It will come as little surprise to most to learn that the undefeated reign of 16th century Europe’s champion drinker finally came to an end when he threw down the gauntlet in Scotland. Appropriately, perhaps, precise details are a tad hazy. Traditionally, in the train of James VI’s wife Anne of Denmark (m.1589) came a compatriot of ‘gigantic stature, a matchless champion of Bacchus’ with a trail of paralytic conquests stretching from one end of the Baltic to the other.


see: Burns Federation

Brandishing his trophy – a small ebony whistle (left) – our hero would now put his dubious distinction on the line against an assortment of Caledonian challengers, the last man still capable of getting a peep out of the prize instrument being declared the winner. ‘After many overthrows on the part of the Scots, the Dane was encountered by Sir Robert Lawrie who, after three days and nights hard contest, left the Scandinavian under the table.’1

The wee whistle was now held by Lawrie before he in turn was bested by a member of the Riddell family of Friars Carse, wherein the trophy remained until October 1789 when descendants of some of those original contestants arranged a rematch at that Lowlands house. Invited to witness this latest sozzled spectacle was the national bard Robert Burns (then locally resident) whose on-the-spot ballad The Whistle records the victory – on the back of at least half-a-dozen bottles of claret – of one Alexander Fergusson, of Craigdarroch. The whistle would now be preserved at that comely William Adam mansion until…


see: David Millar @ Google Maps

… an early 20th century marriage saw the removal of many Fergusson heirlooms fifty miles north-west to the more dramatic environs of Caprington Castle (r), seat of the Cuninghame family since 1425. The Caprington estate, just west of Kilmarnock, had likewise been gained through matrimony, having comprised the dowry in the marriage that year of Adam Cuninghame and Janet, daughter of Sir Duncan Wallace, of Sundrum.

Prior to that event the locus of the Cuninghames (originally De Cunynghame) had been Kilmaurs a few miles north, whence also sprang the Cunninghams, earls of Glencairn (a connection which would prove influential in the fate of the Caprington estate over two centuries on). A daughter of the 4th earl became the second wife of John Cuninghame, the 4th Laird (d.1564), who had succeeded to Caprington while still a minor. As soon as he was able, however, John would be up to his neck in the internecine feuding of the age, serially indicted as being party to many an act of mutilation and slaughter.2


see: MacGibbon & Ross (1892)


MacGibbon & Ross (1892)

Erected upon a natural stone platform in a bend of the river Irvine, the Cuninghames’ house at this time comprised a 15th century three-storey keep with an extending stair tower (to which the substantial wing was later added).

Though he would ‘greatly improve the estate [with] various charters of land’3 John Cuninghame’s income struggled to keep pace with the financial consequences of various ‘military ventures home and abroad’, matters reaching such a pitch that ‘in 1556 he was forced, temporarily, to sell the farm at Caprington’.4 But Cuninghame clung on (the estate passing to son William in 1564), his travails a mere foretaste of the circumstances which were to overwhelm his great-grandson in the next century, the nadir of the family’s fortunes at Caprington.


The early years of William Cuninghame, 7th Laird, were propitious enough. Like his forebear he enjoyed royal reward for services rendered, a knighthood from James VI in 1618 complementing more grants of land, ‘so that his estate must have been immense’. But, alas, ‘heavy outlays in building [and] expensive living’ would be compounded by the ruinous impact of the punitive £15,000 fine levied upon Sir William by Parliament for his active support of the Royalist cause in the Civil War. ‘He became so thoroughly embarrassed that he was finally evicted from his estates by his creditors.’3

Perhaps motivated by mutual (if dim and distant) ancestry, Caprington was now snapped up by William Cunningham, the 9th Earl of Glencairn, a connection which may also have made the sometime Lord Chancellor of Scotland amenable to an approach within a generation from a newly prosperous representative of the Cuninghame male bloodline to reacquire the family estate. Any such sympathies would not prevent Glencairn from driving a fairly hard bargain, however.


see: Google Maps

Sir John Cuninghame was one of the foremost Scottish lawyers of the age, ‘a man of great probity [who had] succeeded in gaining both fame and opulence by the excerise of his great abilities’.5 And in 1683 Sir John (created a baronet in 1669) applied his wealth to repurchasing the estate which had been surrendered by his bankrupt late cousin, Sir William, agreeing to pay roughly three times its market value to buy out the encumbered Glencairn family interest. But Cuninghame would have little time to enjoy a ‘homecoming’, dying just a year after the deal was done.

And quite how grateful his son and heir, Sir William (d.1740), was to now receive this reclaimed inheritance is debatable, the second baronet’s life having been ‘by his own account, one long struggle against an ever-mounting burden of debt’.4 This despite the fact that William had also married well, his wife being Janet, surviving child and heiress of wealthy merchant Sir James Dick, of Prestonfield House, near Edinburgh.


see: Kim Traynor / geopgraph

Marketed today as the ‘the most glamorous hotel in Edinburgh’, Prestonfield (r) remains recognizably the 1680s house James Dick commissioned from architect Sir William Bruce and which would descend via the younger sons of his daughter and son-in-law. By resigning his title and obtaining a new patent from Queen Anne, Sir James also ensured that the Dick baronetcy would likewise ‘descend according to the entail of his estate’.

William, second son of Sir William Cuninghame, duly inherited Prestonfield, his marriage (to Anne, Lady Dick, a noted eccentric given to perambulating about Edinburgh dressed as man) and that of some of his siblings suggesting a degree of resistance to the parental orthodoxy then seemingly prevalent at Caprington. The marital choice of the Cuninghames’ daughter was deemed to be beyond the pale. “Your sister Margaret, contrary to our advice, on the 27th ultimo made an elopement out of our family to that of Mr. Robert Keith,” the 9th Laird wrote to his youngest son Alexander in January of 1726. “Such a degree of disobedience we justly resent and hope to be guarded against all uneasiness of that sort in time to come.”6


see: Art UK

Alas, further disappointment lay ahead. For Alexander (later Sir Alexander Dick, 3rd Bt.), too, even at the age of thirty-three, would feel compelled to wed in secret, presenting his disapproving parents with a marital fait accompli before promptly leaving the country and embarking upon a rather eventful ten-month tour of Europe in the company of his young friend, the subsequently celebrated painter Allan Ramsay. (The latter’s portrait of Alexander, left, adorns the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh, of which Dick became president.)

Judiciously, perhaps, the heir to the Caprington estate, the Cuninghames eldest son John would not marry until some years after he had succeeded his father as 3rd baronet in 1740. ‘Esteemed as one of the most learned and accomplished personages of his day, most of [Sir John’s] time was spent in literary retirement at Caprington Castle.’2 Having long enjoyed robust good health, an indisposition would prevent Sir John welcoming an admiring James Boswell, travelling with Samuel Johnson in 1773, while the familiar nature of his eventual demise in his 82nd year was noted by Sir Alexander Dick:

Nov 4, 1777: My dear brother Sir John died at 10:30PM after supper suddenly, sitting in his chair, before that chearfull with his family. His father and mine Sir William and his brother and mine Sir William Dick and our sister all went off suddenly in the same manner. A kind of death the most to be wished for.6


[source: Gow & Rowan7]

A few years into his tenure the new Laird of Caprington Castle Sir William Cuninghame, 4th Bt., contemplated a complete break with the venacular, commissioning plans for a fashionable Neoclassical remodeling (r) of the old family seat from Edinburgh architect David Henderson. The two schemes (of varying elaboration and cost) produced in 1780 were perhaps most notable for some ‘highly inventive room shapes…

… oval bed chambers in the old tower [and a] rather zany oval kitchen’, ideas perhaps a little too outre for his client, for the plans would never come to pass.7


However, classically detailed lodges at the entrance to the west drive are evidence of the ‘Georgianization’ which did occur at Caprington Castle, the old tower house itself eventually being entirely subsumed, and ‘extended in Adam style’ in the last years of the 18th century.7 A full-height canted bay now centered the entrance front but this comparatively tentative makeover would receive robust amplification soon after Sir William Cuninghame’s death in 1829, an event which would also bring about the decoupling of title and estate at Caprington.


see: delays.avert.disasters

Having no children, the baronetcy now passed (but not without a fight) to his cousin Sir Robert Dick of Prestonfield while the Castle and lands passed separately to Anne, granddaughter of Sir Alexander Dick. Her husband John Smith promptly added the Cuninghame monicker and engaged architect Patrick Wilson to go full-bore with the theatrical fortification of their new home.


see: Future Museum

Accentuating the natural platform, a broad stone terrace now surrounded the house on three sides, bulging into round bastions at the angles ‘giving a great sense of massiveness and strength’.8 Developing the theme, the central bay would be raised and castellated ‘to form an imposing tower, while each elevation was ‘clasped by crenellated turrets, set diamond-wise and sporting mock slit windows’.9 Meanwhile, at ground level a muscular porte-cochere with Gothic arches ‘projects 24ft in front of the terrace wall, each of the angles supported by a massive buttress turret’ between which displays the Cuninghame coat of arms.8 In rear, the service wing was extended with similar fanciful flourishes.


see source4

Within this ground level entrance a sharp flight of stairs (left) ascends to the main hall, a profusion of arches, beams, rib-vaulting and figurative bosses typifying ‘the Gothic scheme of architecture and ornamentation which pervades the castle’.8 The dining room walls correspond with the medieval keep. While the original turnpike stair survives, Caprington’s ‘tour de force [is] the vast, full-height, open-well stair (↓) rising through three floors to the tall top-lit cupola, each of its walls filled with romantic paintings illustrating the seasons’.9

capringstairUnderwriting the expense of this  project (and the economics of the estate for the previous century-and-a-half) were the mineral riches below ground. Anthracitic ‘Caprington Blind’ coal was particularly valued as ‘its properties made it specially suitable for drying malt’.10 And the Smith-Cuninghames’ heir, son Thomas, would exploit these reserves like never before, improving not only the Caprington pit’s productivity (much of the output being shipped along the nearby river Irvine for export over to Ireland) but also the lot of its colliers whose wages, cottages, and education then exemplified ‘what wonders can be accomplished when sober, industrious workmen and wise liberal masters meet’.11


see: Canmore

But in June 1857 Thomas Smith-Cuninghame died quite suddenly, unmarried and ‘in the prime of life’, his brother William now coming into a ripe inheritance as the 14th Laird.12 In 1874 he added the Auchlochan House estate (with its mine) in Lanarkshire to his property portfolio which, in addition to Caprington Castle and its 5,000 acres, would also include nearby Farilie House (left), a David Henderson design as handsome as…


see: Rosser1954 / Wikipedia

… as the annual income Smith-Cuninghame continued to enjoy until his death in the first month of the twentieth century.13 But if William had known the best of times at Caprington his son would experience a melancholy low when in 1909 particularly heavy rainfall caused the river Irvine to break its banks, inundating the Caprington pit with the loss of ten men. The mine would close just two years later; today, the crumbling remains of a purposely picturesque late-18th century colliery engine house stands within the golf course established on estate land in the same year as the pit disaster.

Soon after succeeding his father in 1900 John Smith-Cuninghame would enlist the services of his architect brother-in-law Basil Slade who introduced, among other modifications, a full-height extension to the Castle over the terrace to the north.


see: Gillians Walks

Also in the first decade of the last century the opposite side of the house gained a large cast-iron conservatory (produced by Walter Macfarlane & Co.’s renowned Saracen Foundry in Glasgow), a structure which has undergone complete refurbishment in recent times.

In keeping with unwitting family tradition, Lt.Col. Smith-Cuninghame ‘died with startling suddenness while dressing for dinner at Caprington Castle’ one evening in December 1921.14 The estate now passed to his soldier son Wallace who, in 1908, had married Ella Fergusson, herself the sole heiress of the 19th Laird of Craigdarroch. With two large properties on their hands, in 1923 it was decided that the ancient 3,000-acre Dumfriesshire fastness of the Fergussons would be sold, many of this family’s heirlooms now transferring to Caprington, including the little wooden whistle immortalized by Robert Burns.


see source

But Caprington has another, historically rather more significant, musical claim to fame. For the Castle’s collections – latterly in the custody of the 17th Laird Robert Fergusson-Cuninghame (d.2012) and, presently, his son William – can also boast Scotland’s oldest known instrument, ‘a fine and perfect, extremely scarce’ 2,000-year-old Bronze Age horn.15 Daniel Defoe, in his mid-18th century Tour through the whole island of Great Britain, recorded that the horn had been ‘digged up’ on Cuninghame land a hundred years earlier: ‘A very shrill sound, [it] is still kept in the Laird of Caprington’s house, and made use of to call his Servants and Workmen together.’

As has been demonstrated, this 25-inch instrument remains ’eminently playable’.16 Being itself a rather noteworthy (if not quite so venerable) survival, wholly private Caprington Castle may not be given to blowing its own trumpet, but Handed on is happy here to give it a toot…


see: J Munro @ Google Maps

[More exterior & interior images][Archives]

1. Chambers, R. The life and works of Robert Burns, Vol.3, 1852.
2. Anderson, W. The Scottish nation, Vol.1, 1863.
3. Paterson, J. History of the counties of Ayr and Wigton, Vol.2, 1852.
4. Cantlie, H. Ancestral castles of Scotland, 1992.
5. Millar, A.H. Historical & descriptive accounts of the castles & mansions of Ayrshire, 1886.
6. Atholl Forbes, Mrs. (Ed.) Curiosities of a Scots charta chest 1600-1800, 1897.
7. Gow, I., Rowan, A. (Eds.) Scottish country houses 1600-1914, 1995.
8. Hannan, T. Famous Scottish houses: The Lowlands, 1928.
9. Close, R., Riches, A. Buildings of Scotland: Ayrshire and Arran, 2012.
10. Anderson, E.M. The economic geology of the Ayrshire coalfields, 1925.
11. Landsborough, D. Contributions to local history, 1879.
12. Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald, 26 September, 1857.
13. Ward, J.T. Ayrshire landed estates in the 19th century, Ayrshire Collections, Vol.8, AANHS,1969.
14. Dundee Evening Telegraph, 19 December, 1921.
15. Evans, J. The ancient bronze implements, weapons and ornaments of Great Britain, 1891.
16. Purser, J. Homecoming of the Deskford carnyx. In: Fladmark, JM (Ed.) Cultural Tourism, 1994.

Willey Park, Shropshire

Begin not to live at so high a rate at first, for in so doing I have hurt myself, and had more sorrow than pleasure.’

In setting down his experiences for the benefit of his son and heir, the reflections of City gent-cum-Shropshire squire Sir John Weld (d.1666) offered a gloomy guide in how to survive landed country life whilst avoiding a sojourn in a debtors’ gaol.

I advise my son not to be busy in Building, nor in suits in Law, nor in searching for coals, nor in Iron Works, nor in too much hospitality .. for these will be means to waste his estate.1

Little wonder that Sir John seemingly took solace in the mellifluous melancholy of John Dowland whose Fortune My Foe featured among the ‘carefully and beautifully handwritten Elizabethan music’ in Weld’s possession.2 Yet many of his successors at Willey Park, a few miles east of Much Wenlock, would proceed to dive headlong into each of the activities Weld had cautioned against, but largely to the benefit of an estate today extending to some 7,000 acres and described as ‘a fine example of absolute solidness and seclusion’.

Most notably in the years following a mutually advantageous mid-18th century marital alliance with the Foresters from the opposite side of ‘Ironbridge Gorge’, exploitation of these families’ coal and iron reserves would resource the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. Cumulative prosperity subsequently underwrote both the boundless hospitality (and cavalier fecundity) of a legendary libidinous squire and also the aspirations of his successor who was soon to get ‘busy in building’ a Neoclassical ‘masterpiece…little altered since its completion’.


That moment also saw a social step-change, the Hall’s builder being ennobled – albeit somewhat unsatisfactorily – by his old pal the Prince Regent. Decades on, the late-marrying 3rd Lord Forester would become improbably busy in pursuit of a rather extraordinary ‘suit in Law’, but one which was to pay off very handsomely indeed. Since when, however, the story of Willey Park has unfolded in relative quietude, exuding a stability and soundness of which Sir John Weld would likely have been at once both impressed and decidedly envious.

For the commercial instincts of the ‘rich Town Clerk of London’ were not the only factor which had threatened to undermine the prospects of an estate Weld had purchased from Sir Francis Lacon in 1618 (after two centuries in the ownership of that family). Active adherence to the Royalist cause in the Civil War saw both Sir John and his namesake son and heir imprisoned after the capture of Shrewsbury, and forced to compound for the return of their property upon eventual release.


see: British Musuem

Fortunes would take an upswing at the Restoration, however. Family connections gained Sir John’s 25-year-old grandson George (←) the position of deputy governor of the Tower of London (though diarist Samuel Pepys was singularly unimpressed with the over-promotion of ‘a young simple fantastic coxcomb’ to such responsibility). Soon after, George Weld was also returned as one of the two local MPs for Much Wenlock; in 1679 the second seat here would be taken by William Forester, these families henceforth retaining representation almost continuously for the next two hundred years.


see: Google Maps

Unlike the incoming Welds, the Foresters ‘had been intimately connected with the history of the borough for the previous 500 years’, rising to become squires (‘of vast tracts of land south of The Wrekin’) seated initially at Wellington Old Hall (r) and later, through marriage, at nearby Dothill Park.3 The early 18th century saw the development of Abraham Darby’s ironworks on the Severn at Coalbrookdale, furnaces there consuming coal and iron ore from the Foresters’ estate to the north and the Welds’ to the south.

The coalition of these two Shropshire dynasties occured in 1734 with the marriage of Elizabeth, the only surviving child of George Weld (2) – ‘a young lady of great merit and fortune’4 – and Brooke Forester, the heir to Dothill. Although Forester would soon also inherit the considerable cash fortune of his maternal grandfather (South Sea Company director William Brooke), the couple seemingly remained content to spend their life together – Elizabeth dying in 1753 – at old Willey Hall.


