Sir Robert Walpole - First Prime Minister

Three Hundred Years Ago The First Prime Minister Enters Office

Or so the postmark said on today’s letters. “(Sir) Robert Walpole enters office as first UK Prime Minister 300 years ago 4 April 1721.” Walpole himself would have denied it. He did so explicitly in 1741, when he had held office continuously for 20 years. “I unequivocally deny that I am sole and prime minister.” The term was then an insult, aimed at politicians whose ambition exceeded their ability.

In 1721 Walpole, a Whig, was First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Leader of the House of Commons. He had occupied some of these roles before, and had also been Secretary at War and Treasurer of the Navy. He was educated at Eton and from 1735 he lived at 10 Downing Street, so he did have some recognisably modern Prime Ministerial attributes. In other respects he broke the mould. He was one of 19 children of a Norfolk country squire, weighed twenty stones as an adult and possessed a blunt, rustic and politically incorrect turn of phrase. In cultivating Queen Caroline, the influential wife of King George II, he claimed to have “seized the right sow by the ear.”

But he was industrious, thinking nothing of starting on his correspondence at 6.00a.m., and financially adept – “the best master of figures of any man of his time”, according to a contemporary. This competence enabled him to ride out the crisis created by the South Sea Bubble of 1720. It’s not clear whether he personally made big profits or losses when the price of shares in the South Sea Company, dealing mainly in slaves and sugar, soared to stratospheric heights and then crashed. Many of his political rivals were implicated in corrupt share transactions, and ruined both financially and reputationally. Walpole earned the gratitude of King George I by damping down the scandal which could have engulfed the Hanoverian Royal Family. Cynics called him “the Screen Master General.”

The Whigs were the party of the Protestant Hanoverian Succession, dating from 1714. Many of the Tories were suspected of having secret sympathies for the exiled Catholic Stuarts, who failed to seize back the British throne in the Jacobite Rising of 1715. One of the founders of the Whig Party was Anthony Ashley-Cooper, first Earl of Shaftesbury, (1621-83) who built St Giles House at Wimborne St Giles. Ashley-Cooper died in exile after campaigning to exclude the Catholic James Duke of York from the line of inheritance. James duly succeeded his brother in 1685 but was deposed in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. The last of the Protestant Stuarts, Queen Anne, died in 1714.

St Giles House, built by the first Earl of Shaftesbury
St Giles House, built by the first Earl of Shaftesbury

Walpole’s longevity as a governing politician owed much to his policies of peace and low taxes. His motto was Quieta Non Movere, or “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie.” He was a persuasive orator, but preferred to know in advance that he could rely on the votes of the “Robinocracy”. “All those men have their price”, he is reported to have said. About a third of the Members of the House of Commons, or 185 MPs, were “Placemen” in receipt of largesse from the government, in the form of publicly-known appointments, honours or pensions. Many more sweeteners may have been paid from secret service funds, the records of which have not survived. Walpole would have regarded all this as sensible man-management, but literary opponents such as Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson and Henry Fielding satirised what they saw as industrial-scale corruption.

Walpole’s two decades in government were well-compensated. Houghton Hall cost in excess of £200,000 (values of Walpole’s day) and its walls were lined with Old Masters, sold by a later generation to Catherine the Great of Russia, where they are now on display in the Hermitage Museum.

Houghton Hall, Norfolk by Dennis Smith
Houghton Hall, Norfolk (photo by Dennis Smith)

In 1739 Walpole was dragged into the War of Jenkins’s Ear. Captain Jenkins had been trading (probably slaves) in the Spanish American colonies, as Britain was permitted to do by Treaty, when in 1731 he claimed a Spanish coastguard had cut off his ear. There was uproar when he appeared before the House of Commons in March 1738 with his ear pickled in a bottle. “It is your war,” Walpole said to the Duke of Newcastle, a fellow Whig, “and I wish you well of it.” By 1742 the war had spread into Europe and Walpole had clearly lost control of the Commons. He resigned in February 1742, was made Earl of Orford by a grateful George II, and died in 1745, the same year as another abortive Jacobite coup.

