Sunday, February 21, 2016

It's all in the detail - the Grand Designs of Jack St John

Architect and Lydiard House expert Michael Gray gave a packed audience a fascinating talk about the Palladian mansion as part of the Behind Closed Doors series of events.

Michael, who designs 'modern' stately homes, explained how architecture tells us a lot about the client who commissioned it, and there was plenty to learn about the St John family.

Lydiard House was remodelled by Jack St John between 1738-1748 using his wife's inheritance. Anne Furnese was at first co-heir to her father's estate, but following her brother's death she inherited the lot. The money, therefore, came in fits and starts, which is pretty much how the building project at Lydiard House progressed. Features were added and embellished as the money became available, not so very different from big building projects undertaken today, explained Michael.

The architecture and decorative features, both inside and out, are full of coded messages, which weren't lost on the 18th century visitor but might not be quite so obvious to the modern one.

Did you know that the front entrance, the west elevation centre piece, evokes the style of a Classical Temple? And if you wondered what the motifs beneath the pediment above the door symbolise, they are all about life and death with the skull of the oxon symbolising virility and fertility.

As Michael explained, this is a feminine house, maybe a nod to the fact that  it was Anne's money that paid for it all, but Jack did put his mark on the masculine library and the room beyond.

Evidence of features from the older house are on show such as the beams in the drawing room, which date from the 17th century and the fireplace in the library, which doesn't fit the chimney breast and may have come from another of the St John family homes.

The expensive, embossed red wallpaper in the drawing room was a later, 19th century addition; the original wall covering was handpainted Chinese wallpaper and a much more delicate design.

And if you wondered what the significance was of a bedroom on the ground floor, this was very much a status thing, evidence that the family was eminent enough to receive the monarch for a sleep over.

If you're a Behind Closed Doors follower there are still two more talks to come. I am repeating my Lydiard Ladies portrait tour on Wednesday, February 24 at 7 pm and on Wednesday March 16 at 7 pm in Uncovering History, Jane Rutherfoord talks about ancient wall paintings and her fascinating conservation work at neighbouring St Mary's Church.

The talks and tours are all free (although donations are welcomed) but you need to book by phoning Charlotte Thwaites on 01793 465277 or emailing

The Behind Closed Doors events are a collaboration between the staff at Lydiard House and the Friends of Lydiard Park.

The western elevation

The St John coat of arms and motto

The 'temple' entrance

The south tower. How many of these windows are false?

Classical bust and plaster work

The library and the over large fireplace

The state bed
Anne Furnese in coronation robes

John (Jack) St John (he of the Grand Designs)

The finished work

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Behind Closed Doors - Grand Designs

A house has stood on the site of the Palladian mansion in Lydiard Park since the 13th century and until 1943, when it was purchased by Swindon Corporation, had just five owners - the Tregoze, Grandison, Beauchamp and St John families.

During the 500 years of St John occupancy the house has been modernised, remodelled and neglected until following the death of Lady Bolingbroke in 1940 when the trustees of her will put the property on the market.

For more than 70 years the local authority has restored and refurbished the fabric of the building, tracked down and purchased furniture and artefacts that once belonged to the house, including numerous stunning portraits and paintings that now hang on the walls.

In 2005 a £5 million restoration programme saw the parkland and walled garden returned to their former 18th century glory and it looked like the future of Lydiard House and Park was secure...

The Behind Closed Doors series of events continues on Saturday February 20, when Michael Gray will be delivering his fascinating talk Grand Designs. 

And on Wednesday February 24 there is a repeat of my Lydiard Ladies portrait tour.

For more details visit the Friends of Lydiard Park website. Please remember that although all the events are free you do need to book by phoning Charlotte Thwaites of 01793 465277.

Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine

Lady Diana Spencer

Looking through to the State Bedroom

The rear of Lydiard House revealing the interesting different phases of the building

Anne Leighton - my favourite Lydiard Lady

Hidden door, hidden secrets of the Ladies of Lydiard

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Love birds, hearts and Cupid's arrow

The summer of 2008 saw the BBC's Antiques Roadshow set up camp in the grounds of Lanhydrock, a country house in Cornwall where a piece of Lydiard Tregoze local history made a surprise appearance.

Expert Penny Britten provided a brief history of the printed Valentine and valued the 200 year old handmade one sent to Roadshow visitor Graham's great-great-great grandmother Alice Crook in 1803.

Alice Catherine Crook was born in Lydiard Tregoze in 1782, the daughter of Simon Crook and his wife the former Elizabeth Woolford.  Flaxlands Farm, part of the Lydiard Park estate owned by Lord Bolingbroke, was occupied by the Woolford family at the time of the couple's marriage in 1777, with Simon taking over the tenancy in 1782.

Although unsigned, Alice knew the sender of her Valentine.  Richard Hallilay, born in Greenwich in 1785, was the son of local girl Sarah Goddard and her husband, Richard Hallilay.  Graham supposes Alice and Richard might have enjoyed a holiday romance when the young Richard visited family at nearby Cliffe Pypard.

Richard had given Alice a writing case, some puzzles and a decorated poem as a Christmas present in 1802.  A comparison of the handwriting made it easy to identify the sender of the Valentine.

The intricate Valentine opens to reveal eight heart shaped sections on each of which the love struck Richard wrote a verse of poetry.  The poem opens with 'To you I write my dear A.C./Do not refuse the line./The boon I ask, pray will you be/My faithful Valentine.'  Each section is decorated with love birds, hearts and Cupid's arrows.

Sadly the romance ended and by 1804 Richard was employed as a paymaster in the navy.  Perhaps the star crossed lovers were separated by Richard's ambitions.  Naval records indicate that he went on to hold a senior administrative post and in 1851 he was Agent and Steward at the Royal Hospital at Haslar in Hampshire.

Alice went on to marry Robert Gray, a coach proprietor.  After their wedding on November 12, 1812, Alice moved to Robert's home at a busy coaching inn on Ludgate Hill in the City of London - a far cry from the farm in Lydiard Tregoze.

Graham believes that Alice died before 1837 and there is no evidence of her on the 1841 census.  The Valentine, preserved with other family letters and documents, has been passed down the generations from mother to daughter.  It is presently in the safekeeping of Graham's sister.

Renaissance Wax - the answer to all my housework issues.

Who would have thought that I'd enjoy a talk about cleaning?

At yesterday's Behind Closed Doors event Frances Yeo, curator at Lydiard House (and STEAM Museum) explained how she and her staff care and clean the collection. There were quite a few surprises in store, but it all made perfect sense.

She explained why visitors might notice a discreet coating of dust on some of the surfaces and the less obvious that surface is, the thicker the dust - but as Frances explained, this isn't lazy housekeeping. Dragging a cloth across a dusty table top can cause an amazing amount of damage.

Apparently dust isn't a problem until it is several layers deep and this could take up to two years to accumulate. So no need to dust every week then - which has been my argument for, well a lot longer than two years!

Frances explained all about heat, humidity and light recordings and the difficult job of coping with the antiquated heating system in Lydiard House.

The niceties of when to conserve and when to restore were explained and I loved the story of Trigger's 20 year old broom that had 17 new heads and 14 new handles. (Only Fools and Horses). When one of the visitors asked about cleaning the chandeliers I hoped Frances might be about to show us the classic Del Boy and Rodney sketch!

We were then taken on a tour of the state rooms where Frances explained the practicalities of cleaning and caring for the collection. We were shown the effects of vigorous cleaning of the silver by over zealous St John servants and the damage caused more recently by removing the alcohol deposits in a decanter.

So what tips did I bring home to help with my own dusty deposits. Where can I buy Renaissance Wax - it could be the answer to all my housework issues?

