Land Agents

The Wolverton Manor was 2,500 acres of mostly productive farm land and it always held a high value. Even in 1086 it was valued much higher than surrounding manors, such as Calverton, Loughton or Bradwell. Once the inn trade at Stony Stratford developed in the 13th century the manor became more complicated and of necessity needed to be managed. The medieval lords usually employed a man  called a Reeve to collect tithes from the peasants and deal with any disputes. Mostly, men of this early date would be nameless, but Sir Frank Markham suggested that a man called William Vis de Loup (Wolf Face) may have been a steward, because his name appears on so many 13th century deeds.

After enclosure in the 16th and 17th centuries the nature of land management changed and a newer type of professional was required. This was the land agent.

The first such man that we know of was Thomas Battison, who lived in the Northamptonshire village of Quinton, and had apparently served Sir Edward Longueville for a long time.In 1713, when Dr Radcliffe purchased the estate, Battison decided to retire and pass the handling of the estate to his son Jon. Dr. radcliffe approved the transition in the interests of continuity and John Battinson shepherded the affairs of Wolverton until 1740, when he was dismissed. Matters had been unsatisfactory for a number of years. Rents were either not collected or not recorded. Battison’s relations with one of the principal farm tenants, Richard Woodall, were far from cordial, and this presented another problem for the Trustees.

He was replaced by George Gill who held the job until he died in 1749. While he was never suspected of fraud like his predecessor, he nevertheless, was not altogether competent in keeping his accounts, which were discovered in a state of some confusion after his death. Money was owing to the Trustees, but there were insufficient funds to repay and they were forced to pursue Gill’s widow. This course of action proved fruitless and the Trustees themselves were required to dig into their own pockets to meet their legal obligations.

His successor, Jospeh Stephenson die on 18 August 1753, and had little time to make an impact.

Thomas Quartley was appointed to be the next land agent on 27 March 1754. He was already a land agent on another estate and he proved to be an experienced man who kept meticulous accounts. He served for just over a decade when he died at his home in Wicken on 21 December 1766.

His successor, Henry Smith from Bicester had a short tenure before he fell ill and died on 25 September 1772.

The Trustees next turned to another experienced land agent, Thomas Harrison, who was land agent for earl Spencer and land agent for the Paget family, who were earls of Uxbridge. He had been living at earl Spencer’s mansion at Stantonbury, but in 1773 this was becoming dilapidated and Harrison washable to moves family to Stony Stratford.

Harrison was an energetic man who had fingers in many pies in these years when the industrial revolution was beginning to gather pace. He had an interest in some iron works in Staffordshire, some canal building ventures and through his dealings with the copper mining rights in Anglesey on behalf of the earl of Uxbridge, seems to have made himself a small fortune of £20,000. On the proceeds of this venture he was able to build Wolverton ouse in the early 1780s for £1840 and make several property investments. He is known, for example, to have purchased The Bull and The Three Swans in Stony Stratford, and Bletchley Park.

Harrison was a moderniser. He reviewed (and increased) all the rents and began to rationalise the size of the farms, tending towards fewer and larger. When his son Richard died in 1858, the farm rental income was double what it had been in 1773.

Thomas Harrison died in 1809 and was succeeded by his second son Richard, who continued as lasagne until his own death in 1858. The Harrisons between them oversaw i
the introduction of the Grand Junction Canal in 1800 and the London and Birmingham Railway in 1838 – momentous years.

One month after the death of Richard Harrison, the Trustees turned to a professional surveyor, Charles Couchman. Couchman had an office in Birmingham and was a non-resident land agent, somewhat in the older tradition. The modern development and expansion of Wolverton and Stony Stratford clearly called for the modern skills that Counchman had. He served until his death on 8 August 1886. His replacement was Sidney Dugdale, the youngest son of one of the Trustees, William Dugdale. Sidneyfoilled the role competently, and apparently without incident until he died 29 September 1899.

The next land agent, John Willmott, held the job for the first 25 years of the 20th century and showed himself to be quite imaginative in developing the estate. At the beginning of the century Wolverton was again bursting at the seams and new land for housing would be required to the west of Windsor Street. Up to this point the Trust had always sold land to the railway company, who, in turn, developed it, either themselves or by sale of plots to builders. Willmott persuaded the Trustees that they should act as developers themselves and convinced them that the houses would be easy to sell and that they would profit greatly from this approach. This was indeed so. All of the western streets, named after the Trustees themselves, were developed and sold by the Trust, and all owners of these properties will find the name of the Trustees at the time on their original deeds.

Three other land agents succeeded Willmott, who resigned in September 1925. They were Lewis Matthews (1925-1938), Roger St John Matthews (1938-1956) and Robert Humbert (1956-1984). The announcement of the new town of Milton Keynes in 1967 essentially brought to and end the role of land agent in managing the Wolverton estate, a role which had been diminishing for much of the 20th century, and concluded when the manor was conveyed to the Milton keynes Development Corporation in September 1970.

Richard Harrison: A correction

Dr. Ivor Guest, in his thoroughly researched book Dr. John Radcliffe and His Trust makes the following observation:

The death of the Trustees’ agent, Richard Harrison, in 1858, at the age of ninety-seven, marked the end of an era. (p.421) (my underlining)

This gave him a birth date of 1761, which, although there is no apparent record of a birth at this date, was plausible since it fitted in with the birth datres of other brothers and sisters born at this time. This birth date did not square with other evidence, namely the  1841 Census (not always a reliable document) and, more spectacularly, the notion of his fathering five children in his eighties.