Drone Pilot - Photographer Chris McComish

Shaftesbury’s Gold Hill Museum Reaches For The Skies

Bristol-based professional video maker Chris McComish was flying his camera-carrying drone to capture footage of the stunning views from Shaftesbury on a sunny Friday morning. He has been commissioned to make a short promotional video on behalf of Gold Hill Museum. (Now available to view here) The Trustees felt that there couldn’t be a better time, with scarcely any visitors through the Museum door in the past 12 months of pandemic, plus the possibility of a staycation boom in 2021, to beef up their marketing effort. At least a third of the film, as conceived by screenwriter (!) Ian Kellett, emphasises the magnificent views into three counties from Dorset’s highest town, the importance of Shaftesbury Abbey, and the impact of Ridley Scott’s Hovis ad shot on Gold Hill. The camera lingers on the Georgian Town Hall and medieval St Peter’s before floating inside the Museum door. At this point the viewer should already be convinced that Shaftesbury is a worthwhile destination.

“I was very impressed by the drone footage in a video made for the benefit of Weymouth and Portland Heritage,” says Ian. “I thought that Shaftesbury and Gold Hill Museum needed something similar. Perhaps North Dorset can siphon off some of the thousands flocking to the Jurassic Coast. Our video will also have an authentic Dorset-accented narration, voiced by Dave Hardiman.”

Dave Hardiman about to record the voiceover
Dave Hardiman about to record the voiceover for Gold Hill Museum’s promotional video

Click here to listen to Amber Harrison’s location interview with Chris McComish on The Alfred Daily (22 minutes 14 seconds to 27.14)

Coombe House by Albert Edward Tyler

Shaftesbury Vinegar Tycoon and FA Cup Winner’s Country Retreat

Dorset Council has recently bought the former St Mary’s School for £10.05 million. Though described as Jacobean in style, Coombe House is not regarded as an historic building. It was built in 1886 (architect E.T. White) about a mile to the east of Shaftesbury, just inside Wiltshire, for Mark Hanbury Beaufoy (1854-1922), a wealthy vinegar manufacturer whose factory and main residence were in South Lambeth, London. The Beaufoy company had been founded in the 18th century by his great-grandfather, another Mark, on a site later occupied by Waterloo Bridge. Until the advent of refrigeration, vinegar was much in demand for food preservation, and in 1881 the Beaufoy works employed 125, producing 790,096 gallons of vinegar in 1898.

M. H. Beaufoy was regarded as an enlightened employer, who supported the campaign for an 8 hour working day and introduced a 45 hour week. In 1881 he chaired a meeting which founded The Church of England Central Society for Providing Homes for Waifs and Strays, later to evolve into The Children’s Society. He sat as Liberal MP for Kennington in Lambeth from 1889 to 1895, and Hansard records that in July 1889 he asked the Home Secretary whether he was aware that “a man was charged at Leman Street Police Station with having assaulted a woman by dragging her to the ground by her hair and stabbing or attempting to stab her with a knife, but was subsequently discharged without any effort having been made to find the woman.” Clearly he was concerned that an opportunity had been missed in the hunt for Jack the Ripper.

The youthful Mark was a talented footballer. This was the heyday of amateur sportsmen of independent means. He played mainly as an outside right for Eton College, Cambridge University, and Surrey, and was the member of an FA Cup Final winning team in 1879, when Old Etonians beat Clapham Rovers 1-0.

Old Etonians v Blackburn Rovers 1871
Old Etonians v Blackburn Rovers 1871

Another of Mark’s favourite pastimes was game shooting. This was the attraction of Coombe House, surrounded by 1500 acres of land ideal for pheasant shooting, with a further 500 acres being rented in the vicinity of Ashmore. Some serious safety advice was addressed to his fifteen-year-old eldest son, Henry Mark Beaufoy:

If a sportsman true you’d be

Listen carefully to me

Never, never let your gun

Pointed be at anyone.

That it may unloaded be

Matters not the least to me.

Sixteen indoor servants were employed at Coombe House, and presumably at least as many on the estate. The Beaufoy Family’s private library, which included a Shakespeare First Folio bought in 1851 and Dr Samuel Johnson’s armchair acquired in 1859, was moved to Coombe House in 1909, though the First Folio was sold in 1912. The south wing was enlarged to create a ballroom to celebrate the marriage of daughter Margaret Hilda at much the same time.