[1904] see source

‘Nestling in a wooded hollow, with its many gables and fine massive Tudor chimneys, Willey Hall was as good a specimen of a quaint old manor house as you could have found in England.’5 Today, only a detached service range, ‘virtually unaltered since the early 17th century .. and an even older [adjacent] octogan of brick’ remain (r).6

After George Weld’s death in 1748 Brooke Forester would take the now somewhat mismanaged estate in hand, while in 1757 he became the principal shareholder in (and landlord to) the New Willey Co. whose furnaces were established in the park by progressive ironmaster John Wilkinson.7 The next year Brooke’s father William Forester died and the widower now relocated to his own family’s seat Dothill Park, large sums soon being spent in the beautification of that property. Meanwhile, at ‘picturesque and comfortable’ Willey Old Hall things were set to remain much as they were through the next half-century as the Foresters’ eldest son George set about indulging rather different predilections.5


‘Four o’clock on a hunting morning usually found Squire Forester preparing the inner man with breakfast of underdone beef, with eggs beaten up in brandy; and thus fortified he was ready for a fifty mile run’.8

George Forester’s indefatigable hunting exploits became the stuff of legend, ‘The Squire’ chasing hither and yon as far as fox and daylight allowed in the company of like-minded spirits for whom Old Willey Hall would be open house throughout the season. No less talked about, however, was Forester’s equally energetic not to say lusty pursuit of the local female population, George taking a decidedly literal approach to the role of the paternalistic squire.


see source

Seemingly any comely maid within range was fair game, cottages across the estate gradually housing ‘a harem of rustic beauties’, competing mistresses whose jealousies would occasionally erupt in life-threatening fashion.5 Not surprisingly, Forester’s ‘strong attachment to the fair sex’ resulted in ‘a variety of living witnesses’; the local vicar ‘was almost permanently occupied in christening the Squire’s bastards,’9 whose education he would support and who ‘frequently visited the Hall’8.

Forester’s wealth allowed great providence to be shown not only towards this expanding cast of women and children but also the wider local community during times of hardship. The Willey Park estate was also ‘greatly enlarged’ through land purchases in his time, and would retain a direct association with the industrial innovation happening around and about.3


see: NPG

Though Forester’s shareholding in the innovative blast furnace operation driven by John Wilkinson (left) was gradually surrendered, the New Willey Company‘s river wharf  (two miles north and connected by a dedicated railroad) saw the launch of the world’s first iron vessel in 1787, whilst in Parliament Forester was a prominent champion for the now iconic iron bridge spanning the Severn. Squire George Forester died in 1811, a father several times over but officially still a bachelor without legitimate offspring, Willey now passing to his cousin Cecil Forester (Weld Forester thereafter).


see: National Trust

While the new squire (r) would certainly uphold the estate’s tradition of gung-ho prowess in the hunting field (‘he rode and lived as hard as any man could’), Willey Park was now about to up its game both socially and architecturally, these developments likely spurred to no small extent by Weld Forester’s marriage to the former Lady Katherine Manners.

The 5th Duke of Rutland had been decidedly underwhelmed by his sister’s choice of husband in 1800, Cecil Forester then wanting of both a title and a fortune. His relatively modest house, Rossall near Shrewsbury (of which only a wing remains) was doubtless also viewed askance by the duke who was then in the process of the grandiose rebuilding (by James Wyatt) of the Manners family seat, Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire. But, whatever the motivation, upon inheriting the Willey fortune Weld Forester promptly initiated the building of Willey Hall Mk.2 on an elevated virgin site within the park.


see: Bing Maps

‘In all the beautiful county of Shropshire there can hardly be a lovelier view than from the high terrace into and over the great woods,’ suggested the Illustrated London News in 1891. ‘No wonder that for such a view, for such a site on the high ground, the first Lord Forester left the Old Hall – only a few hundred yards away, but in the hole, not on the hill – and built himself, up here, a mansion of the fashion of his time, spacious, cheerful, and bright. It has everything.’10

Lewis Wyatt, nephew and former pupil of the late architect of Belvoir Castle, had gained the commission: ‘The designs were prepared in 1812 and 1813 and the house took ten years to complete. The exterior carries on and perfects James Wyatt’s late classical style.’11


see: Neale’s ‘Views of the seats‘ [1825]

Being ‘a very elegant design .. astonishingly grand,’12 on the north-west facing entrance front a massive full-height portico/porte-cochere projects beyond a three-bay centre section relieved by tall niches. More Corinthian columns stand proud of the shallow-domed bow which enjoys the splendid south-western prospect across the lake-filled vale and the extensive forest beyond.


see: Country Life

Within lies ‘a succession of rooms of amazing originality [plan] and still containing much of the original fittings’.13 An entrance vestibule leads into the colourful great central hall ‘which presents a magnificent appearance‘ (←). A full-height, top-lit rectangular space with screens of yellow scagliola columns supporting a brass-railed gallery, ‘it is a neo-classical masterpiece’.11 Beyond, an integral conservatory occupies much of the garden front (↓), the intervening space comprising of an ‘oval staircase hall where two sweeping [cantilevered] flights are connected to the upper galleries by a flying bridge’.11 With apsidal ends, the generously proportioned library (‘the size of a small house’2) lies behind the bow windows…

… ‘but the best pictures are found in the drawing room – another of the cheerful, lofty sunlit rooms which give Willey Hall its greatest charm as a place to live in’.10

The surrounding parkland – originally created by Sir John Weld’s enclosure of part of Shirlett forest, and the addition of large fishponds – was now redefined, several roads being closed and almshouses in Barrow village demolished and replaced ‘out of sight of the hall’. (Fifty years later, leading landscape designer William Nesfield ‘apparently initiated but did not complete a major redesign of the park’.)


[1891] see source

Just as the new Willey Hall was nearing completion the soon-to-be-crowned King George IV came through with a promised peerage for his old friend. But Lord Forester‘s delight in ascent to the aristocracy was dented somewhat on being denied the preferred title of Baron Wenlock. (Feeling ‘ill used, he and his wife – who lamented the lack of rank which ‘Lord Fagend’ brought her – determined to stay away from the coronation’.)


see source

However unsatisfactory, the title would reach its fifth incarnation before the century was out,  three of the Foresters’ sons in turn succeeding to the estate. The coming-of-age of the eldest, George (MP, left), in 1822 was the first great celebration in their ‘superb mansion‘. He became 2nd Baron Forester in 1828, a year before the death of his mother who had implored her son ‘to remove the “one blot in your life” by getting married to “a sensible girl”. But his enduring regard for ‘a society figure of dubious virtue’…

Mrs Georgiana Lane-Fox, meant Forester would be fifty-five by the time of his eventual marriage to the widowed 3rd Viscountess Melbourne. Curiously, George’s brother, Cecil, who succeeded in 1874, was precisely the same relatively advanced age when he finally sloughed off bachelorhood, also marrying a widow, one who came with a fair amount of exotic baggage (much of it, usefully, bulging with banknotes and pregnant with the possibility of more).


David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre was the Anglo-Indian stepson and anointed heir of a begum whose extensive lands and property would be annexed by the British via the East Indian Company following her death in 1836. Fleeing to England with his portable inheritance – a cash fortune of some £800,000 – the exile cut a colourful, eligible figure on the social scene, marrying Mary Anne Jervis, daughter of the 2nd Viscount St. Vincent in 1840.

But Dyce Sombre’s perceived erratic character and antisocial outbursts led to the couple’s eventual separation, and repeated attempts by his wife (and his sisters) to have him sectioned. Battalions of doctors and lawyers were deployed on both sides: ‘Never was more time and trouble spent in proving a man mad,’ suggested The Times newspaper.14


see: source


see: NPG

Dyce Sombre died in 1851, bequeathing his fortune to educational causes in India. Five years on, however, his widow’s contention that her late husband had been of unsound mind at the time of making his will would be upheld…

… yielding ‘a handsome’ £10,000 (c.£1 million) per annum from his estate at the time of her remarriage to (George) Cecil Weld Forester (above) in 1862.14

And now, some thirty-six years after the East India Company’s land grab, the future 3rd Lord Forester took up the cudgels in pursuit of his wife’s claim on the exceedingly valuable annexed Indian properties of her first husband. A decade on judgement in ‘G.C.W. Forester vs. Secretary of State for India‘ denied a right to the lands but did yield £63,000 (c.£5m) in compensation for other chattels; two years later the couple came into the Willey Park estate.


see: Paul Snook @ Google Maps

The 3rd baron was the ‘father‘ of the House of Commons when he acceded to the title, having been the member for Much Wenlock since 1828. It was in that year that a new road running south from Ironbridge had been built, ‘a private carriageway extending the road to Willey Hall’. Entering the estate from the lodge at Broseley (left) ‘the drive leads for miles, it seems, down through wonderfully diversified and grandly timbered park, till the north front [of the house] comes into view through the trees’.15

‘A London society figure who spent part of each year in Hamburg’ (then ‘the most British town on the Continent’), the childless 3rd baron cut a very different figure from the brother who would succeed him in 1886. Now 72, The Rev. Orlando Weld Forester, a keen astronomer, had by this point been vicar of Gedling in Nottingham (where, ‘to the dismay of church elders, he completely replaced the medieval roof timbers of the chancel with painted astronomical motifs’) since 1867. Having been appointed canon of York Minster, the 4th Lord Forester died with his clerical boots on in that city in 1894, aged 80.


see source

Meanwhile, the abolition of the Wenlock constituency in 1885 had ended not just the Commons career of the 4th baron’s heir, son Cecil (left), but the Foresters’ centuries of local parliamentary representation. At his succession to the title the family’s Shropshire estate extended to almost 15,000 acres but the decades following his death in 1917 would be characterised by disposals and consolidation at Willey Park.


see: BenthallNT

In 1918 Dothill Park, eight miles to the north and a Forester seat since 1648, was put on the market by George Weld Forester, 6th baron (and has long since been built over). Similarly, not long after succeeding his father in 1934, Cecil, 7th Lord Forester offloaded Tudor Benthall Hall (r), between Dothill and Willey ‘on a plateau above the gorge of the River Severn’, which had been an opportunistic purchase by the second baron in 1844 (and is now owned by the National Trust).


see: WainwrightStumpRemoval

The St. John Ambulance Association voluntary first aid charity relocated to this corner of Shropshire at the outbreak of World War Two. The guns would never fall silent at Willey Park, however, which can lay claim to ‘the oldest continuous game book in the country dating back to 1825’. “Unless you are shooting or hunting you would never see an estate like this,” remarked one sporting guest 10 years ago, a situation which obtained until very recently.

“It gives us enormous pleasure to be able to show people around the house,” declared Charles Weld-Forester, 9th Baron Forester in 2018 prior to hosting limited private group tours of the Grade II* listed Hall. One can imagine his warily cynical 17th-century predecessor Sir John Weld once again advisedly shaking his head:

Beware of..comers and goers, for they are little better than thieves.1


[Willey Park Shoot][@Historic Houses]

1. Phillips, W. The sequestration papers of Sir John Weld, Snr., and Sir John Weld, Jnr., Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological Society, Series III, Vol.1, 1901.
2. Spencer, R. The Weld lute book, The Musical Times, Vol.100, No.1402, 1959.
3. Nichol, JD. Wynnstay, Willey and Wenlock, 1730-1832: A study in local political history, Trans.Shrops.Archaeo.Soc., Vol.LVIII, Pt.3, 1967-8.
4. Daily Courant, 17 May 1734.
5. ‘Thormanby’, Kings of the hunting-field, 1899.
6. Newman, J., Pevsner,N. The buildings of England: Shropshire, 2006.
7. Randall, J. Old sports and sportsmen, Or, The Willey country, 1875.
8. Carr, R. English fox hunting – a history, 1986.
9. Dawson, F. John Wilkinson: King of the ironmasters, 2012.
10. Illustrated London News, 14 March 1891.
11. Robinson, JM. The Wyatts: An architectural dynasty, 1979.
12. Pevsner, N. The buildings of England: Shropshire (1st ed.), 1958.
13. Reid, P. Burke’s & Savills guide to country houses. Vol.II, 1980.
14. The Times, 4 July 1856.
15. Hussey, C. English country houses: Late Georgian 1800-1840, 1958.
See also: Tipping, HA. Willey Hall, Country Life, 19 February 1921.

Now counted among the prized treasures preserved in the British Library, the late 13th century so-named Salvin Hours ‘is one of the largest, most richly decorated independent Books of Hours for English use’, items which in themselves ‘are very rare at so early a date’. But, whilst elaborately illustrated, ‘it is characterized by a decorative scheme which insistently and grotesquely depicts Jews in violent, ugly stereotypes’.1 Which was then, of course, very much ‘on message’…


see: British Library

… the Jewish community in England being officially fair game at the time this work was produced. In 1290 King Edward I reached the natural conclusion of his increasingly punitive treatment of English Jews throughout his reign when he legislated for their expulsion from the country. However, by the time the book came into the possession of Gerard (or Jarrard) Salvin – ‘ye gift of my uncle, 1685′ – the Salvins of Croxdale Hall were themselves on the receiving end of royal edicts by dint of their own religion.

As Roman Catholics in the face of Elizabeth I’s muscular promotion of her father’s Reformation (and thus nominally on the ‘wrong’ side of various uprisings in the North over time), the Salvins crucially ‘were never zealots’, readily signalling as much when pressed.2 While it certainly did not go unpunished – ‘the number of times on which the Salvins were convicted and fined in the late 16th/early 17th century are legion’ – such low-key recusancy would in no small measure assist a continued association with Croxdale which now extends across more than 600 years.3

An excellent house, placed on a lofty situation, and commanding a most beautiful prospect of the vale through which the river Were winds its course; Sunderland-bridge is in front, and the enlivened prospect of the great southern road at the agreeable distance of half a mile. It is bordered by extensive plantations, and embellished with pleasure grounds in a good taste.’ (Hutchinson, 1794)

croxaboveToday, the siting of the Grade I listed house, ‘hidden in a wooded park’4 above the Wear, may account for its relative obscurity, and benign neglect for the survival of many unmolested features, not least the eight-acre, three-walled garden, ‘considerably larger than any contemporary example yet found’.5 This garden’s form, and also that of Croxdale Hall as it stands today, are to no little extent the fruits of the two mid-18th century marriages…

… of one of the few Salvin squires not to be called Gerard. And it was marriage which had first carried the family name (originally ‘Sylvane’) to County Durham, having migrated from the famed forests of Nottinghamshire, via Yorkshire, over the preceding two centuries.

A younger son who married well, Gerard (1) ‘had livery of his wife [Agnes de Walton’s Croxdale] inheritance in 1402′. This property, three miles due south of the city of Durham, would subsequently pass in the Salvin male line until World War Two, the first ten squires sharing the same Christian name. Gerard (6) died in 1570, a year after the doomed Northern uprising of Catholics against Queen Elizabeth, of which his son was an active supporter. Gerard (7) would later be pardoned but not before he had publicly abased himself for pointedly interring his father without ceremony in protest at the outlawing of Roman Catholic burials.


Disused church in the grounds of Croxdale Hall [see: Andrew Spiers]

‘He appears to have been a poor-spirited specimen of his race,’ averred a 19th century historian. ‘When charged with the affront, instead of having the business through he consented to recant in public. The words he was forced to utter were quite bad enough: “I indecently, unnaturally, and unneighbourly buried my father as though he had not died of God’s kind. I am heartily sorry for this .. desiring you all to take good example by my punishment.”6

The steady succession of Gerards at Croxdale was very nearly derailed in 1644 when the eldest son of Gerard (9), fighting on the losing side in the Civil War, ‘was slain at Northallerton’. But Gerard would in fact outlive all his remaining offspring, including second son Bryan, whose eldest, young Gerard (10), succeeded in 1663. (Another son, Anthony, begat a cadet branch of the family whence later sprang prominent Victorian architect Anthony Salvin.)

Surviving papers of both Bryan and son Gerard indicate that significant alterations were made to the existing house – a three-sided courtyard affair open to the east – in their time. Precisely what form these developments took has been obscured by later transformation of ‘this remarkably complex house’.7 And it is conceivable that the major remodeling of Croxdale Hall in the 1760s might have happened several decades earlier had an irresistible marriage proposition not turned out to be a distracting and rather expensive chimera.


‘As to removing a youth so soon from school, with the intent to marry him, the offer of so considerable a fortune was made to me (for the proposal sought me not I it) was not to be slighted.’ Being the somewhat self-justifying reflections of a chastened Bryan Salvin (who had succeeded his father Gerard (10) in 1723) in the aftermath of the mysterious wedding that never was.

From which quarter the scheme had emanated is unclear but it was plainly persuasive enough – ‘in days when a judicious marriage was the only way a Roman Catholic could increase his income’ – to prompt serious commitment to the mooted arrangement.8 Salvin acknowledged that taking the teenaged Gerard ‘out of college, to attend after a young lady, equipped accordingly, to follow her to Paris, and afterwards a young gentleman to be maintained in the world, a large expense would appear unavoidable’.9


see: Google Maps

Alas, this investment would come to naught, the grand plan unfortunately unraveling in Belgium. ‘How it was managed in Ghent .. they who were there know best,’ recorded Salvin in 1734, ‘but I neither sent them there, nor took any steps in this affair without the advice and approbation of most of my friends.’ Of his son’s foreshortened schooling, Salvin reconciled that ‘it was pretty well known’ that Gerard would have left soon anyway, being unsuited to ‘confinement and regulations’.9

But, like his education, Gerard’s life itself would be truncated, dying in 1737 before he came of age. Indeed, of Bryan Salvin’s five sons, three predeceased their father (four remaining unmarried) leaving third son William to succeed to Croxdale in March 1751. Still single at this point, William’s marital fortunes were to make good his father’s thwarted aspirations – but it would not be without a fight.

