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Completely out of the blue one autumn day in 1872 Sir Charles Rouse-Boughton, 11th baronet, was informed that he had been bequeathed an eighteenth-century mansion, Henley Hall in Shropshire (below), together with its landed estate in the will of a recently deceased neighbour, Mr. John Knight. Being already squire of his own handsome ancestral pile – Downton Hall just to the north – Sir Charles’s surprise at this turn of events was as nothing compared to that of Knight’s three appalled adult sons who quickly set about mounting a legal challenge to have the will set aside.

henleyhall

see: Imsweddings

Relaxed and somewhat nonplussed about the whole business, Sir Charles duly submitted to the process which saw a jury in the Court of Probate successfully persuaded of the proposition that Knight, labelled ‘a capricious, morose recluse’, had edged from mere eccentricity into insanity. Testimony that he ‘seldom dressed till the middle of the day’ and was ‘fond of listening to German bands’ and cruelly pranking his servants was of perhaps less significance than a landmark judgement from a generation before in convincing the jury that Knight’s legacy was indeed perverse.

For Sir Charles, the court was reminded, ‘was the descendant of a person who in 1840, in consequence of a decision of the Court of Chancery, had come into the possession of a [separate] magnificent estate which had previously belonged to the Knight family and had ever since been in the possession of the Boughtons’. (The Boughton baronetcy, meanwhile, had descended, as we shall also see, from Sir Charles’s great-grandfather via a sensational – and retrospectively dubious – murder trial and execution.)

So the Knights duly retained Henley Hall (at least for a short time before selling). But, while the Rouse-Boughton baronetcy is now extinct, the Downton Hall estate – a Grade II* house sitting at the heart of ‘5,500 acres of breathtakingly beautiful Shropshire countryside’1 – remains with Sir Charles’s descendants having passed only by inheritance and marriage down more than three centuries. Always private, the late-C20th death of the reclusive last of the direct line revealed a veritable time capsule, with exquisite rooms ‘no-one had been in for 50 years’.

*

While the Rouse-Boughton name may be that most associated with Downton Hall, it is not there now nor was it there at the beginning. In the latter part of the C17, funded by income from legal services, the Wredenhall, Pearce and Shepherd/Hall families had begun acquiring parcels of land north-east of Ludlow, separately but sometimes together. Intermarriage would further coalesce their interests. In 1726 sergeant-at-law William Hall devised his property in trust to create an inheritance for the use of his sister, Elizabeth Shepherd, who had married Wredenhall Pearce in 1722. Several generations of asset consolidation was reaching critical mass: a statement country seat was soon called for.

downton3

see: Jeremy Bolwell @ geograph

‘On a magnificent hilltop site looking eastward to Titterstone Clee,’ Pearce upgraded the house of his grandfather, Richard Wredenhall, to a fine mansion of local brick and stone quoins.2 Downton’s three-storey, nine-bay east facade with projecting wings was the work of William Smith, Jnr., and very much in keeping with the foursquare house style of the prolific Midlands practice established by his father Francis and his namesake uncle.

In 1760 the south front would undergo another signature makeover this time at the hands of local architect/engineer Thomas Farnolls Pritchard at the behest of Wredenhall Pearce’s son and heir, William Pearce Hall.

downton2

see: Sue Bremner

A narrow, pedimented entrance doorway was introduced between characteristic full-height canted bays, a demure exterior belying the exuberant delights within. For Pritchard had dug into his contacts book, most likely calling in trusty Italian stuccatore to produce the ‘magnificent mid-C18th interiors [which remain] largely intact’.2

One young American visitor to Downton, writing home to her family a century on, was suitably impressed with their achievements: ‘Lunch was served in a very fine room…

downsaloon3

see source

downsaloon2

Country Life7

… they say altogether more beautifully embellished than any other dining room in the area. Some admirable portraits are inserted into the walls, and around them are white plaster frames in relievo corresponding to other ornamental work. The whole produces a beautiful, and to me novel, effect.’

downstair

Country Life

downsaloon1

Country Life

Bigger and better yet is the saloon where, beneath ‘a large ceiling oval encircled by a vine wreath’2, hand-carved ‘trophies of the chase and music appear, united to pendants of flowers and oak-leaf festoons’.3 This decoration continues in the passage and also adorns the stair.