Coombe House Built 1886
Coombe House Built 1886

Mark Hanbury Beaufoy was chairman of The Kennel Club from 1920 until his death in 1922. The estate was sold in 1930, with Coombe House turned into a luxury hotel, owned in 1935 by a Mr and Mrs Whitaker, and in 1939 by S. Wormald. In 1943 it became a USAAF Rest Home for American bomber crews based in the UK. The last of the Beaufoys involved in the vinegar business, George Maurice, was killed when a Luftwaffe bomb fell on the Lambeth works in 1941. The Beaufoy brand was phased out after 1961, while the factory was converted into upmarket housing. Its white cupola can still be seen from trains approaching Vauxhall Station from the south-west.

Most recently Coombe House has been part of the complex of St Mary’s independent school, which closed in 2020. The sisters of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary bought the house in 1945 and opened a school for boarding and day girls, gradually adding to the facilities. Dorset Council has acquired the site with a view to making better provision for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, who might otherwise have to be accommodated much further afield. The views of Dorset residents and other interest groups were being sought until 18 March 2021 at

The photographs of Coombe House are from Gold Hill Museum’s Tyler Collection.

Coombe House from the Tyler Collection
Coombe House from the Tyler Collection

Roman Box Room by Tryphena Orchard

Amazing Spaces Challenge Now Open to All

In 2019 Gold Hill Museum was given a collection of superb hand-made dolls’ houses made by Tryphena Orchard, and this year we are exhibiting them with the stories of the people who ‘lived’ in them. There are two large semi-detached houses, a Tudor tearoom, and four individual rooms, each with a theme, including a Roman room, and a Victorian parlour.

We would like to set you the challenge of making your own ‘Amazing Space’, about the size of a shoe-box, and using everyday materials you can find easily at home. Your Amazing Space could be a room in a house, a shop, a garden or something completely original. It can be a replica of a real room, or an imaginary place. Each room needs to have its own story about the people who lived in it or used it.

When you have finished your room, please take a photo of it and email it to

Miniature Garden Terrace by Tryphena Orchard
Miniature Garden Terrace by Tryphena Orchard

We will print the pictures with the story and put up some of the entries on-line and alongside our own dolls’ house exhibition. When we are able to open, we may ask you to bring in your Amazing Space so we can show our visitors the real thing!

Please send your entries to us by Wednesday March 31st.

Good luck everyone and we look forward very much to seeing your Amazing Spaces.

Please click on this link to hear Claire’s latest interview with Nick Crump on The Alfred Daily (from 13.35 to 22.48 approximately).

East Cliff Hall from its garden (2)

One Hundred Years Ago Bournemouth Is Given a Treasure Trove

On 27 January 1921 Sir Merton Russell-Cotes died. In the course of a long and colourful life he had risen from humble beginnings to possess a fortune (most of which was given away to charitable causes), a flagship Bournemouth hotel, a significant art collection which filled a purpose-built clifftop villa, a knighthood, and a double-barrelled surname. In 1896 he had secured a lease on the elevated site for a new house, East Cliff Hall. In appearance this was an eccentric fusion, in his own words, of “Renaissance, Italian and old Scottish baronial styles.” Only the top storey was visible from the road and entrance level, while three storeys nestled into the cliff and commanded superb sea views. Visitors descended into the double-height Main Hall, which was overlooked on all four sides by a balcony. Statuary and a mosaic fountain caught the eye in the Hall, while the balcony walls were covered with paintings. Rooms off the balcony were dedicated to Japanese artworks – 100 packing cases of artefacts had been brought back from Japan in 1885 – and to memorabilia associated with the famous actor Sir Henry Irving. In 1907, at a civic lunch held to celebrate the opening of the undercliff promenade for which Merton had campaigned for 30 years, the sensational announcement was made that East Cliff Hall and its art collection would be gifted to the town of Bournemouth. Henceforth it would be known as The Russell Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, though Merton and his wife Annie would continue to reside there during their lifetimes. By the time Annie died in April 1920, she and her husband had funded three additional galleries and the salary of a curator.

