Skelton Castle, Yorkshire


see: FabulousFollies.net

Standing somewhat incongruously within a short length of rubble wall on farmland in the parish of Gilling West, a few miles north of Richmond in North Yorkshire, is a classical doorway leading to nowhere in particular. ‘Of fluted Roman Doric columns carrying a full entablature, surmounted by a pediment,’ its details are echoed in a pair of similarly isolated stone pavilions to be found in fields round about.

All are vestiges of Gillingwood Hall, the gabled early-17th century seat of the Wharton family which had been given a fashionable classical treatment only for the house to burn to the ground on Boxing Day 1750.1 Just months before this calamity the family’s male line had also perished with the death of Gillingwood’s moderniser, bachelor William Wharton. But thanks to the will of his eccentric (and similarly childless) sister, ‘Peg’ – ‘who never had issue but one in her leg‘ – the family name would be carried forty miles east to a rather more storied mansion, Skelton Castle; the Whartons association with both places endures to this day.

Curiously, there is more evidence for proposed changes to Skelton Castle which would never in fact be realised than any which would explain the evolution of this moated Grade I listed property in Cleveland with origins reaching back to the 12th century. ‘The architectural history of the house has not yet been written,’ recorded Nikolaus Pevsner in his 1966 survey of the Yorkshire’s North Riding, a persisting vacuum in contrast to the story of Skelton’s most notable squire, a man to whom, certainly in respect of his salacious literary oeuvre, the expression ‘too much information’ might aptly be applied.2


see source

‘About Moral Tales: A Christmas Night’s Entertainment, published in 1783, the less said the better: Cuckoldry, multiple adultery, bestiality .. often involving monks and nuns..’3 The dubious Gothic yarns of John Hall Stevenson sprang directly from the notorious hospitality enjoyed by his coterie at Skelton, and the sensational literary success suddenly achieved by one of his most regular houseguests, lifelong friend Laurence Sterne. In turn, the latter’s innovative Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman owed no little debt to the inspirational atmospherics Sterne relished in sojourns at his crony’s ‘Crazy Castle’, which then still retained significant, romantically ruinous, remnants of its medieval origins…

… being the elevated, moated stronghold of the de Brus family, the nucleus of their vast post-Conquest domains in northern England. In due course Skelton would be carried by marriage first to the de Fauconbergs, thence to the Conyers whose male line expired in 1557, the Castle being shared between three sisters. This situation was to prove the root of its gradual deterioration, their husbands now engaging in a lack-of-maintenance standoff across two decades before one party folded, selling out to Robert Trotter, Esq.


see: V&A

Over the course of the 17th century the Trotters would acquire the remainder of the Skelton Castle estate, wherein Edward Trotter began quarrying dye-fixing alum reserves and by 1673 was credited with ‘a great house of 17 hearths’.4 His family’s prosperity is evidenced by the bedazzling inlayed richness of a wooden cabinet (r) – ‘a masterpiece’ now to be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London – which was commissioned c1700 at the time of the marriage of Edward’s daughter Margaret Trotter to George Lawson.

Edward Trotter died in 1709 to be succeeded by his grandson Lawson Trotter who was incumbent at Skelton (where armorial stained glass of this era survives) when its rambling western prospect was sketched by topographer Samuel Buck c1720, complete with substantial twin ramparts.



Despite such stout defences, however, nervousness engendered by Lawson’s Jacobite leanings would see the unmarried Trotter decamp permanently to France and the transference of Skelton Castle into the hands of his sister Catherine’s husband, Durham lawyer Joseph Hall.

Hall died in 1733; two years later his son and heir John fatefully enrolled at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he quickly fell in with an older, relatively impecunious undergraduate by the name of Laurence Sterne, the pair striking up what would become a lifelong, mutually influential, friendship.


Portrait by Philippe Mercier 1740

‘An example of those often intriguing people who have existed as satellites of greater men,’ John Hall’s intellectual pretensions would always be more style than substance.3 ‘He read widely and collected an excellent library at Skelton but was not a genuine scholar. He took no degree and probably intended none,’ departing instead for a two-year Grand Tour in 1738.6 Very soon after his return Hall made a decision he would live to regret, marrying would-be heiress Anne Stevenson, ‘a young lady of £25,000 fortune’7, in a ceremony conducted by Sterne who had been ordained in the interim. Alas, having added her name to his in anticipation of future fortune, Hall-Stevenson’s father-in-law later contrived to lose it, becoming himself a burden at Skelton.6

In 1745, seizing an opportunity for some freelance action, Hall-Stevenson rounded up a posse of his local peers, the so-called Yorkshire Royal Hunters pitching in to put down the second Jacobite rebellion. Thereafter, several of their number – ‘old soldiers and misfit squires’ – comprised an informal fraternity centred on Skelton Castle and the boundless hospitality of its ringmaster squire.6 Hall-Stevenson ‘kept a full-spread board, and wore down the steps to his cellar’ in exchange for the stimulating conviviality of his cast of cronies – the self-styled ‘Demoniacs Club’ – later cryptically chronicled in the most widely known of Hall-Stevenson’s literary works, his Crazy Tales.8

And at least one of their number, Robert ‘Panty’ Lascelles, would become semi-resident, his portrait remaining among the family collection at Skelton. On his travels in 1755, John Hall-Stevenson made the acquaintance of an aspiring architect, William Chambers, and was soon promoting the ‘the most thoroughly trained British architect of his generation’ to Lascelles’ wealthy relation, Edwin Lascelles, who was then in the market for a statement country house. Alas, ‘the result was a momentous failure’, Chambers’ Continental design for Harewood House proving rich meat for the Yorkshire palette (local man John Carr later getting the commission).9

skeltontempleHall-Stevenson kept the faith, however, being among the subscribers to the original edition of Chambers’ influential Treatise on the decorative part of civil architecture (1759). But was such sponsorship then the limit of Hall-Stevenson’s architectural patronage? He certainly resisted Chambers’ complementary tempter, a speculative design for a temple at Skelton (left), while his friend Laurence Sterne recognised the reality: “The fates have decreed it, as you and I have sometimes supposed it on account of your generosity, that you are never to be a monied man .. whether you adorn your castle or not.”10

But in 1760 the 45-year-old Rev. Sterne hit pay dirt himself with the soaraway success of the first volume of Tristram Shandy, John Hall-Stevenson soon riding unashamedly on its coattails with the publication of his own Crazy Tales. While the latter did enjoy a second edition it was hardly a moneyspinner and Hall-Stevenson struggled to sustain a suitable profile in London, becoming increasingly resigned to country life and prone to bouts of maudlin torpor (dependent upon which way the Yorkshire wind was blowing).

Believing there was still some profit to be had, in 1765 Hall-Stevenson reopened the alum works on his estate, the enterprise being sold off a decade later at which juncture there is definite evidence of improvements afoot at Skelton Castle.


A plan of alterations design’d for Skelton Castle,’ was prepared by Thomas White, ‘a lesser known landscaper in the manner of Capability Brown’, for Hall-Stevenson in 1775 [here]; the same date has been found in a floorboard of one of ‘two fine later 18th century rooms’ at the southern end of the Castle’s west front. ‘Clearly work was going on in this period’11 but uncertainty still clouds the chronology of this embattled widescreen range, of two seven-bay sections divided by a projecting square turret…


see source

.. lack of documentation obscuring precisely how much development had been realised by the time of Hall-Stevenson’s death in 1785. The Skelton estate now passed to John’s grandson, also John, of whom it would later be said, by way of contrast, ‘neither imagines himself an invalid, nor is imagined by his friends a wit’.12 And the 21-year-old’s tenure got off to a sensational start, his youthful promise now securing a separate spectacular windfall which served to put rocket boosters under the young squire’s (ultimately disastrous) ambitions.

For over at the village of Gilling West, though the manor house of Gillingwood Hall lay in ruins, the Wharton estate had devolved to John’s eccentrically parsimonious great-aunt, Margaret ‘Peg’ Wharton, who ‘heaped up wealth with an avidity that was a disgrace to human nature’.12 (The family’s fortunes owed much to merchant Humphrey Wharton (d.1694) who was apt to boast, ‘I am a great trader .. and keep a thousand men at work every day’.) With the proviso that he forthwith took her family’s name in place of his own, the soon-to-be centenarian now gave to the personable young squire of Skelton ‘one hundred and fifty thousand pounds’, making him ‘also heir to her landed estates’.


see source

John Hall-Stevenson thus became John Wharton in 1788 and that same year saw the publication of various ‘Plans, elevations, and sections of buildings executed in the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Yorkshire..etc‘ by the rising architect John Soane. This volume included ‘three designs for the alterations and improvements of Skelton Castle; the plan and elevation No.2 (r) are settled to be carried into execution’. Which, for reasons unclear, they weren’t.

‘As if to compensate for the disappointment, Soane erected one of his most handsome stable blocks at Skelton [see], away from the house but designed to be seen from it, [and today] quite properly listed Grade I.’ His service range behind the existing house also survives ‘virtually untouched’.13


see: Google Maps

Whatever the precise nature and scale of Skelton Castle’s remodelling in John Wharton’s first years – the ‘destruction’ of its old form was viewed by one witness ‘with tears in my eyes’8 – no less a preoccupation for the young squire at this time was an eagerness to gain a seat in parliament. Deemed ‘too young, volatile, and little known’ to be adopted for York in 1789, the next year saw the effervescent Whig storm to a wide-margin victory in Beverley. ‘It is beyond the power of imagination to conceive the popularity of Wharton here,’ an attraction for the freemen electorate which had much to do with the upstart candidate’s very deep pockets (not to mention Wharton’s apparently winning way with their wives).

skeltonairviewThereafter, Wharton became something of a political junkie. Though he would be on the right side of history as ‘a stalwart supporter of the abolition of slavery, and constitutional and parliamentary reform’ and ‘dominated politics in the town for the next forty years’, the costs involved in sustaining his parliamentary status through a dozen elections would lead to Wharton’s ruin. In the first decade of the 19th century, however, his optimism still knew no bounds.

In 1805 Wharton enlisted the services of architect Joseph Bonomi to pick up where John Soane had left off, further developing the scheme for the remodelling of Skelton Castle. Bonomi’s death three years later threatened to further stymy progress but Wharton now elected to take a chance on the late architect’s barely trained son, Ignatius – an admirable act of faith and loyalty or cynical taking advantage of a nascent practitioner (and his family’s) needy circumstance?14


see: RIBA

Whatever the motivation, 21-year-old Ignatius Bonomi began by putting the finishing touches to his father’s artistic impression of a new-look Skelton (right, posthumously exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1809) before evolving the scaled-back version which would eventually be rendered.


see: Mick Garratt@geograph

skeltonsideviewpcardThough deemed by some ‘the most extraordinary specimen of folly and bad taste to be found in the whole country’, behind the new (and extant) entrance front (↑) to the south lay an ‘elegant and commodious interior, with an excellent [flying] staircase, and a suite of genteel apartments’.15 Such were the changes effected at Skelton (the courtyard gateway, right, is of the later-19th century) before Wharton’s financial situation – initially so very advantageous – began to implode.


