An 18th Century Farm House

Despite Christopher Carter’s apparent neglect, which I wrote about yesterday, there was new building in the early years of the Radcliffe Trust’s tenure. Here is a plan for a new house to house Thomas Durrant and his family. From other documents I gather that Durrant was a sheep farmer who leased about 100 acres in “the sheep walks”, on the higher ground above Warren Farm. He also leased Nash Meadow “fore crop” on the north east edge of the manor and 18 acres of “meadow next the house” plus another 3 acres which included an orchard and Holme Close.

It is for this reason that I think this building must have been on the site where Wolverton House is now to be found. We know that Thomas Harrison built onto an existing building whenhe built his large house in the 1780s. It would be interesting to discover how much of the Durrant House (if any) forms part of the present Wolverton House.

The design of the house was a simple rectangle, “48 foot long at the front, 16 foot in width and 18 foot high above the ground.” It is not clear from this description if the height of 18 feet is to the top of the roof or to the eaves. I would guess the former, since the roof would have a high pitch to include space for sleeping quarters above. There were two partitions to provide for a 16 foot square kitchen, a 16 foot square hall in the middle and a 16 foot square parlour. Upstairs there might be an equal number of bedrooms.

Mr. Durrant was paying £91 a year to the Trust and was therefore one of the more prominent people living in Wolverton in those years. If this was middle class accommodation one can make a good guess at the living conditions of the labouring poor.

The estimated cost of this building was £157 6s 7d. To put this figure into perspective the vicar was only paid £30 a year, so the cost of the building was high. Timber, at 1/2d. per foot appears to be a high cost, presumably reflecting the labour of sawing everything by hand, and amounted to about 1/3rd of the total. “Nails and ironwork” adds up to £10 – another high cost. Bricks were used for the chimney and floor; they appear to be relatively cheap. The timber-framed walls were filled with lath and plaster and the roof was thatched.

If this was indeed the forerunner of Wolverton House it is perhaps no surprise that 60 years later Thomas Harrison wanted to build something better for his family. It cost him over £1800 – over ten times the cost of the Durrant House.

Wolverton’s Grand Houses

Unusually, perhaps, for a manor of Wolverton’s size and wealth, it has never been dominated by a big house, occupied by the local ruling family. Most of the surrounding manors – Calverton, Loughton, Hanslope, Cosgrove, Gayhurst, Tyringham, Linford – had one big house that was marked out for the local gentry. Wolverton was probably exceptional, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the ruling family sold the manor in 1713 to Dr John Radcliffe. Thereafter, due to his death a year later, it was managed by a Trust, essentially a committee, none of whom were resident. They employed land agents to manage their affairs and until the arrival of Thomas Harrison, whom I will come to in a moment, none of them were resident either. Thus, the only people of significance on the manor were the four or five farmers and the vicar. This small group made up the middle class with no upper class family above them.

The early “great house” must have been that built by Baron Mainou inside the motte and bailey castle at Old Wolverton. We have no idea what it looked like and no archaeological excavations have ever been undertaken to give us any clue. It seems likely that after 300 years the castle would have been abandoned in favour of a more comfortable house. We have no idea what sort of building was there in the 14th century, but we can assume, given the relative wealth of the de Wolvertons, that it was a splendid enough manor house for the period.  From surviving knowledge of domestic architecture of that era, the house at Wolverton probably had a great hall, where all the activities of the house took place, including providing sleeping places for the servants, and attached to it, possibly at right angles, was the private chamber for the lord and his immediate family, often known as the solar.  Kitchens were usually housed in a separate building set away from the great hall, as a precaution against the all too frequent risk of fire. We do not know if this house was of timber or stone construction; all we can presume is that there was a house there and it was of a standard befitting its occupants. This must have been followed by a succession of medieval houses on or near the site occupied by the de Wolverton and de Longueville families and it is fair to guess that they became progressively larger. There is some evidence that the house was largely rebuilt in 1586 and it probably ranked as a fine Elizabethan mansion. One visitor, Thomas Hearne in 1711, was impressed with the building.

“It stood near a large mount, thrown up East of the Church, & it was a magnificent Edifice, being 145 Feet in length & built with good Free-stone.”

The location was most likely that piece of levelled ground above the former rectory.
At the time of Hearne’s visit Sir Edward Longueville was only living in part of it and the house was in a state of general disrepair. Sir Edward’s debts and general mismanagement were catching up with him. After he sold the manor to Dr Radcliffe the Trust deemed the house to costly to renovate and the house was eventually dismantled. Parts of it were used to build the Rectory opposite.
Wolverton lost its great house.