Royal Bath Hotel by Ethan Doyle White 2019
Royal Bath Hotel by Ethan Doyle White 2019

Merton bought the lease of the Bath Hotel in 1876. He was the third son (born 1835) of a Wolverhampton wholesale ironmonger, Samuel Coates. Merton’s middle name was probably a tribute to Lord John Russell, something of a local Midlands hero for his championing of the 1832 Reform Act, and was never hyphenated during most of his lifetime. He seems to have been a commercial traveller in cotton goods, though one also interested in buying and selling contemporary British art. He acquired experience of the hotel trade in Glasgow, in partnership with his sister Clara, and renamed the Royal Hanover Hotel, off George Square, on the strength of a visit by a great-grandson of Charles X of France. In fact Merton’s great talents lay in marketing, networking, and self-promotion. The Bath became the Royal Bath Hotel because the Prince of Wales, aged 14, stayed for one night in 1856, and was virtually rebuilt in Loire Valley chateau style in 1877. Merton knew the power of celebrity and ensured that the Royal Bath could provide the luxury expected by an upmarket clientele. In the early 1890’s this included Prince Albert of Belgium, conductor Sir Charles Halle, Oscar Wilde before his fall from grace, and Henry Irving, whom Merton claimed as a special friend.

Merton Russell Cotes wearing the Mayoral Badge donated by himself and his wife (2)
Merton Russell Cotes wearing the Mayoral Badge donated by himself and his wife (2)

In 1894 Merton served as one of the early Mayors of the newly incorporated Borough of Bournemouth. He was not an elected Councillor and may have regretted accepting the honour after the Council reversed his attempt to block a right of way passing between the Royal Bath and three adjoining houses to which he held the leases. By 1908 this furore was long-forgotten when the Russell Cotes received the Freedom of the Borough, and few begrudged a knighthood for Merton in 1909. It may have been references in the press to “Sir Russell Cotes” which led to the adoption of the hyphen.

Merton Russell-Cotes was to have been the subject of The Shaftesbury & District Historical Society’s January 2021 lecture by David Beardsley. This has been postponed until Tuesday 04 January 2022.

This blog was inspired by a reading of ‘The Art of a Salesman: The Life of Sir Merton Russell-Cotes’ published by Paul Whittaker in 2019. Paul maintains a blog about Merton Russell-Cotes at Sketches of a Salesman.

Miniature Tea Room by Tryphena Orchard

Gold Hill Museum to open Tudor Tea Rooms for 2021 Season (but see below)

Cafe proprietors – and there are several excellent Shaftesbury venues within a couple of minutes’ walking distance of Gold Hill Museum – need have no fear of added competition. The Tudor Tea Rooms in question are no more than three feet high. They were hand-built by a Dolls’ House enthusiast and fitted with exquisitely detailed interiors. Claire Ryley, who has been preparing the models for exhibition, reports that “There is a wood-panelled tea room and cake shop downstairs, and another room and kitchen upstairs. There are literally hundreds of accessories for the tea rooms including crockery, cakes and cooking equipment, and I greatly enjoyed exploring all the boxes of tiny objects.”

Miniature Tudor Tea Rooms by Tryphena Orchard
Miniature Tudor Tea Rooms by Tryphena Orchard

Childhood is the theme for 2021’s displays in the Large Exhibition Room. Here there is space to do justice to the marvellous Dolls’ Houses hand-crafted by the late Tryphena Orchard. There are also four miniature room settings in individual boxes, ranging from a Roman interior to a lavishly furnished Victorian drawing room occupied by authentically costumed residents.

Miniature Victorian Drawing Room by Tryphena Orchard
Miniature Victorian Drawing Room by Tryphena Orchard

Claire hopes to offer local schoolchildren an “Amazing Spaces Challenge” to make a “box room of a room, a shop, a garden or an imaginary place, using a shoe box or similar, and everyday things easily found at home. Each Amazing Space should have a story too. We should be able to exhibit some of these at Gold Hill Museum when we re-open.”