The Behind Closed Doors series of events continues next week when Michael Gray will be delivering his fascinating talk Grand Designs. For more details visit the Friends of Lydiard Park website. Please remember that although all the events are free you do have to book by phoning Charlotte Thwaites on 01793 465277. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

An evening of romance - and chocolate roses!

If you've ever dismissed the romantic novel as inferior to other genres, Nicola Cornick made a few salient  points during her talk at Central Library last night.

Historian and best selling romantic novelist Nicola Cornick has a hugely successful 18 year writing career and with 40 novels under her belt (published in 27 different countries) she knows what she's talking about.

During her Valentine Day themed talk, at which there were book giveaways AND chocolate roses, Nicola charted the history of the novel, in particular the romantic novel, once considered a danger to women and children.

From its roots in the oral, medieval troubadour tradition to the 1970s and 80s lucrative writing market the romantic novel continues today to be as popular as ever.

Nicola talked about her own early reading experiences and her grandmother's secret library kept hidden in her lavender scented wardrobe. It was here that Nicola became acquainted with the romantic works of Ethel M. Dell whose writing career spanned from 1911 to her death in 1939.

Nicola has just finished the second of three time-slip novels. The first, House of Shadows, is set against the backdrop of Ashdown House where she works as a tour guide and historian.

Her second book, due out later this year, has another local setting, this time Savernake Forest, Wolf Hall and Littlecote House.

Nicola is now researching her third book in this series, which gets ever closer to home with an Old Town location and a big, local family name - and no, its not the Goddards.

Nicola's books are available from Amazon WH Smith and Waterstones and can be borrowed from Swindon libraries.

Catch up with Nicola on her own website, the Ashdown House blog and Word Wenches.

Here is the Ashdown and Lydiard House connection …

William, 1st Earl Craven and builder of Ashdown House, was the son of Sir William Craven and his wife Elizabeth Whitmore. Elizabeth’s younger sister Margaret married Sir John St John, 17th century owner of the Lydiard Estate. In 1630 he was recently widowed with 11 children to care for, she was a 54 year old widow and ten years his senior. Her portrait hangs in the dining room at Lydiard House and her effigy lies next to Sir John and his first wife Anne Leighton on the magnificent bedstead memorial in neighbouring St Mary’s Church.

More than 80 years later and Sir John’s great grandson Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke was to seek refuge at Ashdown House. In 1714, as the country awaited the death of Queen Anne, Henry allied himself with the Jacobites and Catholic James, the Old Pretender. William, 2nd Baron Craven allowed his fellow Tory to use Ashdown House as a bolt hole where he plotted and planned to restore James II’s Catholic son to the English throne.

Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia by Gerard Van Honthorst - one of Nicola's heroines in House of Shadows

Monday, February 8, 2016

Keeping up Appearances

The Behind Closed Doors event continues this Saturday, February 13 at 2.30 pm when Frances Yeo, Curator of Lydiard House shows how the Lydiard collection is cared for and demonstrates ways you can look after your own treasured possessions and furnishings.

All the tours and talks in this series of events are free (donations are welcomed) but places are limited and you do need to book a place. Telephone Charlotte Thwaites on 01793 465277 or email

How Bessie Howard, the daughter of carter, agricultural labourer and sometime blacksmith Thomas, became Lady Mary Bolingbroke is a story of rags to riches to genteel poverty and burgeoning debt.

The story goes that during a romance of more than 10 years Mary was forced to live a life of secrecy.  Her two illegitimate sons left behind at their Bath home when Henry and Mary visited Lydiard where Mary was forced to resume her role as housekeeper. The revelation of their marriage in 1893 only came to light after the Viscount's death six years later.

However, photographic evidence suggests the situation may be slightly different.  This myth busting snapshot of Mary and Lord Bolingbroke with one of their elder sons is clearly taken at Lydiard.  In a close knit rural community where Mary was related to half the Lydiard estate workers perhaps their clandestine affair was in fact an open secret.  The St John family had form when it came to illicit relationships and local memories were long.

