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.

Thomas Harrison and the Copper King

Thomas Harrison and the Copper King
From reading the book on the Radcliffe Trust by Ivor Guest you are presented with the image of Thomas Harrison as a land agent for the trust who was also a gentleman farmer. He does drop hints that Harrison may have had other resources and he does describe his involvement in the ill-fated wooden aqueduct, but overall we are left with the impression that these activites were sidelines. In fact the reverse appears to be true; Harrison had his fingers in many pies, some of them very lucrative indeed. And his administration of the Wolverton Estate may have taken up the smallest amount of his time. His income of £40 a year for managing the Wolverton Estate was not much better than the annual stipend of the Vicar of Holy Trinity and could not begin to cover the lifestyle he evidently enjoyed. One can only assume that it suited him to live at Wolverton because of its proximity to the Watling Street, the major highway that connected him to his business interests in London, the West Midlands and North Wales.
At the time he became land agent for the Radcliffe Trust  in 1773 he was already the principal agent for Earl Spencer, who had come into a vast inheritance from his grandmother the Duchess of Marlborough. The job of managing the Wolverton estate would have been a small bolt-on activity for the energetic Harrison but it may be that the opportunity suited him very well. He was living at the time in the old Wittewronge mansion at Stantonbury, part of Spencer’s Marlborough inheritance. Stantonbury was barely populated at the time but it may have had some advantage for Harrison being midway between the Spencer lands in Northamptonshire and those in Hertfordshire. From there he would have been able to travel where necessary and be no more than a day’s journey away. It is hard to put any other construction on this. The Stantonbury estate by itself, mainly grazing land, could not have supported a man of Harrison’s calibre. A bailiff, for example, at a fraction of Harrison’s income, would have been sufficient to collect rents and attend to the needs of the estate. This mansion had been built in 1662 and was probably brick-built, although we have no way of knowing since no description of any kind survives, but judging by the complete absence of any ruin, a brick building seems most likely as bricks, compared to stones, are more easily cleared from a site. Again this is guesswork, but since this mansion disappeared a few years after the Harrisons vacated it one can assume that the building was in a poor state of repair and probably too difficult and expensive to resuscitate. The Radcliffe Trust job gave Harrison the opportunity to move to more habitable accommodation and live close to the Watling Street.
Somehow, possibly through the Spencer association, he came into contact with the Paget family, Earls of Uxbridge and later Marquesses of Anglesey. The Paget family were an old family with their seat at Beaudesert in Staffordshire’ Cannock Chase and Thomas Harrison was first employed to look after these interests. Caroline Paget was the last of this line and she had married Sir Nicholas Bayly, an Anglesey baronet, and it was this connection that brought everybody in this story into the new world of the industrial revolution.
The Baylys owned half of a mountain in Anglesey which, in this new age that was hungry for metal, was found to have an extremely rich and accessible seam of copper. However, the seam of copper was no respecter of surface land boundaries and inevitably disputes arose with the owner of the other half of the mountain, the Reverend Edward Hughes. The struggle between them was fierce and litigious.
At some stage after Hughes had established his own mining company he engaged the services of one of the sharpest and most enterprising minds of the new industrial age, Thomas Williams. Williams was an Anglesey lawyer without any great prospects ahead of him until he came to represent Edward Hughes in the dispute with the Baylys. From here he was able to use his agile mind and tough bargaining credentials to build up his own industrial empire. He later became known as the Copper King and rubbed shoulders on equal terms with the likes of Matthew Boulton and James Watt. Williams was easily able to bring about beneficial deals for Edward Hughes and himself and leave Sir Nicholas Bayly and his agent Hugh price puzzled and discontented, and it was probably in an attempt to bring the contest to more equal terms that Henry Bayly (Sir Nicholas’s son and heir and the future Earl of Uxbridge) brought in Thomas Harrison. Harrison was up against a very considerable opponent.
The discovery of the copper seam was dated to March 2nd1768, long before Harrison became involved, and was initially worked by Roe and Company, a firm of Chester mining engineers, with Bayly taking a 1/8 share. Sir Nicholas later had regrets about the arrangement, believing, with some justification, that he had less than he deserved. Issues were further complicated by interventions by the Reverend Edward Hughes, who owned the other half of Parys mountain and there were several litigious dispute during the 1770s.
