Friday 30 September 2022

(524) Beckford of Fonthill, Basing Park and Stepleton House - part 2

This post has been divided into two parts. Part 1 contains the introduction to the Beckford family, and an account of the architectural history of their Fonthill estate in Wiltshire. This second part contains an account of their other houses, and the genealogical record of the family.

Witham Park, Witham Charterhouse, Somerset

The site was originally that of the first Carthusian monastery in England, founded in 1178 by King Henry II in expiation of the murder of St. Thomas a Becket. The Charterhouse was composed of two parts: an upper house and a lower house for lay brothers, which stood near the church in the village. The monastery was dissolved in 1539 and the buildings were acquired in 1544-45 by Ralph Hopton, an associate of Thomas Cromwell who survived his master's fall. He is believed to have converted part of the upper house into a dwelling, and comparison of early 18th century plans for remodelling Witham suggests that the old house was a quadrangular building of the type common in Tudor times. Indeed, it seems likely that the quadrangle around which the building was arranged perpetuates the form of the Little Cloister of the Charterhouse. 

Sketch plan of Witham Friary scheme by William Talman, c.1700.

Witham Friary: ground plan of James Gibbs scheme from Vitruvius Britannicus, 1717.

The comments of 18th century visitors show that even after early 18th century remodelling it incorporated surviving work from the monastic period. William Strachey, who visited in the 1720s, described the house as 'a Quadrangle [with] the Old Dark Vaulted Carthusian Chapell on the N side & now [a] Convenient Cellar, [though] the Pillars and Niches for Images [and] Holy Water plainly discover what it hath been'. Although the house may have been quadrangular to start with, it seems likely that subsequent generations made improvements to the house, perhaps including the demolition of the western range, so as to create a U-shaped building of the kind that was fashionable in Elizabethan and Jacobean times. This may have been the work of Sir Ralph Hopton, later 1st Baron Hopton, who is also credited with laying out a garden, probably within the framework of the Great Cloister of the monastery, in the 1620s or 1630s. A reference to a chapel in the house in 1653 may be to the former monastic chapel in the north range.

The idea of remodelling the house at Witham again was probably first conceived by Catherine, Lady Wyndham, who was the chatelaine of Witham from 1697 to her son's coming of age in 1708. She seems to have turned to William Talman for designs, and his first sketch plan is on a sheet with other drawings which can be dated to c.1699-1702. It was Talman who first proposed enclosing the open courtyard of the house with a screen wall of giant columns, and although his scheme was not built, this idea obviously found favour as it was common to all the subsequent schemes by other architects. Sir William Wyndham came of age in 1708, and had a meteoric political career (as Secretary at War and Chancellor of the Exchequer) during the reign of Queen Anne, which came to an abrupt end after the Tories left office and he was implicated in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. Confined in the Tower of London for some months in 1715-16, on his release he wrote "I design to make up as soon as I can the time I have lost in my building, and I am therefore going immediately into the country". The implication is that he had was already planning, if not building, a new house at Witham before 1715. Wyndham evidently consulted several different architects about his building, and there are schemes by George Clarke and Nicholas Hawksmoor, and by Sir James Thornhill, as well as the preferred design by James Gibbs which was published in the second volume of Vitruvius Britannicus (1717).

Witham Friary: design for west front by James Gibbs, published in Vitruvius Britannicus, 1717.
Although it is often stated that the Gibbs house was 'almost certainly never built', Strachey described it as 'new built' and a survey of 1761 recorded that it was 'part old and part new built by Sir Wm. Wyndham who laid out by accounts above £10,000 in rebuilding and repairing it'. In 1993, a geophysical survey of the site showed evidence of walls on the north side of the Great Cloister corresponding to the plan shown in Vitruvius Britannicus, so it would seem that the Gibbs house was built. In 1761, Thomas Browne described the house as 'a large Capital Seat all built stone & slated... large enough to contain any family in the Kingdom'. On the ground floor were 'a neat Chapell' and service accommodation, while on the first floor were a 'very large and lofty hall', a drawing room, 'a large lofty Eating parlour' and a dining room, a large bedchamber, two dressing rooms, a library, a gunroom, a Long Gallery and five further bedrooms. 

In 1754 Dr Richard Pococke visited the site and found 'the old chapel and some other parts of the nunnery remain'; but Sir Charles Wyndham, Earl of Egremont, had 'lately removed all his furniture from it, not purposing to live there any more'. Lord Egremont sold the estate through an intermediary to Alderman William Beckford in 1761, and Beckford at once commissioned Robert Adam to design a mansion for a new site just to the south of the old house. His motivation is somewhat uncertain, as his new house at Fonthill Splendens was still being completed, and was not far away, but the 1761 survey shows that the Gibbs house was in surprisingly poor condition. The existing house and the monastic ruins ('except for a small part connected with the east end of the church') were pulled down in about 1764. 

