From Private Banker to Aesthetic All-Rounder and Shaper of Stourhead

At 2.30p.m. on 09 April at Gold Hill Museum, the National Trust’s Collections and House Officer at Stourhead, Hannah Severn, will give an illustrated talk on The Life and Work of Sir Richard Colt Hoare (1758-1838): Artist, Antiquarian, and Traveller. While it was the two Henry Hoares, Richard’s great-grandfather and grandfather, who first built the Palladian mansion and then created its magnificent landscape garden, he made significant additions and alterations to both, as well as proving to be an accomplished artist, archaeological pioneer and author of compendious Histories of Wiltshire. In pursuing these interests his life intersected with those of William Beckford and John Rutter, key figures in the history of Shaftesbury and District. The talk is free to members of The S&DHS, and seats should be available from 2.20p.m. for non-members on payment of £3 at the door.

Stourhead House photographed by xlibber (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence). The central Palladian-style villa built 1721-25 for Henry Hoare I. The wings added by his great-grandson Richard Colt Hoare from 1792, to accommodate (left) a Library and (right) a Picture Gallery.

The money to finance the purchase of the Stourton estate in 1717 came from the profits of Hoare’s Bank, founded in 1672 – early customers were Samuel Pepys and Queen Catherine of Braganza. Not all private banks flourished; many went under at the time of the foundation of the Bank of England in 1694, and in the wake of the share-buying frenzy of the South Sea Bubble in 1720. (The South Sea Company had been granted a monopoly of the supply of African slaves to the islands in the “South Seas” and South America.) Henry Hoare II was determined to separate the finances of the Bank from those of the Stourhead estate, so that the latter would remain in the family if ever the Bank failed (it is still in business). Therefore Richard Colt Hoare inherited Stourhead in 1783, on condition that he severed all connections with the Bank, where he had been working. In the same year he married the lively Hester Lyttelton.

In 1785 Richard’s world, already subject to family tensions over his inheritance, fell apart when Hester died after giving birth to their second child, who did not survive. Within weeks Richard left for an extended Grand Tour of Italy, France and Switzerland, which lasted until 1791. From having been one of the most settled men in the world I am become the most fickle. I hardly know where I shall sleep the next night. (Later) there is so much work for my pencil that I know not when I shall be able to get away.

Sketch of the Pont du Gard Roman Aqueduct by Richard Colt Hoare. Original in the Yale Center for British Art. Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Richard filled the shelves of his new Library with bound volumes of sketches and commentaries, plus topographical works on the countries he had visited. He now undertook similar tours of Britain and Ireland. His 1802 exploration followed the interesting and highly curious itinerary of Giraldus Cambrensis through north and south Wales in the year 1188 [with] drawings to illustrate it. Gerald of Wales was an ambitious Norman / Welsh monk who accompanied Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, on a seven-week, 600-mile recruiting campaign for the Third Crusade. Colt Hoare’s translation from the Latin, published in 1806, brought Gerald’s quirky description of Welsh manners and wildlife to a wider audience, and is still an entertaining read. The furnishings of the new Library and Picture Gallery, including the ornate carved frames of massive Old Master paintings, were the work of Thomas Chippendale the Younger.

Stonehenge Trilithon by Timothy Darvill, Antiquity Issue 386. Creative Commons Attribution – Share Alike International 4.0

In January 1797 one of the three standing trilithons at Stonehenge collapsed. William Cunnington was one of the antiquarians attracted to the scene, and began investigating what had been beneath the stones. He probably met Colt Hoare through a mutual friend, William Coxe, Rector of Stourton, and all three were interested in trying to understand the ancient landscape of Wiltshire. Colt Hoare became patron of a team in which Cunnington, Stephen Parker and son John, all from Heytesbury, did most of the digging, and Philip Crocker produced impeccable maps and artwork of their finds. According to Julian Richards Between 1803 and 1810 Cunnington and his team opened 465 barrows in Wiltshire, nearly 200 of them in the area around Stonehenge. (Stonehenge; The story so far Historic England, 2017, p78) Modern archaeologists probably wish that they had not done so, but this was more than mere treasure-hunting, and Colt Hoare published his findings in his multi-part Ancient History of Wiltshire 1810-21. It is still, along with Cunnington’s original notes and correspondence, a valuable resource for today’s students of prehistory. (Richards, p85).

