The Georgians

The Georgians

In July 1685 the Duke of Monmouth was brought to Guildford on route to London and his execution. His untimely rising in the name of Protestantism against the Catholic James II had been badly misjudged and many of his followers now lay mutilated among the reeds and grasses of Sedgemoor. Many more were to receive the bloody judgement of Judge Jeffreys. Monmouth himself was discovered hiding in a Dorset ditch and came to Guildford a sad and broken man, shortly to meet the axeman on Tower Hill. At Guildford he was lodged overnight in a room high up in George Abbot’s Hospital, where the modern visitor will still find the windows barred.

Following this small episode of excitement, the history of the county of Surrey follows a path of quiet development. It was still for most of its population an agricultural county but, here and there, various industrial enterprises also flourished. By the beginning of the 18th century the increasing prosperity of the country as a whole was reflected in the growth of its capital city. The rich merchants and traders of London now sought living space beyond the cramped streets of the city itself. It was natural that many of them should look to Surrey. Fine brick-built houses began to appear in areas then part of Surrey – from Camberwell to Clapham and along the banks of the Thames to Richmond and beyond. The very rich built even further out in the countryside, often on a very grand scale, and began to supplant the traditional country squire in many places. Surrey has many fine country houses of the period.

Tadworth Court, near Banstead, was built for Leonard Wessels, a London merchant of Dutch ancestry, sometime between 1694 and 1704. It was constructed in yellow brick with stone dressings and has an imposing Corinthian columned doorway with a carved stone lintel, approached by a flight of steps with stone balustrades. Frances Leaning, who wrote an excellent book about the house and its owners, published in 1928, described it as ‘a simple, dignified and regular mass, a plain oblong in plan, without wings or gables, of lofty elevation, the angles of the slight projection in the front emphasized with bold quoins, the roof pierced by dormers springing therefrom above a widely-projecting cornice, the large-sashed windows carefully proportioned to the wall space, the chimney stacks in eight symmetrically-placed blocks.’ Inside, a magnificent staircase with carved oak balustrades is the imposing centrepiece of the hail and leads up to a first floor gallery and a central corridor, which runs the full length of the house. The architect of this fine mansion is unknown, but Leaning has suggested that it may have been built to the same plans as those used for Ramsbury Manor in Wiltshire, a house designed by John Webb, a pupil of Inigo Jones. Today, Tadworth Court is the country branch of the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children.

The house at Westbrook on the outskirts of Godalming can never claim the excellence of architecture to be found at Tadworth Court. Its fame rests upon the activities of its most famous owner, James Oglethorpe, founder of the State of Georgia in the USA, named after King George II. The Oglethorpe connection with Westbrook began when James’s father, Sir Theophilus Oglethorpe, bought the estate in 1688. James was born in London in 1696, the youngest of Sir Theophilus’s three sons who lived beyond infancy. The oldest, Lewis, died as the result of a battle wound at The Hague in 1704 and the other son, Theophilus junior, relinquished all his titles to follow the Jacobite cause abroad. Theophilus senior died in 1702 and in 1718 James Oglethorpe became the squire of Westbrook. He was elected as one of two MPs for Haslemere in 1722. At Westminster, James soon acquired a reputation as a social reformer, particularly in respect of prisons. His interest in the plight of the country’s prison inmates had first been aroused when a friend died of smallpox in a debtors’ prison. In 1729 James Oglethorpe was appointed chairman of a committee which investigated the prison problem. The committee’s report revealed a catalogue of bribery and cruelty and sowed the seeds of an idea in his mind – that the colonisation of lands in the new world could be a remedy for the worst evils of poverty and repression in the old.

The Gentlemen’s Magazine reported on Monday, 30th October 1732: ‘The Ann Galley, of above 200 tons, is on the point of sailing from Deptford, for the new colony of Georgia, with 35 families, consisting of Carpenters, Bricklayers, Farmers, Etc. who take all proper Instruments. The men were learning Military Discipline of the Guards, as must all that go thither, and to carry Musquets, Bayonets, and Swords, to defend the Colony in case of an Attack from the Indians. She has on board 10 Tun of Alderman Parson’s best Beer, and will take in at the Maderas 5 Tun of Wine, for the service of the Colony. James Oglethorpe Esq., one of the Trustees, goes with them to see them settled.’