The estate William inherited was largely intact despite the second Jacobite rebellion six years earlier. For while many northern Catholics were actively sympathetic to the aims of ‘the ’45’, Bryan Salvin had been keen to emphasize his non-involvement, pledging “to give no disturbance whatsoever to His Majesty King George and his government, nor any assistance to his enemies”.2


see source

And William’s coffers would be swelled in 1754 through his marriage to Mary, daughter of Sir Edward Gascoigne of Parlington Hall near Leeds. However, her death just two years later (aged 22, without child) might be regarded as a pivotal moment in the evolution of the Croxdale Hall estate. For with his second wife came not only another dowry (of around £6,000) but by rights, Salvin was convinced, a whole lot more where that came from.

Thus, soon after his 1758 remarriage to Catherine Thornton, of Netherwitton Hall in Northumberland, Salvin began not only the modernization of the old mansion but also embarked (↑) on a simultaneous decade-long pursuit of his new in-laws through the courts on behalf of his wife’s contested birthright. Catherine had been the only surviving child of Netherwitton’s squire John Thornton at the time of the latter’s death in 1742, whereupon Thornton’s brother James inherited. At his subsequent demise the Netherwitton estate was devised upon James’ two daughters, unreasonably so in the belief of the Salvins.


see: David Robinson @ geograph

If he had indeed ‘dragged Margaret and Mary [Thornton] through the courts in an attempt to eject them from their father’s estate’, Salvin would be ultimately unsuccessful. However, despite some high-level reversals, his claim would be doggedly pursued until finally, in 1769, a settlement was reached, ‘the defendants agreeing to pay Salvin one third of the value of the [Netherwitton] estate’, to wit: £12,504.10

And all the while, broadly on the footprint of the existing U-shaped house…


Country Life8

… the remodeling of Croxdale Hall was afoot, its new ‘plain, polite facades’10 contrasting somewhat with a ‘rich mid-Georgian interior’8. Behind the west front (↑) ‘the finest room is the entrance hall and staircase, which rises and divides beneath tall windows and a virtuoso Rococo ceiling, possibly by Cortese.’12 Left of this space the library is dominated by a fine (slightly later) mahogany bookcase as long as the room itself. Beyond, a dining room occupies one of two bow bays which book-end the north wing, its ‘enriched Venetian window surmounted by carved wyverns’ (probably c.1766).7

William had inherited parkland established by his father, including a one-kilometre avenue arrowing east from the Hall (↓ defined by cruciform plantations) with High Croxdale Farm at its terminus. This building now gained ‘grander one-storey wings with large Gibbs surrounds’, embellishments which were contemporaneous with an ambitious, expansive garden developed to the south.10


see: Bing Maps

Overseeing matters horticultural at Croxdale for the first two decades of William Salvin’s half-century stewardship was John Kennedy, a member of the renowned family of planstmen/gardeners. ‘Correspondence among the Salvin papers shows that [this appointment was] organized by his brother Lewis Kennedy’ who would supply multifarious varieties from his influential nursery in Hammersmith.13 But the precise involvement of the Kennedys in the shaping of the Croxdale walled garden remains an open question.


see: Historic England

Manipulated watercourses created an elongated string of ponds (below) effectively forming the garden’s southern boundary, brick delineating the remainder of its broadly rectangular area (sheltering trees without). The long angular crinkle-crankle north wall incorporates a large Italianate orangery midpoint [see]. The latter structure has been altered over time but ‘the survival of [its] heated walls complete with their chimneys and flues intact is rare’.13 These structures clearly emphasise a desire to maximise the garden’s productivity but the space was equally ornamental.

croxdaleAbove‘One is wholly unprepared, when the door in the wall is opened, for the astonishing vista through it – a terrace walk quarter of a mile long.’8  Most of the cultivated detail of the garden would gradually be lost to lawn through the second half the 20th century but the 21st has seen renewed interest in the wake of ‘proposals to restore the parkland and gardens at Croxdale Hall’.5

suttonplaceWilliam Salvin’s heir Gerard having died in his teens, second son William (2) duly succeeded in January 1800; his marriage six months later would associate the family name with a landmark house at the opposite end of the country.  For, through his wife Anna Maria Webbe-Weston, their younger son Francis would in due course inherit Tudor Sutton Place (r), near Guildford in Surrey.

Sold out of the family in 1918, in the late 18th century a change of heart had averted Sutton from the ‘truly atrocious proposal to transmute the house in a bastard Italian style’, a scheme suggested by classical architect Joseph Bonomi.


see: Historic England

Much closer to home and perhaps coincidentally, William Salvin’s younger brother Bryan was to call upon the services of Bonomi’s son (and fellow practitioner), Durham-based Ignatius, having acquired in the first decade of the 19th century the Burn Hall estate, opposite Croxdale on the other side of the Wear valley, where he rebuilt the house (left).


see: papersandpaints

Plainly in favour with the Salvin family, the Catholic Ignatius Bonomi would also supply a flight of steps (←) to the entrance front of Croxdale Hall during this period. ‘It is conjectured that he may also have been responsible for the south front [with pediment, left] and presumably the remodeling of the rooms behind it.’7

But the most distinctive development in the time of William (2) was in the north wing (↓) where, behind its bowed eastern extremity, a new chapel was created. Tall gothic windows set into the east wall now illuminated this space in the stead of the now redundant Venetian arrangement to the north. An inscription within records that the chapel was ‘beautifully designed and executed’ by the squire in 1807; ‘the most elaborate Gothick decoration of any contemporary northern ecclesiastical building,’ in Nikolaus Pevsner’s stout estimation.10


see: Malcolm Tebbit


see: Alan Blacklock

Still dominating the altar is a ‘Lamentation painted by the Regency artist Maria Cosway for the old Chapel at Croxdale, popularised through this print‘ in the early years of the 19th century.

William’s son, Gerard (11), succeeded in 1842 but at his death in 1870 the family of his eldest surviving son Henry made a separate estate property their home, Croxdale Wood House now being enlarged for the purpose. Meanwhile, for most of what remained of the 19th century, the Hall itself was leased to industrialist John Rogerson whose Wearside Iron & Coal Company revived dormant mining activity on the (then 2,340a) estate at Croxdale Colliery from 1875.


[1857] see: Ordnance Survey / National Library of Scotland

In the wake of Rogerson’s death in 1894 and that of Henry Salvin three years later, a rental agreement of 1904 drawn up for young squire Gerard (12) shows Croxdale Hall subsequently being shared with several spinster sisters. (That same year, ‘the Misses Salvin’ would arrange for the sale the aforementioned medieval Book of Hours through Sotheby’s.) Gerard died childless in 1921, Croxdale now passing to his brother Lt-Col. Herman Salvin who, five years later, married the widow of his kinsman Marmaduke Salvin, late squire of Burn Hall just across the river. This union resulted in the sale of Burn Hall to St. Joseph’s Missionary Society, a Catholic seminary, in 1926.

croxdaleCLifeOn September 2, 1939 Country Life magazine published the second, concluding part of its profile of the Hall and gardens at Croxdale; the following day the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. During the course of the conflict the greater part of Croxdale Hall was surrendered as an emergency hospital annexe, while Herman Salvin collapsed and died ‘suddenly’ in the grounds in 1943. The lack of a son or surviving brother now saw the Croxdale estate pass in the female line for the first time in more than 500 years, nephew Gerard Roberts formally adopting his mother’s maiden name in 1947.


see: Northern Echo

Country Life had concurred with 19th-century Durham historian Robert Surtees’ assessment of Croxdale, where ‘without the least attempt at display, everything wears the quiet air of ancient possession’, an ambience which it would seem Gerard Salvin (13) was not overly-minded to disturb across his six-decade tenure as squire. He died in 2006 (his widow Rosemary during the gestation of this piece, ‘from Covid-19’); in recent times, Croxdale Hall has undergone internal reconfiguration ‘to ensure that the property meets the needs and lifestyle expectations’ of both the current generation (r) and the next.14

While no one would put Croxdale with the masterpieces of Georgian architecture, we can recognise that this quiet country house represents, better than many more grandiose buildings, the essential continuity of English domestic architecture, whatever may be the passing fashion or pressure of events.8

[Grade I listing]

1. Bale, A. Feeling persecuted: Christians, Jews and images of violence in the Middle Ages, 2010.
2. Gooch, L. From Jacobite to Radical: the Catholics of North-East England 1688-1850, thesis, Durham University, 1989.
3. Coia, T., Hall, B. Parish of Tudhoe St. Charles, 1858-2008, 2008.
4. Spencer, B. The new Shell guide: North-East England, 1988.
5. Howard, C. Experimentation in 18th-century horticulture, HE Research No.5, Spring 2017.
6. Dodd, J. The history of the urban district of Spennymoor, 1897.
7. Ryder, P.F. Croxdale Hall: A preliminary historical building assessment (unpublished planning submission), 2015.
8. Hussey, C. Croxdale Hall I/II, Country Life, 26 Aug/2 Sept, 1939.
9. Hutson, J. The History of Tudhoe Village: Dissent and Rebellion in County Durham, nd.
10. Hodgson, J. A history of Northumberland, 1827.
11. Pevsner, N., Williamson, E. The buildings of England: Co. Durham, 2002.
12. Jenkins, S. England’s thousand best houses, 2009.
13. Howard, C. Croxdale Hall: An assessment of the walled garden, HE Research Report Series 37, 2016.
14. Smith Gore, planning statement, 2015.


Encountering the scene – the modest brick mansion squat within mature parkland of similar character – beyond the hedge on a quiet lane in the far south-eastern corner of Staffordshire, the viewer is likely to be either very local or very lost.


see: Google Maps

Though there is evidence of a settlement hereabouts stretching all the way back to Domesday, the populace of this small manor, sitting hard up against the border with Warwickshire, has always been tiny, and never more sparse than today. Since a mid-16th century marriage it has been comprised essentially of the estate of the Wolferstans of Statfold Hall, a house hitherto principally of note for the continuity of ownership by one family.

In recent times, however, Statfold has tiptoed out of its near-complete obscurity through recognition of the ‘exceedingly rare’ bookworm tendency of one its first chatelaines, an early adopter of ‘lighter literature’.1 The authorial ambitions of another in the sphere of romantic fiction would receive a rough critical ride (not least from her husband-to-be) while the pen-to-paper outpourings of other family members reveal emotional tribulations worthy of the genre, letters and diaries casting light upon domestic drama at this deceptively sedate family seat.


Bestselling novelist Ian McEwan, the author of contemporary country house classic Atonement, has acknowledged his formative experience at (state) boarding school Woolverstone Hall, a grand Palladian house on the banks of the river Orwell south of Ipswich. Though built by the C18th London property developer William Berners, from earliest times until they sold up in 1579 the lords of the manor here were the Wolverstones of Wolverstone Hall.

This family were also long possessed of Culpho Manor some ten miles north, the two properties descending together in the male line until a younger son, Robert (d.1452), initiated a cadet branch of the family at Culpho. Whence, four generations on, the mid-16th century marriage of another younger son, Humphrey, would take the Wolverstone name westwards into the Midlands.

Katherine Stanley was Humphrey’s cousin and, usefully, sole heiress of her father, John, whose family had gradually gained full possession of the manor of Statfold, three miles north-east of Tamworth, over the preceding century. The Elizabethan bones of the couple’s 1571 house remain the core of present-day Statfold though the Hall would be incrementally altered over time…

… as, indeed, would the family’s name.

statbouksHumphrey’s son and heir, Hersey (d.1636, having at times been abroad ‘on the Queen’s service’), was styling himself ‘Wolfreston‘ by 1597. And it is this iteration which today elicits a degree of excitement in the world of bibliography.

Collected together (r) in a small blue box at the British Library and readily available on request are an ad hoc set of sixteen mid-17th century printed works all bearing the personally inked inscription ‘Frances Wolfreston, her [or hor] bouk’.

From the time of her marriage to Hersey’s heir Francisse in 1631, Frances (née Middlemore) began eagerly acquiring printed works via itinerant chapmen and the early booksellers of Midlands towns. While historical, theological and topical tracts feature, ‘works of drama, romance and other light literature constitute 50%’ of her collection thus far identified. The ‘ever-growing number [230+] hints at a library of remarkable size, one of the largest amassed by a 17th-century Englishwoman of Frances Wolfreston’s [non-aristocratic] station.’2

statvenusBut ‘hor bouks’, then considered merely ‘the leisure reading of a literate lady in her country house’, were not deemed worthy of binding, the pages remaining uncut and basically stitched together.1 Today, however, some items are greatly valued, none more so than her first edition of Shakespeare’s earliest printed work, Venus and Adonis (r) – the only copy known to exist – now preserved at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Such (belated) recognition of the merits of her acquisitions might perhaps have gratified Frances Wolfreston who would make especial provision for the literature collection in her will of July 1676, two months before her death.

And I give my son Stanford all my bookes .. conditionally if any of his brothers or sisters would have them any tyme to read, and when they have done they shall returne them to their places againe, and he shall carefully keep them together.1

Had his siblings wished to make use of the books, however, they would have had to travel 35 miles south to the Warwickshire parish of Wootton Wawen of which Stanford was by this time rector. Frances’s collection would in fact find its way back to the library at Statfold a few decades later, to become all but forgotten.


“My mother is just takeing of a house, I am assured she will leave Statfold betwixt now and Michaelmas,” wrote the Wolfrestons’ eldest son, Francis, in August 1666, after his father’s death.3 Frances would indeed soon move out, spending the final decade of her life in a Tamworth townhouse, having made way for the recipient of that letter, Francis’s bride-to-be, Hester Bowyer. His mother’s liking for romantic prose may have had some influence on her eldest son who plied his beloved with ardent missives which…

… while they may have done the trick at the time, failed the withering scrutiny of pre-eminent genealogist and herald Sir Bernard Burke almost two centuries on. In his Visitations of Seats (1854) Burke devoted a sizable chunk of his entry about Statfold Hall tossing lofty cynicism the way of the young lawyer-turned-squire:

The wisest of men have never failed to record their folly when they have taken to the writing of amatory epistles; and certainly the worthy Francis, whatever his talents as a lawyer, forms no exception to the rule. Sundry of his love letters have remained to testify against him.’

Miss Bowyer, more importantly, plainly found her suitor’s (occasionally anatomical) paeans – “The rare contexture of your body, and curious composure and symetry of all your parts” – rather more persuasive, and the couple were soon married.3 And no sooner had Francis inherited than he set about making some distinctive (and enduring) alterations to his birthright.


source: Shaw’s ‘History of Staffordshire’3

Wolfreston ‘appears to have undertaken extensive improvements’ to his residence.4 Most conspicuously, a slender polygonal observation tower was raised at the north-east corner of the house. Over time he would also modify the family name, initially to Wolferston, before finally settling on the Anglo-Saxon affection, Wolferstan.

But the continuity of the direct male line at Statfold was about to be derailed by a bitter breakdown in relations between Francis and his only surviving son.

Of Francis and Hester’s five children only the fourth and fifth born, Francis and Ann, survived to adulthood. In his mid-20s, and much to his father’s displeasure, Francis became involved with a Tamworth school master’s daughter, Sarah Antrobus. ‘The lovers carried on a clandestine correspondence .. words of wild love and passionate complaint,’ until, in September 1698 after another blazing row with his father, Francis disappeared in the night. His family would hear no more of him till news came of his death in London from smallpox several months later.

Nearly nine years later, in May 1707, below the corner of a mat under which it had been thrust, and which had never since been touched, there was found a letter written to Sarah in bitter heat of spirit, on the morning of the young man’s departure. He could bear his father’s reproaches no longer.’5

Meanwhile, Francis senior’s own shock remarriage to a woman half-a-century his junior in his twilight years would seem initially to have complicated the destiny of the Wolferstan estate. Ultimately, however, his nephew, Rev. Stanford’s son, also Stanford, came into Statfold (his grandmother’s treasured book collection in tow). Marrying Sarah Littleton a year later, the couple lived ‘man and wife in Statfold-house the whole time, with some little exception, fifty-nine years within five days’.3

Stanford indeed outlived his childless only son by a few years, dying in 1772. His widow survived four years more at which point their grandson, Samuel Pipe (later Pipe-Wolferstan) inherited the estate. In contrast to the paucity of detail regarding Stanford’s six-decade stewardship, squire Samuel’s time at Statfold was closely chronicled by the man himself as he assiduously poured some four million words into a personal diary over the course of the next fifty years.


see: Historic England

Pipe-Wolferstan’s nascent legal career soon took a back seat to estate affairs. In his first year Samuel would commission bay window extensions to the shallow projecting wings of the house, and Midlands landscaper William Emes – not in Lancelot Brown’s league but ‘reliable, reasonably priced and readily available’ – was consulted about the grounds.6 The latter would continue to evolve in consultation with William Marshall whom Samuel hired as resident estate adviser in 1784.

An ambitious, opinionated agronomist, Marshall had quit a similar post in Norfolk after two years ‘following a disagreement with his employer’.7 And, while his time at Statfold was mutually productive – ‘the two men were as interested in ‘rural ornament’ as in ‘rural economy”, and Marshall compiled his second book – history would repeat itself in 1786.8 Marshall’s exit was, however, far from being the most disruptive sudden departure from Statfold Hall that year.


