Saturday 30 March 2013

(21) Acton (later Lyon-Dalberg-Acton) of Aldenham, Barons Acton - part 1

Lyon-Dalberg-Acton coat of arms
This is the first part of a two-part article on this family, and provides an overview and an account of the houses they owned in England. Full genealogical information can be found in part 2

Thomas Acton of Longnor acquired the manor of  Aldenham in 1465 and left it to his second son, John, who was in possession by 1485.  His descendant, Sir Edward Acton (1600-59), 1st bt., was MP for Bridgnorth in the Short and Long Parliaments, 1640-44, until deprived of his seat for his Royalist sympathies, and was created a baronet by King Charles I in 1644.  

Sir Edward Acton, 3rd bt., who was MP for Bridgnorth 1689-1705, rebuilt the house at Aldenham in 1690-91, probably to the designs of the London master-carpenter, William Taylor.  He and his six brothers were noted for their exceptional stature; his brother Francis confessed to being the shortest of the seven, at a mere six foot two inches.  In the next generation, Sir Whitmore Acton, 4th bt., was noted for his good looks and for keeping a married woman as a mistress while still an Oxford undergraduate.  He later built Acton Round Hall in 1713-14, probably to the design of Francis Smith, shortly before he inherited Aldenham.  An agreement of 1715 stipulated that his widowed aunt, Hester Acton, should ‘cohabitt and dwell with him’ and it is possible that her money (she married two wealthy London merchants) largely paid for the house.  After Sir Whitmore died in 1732 his widow Elizabeth (d. 1759) may have returned to Acton Round, as it is in the church there that she and her late husband are commemorated by a monument designed by T.F. Pritchard and erected in 1763; the house was subsequently used as a dower house.  
Acton Round church: monument to
Sir Whitmore Acton, 4th bt. by T.F. Pritchard
© Nicholas Kingsley.  All rights reserved.

Sir Richard Acton, 5th bt., built new stables at Aldenham to the design of William Baker in 1751, but died in 1791 leaving no surviving issue, whereupon the baronetcy and the Aldenham estate passed to a descendant of the 2nd baronet’s second son.  This branch of the family led  unusually colourful lives.  John Acton (1710-66) became Commodore-in-Chief of the Adriatic fleet of the Holy Roman Empire, and plotted to capture Bengal for the Emperor; his elder brother, Edward Acton (1709-81) (father of the 6th bt.), was summoned, soon after qualifying as a doctor, to treat a sick friend at Besanรงon in Burgundy.  He settled there, set up practice, became a Catholic convert and married a local girl.  Reputedly, when her mother realised his intentions, she hid the daughter in a local convent, but Acton sought appointment as medical adviser to all the local convents until he found and married her.  Their descendants married and had interests across Europe.  Three of his sons entered the service of the King of Naples, and Sir John Acton (1736-1811), the 6th baronet,  became a close adviser to the royal family and ultimately Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Naples, 1789-1808.  He remained unmarried until 1800 when at the age of 64 he obtained special papal dispensation to marry his own niece, a girl of thirteen.  This marriage, which even at the time was a sensation verging on scandal, was apparently planned by Queen Caroline of Naples and the girl's mother, Countess Berghe von Tripps, to keep outsiders from gaining political influence over the affairs of the kingdom and the fortune and property that Acton had amassed in Naples and Palermo.  The match turned out unexpectedly well, producing three healthy - though not long-lived - children, including an heir to the English estates.  In the difficult political circumstances of the Napoleonic wars, Acton was unable to realise his plan of retiring to Aldenham, but died in Sicily in 1811, leaving a young family.   His widow, still no more than 25, moved to London and brought up the children in England, but later had an affair - and further children -  with the French foreign minister, the Comte de La Ferronays, and lived until 1873, a figure of legendary scandal.

Sir Richard Acton (1801-37), 7th bt., came into his inheritance in 1822, and in 1825-28 remodelled the house at Aldenham to the design of Edward Haycock and created a Catholic chapel in the grounds, reusing the facade of a garden building.  In 1832 he married the only daughter of the 1st Duke of Dalberg, and in 1833 changed his name to Dalberg-Acton.  Between her husband’s death and her second marriage to the 2nd Earl Granville in 1840, the Duchess made further alterations to the interior of Aldenham.  

Sir John Dalberg-Acton (1834-1902), 8th bt., who inherited at the age of three in 1837, became a famous Liberal politician and historian.  He was ennobled in 1869 as 1st Baron Acton on Gladstone's recommendation.  The wide European connections provided by his family background and his own marriage to an Austrian countess, gave him an usually broad outlook and informed his historical scholarship.  About 1865 he added a large library (since demolished) to Aldenham to house his collection of 70,000 books, but from 1876 he spent little time at Aldenham because of his academic appointments.  

The 2nd Baron, who inherited in 1902, pursued a diplomatic career across Europe, but married the daughter of Thomas Henry Lyon of Appleton Hall (Cheshire), and in 1919 changed his name to Lyon-Dalberg-Acton.  His son, the 3rd Baron, inherited in 1924 and married in 1931 the Hon. Daphne Strutt (d. 2003), a daughter of the 4th Baron Rayleigh.  Although brought up as a Protestant, she became an enthusiastic Catholic convert under the influence of Monsignor Ronald Knox, who served as domestic chaplain at Aldenham for a couple of years in the 1930s.  