‘My trustees above a year and a half ago took possession of my rents,’ a by-now straitened squire – eight election campaigns and an effectively new country house later – wrote in 1818. ‘I am actually existing on what they choose to allow me and must continue in this state of dependence and degradation until the termination of their trust. It shall, however, be my study to remedy the inconveniences I have caused .. and I shall ever reflect on them with deep regret.’ A decade later John Wharton would find himself with plenty of opportunity for reflection.

skeltonfullviewUSEThe ‘conduct and profligacy’ of the master of Skelton had been noted as early as 1789; thirty years on his failure to win in Beverley in the election of 1828 deprived Wharton of immunity from the consequences of his predicament. Being ‘so deeply embarrassed in his pecuniary affairs, he was immediately arrested, and for the last fourteen years he has remained a prisoner within the rules of the Queen’s Bench’. Wharton was still in that situation at the time of his death in May, 1843 (his two daughters having predeceased him.)


see: East Cleveland Industrial Heritage

‘Property at Skelton was auctioned to pay his debts, excluding that which was entailed,’ the Castle now passing to his nephew, John Thomas Wharton, 32, who in time found financial redemption deep underground (r).

For ironstone exploitation would make ‘east Cleveland and North Yorkshire the powerhouse of Britain, when the region produced over a third of the world’s steel’. With its seam at 740ft the North Skelton mine established on Wharton’s land by Bolckow, Vaughan & Co. would be deeper than any, royalties therefrom (which the operation continued to yield until 1964) enabling the estates to be built back up, collectively totalling around 9,000 acres at the time of John Wharton’s death in 1900. (Today Skelton & Gilling Estates extends to ‘over 11,000 acres’.)

Wharton had married Charlotte Yeoman who died in 1892, their son and heir William having married her niece Harriet Yeoman four years earlier. Skelton Castle now underwent internal alterations for the new incumbents only for tragedy to strike. ‘The greatest sympathy is felt on all sides for the young squire in his sad and unexpected loss,’ newspapers reported in October 1894. ‘On Wednesday last week Mrs Wharton gave birth to a child, and on Monday night, about 7 o’clock, she died.’16 Despite soon remarrying, daughter Margaret remained an only child.


see: SkeltoninCleveland.com



Hunting was ‘the ruling passion of Col. Wharton’s life’ and he would preside half-a-century as Master of the Cleveland Hunt, a mantle taken up by Mrs Ringrose-Wharton after her father’s death in 1938.17

While ‘William Wharton never lost the opportunity of assisting in the building of churches and other institutions,’17 All Saints, ‘a modest wonder, almost out of sight’ at the entrance to the estate (below), was inherited and would become redundant, superceded by a similarly dedicated Victorian Gothic edifice at the opposite end of Skelton village.18 With its triple-decker pulpit and box pews, old All Saints had been funded in his last days by Demoniac-in-chief John Hall Stevenson (perhaps atoning for the rackety indulgence of earlier days?); the ‘Georgian gem‘ remains readily accessible.


see: Skelton History Group


see: Mick Garratt@geograph

Across lies the castle, the tremendous moat carefully mown, the great lawns like green lakes,’ observed the novelist Jane Gardam in 1994.

In the village there are people who have never seen the castle, don’t know that it exists, and the owner Anthony Wharton [75, who succeeded his distant cousin in 1991] says he wants to keep it that way. He concerns himself with his crops and lives unspectacularly in the shades of his great forebears..18


see: Google Maps

[Skelton & Gilling Estates][Wharton archives]

1. Waterson, E., Meadows, P. Lost houses of York and the North Riding, 1998.
2. Pevsner, N. Buildings of England: Yorkshire the North Riding, 1966.
3. Hartley, L. Sterne’s Eugenius as indiscreet author: The literary career of John Hall-Stevenson, PMLA Vol.86, No.3, 1971.
4. Harrison, B. Skelton Castle in the late 16th century, Cleveland History, 106, 2014.
5. Samuel Buck’s Yorkshire sketchbook, 1979.
6. Cash, A. Laurence Sterne: The early & middle years, 1979.
7. York Courant 12 Feb, 1740.
8. Ord, J.W., The history and antiquities of Cleveland, 1846.
9. Harris, J., Snodin, M. Sir William Chambers: architect to George III, 1996.
10. Melville, L. The life and letters of Laurence Sterne, Vol.1, 1911.
11. Turnbull, D., Wickham, L. Thomas White (c1736-1811): Redesigning the northern British landscape, 2022.
12. Anon. The Whig Club: or, A sketch of modern patriotism, 1794.
13. Dean, P. Sir John Soane and the country estate, 1999.
14. Crosby, J.H. Ignatius Bonomi of Durham, architect, 1987.
15. Graves, J. The history of Cleveland, in the North Riding of the County of Yorkshire 1808.
16. York Herald 10 Oct/13 Oct, 1894.
17. Fairfax-Blakeborough, J. Col. W.H.A. Wharton, Yorkshire Homes Feb 1928.
18. Gardam, J. The Iron Coast: Notes from a cold country, 1994.


Bowringsleigh, Devon

The Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould was one of those bogglingly productive Victorians the mere recitation of whose prodigious accomplishments being sufficient to send the average mortal staggering to the chaise lounge clasping a revivifying tincture.


see: NPG

In addition to his fifteen-volume Lives of the saints, ‘3,600 biographies arranged in order of saints’ days (1872-7), Baring-Gould wrote over fifty novels; over sixty theological volumes; hymns (‘Onward Christian soldiers’, ‘Now the day is over’); twenty-four guide and travel books; a score of general interest volumes; and collections of folk songs’. All of this whilst fathering 14 children to adulthood and ministering successively to parishes in Yorkshire, Essex and, latterly, in his home county of Devon.1

Baring-Gould’s final ecclesiastical harbour had been determined by his eventual inheritance of the family estate, Lew Trenchard Manor in west Devon, where he proceeded to further channel his energies transforming the existing 17th-century house into the ‘intriguing confection‘ which survives – essentially intact – today. (While Lew House has been leased as a hotel for some decades both it and the 800-acre estate remains in the ownership of Baring-Gould descendants whose paternal oversight has continued – perhaps uniquely – despite recent generations being largely absentee US nationals.)

Thus, the Devon squarson’s credentials naturally recommended him to Country Life magazine as just the man to pen an appreciation of another of the county’s ancestral seats, one which had likewise been acquired in the 17th century and undergone anachronistic elaboration in the second half of the nineteenth.


‘One of the stateliest of the old mansions in South Devon,’ Baring-Gould declared of Bowringsleigh, in the parish of West Alvington near Kingsbridge, ‘the situation of the house is beautiful, in a valley between wooded hills with a park full of ancient trees.’2 Notably absent from this particular appraisal, however, was the undisguised opprobrium Baring-Gould had aimed at a contemporary Devonian cleric in a county guide he had published several years earlier.


see: England’s Places

For in his eyes Archdeacon Alfred Earle, formerly vicar of West Alvington and neighbouring South Huish, was an architectural vandal, ‘the destroyer of the remarkable rood screen’ at All Saints, West Alvington, while the ‘rich, noble’ example at South Huish had been ‘left to rot’ during Earle’s tenure. Approvingly, Baring-Gould noted that the latter at least had been rescued and rehomed at Bowringsleigh (r) by the enlightened squire, Mr. William Roope Ilbert.3

Intriguingly, Ilbert and Earle were brothers-in-law, and the archdeacon’s son would in due course inherit not only the aforesaid screen but the entirety of the Bowringsleigh estate.




A prosperous wool merchant with a house at Rill, south of Buckfastleigh, William Ilbert (I) had made the purchase of Bowringsleigh, twenty miles due south, in the years following his marriage to ‘heiress’ Jane Osborne. What he got for his money in 1695 was a substantially Tudor house of shallow E-shape in formal grounds (a stone summerhouse from which is extant), with an off-centre porch (left) and some notable interior enrichment which had been introduced by previous owners the Gilberts, most strikingly perhaps in the great hall to the left of the entrance.


Country Life2

Here the relative delicacy of the Elizabethan plasterwork ceiling is overpowered by an eye-poppingly ornate wooden screen (right).  ‘[This] magnificent, very accomplished early-17th century piece is by far the richest [of its type] in Devon .. with Corinthian columns, strapwork panels, and ebony inlay.4 The screen would be reinstated to its original situation in the second half of the 19th century ‘having been rescued from the ignominious position of forming stalls to a stable’.5


see: England’s Places

Very soon after acquiring Bowringsleigh the Ilberts set about make some enduring interior statements of their own. Two rooms at either end of the house would be crowned with decorative plasterwork ceilings representing ‘war’ and ‘peace’, the former featuring horsemen, assorted weaponry, and the Ilbert family crest. This last detail is repeated in the broken pediment of the doorcase to what would later become the dining room (left).


see: The 100 Objects Project

William Ilbert’s residential upgrade would be reinforced socially by the marriage of his son, William (II), who in 1735 gained the hand of Bridget, a daughter of Sir William Courtenay, 2nd Bt., (de jure 6th Earl of Devon) of Powderham Castle. ‘A lady of fine accomplishments and fortune,’ this union led to further refinement of the Ilbert household.6 ‘A suite of six chairs and two settees supplied by Elizabeth Hutt & Son of London in 1739 (documented by the original bill, preserved at Bowringsleigh) was made for ‘Mr. Courtenay, on behalf of William Ilbert, his brother-in-law’. Bowringsleigh also contains an elaborate clock by Stumbels of Totnes, which is paralleled by another at Powderham.’ (r)7


see: Knight Frank

William Ilbert died in 1751 (his somewhat younger wife surviving him by forty years), being succeeded by the couple’s then teenaged son, William (III) who, ten years on, would make the third good marriage in a row at Bowringsleigh. For his bride Frances was the sole heir of her father, William Roope of Horswell House in the neighbouring parish of South Milton. ‘A magnificent example of a Queen Anne manor (↑) retaining a wealth of original features,’ Horswell would be a favoured family residence into the 20th century.


see: England’s Places

The Ilberts’ run of good fortune met with a tragic reversal in 1781 when eldest son William, a naval recruit, drowned off the south Devon coast. Second son Rev. Roope Ilbert thus inherited on the death of their father in 1783, remaining the bachelor squire of Bowringsleigh for the next forty years. He in turn was briefly succeeded by his similarly childless brother Peter, 60, ‘who had lived at Horswell House most of his life’ (dying two years later in 1825).8

The same domiciliary preference would largely be continued by the latter’s heir, nephew William Ilbert (III) and his wife (and first cousin) Augusta. This despite their undertaking a rather grand programme of redecoration at Bowringsleigh, which would be often let to tenants during their time. But disaster would strike whoever was in residence on the night of September 12, 1843, when a major inferno consumed much of the eastern portion of the mansion. Thereafter, what remained would to be let as a farmhouse residence. The appointment of a new vicar to West Alvington in 1865 would prove an influential factor in Bowringsleigh’s eventual resurrection and future destiny.