After nearly eight years of marriage which, despite a multitude of miscarriages, produced two children, Samuel’s wife Margaret died in childbirth. While ‘there can be no doubt that [this] bereavement affected his outlook profoundly’, it would not deter his search for a replacement. For the diffident squire this became a tortuous decade-long saga and, at times, the talk of the county.9

At first Samuel fancied he had found an instant replacement in the form of his sister-in-law Ann Marie Biddulph, who had stepped in to help with the children, Margaret, 7, and one-year-old Stanley. After a couple of years, however, this arrangement imploded in mutual recrimination and in the years that followed Samuel would ricochet from one rejection to another.


see: IoE / Dave Jones

Most eligible women within range were pursued and proposed to: Mary Anne Wray politely declined as, in due course, would her sister, Lucy; Betty Stafford and Mary Gressley also felt able to resist the hesitant squire’s hand.10 Running out of county options, a mildly desperate Samuel was even driven to musing that “there must be many polished people in Birmingham”.11

And all the while a certain Elizabeth Jervis was waiting watchfully in the wings. Family friends for many years, the prosperity of the Jervises of Netherseal (eight miles north-east of Statfold, over the border into Leicestershire) derived from the London silk trade. Alas, familiarity had bred a certain contempt: “Elizabeth not very attractive .. the vivacity of youth all faded,” Samuel had confided in his diary. In the course of a man-to-man discussion with her ailling father, however, Pipe-Wolferstan became apprised of Miss Jervis’ not unfavourable financial prospects.10

statagathaElizabeth also had literary aspirations and 1796 saw the publication of her first (and only) novel, Agatha (left), a romantic saga in three volumes which, despite an unkind critical reception, received French and Dutch translations. Samuel, too, had reservations as to the work’s merits but would nevertheless order several copies in advance of a proposal of marriage to its author.10 Thirteen years his junior, Elizabeth accepted and the couple married one month later on her 33rd birthday.

Whilst outwardly a regulation country squire, Samuel was psychologically restless, his questing disposition leading him to the outer orbit of the local Lunar Society (Erasmus Darwin had been the family’s physician) and the liberating theology of the dissenting chapels.11 But once remarried he would largely park such struggles, directing his energies instead towards estate matters and antiquarian endeavours, becoming closely involved assisting the production of Stebbing Shaw‘s History of Staffordshire (1798-1801).12


see: Bing Maps

‘Mr. Wolferstan was seized with shiverings at Church on May 21 but concealed the threatening symptoms at the time,’ Elizabeth had cause to write in 1820: ‘Only 13 days after, his pure spirit left its earthly abode.’ In spite of its somewhat pragmatic instigation the couple’s marriage had endured for over three decades.


see: Historic England


The Field4

In his last years Samuel had overseen a major expansion of Statfold Hall, the existing house – with its ‘fine staircase beneath an oval skylight’ – now bookended by two generously proportioned wings north (demolished 1939, r) and south (↑).13

In widowhood Elizabeth returned to the literary fray publishing several collections of verse. That the printed word was not perhaps such a major preoccupation for her stepson, Statfold’s heir Stanley, is suggested by his decision in 1856 to auction off several hundred works from the family’s library, including Frances Wolfreston’s prized (but by this time unconsidered) collection of 16th and 17th-century rarities. Recalling the circumstances of the sale, one observer later wrote, ‘The owner would have gladly accepted £30 for the lot [beforehand]. Think of that!’


Lodge (see: Google Maps)

Stanley was succeeded in 1867 by Francis (3) who would build ‘an elaborate Victorian farmhouse [a short distance from the Hall] intended for two [younger] sons who were interested in farming’. Fate would intervene, however: Charles, 28, was killed by a kick to the head from a horse when out hunting, while his soldier brother Humphrey, 25, fell at Spion Kop. But eldest sibling Egerton survived the Boer War and other campaigns to succeed in 1900. Two years later the Gilman family took on Statfold Farm and the tenancy remains with them to this day.14

In the late twentieth century the forward-thinking environmentally sensitive land management practices promoted across the Statfold estate by Maj. Francis Pipe Wolferstan gained national recognition. Stepping up to a local leadership position recently his heir suggested that “no one can plan properly for the future with the current levels of uncertainty”. However, the present squire has only to walk a few paces from Statfold Hall to be reminded of the one certainty that awaits us all. For at one corner of the walled garden stands the tiny medieval St. Matthew chapel…


see: CRSBI


see: CRSBI

… its simple, single-cell interior accessed via the 12th-century doorway. This vestige of a long-vanished community (‘likely deserted in the early Tudor period following enclosure by the landlord’) has effectively functioned as a mortuary for the Wolferstan family.

For whatever reason, Staffordshire was the last English county Nikolaus Pevsner would get around to surveying for his landmark Buildings of England series and his opening line – ‘When people try to visualize Staffordshire – and few seldom do..’ – hardly suggests that he was keeping the best till last.13 Yes, the landscape hereabouts may indeed be fairly unremarkable but Statfold and the Wolferstans enduring place within it is surely anything but…


see: Bing Maps

[GII listing][Archives]

1. Morgan, P. Frances Wolfreston and ‘Hor Bouks’: A 17th century woman book-collector, The Library, 6th Series, Vol.XI, No.3, 1989.
2. Lindenbaum, S. ‘Hiding in plain sight‘ | Women’s bookscapes in Early Modern Britain (eds. Knight, L. et al), 2018.
3. Shaw, S. The history and antiquities of Staffordshire, 1798-1801.
4. Montgomery-Massingberd, H. Statfold and the Wolferstan lines, The Field, 4 Oct 1986.
5. Lichfield Mercury, 3 Feb 1899.
6. Wilde, W. Not just a pupil of Brown’s, Country Life, 15 Oct 1987.
7. Mingay, G.E. William Marshall, Oxford dictionary of national biography, 2004.
8. Jacques, D. William Marshall’s advice on plant selection, Garden History, Vol.21, No.2, 1993.
9. Money, J. Provincialism and the English anciene regime, Albion, Vol.21, No.3, 1989.
10. Goss, J (ed.) Agatha, by Elizabeth Jervis (1796), 2000.
11. Money, J. Experience and identity: Birmingham and the West Midlands 1760-1800, 1977.
12. Greenslade, M.W. The Staffordshire historians, Staffordshire Record Society, 1982.
13. Pevsner, N. Buildings of England: Staffordshire, 1974.
14. Tomlinson, D. Continuity and co-operation, Country Life, 20 Feb 1992.

Standing, slightly recessed, at the top of ‘the best preserved street’ in the town1 from which it takes its name, the ancestral home of the Bell family provides one answer to the question, ‘When is a country seat not a country seat?’ An intriguing rus in urbe hybrid, in marked contrast to the allure of a tantalizing glimpse behind sequestering timbers, private Thirsk Hall has always had a distinctly public face.


see: Google Maps

‘The house lies right by the church. The two belong together as in a village, and one can easily forget they are in a town’ (albeit a largely ‘disappointing’ one), observed Nikolaus Pevsner in 1966. The highlight of the legendary architectural historian’s visitation was 15th-century St. Mary’s – ‘without question the most spectacular Perpendicular church in the North Riding’ – with whose Gothic glories its secular next-door neighbour has never sought to compete.2

thirskkirkgateview2Rather, the sober, resolutely unostentatious Thirsk Hall is in conformity with the more earthbound brick plainness of the town itself. Not that the schizophrenic Grade II* listed house, with its rural flipside (↓), is devoid of interest, of course, far from it. ‘There has never been a major dispersal sale of the contents…


see: Thirsk Hall Estate

… many of which have been in the house since the mid-18th century’. “It’s a treat to have been brought up surrounded by beautiful things,” the present owner once said, “but it does mean you are limited by what you canthirskinterior2 put in yourself.” Yet despite this constraint the tradition of accumulation at Thirsk Hall has continued, ‘bearing witness to the changing tastes’ of successive generations.3


A local family certainly since Elizabethan times, merchant Robert Bell was making his mark in Thirsk in the mid-1660s, issuing armigerous trading tokens (below) in response to a paucity of coinage in the realm at that time. And the extent of the family’s property interests and influencethirsktoken in the town would be evidenced on three occasions between 1710-1715 when Bell’s son Ralph was returned unopposed as one of the two MPs for Thirsk. In 1717, however, Ralph Bell voluntarily stood down from parliament in favour of a lucrative customs position at the port of Hull.

In that same year Bell also consolidated his professional relationship with the then Lord of the Manor of Thirsk, being appointed bailiff to James Stanley, the 10th earl of Derby. Stanley would soon be spending large sums aggrandizing his Lancashire seat, Knowsley Hall, and in 1723 agreed to sell the manor of Thirsk to his man on the ground for the sum of £6,300. Ralph Bell’s ascendancy would be underscored by the appearance of ‘a handsome new-built house’ just a stone’s throw from the fine parish church.


see: Google Maps

More town house than country manor, the original five-bay, two-storey residence (columns and ‘Kentian’ classical detailing within2) remains at the core of present-day Thirsk Hall. Married but without any children, Ralph Bell’s will, drafted several years in advance of his 1735 demise, sought to head off…

…  the plainly anticipated disappointment of his younger brother, John.

Bequeathing a home in neighbouring Sowerby and an annuity of several hundred pounds to his widow Elizabeth, Bell declared the principal beneficiary would be his nephew, leaving ‘to Ralph Consett and his heirs my mannor of Thirske and all other real estate whatsoever‘. John would have to accept merely a £50 annuity and then only ‘under the proviso that if he do on any account oppose my will, or give any trouble to my loving wife, or to my nephew, in the peaceable enjoyment of what I herein give to them respectively, then the said annuity shall cease‘.

Meanwhile, the sole proviso placed on his namesake nephew was that he changed his surname to Bell.


see: emmajmozz

Ralph was the younger son of Ralph Bell’s sister Elizabeth and her late husband, Peter Consett of Brawith. (Unlike highly conspicuous Thirsk Hall, Brawith Hall three miles to the north – still today the home of the Consett family – remains in every sense obscure: hard to see and little-known.)

Though Ralph Bell (2) lived until the last day of 1770 it’s evident that for most of the preceeding decade Thirsk Hall had been the marital home of his son and heir, Ralph (3). For in spring 1761, shortly after returning from a honeymoon with his bride, heiress Ann Conyers, the house would be visited by noted cabinet-maker Robert Gillow, calling to discuss the happy couple’s furniture needs.


see source

The resulting bespoke commission was quite substantial, including a sofa, two large dining tables and accompanying suites of chairs, and a tall mahogany clothes press (right) featuring carved Corinthian pilasters and blind fretwork. But “something Chinese” was desired for the drawing room at Thirsk, ‘Bell’s daintier tea table the most intricate piece of early Gillow furniture so far discovered’.4 The couple would be back for more a decade later when there was further space to fill.

With the death of Ralph Bell (2) in December 1770 Ralph (3) now came fully into his estate. Coincidentally, in that same year his wife (whose father had previously devised the income from various Conyers properties on the couple ‘for their joint lives’) would receive a £2,000 legacy from a deceased uncle. According to family tradition, ‘Ann found Thirsk Hall particularly inadequate and pressed her husband to make substantial alterations’.5 Their financial position being nicely enhanced, the couple now called upon the services of the biggest architectural name in the North.

Being then ‘at the height of his powers, John Carr’s practice in York had a near monopoly of country house building in the county until 1790’.6


see: Stephen Richards @ geograph

At Thirsk, Carr directed a three-and-a-half year project which saw the Hall more than double in size, two symmetrical wings being added north and south of the original block which was itself raised another storey. With the possible exception of the doorcase, any temptation to external enlivenment was stoutly resisted.

thirskplasterworkThere would be greater scope for expression inside, however, Carr designing multiple chimneypieces, and Adam-esque decoration in the new 60ft Great Dining Room executed by plasterer James Henderson. (For Thirsk’s 21st-century squire this refined space, with its Sevres porcelain chandelier, is “miles from the kitchen so we only use it about twice a year”.3)

Soon after submitting his final bill early in 1775 John Carr realised that he had mistakenly undercharged his clients to the tune of £100. “I am very happy it has hap’ned in the hands of a Gentleman who I am confident will take no advantage of it,” the architect wheedled, “but will I hope excuse it [and] remit the balance when it is convenient.” (It would be convenient four months later.)5

And the Bells turned once again to high-end furniture makers Gillows of Lancaster for some choice items for their new dining room, notably a pair of tall mahogany wine cisterns and ‘a fine and rare sideboard table in the commode style’.4


see: NCMA

Above the last piece hangs another of the couple’s genteel indulgences during this period, the likeness of Mr and Mrs Bell having been captured in separate full-length portraits by Thomas Gainsborough at around the time of the pre-eminent painter’s relocation from Bath to London. Described in the mid-19th century as having been ‘frequently valued by connoisseurs at one thousand guineas each’, in 1897 a subsequent squire (Reginald Bell, d.1921) succumbed and today ‘Ralph Bell’ (r) resides in an American museum.7 However, the accoutrements with which he posed before Gainsborough, Bell’s cane and shoe buckles, are still to be found at Thirsk Hall.5

The new look mansion (which remains fundamentally little-altered today) would be duly inherited by the Bells’ eldest son, John (1), whose own first-born died young, the estate passing in 1822 to his second son, John. At the age of 31 John Bell (2) became the second member of the family to represent his home town in Parliament, elected unopposed in 1841. But ‘even before then, his friends had seen signs of failing health’.

thirsklunacy2Thirsk Hall’s ‘museum’, containing the skeleton of a horse and albino specimens of domestic wildlife, was but a mildly eccentric twist on the Victorian fascination with natural science and taxidermy. But in his late thirties Bell began to exhibit an alarming affinity with his stuffed birds of prey.

‘Sometimes he fancied himself to be an eagle, and made motions with his arms,’ John Packer, Thirsk’s butler, told a formal Commission of Lunacy convened at the Three Tuns hotel in June 1849. Troubled by his disturbing and occasionally violent behaviour, the inquiry had been requested by Bell’s two sisters whom he was now wont to accuse of poisoning his tea with iodine. The jury concurred with all of the witnesses – long-standing friends and professional opinion – that the squire was no longer of sound mind.8 Addressing concerns about the town’s representation in Parliament, it soon became apparent that there was at this time no mechanism by which a sitting MP could be replaced in such circumstances, and Bell would remain nominally the Member for Thirsk until his death in 1851.


see: Google Maps

In the wake of the verdict a bloodstock sale dispersed John Bell’s 20-plus stable of racehorses and hunters. However, the equine enthusiasm of his successor at Thirsk Hall, nephew Frederick (Macbean) Bell, saw the introduction of an enduring sporting attraction to the town when a full-scale racecourse was created in his back garden. Well, almost.

In 1854 Frederick and several like-minded associates determined that the long dormant horse racing heritage of Hambleton district should be rekindled, the squire offering an expanse of land extending west beyond the bounds of the Hall’s small park. And, despite the hot favourite, Bell’s own brown gelding Pop Goes the Weasel, being beaten in the inaugural two-horse race on a bitterly cold day in March 1855, Thirsk Racecourse has prospered ever since. Whilst it is operationally independent the course remains part of the Bell estate, subsequent landlord/directors overseeing its steady development.

Like his uncle before him, Frederick Bell would die unmarried in his early forties, being suddenly stricken in the ‘richly panelled‘ library of Thirsk Hall one day in early 1875. Having ‘seldom spent any time away from the town, as soon as his death became known the whole of the shops drew down their blinds’.9 Nephew Reginald Smith now became the third such to take the Bell name by Royal Licence.

thirskverandapostcardAppended during his time was the cast-iron veranda (left) which still spans the original garden front of the house today. Notwithstanding the sale in 1918 of a thousand or so outlying acres – and the Hall’s literally urban outlook – Thirsk would maintain a traditional country estate profile across the 20th century.


see: Thirsk Hall Farms

But the next generation is set to have a new focus, developing what has hitherto been the ad hoc hosting of al fresco weddings and events in the environs of the Hall. Planning permission has recently been granted for the £2m conversion of a range of dilapidated farm buildings elsewhere on the estate (r) creating a ‘dedicated fully indoor facility .. a new chapter in the progressive development of this well-established family estate’.10

Meanwhile, ‘farmer’ John Bell, squire of Thirsk Hall for the past four decades, has long had another string to his bow having established a contemporary art gallery on Kirkgate, just a short walk from the house, in 1988.


see: Royal Academy

“It’s a bit like a drunk opening a pub,” he once confessed, “you end up buying a lot of the stock.”3 And anyone lucky enough to be invited back to see his etchings will notice many by Norman Ackroyd (←) with whom both gallery and owner have struck up a significant relationship. Indeed, the artist might even be there in person: “It’s a beautiful house,” he has said, “and a kind of home-from-home. I love it.”11

[Thirsk Hall][Thirsk Hall Farms][Estate archives]

1. Thirsk and Sowerby conservation area appraisal, Hambleton District Council, 2010.
2. Pevsner, N. Buildings of England: Yorkshire: The North Riding, 1966.
3. Moro, A. Pass it on, Daily Telegraph, 20 Nov 2010.
4. Stuart, S. Gillows of Lancaster and London, 2008.
5. Belsey, H. A case of mistaken identity: Gainsborough’s Ralph Bell, North Carolina Museum of Art bulletin, 1991.
6. Jackson-Stops, G. Ribston Hall, Yorkshire, Country Life, 18 Oct 1973 [Contemporary Carr ceiling, similarities noted]
7. Grainge, W. The Vale of Mowbray: Thirsk and its neighbourhood, 1859.
8. Yorkshire Gazette, 7 July 1849.
9. York Herald, 13 Jan 1875.
10. Thirsk Lodge planning statement, ELG Planning, 2019.
11. [Audio] National Life Stories: Artists’ Lives – Norman Ackroyd, British Library, 2012.