There were even more instalments of The History of Modern Wiltshire, to which he contributed from 1822. Some of this was published by Shaftesbury printer John Rutter, whose Delineations of Fonthill, to which Colt Hoare was an early subscriber, appeared in the wake of Beckford’s sale of Fonthill Abbey in 1822. Colt Hoare had long been interested in what the reclusive Beckford was building and furnishing behind his high stone walls, but was warned off associating with the social pariah. Joseph Farington wrote in his diary for October 1806 that Sir Richard Hoare of Stourhead applied to Mr. Beckford to see the Abbey … the neighbouring gentlemen took such umbrage at it … that a gentleman wrote to Sir Richard in his own name and that of others to demand of him an explanation.

The 17th century Queen who could say “There were three of us in this marriage”

Professor Maria Hayward, Head of History at Southampton University, has been working on the Privy Purse account books of Charles II’s Queen, Catherine of Braganza. (1638-1705) At 2.30p.m. on Tuesday 05 March at Gold Hill Museum, Maria takes time off her busy schedule to share with members of The Shaftesbury & District Historical Society what she has discovered about an under-rated monarch whose legacy is still influencing the British and American ways of life today. This illustrated talk is open to non-members from 2.20p.m. when seats should be available on payment of £3 at the door.

Last season we heard from Paul Cordle in “Escape or Die” how in 1651 the youthful King Charles II, by a mixture of bravado and sheer good fortune, evaded the posses of Parliamentary troopers on his tail from Worcester to Shoreham, where he found a boat for France. In 1660 he was able to return to reclaim his crowns at the Restoration of the Monarchy, having already acquired an habitually decadent life-style and at least one illegitimate son, James Crofts or Scott, future Duke of Monmouth.

During his continental exile Charles had not been impressed by the charms of any potential Protestant brides. The Braganza kingdom of Portugal, however, was keen to secure an ally in its struggle to remain independent of its domineering neighbour Habsburg Spain. A dowry worth £360,000 plus the trading posts of Bombay / Mumbai and Tangier convinced Charles of the merits of a marriage to the Portuguese Infanta, Catherine of Braganza. While Tangier proved a dubious asset, requiring constant expenditure on its defences, Bombay was to become a jewel in the crown of British India. Trading rights in Brazil and the Portuguese East Indies gave access to lucrative colonial markets, including those for slaves.

When a seasick Catherine landed at Portsmouth in May 1662, her first request was for a cup of tea. This quintessential British beverage was then a novelty, first served in a London coffee house in 1657, and promoted for its health benefits. (Boiling the polluted water of the day was a good idea.) In 1658 tea was advertised as That Excellent and by all Physicians approved China drink, called by the Chinese Tcha, by other nations Tay alias Tee. The diarist Samuel Pepys first mentions drinking it in September 1660. Catherine’s preference for tea and its introduction as a standard refreshment at Court functions helped establish tea-drinking as a fashionable activity, initially for the wealthy as tea was much more expensive than coffee.

This 1661 etching by Hollar shows Catherine of Braganza with a single lock of hair looped over the forehead in the Portuguese fashion. This and the continued wearing of farthingales to extend the width of her ladies’ dresses at the hips attracted negative comments from English observers in 1662. Later, writes Jenny Uglow, Catherine came to really like the light English dresses with their revealing bodices, and enjoyed dressing in breeches which showed off her legs. Original in the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

Something else recorded enthusiastically by Pepys was the King’s dalliance with a favourite mistress, Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine. At the time of Catherine’s arrival, Barbara was pregnant with one of five children acknowledged by Charles. She had already persuaded the King to secure her appointment as a Lady of the Queen’s Bedchamber. On 21 May Pepys noted walking into Whitehall garden; and in the privy Garden saw the finest smocks and linen petticoats of my Lady Castlemaynes, laced with rich lace at the bottomes, that ever I sawe; and did me good to look upon themthe King dined at my Lady Castlemayne, and supped every day and night the last week. And the night that the bonefires were made for joy of the Queenes arrivall, the King was there, but there was no fire at her door.

Predictably this ménage a trois provoked some furious scenes. The Lord Chancellor, Edward Hyde Earl of Clarendon (born in Dinton), encouraged the Queen to resist the appointment. She struck the name of Castlemaine from the list, and fainted when the two were introduced. The King made it plain that he would not back down under any circumstances: I am resolved to go through with this matter, let what will come on it … If you desire to have the continuance of my friendship, meddle no more with this business … And whosoever I find to be my Lady Castlemaine’s enemy in this matter, I do promise upon my word to be his enemy as long as I live.