One of the earliest events following the arrival of the aforementioned Rev. Alfred Earle (later Bishop of Marlborough and Dean of Exeter) to this rural south Devon parish – before ‘wantonly’ denuding All Saints’ church of existing furnishings3 – was his marriage to Frances, daughter of the late squire William Ilbert (d.1862). Aside from his sister’s wedding, another prominent date in the 1866 diary of the new master of Bowringsleigh, William (IV) was attendance at ‘the coin-planting ceremony’ on the site of the incipient Albert Memorial in London.9

Clerk of the works throughout the construction of the striking monument to the late Prince Consort was junior architect Richard Coad, a Cornishman in the employ of prolific Victorian practitioner George Gilbert Scott. Coincidence or not, Coad would now be commissioned in his own right to undertake the refurbishment of West Alvington church, at the conclusion of which in 1868 he was then engaged by William Ilbert to restore and remodel his fire-ravaged family seat.


The Building News 27 Aug 1886

The project seemingly occupied Coad for the best part of two decades, the result eventually being illustrated in the leading trade journal of the day (↑). Scaled back somewhat over the course of discussions, further to the complete reconstitution of the east wing Bowringsleigh would be lightly romanticised with the introduction of battlements and a four-storey tower on the entrance front.

bowpcardThe latter feature arose from the ashes of Bowingsleigh’s gutted private chapel, its ground floor replacement now incorporating another spectacular church screen jettisoned by Rev. Earle, that formerly of neighbouring South Huish parish church and salvaged by Squire Ilbert for 20gns.10 The principal domestic spaces created in this Victorian renovation were the library, ‘a drawing room [beyond], with a Jacobean styled ribbed ceiling, overlooking the garden through bay windows,’ and a billiard room and a conservatory behind.11 (From the other end of the house an array of service buildings extended north enclosing a courtyard.)


see: South Hams Happy

‘The late Mr. W. Roope Ilbert [d. 1902] devoted his life to the restoration and enlargement of Bowringsleigh,’ recorded Sabine Baring-Gould in Country Life‘s visitation of 1907, at which point the house was ‘the seat of Miss Ilbert’, William’s sister, Augusta.2 Until her unexpected death in the summer of 1904 Augusta Ilbert had shared Bowringsleigh with younger sister Catherine; at Augusta’s own demise two decades on their nephew Francis, the surviving son of Bishop Earle and their elder sister, Frances, now assumed the name Ilbert and ownership of the estate.

‘The present owner, Lt-Col. Francis Ilbert, maintains the pleasant house and charming garden in excellent condition,’ it was observed in 1937.12 Subsequently, however, ‘maintenance of the property declined partly due to lack of resources – [some ‘remarkably fine’ 17th-century West Country silver would be sold through Sothebys around this time12] – and partly the Colonel’s lack of interest after his son and heir was killed accidently in 1933′.11


The Times 21 June 1930


source: “One and All”14

Then serving in Sudan, 28-year-old Lt. Timothy Ilbert had taken time out for a spot of big game hunting, a buffalo pursuit which was to have a mutually destructive conclusion. Just three months prior Ilbert’s engagement to Daphne Hurle-Cooke had been announced in the columns of The Times, the same organ which some three years earlier had carried notice (↑) of the anticipated nuptials of one Lt. Hubert McLintock and Timothy’s only sibling, his sister Margery. For whatever reason, however, this event too failed to transpire for Margery Ilbert remained unmarried when she succeeded to Bowringsleigh at her father’s death in 1959.


see: Mike Wonnacott

In her time serious overtures would be made to the National Trust with a view to the charity taking the Grade I listed property on. With access to the case notes, ex-regional Trust curator and architectural historian Hugh Meller has revealed this splendid pen-portrait of Bowringsleigh’s doughty chatelaine: ‘Miss Ilbert is the very best sort of Englishwoman, thick-tweeded, flat heeled with a deep voice and charming manner. She lives alone in this sizeable house, breeding deerhounds, running parish affairs and never throwing anything away.11



see: Gull Perch/YouTube

This was to be another thwarted courtship, however. The energetic Ms Ilbert battled on but by her death aged 75 in March 1984 the house and gardens were reportedly ‘in a sad state’, an unpromising legacy which would now be taken on by her first cousin once removed, Michael Manisty and his wife Nicola. Their subsequent thorough restoration inside and out rescued Bowringsleigh from the brink.8

In the now ‘exceptional’ 8½-acre garden (opened occasionally in aid of charity) a commissioned sundial marked three centuries of family ownership.11 And ongoing recognition of the value of continuity at Bowringsleigh would seem to be assured, the eldest of the next generation being since 2005 a partner at Currey & Co., ‘a small firm of private client solicitors established in 1812, [offering] advice to land-owning and other families, some of whom have been clients since the early 19th century…’


see: Google Maps

[Archives][Grade I listing]

1. Oxford dictionary of national biography, 2004.
2. Baring-Gould, S. Bowringsleigh, Country Life, 6 March 1915.
3. Baring-Gould, S. Devon, 1907.
4. Cherry, B., Pevsner, N. Buildings of England: Devon, 1991.
5. The Building News, 27 August 1886.
6. Daily Journal, 18 Feb 1735.
7. Jervis, S. A 1739 suite of seat furniture at Bowringsleigh, Furniture History, Vol.29, 1993.
8. Day, M. The Ilbert family, 2015.
9. Holden, P. Richard Coad (1825-1900): A Cornish architect in London, Jnl of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, 2017.
10. Betjeman, J. Shell guide to Devon, 1936.
11. Meller, H. Country houses of Devon, 2015.
12. Tipping, H.A. English homes: Late Tudor & Early Stuart 1558-1649, 1937.
13. Western Morning News, 21 June 1935.
14. “One and All” The Journal of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, Vol.IV, No.2, Nov 1933.

The death of a black man under the knee of an American police officer on a street in Minneapolis might seem a world away from the bucolic refinement of the British country house. But the shockwaves from that brutal 2020 crime induced a spasm of critical introspection within the UK’s cultural heritage sector, a controversial re-examination of the tangible remnants of Britain’s ‘complex‘ colonial history which shows little sign of abating. Some organizations have been ahead of the game in this regard, however.


Historic England

‘It is no accident that the opening up of Britain’s involvement in the Caribbean coincides with a particularly intense period of country house building,’ observed Historic England’s ‘cutting edge’ tour d’horizon, Slavery and the British country house (2014, download left). Meanwhile, evolving since 2009, the Legacies of Slavery database compiled by University College London throws light on the mix of British beneficiaries of this activity, spin-off studies drilling down into the common ‘cleansing‘ of fortunes so derived by the creation of splendid country seats.

And this May saw the publication of the latest, distinctively personal, addition to a doubtless rapidly expanding canon, Alex Renton’s Blood legacy: Reckoning with a family’s story of slavery, wherein the author investigates the private papers of his maternal ancestors, the Fergussons of Kilkerran. kilkerranRentonAn estimable exercise in genealogical self-flagellation (if not entirely appreciated, apparently, by some on his paternal side), Renton confronts the contradictions of the age: ‘The Fergussons were wealthy, well-educated and influential. It is more than uncomfortable to realise that, were it possible to erase their West Indian business ventures, you might find some likeable, even admirable people.’1


see: Ian Goudie @ Facebook

‘In a fairytale setting, woods behind, park before, Kilkerran House has great dignity and much charm,’2 qualities likely aspired to by brothers Adam, Charles and James, the Fergusson generation of the second half of the 18th century whose ventures into Caribbean plantation/slave ownership were typical of their landed Ayrshire milieu.

‘One of the darker episodes in the nation’s history, Scots were deeply involved in the planation economies; it was commonplace for younger sons to seek their fortunes on the islands of the British Caribbean.’3 While the Kilkerran Fergussons were, relatively speaking, quite ‘late to the party’ and not terribly successful – ‘the Government made more in taxes on [their] West Indian business than the family did in profits’ – it was an arena they would not leave for 170 years.1

Renton’s clear-eyed odyssey (any profits from which will go to remedial causes) sets out to rectify the received family history of subsequent generations, which have been notable for serial high-ranking colonial office. The architectural bones of Kilkerran House, however, and the Fergussons’ association with this particular slice of south Ayrshire – an outstanding landscape ‘consciously made by energy and vision’ – predate that problematic period, reaching back with certainty to the middle of the fifteenth century.4


‘The Kilkerran Fergussons appear on record as a landed family in 1464 – but John Fergusson of Kilkerran was not the first of his line, only the first recorded.’5 Three generations later the Battle of Pinkie (1547) claimed heir William Fergusson, his son Bernard later similarly outliving his eldest boy, being succeeded ‘after 1600’ by grandson, John.


see: Dwight Potter

Though elevated to be a knight of the realm, the Fergussons’ lairdly gains in the Girvan valley – exemplified by Kilkerran Castle tower-house, now a ruin (r) some two miles south-west of the present-day mansion – would be imperilled by Sir John Fergusson’s Royalist allegiance in the Civil Wars. While his loyalty had gained honour it later irrecoverably indebted his estate which was sequestered by Cromwell and now held in bond by a neighbour, Lord Bargany.

Sir John retreated to the Continent, returning after the Restoration just in time to die. All the while his younger brother, Simon, had quietly prospered but it was the conspicuous success of Simon’s son, John (b. 1656), which would ultimately prove the Fergussons’ salvation, becoming progenitor of the line in which the Kilkerran estate has subsequently descended.

kilk1stbt‘At the Scottish bar, John Fergusson acquired reputation and wealth,’ the latter to an extent such that in 1700 he was able to clear off and reclaim his cousin’s debt-laden estate, Sir John Fergusson’s son and grandson being only too pleased to sign away in perpetuity any claims thereto.6 The new laird’s 1684 marriage to heiress Jean Whytefoord would in due course yield the neighbouring Barclanachan estate, with a baronetcy in 1703 further elevating his status. High time to consider the creation of a splendid new abode.

The Barclanachan site plainly offered greater scope, its modernized tower-house now subsumed within a classical carapace, and rechristened. Though seemingly not ennacted until around the time of son and heir James’ marriage in 1726, the design of new Kilkerran House has suggested the hand of leading late-17th century Scottish architect James Smith (d.1715).4

kilketchX‘On rising ground south of the Girvan, with fine views down the valley,’ the H-plan house faced north, with two wings flanking the six-bay, three-storey centre.7 A pediment (later removed) spanned four bays supported by two pilasters rising above the ground floor: ‘A curious mix of elegance and awkwardness’4 or ‘a neat display of visual balance, like one of Palladio’s courtyard elevations.’8


Country Life4

Surviving today, ‘remarkable rooms in the [east] early-18th century wing have full-height panelling and [later] William Adam fireplaces [with] unusual moulded frames above’.9 ‘Perhaps the finest of these is Lord Kilkerran’s room, which takes its name from the Allan Ramsay portrait incorporated above the chimneypiece,’ the sitter being Sir James Fergusson, who succeeded in 1729.4 James’ own legal career culminated in his being appointed a judge at the Court of Sessions, routinely sentencing common thieves to death or banishment overseas.