The colony was soon established and James Oglethorpe was responsible for the laying out of its capital, Savannah. The Indians he befriended and the real threat to the new colony came from the Spanish in Florida to the south. However, his qualities as a soldier were seen to full effect and Georgia was successfully defended.

In 1734 Oglethorpe returned to England and brought with him ten Indians of the Yamacraw tribe, including their chief, Tomochichi. The appearance of the Indians caused quite a stir and people came from many miles around to see them at The White Hart in Godalming’s High Street. Unfortunately, this was the time of one of the great smallpox epidemics in the town and when one of the Indians caught the dread disease and died, the others isolated themselves in Oglethorpe’s house.

In October 1735, Oglethorpe sailed again for his colony, taking with him the Wesley brothers, John and Charles. Further war with Spain threatened the future of Georgia but a campaign against larger forces pushed back the enemy and ensured the safety of his infant colony. Much of the cost of the war had been met from Oglethorpe’s own funds but the Treasury refused to reimburse all of the expenditure, with the result that he had to mortgage Westbrook to stave off bankruptcy.

In February 1743 Oglethorpe was promoted to the rank of brigadier-general and later in the same year he returned to England, leaving the colony which he had so successfully founded for ever. He had intended to come to England to raise more troops to defend Georgia, but the Jacobite Rising of 1745 intervened to upset his plans and he and his soldiers were diverted to join the Duke of Cumberland, whose forces were harassing the retreating Jacobites. Oglethorpe and the Duke were totally incompatible characters and such was the Duke’s dislike for his fellow soldier, born, no doubt, from jealousy of the other’s obviously superior talent, that he lodged a charge of misconduct. An apocryphal story, which was current at the time, claimed that Oglethorpe had been caught on the eve of Culloden in possession of ‘treasonable correspondence’ and had fled to Westbrook. There he proceeded to fortify his house with a crenellated wall guarded by small forts. One of these forts survives to this day on the hillside above Westbrook, but it was almost certainly built by Oglethorpe’s sister, Anne, a known Jacobite sympathiser, at a time when he was still in Georgia.

Although acquitted at the court-martial, Oglethorpe’s soldiering days were at an end. He had already solved his financial problems by marriage to an heiress and he now actively resumed his role as MP for Haslemere. He became a friend of Dr Johnson and Boswell and lived out the remainder of his life uneventfully until he died in 1785.

The first house at Claremont, near Esher, was built by Sir John Vanbrugh, the famous architect and playwright, for his own use. Whilst somewhat smaller than the famous Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, which he also designed, it was still an imposing crenellated mansion with seven acres of gardens enclosed by a substantial brick wall. Vanbrugh called it his ‘very small box’ but chose the site because he found it ‘singularly romantick’. In 1714 he sold the house to Thomas Pelham, who later became the Duke of Newcastle and was Prime Minister under both George II and George III. Vanbrugh now altered the façade of the house for its new owner and added two large wings. It was here in his fine mansion that Newcastle entertained the royal family, politicians like Sir Robert Walpole and, it is said, the exile Voltaire.

The gardens at Claremont were originally geometrically formal, with straight rows of trees and a round pond. Newcastle considerably extended the grounds and had an amphitheatre, particularly for cockfighting, built to the north-west of the pond with a magnificent belvedere on a hillock to the west of the house. The latter still survives. Newcastle then turned to the increasingly fashionable William Kent, the pioneer of naturalistic landscape gardening, who redesigned much of the garden. He turned the formal pond into a lake with an island, upon which he built a domed pavilion. At one end of the lake he created a naturalistic grotto decorated with stalactites and crystals.

When the Duke of Newcastle died in 1768, Claremont was sold to Lord Clive, who had returned from India in 1766, having successfully fought a series of military campaigns which had added the great subcontinent to the growing British Empire. Clive soon sent for Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, Kent’s former pupil, and commissioned him to demolish Vanbrugh’s house and build another on adjacent higher ground. With the help of his partner, Henry Holland, and also a youthful John Soane, later Sir John, the museum founder, Capability Brown built a magnificent mansion with commanding views over the neighbouring countryside. He also remodelled the grounds, but retained some of Kent’s features, such as the lake and its island temple. In total, the work at Claremont is estimated to have cost Lord Clive £100,000. But he had little opportunity to savour it.