Eventually Catherine decided on tactics of conciliation, rather than confrontation. (Uglow) Barbara was a Lady of the Bedchamber until 1673, by which time she had been supplanted in Charles’s affections by Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth. Three illegitimate sons – Charles (b 1662), Henry (1663) and George (1665) – were all given the surname Fitzroy, confirming their royal parentage. Sadly Catherine’s three pregnancies all miscarried.

Charles did show some respect and affection for his Queen at the time of the Popish Plot in 1678. This was the wildest conspiracy theory of the age, a farrago of lies and pure invention which fed on contemporary anti-Catholic prejudices and fears of a future Catholic dynasty should a childless Charles be succeeded by his brother James, a Catholic convert. Members of Catherine’s Portuguese household were accused of plotting to kill the King. The most notorious liar, Titus Oates, even accused Catherine of scheming to poison her husband. Charles was present in person to tear holes in Oates’s fantasies, but it made little impression on the Protestant public, or on Exclusionist Whig politicians like Anthony Ashley-Cooper, first Earl of Shaftesbury, who would know it was all rubbish but who exploited the furore to try to alter the Succession. As Shaftesbury said later: I will not say who started the Game, but I am sure I had the full hunting of it.

St Giles House, built by the first Earl of Shaftesbury
St Giles House, built by the first Earl of Shaftesbury (1621-83)

The royal brothers referred contemptuously to the diminutive Shaftesbury as little sincerity – he had changed sides during the Civil Wars, and from supporter of the King to critic in the 1670s – but he was consistent in wishing to retain the role of Parliament in government. He suspected that both brothers were envious of the absolute power exercised in France by Louis XIV and would rule autocratically in Britain if they could. Repeatedly during the Exclusion crisis Shaftesbury urged the King to divorce Queen Catherine and marry a Protestant princess or declare Monmouth to be his legitimate heir. Charles however steadfastly maintained that the Queen could never do anything wicked, and it would be a horrible thing to abandon her.

So Catherine of Braganza’s legacy arguably includes the name of one of New York’s Boroughs; the foundation of British India; the popularisation of tea-drinking; trouser-wearing for women; and quite unintentionally, the beginnings of a political party (the Whigs) and the party system. In 1685, when Charles was on his deathbed, Catherine sent a message to beg his pardon if she had offended him in all her life, to which he replied: Alas, poor woman! She ask my pardon? I beg hers with all my heart.

A Turn of the Century Lady Photographer – and More

Members of the Shaftesbury & District Historical Society will be presenting their own historical findings to the informal setting of a Tea and Talks event at Gold Hill Museum at 2.30p.m. on Tuesday 06 February. Among the proposed topics are photographs by Elizabeth Upfield (1854-1903); the Abbess of Shaftesbury’s Farmhouses in the Nadder Valley; and local Sheep Washes. All will be illustrated and promise to shed new light on aspects of local history. Non-members are welcome when seats are available after 2.20p.m. Please be prepared to make a donation towards the cost of refreshments.

Claire Ryley and Ann Symons are well known locally for their presentations of images from the Museum’s (Albert) Tyler Collection. They have begun to identify an increasing number of photographs taken by a female contemporary, Elizabeth Upfield. Research, Ann writes, has established that Mrs Upfield was born Elizabeth Frances Hale in 1854 in Farlington, Hampshire. She became a dressmaker and milliner. In 1882 she married James Hooper, a draper with a shop in Shaftesbury High Street. James died leaving her with 3 young children. She married Albert Upfield in 1898. They continued to run the shop as “drapers and milliners” in the High Street. It was listed in the 1903 Kelly’s Directory as: “New Photographic Studio (all communications & invoices to be addressed to E.F. Upfield, proprietress), High Street.In the same year Elizabeth Frances Upfield died on 7th August and was buried at Holy Trinity Church.

The image above is of a print in an E.F. Upfield mount. It shows the town en fete, possibly for the Prince of Wales’s seven-minute-long royal visit on 21 October 1899. But there were other celebratory occasions at the turn of the century.

Martin Shallcross will cast a farmer’s eye over evidence of the Abbess of Shaftesbury’s Farmhouses in the Nadder Valley. Perhaps the best known example is Place Farm Tisbury with its spectacular Tithe Barn. Alan Carter brings his vet’s eye to the evidence of local Sheep Washes.

