The Local Historians: 1 Browne Willis

The study of History was for a very long time applied to the greater events that affected nations and empires and this was even true when I was at school. There were obviously some events that happened locally, such as the marriage of Edward IV to Elizabeth Woodville and Richard III’s capture of the young Edward V in Stony Stratford in 1483, but these were always presented in a national context. Local history, that is a continuous story of one’s own manor was considered insignificant.

This started to change in the 16th century when men undertaking topographical surveys of the country began record “antiquities”. This was no more than collecting data, but it was a start. To begin with, these antiquaries were interested in Roman remains but they gradually unearthed Anglo-Saxon discoveries and developed an interest in this period of history.

Antiquarian studies began to bloom in the 18th century when men (and they were all men) began to amass documents and artefacts and legends about their own locality. They were invariably wealthy men who could afford the leisure to pursue their obsessions. Furthermore, they had the resources to print their findings in books, in itself an extremely expensive undertaking.

The first of this series recounts the life and work of Browne Willis, resident of Whaddon Hall and MP for Buckingham. He was born at Blindfold St Mary in Dorset on 14 September 1682. This was his mother’s home but he grew up on the Bletchley Manor. The house probably does not survive. Browne Willis did build Water Hall on the site of Bletchley Parkearly in the 18th century but this was pulled down in 1809.

He began his education at a small church school in Beachampton and was then sent to Westminster School in London. In 1700 he went to Christ Church College at Oxford and also studied at the Inner Temple. His education at the time was entirely conventional for a man of his class and wealth.

His father Thomas died in 1699 and his mother a year later, so as the eldest son he was the inheritor af all the estates, which included the Bletchley Manor, Whaddon Hall and a manor in Burghill, Herefordshire. In 1707 he married Katherine Eliot, and heiress who brought £7000 to the marriage – a huge amount at the time and probably equivalent to millions today.

In 1705 he was elected MP for Buckingham as the Tory candidate. T>he electorate was total of 11 people and with 5 votes cast for Willis and 5 for the other candidate, the eleventh voter had to be brought from prison to cast the final vote in Willis’s favour. He served only until 1708 and turned his attention to his antiquarian interests for the rest of his life.

As an antiquarian his interest ranged far and wide and he visited every cathedral in England and Wales except Carlisle, as well as many churches and former monasteries. He showed some originality through his interest in medieval architecture at a time when his contemporaries were obsessed with all things Greek and Roman. He started to take an interest in Buckinghamshire in 1712 and began a lifetime of collecting material. Again, he showed some originality in collecting documents where he could; most antiquarians at this time were interested in artefacts. At his death in 1760 his archive was considerable.

His principal publication of local history was The History and Antiquities of the Town, Hundred and Deanery of Buckingham, which was published in 1755. It was not well received. His merits as a researcher were considerable, but his writing style was poor and his books are difficult to read.

His main legacy was the accumulation of masses of notes and documents, much of wis was used by his protege William Cole in The history of the hundreds of Newport and Cottesloe. This is a 10 volume manuscript in the British Library. The remainder of Willis’s notes and manuscripts are to be found in the Boolean Library, Oxford and in the British Museum.

Willis was an eccentric. His mind was mostly occupied with his antiquarian research and he cared for little else, not vine, it seems, for his children, who were mostly on bad terms with their father for squandering (from their perspective) their inheritance on his historical pursuits. He was invariably shabbily dressed. One woman, writing in 1739, described him as ‘the dirtiest creature in the world’, and William Cole recorded that he had ‘more the appearance of a pumping beggar than a gentleman.’

In the ‘real world’, if I can put it that way, Browne Willis was very active in building and donating money to restore churches. In 1711 he built Water Hall on the Bletchley estate, a very large brick built mansion. As I mentioned earlier, it barely survived 100 years before it was demolished, and the only evidence we have for its appearance is a rather crudely painted watercolour. He restored churches at little Brickhill and Bletchley and built St Martn’s church in Fenny Stratford in the late 1720s. After the Great Fire of Stony Stratford, he donated funds to restore the tower of St Mary Magdalene with the expectation that the parish would find the money to rebuild the church. This never happened and only the tower stands today. In addition he contributed funds to restore the churches at buckingham and Bow Brickhill.

He died at Whaddon Hall on 5 February 1760.