A boundless thirst for claret induced chronic gout such that the 2nd baronet ‘could barely walk further than his own garden’, which presumably limited somewhat his enjoyment of the enhancements that Sir James had wrought to the policies at Kilkerran.10 In his father’s time nurseryman William Boutcher had applied a largely geometric scheme c.1721:


see: Mac Jodie Says

‘His designs were strictly formal with a ruthless application of the ruler and set-square which made his proposed area of ‘Natural Wood’ at the bottom of the park quite exceptional and unexpected.’11

Reflecting the fashion of his age Sir James would set about developing this latter aspect, reporting progress of his landscaping project to wife Jean in Edinburgh: “I have pierced ye view threw the park, and have carried off a spiral walk up to the head of it into ye great diagonal [which] realy looks extreamly pretty and very natural, and will, I’m sure, please you.”12

Only half of the couple’s fourteen children reached adulthood; son and heir John was a keen but sickly soldier, surviving Culloden only to succumb to consumption in 1750, being buried on his 23rd birthday. Second son Adam thus duly inherited Kilkerran in 1759; kilkerranadamone year earlier the 25-year-old had sat to the fashionable Rome painter Pompeo Batoni for his portrait resplendent in a colourful embroidered waistcoat, both items among the many acquired in the course of a two-year Grand Tour. More flattering to Fergusson’s intellect, collected books and drawings now seriously embellished his father’s library at Kilkerran House, alterations to which soon followed the third baronet’s accession.

Most notably Sir Adam would ‘turn’ the house to the west, with a long drive approaching the promoted front ‘of Georgian serenity’. Within, a single flight of stairs now ascended to the piano nobile from the new entrance hall while to the north-east of the house ‘a picturesque walk, ‘Lady Glen‘, crossed the river by four bridges, rising to a waterfall at the top’.4 More widely ‘the flat, gently rolling valley landscape [was] laid out as parkland [which remains] scenically attractive; there are 536 acres in the designed landscape today, similar to the extent of 1750’.7


see: Google Maps

Prior to his grand tour, Adam Fergusson had qualified as an advocate and would pursue a successful legal career in tandem with the management of not just his family’s Scottish property but also of exotic new acquisitions thousands of miles away in the West Indies, the Fergussons belatedly following the path of many of their compatriots in the pursuit of a colonial bonanza.


In 1769 Sir Adam’s brother Charles Fergusson, in partnership with fellow Ayrshire banker William Hunter, paid £14,200 (‘a vast sum’) for Rozelle, a sugar plantation in Jamaica complete with ‘154 enslaved humans, most of them first generation arrivals from Africa’. But a banking collapse would soon oblige the baronet to bail his brother out; the Hunters now became silent partners leaving all management decisions to absentee landlord Sir Adam (and a series of variously competent but invariably Scottish on-site managers).1


see: Tobago Today

Four years later Fergusson would double-down on this investment, optimistically underwriting the speculative Caribbean venture of his 26-year-old younger brother, James, hitherto a somewhat unfocussed, frivolous character. After a scouting mission, James now invested around £5,000 of his brother’s money establishing a plantation on virgin territory at Bloody Bay (r) on the island of Tobago. An initial draft of ten slaves were acquired, and regular extensive shopping lists of essential supplies to be sourced from Britain followed (young Fergusson at one point optimistically discussing designs for a monogrammed branding iron with which to literally seal their joint enterprise).1

However, the chaotic consequences of the American War of Independence – the latest of many vicissitudes faced by the nascent project – would eventually prove calamitous. One year later James fell fatally ill. Thousands of miles away in south Ayrshire Sir Adam made efforts to recoup his investment before finally pulling the plug on his brother’s ‘unfortunate adventure’ in 1787.1


see source

By this time the laird of Kilkerran was also MP for Edinburgh and would later vote against the abolition of slavery. For he remained co-owner (and sole boss) of the Rozelle plantation (r) in Jamaica, ‘a useful investment, but not a wildly profitable one, [performing] half as well as the average Caribbean sugar estate’. Indeed, as time went on Fergusson became increasingly persuaded that there was more profit to be had in the breeding and sale of human slaves, and keen that his managers should regularly restock with fertile females to this end.1

(Sir Adam’s meticulous accounts record the ceaseless litany of setbacks and material demands borne by each returning ship and delivered to his door. And on one extraordinary occasion, Renton reveals how Fergusson came face-to-face with one of his human possessions, a remarkably resourceful runaway slave arriving at his master’s central London townhouse to present his grievances in person.1)

Despite his standing, Sir Adam never came remotely close to marrying, his similarly unmarried sister Jean being a lifelong companion at Kilkerran. But the household would change dramatically upon the succession of his nephew James Fergusson in 1813, being then well into the production of what would eventually be fifteen children (by two wives). Almost immediately Sir James initiated a commensurately expansive remodelling of Kilkerran (and its policies), architect James Gilliespie Graham awarded the tasty commission.

kilkpostcardUltimately, however, only relatively limited alterations would be realised, crossed wires between architect and client resulting in mutual frustration. Bowed extensions north and south of the entrance front created enlarged reception rooms while new roofing occasioned the loss of the pediment on the north facade. Truncated though it was, this work together with new gate lodges, major garden works by leading Scottish practicioner John Hay, and an ever-expanding family stretched Sir James’ expenditure way beyond his income. But despite continued indebtedness several factors were to combine to ensure that his son and heir’s prospects would be surprisingly rosy.


see: National Trust For Scotland

The profitability of the Rozelle plantation had long remained distinctly marginal but some financial salvation emerged in 1836 with state compensation for former slave owners, the Fergussons and Hunter-Blairs sharing a payout of some £3 million (contemporary valuation). Sir James died two years later, son Charles now inheriting not only Kilkerran but also that same year the ‘stunning’ Newhailes estate near Edinburgh (left) via his spinster aunt, Christian Dalrymple.


see: Mary & Angus Hogg @ geograph

Though he would only be laird of these places for a decade the 5th baronet made his mark, building schools and funding churches13 around and about, and would be memorialized with a stone hilltop monument after his death in 1849. Inheriting the Ayrshire estate of some 22,000 acres, son James at last disposed of the family’s far-flung West Indian property, selling the depreciated asset in 1875.

But this soldier turned politician (‘elected MP for Ayrshire aged 23 while in the trenches at Sebastapol’14) remained ‘an imperialist to the backbone’15: between 1868-1885 Sir James Fergusson would serve successively as Governor of South Australia, New Zealand and Bombay. While these ‘public duties compelled him to spend the best of his years far from his ancestral home’16 Sir James did initiate changes at Kilkerran, introducing a single-storey billiards room infilling the space between the north front wings (↓) soon after his return from the Crimea. However, as in his father’s time, a far more ambitious (Italianate) remodelling of Kilkerran House would get no further than the drawing board…


see: Canmore

… the introduction of a wooden porch and some internal changes being the extent of the sixth baronet’s later interventions. A similarly modest garden proposal went somewhat awry. ‘Writing from New Zealand, he asked that a few flower beds be laid out. The sunken garden made at this time, [a] grandiose and expensive interpretation,’ which Sir James discovered upon his return, ‘cost the gardener his job’.7

kilkVFIn an ironic twist, though he had ended the family’s landowning association with the island, Jamaica was to claim the life of the globetrotting baronet (r). Visiting on a business trip, soon after his arrival the thrice-married 74-year-old was killed instantly by falling masonry in a cigar shop brought about by the devastating Kingston earthquake of 1907. His heir, Sir Charles, would have a much-decorated military career before reprising his father’s role as Governor-General of New Zealand for six years between the wars. (During these extended absences Kilkerran was often let.)

Sir Charles’ eldest son, writer/historian James, was two years into what would be a twenty-year tenure as Scotland’s first Keeper of Records when he succeeded to the family estate in 1951. ‘In many ways the epitome of the gentleman scholar .. Fergusson’s standing helped to attract many important collections’ to Scotland’s national archive, it was noted following his death in 1973.17


see source19


Country Life

Two decades on, in the early hours of April 17, 1994, James’ son & heir Charles would be roused by smoke seeping into his bedroom. “I put my hand on the [drawing room] doors and felt the heat within,” he recounted.18 At least the ‘substantial, well-fitting doors helped to confine the blaze to one wing’ but the principal drawing room was gutted, losses included Batoni’s portrait of Sir Adam Fergusson and those by Allan Ramsay of his sisters, Jean and Margaret.19

kilklyonAlthough a comparatively disparate brotherhood, in 1719 Sir John Fergusson, 1st Bt., had been granted arms as chief of clan. The various Fergusson families in Ayrshire recognized the seniority of Kilkerran, a position which would be cemented nationwide over the course of the 18th century. In March of this year Sir Charles Fergusson, 9th Baronet ‘and Chief of the Name of Fergusson’, died aged 89, some five weeks ahead of the publication of his nephew’s researches; Alex Renton has noted how ‘the family still carried the names of their 18th century ancestors’.1

Sir Charles has been succeeded by his son Adam, whose own son James now stands heir to the Kilkerran House estate…


1. Renton, A. Blood legacy: Reckoning with a family’s story of slavery, 2021.
2. Close, R. Ayrshire and Arran: An illustrated architectural guide, 1992.
3. Graham, E.J. Burns and the sugar plantocracy of Ayrshire, 2014.
4. Rowan, A. Kilkerran House, Ayrshire I/II, Country Life, 1/8 May, 1975.
5. Fergusson, Sir J. The Fergussons: Their lowland and Highland branches, 1956.
6. Burke’s landed gentry: The Kingdom of Scotland, 19th ed., c.2001.
7. Kilkerran: Garden & designed landscape, Historic Environment Scotland, 1987.
8. Macauley, J. The classical country house in Scotland 1660-1800, 1987.
9. Close, R., Riches, A. Buildings of Scotland: Ayrshire & Arran, 2012.
10. Fergusson, J. Lord Hermand: a biographical sketch, Star Society I, 1940.
11. Tait, A.A. The landscaped garden in Scotland 1735-1835, 1980.
12. Fergusson, Lady A. An 18th century lady and her family, Blackwood’s Magazine, March 1931.
13. Robertson, W. Ayrshire, its history and historic families, 1908.
14. Ward, J.T. Ayrshire landed estates in the nineteenth century, Ayrshire Collections, Vol.8, AANHS,1969.
15. The Economist, 18 May, 1907.
16. Millar, A.H. Historical and descriptive accounts of the castles and mansions of Ayrshire, 1885.
17. Imrie, J. The modern Scottish Record Office, Scottish Historical Review, Vol.53, No.156, Oct 1974.
18. Country Life, May 5, 1994.
19. Fire protection measures in Scottish historic buildings, Technical advice note 11, Historic Scotland, 1997.