The Tithe Barn at Place Farm Tisbury, built by the Abbess of Shaftesbury, possibly in the 13th century. Currently leased from the Fonthill Estate by Messums West

Restored “Made in Shaftesbury” Cheese Press Gift to Museum

A substantial piece of Shaftesbury’s industrial past has been restored and very kindly donated to Gold Hill Museum by a descendant of the Farris family at whose Belle Vue Iron Works it was first manufactured. John Farris and Sons were agricultural engineers renowned for their production of steam traction engines, road rollers, shepherds’ and road menders’ huts, ploughs, chaff-cutters and other agricultural machinery. Donor Dan Wood’s grandmother was the daughter of Stanley Farris, grandson of John, who was running the firm at the time of its closure in 1975. Dan acquired the redundant cheese press more than a decade ago after it had been neglected and left outside in the elements. It was unusual in that the Farris name and Shaftesbury were clearly visible in the casting, and (from our point of view) it was small enough to put on display.

Detail of Farris cheese press kindly donated by Dan Wood

Dan writes: There was a broken casting which I repaired; the wooden base (which I believe might be elm) was soft and had suffered worm damage so I treated this and painted many coats of yacht varnish to soak in and protect the wood. I found multiple different paint colours on the metal parts: green, turquoise, a gold colour and a blue. The blue was clearly the most recent and I couldn’t tell or find out what colour it should have been so went with BS220 Olive Green which I know was used in the early 1900’s for various machinery. Once I restored and assembled it I realised it took a lot of room and wasn’t much use being only me who could appreciate it. Also, I have seen others made by Farris but it seems rare to have the Farris name and Shaftesbury in the casting so I realised it would look good in the museum. We have to agree with Dan; the restored cheese press can be seen In Room 2 Farming Life when we open to the public from 10 to 18 February inclusive for Shaftesbury Snowdrops, and for the main season every day from Saturday 23 March.

Since we couldn’t possibly accommodate a full-size steam traction engine, we have long been pleased to have on loan from the Farris family a model engine “Kitty” built over three years by the second son of John, William. Dated 1897, “Kitty” has a sovereign mounted in the smoke-box door, and is superbly displayed in Room 4 Life in the Town. Until 1975 “Kitty” was on show in the engineers’ office in Victoria Street. Dan recalls seeing the model in a glass case in Stanley’s living room.

“Kitty” model steam traction engine built over three years by William Farris, dated 1897. Kindly loaned by the Farris family. Photographed in 2023 by Alan Booth

The theme of Gold Hill Museum’s main temporary exhibition for 2024 is “Made in Shaftesbury”. We would welcome examples of items made in Shaftesbury & District for temporary loan, or simply information about them for our archives. If you can contribute, please contact us via

Beckford Expert To Give Update On Tower Project

On Tuesday 09 January at 2.30p.m. popular speaker Dr Amy Frost makes a welcome return to Gold Hill Museum to provide an update on the progress of the restoration and reinterpretation project at Beckford’s Tower and Museum at Lansdown, Bath. During her compelling 2022 Teulon Porter Memorial Lecture on William Beckford After Fonthill, Amy confessed that she had sufficient material to fill another lecture – and this is it. More to the point, a number of exciting discoveries have been made during the year-long closure of Beckford’s Tower, where Amy is Curator.

Beckford’s Tower, a notable landmark on the north side of Bath, is scheduled to re-open in March 2024

The aims of the part Heritage Lottery Funded Project included the physical restoration of the Tower, which was being damaged by water ingress, and bringing the story of William Beckford’s complex and controversial life to a wider contemporary audience. The Beckford family fortune, which had funded the building of first Fonthill Abbey and then the Tower, was created by slave labour on sugar plantations in Jamaica. Beckford’s bi-sexuality had led to his status as a social pariah, with none of the movers and shakers of Georgian society being willing to visit Fonthill until Beckford had put the estate up for sale and left for Bath.

Beckford’s morning routine, once he had built the Tower, was to ride with his dogs from his home in Lans- down Crescent through a landscape maintained by his gardeners, to stables at the Tower. En route were a tunnel under a public path and a fashionable rock-cut grotto, which has been excavated during the Project. Having only ever seen one partial historic drawing of the Grotto steps prior to the excavation, uncovering the extent of them, Amy observes, has been a wonderful surprise for us all – and a real career highlight for me.

For the past several years, Amy has been excavating the Beckford archive in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. She has made hitherto unsuspected links between Beckford’s letters and sketches to surviving artefacts and paintings of interiors, showing his meticulous planning and positioning of items of furniture and artworks. This 1845 painting of objects in Beckford’s collection was one of several commissioned by his daughter after his death. The higgledy-piggledy arrangement would have been intolerable to her father.