As a time and a place in which to put down dynastic roots few can surely have been less propitious than the Scottish Borders in the first half of the sixteenth century. If the natives’ perennial confrontations with a territorially ambitious English crown were not enough, sudden havoc and devastation could always lie just over the hill courtesy of avaricious freebooting Border reivers. Loyalties were routinely bought and sold to suit ever-shifting agendas, all parties attempting to exploit volatile circumstances to their particular advantage.


see: Bing Maps

Abutting the north-western extremity of Galashiels, the Torwoodlee estate of the Pringle family was established in the teeth of just such unpromising circumstances. Over 500 years later it survives, having faced down existential threat more than once along the way. The wider Clan Pringle were as active players as any during the Borders’ turbulent history, gaining and losing by turns. William, a younger son of James Pringle (Hoppringle) of Smailholm would branch out ten miles west, fully acquiring Torwoodlee in 1510.

Just one year earlier a thrusting young Henry VIII had ascended the throne; in 1513 his forces would claim the life of William Pringle, being one of the thousands of Scots to fall in the disastrous Battle of Flodden. Decades later Henry’s still unsatisfied ambitions for his dominion would affect the destiny of William’s sons, George and Sandy.

Mary, daughter of James V of Scotland, was born on December 8, 1542; within a week she was queen. Henry quickly resolved to secure a union with his young son Edward, a proposal to which the Scots initially agreed before thinking better of it six months later. Thus began the years of so-called Rough Wooing which included ‘a remarkably systematic English effort to create a body of Scots collaborators’.1 If taken up, formal assurance agreements afforded not only protection from English harassment but license to menace and pillage recalcitrant neighbours if desired.


see: Register of Tartans

With varying degrees of commitment ‘the Pringles – [clan tartan, r] – had signed up as “assured Englishmen”‘.2 Though initially coerced, the subsequent opportunistic alacrity demonstrated by William’s younger son Sandy Pringle came to be ‘regarded as intentional treachery rather than Borders craftiness by his fellow Scots’. So ‘English’ did he become that permanent relocation south of the border was deemed expedient (cushioned by the reward of a pension ‘and monastic grants from a grateful Henry VIII’).3

At one point the English had reason to believe that they also had brother George Pringle, 2nd Laird of Torwoodlee, on side, only to later accuse him of ‘treasonably assisting the Ancient enemies of England’ when his allegiance reverted.2 Pardoned for any such activity in 1551, George now evidently thrived: ‘[He] seems to have been a wealthy man, and to have lived in greater splendour than might have been expected, when security was so precarious.’4 And such apparent prosperity would indeed eventually bring out the very worst in some of Pringle’s fellow borderers, a mob of several hundred sacking the original house in late 1568, looting anything of value and murdering the laird in his bed.


see: milliecitra @ Instagram

Family fortunes would take a generation to recover, George’s grandson – also George – at last being able properly to replace the principal dwelling in 1601. Today approached by an avenue rising through woodland, the ruined remains (r) of George’s ‘very smart house’ stand enshrouded by trees on the 3,000-acre Torwoodlee Estate.5 ‘On a steep slope that was extensively terraced to receive the building,’ its semicircular tower remains distinctive, corbelled two-thirds of the way up to a square top storey [listing].

(For long, the laird has welcomed a visitation to Torwoodlee Tower as an important element of Galashiels’ annual Braw Lads Gathering.)

Their house re-established, George now set about restoring Pringle family honour, criminal prosecution of the families of his grandfather’s assailants resulting in their outlawry and the seizure of assets. Marrying at least three times, George’s first wife Margaret Pringle, of the Pringles of nearby Whytbank, produced their son and heir, James. (One of James’ own daughters, Anna, would also look no further than this branch of Clan Pringle, marrying Alexander, 4th Laird of Whytbank, whilst another, Margaret, married George Pringle, 6th Laird of Buckholm, Torwoodlee’s immediate neighbour to the east.)

If ‘fear and expediency [had given] the English the great bulk of their supporters in Scotland’ during the time of the Rough Wooing, ‘desire for the reformed faith gave them their most devoted supporters’.1 A century on, the rising influence of James, Duke of York (later King James II) saw the religious tide begin to turn once again. Having previously fought the royal cause in Scotland, George Pringle – ‘a staunch friend of the Covenant‘ who succeeded his father at Torwoodlee in 1657 – would now ‘suffer greatly on account of his religion’.6


see: Nat.Galleries of Scotland

The 6th Laird (left) became a key ally of James’ arch-enemy Archibald Campbell, 9th Earl of Argyll. The latter’s dubious prosecution and resultant death sentence in 1681 led to the earl’s audacious prison escape whence he headed initially for Torwoodlee, an expectant George Pringle supplying fresh horses and assistance to England. Argyll would ultimately find refuge in Holland to where in time Pringle himself also fled. The pair made an ill-fated return in 1685, Pringle being amongst many exiled Scots to support Argyll’s doomed overthrow of James II.

The ambitious earl was captured and executed; Pringle managed to escape back to Holland but Torwoodlee was confiscated and given to a royal ally. During his time abroad pressure for information was exerted on George’s only son, James, the teenager resisting threats that ‘every bone in his body would be broken, his flesh ripped up and boiling lead and oil poured into him’.6 The successful invasion by William of Orange in 1688 saw Pringle’s eventual return but his homecoming was brief, dying the following year, aged 58.

torsketchTorwoodlee would soon be restored to Pringle family ownership and, overdue a period of stability and calm, the tenure of James (d.1735) was long and relatively uneventful, that of his son even more so. Bachelor George, the 8th Laird, ‘hardly appears in the records [and] seems to have lived quietly’, sharing Torwoodlee with various spinster sisters.6 At his demise in 1780 all now passed to his nephew James…

… the one and only time Torwoodlee has failed to pass from father to son in its 500-plus year history. (Every laird since has been named James.)

Upon inheriting, 21-year-old James promptly threw up his legal studies and began what would be a defining incumbency stretching across six decades. Losing little time, in 1782 the young squire married Elizabeth Tod, co-heiress of the Dryburgh estate ten miles south-east of Torwoodlee. This property would soon be sold which was opportune since in 1783 the Pringles not only welcomed the birth of their first son but would also set about building themselves a fashionable new residence.


see: Canmore

Eschewing the increasingly redundant defensive vernacular in favour of Georgian comfort and elegance, the new Torwoodlee House was typical of the neat classical country villas now going up in the Scottish Borders. Attributed to emerging Kelso architect William Elliot, Torwoodlee’s ‘main block of two storeys over a high basement’ would be linked to flanking low pavilions ‘by screen walls originally topped by decorative urns’.5


see: Canmore

The original five-bay south-facing entrance front is seemingly little-altered, ‘an excellent predimented doorway approached by a graceful flight of steps’ (r).5 The house was completed in 1785, the expense incurred being further defrayed by the sale of nearby Bowland, an estate which had been acquired by James’ father in 1752. Local literary superstar Sir Walter Scott would be among the subsequent visitors to ‘Mr. Pringle’s beautiful seat’.

James died in 1840 and the rest of the 19th century at Torwoodlee would be seen out by his namesake son and then grandson both of whom joined the Royal Navy at a young age. ‘Though not lucky enough to have been at any of the great naval battles,’ his father’s longevity enabled the 10th Laird to rise to the rank of rear-admiral at his retirement in 1846.7 Thirteen years later his son Commander James Pringle would in turn come ashore upon inheriting Torwoodlee and its ‘neat and substantial mansion’.


see: Iain Lees

For reasons of privacy, this James soon decided that the house should be turned round, the entrance now facing north. In robust Victorian fashion his new centre breaks boldly from the relatively chaste original composition, capped by an armorial pediment rising to the roof ridgeline. Peddie & Kinnear were engaged for the project, the prolific Edinburgh practice also heightening the twin pavilions. Internally, the original entrance hall ‘was incorporated into the existing drawing room’.5


see: Canmore

In 1854 James’ sister Elizabeth had married John Borthwick, 14th Laird of Crookston, an estate 15 miles further up the Gala Water valley, held by this family since the 15th century. Producing no children, Crookston passed to Borthwick’s brother, William, whose two eldest sons would head back downriver, finding brides in the shape of James Pringle’s daughters, Melana and Adelaide. Meanwhile, the sisters’ eldest sibling, John, dying young, brother James duly inherited Torwoodlee in 1902 and would see the estate through the first half of the 20th century.


see: Southern Reporter

In recent times attention has focused on old Torwoodlee Tower, which was ultimately abandoned after the family transferred to their new house. Funded by a combination of Roxburghe Estate windfarm bounty and an appeal to the global diaspora of Clan Pringle, the ruin is preserved, as befits a ‘monument of national importance .. which has the potential to contribute to our knowledge of the changing nature of polite architecture during this transitional period’. (With ‘impressive ancient oaks’, Torwoodlee’s parkland, too, is ‘a site of some interest that deserves further investigation’.8)

torsquiIn contrast to the civility of the Category A-listed House, the old stone Tower is a reminder of wilder times in the Scottish Borders. Not, of course, that the present (14th) Laird of Torwoodlee is entirely above taking sides and going into battle against pesky territorial invaders…


[Torwoodlee Estate][Clan Pringle]

1. Merriman, M.H. The assured Scots, The Scottish historical review, Vol.47, No.143, 1968.
2. Tait, J. Dick the devil’s bairns: Breaking the Border mafia, 2018.
3. Miekle, M.M. Lairds and gentlemen: A study of the landed families of the eastern Anglo-Scottish borders. [Thesis, PDF] Edin. Univ., 1988.
4. Burke, B. A genealogical and heraldic dictionary of the landed gentry, 1848.
5. Cruft, K., Dunbar, J., Fawcett, R. Buildings of Scotland: Borders, 2006.
6. Pringle, A. The records of the Pringles or Hoppringles of the Scottish border, 1933.
7. Carre, W.R. Border memories, or Sketches of prominent men and women of the border, 1876.
8. Borders designed landscapes survey, Peter McGowan Associates, 2009.


Loton Park, Shropshire

Exploding upon the consciousness of an unsuspecting nation in August 2004, Channel 4’s one-off TV documentary ‘The F***king Fulfords‘ presented an eye- and ear-opening window into the chaotic world of the 24th squire of Great Fulford and his young family at home in their dilapidated grade I mansion in Devon. Once heard, never forgotten, Francis Fulford’s compellingly plummy candour (couched in appropriately ancient Anglo-Saxon) would serve, if nothing else, to obliterate  memory of the equally unreconstructed reflections of a Shropshire counterpart, captured by the BBC in a similar documentary exercise twelve months before.


see: Rob Guys Art

“They want their bloody pound of flesh, these people,” cursed Sir Michael Leighton to cameras recording a year in the life of ‘A Country Estate‘, namely his ancestral seat, Loton Park, straddling the Welsh border ten miles west of Shrewsbury. On this occasion the freely spleen-venting 11th baronet had in his sights the quango formerly known as English Heritage, a sizeable grant from whom had obliged the opening of his home for a limited period. ‘A genuine eccentric, he cheerfully admits he would love to lock his gates to the great unwashed,’ a visiting Daily Mail told its readers that same year.1

Having inherited in 1957 aged just 22, the continuing tenure of thrice-divorced Sir Michael as master of the Loton estate comfortably outstrips in longevity that of any of his predecessors over the course of an association here stretching back to the fifteenth century. The Leightons’ impressive survival has been attributed in no small part to the art of keeping your head down. ‘Families eager to meddle with the affairs of state take, as a rule, light root in their lands,’ one antiquarian family member observed a century ago. ‘The house of Leighton has for the most part been content to add little to the history of the country. They have done their duty in Shropshire, and are still lords of their Shropshire manors.’2

And the landed gentry of this pleasingly inconspicuous county have, historically, seemed notably content to copy their peers in the design of their country seats. Across several eras the style of certain practicioners became de rigeur hereabouts and, as will be seen, Loton Park ticked every box. The home of the Leightons is, however, peculiarly schizophrenic, the gabled neo-Jacobean embrace of its present entrance front contrasting markedly with the Baroque grandeur Loton projects across the Severn vale to the north.


see: Roger Parry & Associates


Follow the sinuous course of Britain’s longest river into and out of Shrewsbury, on its north bank some ten miles the other side of the county town lies the manor of Leighton, held by the eponymous family in the 12th century, passing from father to son for ten generations. Advantageous marriages subsequently occasioned moves within the county: south to Church Stretton in the late 14th Century then, one hundred years on, across to the western border, the union of John Leighton (d.1493) and Anchoret, daughter and co-heiress of Sir John Burgh, having yielded the adjacent manors of Cardeston, Wattlesborough and Loton.


see: Historic England

Still (just about) standing south of Loton is a roofless square keep tower within a vestigial moat, all that remains of medieval Wattlesborough Castle (r) which became the principal family residence in the time of Sir Edward Leighton (d.1593). Throughout the entire 16th century the unbroken male line had continued, heirs succeeding not only to the Shropshire estates but also to a seat in Westminster as an MP for the county. A 60-year parliamentary hiatus followed the death of Thomas Leighton in 1600…

… normal service resuming with his great-grandson Robert who, in the years following his election, would also develop a property at Loton.


see: Government Art Collection

Later to be remodelled and significantly enlarged, Robert Leighton’s Caroline house of c.1665 – as captured (r) by Welsh artist Moses Griffith in 1792 – remains the core of Loton Park as it stands today. Retained behind a 19th-century loggia, stacked pillars define the centre bay, its crowning ‘broken pediment displaying a floridly crested shield of arms, an eloquent 17th century survival’.3

lotonchristiesFour years after Robert’s death his eldest surviving son, Edward (left) would be granted a baronetcy. (“Our fortunes started going down from the moment we got [it],” the present incumbent – who sold his predecessor’s portrait in 1999 to raise funds – once lamented.1) Sir Edward Leighton died in 1711, bequeathing the use of Wattlesborough Castle to his second wife for her lifetime, his heir Sir Edward (2) now relocating to the house at Loton which he soon resolved to aggrandize in a style which was then sweeping Shropshire.


see: 1119ATC

‘A large, tall rectangular building of three full storeys above a basement, the doorway slightly emphasised, the windows [having] no ornament other than keystones’ – with its stately full-height columns, the appearance of Cound Hall (r) c.1704 has been identified as an architectural step-change regionally, influencing country house building in the county over the first three decades of the eighteenth century.4

And demand for the model would be readily met by the efficient firm of Francis and William Smith of Warwick, to whom the development of Loton Park at this time has been stylistically attributed.5


[1796] see: National Library of Wales

However, the second baronet did not fully commit to the fashion, electing instead simply to bolt a wider (nine-bay) Baroque facade onto the back of his existing seven-bay house. The centre is recessed in two shallow steps, stone quoins at the angles providing the visual columnar function of pilasters seen at the likes of Berwick House and Buntingsdale Hall.


see: Country Life


see: Country Life

At Loton, in fact, this detail would be found on the inside, new interiors such as the saloon (now dining room, left) being dominated by fluted paneling.

Sir Edward would be also be responsible for introducing two distinctive Christian names to the Leighton pedigree, second son Baldwin taking the maiden name of his paternal grandmother, his heir that of Edward’s mother, Sir Charlton Leighton succeeding as 3rd baronet in 1756. In his later years, Charlton engaged two more designers who would find particular favour among the Shropshire gentry. Precise details of the work carried out by leading architect Robert Mylne at Loton in the 1770s are unclear but his local colleague Thomas Farnolls Pritchard certainly contributed the ‘exquisite Gothick mahogany chimneypiece’ which adorns an upstairs room.3

Sir Charlton Leighton died in 1780, his unmarried son Sir Charlton (2) just four years later. The death of the latter’s bachelor half-brother, Sir Robert, 5th Bt., in 1819 would occasion the first deviation from the direct line of descent in five centuries, title and estate now reverting to a nephew of the 3rd baronet, a military veteran of the American war of independence.

lotonchristies2aGen. Sir Baldwin Leighton (pictured, aged 13) quickly set about ringing the changes at Loton, enlisting the services of prolific Shrewsbury architect Edward Haycock to remodel the south front of the house. A classical loggia was now introduced between the wings which themselves gained new (anachronistic) emphasis, with gables and mullioned and transomed windows (↓).


see: Historic England

Succeeding in 1828, the general’s son was a conscientious squire whose sense of fiscal rectitude would cause him to look askance at what he viewed as the irresponsible shortcomings of many of his peers in the county. Thwarted in his early attempts to continue the family’s parliamentary tradition – Leighton’s criminal prosecution of his own gamekeeper for alleged ‘off the book’ sale of estate game somewhat denting his popularity locally – Sir Baldwin eventually succeeded in 1858. At Westminster, similar preoccupations would earn him the sobriquet ‘Leighton Buzzard’ but also an enduring place on the Statute Book, his Poaching Prevention Act 1862 remaining in force to this day.


see: Loton Park

Sir Baldwin had married heiress Mary Parker of nearby Sweeney Hall, a talented amateur artist whose sketchbooks recorded the changes on the Loton Park estate during the couple’s tenure. The house itself was slightly enlarged, the west front being pushed out to back-fill the space behind outer bay of the Baroque facade (r). This work, and the creation of a new service range and lodges, was overseen by Thomas Jones with considerable design input from his highly engaged patrons.6

Having adopted a distinctive spelling of his name, the individual spirit of Baldwyn, Sir Baldwin’s heir, would not always meet with parental approval. “B determined to give up Sweeney & live in London,” the baronet recorded soon after his son’s marriage to Eleanor Leicester-Warren (of Tabley House in Cheshire, later inherited by the couple’s second son, Cuthbert). “I am very sorry for it, as I was in hopes by residing in the country he would gradually learn some of the duties of a landed proprietor but by living in town both he & Nelly I fear will become useless Members of Society.”7


see: Country Life

And sober Sir Baldwin might well have deemed his son’s first major intervention at Loton soon after he inherited in 1871 as a somewhat frivolous indulgence. For the house now gained a vaulting neo-Jacobean wing extending south-east from the entrance front, its dimensions determined in no small measure by the 8th baronet’s enthusiasm for amateur dramatics.