During this period the Hughes family had engaged the services of an Anglesey lawyer, Thomas Williams. Williams was an opportunist of the first rank and subsequently parlayed his role in this local dispute into a very considerable fortune for himself and an almost monopolistic control of the copper industry in late 18th century Britain. At his death in 1802 his many companies were valued in total at over £1 million – a huge sum in those days. Williams was clever and unscrupulous but clearly had the personality and charm to convince a number of hard-headed businessmen to enter into deals and partnerships with him.
One early sign of his method of operating emerged in 1778 when he persuaded Sir Nicholas Bayly, by then worn down by years of litigation, to lease his share of the mine to John Dawes, a London banker, for 21 years. With the ink scarcely dry on the agreement, Dawes then formed a new mining company with Hughes and Williams, thereby bringing the Parys Mountain mining enterprise under the control of one company. There is little doubt that Williams was behind this move and he became the powerful figure in the partnership. Sir Nicholas Bayly’s share of the lease to Dawes was for 1/3 of the production. A month later the terms were changed and agreed as a fixed sum of £4000 per annum. In retrospect, not the best deal for Sir Nicholas.
Thomas Harrison entered the picture in 1782 when he was asked by Sir Nicholas’s son and heir Henry to compile a report on the mining operations in Anglesey. Harrison had no background in mining and appears to have come into the picture as a land agent for the Pagets at Beaudesert in Staffordshire. However, Sir Nicholas’s land agent at Plas Newydd, Hugh Price, was obviously being outfoxed by Williams and a sharper brain, one more attuned to the times, was needed. Henry Bayly was concerned about his inheritance but Sir Nicholas was still alive, so by asking Thomas Harrison to compile a report Henry Bayly hoped to gather intelligence without outflanking his father or his agent Hugh Price. Price was undoubtedly worried by this intervention and tried to counter any potential criticism by insisting at the outset that he had “repeatedly requested” a copy of the lease between Sir Nicholas and Charles Roe, but that the baronet had kept all negotiations secret. Whether this was true or not Price was obviously sensitive to the inadequate terms of the agreement with Dawes.
Thomas Harrison could not but note the desolate landscape of the mining operation:
Not a blade of any sort can live where the Smoke reaches as is evident from the burning of Ore which destroys and has destroyed every thing of the Vegetable kind within its reach, and such is the stench of it, as well as its tendency to suffocation, that no mortal being can think of living near such works, but those who are employed in them.[1]
Obviously a startlingly different environment from the gentle Cowperian landscape of the Ouse valley.
Harrison then proceeded to describe the mines and the port of Amlwch together with the smelting works in Lancashire and Swansea, which he presumably visited, and their operations. It is not until 1784, after the death of Sir Nicholas, that he is able to report on the accounts. The news was not good. In a letter dated 19th January 1784  he sends a warning to the earl of Uxbridge, “to my great Mortification, I have already proceeded enough to put me in a cold Sweat.” He warns that expenditure appeared to exceed income (albeit a huge figure of £14,000 for December and January) and he could see no immediate solution to the problem. He complained to Paget about the amount of time he was spending on this work. He wrote that his son (presumably John Harrison, then about 24) had “not spent a day in any other Business since the 25th December” and he had spent three-quarters of his time on this work, which was a long way from being finished.[2]
This work brought him into regular contact with Thomas Williams who was angling to increase his control of copper production by acquiring the Cerrig y Bledda mine, a smaller mine, still in the hands of Uxbridge with the lease to Roe and company expiring in 1786. Harrison met with Williams in August 1784 to discuss irregularities in the accounts for the Parys mine, and at this time Williams broached the subject of taking over the lease for the Cerrig y Bledda mine. Harrison wrote to Paget on August 21st 1784 to ask if his lordship wished to work the mine himself or lease it. Paget firmly replied firmly that he wished to retain the mine and work it directly.
This determination may have been prompted by Harrison’s investigation which revealed that Roe and Company had been taking £15,000 a year in profit for the previous three years, although he may not have heeded the caveat that because of the poor drafting of the lease “they could take all the ore they cared to at the least expense and leave the more difficult to a later date,” meaning that the most accessible ore was taken first. In retrospect these were the most productive and profitable years for the mine.[3]