June Watson, who has done some excellent research on Old Wolverton families, did point out to me some months ago that she thought his age might read 77 at death, and I was able to confirm that yesterday. The inscription is very clear and reads that he died aged LXXVII – 77.

Richard Harrison’s grave at Holy Trinity

I don’t know where Dr.Guest found this attribution of 98 years to Richard Harrison’s life, but I have seen it elsewhere and on balance, although it did stretch probability, I accepted this date. However, this inscription establishes his year of birth around 1780 or 1781.

Richard Harrison’s first wife Agnes died in 1809. There was apparently no issue of the marriage. He remained a bachelor for the next 30 years until he married Grace Hall Nibbs, the daughter of a Tortuga plantation owner in 1840. In the next decade they had five children, three of whom, Spencer, Isabella and Thomas survived infancy.

Armed with this clue it is now possible to make better sense of Richard harrison’s life. He was baptised on June 3rd. 1780 at St. Mary Magdalene, Stony Stratford, (I didn’t know that it was still functioning as a church at the time.) to Thomas and Catherine Harryson.

There is a lesson here for historians at all levels to be scrupulous with the facts. Dr. Guest’s error was probably inadvertent, but the danger of committing something to print often means that it gets re-printed on the assumption that the original was correct. I puzzled about Richard Harrison reaching the very advanced age of 97, but assumed that Dr. Guest had access to information that I did not, and in the absence of concrete supporting evidence took it at face value. Once I had confirmed the age on his tomb it was easy enough to find the baptismal record, which, in the end, made more sense, albeit a less spectacular story.

My original post on the Harrison family is here.

John Harrison and Richard Harrison

Thomas Harrison had two surviving sons – John (b 1757) and Richard (b c 1760). Of the two, Richard became well-known in the annals of Wolverton but John was unknown.

John and Richard were both executors to their father’s will, along with George, Earl Spencer. Circumstantial evidence would suggest that the Harrisons and the Spencers were close friends and it may be that the Spencer fortunes and those of the Harrisons were tied together.

Sarah, Ducchess of Marlborough, and the wife of John Spencer Churchill, was one of the richest women in the country after the death of her husband. She settled much of her fortune on her grandson John Spencer, who after her death in 1744 found himself the possessor of large estates across the country and Holywell House in St Albans. It is in St Albans that we pick up the Harrison connection. John Harrison was an alderman in St Albans, as was George, Earl Spencer , and he was twice Mayor of the city, in 1789 and 1796. John married Irene Pearce from Chapel Brampton (also part of the Spencer landed interest) although there were no children from the marriage. His sister Jane also died in St Albans and it is a good guess that she was staying with her brother at the time.

I don’t at this time know what John Harrison’s business was, but he was clearly one of St Alban’s leading citizens and therefore must have had good sources of income. He is one of the investors in the Buckingham Arm canal and also the Leighton Buzzard Brewery, where John Harrison is listed as a resident of Chelsea. John Harrison was also a director of the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich. He may have been in the Navy at one time but it is likely that he got this appointment through his association with Earl Spencer, who was Chief Secretary to the Navy.

Richard Harrison is less shadowy because he remained at Wolverton and took over his father’s position with the Radcliffe Trust. He also continued to live at Wolverton House until his death in 1858. Apart from the business interests he shared with his brother he was also an investor in the ill-fated Stony Stratford Bank, which failed in 1820. Richard Harrison however had sufficient resources of his own to cover the considerable debts and was able to come out of the debacle without a stain on his character.

During the latter half of his 40 year tenure he had to manage the considerable transformation brought about by the railways, and although there were tensions between the Railway Company and the Trust, as I have discussed elsewhere, Harrison appears to have managed his responsibilities well enough.

At the time of his fathers will, Richard Harrison had been married to a woman called Agnes. This is all we know. Thomas Harrison had made a bequest to her, but she pre-deceased him by a few months and he amended his will. There appears to have been no issue to the marriage and this might have been the end of the Harrison line, but after 30 years as a widower Richard Harrison entered upon a second marriage to Grace Hall Nibbs, the daughter of a West Indian plantation owner. She was 30 years old.

The remarkable part of this story is that she began to bear children to Richard Harrison in the 1840s – Spencer Richard 1842, Juliana 1843, Edith 1844, Isabella 1846, and Thomas in 1849. Richard Harrison was in his eighties at the time.

Is this an error? Could this Richard Harrison be a son to the first Richard? Well that would be more plausible but Ivor Guest, historian of the Radcliffe Trust, gives Richard an age of  97 years.

Spencer Harrison returned to Wolverton House in the 1870 with his own family and lived there with his mother until her death. Isabella Harrison married a German Baron and lived at Belvedere House, just south of Fenny Stratford. She unfortunately died of septicemia after the birth of her only child at the age of 27. The two Harrisons, Thomas and Richard, were central to the Wolverton estate for a long period, from 1773 to 1858, and their stewardship encompassed the greatest changes to Wolverton since the Norman Conquest, namely the coming of the canals and then the railways.