Most recently Amy has published an article on Beckford’s Doodles in volume 29 of The Beckford Journal. Many were scribbles on the address pages of letters just received by Beckford and may reflect his immediate response to the content – boredom perhaps? – and some were quite elaborately drawn town or landscapes. There is no danger of any tedium in Amy’s animated and enlightening presentations. Her talk is free to members of The Shaftesbury & District Historical Society, while seats should be available from 2.20p.m. to non-members on payment of £3 at the door.

Slow and Dirty? Swift and Delightful? or Sabotaged and Defeated?

On Tuesday 05 December at 2.30p.m. at Gold Hill Museum, Professor Colin Divall takes as his subject “The Puffing Billy of the Hedgerows” – the politics of the Somerset & Dorset Railway closure, c.1951-67.

Colin writes: “The Somerset & Dorset’s closure in March 1966 was one of the most bitterly fought of the Beeching cuts in the South West. Accusations of fiddled figures, poor marketing and deliberately missed connections painted a picture of a valuable north-south link sabotaged by short-sighted railway managers and uncaring Whitehall mandarins. More than 60 years on we can now see that the line was financially in deep trouble by the early 1950s. Given the widespread belief in the 1960s that cars and buses were the future of personal mobility, modernization was never going to be enough to save a heavily loss-making route that ran through solidly Conservative constituencies rather than the marginal ones which saved some other lines.”

Physical and political geography always detracted from the efficient working of the S & D. Its northern line to Bath across the Mendips was expensive to build, maintain and operate. (Marked in red on Afterbrunel’s map). The summit at Masbury was 811 feet above sea level. This was one hundred feet higher than the altitude of Shaftesbury, which never managed to attract a railway line or station. S & D historian Robin Atthill writes that the line shows signs of high engineering competence in extraordinarily difficult terrain: it winds almost continuously, with long stretches at the ruling gradient of 1 in 50, four tunnels totalling nearly 2.600 yd, and seven major viaducts. Most steam locomotives needed assistance to haul trains over the Mendips; freight trains with ‘bankers’ to push, and express passenger trains with double-heading between Bath and Evercreech. This included relatively modern designs such as the West Country class Light Pacifics to which the locomotive Shaftesbury belonged. (In the photo above an S & D Fowler 2-8-0 pilots the West Country Crediton.) Requiring two engines for many trains doubled the costs in crew, coal, and locomotive maintenance, and high average speeds were impossible to attain.

After grouping of the private railway companies in 1923, S & D routes fell into the domains of the Great Western and the Southern, while popular long-distance passenger services, such as the Pines Express from Northern cities to the holiday destination of Bournemouth, originated in London Midland and Scottish territory. Long-serving S & D railwaymen suspected that the GWR (Western Region after nationalisation in 1948) had little affection for the S & D. In 1965, Robin Atthill writes, a mass meeting at Templecombe accused the Western Region in the presence of two MPs and four prospective candidates, in front of television cameras and microphones, of “cold-blooded, deliberate murder of the line, planned and carefully executed over a period of ten years, way before Dr Beeching’s plan.”

Efficient running of the S & D was further compromised by the fact that more than a third of the Bath to Bournemouth line, and in particular the section between Templecombe and Blandford, was always single track, creating potential bottlenecks at passing loops at stations such as Stalbridge, Sturminster Newton, and Shillingstone. With the exception of Shillingstone, there are few traces left of many of the Dorset S & D stations or halts. Blandford was easily the most impressive station belonging to the Somerset & Dorset, with a splendid station building on the up [northbound] platform, a subway, and a lofty signalbox dominating the scene on the down side. (Atthill)

Blandford Station photographed by Ben Brooksbank in April 1963. Closed in 1966 and now almost entirely built over. All images Creative Commons Share-alike Licence 2.0

Colin Divall is professor emeritus of railway studies at the University of York and was until 2014 head of the Institute of Railway Studies & Transport History, a joint venture with the National Railway Museum. Brought up near Wimborne, he remembers the last passenger trains over the Somerset & Dorset in March 1966, when he was surprised to discover that some steam engines were painted green not the grey gunk with which he was familiar. Colin is now exiled to former Great Western Railway territory – Bridport – where he researches the post-war politics of rural transport in the West Country as well as contributing to the East Dorset railways website,

This illustrated talk is free to members of The Shaftesbury & District Historical Society, while seats should be available from 2.20pm to non-members on payment of £3 at the door.