A deal was concluded that involved the ambitious Thomas Williams. On 11th October 1785 Harrison recorded, “We yesterday took possession of the Cerrig y Bleiddia Mine being first agreed with Roe and Co. for all their engines, stock of coal, utensils, implements and iron at the sum of £2,013.6.0d.[4]…The possession of this work by Lord Uxbridge and Mr. Williams as joint adventurers in the proportion of ¾ to His Lordship and ¼ to Mr. Williams commenced on 10 October 1785.”[5]
Something must have happened between September 5thwhen Uxbridge was minded to take no partners and October 10th when the new company  was founded. What convinced Uxbridge to change his mind we do not know, but plainly, Williams had got his way.
Williams was nothing if not determined to get a share in the new mining company and had several meetings with Harrison in London and Anglesey to pursue his case, and one can only conclude that Harrison’s recommendation had some bearing on Uxbridge allowing Williams a quarter share in the new venture, since as late as September 5th 1785 the earl was determined to go it alone. One can only conclude that something happened that made Harrison more amenable to Williams involvement and that he was able to persuade his lordship..
Harrison could have advanced good reasons for the earl to take Williams into partnership. The best parts of the mine were depleted and Roe and Company had left the mine in a poor state with a lot of clearing up to do. Lord Uxbridge knew very little about mining and with the example of his father before him he may have been reluctant to get into a protracted legal battle with Williams, who was a master of that game. Even so, at least one writer suggests collusion between Williams and Harrison to achieve an outcome desirable to Williams.
One need not look too far to discover Harrison and Williams working together behind the scenes, in part evidenced by Harrison’s inclusion in one of the manufacturing partnerships.[6]
This is difficult territory for the historian because there is absolutely no proof one way or the other of any impropriety on the part of Thomas Harrison but some of the circumstantial happenings around this time should raise some questions.
We can note the following. The Stanley Smelting Company, which had works at St Helens and Swansea, was half owned by Lord Uxbridge and a quarter owned by Thomas Williams. The remaining quarter was shared between the ironmaster, John Wilkinson, the works manager, Michael Hughes, the London banker and investor, John Dawes, and Thomas Harrison. Another company, the Greenfield Copper and Brass Company in Flintshire was another Williams company and Harrison appears about this time as a minor shareholder. And finally there was the Flint Coal Canal company, founded in 1784, which included all the players in the Parys Mountain mining drama, Edward Hughes, Thomas Williams, John Wilkinson, Edward Jones, a lead mine owner at Wepre, Flintshire, and Thomas Harrison.
Unfortunately we still do not know enough about Thomas Harrison’s background to properly assess his wealth. He was certainly well-to-do at his death in 1809 and he was able to make good the damages assessed against him for the failed Wolverton aqueduct, a sum of over £9,000, without significant impact on the family. A few years later his son Richard was able to meet the demands of creditors on the failure of the Stony Stratford Bank without falling into bankruptcy. So the Harrisons had resources, although notably not in land, which would lead me to conjecture that Thomas Harrison did not himself inherit any land and had to make his way in the world without significant assets.  Did he have sufficient cash resources to invest in these companies in the 1780s, and if so, where did the money come from?
Without being able to answer that question one might ask if these shareholdings actual investments by Thomas Harrison or did they represent compensation for services rendered? It is tempting to put the latter construction on this. As indicated earlier, the business of the mines was taking up a lot of Thomas Harrison’s time for no other compensation other than expenses. As land agent for the Pagets at Beaudesert he was probably paid something like £40 a year, a similar sum to that which he drew from the Radcliffe Trust and Earl Spencer. The fee served the function of a retainer for services which involved some regular duties and occasional periods of activity. From the correspondence of the period 1783-5 it does appear that Harrison was under additional pressure of work and at one point is employing his son to assist him. So it is perhaps not surprising that he also looked for other opportunities to make some extra money. Certainly during this period he became a shareholder in several associated companies.