Historic England

With a proscenium arch stage (r) and ‘exquisitely painted drop curtain and scenery’, Loton’s private theatre – ‘an exceptional survival in the British Isles’6 – gained a preeminent reputation in its day ‘thanks to the energetic zeal of its host as stage manager’. By contrast, a seemingly insatiable appetite for real-life drama would drive his globe-trotting son and heir, Bryan, a turn-of-the-century action man straight out of the pages of Boy’s Own.

Just how well young Margaret Fletcher, one of the many daughters of Major John Fletcher of Saltoun Hall, understood the character of her 22-year-old bridegroom when they married in December 1890 is unclear. But within months Leighton had enlisted in the local cavalry regiment, seeing active service in South Africa during the course of his rise to the rank of captain in 1897, the year in which he also succeeded to the baronetcy and the Loton Park estate.


see: Christ Church

If Lady Leighton had entertained hopes her husband would now settle into landed life at home with their two young sons they were quickly dashed. For Sir Bryan soon began an extraordinary peripatetic freelance career, forever dashing off to where the action was. Something of a connoisseur of the art of military combat, where he could not actively participate Leighton began supplying critical observations from the front line to various national newspapers.

In the spring of 1898 he turned up in the port of New York offering his services to the Americans in their war with the Spanish over Cuba (‘A baronet here to fight’ headlined the New York Times). However, having relished the prospect of “a war carried on in an up-to-date business-like way, by two civilised nations armed with the latest modern firearms,” Sir Bryan found himself disappointed, particularly with the American command. ‘Not once during the fighting around Santiago did General Shafter visit the firing line or inspect the disposition of the American troops, “but remained three miles in rear having his head massaged in his tent.”‘8

lotonbryan2Twelve months on, Leighton’s family could learn of his exploits in various Boer War skirmishes in southern Africa via the pages of the Illustrated London News.  Later, ‘when the Russo-Japanese War began, Sir Bryan was soon upon the scene, a witness to much of the most important fighting in Manchuria’.8 And no sooner had he returned from the First Balkan War in 1913 than he was up in the air mastering the earliest fighting planes, and flinging himself from airships testing prototype parachutes.

‘He did a great deal of valuable experimental work [in World War One], and during the Zeppelin raids asked for permission to ram an enemy airship and escape by parachute. Permission was denied.’9 Back from the front in the summer of 1915 Leighton found himself in court charged with negligent driving, his car and two passengers having been ‘thrown five feet in the air’ after colliding with an army truck on London’s King’s Road. (Fined £5.)10

Ironically, after a life of adrenalised derring-do, 50-year-old Sir Bryan succumbed to a fatal bout of Spanish flu in London in 1919, having ‘selected as his place of burial the top of a rugged tor in the centre of Loton’s deer park’.11


see: Richard Dorrell

Leighton’s two sons were also combat aviators, John, the eldest, dying from his injuries having been shot down two years before. So it was that Richard, 25, now succeeded as 10th baronet, later marrying Kathleen Lees, the only daughter of his next-door neighbours at Rowton Castle (r), which would be sold in 1941 and is today a hotel.


see: VSCC/John Hallett

During World War II the deer park at Loton was requisitioned for the storage of incendiary and chemical munitions. ‘The army laid around 14 miles of roads throughout the park’; after inheriting in the late 1950s, Sir Michael Leighton ‘saw the potential and a course was created’ [aerial view]. Since 1960 vintage motorsport enthusiasts have enjoyed gatherings ‘redolent of the carefree speed trials of pre-war times’ at a venue boasting the ‘longest hill climb in England’.

Happily, however, the park’s original denizens remain in residence, Loton being ‘one of only two privately-owned deer parks still extant in Shropshire’. “I’ve looked after them since I was 21, I know them all,” the present squire once said of the 200-300 strong herd established in the first half of the 18th century and which has had ‘no incursion of new blood in living memory’.12


see: Google Maps

The lineage of 84-year-old Sir Michael Leighton, of course, comfortably outrivals that of his cervine cohabitants at Loton Park but now confronts a novel destiny. For in due course the Leighton estate will pass, for the first time in 800 years, into the female line, the 11th baronet’s only daughter set to inherit all. Well, not quite all. Ironically, after a lifetime of sterling conservation work at Loton and beyond (notably towards preservation of the Welsh red kite13) Sir Michael finds himself an endangered species, his 1693 baronetcy the latest of that titular rank to be facing extinction…

[Loton Park][GII* listing]

1. Daily Mail 22 July, 2003.
2. Leighton, S. Shropshire houses past and present, 1901.
3. Newman, J., Pevsner, N. Buildings of England: Shropshire, 2006.
4. Mercer, E. English architecture to 1900: the Shropshire experience, 2003.
5. Gomme, A. Smith of Warwick, 2000.
6. Musson, J. The joy of sunflowers, Country Life 3 Dec, 2014.
7. Walsh, V. The diary of a country gentleman: Sir Baldwin Leighton, Bt. Trans. of the Shropshire Archaeological Society, Vol.LIX, Pt.2, 1971/2.
8. Ranson, E. Baronet on the battlefield: Sir Bryan Leighton in Cuba, Journal of American Studies, Vol.9, No.1, Apr 1975.
9. Daily Mail 20 Jan, 1919.
10. Daily Telegraph 20 July, 1915.
11. The Times 25 Jan, 1919.
12. The Field 1 Sept, 2008.
13. Musson, J. The kite runner, Country Life 11 Jun, 2008.
See also: Montgomery-Massingberd, H. Family seats: no.97 Loton Park, The Field 16 Aug, 1986


Mulgrave Castle, Yorkshire

The situation of the House, I did not frame; nor had I any hand in ye Building; I think both soe fine, I should think it is too good for any private Body to live in.”1


see: Royal Collection

Writing in 1723 to Mrs. Henrietta Howard (the then mistress of the Prince of Wales, later George II), Katherine, Duchess of Buckingham was actively marketing the London home built by her late husband as a residence altogether better suited to such as the family of the heir to the throne. John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham (d.1721), had named the handsome early-18th century mansion abutting the western end of St. James’s Park after himself.

Buckingham House (↑) would indeed be acquired by the royal family but not until some eighteen years after the duchess’s death and for a sum substantially less than half that of her suggested £60,000 valuation.

As she rarely allowed anyone to forget, Katherine (nee Darnley) was in fact herself of ‘the royal blood’, numbering among the many illegitimate offspring of James II. While she is today a relatively obscure historical figure doubtless the duchess would be exceedingly gratified by her prominence within the recently opened Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries wherein the ‘greatest treasures’ of Westminster Abbey are now on permanent display.


see: Westminster Abbey

Amongst the Abbey’s ‘unsurpassed collection of remarkable yet little-known’ life-sized funeral effigies, the Duchess of Buckingham stands beside that of her three-year-old son, Robert. Remarkably preserved and ‘wearing the finest clothes money could buy in the early 18th century’, Robert was the middle of the Buckinghams’ three sons, all of whom died young. In consequence of their premature demise, as stipulated in the duke’s will (unsuccessfully challenged by his widow), Buckingham House passed to his bastard son, Charles Sheffield, after Katherine’s death.

Had any of their boys reached adulthood the destiny of a later house, the situation of which the duchess did frame and take ‘a hand in ye building’ of – Mulgrave Hall, near Whitby in Yorkshire’s North Riding – might also have been quite different. As it was, in 1743 this property descended to her 21-year-old grandson Constantine Phipps whose mother, Lady Catherine Annesley, was the product of Katherine Darnley’s brief unhappy first marriage to the 3rd earl of Anglesey. Today Mulgrave Castle (as it was later styled) is owned by his direct descendant Constantine Phipps, 5th Marquess of Normanby.


see: Britain From Above

“Our home in Yorkshire is cut off from the rest of the world by the sea on one side and the moors on the other,” Lord Normanby, 65, told the Financial Times in 2014. This detachment is reinforced by the dimensions of the Mulgrave Estate – some 15,000 partially accessible acres – which has more than doubled since the end of the 19th Century. While the house, too, has undergone similar expansion (by John Soane and others) since the Duchess of Buckingham’s time, it remains entirely private, the heart of an inheritance dating to 1591.



see: British Museum

Three years after heroic service as the precocious 24-year-old captain of his ship The Bear and its 500-man crew in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Lord Edmund Sheffield (left) would be granted the manor of Mulgrave by the crown. Raised to the peerage as Earl of Mulgrave in 1626, incredibly, despite producing twenty children by two wives, Edmund had no surviving son at his death twenty years on. By contrast, his namesake grandson would be succeeded as 3rd earl by his only son John Sheffield, later 1st Duke of Buckingham.

The duke’s public life combined two facets common to Mulgrave squires down the ages: naval service and a literary bent.


see: National Maritime Museum

Despite cultivating friendships with the likes of John Dryden (with whom he would indeed collaborate), Sheffield was frankly out of his league in such company, remembered as ‘superficial in everything, even in poetry, which was his forte’ by Alexander Pope. And while he had ‘served gallantly‘ at sea from a young age, it was commonly held that Sheffield’s real metier was playing the court. But here, too, his bumptious self-confidence seemingly ruffled (royal) feathers. In 1680 he was put in command of a fleet to relieve the English garrison at Tangier ‘to get him out of the way, as he was making love to the Princess Anne’.2

This relationship would prove fruitful two decades on, however, Sheffield being granted both a dukedom and also permission to build Buckingham House in a plum spot by Queen Anne within a year of her ascent to the throne. A late starter in the matrimonial stakes, the duke was nearly sixty when in 1706 he married his third widow, Katherine Darnley being the only one to bear him children. Sometime between her husband’s death and that of their longest-lived child in 1735, the duchess commissioned a new house on the Sheffields’ Yorkshire estate.


see: Google Maps

Later altered and enlarged, scant information about the ‘rectangular three-storey house‘ erected above the densely wooded creeks running to the coastal village of Sandsend survives but ‘the core of the building is still quite evident’.3 This property would represent a sizeable chunk of the inheritance of Katherine’s heir, grandson Constantine Phipps, whose marriage she was to hastily engineer in cahoots with the father of the bride John, Lord Hervey, shortly before her death in 1743. ‘They sent for the boy but the day before from Oxford, and bedded them at a day’s notice,’ reported Horace Walpole.

The Phipps’ had risen from relatively humble beginnings. Constantine’s namesake grandfather, the scholarly son of a Reading tavern owner, crowned a legal career with his appointment as Lord Chancellor of Ireland (and a knighthood) in 1710, having married the daughter of Charles II’s attorney-general on the way up. An Irish peerage would come the way of his grandson, Constantine (2) being created Baron Mulgrave in 1767.


see: National Portrait Gallery

By the time he succeeded as 2nd baron aged 31 in 1775, Mulgrave’s son Constantine (3) was already a veteran of naval campaigns in the West Indies and North America, and had recently helmed a pioneering (if ultimately thwarted) Arctic expedition in search of a north-west passage to India. Continued military preoccupations both active and political seem to have retarded consideration of marriage until middle age. “Seventeen and forty-seven is a little disparity, but it is her choice,” wrote a friend of Phipps’s youthful eventual spouse, Elizabeth Cholmley, who was to die giving birth to their daughter within a year of the event.


see source

Barely dry on the wall, Thomas Gainsborough’s 1787 portrait of Constantine’s tragic bride now adorned a freshly enlarged Mulgrave Hall, the house having been ‘modernized in preparation’ for family life. ‘A potentially interesting commission’ (right) for architect John Soane was in the event somewhat attenuated, ‘his client unerringly [choosing] the dullest of options’ for symmetrical wing extensions to the Duchess of Buckingham’s original house.4 However, in addition to the present library, drawing and dining rooms, ‘two of Soane’s finest interiors survive within: the domed ante-room adjacent to the remodelled early-18th century staircase, and a first floor barrel-vaulted lobby’.5


see: Mulgrave Estate

(Mulgrave’s ‘massive walled garden, with chimneys and flues on all sides to service glasshouses which wrapped around virtually the entire perimeter’, has also been attributed to Soane.4 Its elaborate heating system was redundant within years but extensive greenhouses remain, some ‘kept frost-free in winter, a luxurious and increasingly rare practice allowing a wide range of exotics to be cultivated’. Part of a long-evolved project, ‘the gardens at Mulgrave Castle are rare survivors from a period when the grand homes of the aristocracy were powerhouses of horticultural prowess. Rarer still because Mulgrave remains in private ownership and closed to the public’.*)

The death of the 2nd baron in October 1792 interrupted plans to improve the wider grounds of the house, ameliorating and enhancing its exposed situation. Humphry Repton had inspected Mulgrave in September of that year; ten months on he would be asked by Constantine’s heir, his brother Henry, to consolidate his thoughts and proposals in the form of a trademark Red Book (↓).


see source

Lauding the potential of Mulgrave’s abundant inherent advantages, Repton’s opening remarks included an apology for the fact that his submissions would perforce be based upon an inexact recall of his visit. One thing he had clearly not forgotten, however, was the last leg of the journey: “Every attempt to improve the natural beauties of Mulgrave must be in vain, unless we can render the place accessible by a safe and convenient approach: this can hardly be said to exist at present, since the road from Whitby is always tedious from the heaviness of the sands, and often dangerous from the uncertainty of the tides.”6

Repton suggested instead “such lines of approach..as may display the beauties of the place, and excite admiration without terror”. He also urged the objective of cohesion through strategic tree-planting which would in turn permit walks, rides and framed vistas of such as Old Mulgrave Castle (a medieval ruin 1km south-west of the house), Whitby Abbey and the sea.

While the broad thrust (if not the precise details) of Repton’s Red Book would eventually be adopted by Henry Phipps – and indeed is still actively informing the management of Mulgrave’s 850-acre parkland to this day – little would be done for almost two decades. In the meantime work commenced to remedy a situation which had perplexed the famous landscape designer: “The new mansion has been called Mulgrave Castle without any symptom of a Castle form, or even a crenellated appearance to warrant the appellation.”

In 1805 Henry, 3rd baron (later 1st Earl of Mulgrave), reached the zenith of his military and political career, being appointed Foreign Secretary under William Pitt the Younger.


see: Ken Stanford

At the same time he now engaged architect William Atkinson (whose ‘long suit was Picturesque Tudor/Gothic’) who proceeded to create the profile and footprint of Mulgrave Castle as it stands today.7 Extending the house northwards, Atkinson introduced towers, turrets and a projecting entrance, while the entire house would be fringed with castellations.

When Henry’s son and heir Constantine (4) came of age in 1818, the earl saw to it that he now replaced his brother Edmund as MP for Scarborough. But to his Tory father’s displeasure Constantine’s liberal tendencies quickly revealed themselves and within two years uncle Edmund was back, his nephew beating a retreat to Tuscany (which over time would become his second home).


see: Art UK

The earl had already had an indication of his son’s independence of mind, meeting a young Constantine’s impetuous written proposal of marriage to an Irish actress with threats of disinheritance. While abroad, Viscount Normanby (the courtesy title by which he was known) authored the first of several works, including four romantic novels, which he would publish anonymously. ‘There is a mysterious novel come out [Matilda] which I am convinced is Normanby’s,’ wrote a contemporary, ‘except that it is very well written, with considerable talent, which exceeds my estimate of his powers.’ Similar scepticism would attend Constantine’s subsequent political and diplomatic career.


see: Ken Stanford

Returning to Britain, Normanby was soon back in the House of Commons, voting in 1828  ‘to condemn the misapplication of public money for building work at Buckingham House’ by King George IV, nominal ‘repairs’ which would turn the home of his forebears into the present-day royal palace. Though succeeding to Mulgrave in 1831 the new squire was soon on his travels. Serving variously as governor of Jamaica, lord-lieutenant of Ireland and ambassador to France, detractors would characterise his diplomacy as ‘indiscreet and blundering’. The duke of Wellington was seemingly no fan either, regarding the (by now) Marquess of Normanby ‘s appointment as Home Secretary as ‘very bad and very foolish’.8


see: Morgan Library

(Soon after coming into his estate Normanby had pruned Mulgrave’s art collection, the sale including a dozen works by Sir David Wilkie of whom his father had been a significant patron; portraits by Gainsborough and Reynolds were among later-19th century dispersals. Foremost among the survivors of these periodic culls is ‘Rembrandt’s first masterpiece‘, Judas Returning the 30 Pieces of Silver (1629, r), one of the very few major works by the artist in private hands in UK.)

