough Council stepped in to halt proceedings with an interim injunction.
The authority said there had been no Listed Building Consent granted for the removal of the overmantel, which is considered one of the hall’s integral fixtures and fittings.
Action to seek a full injunction was later dropped by Stafford Borough Council after all parties were made aware that it would be an offence to sell the overmantel under the Dealing in Cultural Objects (offences) Act.
Mr Wilson had first been employed at Seighford Hall when it was used as a nursing home. It ceased operating in 1998 and Mr Wilson was kept on at the site “to deal with any security and maintenance issues”, the tribunal judgement stated.
In late 2020 he was invited by Thomas Butler, then managing director, to an investigation relating to the handing over of the overmantel without authorisation, the sale of two fireplaces without authorisation and the sale of a tractor without authorisation.
Mr Wilson did not attend the investigation and said he did not receive the invitation. Further invitations to investigation meetings were sent using the same delivery method, and later an invitation to a disciplinary hearing.
The caretaker did not attend and, at a hearing held in his absence, he was found to have committed gross misconduct and dismissed without notice.
Employment judge Kate Hindmarch said that the dismissal had been “procedurally unfair” and ruled that the claim of unfair dismissal was well founded and upheld.
However, Mr Wilson will not any receive any of the £4,065 compensation he was awarded by the tribunal under a rule known as a Polkey deduction, which is a reduction in the compensatory award made to an employee in a successful claim for unfair dismissal to reflect the likelihood that there would have been a fair dismissal in any event.
The judge's ruling stated: “I have identified procedural failings in that the First Respondent (Seighford Hall Nursing Home Ltd) did not make sufficient attempts to notify the claimant (Mr Wilson) of the disciplinary process and therefore he was offered no opportunity to attend the disciplinary hearing and offer his explanation for the alleged misconduct.
“The claimant admitted he removed this historic artefact from the hall and admitted letting a Mr Potter take it. The claimant suggests the overmantel was in very poor repair, however he accepts as a listed building, proper consent needed to be given for removal of artefacts and that the condition of the overmantel revealed after its recovery (and its value) do not support a contention that it was in poor repair.”
Seighford Hall, which dates back to the 16th century, is believed to have been gifted by Queen Elizabeth I to Richard Eld in the 1590s as a reward for his services as paymaster. The overmantel bears the last Tudor monarch’s coat of arms and was displayed over a fireplace at the hall.