In the Stanley Smelting Company the major shareholders are Uxbridge and Williams, but the smaller shareholders were all active functionaries in the setting up and running of the company, so it is reasonable to infer that they were rewarded with small shares that would one day compensate them for their extra efforts. The same interpretation can be placed on Harrison’s shares in the Greenfield company, except that here Uxbridge was not a shareholder and it can only be deduced that these shares represented a reward from Williams for “services rendered”. These services may have been in conflict with his nominal master Lord Uxbridge and therefore may raise a query about Harrison’s integrity. In a rather rambling letter dated 11 May 1786, Harrison is full of apology to the Earl of Uxbridge, although the exact cause of the upset is not identified. The earl was annoyed with Harrison and Williams about something and one interpretationmay be that he was unhappy with the way Harrison had represented his interests.
The final company, the Flint Coal Canal Company, is more of a puzzle. The company was set up in 1784, involving many of the players in these other companies. They did go as far as obtaining an Act of Parliament approving the canal in 1788, but the canal was never built. The only construction was a bridge over the Wepre river with a plaque bearing the names of the directors, strangely enough nowhere near the line of the proposed canal. The authorized capital was £20,000. Was this capital actually raised? Did anyone lose money? Did anyone make any money? What was the point?
At the time of his involvement with the Anglesey enterprises, between 1782 – 1786, Thomas Harrison was able to build Wolverton House at a cost of £1840. He was able to recover £500 from the Radcliffe Trust, but even so was a large amount of money for the age. And from what we might guess about his “regular” income this figure represents more than ten times that figure – a highly speculative amount in any age, even assuming that he could borrow the money.
It is tempting to conclude that the house was built from the proceeds of his activity in Anglesey during the period. The modernization of the old farmhouse may have begun with modest intentions in 1782, but in the last two years of the building program he must have realized large tranches of money from his industrial shares that enabled him to build Wolverton’s largest house. This is pure speculation on my part but such a conclusion can be drawn from the coincidence of the building of Wolverton House and his adventure in the copper mining industry. One can also observe that the Harrison family lived at Wolverton for almost a decade before attempting a building program.
It is curious that we know so little about the origins of a man who became prominent in his lifetime. His date of birth can be inferred as 1734, but his place of birth and parentage is as yet unknown. He had a sister who married into a Halifax family, which might suggest Yorkshire origins, although his connection to Earl Spencer would suggest Northamptonshire or Hertfordshire or London origins. He had two marriages, but neither one has turned up in records, nor has the burial of his first wife Elizabeth. Any one of these could provide useful clues.
We can make some assumptions: he was well connected, belonging to a middle class family of appropriate status and that he must have had some legal training. There is a record of a Thomas Harrison at the Inner Temple from 1754 to 1757, and this man is recorded as the third son of Sir Thomas Harrison. He may be a candidate, although the age of 20 seems to be a bit late to enter the Inns of Court. Also, if he named his first son John, then, according to the naming conventions of the time, one might look to a John Harrison as father. There are many Thomas Harrisons to choose from during the period, each from various parts of the country, and none with an obvious standout claim to be Wolverton’s Thomas Harrison. During the drafting of the mining leases he uses the services of a Mr. Harrison, a solicitor from Daventry. Was he related?
The quest will continue but for the moment I am inclined to assume that he had some money behind him, but probably not a great deal. It is more likely that he used his brains and ability to take advantage of the opportunities open to him, rather like Thomas Williams, although on a less extravagant scale.
It is tempting to see Harrison and Williams as men cut from similar cloth. Williams father was a middle class landowner in Anglesey, but by no means rich. His son had legal training and was able to build a respectable practise in Anglesey. His first involvement in the copper business obviously inspired him to develop his deal-making skills in this industry and at one time he held monopoly control of all copper mining in Cornwall and Wales, as well as the related processing industries.
By comparison Harrison was a small player but he seems to have been astute enough to develop some wealth from his contacts. On the whole he appears to have held his own with Williams and emerged financially better off from the experience, and the knowledge gained may have encouraged him to invest in other industrial enterprises, which he undoubtedly did.
A final comment about Williams may give us some taste of the character of the man he had to deal with:
Let me advise you to be extremely cautious in your dealings with Williams. He is a perfect tyrant and not over tenacious of his word and will screw damned hard when he has got anybody in his vice.[7]