In 1858 the marquess would be recalled from what turned out to be his final foreign posting, to Florence, his stance on European affairs now at variance with London. ‘Everybody liked him, nobody can well say why,’ remarked one obituary at his death five years later whereupon his only son George promptly resigned his post as lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia and returned to Yorkshire. But the lure of abroad remained as strong for the 2nd marquess, not least because the salary of a colonial administrator comfortably outstripped his income from the Mulgrave estate. Most of his last two decades would be spent down under, governing New Zealand and various Australian states.8


see: MorganFourman

Meanwhile, his son and heir Constantine (5) had also been busy administering, if only to his flock in the decidedly less exotic parish of Worsley, near Manchester. However, soon after Reverend the 3rd Marquess of Normanby succeeded in 1890 he set about repurposing Mulgrave as an exclusive prep school, providing personal mentoring to a favoured few. After a dozen years this project came to an end for the least anticipated of reasons when in 1903 the 57-year-old ‘parson peer, [hitherto] considered a confirmed bachelor’, took a wife…9


see: Hartlepool History

… twenty-four years his junior, Miss Gertrude Foster, of Moor Park near Ludlow. The widowed marchioness welcomed young evacuees (left) to Mulgrave at the outbreak of the Second World War. Oswald, the last of the couple’s three children (and only son), had just turned twenty when he became the 4th marquess of Normanby in 1932.


see: Geni

Bizarrely, the WWII prisoner-of-war veteran would face an unexpected challenge to his right to the title during his wedding ceremony at Lythe village church in 1951 when an interloping engineer from Newcastle piped up to claim ‘just cause or impediment’ on behalf of his own father.10 Surviving this intervention to become the new marchioness, Grania Guinness (r) – who died last year – was an heiress of the brewing dynasty, inheriting her father Lord Moyne’s faux-medieval Baillifscourt in Sussex after his assassination in 1941.


see: Lost Heritage

The couple would finally sell that 1,000-acre property in 1974 five years after their acquisition of another, much closer to home and more than ten times the size. Subsequently demolishing ‘amid little protest the unmanageable Victorian monstrosity’ at the heart of Warter Priory (left), this estate 50 miles due south of Mulgrave was itself sold by the present marquess for £48 million in 1998.11

‘If you need to dynamite a country house, do it early on Monday morning,’ Oswald once advised a friend.

mulgetchAt Mulgrave, ‘a Victorian wing of c.1880’ would be the only part of the Castle to receive such treatment as the couple set about extensive renovations to house and estate.3 The marchioness was particularly engaged: ‘As well as having the castle redecorated, she collected lost pictures, filled gaps in the library and made a garden.’12


see source

Labelled the ‘Red Marquess’ as a sometime member of Labour administrations in the House of Lords, Oswald’s extensive public life included a ‘brilliant’ period as chair of the National Art Collections Fund. However, ‘he did not understand ‘heritage’ in the modern sense. Normanby did not believe that he was a custodian of national property, but that, on the contrary, Mulgrave belonged to his family. No National Trust functionary ever went through the hall doors, no Country Life intellectuals ever hissed proprietorially, no tourists queued, baying for tea, against scarlet ropes’.13


see: Francis Roberts

And this philosophy broadly continues under his son, occasional novelist Constantine Phipps (6), the 5th Marquess of Normanby who succeeded in 1994. While Mulgrave remains essentially private and ‘is not a massively commercial enterprise’ its roster of tenants includes a gin distillery and piano makers by royal appointment, meanwhile the estate itself continues to evolve (left), pursuing an active programme of residential property development home and abroad, and significant philanthropy.

Married to fellow writer Nicola Shulman, the marquess ‘divides his time between Yorkshire and London’ where the family have two handsome Chelsea residences including Argyll House halfway along the Kings Road (↓).


see: Google Maps

Architect Giacomo Leoni’s well-preserved ‘little country house of my invention’ was created in 1723, the year which also saw the death of Constantine Phipps (1) whose son William had married the Duchess of Buckingham’s daughter five years before.14 The demise (in 1735) of the duchess’s longest-lived son Edmund, 19 – whose uniquely recumbent effigy can also be seen in Westminster Abbey – would beget not only the Phipps’ enduring association with Mulgrave Castle but also that of the royal family and the most famous house in the land…

[Mulgrave Estate][Map][Heritage statement]

1. Add MS 22627, British Library.
2. Cokayne, G.E.C. The complete peerage, 1910-59.
3. Pevsner, N. Buildings of England: Yorkshire, the North Riding, 1966.
4. Darley, G. John Soane : an accidental romantic, 1999.
5. Dean, P. Sir John Soane and the country estate, 2018.
6. Eyres, P., Lynch, K. On the spot: Yorkshire Red Books of Humphry Repton, 2018.
7. Hussey, C. English country houses: Late Georgian 1800-40, 1958.
8. Davenport-Hines, R. Oxford dictionary of national biography, 2008.
9. Sheffield Telegraph, 26 Aug 1932.
10. The Times, 1 Feb 1994.
11. Country Life, 26 Mar 1998.
12. The Times, 7 Feb 2018.
13. The Independent, 3 Feb 1994.
14. Gomme, Sir L., Norman, P. (Eds.) Survey of London Vol. IV, 1913.

Melbury House, Dorset

Coming very soon to a cinema near you, Downton Abbey the movie – perhaps an inevitable development given the international success of the television franchise which ran to fifty-two episodes over the course of five years. Not forgetting, of course, Downton Abbey the board game (see below)! Although the conventional costume drama depicting the fortunes of the aristocratic Crawley family and their household is entirely fictional, its scenarios are rooted in the common experience of many British country house estates.

melbgameThe themes of Series One, for instance – primogeniture, the premature demise of male heirs and the significance of the daughters of the house – find echoes in the history of Melbury House and the Ilchester Estate in Dorset. And one person you probably wouldn’t want to find yourself playing that board game with is Melbury’s present owner who is not, these days, an earl of Ilchester.


see: Google Maps

Today Robin Fox-Strangways, the 10th of that ilk, lives on this road in rural Warwickshire and not – unlike most of his predecessors – at grade I Melbury, ‘one of the most remarkable houses in south-west England’ and the centrepiece of the 15,000-acre Ilchester Estate.1


see: Google Maps

The 10th earl might perhaps compare notes with John Monckton-Arundell, the 13th Viscount Galway, who lives on this suburban road in Toronto, Canada, and not, as most of  his predecessors had, at the ancestral seat, grade I Serlby Hall set in 3,000 north Nottinghamshire acres (), created by architect James Paine for the 1st viscount in 1751. In fact both house and land would be sold in the 1980s as surplus to requirements since..

.. over the course of the preceding decades the slings and arrows of fortune had conspired such that both the Ilchester and Galway estates had devolved to just one woman, the present Mrs. Charlotte Townshend.


see: Rumblefish

The premature death at just 41 of the 9th Viscount Galway in 1971 would see the decoupling of title and estate, Charlotte, his only child, ultimately inheriting the latter (left), the title going to a series of cousins. Viscount Galway was married to Teresa Fox-Strangways who had similarly benefited in 1964 as the only surviving child of the 7th Earl of Ilchester. She died in 1989, daughter Charlotte now also becoming principal beneficiary of the Ilchester estate.

But all this was nothing new for Melbury. After the demise of the Strangways male line in 1726, ‘inheritance by two heiresses in succession meant that women played an unusually important part in shaping the destiny of [this] house and estate in the 18th century‘.2 The big headline from Country Life magazine’s primogeniture survey of 2011 (‘Daughters are beginning to inherit‘) demonstrated that Melbury has long been ahead of this particular curve.

Uncannily foreshadowing the tragedies which would befall the 7th earl over two hundred years later, the two sons of 18th-century Melbury heiress Susanna Strangways died young leaving just a daughter. In stealthily engineering thirteen-year-old Elizabeth’s marriage to the son of wealthy Sir Stephen Fox (‘one of the great arrivistes of the 17th Century’3) Susanna would unwittingly gold-plate the Ilchester inheritance, a cousinly connection with the Foxs/Lords Holland later yielding the Holland House estate in west London.

melbroadsigns‘Residential property on Ilchester Place is the most expensive in the country,’ it was reported last year. This landholding now amounts to a mere twenty-or-so acres but they – more so even than 15,000 glorious acres of Dorset – explain how private Melbury and its vast park ‘have been kept up as well and as fully as in the past’.4 And more directly they account for Charlotte Townshend’s ranking in the Sunday Times Rich List which, at £456m in 2019, is comfortably north of, er, the Queen’s.


Harpers & Queen March 1990

Being ‘the only other person in Britain entitled to own swans‘, Townshend’s ‘near monarchical existence (she never carries money)’ became the object of print media fascination in the late 1980s and early ’90s, a curiosity then as now largely frustrated by the landowner’s ‘low key’, determinedly traditional custodianship of her more than 500-year-old inheritance.


The Moncktons, viscounts Galway, became ‘Monckton-Arundell‘ after a legacy of 1769. Although Charlotte, only child of the 9th viscount, did not carry the latter half of her father’s name prior to marriage, being an ‘Arundell’ in fact redoubled her connection with the original builder of her maternal inheritance (and present home), Melbury House. For Sir Giles Strangways (d.1547) was the son and heir of Henry Strangways by his first wife, Dorothy, the daughter of Sir John Arundell of Lanherne.

But it was Henry’s third marriage to Catherine Brouning which would introduce the Strangways to the manor of Melbury Sampford (midway between Dorchester and Yeovil), Henry purchasing the reversion of the Brouning estate from his wife’s nephew in 1500. Dying just four years later, this Dorset acquisition may have been a late addition to a legacy which now included ‘property in eight counties’ but it would become, in the latter half of Henry VIII’s reign, the place where his son and heir Giles elected to build a house. And not just any house.

melbbelvcolourDisplaying ‘influences beyond the local vernacular, one has to turn to the Tudor royal palaces for architectural parallels’.1 The square courtyard principal block was of a ‘regularity in advance of its time’.6 While the other facades of the house were later to be significantly refashioned, ‘the west range [remains] largely untouched’ (right), Melbury’s crowning 16th-century feature, the hexagonal tower and viewing lantern, rising from a cross wing at its centre.1 ‘Without a peer for prominence,’7 the belvedere ‘must have been one of the first erected in England’.6

Knighted at 30, Sir Giles ‘spent a lifetime in the service of the crown’ and was well placed to expand his landholding in the county by snapping up the coastal estate of the former Abbotsbury Abbey after the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Chesil Beach

see: Dorset Rambler


see: Abbotsbury Swannery

Most of 18-mile Chesil Beach, and Abbotsbury village with its unique swannery and subtropical garden, remain in the family.

Giles Strangways lost his son Henry as the pair fought the French at the siege of Boulogne but he lived just long enough to see his grandson satisfactorily married. Alas, the second Sir Giles Strangways ‘lived – and died – extravagantly. In June 1555 he surrendered himself to the Fleet to avoid outlawry for debts that included over £100 to two London tailors. When he died in his early thirties in 1562, he left his widow with at least six children under 21.’ But the family estates were to be most seriously imperiled two generations on.

Wadham College Chapel

see: Trover

Things began rather propitiously for young John Strangways who inherited 6,000 acres of Dorset and Somerset upon coming of age in 1606, becoming ‘Sir John’ two years later and joint-heir of wealthy Nicholas Wadham in 1609. (The latter’s will would also lead to the founding of Wadham College, Oxford, the chapel of which still features the east window donated by Strangways, right.)

unknown artist; Sir John Strangways, MP

see: Art UK

At Westminster during the reign of Charles I, Sir John (left) did his bit to try to shore up ‘that chain which links and unites the hearts and affections of the prince and people together’, but which would eventually snap with the outbreak of the Civil War. Though he was a relatively moderate Royalist Strangways languished for two years in Tower of London, the price of the return of his freedom and sequestrated estates being an eye-watering ten thousand pounds. Sir John died in 1666.

Less than nine years on, the ‘sudden death from a stroke of his rubicund, hearty son Giles ought not to have surprised anyone: Strangways’ accounts for sack and sherry had long been Falstaffian’. And the demise of Giles’ first-born just a year later would have lasting impact as the ensuing tenure of his younger son Thomas would be most notable for a major overhaul of the character of Melbury House…


see: Historic England

… where a large family portrait was soon to dominate the landing of a new principal stair. In the background Melbury is depicted in a more radicial treatment (minus the tower) than would in fact be executed. Also to be found in Melbury’s art collection is the likeness of one ‘Mr. Watson, architect to Tho. Strangways esq, who enlarged & adorned this house 1692‘. Being the otherwise distinctly obscure John Watson, a local practicioner selected for the task of giving the Tudor house a contemporary makeover.

melbchristies1The north and south fronts received near-identical treatment (r), five two-storey bays defined by stacked pilasters being squeezed between the existing gable ends. The east front, however, was entirely rebuilt, the result being described variously as ‘delightfully provincial confusion’7 or ‘maldroit artisan Baroque’.8 Fronting three new rooms including a 5-bay hall was ‘a Classical facade of 11 bays with an overly narrow central section and a pediment which uncomfortably fails to span the full width’.(↓)1


see: Historic England

While certain important earlier features, including an elaborate 17th-century fireplace, would be preserved, ‘much internally is of the Watson period’, including a pair of Grinling melbceilingGibbons-like carved overmantels in the hall and several spectacular painted ceilings.7

Thomas Strangways died in 1713, his childless heir Thomas jnr. thirteen years later at which point Melbury was inherited by the latter’s sisters, Elizabeth and Susanna. Spinster Elizabeth, 36, suddenly became attractive to the 5th Duke of Hamilton; the success of their marriage can perhaps be gauged by the complete absence of the duke from his wife’s will following her death less than two years after the event. Having unusual autonomy over her own property, Elizabeth now bequeathed her stake in the Strangways estate to her sister and with the express proviso that her brother-in-law was in no way to ‘intermedle’ therewith.2

In the year of their father’s death Susanna had married Thomas Horner (of Mells in Somerset) but this union, likewise – notwithstanding the birth of three children – was an unhappy one. Flexing her newly enhanced financial muscle, soon after her sister’s death Susanna took herself off to Europe for several years, Elizabeth (the couple’s only surviving child) in tow, leaving her increasingly vexed husband behind. Whilst abroad Susanna would strike up an ambiguous relationship with Henry Fox, later 1st Baron Holland, a younger son of Sir Stephen Fox (who had risen ‘to immense wealth and public prominence from humble origins’ at the court of Charles II).


see: National Trust

The pair would persuade Henry’s eligible elder brother Stephen, 31 (left, seated), hitherto distracted by a decade-long homosexual relationship with John, Lord Hervey (second right), to regularise his lifestyle by secretly marrying the now 13-year-old Elizabeth in 1735. (William Hogarth painted this conversation piece for both men; Fox’s version remains at Melbury.) The marital fait accompli was the final ignominy for Elizabeth’s father who would go to his grave unreconciled in 1741.


see: Historic England

The following year, with her daughter now satisfactorily ensconced as mistress of the Fox seat at Redlynch less than thirty miles to the north, a liberated Susanna threw herself into projects at Melbury. Most particularly, the surrounding parkland received a significant (if somewhat passe) overhaul. Avenues would be incised through woodland providing ‘wild walks’ culminating in splendid vistas while water courses were manipulated to create cascades. All of which could be contemplated in repose from an existing garden house newly tricked out in fashionable Gothick style (r).8

Her son-in-law having been raised to the peerage in 1741, two years before her death Susannah would have the pleasure of seeing Elizabeth’s status elevated to that of countess, Stephen Fox being created 1st Earl of Ilchester in 1756. The couple now exchanged Redlynch for Melbury House (and later a new mansion – Elizabeth’s ‘Pin-money Castle’ – at Abbotsbury, since demolished) where the countess would indulge her love of card games for up to eight hours a day.2

Beach, Thomas, 1738-1806; Henry Thomas Fox-Strangways (1747-1802), 2nd Earl of Ilchester

see: National Trust

To what extent this habit influenced their son and heir Henry’s proclivity for gambling is unclear; the 2nd earl routinely lost thousands in an evening at the tables. After his mother’s death in 1792, Henry relocated not just his family but also some choice furnishings from Redlynch to Melbury: Mortlake tapestries now adorned the Breakfast Room, with surplus items from the two houses being dispersed in a sale in 1801. The 2nd earl died the following year and ‘Redlynch would never be lived in again by the family’ (the 4,400-acre estate finally being sold for £97,000 in 1912).2


see source

Squire of Melbury for half a century Henry, 3rd Earl of Ilchester, picked up the loose ends of his father’s upheavals, restoring “all the old-fashioned grandeur”, but was himself disinclined towards major change.2 Both sons predeceasing him, Henry’s 62-year-old half-brother William inherited as 4th earl in 1858 after a lifetime in the diplomatic service. Dying childless seven years later, the 4th earl’s young nephew, Henry Fox-Strangways now succeeded to the title and a 20,000-acre portfolio which was soon to a receive an initially burdensome but potentially valuable south-eastern supplement.


In 1768 Susanna Strangway’s erstwhile favourite Henry Fox, now Lord Holland, had acquired a 200-acre estate not far from royal Kensington Palace west of London complete with an imposing Jacobean mansion, Holland House. Legendary entertaining therein by later generations drained the family coffers, however, and from the 1820s the parkland would be steadily eroded by leasehold residential development.

melbShawUltimately, the widow of the 4th Baron Holland brokered the sale of the estate to her husband’s kinsman Henry, 5th Earl of Ilchester, who soon initiated further bespoke building work on the heavily-mortgaged property. From 1875 a series of large houses ‘designed by leading architects for successful artists’ would be erected on the north side of Kensington High Street.9 Holland House itself was preserved only to be destroyed in WWII. While the surviving parkland was sold to London Corporation and remains a prized public amenity, the very exclusive real estate has been retained. (‘Written consent is required from the Ilchester Estate for any external alteration to the appearance of your house’ – Holland Park Conservation Area Appraisal 2017).


This metropolitan focus had occasioned an interruption to the expansionist 5th earl’s programme of substantial developments at Melbury, which eventually ‘doubled the size of the house’. In 1872 architect Anthony Salvin had removed the conservatory in the south-west corner and added a cavernous gable-roofed library extending from the short transverse tudor wing on the west front.



Twelve years on George Devey warmed to this theme, adding a second tower (above), a service range abutting the library and a port-cochere to the right of the north (entrance) front with an enclosed courtyard beyond, all in ‘stage set’ Jacobethan style.1


see: NPG

Dying in 1905, the 5th earl’s half-century at Melbury would be precisely matched by his son, the reserved but ‘engagingly frivolous’ family historian Giles (left, d.1959), at which point the reins were handed over to his own son, Edward.10 But the ill-starred 7th earl outlived his father by only five years having already endured double tragedy with the loss of both sons. In 1947 a fatal accident while cycling home from shooting grey squirrels in the woods had claimed 13-year-old Giles. Eleven years on, younger son Stephen, 20, was shot in the back by Greek terrorists in Cyprus just weeks from the end of his National Service.