The Impact of the 1914-18 War on Children

Historian and broadcaster Dr Vivien Newman will shed new light on the experience of children across the combatant nations in her illustrated talk at Gold Hill Museum at 2.30p.m. on Tuesday 07 November. The story of (evacuee) British children in World War Two is familiar, but their part in the First World War is much less well known. Evacuees then were mainly Belgian and French. Few British readers [Viv writes] are aware that 499,137 French people (including approximately 150,000 children) from the ten wholly or partially Occupied French Departments (counties) were either forced or permitted to leave their homes. They were circuitously transported via Germany and Switzerland before being deposited once again in France, primarily in Evian on Lake Geneva.

British schoolchildren were encouraged to contribute to the war effort. Schoolgirls converted thousands of pairs of disused woollen stockings into mittens; boys’ woodwork classes in both England and Australia became mini factories for manufacturing splints and crutches for the Red Cross .. on one occasion, the crutch made by a boy was, to their mutual surprise, given to a relative.

Before the outbreak of war School Boards had permitted children over 11 who had achieved the Fourth of Six Standards to work fulltime on the land for part of the year. By 1917, H.A.L. Fisher, President of the Board of Education, estimated that “600,000 children had been put prematurely to work”.

1918 photo probably taken in a Midlands toy factory. The girl is attaching wigs to dolls. (Imperial War Museum)

Two recently founded youth organisations prized public service and duty: the Boy Scouts (1909) and Girl Guides (1910). On 29 October 1914, Boy Scouts were engaged to work for MI5. By 4 September 1915, the experiment was considered a failure. Boy Scouts were perhaps better suited to outdoor tasks, such as watching the coast and strategic bridges. So MI5 recruited 90 Girl Guides instead, mainly as messengers at their Waterloo House HQ. Guiding’s greatest accolade came in 1919: seen as utterly reliable, a contingent accompanied the British delegation to France. They ran errands for the Paris Peace Conference delegates at the Palace of Versailles and a group of Senior Guides (aged over 16) were invited to witness the signing of the Peace Treaty.

Boy Scouts with bugles awaiting instructions for sounding the all-clear. (Imperial War Museum Collection)

Toy manufacturers, British and German, swiftly developed products inspired by the War. Not all were in the best taste. 1915’s most gruesome offering was ‘The Exploding Trench’. A 30cm-long wood and cardboard, muddy green-coloured ‘trench’ contained half a dozen miniature soldiers. When the Union flag was struck, the [German] soldiers were catapulted into the air ‘in all directions’, as if by an explosion. Unsurprisingly, this toy seems to have been discontinued.


Toy manufacturers, here German, were soon producing war-related models for children. (Image from Europeana 1914-18 Collection)

All of the quotes in italics are from Viv’s fascinating 2019 Pen and Sword book ‘Children at War 1914-18’. She may well be able to bring some copies with her to the lecture. There are details of her other books here. This talk is free to members of The S&DHS and seats should be available to non-members from 2.20p.m. on payment of £3 at the door.

An Expert View of the Dissolution of the Monasteries

On Tuesday 03 October at 7.30p.m. Professor James G. Clark of Exeter University will deliver the 2023 Teulon Porter Memorial Lecture at Shaftesbury Town Hall. In 2021 Professor Clark published a New History of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, to great acclaim. Reviewers typically described it as The best history yet written on English monasticism in the 16th century …. The fullest account of the Dissolution ever written …. This is a landmark book.

In Shaftesbury the final step in this religious, social and economic revolution took place on 23 March 1539, when Dr John Tregonwell received from the Abbess of the Benedictine nunnery at Shaftesbury the voluntary deed of surrender of the Abbey to the Crown. Thus ended the 650-year-old existence of Shaftesbury Abbey, founded by King Alfred.

The 1539 Deed of Surrender of Shaftesbury Abbey. Courtesy of Professor J.G. Clark; copyright the National Archives

Tregonwell was on the last lap of a ten-week sweep through the West Country during which he effectively closed down 21 monasteries. In the previous five days he had wound up the affairs of monasteries at Sherborne and Montacute, and next on his itinerary was the nunnery at Wilton. Each of the 57 nuns at Shaftesbury was allocated a pension, most between £6 and £3 6s 8d per year; the abbess, Elizabeth Zouche, received a monumental £133 6s 8d. The nuns, however, would have preferred to remain as a community, and in December 1538 had petitioned King Henry VIII and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell, to whom they offered 500 marks and £100 respectively, that they may remain here, by some other name and apparel, his Highnesse poor and true Bedeswomen. This plea, conveyed in a letter by Sir Thomas Arundell, receiver of rents for the nuns, and later purchaser of large tracts of Abbey lands, fell on deaf ears.