[1] Thomas Harrison. Mona Mine MS. University of Wales, Bangor: MS3544.
[2] Ibid.
[3] ibid.
[4] Thomas Harrison. Memorandum dated 11 October 1785, Mona Mine MS. University of Wales, Bangor: MS 3485.
[5] Thomas Harrison. Memorandum dated 31 March 1788, Mona Mine MS. University of Wales, Bangor: MS 3046.
[6] Dorothy Bentley Smith. A Georgian Gent & Co.: The Life and Times of Charles Roe of Macclesfield. Landmark Publishing Ltd: 2005. P.473.
[7] Letter from Thomas Wilson to James Watt, 15 September 1790.

More on Stantonbury

On Sunday I paid my first visit to the ruin of St Peter’s Church at Stanton Low since 1955. In 1955 it was not a ruin, although it had been disused for a number of years. In 1956 the roof fell in and since then much of the interior has been dismantled and placed elsewhere. My companion wondered why anyone would live in such a remote place. Good question! All I could answer was that in those times people could comfortably live in relatively remote locations. There was no electrical grid to connect to or a gas pipeline. All you needed was a water supply. You could build a house anywhere and be self sufficient.

The ruined Church from the East. The Mansion probably stood beyond this.





After the 16th and 17th century land enclosures Stantonbury had become quite depopulated and remained so until Milton Keynes started to develop.The Stantonbury Manor extended from the river to the highlands beside Linford Wood, almost into Milton Keynes Centre. What remains in the meadowland below the canal is typical of what you might have found in the Stantonbury landscape even as little as 40 years ago.


George Lipscomb in his 19th century history of Buckinghamshire writes this about Stantonbury.

Sir John Wittewrong was created a Baronet 2 May 1662; and having made a purchase of this estate (certainly before 1667), he built a mansion-house, and settled it on his eldest son, John Wittewrong Esq. (p347).

This is very much the only evidence we have of the mansion on this property. It would appear (again from Lipscomb) that it was sited to the west of the church.

The whole fabric (of the church)has been much contracted, and part of the west end of the church yard taken into the court of the Mansion-house. (p.349)

This does make some sense because there is some more-or-less level ground to the west of the church which could have been a site for a big house. However there has not been evidence for it since the late 18th century when it was probably pulled down, most likely after Thomas Harrison has completed Wolverton House in 1786. There are no surviving drawings of the house so it is anyone’s guess as to its appearance. I would guess that it was brick-built, which would explain why it was easy to dismantle.It is possible that Wittewrong’s building succeeded a medieval building on the same site.

When Thomas Harrison came to manage the Spencer estate I imagine that he and his family moved into this mansion and certainly regarded it as suitable for a middle-class family, but after he became land agent for the Radcliffe Trust in 1773 (in addition to his other activities) he turned his attention to Wolverton. The 90 year old Wittewrong house at Stantonbury may have been in a decaying condition, and although Harrison could have afforded the cost of restoration he may have felt that Wolverton, near to Stony Stratford was a better location. Thomas Harrison had a growing portfolio of interests and Stony Stratford, with its better communications may have presented him with a better base for his business than Stantonbury. In addition, Wolverton was on better arable land and he quickly assembled a farm of 400 acres which he was able to put under the management of a bailiff who probably lived at what later became Warren Farm.

So it was through Thomas Harrison that Wolverton and Stantonbury had a connection. Thomas Harrison was an enthusiastic promoter of the Grand Junction canal and saw to it that the canal proceeded through both the Wolverton and the neighbouring Bradwell and Stantonbury estates. He built the wharf at Stantonbury and the first viaduct over the River Ouse. He also had interest in other canal companies.