Two hundred years ago, on February 21, 1821 29-year-old Arthur de Capell Broke disembarked from a mailboat at Lowestoft bringing to a conclusion his pioneering Winter in Lapland and Sweden. The ex-army officer, seeking fresh adventures to enliven the relative ennui of post-Napoleonic peacetime, had set out from London ten months earlier to become ‘probably the first Englishman to travel overland to the North Cape’, Europe’s northernmost point, subsequently publishing several self-illustrated accounts of his various experiences.1

see: British Museum

Traversing the sub-Arctic terrain by reindeer-drawn pulk, Arthur (right) declared the cheese made from this animal’s milk to be ‘extremely bad, eatable only by a Laplander’. By contrast, being lashed with branches across the back and loins by a ‘very tall, well-proportioned young Finnish female’ in a steam bath he found altogether more agreeable. The author was, however, doubtful that the invigorating pleasures of a Scandinavian sauna could be safely practiced in ‘warmer-blooded nations where [he feared] passions would burst out into ungovernable excesses under temptations of this nature’.2

And our gentleman wayfarer will quite literally have been hot under the collar at times in the course of his next chronicled adventure, a journey through Spain on to North Africa. Finding himself sharing a carriage with two Spanish women ‘of a certain age: fat, fair and forty’, Arthur noted how ‘a few hours jolting and rubbing against one another in a public conveyance produces (even in England) a singular closeness of acquaintance and familiarity in a short time, particularly where there are females in the case. Thus it was in our instance.’3

In the years between these publications their author would inherit the baronetcy which had been granted to his father, and ancestral estates in Northamptonshire and Ireland. Yet despite his eligibility and worldly disposition de Capell Broke did not marry until he was sixty, dying seven years later at which point Great Oakley Hall, near Corby (below) – ‘a house not of vast size but full of interesting things’ (such as Arthur’s Nordic sled) – passed into the ownership of his brother.4


see: Graham Butlin @ YouTube

Ironically, while Arthur had set out from Northamptonshire to meet Europe, in the 21st century the direction of travel would be reversed, the arrival of 7,000-plus EU migrants making next-door Corby ‘the fastest growing town in England’ in 2010.5 Just a village until the arrival of the Stewarts & Lloyds steel company in the 1930s, post-war expansion of the works created an urgent need for housing which would be met initially by compulsory purchase of de Capell Brooke-owned acres. But revitalisation of the town in recent times has seen the Great Oakley estate firmly on the front foot, a venerable family entity now strongly engaged – to an extent perhaps quite without parallel – in the future of its local town.


Unlike his successors at Great Oakley, Sir Arthur had ‘used the older spelling’ of a name which has been prominently associated with this place for exactly five-and-a-half centuries.6 On 24 April, 1471, a deal was struck between Arthur Broke of Astwell in the south of the county and Thomas Lovett of Great Oakley which would see these families swap their estates upon the marriage of the latter’s daughter to Arthur Broke’s son and heir, John. However, while the betrothal of Margaret Lovett would bring the Brookes to Great Oakley she would not beget the line in which this property has since descended.


see: John Routledge

For Margaret died not long after the nuptials and before any children had been produced, the heir to John’s new domain coming via his second wife, Isabel Wake. The estate duly passed in the male line, the Hall as it stands today – a fairly typical gabled Elizabethan manor house (r), with a five-bay centre and projecting wings – taking shape in the second half of the 16th century under either the fecund Thomas Broke (father of 18) or his grandson, Arthur.

The latter would be appointed Master of Her Majesty’s Hart-Hounds, ‘represented amongst the family pictures in his robes of office’.7 His marriage to a daughter of Sir Edward Watson of nearby Rockingham Castle was to place his great-grandson in an invidious position after the Civil War. For Parliamentarian Thomas Brooke would be tasked by the Council of State with ‘disarming and securing’ his Royalist relation, Lewis Watson, 1st Lord Rockingham, dispatching a face-saving deputy bearing an apologetic letter of authority on behalf of his “Lordship’s Affectionate Cosin and Servant” to do the deed.


From the west [see: Google Maps]

Thomas’s sons, Thomas (died unmarried) and Arthur took Great Oakley to the end of the 17th century after which the latter’s son, Wheeler, would preside as a bachelor squire until 1762. ‘In the late 17th or early 18th century the front wall of the main range north of the [early C17] porch was brought forward to improve circulation. A second range, added on the east side, now contains a reset C17 staircase with twisted balusters.’8



‘The two principal rooms on the [main] west front are essentially C18 in proportion.’9 Exactly who oversaw the internal Georgian modifications (including ‘some pretty plasterwork and fireplaces’10) is unclear. But certainly there was a significant clear-out of furnishings and books soon after unmarried Wheeler Brooke’s demise, an event which would see the Great Oakley estate eventually devolve upon his (then four-year-old) great-nephew, the only child of his niece, Mary, who had married an Irish landowner, Richard Supple.

Supple was of an ancient lineage, with a house and estate at Aghadoe, Co. Cork; in the late 1760s he ‘also inherited 1,000 acres and a decent mansion at Leith Hill in Surrey from another distant relation. All of this made Richard Supple a wealthy man [who] mostly resided at Great Oakley, going to Ireland to attend to business occasionally’.11 This arrangement would continue after the Supples’ son Richard at last succeeded in 1797, the barrister now adopting the name of de Capell Brooke (incorporating his Anglo-Norman patronimic) by which the family has henceforth been known.

‘[At the end of the 18th century], ‘apart from 350 acres, the property of the Duke of Buccleuch, the whole of 2,000-acre Great Oakley parish was owned by the de Capell Brooke family whose stately Elizabethan house nestled comfortably within its enclosed park by the church [of St Michael & All Angels]. In 1815 Sir Richard [1st Baronet, cr.1803] purchased almost 1,000 acres of land to the north of his existing estate, in the parishes of Middleton, Cottingham and Corby.’12


see: Great Oakley Estate video @ Vimeo

Sir Richard de Capell Brooke died in 1829 not long after publication of the third instalment of J.P. Neale’s Views of seats of noblemen and gentlemen, which had included an appreciation of his English home: ‘The approach to Great Oakley is picturesque, only an occasional glimpse being caught of the old manor, peeping forth amidst deep masses of wood. Much here has been left to nature, and the few alterations that have been made in the grounds of late years harmonize with the character of the building.7


1826 [see source]

When he was not abroad on one of his various travel adventures, new squire Sir Arthur de Capell Broke’s ‘main interests were in England’, modernizing Aghadoe House in Ireland to become ‘merely a holiday home’.11 At Great Oakley Hall the second baronet had intended at least one major intervention, buying ‘wholesale the fitting up of a convent library in Flanders, most beautifully carved with figures as large as life’. Alas, Sir Arthur appears to have miscalculated, the eighty feet long assemblage being found to be ‘too long for his own room’, ending up in a stable to be sold on.13

One certain addition to the library collection at Great Oakley was a work entitled ‘Illustrations of ancient art‘ (1854) by an antiquarian cleric, Edward Trollope, later Bishop of Nottingham and a figure who would come to exert remarkable influence over the aesthetic of the Hall later in the century. Sir Arthur in fact subscribed for two copies of the book as indeed did his brother, barrister William, who succeeded to the family estates seven years after the 2nd baronet’s belated 1851 marriage.

gtoLyonBy this time Sir William de Capell Brooke was long happily ensconced at The Elms, a substantial house in the Leicestershire town of Market Harborough a dozen miles west, and where he chose to remain. Thus in the 1860s Great Oakley Hall was leased to Gen. Thomas Pearson, an enthusiastic racehorse owner/breeder who now brought sporting glory to his adoptive home by sending out Lord Lyon (r) to win the 1866 Derby and its sister Achievement to win fillies equivalent The Oaks the following year.

Meanwhile, 1867 would also see the marriage of Sir William’s eldest son, Richard, to Mary Trollope, daughter of the aforementioned antiquarian, the Rev. Edward.



see: NPG

Standing somewhat incongruously in the grounds of Great Oakley Hall today is a distinctly municipal drinking fountain, salvaged in the 1960s from Market Harborough where it had been donated by the de Capell Brooke family in 1891, the year before Sir William’s death. The latter event coincided with a busy programme of structural and ornamental developments at the Hall directed to a peculiar degree by the 4th baronet’s father-in-law (right, by this time the Bishop of Nottingham).

The Jacobethan interiors of Great Oakley now gained ornate Victorian emphasis, Trollope taking the opportunity to incorporate moralistic texts ‘wherever he could’ throughout the decorative scheme10 (‘The eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers’ above the Squire’s room, for example14).


see: CLA

In 1893, the year of Bishop Edward Trollope’s death, his insignia would be embedded in the outer wall of the south wing, which was now entirely rebuilt (r) for Sir Arthur de Capell Brooke who had succeeded his father the year before. A soldier on active service in the Boer War…

… in the first years of the 20th century, the 5th baronet would now again let the house for periods, the parents of Cambridge student Lytton Strachey taking Great Oakley Hall for six months through the summer of 1905. The future Bloomsbury Group man of letters ‘took to the place at once, the spacious and leisurely air of comfort [fitting] his temperament very well’; during his stay Strachey was visited by a burgeoning bohemian circle, including cousin/lover Duncan Grant and a new acquaintance, doomed poet Rupert Brooke.15


see: NPG

After two decades as chairman of Northamptonshire County Council, Arthur (r) would be created 1st Baron Brooke of Oakley in 1939, a title which became extinct upon his death without issue five years later. While his unmarried brother Edward now assumed the baronetcy and role as squire (dying in 1968), the ultimate destiny of the Great Oakley estate had vexed de Capell Brooke in his later years. Casting around for a suitable heir, Arthur would seek advice from a friend, Arthur Guinness, whose brother Gerald was the husband of Lord Brooke’s first cousin, Eleanor, a niece of Sir Richard, 4th baronet.

The Guinnesses were scions of the banking arm of the storied Irish dynasty, descended from Samuel Guinness. ‘Arthur Guinness’s advice was that the estate should go to Gerald’s eldest son, Gerald Richard Guinness. But there was a snag. Sir Arthur made it clear that he was perfectly agreeable to this arrangement provided Gerald’s children never converted from Protestantism or divorced, [a condition Gerald’s wife] absolutely refused to accept.’ A stand-off would ensue for several years before Lord Brooke eventually ‘gave in with good grace .. and on Gerald Guinness’s death in 1975 the estate passed to his son who assumed the name Hugh Guinness de Capell Brooke by deed poll in 1976’.16


see: Graham Butlin @ YouTube

New funds had helped to literally stop the rot at Great Oakley Hall which had fallen into a somewhat sorry state in the twilight years of the de Capell Brooke male line. A major renovation programme in the mid-1960s saw sympathetic reconstruction of the roof of the main range, new central heating, while ‘the gardens were restored to their former beauty’.17

As Great Oakley had slipped into post-war decline, nearby Corby was positively booming. Massive development of the local steelworks, with its sizeable migrant workforce, created intense demand for new housing, a pressure initially eased by the Urban Development Corporation’s compulsory purchase ‘in 1946 of a large area of land previously owned by Lord Brooke’. Further expansion over the next two decades saw the encompassing of Great Oakley village into Corby New Town.