Now with sufficient means any amount of finery might be acquired; improved social status was generally harder to come by. However, in the same year that Pritchard had been contracted to enhance Downton, another country seat some 75 miles east in Warwickshire had welcomed the arrival of a son and heir to a venerable estate and a baronetcy created in 1641. It was a title soon destined for Downton Hall as a consequence of the controversial premature demise of Sir Theodosius Boughton, 7th Bt., in 1781.

lawfordhall

see source

Twenty-year-old Theodosius lived at Lawford Hall (r), near Rugby, with his mother, sister and brother-in-law Capt. John Donellan. The young baronet’s somewhat feckless, impulsive nature did not augur well for the family fortune of which he would shortly be master. Just months before he attained his majority an ailing Theodosius was administered a draught, ostensibly medicinal, by his mother. Two days later he was dead.

Days of fevered speculation about the cause of the young Sir’s death prompted a public exhumation and autopsy in the churchyard at Newbold-on-Avon, traditional resting place of the Boughton line. Certain cadaverous odours, combined with the reportedly suspicious behaviour of Donellan (whose wife now stood to benefit) led to the latter’s arraignment at Warwick Crown Court before notorious ‘hanging’ judge, Justice Buller. Though the evidence against Boughton’s brother-in-law was entirely circumstantial, judge and jury lost little time in finding Donellan guilty of murder by poisoning and he was hanged within days, protesting his innocence to the end.

Meanwhile, over in Herefordshire, one particular gentleman could not disguise his delight at the turn of events. “Wonderful news,” wrote Edward Boughton, a distant relative of the ‘victim’ upondowntonaaroom2 learning that he, as eldest surviving great-grandson of the 4th baronet, now assumed the title. (This whole affair would be recounted at Downton, left, in a 2010 edition of the BBC celebrity genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are?)

Sir Edward – lamented as ‘indolent’ by his mother yet whose memorial records a man ‘of inviolable honour and integrity’ – died in 1794, unmarried but the father of several daughters by a maid-servant, to the eldest of whom he left the family’s Poston Court estate. His brother Charles, though slighted by this act, duly became the ninth baronet and was hardly destitute having already married Catherine, only daughter and sole heiress of William Pearce Hall of Downton Hall.

*

I now consider myself bound in Honour, as well as urged by Affection, to declare that my Inclination, my Attachment, my high Opinion of your Merits remain unaltered.’

downtonaaChasA somewhat stilted declaration from Charles Boughton whose object was not, on this occasion, Catherine Pearce of Downton but his first love, Charlotte Clavering whom Charles had encountered during thirteen years at the anvil of empire in India. Theirs would be a protracted, long-distance relationship complicated by the influence of variously-motivated third parties. Ultimately rebuffed upon his return to England the thwarted suitor soon entered parliament as Charles Boughton-Rouse, MP for Evesham (having previously inherited the Worcestershire estate of Rous Lench from a distant cousin, Thomas Phillips-Rouse).

I have a clear £1,500 a year to spend. Debts I have none. Even the expenses of my late Election are completely satisfied. I shall wait with the most anxious impatience to learn that the Alliance I propose is favoured with your approbation.”

downtonladyrb

see source

All of which was music to the ears of William Pearce Hall, by this time a man with debts aplenty who would gladly hand over not just his daughter Catherine – Boughton-Rouse’s new object of desire (captured, left, in a full-length portrait of 1785 by George Romney) – but also his Downton Hall estate as swiftly as matters could be arranged.4 Having reasserted his family name on inheriting the Boughton baronetcy after the death of his brother in 1794, Sir Charles Rouse-Boughton died in 1821 leaving three daughters and a son William who, rather extraordinarily, managed to pull off the same trick as his father in marrying a ‘Downton’ heiress, albeit inadvertently.

downtoncastle

see: Stonebrook Publishing

Eight miles south-west of Downton Hall, over the border into Herefordshire, stands Downton Castle (r), the singular Picturesque creation of aesthete Richard Payne Knight. Oddly, having invested so thoroughly, Payne Knight tired of his romantic project soon after its completion, entrusting the Castle to his brother Thomas Andrew Knight and thereafter, apparently, to his heirs male. Alas, Thomas Knight’s son would die in a shooting accident in 1827, three years after the marriage of his youngest sister Charlotte to Sir William Rouse-Boughton.

A two-year legal case followed Thomas Knight’s death in 1838, a male member of the extended Knight family contesting Sir William’s claim that Thomas’s property could indeed now flow to his daughter. Unsuccessfully, as it turned out, a ruling which would see Downton Hall and Downton Castle, and all the land between, united in the same direct ownership for the next sixteen years. (The landmark judgement in Knight vs Knight ‘is still applied by the courts today in order to determine the validity of a trust’.)

downview

see: Historic England

It was an expanded empire of which the court victor became excessively proud, as the aforementioned young American visitor discovered in the course of a personal tour of the estate in 1852. Her party were taken on rail carriages deep into the candlelit quarries beneath Clee Hill (which had been initiated with the proviso ‘that the workings shall not be visible from Downton Hall’): ‘The whole work we were expected to consider very wonderful – and so it was.’