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.

Thomas Harrison

When Dr John Radcliffe purchased the Wolverton Manor from Sir Edward Longueville he retained their estate manager, John Battison. His services continued with the Trust after Radcliffe’s death in 1713. The Trust employed a succession of different agents over the next 60 years until they appointed Thomas Harrison in 1773. He and his son Richard were to manage the estate for a continuous period of 85 years and oversee the arrival of both the canal and the railways. The Harrisons proved to be very competent managers and brought a new standard of professionalism to the task.

Although Thomas Harrison (pictured above) did not own the land he managed he seems to have filled the role of “squire” in Wolverton and was a Justice of the Peace. He appears to have been one of those 18th century men who led the way into the 19th century. While he managed the estates of Earl Spencer in Stantonbury and the Radcliffe Trust in Wolverton, he also found time to invest in canal development and iron foundries. It is in these latter ventures that he must have made his money.

Surprisingly little is known of Thomas Harrison and his origins. He was born circa 1724 and was twice married. His first wife was Elizabeth and his second Catherine. In neither case can I find a record of the marriages, largely because I don’t know where to look. According to his will he had a married sister living near Halifax, so it is possible that he came from Yorkshire, although by no means certain.

He first surfaces in Stantonbury in the middle of the 18th century where the Parish Register records the baptism of three of his children – John, Thomas. Harrison was the land agent for the Stantonbury estate, then owned by Earl Spencer. I assume that they lived in the house built by Sir John Wittewronge in the 17th century and it is a fair assumption that this was becoming dilapidated by 1773 when Thomas Harrison added the Wolverton Estate to his management portfolio and that this prompted him to rebuild Wolverton House in 1780. He appears to have held some sentimental affection for Stantonbury as he was buried there after his death in 1809 and there is also a memorial to Catherine Harrison and his daughter Martha.

Thoms Harrison’s first family can be pieced together as follows:

John            bapt. 20 Nov 1757 (Stantonbury)

Elizabeth     bapt. 4 Feb 1759 (Stantonbury)

Richard       b c 1760-1

Mary          bapt. 28 Jun 1761   (Stantonbury)

Thomas      bapt. 14 May 1763 (Stantonbury) 

Jane            bapt. 27 Jan 1765.    (Stantonbury)

Nothing more is heard of Elizabeth and Thomas, so it must be assumed that they both died young. Of John and Richard more later, but Jane married Edward Pearce from a well-to0do Northamptonshire family. The Pearce’s held land from Earl Spencer around Chapel Brampton. There were two children from this marriage, Irene (b 1796) and Edward (b 1798). Both were born in Stony Stratford. Jane died April 9 1801 and is buried in the Abbey at St Albans. Mary appears not to have married but was living in 1809.

One must assume that Thomas Harrison’s wife Elizabeth died between 1765 and 1772, because Harrison married a second time, to a woman named Catherine. We know that she was born in 1745 but we don’t know her origins at this time and therefore not her family. She gave birth to at least three daughters: Martha (1774-1806), Catherine (1776-??),  and Henrietta (1783-1829). Martha and Mary seem to have remained unmarried but Catherine married the Reverend William Corbett Wilson who was the Vicar of Priors Hardwick in Warwickshire. He was also at the time of their marriage in 1794, one of the chaplains to the Prince of Wales – so he was obviously well-connected. She gave birth to 8 children. Henrietta married John Freer Congreve, a Stony Stratford solicitor. They had one daughter, Harriett, who unfortunately only outlived her mother by two years.

I will discuss what I know of the lives of John and Richard Harrison in the next post.