But the bubble would burst in November 1979 when the Conservative government announced the closure of Corby Steelworks as part of an ongoing rationalization of British Steel. ‘At present, Corby stands as a social and economic disaster of the worst order,’ it was remarked in 1985, ‘a 20th century British company town which the company has just deserted.’18 The present century has, however, seen the council take ‘a conscious decision to pursue regeneration through population growth’, shiny new amenities being ‘funded by receipts from the sale of land to housing developers’.

gtoakleyValeexpansion And the Great Oakley Estate has taken a similar conscious decision to commit to this vision. The final phase of its own Oakley Vale development will envelope the Hall and park in the east (left), setting out ‘a clear vision of what the [new] homes will need to look like’ in partnership with Robert Adam Architecture. Further expansion on Great Oakley land west of Corby is also in the pipeline.

(Counterbalancing these ‘losses’, farming estates in Leicestershire and Rutland have been acquired in recent times, Great Oakley continuing to pursue its more traditional agricultural model across some 4,500 acres.)

However, Great Oakley Estate is not only hands-on in shaping Corby’s physical form but also its future generations. “People from far and wide are trying to get their children into the best schools here, there is pressure on school places.’ And this demand is being met to an ever-widening extent by the Brooke Weston Trust, initiated by Hugh de Capell Brooke (d.2014) to bring ‘high quality, innovative state funded education to the area’ and which today, with ‘the active involvement of Hugh’s son Alexander de Capell Brooke as trustee and board member’, encompasses ten schools and colleges.


Northamptonshire Telegraph 30 March 2020

British education such as it was in the first part of the 19th century was distinctly deficient in one particular respect, explorer Sir Arthur de Capell Broke had been unavoidably forced to conclude: ‘My own countrymen, the greatest travellers of any nation, can hardly make themselves understood in any foreign language.’ 

Plus ça change? Ah well, at least other contrasts were more favourable:

A Norwegian kitchen, during the middle of the day, presents an assemblage of domestics, not the most cleanly in the world, stretched upon wooden benches, fast asleep, and forming a scene altogether the very reverse of what would be witnessed in an English dwelling.’2

Quite so, and surely no such brazen slackness will ever be on display in the latest addition to Sir Arthur’s old home…


see: Country Life 18 Nov 2020

… a new kitchen to meet the modern needs of present custodians Alexander and Wendy de Capell Brooke and their sizeable teenaged family. ‘Converting a garage that had been accommodated in an 18th-century addition’ to Great Oakley Hall, the couple (r) were last year pleased to accept a Country Life / Historic Houses award recognizing their ‘inventive solution to the challenge of creating a 21st-century kitchen in a listed building’…

[Great Oakley Estate][Grade II* listing]


see: Google Maps

1. Marshall-Cornwall, J. An early Scandinavian traveller, The Geographical Journal Vol.14, No.2, 1978.
2. de Capell Broke, A. A winter in Lapland and Sweden, 1827.
3. de Capell Broke, A. Sketches in Spain and Morocco, 1831.
4. Gotch, J.A. The old halls and manor-houses of Northamptonshire, 1936.
5. Murray, C., Griffith, P. Local migration panel: Corby, IPPR, 2008.
6. Baigent, E. Oxford dictionary of national biography, 2004.
7. Neale, J.P. Views of the seats of noblemen and gentlemen, in England.., Vol.3, 1826.
8. Heward, J., Taylor, R. The country houses of Northamptonshire, 1996.
9. Ptolemy Dean Architects, 2016.
10. Bailey, B., Pevsner, N., Cherry, B. Buildings of England: Northamptonshire, 2013.
11. MacCotter, P. The de la Chapelle or Supple or de Capell Brooke families of Cork, The Irish Genealogist Vol.13, No.4, 2013.
12. Moore-Colyer, R. Land and people in Northamptonshire: Great Oakley 1750-1850, The Agricultural History Review, Vol.45, No.2, 1997.
13. Harris, J. Moving rooms, 2007.
14. Northamptonshire Past and Present, Vol.4, No.3, 1968/9.
15. Holroyd, M. Lytton Strachey: A critical biography, 1967.
16. Mullally, F. The silver salver: The story of the Guinness family, 1981.
17. Hill, P. A history of Great Oakley in Northamptonshire, 1991.
18. Grieco, M.S. Corby: New Town planning and imbalanced development, Regional Studies, Vol.19(1), 1985.


Wykeham Abbey, Yorkshire

Could it be the most enduring court sanction in British legal history?

On 26 August, 1600, Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby and his wife, Lady Margaret, had some unexpected callers at Hackness Hall, their Yorkshire home a few miles from Scarborough. Presuming upon this couple’s hospitality, half-a-dozen young county gentry – ostensibly a hunting party, headed by William Eure – announced themselves in need of an overnight billet and were sure that the Hobys would be pleased to oblige.

An unabashed Puritan prig, Sir Thomas had himself been something of a pushy presence locally since his 1596 marriage to the most eligible heiress in the North Riding, mistrusted as a southern carpetbagger (maybe even an anti-Catholic spy). With menace aforethought, the self-invited guests quickly set about affronting the Hobys’ pious household with card games, drunken carousing, and mounting verbal and physical abuse; windows would be smashed as the riotously disrespectful party departed the following morning.

As an energetic, experienced litigant Hoby now sought redress from the various families and, doubtful of a fair hearing locally, brought suit against the six at the Court of Star Chamber in London. The ‘scandalous and damaging’ proceedings were the talk of the town through 1601 (Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, featuring po-faced Malvolio’s merry torment at the hands of a drunken Sir Toby Belch and company, debuting the following year). Handing down its verdict, Star Chamber ruled unanimously in Hoby’s favour: the Eures were ordered to pay their victim £100 a year in perpetuity, ‘their accomplices smaller fines on the same terms’.1

wykeAboveAmongst the latter was one Stephen Hutchinson, heir to the Wykeham Abbey estate (left) five miles south of Hackness Hall. Hutchinson’s mother was the daughter of Sir John Dawnay, to which family Wykeham Abbey would (somewhat improbably) descend two centuries on. Rather remarkably, over ‘400 years later, the Dawnays still pay £60 annually to Hackness [private seat of the Lords Derwent] for what in their accounts is called the ‘Wykeham shame’.1

The website of Dawnay Estates carries the crowned and collared lion from the family crest. However, the mansion which still displays the Dawnay arms in their full splendour is not Wykeham Abbey – ‘an exceptionally interesting house seldom open to the public’ – but another, some fifty miles south-west of Wykeham as the crow flies. Cowick Hall, the original seat of the Dawnays (later viscounts Downe), would eventually be disposed of as, indeed, were a boggling array of stately piles, variously acquired, leaving Wykeham Abbey – long the Cinderella of the bunch – as the locus of the Dawnay family from the second decade of the 20th century.


Despite the taint of his association with the Hackness affair, by 1626 Stephen Hutchinson’s reputation had been sufficiently rehabilitated to allow his election to parliament as the MP for Scarborough. In the sixteenth century the Hutchinsons had been among those yeoman families to take advantage of the superabundance of land in the wake of the Dissolution. Stephen had succeeded his father, Edward, in 1591 and is regarded as a likely builder of the house at Wykeham Abbey (on the site of a former Cistercian priory) sketched by Samuel Buck circa 1720.

wykeBuck‘Of steep gables, and reasonably commodious,’2 it was essentially ‘a typical I-shaped house, with a central range and cross-wings at each end,’ and would seem to now remain little altered until the later decades of the eighteenth century.3

A low-profile Parliamentarian in the Civil War, Stephen Hutchinson’s will of 1646 pointedly left his son merely an annuity of £140, Royalist Edward having “thereby incurred my displeasure“. The Wykeham estate would pass instead to Stephen’s grandson, Edward, Jnr., who died c.1687.


Tomb of Sir John Dawnay [see: Snaith Priory]

Meanwhile, over in Yorkshire’s East Riding, Sir John Dawnay (d.1493) – on the winning side at the Battle of Bosworth in the previous conflict to rent England asunder – had been rewarded with the stewardship of royal hunting ground east of Snaith at Cowick, by the River Aire between Pontefract and Goole. An area once ‘so dank, misty, ungenial, the Celts deserted it, the Angles would not invade it’4, the Dawnays would remain ‘of Cowick’ for nearly four hundred years, albeit for the most part as Crown leaseholders (before striking a deal with Queen Victoria in 1852).5

Of a knightly line stretching back to the Conquest, Sir John Dawnay (d.1695) consolidated his family’s steady ascent with the acquisition of an Irish peerage, being created 1st Viscount Downe in 1681 and marking the moment with a smart new mansion at Cowick. (By this time the Dawnays had also procured the North Yorkshire moorland manor of Danby Castle and through marriage had also come into a sizable landholding at Sessay, fifty miles north of Cowick.)


Samuel Buck c.1720

‘[Viscount Downe’s] house is of great interest as one of the largest built in Yorkshire in the years immediately following the Restoration, and as one of the most architecturally ambitious built in the country in the second half of the 17th century.’ No architect has been ascribed, while ‘the plan does not follow the more advanced post-Restoration houses pioneered by Roger Pratt and Hugh May’.6

At about the time Cowick Hall was completed, over at Wykeham Abbey Edward Hutchinson was making a marriage which, whilst further expanding their Yorkshire landholdings, would in time lead to the loss of the Hutchinson family name. For Mary Langley’s brother subsequently nominated his nephew – the couple’s second son, Richard – as his heir to the Langley estate at North Grimston (twenty miles south-west of Wykeham) on condition he thenceforth took the Langley name. This Richard Langley would in due course also inherit Wykeham Abbey at the death of his childless elder brother, Edward Hutchinson, in 1737.