In the changed social and economic circumstances after the Second World War, in 1947 Lord Acton sold Aldenham to his mother-in-law, Lady Rayleigh, who had rented the estate since the 1920s, and emigrated to Rhodesia, where he farmed until the unilateral declaration of independence in 1965.  In 1970, he and his wife retired to Majorca.  Aldenham was sold in 1959 to Mr & Mrs Christopher Thompson, who restored it, and now belongs to their granddaughter, Mrs Hettie Fenwick. The 4th Baron Acton (1941-2010), lived in London and on being elected as one of the hereditary peers to remain in the House of Lords after reform, was created a Life Peer in 2000 as Baron Acton of Bridgnorth; his only son is now the 5th Baron Acton.

Aldenham Park, Shropshire
The first known house on this site was an irregular courtyard house, built for the Actons, who acquired the estate in 1465.  As recorded in a plan of 1625 which formed the basis for a painting made in 1756 after the house had been rebuilt, it had a gatehouse and a hall placed unusually to one side of the courtyard.  Much of the house may have been built or rebuilt for Walter Acton in the 1620s, although parts were evidently earlier.  

This house was demolished in 1690 and rebuilt in a quiet Baroque manner as an eleven by seven bay block around a courtyard.  It was probably designed by William Taylor of London, who was certainly consulted in the 1680s and rebuilt Minsterley church in 1688.  
Aldenham Park: the west front, 1985 © Nicholas Kingsley.  All rights reserved.

The west front has two short projecting wings with hipped roofs; this and the north side are of coursed rubble and would originally have been rendered.  The show fronts are the south and east sides, which are of ashlar.  
Aldenham Park: entrance front, 1985.  © Nicholas Kingsley.  All rights reserved.

The disparity of building materials has previously led to suggestions that the ashlar facades are later, the work of Sir Whitmore Acton, who inherited in 1716 and whose initials are on the rainwater heads.  Actually the whole house is of one build, but Sir Whitmore altered the roof on these sides, so that the hipped roof supported on a richly carved modillion cornice that survives on the north and west was replaced by a parapet of contrasting brown stone.  Sir Whitmore probably also substituted sash windows for casements throughout the house, but regrettably these were altered later, with lowered sills and the insertion of plate glass.  The eleven bay south range contains the best rooms, notably the dining room.  

The central courtyard was preserved until 1825-28 when it was formed into a large hall with Grecian ornaments, probably by Edward Haycock, but with the active  involvement of Sir Richard Acton; many of the other interiors were altered at the same time, or between 1837 and 1840 when his widow occupied the house.  In particular the entrance hall and the main room above it have disappeared; the entrance now leads to a narrow corridor into the central top-lit hall.  The staircase has strong twisted balusters, and must date from 1691, but the present arrangement whereby it is top-lit must date from the 1820s.  
Aldenham Park: Ionic temple, 1985. © Nicholas Kingsley.  All rights reserved.

An Ionic temple of c.1780 in the grounds was converted into a chapel at the same time, but the chapel was demolished in the late 20th century, leaving only the facade.  About 1865, Lord Acton, the historian, built a large library wing to the north-east and installed plate glass in many of the windows of the house.  

In the mid 20th century, Aldenham was let to Lady Rayleigh and her son, the Hon. Guy Strutt.  It was sold in 1947, and decayed until it was bought by Mr & Mrs Thompson in 1959.  They demolished the library wing and restored the remainder.  

The grounds have had as complex a history as the house.  In 1625 the house looked onto an enclosed garden court, entered through a gatehouse.  
Aldenham Park: watercolour of 1792 by Moses Griffith. Image: Government Art Collection.
In 1718 the wrought iron entrance screen at the end of the avenue was made by Robert Bakewell, although it was originally set around the forecourt of the house.  A watercolour of 1792 shows it in this position, and also a further set of gates half-way down the drive; it was moved to its present position, and the lodge built, around 1825.  The stables (now converted to a house) were designed by William Baker in 1750-51.  The original deer park was replanned in the early 18th century, and by 1722 had been planted as a wilderness, cut through with rides; a statue of Neptune by Van Nost survives from this period.  The park was extended and restocked with deer in 1808, and around 1840 an elaborate scrollwork parterre was laid out by W.A. Nesfield near the house.