When Henry VIII’s commissioners had first visited Shaftesbury Abbey in 1535, scarcely a hint of scandal, lax behaviour or superfluity to requirements was detected. A minor revelation was the disclosure of the true identity of young nun Dorothy Clausey, who was the illegitimate daughter of Cardinal Wolsey. Under regulations drafted by Cromwell, the 24-year-old Dorothy could have left the nunnery on the grounds of her youth, but she chose to remain and appears in the 1539 list of pensioners at £4 13s. 4d. The 1536 Act of Suppression applied to smaller monasteries, with incomes of less than £200 per year, and often unviable in terms of numbers of clergy. This recycling of religious resources and personnel was neither unprecedented nor particularly unusual. The prioress and two nuns from Cannington in Somerset duly transferred to Shaftesbury. The Abbey, with annual revenues of £1166, belonged rather to the category of great and solemn monasteries of this realm wherein, thanks be to God, religion is right well kept and observed.

So why was there such a dramatic change in royal policy towards the monasteries? And why was there, in the West Country, no significant resistance to the process of closure? (Unlike the violent Pilgrimage of Grace in the North).

Professor Clark’s 2021 book on the Dissolution has been showered with praise by historians.

The scholar best qualified to answer these and other questions about the Dissolution is undoubtedly Professor Clark. The title of his talk is The Dissolution of the Monasteries: Shaftesbury and the South-West. It is free to members of The Shaftesbury & District Historical Society and open to interested members of the public on payment of £5 at the door. Seats may be reserved by emailing

Two Hundred Years Since A Second Outbreak of Fonthill Fever

On 09 September 1823 the sale by public auction began at Fonthill Abbey of most of the contents of reclusive slaveowner William Beckford’s fantastical Gothic creation. The initial sale of Beckford’s estate, including the house and its artistic treasures, had been advertised for 17 September 1822. Captivated by Beckford’s acknowledged reputation as a wealthy connoisseur and by the impenetrable secrecy of his pleasure dome, the public found itself afflicted by the ‘Fonthill Fever’, as Thomas Dibdin characterised it. (Robert J. Gemmett writing in the Beckford Society’s Exhibition Guide, available in our shop). But this first sale was twice postponed, and then abruptly cancelled, as Beckford struck a secret deal with a private purchaser. Naturally, there was considerable disappointment, not to say anger, at this turn of events. Humbug Fonthill Abbey said one headline.

The new owner, John Farquhar, had made a fortune supplying gunpowder to the British government in India, and was a major shareholder in Whitbread’s brewery. The ink was not long dry on the final sale agreement in March 1823 when Farquhar decided to sell the contents of the house he had just bought. Constant assurances were made in the press that the sale would take place as advertised – and so it did, but not without provoking its own controversial headlines

This engraving from John Rutter’s 1823 Delineations of Fonthill shows (left of centre) what was described as a topaz cup with a dragon handle of enamelled gold, set with diamonds, and attributed to the great Renaissance artist Benvenuto Cellini. It was sensationally denounced as a fake when put up for sale.

Thomas Dibdin, coiner of the ‘Fonthill Fever’ phrase, wrote to the Morning Chronicle before the start of the auction to complain that many of the rare books he had seen in 1822 were now missing. Possibly Beckford had taken them with him to Bath; he always regretted leaving most of his library, and sent an agent who bought over 640 lots in the book sale. Other allegations were laid that many of the books were ringers that had never been in Beckford’s library, and that hundreds of paintings in the 1823 catalogue had never been owned by Beckford. Thomas Adams Jr., a bookseller from Shaftesbury, said that he never was at a Sale where so much suspicion and jealousy reigns.

Lot 1567, offered for bidding on the 32nd day, stirred up a furore that made more headlines in the press and was even spoofed in a Christmas pantomime at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The ‘Cellini topaz vase’ (above left) was, according to silversmith and antiquities dealer Kensington Lewis, neither made of topaz nor by Cellini. Subsequent expert analysis confirmed Lewis’s opinion that it was rock crystal, and had no credible provenance to link it with Cellini. Beckford had bought it in 1819 simply because he liked it, and chose to overlook its dubious pedigree.

