This is not how Handed on had intended to begin. Since this blog started at least four owners of houses featured here have subsequently died. Statistically this is probably not remarkable and certainly all were at least late middle-aged. On Sunday, however, in a stunning and ghastly coincidence literally as this piece was being assembled the Mail Online broke the news of the tragic and untimely demise of a young man named Charlie Norton in an accidental fall in Morocco. One month ago this name would not have registered; today, however, Handed on is suddenly and all too grimly aware that he was the husband of the present owner of the sizeable Came House estate in Dorset and the father of its next generation.
For what it’s worth, this is how the post was going to begin…
The thin line between aristocracy and gentry might these days seem an arcane distinction but it’s one which until quite recently would be periodically codified in separately dedicated 1,000-plus-page tomes. Peerages will doubtless continue to be produced but the last guide to the landed gentry was published fifty years ago at which point it would seem that (rather symbolically) the money ran out.
There has, of course, been a great deal of co-mingling of the species which, combined with the transience of titles, can mean that some places will fall between the cracks. Places like Came House, no owner of which has had a main entry in either code since about 1900. An estate now in its fourth century of continuous ownership, despite multiple unfecund heirs and significant recourse to the female line, one way or another Came House has been retained, a tenacity of possession which basically requires no greater explanation than this:Set into rising parkland, the silvery white Portland stone of Came’s N facade cannot fail to catch the eye of travellers along a lane just south of Dorchester. To some this place approaches the beau ideal, including the late Candida Lycett Green who featured Came in her book The perfect English country house: ‘Its ostentatious Georgian splendour makes the same impact now as then.’ In a way, Came could be seen as a representation of the aforementioned dichotomy being modest and manorial in scale yet distinctly noble in bearing. Which could be faintly ridiculous, of course, were not the conception and execution here so thoroughly excellent both inside and out. Little wonder its architect was pleased with himself. Among the memorials to be seen in the small village church of Blandford St. Mary is that of Dorset master-mason and architect Francis Cartwright (d. 1758). The house depicted on the scroll at its base has been identified² as Came, Cartwright recording it as his greatest achievement, a view echoed down the ages. A ‘mid-C18 masterpiece hardly altered in more than two centuries,’ marvelled Pevsner.¹ ‘Came is not a product of different periods, it is all of a piece, the expression of a single phase of taste,’ and in some part presumably that of Cartwright’s client, John Damer (1720-83).³ He was the grandson of Dorset Cromwellian Joseph Damer who had hightailed it to Ireland at the Restoration where he made ‘a fortune by usury and speculation.’ The legacy of the Damers in Ireland endures but by 1752 John Damer was owner of the Dorset estates. Elder brother Joseph meanwhile would be elevated to the peerage and later build himself Milton Abbey and also Dorchester House in Mayfair, now the site of the famous hotel. John Damer produced no children nor would his heir, nephew Lionel (r), who died in May 1807 reportedly as a result of ‘election fever‘. Lionel’s sister Caroline duly benefited and would do so again just the next year, the entire Damer Dorset properties now coalescing in her ownership when she inherited Milton from her childless brother, George.
Lady Caroline herself died in 1829, childless.The estates would now be divided among the children of John Dawson, 1st earl of Portarlington, whose mother was the sister of the builder of Came House. Acquiring both the latter and an additional name was Col. George Dawson-Damer (d. 1856) who was to commission the only major alterations to Cartwright’s original composition. Now ordinarily it is at this point that alarm bells might start ringing… …for common in the recent history of many a surviving C18 mansion is the moment when it is decided that the egregious ‘improvements’ of Victorian forebears really do have to go. But, happily, at Came George’s interventions were to be largely sympathetic. The grander N front became the entrance with addition of a porch (above); internally the principal rooms, including the white and gold gilt splendour of the saloon (l), which feature the work of top-drawer London craftsmen like Vile & Cobb were left intact. Most conspicuous is the large domed conservatory c.1840, ‘a wonderfully light-footed affair’ which remains splendidly fit for purpose today.4
Lionel, 5th earl of Portarlington, died aged 42 in 1900, his widow arranging that Came should in time pass to their daughter, Lady Christian Martin. With the exception of her son Maj. Nigel Martin’s incumbency the estate has continued to pass in the female line to the present owner.About 35 miles to the N-E just over the border into Wiltshire lies a house bearing close resemblance to Came. Looking the picture of Palladian perfection, Ferne Park (r) was in fact built in 2002 to a design by Quinlan Terry. The architect’s clients knew and admired Came House, suggesting it might serve as a template. The commission came from Lord and Lady Rothermere, owners of the organ which last Sunday revealed the bleak latest chapter in the story of this quite remarkable place… [Grade I listing][Came shoot]
¹ Newman, J. and Pevsner, N. The buildings of England: Dorset, 1972.
² Oswald, A. Country Life, 20/27 Feb 1953.
³ Cecil, D. Some Dorset country houses, 1985.
4 Mowl, T. Historic gardens of Dorset, 2003.