During the rebuilding of Claremont, Clive’s life became increasingly troubled by accusations and rumour. He was said to have gained his riches in India by accepting bribes, but he rebutted his accusers by claiming that much of his wealth had come from gifts honestly received. In addition to these problems, Clive’s health was also failing fast and for much of the time he was in constant pain, relieved only by increasing amounts of opium. In 1774, shunned and vilified by those who had once feted him as a hero, he took his own life at his house in London.

On 2nd May 1816 Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent, later George IV, married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. The following month a bill was passed by Parliament for the purchase of Claremont as a gift from the nation to the young couple. Thus, for a brief period, Claremont became the focus of the country’s attention following Wellington’s glorious final victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. Charlotte was a well-educated, popular young woman, fond of music and poetry, whose own adaptation of a poem by Thompson says much for the image of Surrey current at the time:

‘To Claremont’s terraced heights and Esher’s groves,

Where in the sweetest solitude embraced

By the soft winding of the silent Mole,

From courts and cities Charlotte finds repose.

Enchanting vale! beyond whate’er the Muse

Has of Acjaia or Hespera sung:

O, vale of bliss! O, softly swelling hills,

On which the power of cultivation lies,

And joys to see the wonder of his toil.’

Charlotte’s birthday on 11th February 1817 was a day of much rejoicing locally. Esher was decorated with flags and bunting and parties were the order of the day. In celebration, the royal couple gave £100 to improve the lot of the local poor and an illuminated Claremont shone like a beacon over the surrounding countryside.

There were many famous visitors to the house during Charlotte and Leopold’s ownership, including the Duke of Wellington, Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia, later Tsar Nicholas, and the Duke and Duchess of Orleans, who were living in exile at Twickenham at the time. Just over 30 years later the Duke was to return to Claremont, as the deposed King Louis Philippe, where he lived out his second exile in England and died in 1850. Charlotte and Leopold lived quietly away from the machinations of the royal court. Leopold’s great friend, Dr Stockmar, wrote that ‘in this house reign harmony, peace and love – in short everthing that can promote domestic happiness.’ It was not to last – on 17th November 1817, Charlotte died at Claremont, having given birth to a stillborn son. The nation was devastated and Leopold heartbroken. He continued to live at Claremont, leaving everything as it had been in Charlotte’s time, until he was elected King of the Belgians in 1831.

Leopold was the uncle of Princess Victoria, daughter of the Duke of Kent, who spent much of her childhood at Claremont. Many years later, Queen Victoria was to remember her days there with fond affection. ‘Claremont remains as the brightest epoch of my otherwise melancholy childhood’, she wrote in 1872. During the early days of her reign, Victoria and Prince Albert often came from Windsor to stay at Claremont. In January 1843 she wrote to Leopold, ‘I am happy to write to you again from this very dear and comfortable place [which] has a peculiar charm for us both, and to me it brings back recollections of the happiest days of my otherwise dull childhood – where I experienced such kindness from you, dearest Uncle, which has ever since continued.’

Claremont later became the home of Victoria’s youngest son, the Duke of Albany, named Leopold after his more famous uncle. The Duke died in 1884 but his wife remained at Claremont for many years. She was a popular figure in Surrey, always ready to drive out to the four corners of the county to open a new school or institution. Part of the gardens of Claremont were restored a few years ago and are open to the public. Clive’s house became a school in 1931, a role which has so far ensured the survival of this fine 18th century mansion.

It was inevitable that those who could not afford the luxury of a country seat like Claremont would aspire to achieve the next best thing. This is reflected in the surviving smaller houses of the period, especially in the towns. The best examples are to be found among the many Georgian town houses in Farnham. The town grew rich on the profits of its extensive corn market and was also surrounded by fields of some of the best hops to be grown anywhere in England. The finest of its houses are in West Street, particularly Wilmer House, built in 1718 and now the town museum, and the adjacent Sandford House of 1757.

When an owner could not afford to rebuild his property in the latest Georgian style, he might resort to the trick of refronting his existing house in brick. Therefore, many a ‘Georgian’ house in towns such as Godalming, Guildford and Reigate, in fact, hides timber-framing of a much earlier period. Meanwhile, the more humble of the people lived on in those small cottages of timber, wattle and daub, now so beloved by the 20th century commuter.