The sale concluded on 29 October 1823. Magnificent works of art and items of furniture had been snapped up by private collectors, which now grace some of the world’s great museums. Farquhar had been a generous host, and on the evening of 22 October he organised a late-Georgian version of a ‘son et lumiere’ spectacular. Robert J. Gemmett writes:

All of the heavy curtains were pulled aside in the Abbey to expose candlelight flickering its incandescent glow in every room. Light poured out through the windows radiating the colours of the stained-glass portraits and the array of rich heraldic symbols. The lantern in the tower streamed its radiance against the dark sky to the silent amazement of those stationed on the lawn. The doors of the Abbey were then thrown open to the onlookers … to enhance the visual effects, the grand organ filled the air with its ‘high and holy harmony’ … It was a fitting farewell for this palace of enchantment

Scale model of Fonthill Abbey by the late Michael Bishop. Kindly loaned to us for the duration of the Fonthill Fever exhibition by Beckford’s Tower and Museum

William Beckford had begun to hate his ‘palace of enchantment’, writing in a letter of December 1818 … in cold weather the Octagon is a horror, an inferno of draughts, and has an atmosphere of ice …this place makes your flesh creep as soon as night falls … the horrible din of the winds last night. I didn’t sleep a half-hour in succession … Really this habitation is deathly in the stormy season … At 3.30p.m. on 21 December 1825 the central tower collapsed, reducing much of the structure including King Edward’s Gallery (at the head of this blog) to rubble. Farquhar and his servants escaped unharmed, though one man was catapulted along a corridor by a blast of air.

The Fonthill Fever temporary exhibition is free and runs until the end of our season on Tuesday 31 October. Dr Amy Frost, the Curator of Beckford’s Tower and Museum in Bath, returns on Tuesday 09 January 2024 to update the S&DHS on all things Beckfordian. Lectures & Speakers – Gold Hill Museum

Last Two to Three Weeks for “Women of the World”

This 1913 photograph from Miss Dunn’s Grosvenor House School for Girls features in a selection of images currently on show from the stories of three secondary schools which disappeared in the Shaftesbury reorganisation of 1983. Historic School Photographs On Show During July and August – Gold Hill Museum The print in our archives was labelled “Women of the World”, with the names of the students handwritten on the reverse. We don’t know who took the photograph.

Back Row: Joyce Llewhellin, Alice Pilkington, Effie Phillips, Mildred Buchanan, Maud Ogbourne

Middle: Doris Wilson, Queenie Mayhew, Edith Chissell, Valentine Mercier, Phyllis Herman, Mary Imber

Front: Gwen Llewhellin, Alice Tunnicliffe

Thanks to the fortuitous survival in the archives of two contemporary copies of Laboremus , a newsletter from the Grosvenor House School, we were able to learn more about the participants in this Fancy Dress Dance. School Jottings by D.P.W. (probably Doris Wilson) tell us:

A telegram of congratulation was sent from Grosvenor House to Valentine Mercier, who was married at Chateau des Granges, Bourdeilles, on September 29th, to Monsieur Pierre Tillier. The honeymoon was spent at the Italian Lakes, and Monsieur and Madame Tillier are now settled in their new home at Tours.

Mlle Mercier was perhaps an exchange student or a French assistante ; she was not to know it in September 1913, but the outbreak of war in July 1914 would disrupt their married lives. D.P.W. continues:

Easter this year [1913] fell early, so only the Boarders who lived near went home. On the afternoon of Easter Monday the idea came to some of us that it would be fun to have a fancy dress dance, and to dress up in anything we had, or anything that we could borrow from someone else. Miss Dunn kindly gave us permission, and said that anything she had in the way of dresses, rugs or scarves, she would lend us, and that if there was anything we wanted that had been used for “Cranford”, we could have it.

Special mention must be made of Mrs Pankhurst, [Edith Chissell] who was very good indeed, with a very dangerous-looking hammer, which she was continually flourishing. She wore the usual card with VOTES for WOMEN in large letters. The Cowboy [Alice Pilkington] was also well got up; in fact I think each costume was a success.

Suffragette leader Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested outside Buckingham Palace in 1914 (Imperial War Museum Collection)

In 1913 the Suffragettes’ militant campaign for votes for women would have dominated the (printed) news media. Emily Davison was killed under the hooves of the King’s horse in the Derby, while the Cat and Mouse Act allowed the authorities to release, and later re-arrest, imprisoned Suffragettes who went on hunger-strike. This expedient spared the Government the appalling publicity generated by the force-feeding of women prisoners.

None of the British students in our photograph would have been able to vote in a Parliamentary election until after the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of 1928.

Members of The Shaftesbury & District Historical Society should have received by post notification of the AGM and Garden Party at Gold Hill Museum at 2.30p.m. on Tuesday 22 August 2023. The relevant Trustees’ Annual Report is here.