Servant super sleuth Sharon, a former volunteer at Lydiard Park has researched the Victorian wage books, and dated another photograph of Mary taking tea on the Lydiard lawns with a footman in attendance to around the 1880s.  When the census was taken on the night of April 3/4 1881 there were four servants in residence at Lydiard House with Henry and Mary presumably at their Bath home.

In 1881 the work force at Lydiard was a mature one, headed by 61 year old Charles Wicks described as a General Servant Domestic and his wife Mary Ann employed as cook.  Mary Ann's age is recorded as 62 but further research has revealed she was in fact 72.  Perhaps she manipulated her age for the census enumerator to protect her job.  There were two housemaids living-in on that April Sunday night, Sarah Halliday 50 and seventeen year old Frances E. Selby.

Charles Wicks was born in the neighbouring parish of Lydiard Millicent in 1820, the son of carpenter John Wicks and his wife Mary.  Charles was working as a carpenter at the time of his marriage to Marianne (Mary Ann) Logden in 1842.  Elizabeth Oliver, Sophia Logden and Jacob Edmonds acted as witnesses at the wedding in St Mary's Church, Lydiard Tregoze and the following year twin daughters Sophia and Mary Ann were born.  Subsequent census returns reveal the growing family living at various addresses in both Lydiard Millicent and Lower Hook with Charles working as an agricultural labourer and carpenter.  In 1861 Mary Ann states her occupation as cook - although probably not at Lydiard House where Henry employed the Turner family.

Mary Ann died in the winter of 1882.  Whether Charles remained in the employment of Lord Bolingbroke has yet to be discovered.  By the time of the 1891 census Charles was an inmate at Purton Workhouse, most probably where he died in 1900 at the age of 80.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Nicola Cornick - Author Talk

Nicola Cornick - Author Talk

  • Date: 11th February 2016
  • Location: Central Library, Regent Street, Swindon, Wilts SN1 1QG
  • Time: 19:15 - 20:30
  • Cost: £2.50 (£1.50 Library Members)
Historical Romance - the fact and the fiction! Romantic fiction – from the medieval troubadours to Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen to Barbara Cartland!

To celebrate Valentine’s Day, international best selling author Nicola Cornick tells the history of romantic fiction from the Middle Ages to the present. With tips for aspiring authors and advice on how to get published, Nicola reveals all about romance! Nicola will also be promoting and signing copies of her new novel 'House of Shadows' published by MIRA Books. Nicola Cornick has been shortlisted four times for the US Romance Writers of America RITA Award and twice for the UK Romantic Novelists Association Romance Prize. She is also Awards Organiser for the Romantic Novelists' Association and a mentor for their New Writers' Scheme, which critiques manuscripts for aspiring authors. Tickets available from Swindon Central Library Ground Floor Help Desk as well as all other Swindon Libraries. For further information Tel: 01793 463238 or email:

I can't wait!!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Talk and a Tea Party

Swindon Suffragette, with Swindon Heritage, are hosting a talk and tea party to celebrate Edith New's birthday in March.

Edith was born 17th March 1877 in North Street in Swindon and is buried in Polperro, Cornwall where she died in 1951.

We are holding our event on Saturday 19th March at 12.30 in St Saviour Church, Ashford Road, Swindon, SN1 3NS

The first hour will be a talk with local historian Frances Bevan and Edith's great-niece Tamara looking back at her work as a suffragette, sharing information about her life and family in Swindon and looking forward to our plans to get a memorial to Edith in her hometown. We hope to share photos from our archives and also from the March and Rally in October.

The second hour will be a tea party, come and enjoy a slice of cake and a cup of tea and maybe dress up in your suffragette finest again if you attended the march.

This is a free event but we ask that people confirm attendance in advance either on the Facebook event or by emailing to allow us to cater accordingly! If anyone would like to donate cakes or biscuits they would be very gratefully received on the day.

Marching down Wood Street

Tamara and Mary - Edith's two great nieces