Tryphena generously gave the Museum three much larger model buildings: two semi-detached houses in 1920’s style with roof terraces, planters and garden furniture, as well as the Tudor Tea Rooms. All three buildings are connected by an imaginative backstory which inspired the superbly detailed internal decor and furnishings. Please visit once we are open to discover this backstory, together with other nursery and childhood-related artefacts and activities.

Miniature Art Deco-era Egyptian Bedroom by Tryphena Orchard
Miniature Art Deco-era Egyptian Bedroom by Tryphena Orchard

Please click here for Claire’s interview with ThisisAlfred’s Nick Crump.

John Rutter Plaque (2)

Blue Plaque to Recognise one of Shaftesbury’s Greatest Citizens

A newly-minted blue plaque, the first to recognise the life and contribution of a Shaftesbury individual, has been delivered to Gold Hill Museum, the HQ of The Shaftesbury & District Historical Society. John Rutter, the subject of the plaque, was a doughty campaigner for the extension of democracy, the abolition of slavery, and the improvement of local education and living conditions during the first half of the nineteenth century. His bookseller’s, stationery and printing shop was at Number 2, The Commons, where the plaque will be installed in the spring or summer of 2021. The S&DHS project has been spearheaded by Honorary President Sir John Stuttard, whose book The Turbulent Quaker of Shaftesbury (2018), did much to raise awareness of John Rutter’s reformist pedigree. A generous grant towards half the cost has been pledged by Shaftesbury Town Council.

In the Winter 2020-21 Byzant, the occasional newsletter of The S&DHS, Sir John looks at the origins of Shaftesbury’s existing blue plaques as well as Rutter’s career as a reformer. Beatrice King offers Some Recollections of Shaftesbury Life 1937-59 as told to her by her late mother Rosemary and recalling the work of her grandmother Rita Edwards as Head of Cann School. Chris Stupples explains how he came to be involved in researching and inputting over a thousand Great War biographies into the Shaftesbury Remembers website (1103 by the beginning of December). Ian Kellett provides an account of life from November 1914 onwards for British internees In Ruhleben Camp, focussing on a Bristol seaman with a local connection, and footballer Steve Bloomer who was ‘the Lionel Messi of his day’. Dave Hardiman tells the salutary story of William Sims (1808-1852), a petty thief and housebreaker from Cann, whose death sentence at the age of 21 was commuted to transportation to Australia. This 34 page full-colour edition also includes Elaine Barratt’s Chairman’s Chat, the minutes of the September online AGM, a report of the BBC South Today visit to Gold Hill Museum in October, and an update on events at Shaftesbury Abbey Museum from Claire Ryley.

Members of The S&DHS should have received their printed issue by post or hand delivery. If not, please contact us at Gold Hill Museum. We have a few spare copies available for sale to non-members at cost price (£1.50 per copy).

Horse-powered Threshing Machine

“Swing” Rioters Smash Machinery at Pythouse near Tisbury

On 25 November 2020 local historian Christina Richard wrote:

‘It’s a miserable wet morning in Tisbury and it’s worth remembering that 190 years ago to the day, local agricultural workers rioted to draw attention to their appalling low wages – 7s per week. Common land had already been enclosed locally, taking away their right to run a cow, geese or a pig on communal land. Many of them were nearly destitute, and now the introduction of threshing machines by the local farmers would deprive them of casual work during the winter.

So spare a thought for them – they broke up the threshing machines at Fonthill Gifford, Lawn, and in other places, eventually falling foul of John Benett at Pythouse, and crossing swords (sticks in their case) with the Hindon branch of the Yeoman Cavalry. Many were arrested, and taken by cart to Salisbury Gaol where they were all tried, some were found guilty, transferred to the horrible prison hulk York in Portsmouth Harbour and eventually transported to Van Diemens Land (Tasmania), where most of them had to stay until they died, even after they were granted ticket of leave and pardoned – how could they afford to come home?.

So. happy 25 November. Some of their names are familiar to us – Macey, Mould, Burt, Gray, Jerrard, Rixon, Sanger, Snook, Topp, Targett and Vining. Most were in their mid twenties with small children. Their wives took over the agricutural labouring in order to feed their families.