But its seems a little of the 10th baronet – ‘a large, stout, red-faced, white-haired gouty old gentleman’ – went a long way. ‘At dinner I sat on Sir William’s right. He talked enough for a dozen, and I was frightened at my proximity to him, for his great object is to pump everyone to see how little they know and show how much he knows. I must admit that I think Sir William a humbug and a great tyrant.’

downpark

see: cloud9photography

A dim view of the squire could not dent an admiration for the attractions of Downton Hall, however: ‘[From] an exquisitely picturesque gate and lodge you gradually ascend a range of hills through an avenue two miles long. How can I convey the glorious scene which breaks upon you as you approach the house..the beautiful vision of the valley beneath.’ (That south lodge is just one of three including in the west ‘an untouched example () of that composite Jacobean-Gothick which flourished in the West Midlands in the 1760s: provincial, unscholarly, picturesque and paper thin’.5)

downlodge

see: Google Maps

In the year of Sir William’s marriage to Charlotte Knight (a precocious horticulturalist recognized for creating ‘one of the greatest cherries we have’) local architect Edward Haycock was commissioned to design a new entrance on the west side of Downton Hall (). Executed in trademark Greek Revival style, a one-storey colonnade precedes a ‘circular vestibule, shallow-domed and top-lit with Ionic columns carrying a continuous entablature’.2

downtonaagreek

BBC/Who Do You Think You Are?

In ponderous Victorian fashion, a stone balustrade incorporating the family motto in latin would be introduced atop the south and east elevations by their son, Sir Charles, 11th Bt. (d.1906), during the course of his fifty-year tenure as squire of Downton. (Downton Castle, meanwhile, had passed to his younger brother, Andrew Rouse-Boughton-Knight, descending in that line until finally being sold in 1979.)

downtonhunt1

see: Equipix

Equine pursuits would come to dominate affairs on the estate through the twentieth century. ‘Downton Hall is one of those homes that exudes fox-hunting,’ Major Sir Edward Rouse-Boughton (d. 1963) having established the North Ludlow here between the wars. This pack was later amalgamated with the Ludlow Hunt of which Lady Rouse-Boughton and their only child, Mary, would be joint-masters between 1952 and 1973.6

Though given a coming out ball at Claridge’s in the debs’ season of 1935, and a society wedding bridesmaid at least twice, the last baronet’s daughter would never marry. ‘After her mother’s death [in 1976] Miss Mary lived all alone in a single room of the lovely red-brick Georgian house. The other rooms, kept so tightly shuttered that their plastered and gilded walls are amazingly well preserved, are a time-warp back to another, more gracious age.’7

downpig

see: MERL

Mary Rouse-Boughton died in 1991. In the stable tack room a two-bar electric fire had been left on continuously for twenty years ‘in case Miss Mary’s saddles should get damp’.7 To meet death duties the Romney portrait (above) of Catherine, Lady Rouse-Boughton – ‘the finest and most valuable of that richly furnished house’s treasures’8 – was given to the nation and hangs here. (The whereabouts of another portrait also commissioned by her husband Sir Charles of his prize pig is not known.)

downton1

see: Audra Jervis

The entire Downton Hall estate was bequeathed to Mary’s great-nephew Michael ‘Micky’ Wiggin who, having ‘no idea what to do with it’, promptly invited three-time Grand National-winning racehorse trainer Capt. Tim Forster to relocate his stables there. This arrangement continues today under their respective successors, the present owner of Downton being also regional partner at a high-end estate agency yet whose own house has, ironically, never itself been sold…

[Archives]

1. Sunday Times, 10 March 1996.
2. Newman, J., Pevsner, N. The buildings of England: Shropshire, 2006.
3. Ayscough, A., Jourdain, M. Country house baroque, 1941.
4. Fielding, M. The indissoluble knot? Public and private representations of men and marriage 1770-1830, thesis, 2012.
5. Mowl, T., Earnshaw, B. Trumpet at a distant gate, 1985.
6. Country Life, 26 February 1976.
7. Daily Telegraph, 6 January 1995.
8. Tipping, H.A. Country Life, 21 July 1917.
See also:
Reid, P. Burke’s & Savills guide to country houses, Vol.II, 1980.
Ionides, J. Thomas Farnolls Pritchard of Shrewsbury, 1999.
Ionides, J., Howell, P. The old houses of Shropshire in the C19th: the watercolour albums of Frances Stackhouse Acton, 2006.
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