Descent: John Acton of Aldenham (fl. 1485); to son or grandson Thomas Acton; to son, William Acton; to son, Robert Acton; to son Walter Acton (b. c1575); to son, Sir Edward Acton, 1st baronet (1600-59); to son, Sir Walter Acton, 2nd bt. (c.1621-65); to son, Sir Edward Acton, 3rd bt. (c.1650-1716); to son, Sir Whitmore Acton, 4th bt. (1678-1732); to son, Sir Richard Acton, 5th bt. (1712-91); to second cousin once removed, Sir John Francis Edward Acton, 6th bt. (1736-1811); to son, Sir Ferdinand Richard Edward Dalberg-Acton, 7th bt. (1801-37); to son, Sir John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 8th bt., 1st Baron Acton (1834-1902); to son, Sir Richard Maximilian Lyon-Dalberg-Acton, 9th bt. and 2nd Baron Acton (1870-1924); to son, Sir John Emerich Henry Lyon-Dalberg-Acton, 10th bt. and 3rd Baron Acton (1907-89); who let and in 1947 sold to Lady Rayleigh and the Hon. Guy Strutt; bought 1959 by Mr & Mrs Christopher Ronald Thompson; to granddaughter, Hetty, wife of James Fenwick (fl. 2012).

Acton Round Hall, Shropshire
Acton Round Hall, 1985. © Nicholas Kingsley.  All rights reserved.

A seven-bay, two-storey house built, probably by Francis Smith, in 1713-14 for Sir Whitmore Acton, shortly before he inherited Aldenham Park; it was later used as the dower house to that estate.  An agreement of 1715 stipulated that his aunt, Hester Acton, should ‘cohabitt and dwell with him’ and it seems likely that she, the widow of two wealthy London merchants, largely paid for the house; she certainly paid for the furnishing of it.  It is a very fine, noble and restrained design, built in exquisitely laid pink brick with defining accents in warm buff sandstone ashlar.  

The main facades have the three central bays brought forward, but only on the west (garden) side is there a pediment, which encloses a round-headed window, originally a niche.  The facades are articulated by giant rusticated pilaster strips that demarcate the centre and the angles, and have central stone doorcases with segmental pediments on Doric pilasters.  There are sash windows with sunk panels between the storeys.  The short ends of the house, of five bays in all, have the centre three broken strongly forward, and the south end is dominated by the central round-headed staircase window.  
Acton Round Hall, south staircase hall, 1985, with whimsical taxidermy
© Nicholas Kingsley.  All rights reserved.
The interior has been little altered and is laid out symmetrically, with hall and great parlour in the centre, rectangular rooms in the four corners, with staircases at either end.  Upstairs, there is a lengthwise corridor.  The original large-fielded panelling survives throughout, and there is a fine principal staircase with three twisted balusters to each step.  

Since the 1970s the house has been restored and embellished by the engagingly eccentric present owner, Huw Kennedy.  He created a Gothick library in the south-west room, reusing a stone chimneypiece from Thomas Rickman’s Tettenhall Wood House (Staffs) of the early 1830s, and filled the house with wittily juxtaposed collections, including a great deal of taxidermy.  A baboon twines round the dining room chandelier; when asked why, Mr. Kennedy simply says "I hadn't got anywhere else to put it".

Acton Round Hall: the Gothick library
© Nicholas Kingsley.  All rights reserved.
Acton Round Hall: a 1970s garden folly
© Nicholas Kingsley.  All rights reserved.

In the garden and adjoining fields are other fragments from Wood House, Tettenhall (including a Coade stone tiger), incorporated into a series of Gothick follies including a summerhouse, an obelisk and a pagoda. In recent years Mr. Kennedy has branched out in an entirely new direction, building a full-sized medieval trebuchet in a field near the house which he uses throw objects as varied as pianos, iron weights and dead animals (the record for a piano is 151 yards - but that was only an upright model; a dead pig goes about 175 yards and a 112 lb iron weight made it to 235 yards). Why? "Because its bloody good fun".

Acton Round Hall: pagoda. © Nicholas Kingsley.  All rights reserved.

Previous owners: Sir Whitmore Acton, 4th bt. (1678-1732); to son, Sir Richard Acton, 5th bt. (1712-91); to second cousin once removed, Sir John Francis Edward Acton, 6th bt. (1736-1811); to son, Sir Ferdinand Richard Edward Dalberg-Acton, 7th bt. (1801-37); to son, Sir John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 8th bt., 1st Baron Acton (1834-1902); to son, Sir Richard Maximilian Lyon-Dalberg-Acton, 9th bt. and 2nd Baron Acton (1870-1924); to son, Sir John Emerich Henry Lyon-Dalberg-Acton, 10th bt. and 3rd Baron Acton (1907-89), who sold in 1947... Huw Kennedy (fl. 2011)

Burke's Peerage & Baronetage, successive editions; G. Jackson-Stops, 'Aldenham Park, Shropshire', Country Life, 23 June 1977-7 July 1977; P. Reid, Burke’s & Savill’s Guide to Country Houses: vol. 2, West Midlands, 1980, pp. 73-75; B. Clarke, ‘William Taylor: new discoveries’, Georgian Group Journal, 1998, pp. 1-11; J. Ionides, Thomas Farnolls Pritchard of Shrewsbury, 1999, pp. 238-40; R. Hill, Lord Acton, 2002; J. Newman & N. Pevsner, The buildings of England: Shropshire, 2006, p. 95, 109-12; Sir H.M. Colvin, Biographical dictionary of British architects, 1600-1840, 4th edn., 2008, pp. 91, 504, 1030;

Revision and acknowledgements
This account was published 31 March 2013 and updated 15 May 2014, 15 October 2020 and 18 September 2021. 

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