Puts lockdown into place, doesn’t it?’

Christina. who published The Grotto Makers: Joseph and Josiah Lane of Tisbury in 2018, is presently researching the story of the Pythouse Riot. It was one of many hundreds of agricultural disturbances across southern counties in the autumn of 1830, supposedly led by the mythical “Captain Swing”. The “Battle of Pythouse” was notable for its violence and one unfortunate labourer, John Harding, was killed. The inquest jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide. Rural distress among the labouring poor continued, and in 1834 the Tolpuddle Martyrs were sentenced to transportation at Dorchester Assizes after attempting to form a Trade Union to resist wage cuts.

Edla Norton Mayor of Shaftesbury 1933 (3)

First Women Mayors – and the Loss of a Popular Male Mayor

In 1933 Edla Marian Norton (nee Eklund) became the first woman Mayor of Shaftesbury. Historian Dr. Jaime Reynolds is writing a book about the first women Mayors in Britain and contacted Gold Hill Museum in search of information about Edla and the Norton family into which she married. Edla’s grandparents were Swedish though she was born in London in 1879. In 1917 she married John Archibald Norton in Brighton. In 1918 some women were given the vote but it was not until 1928 that all women were enfranchised, on the same terms as men.

The Nortons were prominent figures in local politics and Methodism in Shaftesbury. Edla’s husband was Mayor in 1928 and again in 1945. George Edmund Norton was Mayor in 1937, according to the illuminated list in Shaftesbury Town Hall. (Thanks To Town Clerk Claire Commons for images of this list and of Edla Norton.) The Nortons lived at 2 Ivy Cross until John died in 1956 and Edla in 1957. (Thanks to Chris Stupples for these details.) If anyone has any further information of interest to Dr. Reynolds, please email and we will be pleased to forward it.

The second woman Mayor of Shaftesbury was Kathleen Olive Cole in 1952. The first woman Mayor in England was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, best known for her campaigns to enable women to practise medicine and exercise the right to vote. She became Mayor of Aldeburgh in 1908.

Shaftesbury has just lost one of its noblest citizens in former Mayor Ray Humphries MBE. In common with many other voluntary organisations in the town, Gold Hill Museum benefited from strong practical support from Ray, in our case as a regular steward and occasional handyman. He cleared gutters, shaved the bottom off a swollen door, fitted a new extractor fan, helped fix the Shaftesbury locomotive name-plate to a very uneven wall, made an elegant plinth to make the donations box more noticeable, and drove his van to Sparkford so that we could recycle an unwanted display case from the Haynes Motor Museum. The display case is now in the centre of Room 8. Everything was done with immense patience and good humour. Not so much a hard act to follow as utterly impossible. Lockdown permitting, the cortege will pause outside the Town Hall at noon approximately on Tuesday 10 November when the Town Band, for which Ray was a talented percussionist, will play. Our sincere condolences to Ray’s family.


Great War Researcher Chris Clocks Up 1000 Life Stories

In late August 2020 volunteer Chris Stupples posted his thousandth biographical entry on the Shaftesbury Remembers the Great War website. The Project, inspired by Claire Ryley and Ann Symons of The Shaftesbury & District Historical Society, began with a modest Heritage Lottery Fund grant in 2015. Chris toured the War Memorials of Shaftesbury and the surrounding villages, recording the names and then researching the family histories and service records of those individuals. The resulting mini-biographies were posted on the Shaftesbury Remembers website, designed and built by Rob Frost of Orion IT Ltd. and launched officially in November 2017. There you can find not only hundreds of life stories but also photographs and detailed background information of many aspects of life in the locality at the time of the 1914-18 War. Printed copies of all the material on the website can be consulted in folders freely available in Room 8 at Gold Hill Museum.

Currently Chris is well into his second thousand, telling the stories of the men and women who came back from the War. He picked up this baton from the late Ken Baxter. At the time of his interview with Keri Jones of ThisisAlfred on 23 September 2020 Chris had reached number 1046. He is keen to hear from families whose relatives are not so far represented in Shaftesbury Remembers, and can be contacted through Gold Hill Museum.