Thomas Harrison was appointed by the Radcliffe Trust in 1773 and held the post of Land Agent for them until his death in 1809. After a few years he began to convert the old farmhouse at Wolverton into a more substantial dwelling. he made a request in 1781 to “fit up a farmhouse on the estate” for his own use and indicated that he was ready to spend the money if the Trustees were willing. They did agree and between 1782 and 1786 Thomas Harrison spent £1,840 on rebuilding the old house. The Trustees later made a contribution of £500 towards the cost. This was an enormous amount of money and it is difficult to express the amount in todays terms. It was then, and remained, the most substantial house on the Wolverton Estate and the only one that came close to being a “great house.”
At the same time Harrison built up a farm of about 400 acres around the house, which he leased from the Trust. He probably installed a farm manager who may have lived in the building which later became Warren Farm.

Thomas Harrison was clearly a man of some means with sources of income and capital far beyond his relatively modest roles as land agent for the Radcliffe Trust and Earl Spencer. the souyrce of his wealth is at the moment a mystery. He was part of a consortium to build a canal in Flintshire in 1784. This canal was not built but they did build a bridge in 1788 which bears his name as one of the investors in the company. We learn from his will that he had shares in the Horseley Coal and Iron Works at Tipton in Staffordshire. He also built the ill-fated predecessor to the Iron Trunk, which I have discussed in this post. He was also able to buy Water Hall, house and farm in 1793. This was Browne Willis’s 18th century mansion that was later torn down to build Blethchley Park. I don’t think this was one of Thomas Harrison’s shrewder investments, but it does illustrate his ability to come up with capital.

By the time he came to his will in 1809 he must have divided up a lot of his property between his two sons, because the will (which extends to 4000 words) tends to focus on provision for his widow and his daughters and grandchildren, as well as some bequests to faithful servants and to the poor of Stony Stratford and Wolverton. His sons, John and Richard, were both wealthy men by 1809, and although Richard Harrison acted as land agent for the Trust after the death of his father, this was a small part of his income.

Thomas Harrison was an active manager of the Wolverton Estate. He recommended rent increases which were more in line with current practice and helped the farms into more manageable parcels. He proposed increases of 24%. The Trustees agreed and there appears to have been little complaint from the tenants, of whom Harrison himself was one. He was also quick to address issues brought about by economic downturns, such as relaxing rent payments and in one year, 1798, arranging for the distribution of money – in total £174 15s. 2d. – to the poor families on the estate. Harrison also steered the Trust through the canal age. The Grand Junction Canal came in 1780 and cut through a large part of Wolverton. Harrison, who may have had a vested interest in the canal, nevertheless managed the transition with little local fallout – the aqueduct being the sensational exception. As far as his estate management at Wolverton was concerned he appears to have been very competent.

I am sure there is a lot more to discover about Thomas Harrison. He does appear as Wolverton’s outstanding 18th century figure and his enduring legacy is, of course, Wolverton House.

The Iron Trunk – a 200th anniversary

One of the more interesting reads in the blogosphere is Narrow Boat Albert, maintained by Steve and Maggie Parkin. They regularly post about their journeys along our waterways, and because they are based at Yardley Gobion, often touch on subjects of Wolverton interest. I have not met the Parkins but the blog posts are always well written and accompanied by excellent photographs.

Two years ago they posted about the lock flight crossing the River Ouse between Wolverton and Cosgrove that preceded the aqueduct here. Again this month they explored the area and discovered the original cutting for the canal. New Year’s walk.

This month marks the 200th anniversary of the Iron Trunk. This is an astonishing record and a testament to early 19th century engineering. The progress to this was not easy, as I described in my December post on the Grand Junction Canal coming to Wolverton.

There were three stages to the Ouse crossing – firstly the lock system from 1792-1799, then the ill-fated wooden aqueduct that lasted until 1808, and the final solution, which is what you see today, 200 years after it was constructed.

Since I posted in December I have learned that Thomas Harrison was involved in another canal project. In 1784 he formed, along with other investors, The Flint Canal Company. The intention was to build a canal from Greenfield to Flint. The canal was never built, but they did build a new stone bridge over the river and a brass plaque, dated September 10th 1788, marks the laying of the foundation stone. This is of some interest to us because it shows that Thomas Harrison was involved in canal projects in an earlier decade and his building of the aqueduct was not a one-off project – although it was certainly his last in this field of endeavour.