Fifty miles away at Cowick, the death of the 2nd Viscount Downe’s son just a year before his own would see the Dawnay estates pass to teenage grandson Henry in 1741. ‘With a large independent fortune, [Henry] conceived a rage for the army,’ lamented Horace Walpole of an enthusiasm which would prematurely claim the life of ‘one of the most amiable men in the world’. But not before the 3rd viscount had enlisted Doncaster-based architect James Paine to give Cowick Hall the deceptive classical appearance it has retained to this day.


see: Emma Shallcross @ Instagram

Work began in 1752, Paine’s first major intervention being a somewhat anachronistic modification of the north (entrance) front (r). ‘The old centrepiece was replaced by a three-bay pediment of notably convincing 17th-century character,’ and proudly displaying the Dawnay family crest. ‘His principal contribution…


see: RCT

… was, however, to have been two flanking wings’ but the young viscount’s ‘rage’ for action would bring about the curtailment of this grand project.7 Having heroically survived the Battle of Minden in August 1759, unmarried Henry Dawnay succumbed to injuries incurred at Campen the following year, aged thirty-three. He was succeeded by his brother, John, 4th Viscount Downe, whose three sons were to separately inherit country house estates, one of which would be…

… Wykeham Abbey where, soon after he came of age in 1782, Richard Langley’s grandson, Richard (2), would set about Georgianizing the house inside and out. 


see: thetackroomruston

Infilling between the wings front and back, the north front now featured four central bays beneath a pediment (coach-house wing extensions being added a decade on) while the garden front now received a full-height centre bow. ‘The interior was given a clearly Classical character, new Venetian windows [being] added to the staircase and long gallery,’ and the introduction of several decorative chimneypieces. Improvements in the grounds included the creation of the ha-ha in 1789.3

Married but without children, Richard Langley would reach back into the recesses of his family tree to find an heir. Langley’s mother was a granddaughter of Henry Dawnay, 2nd Viscount Downe, one of whose grandsons, Marmaduke Dawnay (the third son of the 4th viscount) was now anointed. Thus in 1824 – after the death of Langley’s widow – a newly-styled Marmaduke Langley duly became squire of the Wykeham Abbey estate.


see: VisitYork

Now if this turn of events had been unlikely it would be trumped three years on when Marmaduke’s brother, William, was randomly gifted splendid Beningbrough Hall (r), midway between the Dawnay estates at Cowick and Sessay. Longtime seat of the Bourchier family, Margaret Earle found herself the last of this line having lost both sons in the Napoleonic wars. As an old and close friend of the eldest of these, Rev. William Dawnay, 55, was bequeathed Beningbrough in 1827. He would live there for the remainder of his life notwithstanding the fact that, just five years on, following the death of his older brother, John, the one-time Rector of Sessay now also ascended to be master of the Dawnay estates, and the 6th Viscount Downe.


In their time the 4th and 5th viscounts had significantly expanded the family’s Yorkshire landholdings by purchase; John Dawnay (d.1832) would also engage architect Joseph Bonomi to modify Cowick Hall during his half-century as squire. And, though comparatively brief, the tenure of the 7th viscount, Rev. William’s son, William (d.1857), was remarkable for ‘vigorous building activity’ under the direction of high-church architect William Butterfield, and some spectacular (if outwardly somewhat gratuitous) property acquisitions.8


see: Neil Stanton

In 1854 the North Yorkshire Baldersby Park estate, 8 miles west of Sessay, was snapped up (for £196,000) in the fire sale following the downfall of ‘railway king’ George Hudson. At its heart stood an important house (right, originally called Newby Park) designed by Colen Campbell, ‘the first villa to be built in England in the Palladian style’ (and today, like Cowick and Beningbrough, Grade I listed). Baldersby would be the principal seat of the Dawnays for the next three decades.

Here, ‘Butterfield built an estate village for Lord Downe, [showing] his range along the full scale of architectural propriety, from the dignity of the country church to cottages of distinguished simplicity’.9 More Butterfield churches arose (including All Saints’ in Wykeham village), the 7th viscount apparently fulfilling a condition of marriage imposed by his bishop father-in-law.

1854 also saw the purchase of West Heslerton Hall, a 21-bedroom mansion within a 2,000-acre estate encompassing another entire village, less than ten miles from Wykeham Abbey. (In 2012, following death of the ‘eccentric spinster’ Eve Dawnay, great-granddaughter of the 7th viscount, this property was finally sold lock, stock and barrel, assorted descendants benefiting to the tune of some £20 million).

wykeMarmaThree years before his nephew’s spending spree, unmarried Marmaduke Langley (left) passed away, bequeathing Wykeham – to which he had added a Doric loggia on the south front (below) among other modifications – to his great-nephew, Viscount Downe’s seven-year-old young son, Hugh.


see: Gunsonpegs

Now finding themselves the owners of an unwieldy amount of Yorkshire real estate, in 1854 the Wykeham Abbey estate was momentarily advertised ‘to be sold by auction as one lot – house, gardens, estate, plus land in East Riding: total extent 13,420 acres’.10 For whatever reason no sale took place, and secondary Wykeham Abbey would now be ‘left alone for half a century’.


If his father’s era had been one of remarkable expansion, that of the 8th Viscount Downe would be mostly defined by disposals and contraction. Hugh Dawnay came of age in 1865, beginning nearly sixty years as squire. Four years in, the ancestral Cowick Hall estate was now sold (for £126,000), ‘the pictures and furniture being removed to Baldersby Park’.4 And Baldersby itself would be disposed of in 1900 on the death of his mother the dowager viscountess, along with her landholdings well in excess of 20,000 acres.


see: Country Life Picture Library

The sale of Beningbrough Hall (which had descended via Payan Dawnay, younger son of the clerical 6th viscount, and is today owned by the National Trust) came in 1916, while the estate at Sessay, acquired through the marriage of Sir Guy Dawnay (d.1552), would be sold two years later. But despite all of these disposals Wykeham Abbey would still languish in relative disfavour, the 8th Viscount Downe choosing instead to take this thoroughly Yorkshire family into new territory, buying the 5,000-acre Dingley Hall estate in Northamptonshire for £175,000 in 1883. Dingley (right) would remain the principal family seat until (soldier/diplomat) Hugh Dawnay’s death in 1924. But in the first years of the last century, prompted by the impending marriage of his son and heir, John…


see: CLA Yorkshire

… Wykeham finally became the focus of some serious attention, Dawnay setting relatively obscure Banbury architect Walter Mills loose upon the dormant pile – with mixed results. ‘Externally, Mills was responsible for the cramped three-storey two-bay extensions to the central block, [and] the porch that tried to make sense of the lack of a central bay.’3


Country Life3

Within, much of the existing interiors were now swept away. ‘The space created out of the entrance hall and central range of the old house, stretching round in a forest of columns to the dining room, is masterly, with an almost Pompeian feel about it. To one side of this [Mills positioned] the main staircase rising up through the whole body of the house.’


see: Johanne Spittle

The dining room now occupied one of two single-storey wings on the south front and features a vaulted ceiling of fine plasterwork, ‘although the chimneypiece (←) rather spoils the 18th-century effect’.3 Mills would also be responsible for Wykeham’s handsome East Lodge [see].

Counterbalancing the depletion of Dawnay country houses, John’s 1902 marriage to Dorothy, only daughter of Sir Walter Ffolkes, 3rd Bt., in due course brought that family’s Hillington Hall estate in Norfolk to the Dawnays. Hillington has descended to a grandson of the 9th Viscount Downe, who succeeded after his father’s death in 1924 whereupon Dingley Hall was sold, choice items of Georgian furniture now removed to Wykeham Abbey. These would be complemented by the ‘high quality’ acquisitions of his son, Richard, after he inherited in 1931.11 Adding to the ‘fine, unusually complete collection of family portraits’5 that now adorned Wykeham, the connoisseur 10th Viscount Downe also assembled ‘the largest and finest collection of Rembrandt prints in Great Britain’.12


The Times 27 Nov 1970


The Field14

The Rembrandts were in turn sold a few years after their collector’s death in 1965, son and heir John now pursuing his own multifarious interests. A self-taught electronics entrepreneur, the 11th Viscount Downe (right) ‘maintained a private laboratory at Wykeham Abbey; he also loved Aston Martins, steam railways and flew his own helicopters’. 13 Yet despite sowing many of the seeds of diversification at Wykeham, all the while the estate retained an outwardly traditional face into the 21st century. ‘95% of Wykeham and Ruston villages remain in estate hands, [this] continuity of ownership reflected in their visually restrained character, with timber elements painted the Dawnay Estate colours of buttermilk and brown.’15


see: Google Maps

Still one of the largest landowners in Yorkshire, 2,500 of the acres surrounding Wykeham Abbey are farmed in-hand with the other half of the Dawnay Estate – more than 10,000 acres of let farmland and grouse moors – some 35 miles north-west at Danby Castle. And while the partial ruin itself now has a contemporary function as a scenic wedding venue

… the Castle continues to host regular sessions of the Danby Court Leet, which has exercised jurisdiction over rural affairs in the fifty-square-mile manor since medieval times. The offices of bailiff and steward remain in the gift of the present 12th Viscount Downe who, ironically, continues to honour that perpetual penalty handed down by another ancient court system more than four centuries ago…


see: Google Maps

[Dawnay Estates][Archives: Dawnay | Hutchinson/Langley][Grade II* listing]

1. Binns, J. Sir Hugh Cholmley of Whitby 1600-1657, 2008.
2. Burke’s peerage and baronetage, 106th edition, 1999.
3. Worsley, G. Wykeham Abbey, Yorkshire, Country Life, 3 Feb 1986.
4. Wheater, W. Some historic mansions of Yorkshire, 1889.
5. Killeen, J. A short history of Cowick Hall, 1967.
6. Worsley, G. Cowick Hall, Yorkshire, Country Life, 23 Mar 1989.
7. Leach, P. James Paine, 1988.
8. Hill, R. William Butterfield, Oxford dictionary of national biography, 2004.
9. Thompson, P. William Butterfield, 1971.
10. Scarborough Gazette, 13 July 1854.
11. Jourdain, M. Furniture at Wykeham Abbey, Apollo, Vol.46 Oct 1947 / Vol.47 Jan 1948.
12. An exhibition of etchings by Rembrandt from the Viscount Downe collection, Arts Council, 1954.
13. Daily Telegraph, 26 Mar 2002.
14. Lords of the land, The Field, 28 Sept 1985.
15. Wykeham and Ruston character appraisal, Scarborough Council, 2012.

Marlesford Hall, Suffolk


see: Lakeland Cottage Co.

Although commanding an indubitably fine prospect across Coniston water in the heart of the Lake District, Tent Lodge (r) is the rather modest but most complete monument to the architectural aspirations of Mr. George Smith, Esq. (1765-1822). A man of peripatetic provincial ambition, Smith had been born to no little advantage as the heir to an estate acquired by his father, Burn Hall in Co. Durham (later purchased by a member of the Salvin family of Croxdale Hall). Upon inheriting he would commission rising star John Soane, soon to become ‘one of the foremost architects of the Regency era’, to create a replacement for the existing house, a scheme which would get no further than the drawing board.

But the bovine residents of Burn Hall did get an impressive new home, Soane presenting the designs for an unusually smart cow barn to his client at another property with which Smith had become associated by legacy, this time in Suffolk. Before long, however, George Smith’s attentions had switched westwards as he now acquired a beautifully-appointed property in the south-east corner of Wales, turning again to Soane for a new house which was ‘not quite finished’ (and was later to be adapted by others) when the bailiffs moved in, and the Smith family, perforce, moved on. Seemingly, the architect would never completely realise a residence for this promising but somewhat overreaching patron.


That Suffolk rendezvous with Smith had been at Marlesford, seven miles north-east of Woodbridge. Though relatively young by the standard of most houses hitherto considered here, there remains a curious lack of clarity about who caused the Grade II* listed Hall here to be built. Despite ‘tantlalizing’ Soanian touches the architect’s papers offer ‘no evidence of his involvement’.1

The pediment of Marlesford Hall displays the coat of arms of the Shuldham family, from whom this place has descended for now well over two centuries. Ostensibly an authoritative clue about the Hall’s creation, this badge is but another puzzling element of the jigsaw, the circumstantial pieces of which are assembled below.