The other factor that must be considered is the existence of Stony Stratford on Wolverton’s western edge. The commercial opportunities afforded by the Watling Street created an extended middle class of innkeepers and tradesmen as well as some sheep farmers who did very nicely out of wool profits in the 15th century and could live in some style in larger houses at Stony Stratford. But my general observation is that after 1713 there was no “upper class” family living in Wolverton.

In 1773 the intriguing figure of Thomas Harrison became the land agent at Wolverton. He was already the land agent for Earl Spencer and was at the time living in the Wittewonge mansion at Stantonbury. He was also the land agent for the Earl of Uxbridge and seems to have used his connections to make a great deal of money out of copper mining, smelting industries and canal ventures. In 1780, when the proceeds from copper mining in Anglesey were flowing plentifully he decided to build his own pile at Wolverton. The Stantonbury mansion was in a state of decay and I guess that Earl Spencer was reluctant to put money into it. Wolverton, being close to the Watling Street, must have seemed an attractive location for Harrison, whose business dealings were taking him to London, Staffordshire and North Wales.
So, over the next four years Wolverton House came into being. It cost Harrison about £1,840 – a massive sum in its time. It was then, and remains, Wolverton’s largest house.
By the standards of the really grand houses that were built across the country in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was a modest building, big enough for the family and a modest number of servants, but it was no Downton Abbey.

Harrison’s younger son Richard continued as land agent for the Trust and lived there with his family until his death in 1858. His widow, almost a generation younger than her husband was allowed to live in the property until her death. The house, although built at Harrison’s expense, was always the property of the Radcliffe Trust and they continued to rent it out until 1970, when it was sold.
A third house must be considered, The Gables.  This spacious house was built in 1880 for the Works Superintendent and was first occupied by Charles Park. Although it was a large house by any Wolverton measure, it would never have been considered a great house. It was a middle class house, suitable for the family and a couple of servants. In the 1960s the practice of providing tied houses for employees became outdated. House prices were rising fast and while an earlier generation had been able to live comfortably in tied housing all their working life and purchase a house on retirement were discovering that house-price inflation was leaving them high and dry. The Gables was by then out of date. It was demolished and replace by the tower block that now bear its name.

Listed Buildings – Old Wolverton

Old Wolverton’s buildings obviously pre-date Wolverton, but, surprisingly perhaps, not by much. Wolverton House dates to 1783 and all the other surviving buildings come after that. here is the British Heritage list.

Barn at Wolverton Mill

Barn at Warren Farm

View of the Warren Farm Development showing barn

Holy Trinity Church

This version of the church dates from 1817 when it replaced the medieval church, although it retained the tower.

School House at Old Wolverton

A school was comparatively late coming to Old Wolverton. Stony Stratford had school and New Wolverton had its own school in 1839. New Bradwell even had a school before this one was built in 1856.

Garden Wall, Manor Farm

17th Century Headstone – Holy Trinity Graveyard

The Old Rectory

Manor Farm House and Cottages and Outbuildings

Wolverton Mill

Spinney Cottage

Warren Farm Cottage

Wolverton House

Wolverton Park

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.

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.

Wolverton House

There had probably always been a farm house on this site or hereabouts but in 1784 Thomas Harrison, land agent for the Radcliffe Trust and also a farmer, decided to build a substantial house at a cost of £1,800. Besides farming over 400 acres here Harrison had some significant industrial interests in an iron works in Staffordshire. I do not know much about it at present and will cover this in another post, but suffice to say that Thomas Harrison was a man of means with an income far above the £100 per annum he was paid for managing the Trust’s affairs in Wolverton.

The house was completed in 1784 and occupied by the Harrison family. After his death in 1809 his son Richard continued to occupy the house with is widowed mother and own family and after Richard died, his widow and son Spencer remained as tenants until 1892, when Grace Harrison died and Spencer and his family retired to the south coast.

Wolverton House was now separated from the farm and let to suitable tenants. Amongst them in the 20th century was Dr Habgood, a Stony Stratford medical practitioner. His son John, who later became Archbishop of York, spent some of his boyhood in what he remembers as a very draughty house in Winter.

After the war it was rented to Buckinghamshire County Council, who used it as a residence for Grammar School and Technical School pupils whose parents were working overseas. After 1958 the schools combined to create the Radcliffe School. I believe that students from overseas boarded here as well. They also used some of the buildings as offices and sometimes the house was used for residential courses.

Today it is used as a pub/restaurant.