Thus in 1964 the Ilchester estate passed to Edward Fox-Strangways’s remaining daughter Theresa (by this time Viscountess Galway), the earldom drifting away to distant male relations.


Tatler [January 2014]

As outlined earlier, at the 9th viscount’s premature death his Serlby Hall estate was placed in trust for the couple’s only child Charlotte who, by the time she additionally came into Melbury in 1989, had already married and divorced her first husband, Guy, the father of Melbury’s present heir, Simon Morrison (b.1984, right).


see: Dorset Magazine


see: Hampshire Chronicle

Melbury’s chatelaine – seen, left, in the Salvin library – was remarried to industrial farmer and fellow hunting enthusiast James Townshend (r) in 1995. The following year saw the arrival of their daughter, rising eventer Melissa Townshend

… and also the departure of several hundred of Melbury’s ‘accumulated contents no longer in use’.11 Now a single sock could perhaps be regarded as the epitome of redundancy. But spared from inclusion in the decluttering Christie’s auction was ‘one of the socks worn by Napoleon I at the time of his death’..


Hogarth’s ‘The Indian Emperor’

.. said item being among 497 ‘heritage assets’ at Melbury House qualified for exemption from Inheritance Tax and Capital Gains Tax with the proviso they are made available ‘for the general public to view’. The annual Heritage Open Days festival provides strictly limited opportunity to see some of Melbury’s Old Master-laden rooms – ‘the 18th Century at its most sumptuous and civilized’4 – and, maybe, the odd sock…

[Ilchester Estates]

1. Hill, M. West Dorset country houses, 2014.
2. Martin, J. Wives and daughters: women & children in the Georgian country house, 2004.
3. Beckett, JV. The aristocracy in England 1660-1914, 1986.
4. Cecil, D. Some Dorset country houses: a personal selection, 1985.
5. Daily Mail 7 June, 1995.
6. Oswald, A. Country houses of Dorset, 1959.
7. Hill, M., Newman, J., Pevsner, N. Buildings of England: Dorset, 2018.
8. Mowl, T. Historic gardens of Dorset, 2003.
9. Sheppard, FHW (ed.) Survey of London: North Kensington, 1973.
10. Oxford dictionary of national biography, 2004.
11. Russell, F. The Melbury sale, Christie’s 14 Oct, 1996.


Wedding presents can be a tricky business at the best of times. For 31-year-old bachelor Sir Stephen Glynne, the unworldly squire of the Hawarden Castle estate in north Wales, this occasional quandary would be exacerbated in the summer of 1839 by the decision of his two sisters to celebrate their nuptials by way of a joint wedding ceremony. Youngest sibling Mary was betrothed to the 4th Lord Lyttleton, already possessed of his magnificent family seat, Hagley Hall in Worcestershire, while Catherine was to marry a young politician beginning to make his mark at Westminster, William Ewart Gladstone.

Though naturally averse to such occasions, with their attendant “excitement and want of quiescence”, Sir Stephen thought he had hit on just the thing, gifting his sisters one share each in a company newly established to exploit the mineral reserves on a small landholding he owned in Staffordshire.1 Encouraged by his optimistic business manager Glynne anticipated tidy dividends, yielding pin money for his sisters year after year.

But, disastrously, the gift that was intended to keep on giving quite quickly turned into a financial black hole, unlimited liabilities on the failing enterprise threatening to sink the Hawarden estate and take the family down with it. William Gladstone’s beyond-the-call-of-duty commitment to the salvation of his wife’s heritage would prove a crash course in economics for the future prime minister, lessons learned promptly informing his first stint as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Fast-forward 170 years…


see: YouTube

“It was like doing a really meaty MBA,” the present-day custodian of Hawarden Castle recalled recently (r), reflecting on an ill-judged over-expansion of Pedlars, his well-established vintage homewares business. While it may have been “a disaster”, Charlie Gladstone – aka Sir Charles Gladstone, 8th Baronet – would appear to share the durable, energetic character of his illustrious Victorian forebear, Pedlars being just one of many creative enterprises these days associated with their mutual home, Hawarden (pro. Harden).


see: donna butler

“I don’t think you have an obligation to know the history,” Gladstone contended last year, an approach born partly of the fact that grade 1 listed Hawarden, with its ‘first rank Georgian interiors’ and Temple of Peace (the perfectly preserved former study of the 19th century’s preeminent statesman), has never opened to the public. “Castellated and very well done, no pretensions inside to anything but comfort,” noted a visitor in 1831, “just the sort of place one would like to have.”2

And a far cry from the ‘Hawarden Castle’ first acquired by the Glynne family, which was little more than a freshly wrecked shell…


see: Coflein

… its slighting by parliamentary forces in the Civil War being a lesser price paid by James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby, for his Royalist allegiance. Stanley was executed in 1651; two years later his sequestrated Hawarden estate was opportunistically purchased by Welsh MP John Glynne, ‘a skilful lawyer and industrious parliamentarian’ whose star had risen during the Protectorate.3 ‘A phenomenal committee man,’ Glynne would tack deftly towards the restoration of the monarchy over time, his lucrative private practice all the while thriving. Glynne’s evident prosperity at such a time did little for his popularity, however, and sympathy was in short supply when ‘he added to the gaiety of the coronation by falling off his horse during the procession’.


see: National Trust

Though they would eventually see off legal challenges by the Stanleys to their acquisition of Hawarden, the 680 Welsh acres seemingly held little intrinsic appeal for John Glynne (left, d.1666) and his immediate heirs, his son Sir William, 1st Bt., and eldest grandson preferring their estate at Ambrosden, Oxfordshire. But not long after succeeding his brother as 3rd baronet, Sir Stephen Glynne decided to cash out of Oxfordshire and relocate his growing brood to north Wales, a strategy not entirely unrelated to the presence there…

… of a young child named Honora Conway.

In 1723 Honora was the five-year-old orphaned heiress of the Broadlane estate immediately adjacent to Hawarden and complete not with a ruin but a substantial Hall which the Glynne family would rent. Though his sons were somewhat older, a convenient long-range alliance cannot have been far from Sir Stephen’s thoughts. And, lo – despite the deaths in quick succession of the 3rd baronet and his two eldest sons over a period of eighteen months – it duly came to pass that 19-year-old Sir John Glynne, 6th Bt., married 14-year-old Honora Conway in 1731, thereby instantly doubling the extent of the Hawarden estate.


see: National Library of Wales

‘In 1732 I commenced planting in Broadlane,’ the young squire recorded, the progress of his geometric imparking of the land north and west of the Hall captured some eight years on in Thomas Badeslade’s exaggerated engraving.2

The couple would also be seriously preoccupied with raising a family at this time. The practical realities of rearing fourteen children (despite several not reaching adulthood), allied with other commitments, ensured that it would be two decades before any notion of replacing their old house could seriously entertained. But a 1757 portrait by Thomas Hudson of Sir John and Lady Glynne, he with a scrolled architectural plan in his right hand, celebrated the fact that just such a project was by then nearing completion.


see: National Library of Wales [p.101]

Artist Moses Griffith’s illustration for fellow North Walian Thomas Pennant’s ‘Tour’ published in 1778 shows the tall Georgian box which now replaced the original gabled iteration of Broadlane Hall. Though it would be stylistically overwhelmed externally half a century later, the work of builder/architect Samuel Turner of Whitchurch still ‘forms the nucleus of the present building’.4


Country Life


see: Tatler

‘Excellent classical interiors’4 include a cantilevered stone staircase, its landing (left) decorated with ‘bold, sophisticated plasterwork’, while the drawing room features ‘the best ceiling in the house’.5

Sir John’s eldest surviving son was the 32-year-old rector of Hawarden when he succeeded his father in 1777. Fatefully, during the Rev Sir Sir Stephen Glynne’s brief tenure as squire – before his sudden expiry in the hunting field at Enville Hall in the spring of 1780 – the 7th baronet would take a wife. Among the landed assets yielded by his alliance with heiress Mary Bennett was an unremarkable 100-acre property called Oak Farm, at Kingswinsford in Staffordshire; unwittingly, the seed of Hawarden’s near-destruction was sown.

Sir Stephen had also sown a seed of his own, however, his heavily-pregnant widow giving birth to a son and heir just a month after her husband’s premature demise. During the ensuing prolonged minority, under the management of Lady Glynne and her agent, Henry Boydell, the Hawarden estate prospered, hundreds of marshy acres south of the river Dee being enclosed and reclaimed. When he at last came of age Sir Stephen, ‘with no father to restrain him and a handsome fortune, contrived to to turn his house into a castle’.6

hawView‘A young Regency man of Romantic tastes,’ the 8th baronet initially approached John Nash who came up with a castellated makeover of Broadlane Hall in 1807.4 For reasons not entirely clear, Nash did not get to follow through but his scheme would heavily inform the building executed by Thomas Cundy, ‘then a little-known architect, the completed project (↑) omitting only Nash’s conservatory and great tower’.7 The Georgian house would gradually gain a new stone facade pierced with mullioned windows and crowned with battlements. Large irregular extensions included ‘a service wing with an octagonal turret and a west wing containing a library with Gothic windows and a canted bay’.4


see: Tatler


see: Tatler

These fanciful fortifications echoed the ready-made romantic ruins of nearby old Hawarden Castle but this stylistic theme would be largely left at the door, Cundy’s principal interiors being ‘the ‘elegant, mellow library (left) and restrained classical dining room’.7

haw8th4The project would be completed c.1812 (Broadlane Hall being rechristened to reflect its new image) but ill health would allow Sir Stephen little time as king of the new Hawarden Castle. Together with his wife and young son he travelled to the south of France in the winter of 1814 seeking respite from the onset of tuberculosis. He died there the following March in his thirty-fifth year, the same age as his father at his premature demise. (The melancholy return of Lady Glynne and the seven-year-old 9th baronet Sir Stephen would be complicated by the chaos occasioned by Napoleon’s resurgence from exile.)

But this undoubtedly traumatic episode is unlikely to account for the singular personality of the young heir who did not develop quite as others, as would be regularly observed. ‘Sir Stephen is small, shy, timid, gentle-looking, and [speaks] deliberately, gravely,’ commented a visitor to Hawarden in 1831: ‘He never rides, shoots, or dances, or likes any young man’s pursuits, so that he keeps quite aloof in his own house except just the going into dinner.’2 ‘It really is pitiful in the extreme,’ wrote another.8

hawSirStephen‘It is now recognized that the 9th baronet was suffering from what is today known as Asperger’s Syndrome.’2 A prodigious memory for purposeless information would gradually be applied to esoteric areas of interest, in particular British ecclesiastical architecture, the visitation and recording of which was to consume much of his adult life. Indulged and beloved by his mother and sisters, with whom he continued to happily share Harwarden, Sir Stephen’s disinclination to engage with the world beyond his spheres of interest rendered him ill-suited to the traditional expectations of a landed squire.


see: a_crafty_traveler

It would also make him peculiarly susceptible to the influence of those entrusted with day-to-day management of the estate. Hawarden’s agent at this time, James Boydell, was the latest generation of his family to occupy this role. But, like his employer, he too was a man driven by obsessive enthusiasms. This unfortunate cocktail, and their mutual failings, would bring Hawarden to its knees.

Of an inventive engineering bent (‘a prolific patenter’), James Boydell became seized with the latent economic potential of iron and coal reserves beneath Oak Farm, the 100-acre Glynne property in Staffordshire, some eighty miles south-east. With the acquiescence of his employer Boydell resigned as Hawarden agent to manage the new mining enterprise which would be powered by his innovative machinery and underwritten by his invested partners, being the 9th baronet and his brothers-in-law, Lord Lyttleton and William Gladstone, to whom Sir Stephen had been pleased to gift shares upon their joining the family.


see: NPG

But in his optimistic haste Boydell grossly underestimated the capital investment required and debts quickly spiraled, unlimited liabilities leaving all members of the partnership seriously exposed. By 1842 William Gladstone was looking to his exceedingly successful father for advice about the escalating situation. Liverpool commodities trader Sir John Gladstone (left) “made the family fortune”, his great-great grandson Sir William Gladstone of Hawarden would tell listeners to BBC radio favourite Desert Island Discs in 1976.


see: Canmore

(He was also ‘one of the largest slave owners in the West Indies’.9 In his maiden speech in the House of Commons Gladstone’s youngest son, the future four-times prime minister, had argued for a fair deal for slave owners after emancipation: no-one would benefit more from the subsequent compensation scheme than John Gladstone. Later created Sir John 1st Bt., ‘of Fasque’, his Scottish mansion (r) would eventually be sold off by the Gladstones of Hawarden in 2010, its remaining contents separately realising £1.8 million at Christie’s the following year.)

Heeding the advice of his father, William and Lord Lyttleton backed out of the Oak Farm partnership in 1843. By 1847 the enterprise was bankrupt, the resources of Sir Stephen – the semi-detached squire having been frequently absent throughout in pursuit of his private interests – by now completely exhausted. With debts well in excess of £300,000 the end of the Glynnes’ association with Hawarden loomed.


see: mj_heywood

Gladstone, however, found the prospect of selling his wife’s heritage unconscionable and committed, with others, to finding a solution. Drawing on his inheritance he purchased as many of Hawarden’s 8,500 acres as he could afford, halving the debt; the Castle would be shuttered for the next five years. ‘In 1853 an arrangement was made by which Mr & Mrs Gladstone with their family settled to make their home at Hawarden, sharing household expenses with Sir Stephen Glynne. Under these happy circumstances the house was reopened.’2

While the shadow of Oak Farm would hang over the estate for the remainder of the century, in these re-ordered, somewhat reduced circumstances affairs at Hawarden Castle returned to a relatively even keel, Gladstone now beginning his political ascent in earnest.

March 1864: In this month was commenced the building of a new Tower on the north side of the Library, containing 3 storeys, of which the lower was applied to the use of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.’6


see: Country Life


see: Coflein

Being the opening entry in what would become known as the Hawarden estate ‘Events Book’ (updated annually by every squire since and published by Sir Willam Gladstone in 2017).

Gladstone’s so-called Temple of Peace, the fount of prodigious public and private industry over the next three decades, remains intact (above, r). The statesman’s accumulation of paperwork and books was such that, towards the end of his life, an octagonal strongroom would be appended to the Castle, and Gladstone himself began wheelbarrowing publications into Hawarden village, the foundation of what is today ‘Britain’s finest residential library, and its only Prime Ministerial library’.

This unique repository is also home to the 106 volumes of notes on ecclesiastical architecture amassed by Sir Stephen Glynne, who was out on yet another church scouting mission when he collapsed and died in June 1874, aged 66. It had been agreed that Hawarden would pass ultimately to his nephew, the Gladstones’ eldest son, Willy; the latter predeceased his father, his only son later being killed in action in the Great War.


see: Google Maps

At this point Prime Minister Gladstone’s third son Henry (later 1st and last Baron Gladstone) stepped in, purchasing the succession, clearing all remaining debts and engaging architect (and relative) Harry Goodhart-Rendel to add to the estate. ‘Fortunately a changing economy prevented a second massive enlargement of Hawarden Castle’6; satellite adornments included a summerhouse with Gothic fenestration, and Wynt Lodge (left).

The childless peer died in 1935, Hawarden now passing to his unmarried nephew, Sir Albert Gladstone, 5th Bt., who would give the place over, firstly, to the RAF during World War Two and then, by deed of gift in 1946, to his brother Charles. “We wish to record our gratitude for this wonderful gift. We realise that it offers unlimited opportunities for our happiness,” the father of six would record in the Hawarden Events Book.

hawgoodAnd unlimited opportunities for happiness is just what is being promised these days by his grandson, (father of six Sir) Charlie Gladstone, co-founder of The Good Life Experience, a festival run by family and friends on the 3,000-acre estate, now in its sixth year.


see: YouTube

Offering oodles of soulful, interactive inspiration (and, in 2019, ‘glamping’ in the walled garden, r), The Good Life is just one of an expanding range of enterprises at Hawarden, and the Gladstones’ 30,000-acre Glen Dye estate in Scotland, endeavouring to proselytize (and monetize) their sustainable, creative lifestyle.

Unsurprisingly, this aesthetic has permeated Hawarden Castle itself in the past decade, since the present generation moved in. (Sir William Gladstone, 7th Bt., died last year, just weeks after recording this podcast conversation with his son and heir.)


see: Ronald Phillips


see: Telegraph

‘The formal rooms have been kept pretty much intact .. but the house, where the family does a lot of entertaining, is also filled with the “tens and thousands” of vintage objects that Gladstone and his wife have collected over the years while running Pedlars.’ Naturally some things have been moved on to make space. One high-end antiques dealer (r) is currently seeking offers in excess of £100,000 for ‘a highly important, virtually untouched’ 1750 Rococo mirror, one previous owner – a literal reflection of ever-changing times at Hawarden Castle…

[Hawarden Estate][Pavilion][CharlieGladstone.com]

1. Veysey, A.G. Sir Stephen Glynne, 1807-74, Flintshire Historical Soc. Journal, Vol.30, 1982,
2. Pritchard, T.W. The Glynnes of Hawarden, 2017.
3. Oxford dictionary of national biography, 2004.
4. Hubbard, E. The buildings of Wales: Clwyd, 1986.
5. Cornforth, J. Hawarden Castle, Flintshire, Country Life 15 June, 1967.
6. Gladstone, Sir W. Hawarden events book, 2017.
7. Mansbridge, M. John Nash: a complete catalogue, 1991.
8. Huxley, G. Lady Elizabeth and the Grosvenors: Life in a Whig family, 1965.
9. Quinalt, R. Gladstone and slavery, The Historic Journal, Vol.52, June 2009.