The small size of the canvas was reserved for intimate portraits of children or members of the family, and in this case the age of the sitter, the intimacy of the image and the freedom of the brushwork suggest that the canvas was not commissioned. All these factors support the tradition that the portrait was painted as a token of the artist’s gratitude to the sitter’s parents after nursing him back to health.’2


see source

The artist being Thomas Gainsborough, his subject here a twelve-year-old Juliet Mott, the only surviving child of attorney Richard Mott and his wife Elizabeth, of Carlton and Sweffling, just north of Saxmundham in the celebrated painter’s home county of Suffolk. The portrait was created in 1766; eight years on, Juliet would remove 275 miles north to the seat of her new husband, George Smith, of Burn Hall in Durham.

Also in 1774 Richard Mott would draft his will in which he entrusted ‘my manor of Marlesford’ to a pair of executors, one of whom was ‘my son-in-law George Smith .. to sell in whole or in parcels as soon as conveniently may be .. for the best price that can be obtained.’ ‘After paying off the mortgages,’ and the payment of debts and expenses, ‘any surplus money’ was devised to his wife, with investment specified to provide income for her and their daughter, Juliet.3

But Marlesford – seven miles south-west of Carlton – had not been Mott’s manor for very long, and was owned for the previous century by the Dove family, the last of whom, Rev. Fynn Dove, died in 1770. Rather than waiting for nature to take its course, however, the following advertisement was published in the Ipswich Journal on Boxing Day 1778, five months before Richard Mott’s demise:

To be sold immediately: The extensive manor of Marlesford. Also, the capital mansion, called Marlesford Hall with coach house, stables, and 116a. The situation of Marlesford Hall excels anything in the vicinity for beautiful and diversified prospects. Any further information may be had by applying to Mr. Mott at Carleton [or] Mr. Schuldham at Saxmundham.’4

The lack of any realistic response to this apparent market ‘feeler’ is evidenced by the appearance of several similar notices in the weeks following Richard Mott’s death in May 1779, ‘further particulars [to] be had by applying to Mr. Schuldham’.5 Marlesford would not be advertised again until October 1784, the suggestion that the property remained in the hands of Mott’s executor/son-in-law during the intervening period being reinforced by another call upon the family’s capacity for convalescence.

“In the beginning of 1782 we removed to distant country, at the entreaty of a blind relation,” recorded Juliet, Mrs. George Smith, their young family temporarily relocating to her Suffolk roots from Co. Durham. Seemingly, Pater Smith would also bring with him the influence of a friend, North-East banker and landowner Rowland Burdon, an early adopter of the talents of John Soane, the latter having given Burdon’s seat Castle Eden a Gothick treatment c.1780. Now Smith himself would employ the coming man of English architecture.


see: Sanderson Young

‘Returning from Norwich to London on 18 June, 1783, Soane made a detour via George Smith’s Suffolk residence, [receiving] six guineas for designs for ‘the Cow-house’.’6 While the plans for this distinctly superior byre – with which the architect was so pleased he later exhibited them at the Royal Academy – would be delivered to his client at Marlesford, there is no conclusive evidence that any such structure was actually erected there.7 One certainly arose on Smith’s Durham estate, however, and still stands (above, today inhabited by humans). Soane would also produce schemes for an all-new Burn Hall which, unlike the cattle barn, would never materialize as his restive client’s attention soon turned elsewhere.

“On the death of my relation in 1784, we returned to Burnhall,” Juliet Smith later recalled, “and remained there till June in the following year, when we removed to Piercefield.”


see: Soane.org

Her husband’s newest project was a Monmouthshire Tudor house – which John Soane was now freshly tasked with fully remodelling (left) – set in a ‘sublime Picturesque landscape’ the creation of which had drained the coffers of the previous owner. George Smith had acquired Piercefield for £26,700 during his family’s Suffolk sojourn; also in 1784 Marlesford Hall was once again advertised for sale.

To be sold or let, the manor of Marlesford, also Marlesford Hall .. with every convenience fit for the residence of a gentleman’s family. The purchaser or tenant may take the furniture of the house (which is modern) at a fair appraisement, and may have immediate possession.8

As in earlier years further particulars could be had upon application to Mr. Shuldham, attorney at law. And following the death of tenant Gerard Montague, in 1787 William Shuldham found himself yet again offering (this time for auction) ‘the extensive manor of Marlesford and its ‘commodious Dwelling-House’.9


see: Davies Sutton Architects

(The next year, in Chepstow, George Smith established the Monmouthshire Bank, an enterprise which foundered disastrously in 1793 obliging the fire sale of all Smith’s property. Christie’s now handled the dispersal of ‘not quite finished’ Piercefield House (a ruin now in hand, r) and the Burn Hall estate, plus a Suffolk landholding at Sweffling, near Carlton.10 Smith soon took an army commission, his family following about in train before finally settling at the aforementioned Tent Lodge.)

At the general election of 1790 ‘a jocular Ipswich gentleman, John Thomas Sandys, agreed to be a last minute candidate [at Great Yarmouth] and took his heavy defeat in good part’. A press report of the poll described Sandys (d.1793) as being ‘of Marlesford Hall’11 but by 1792 the same newspaper, in an official list of Suffolk estate gamekeepers, indicated that this place now had another squire – Mr. William Shuldham.12 Having spent the previous fifteen years brokering the sale of this property, Shuldham had finally acquired the place himself, and it has never come onto the market since. But if the owner/occupier of Marlesford Hall was at last clear, precise details of the form the house took at this moment in time remain decidedly hazy.


In his Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen in Suffolk (1827), East Anglian artist Henry Davy declared that ‘John Thomas Sandys made considerable alterations to the house and the present proprietor has still further added to and improved the place, so as to make it a very comfortable and desirable family residence’. From his depiction (↑) of the chaste, seemingly coherent Hall these suggested developmental stages are (externally) difficult to discern.

marlesTendringAs previously noted, despite details such as the central round-headed recessed window arch and the segmental porch beneath being found in contemporaneous East Anglian house schemes by John Soane (Tendring Hall, right, and Letton Hall, both 1783-89), and his patron George Smith’s previous association here – there appears to be no evidence that Soane took any hand at Marlesford.

Conspicuous by its absence within the pediment in Henry Davy’s illustration is the Shuldham family crest (a detail captured in his image of Benacre Hall in the same volume). Whenever this was raised at Marlesford, historically the family’s original domain lay some seventy miles north-east, at Shouldham in Norfolk whence their name and ancient lineage derived. The scion of a branch which had migrated over the county border to Beccles in Suffolk by the late 17th century, William Shuldham was in his 84th year at the time Davy’s image of the house was published, but Marlesford’s newest squire still had many years ahead of him.


see: A Buildings Fan

Shuldham’s longevity would be in sharp contrast to the fate of his second son, Lemuel, born (in unusual circumstances) at Marlesford in 1794 but who perished in June 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo. The body of the young Dragoons officer was interred on the spot by a burial party likely to have included his brother-in-law, Capt. William Schreiber, who had married Frances Shuldham just the year before, a union subsequently significant in Marlesford’s destiny.

The records of St. Andrew’s Church confirm that William Shuldham expired in his 102nd year, hundreds having previously thronged Marlesford Hall to celebrate the robust squire’s centenary in 1843. While his interventions at the house are unclear Shuldham had certainly expanded the estate, which comprised some 2,400 acres at his death. Unmarried eldest son William (2) would outlive his father by just five years, his younger spinster sister Louisa subesquently enjoying thirty-three years as the chatelaine of Marlesford Hall.


see: Keith Evans / geograph

The succession of singletons had necessitated no significant alteration to the house. This would come in the time of Louisa’s eventual successor, great-nephew Charles Shuldham Schreiber (a minor at the time of her death aged 91 in 1883). Having married Margaret Henderson, only daughter of wealthy financier Lord Faringdon of Buscot Park, the couple would go on to have four children, and Marlesford Hall duly expanded.


see: MarlesfordWW1

Thus in the first decades of the 20th century the house gained wings north and west, the latter comprising a library and loggia (see above), the former (right) extending the newly-designated entrance front, with its canted porch (now removed?). Much of this work was overseen by local architect (and author) Hugh Munro Cautley; interestingly a ‘new cowshed‘ was among various outbuildings now commissioned at Marlesford.

John Schreiber was a serving RAF officer when he inherited in 1943. In common with many country house estates in this period, a combination of death duties and post-war economic exigencies soon compelled retrenchment. The 1950s would see some of the early 20th century extensions of the Hall now pared back; the landed estate, meanwhile, had been reduced to some 900 acres by the time Schreiber’s son Mark succeeded to Marlesford in 1968.

marlesParlyTVAfter a varied career which included a lengthy stint as parliamentary correspondent for The Economist, Mark Schreiber would jump the fence and join the legislature in 1990, his ennoblement as Baron Marlesford marked by a peel of bells in the village church. Though he is now in his 89th year the life peer (right) remains active in the proceedings of the Upper House.


see: Google Maps

In the 1980s Lord Marlesford had initiated a limited refashioning of the Hall and garden at the rear of the house (see left) under the supervision of East Anglian design practice Geary & Black, the associated documentation having again been archived for posterity. And certainly the evidence base for Marlesford’s evolution in the last century contrasts markedly with the frustrating opacity surrounding the Hall’s 18th century origination.

What did the ‘capital mansion’ of Richard Mott’s time look like? How involved did enthusiastic builder George Smith (and his architect of choice, John Soane) ever become here? Exactly how did William Shuldham ‘improve the place’?


see: YouTube

And perhaps no-one will ever be better placed to investigate matters definitively than Marlesford’s next generation. Over the past decade responsibility for estate operations has gradually been taken on by the eldest of Lord Marlesford’s two daughters, Dr. Nicola Stacey (r), presently Director of the Heritage of London Trust and formerly a senior properties historian with English Heritage…


see: Google Maps

1. Bettley, J., Pevsner, N. Buildings of England: Suffolk, East, 2015.
2. Belsey, H. Thomas Gainsborough: the portraits, fancy pictures and copies, 2019.
3. Davy, D.E. Pedigrees of the families of Suffolk, ADD MS 19142, British Library.
4. Ipswich Journal 26 December, 1778.
5. Ipswich Journal 3/17 July, 1779.
6. De la Ruffiniere du Prey, P. Oblivion for Soane’s cow barn?, Country Life 8 Jan, 1976.
7. De la Ruffiniere du Prey, P. Book review, Jnl. of the Soc. of Architectural Historians, Vol.45, No.1, March 1986.
8. Ipswich Journal 20 October, 1784.
9. Ipswich Journal January, 1787.
10. The Sun 19 November, 1793.
11. Ipswich Journal 26 June, 1790.
12. Ipswich Journal 27 October, 1792.
See also:
Kenworthy-Browne, J. et al. Burke’s & Savills guide to country houses, Vol.3: East Anglia, 1981.
De la Ruffiniere du Prey, P. John Soane: The making of an architect, 1982.
Darley, G. John Soane : an accidental romantic, 1999.
Dean, P. Sir John Soane and the country estate, 2018.

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.