Witham Friary: design by Robert Adam for a new house, as published in Vitruvius Britannicus, 1771

Witham Friary: plan of new house designed by Robert Adam, as published in Vitruvius Britannicus, 1771
The Adam house, designed in 1762 and illustrated in the fifth volume of Vitruvius Britannicus in 1771, consisted of a central block with five bays on the entrance front and seven on the garden front, joined by five-bay colonnaded links to two domed three-bay pavilions. In general composition, this was an arrangement similar to the houses he was designing around the same time of Harewood (Yorks WR) and Mersham-le-Hatch (Kent). The size of the house was enlarged slightly between the first scheme and the final designs, allowing for a rather grander interior treatment; the progress of the design can be followed from a series of drawings in the Adam archive at the Soane Museum. In the final design, the piano nobile consisted of a sequence of rooms of different shapes, and included many niches, apses, and screens of columns. The shell of the house was evidently largely complete and probably roofed when Beckford died in 1770, but work then stopped. As Collinson said in his History of Somerset in 1791, 'had it been finished, it would have been a superb pile'. With his heir William a minor and already possessed of Fonthill Splendens, the house was really surplus to requirements and by 1791 the building had been demolished. William Beckford sold the estate in 1810 to provide much-needed funds for the completion of Fonthill Abbey.

Descent: Ralph Hopton (c.1510-71); to niece, Rachel Hall, wife of Sir Arthur Hopton (c.1540-1607); to son, Robert Hopton (1575-1638); to son, Ralph Hopton (1596-1652), 1st Baron Hopton; sequestrated by Parliament but returned to his sister, Katherine, widow of John Wyndham; to son, Thomas Wyndham (c.1642-89); to son, Hopton Wyndham (c.1665-97); to kinsman, Sir William Wyndham (1687-1740), 3rd bt.; to son, Sir Charles Wyndham (1710-63), 4th bt. and 2nd Earl of Egremont; sold 1761 to Alderman William Beckford (1709-70); to son, William Thomas Beckford (1760-1844), who demolished it.

Basing Park, Hampshire

The first recorded mention of a house at Basing Park was in the year 1567, when it belonged to John Love, who perhaps erected the first house on the site. The property was initially a copyhold not a freehold, although progressive expansion of the estate meant that it was later held on mixed tenures. Unfortunately there seems to be no visual record of the house before the early 19th century (two watercolours of c.1810 were sold in Germany in 2017 but not illustrated in the auction house's catalogue, and I have not yet managed to track them down). The Beckfords established a well defined area of parkland around the house after 1759, and may have rebuilt or remodelled the house as a two-storey five-bay block with a central curved bow. In 1830 the estate was purchased by Sir Thomas Lethbridge of Sandhill Park (Som.), who made improvements to the property, adding a new wing designed by Sydney Smirke on the east side, consisting of an entrance hall and drawing room with chambers above. Joseph Martineau, owner from 1835, also 'improved the offices and many of the rooms'.

Basing Park: engraving of the house in 1833, after the addition of the wing on the right by Sydney Smirke.
The top-lit entrance hall on the east side of the house was thirty feet square and 28 feet high. The bow-windowed drawing room, billiard room, morning room and library formed a suite of rooms on the south front. The dining room was on the north front. Martineau also greatly improved the gardens, perhaps having added the walled garden early in his ownership, and later adding rose and rock gardens, a terraced walk along the facade of the house, a pinetum linked to the house by a bridge over the drive, a fountain garden and a woodland garden with a monument. Two long carriage approaches to the house were also laid out, one of which passed two lodges and was partly lined with a double avenue of monkey puzzles and deodar cedars.

Basing Park: site plan and garden layout from the Ordnance Survey 1st edn 25" plan.

Basing House: the mansion after the addition of a third storey c.1870.
In 1863 the estate was sold to the gin distiller and MP, William Nicholson (1824-1909), who added an extra storey to the house to provide additional guest and servant accommodation. The addition was visually unfortunate, giving the house a somewhat institutional appearance. Nicholson continued the process of expanding the estate so that by the time of his death it had grown to nearly 8,500 acres. He was a committed improving landlord, and replaced many of the farm buildings and cottages on the estate, as well as the 13th century church at Privett, which was rebuilt in 1876-78 by Arthur Blomfield. The result is a rather pedantic Early English design which would be more at home in an urban setting; it has the second tallest spire of any Hampshire church, and is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.

The mansion was requisitioned for the use of American troops in the Second World War, and was returned to Otho Nicholson after hostilities ceased, in a poor state of repair. The estate was sold to the Earl Fitzwilliam, who let the house for use as a furniture store and sold the outlying portions of the estate to new owners. The house itself was sold in the early 1960s, and demolished in 1962.

Basing Park: the new house from the south-east. Image: Shazz. Some rights reserved.
It was soon replaced by a smaller two-storey neo-Regency house on the same site, designed by Claud Phillimore and built in 1968-69. This has single-storey splayed wings (one containing the kitchen, the other the estate office) on the entrance front and full-height curved bows in the centre and on the ends of the garden front. The entrance front has a Tuscan portico in antis, but is otherwise remarkably plain, with the simplest flat mouldings around the windows, a shallow bracketed eaves cornice and a hipped roof. As in so many new houses of this period, the rooms are fairly low-ceilinged, with the result that the house appears rather ill-proportioned by Georgian standards: the first-floor windows in particular seem rather squashed by the roof.

Descent: perhaps built (before 1567) for Richard Love (d. 1616); to son, John Love (d. 1628); to son, Richard Love (1615-90); to son, Robert Love (d. 1723); to nephew, Richard Love (1702-87); to daughter Susannah (d. 1803), widow of Francis Beckford (1723-68); to son, Francis Love Beckford (c.1764-1838), who sold 1802 to Rev. Charles Gore; sold 1813 to Richard Norris; sold 1830 to Sir Thomas Buckler Lethbridge (1778-1849), 2nd bt.; sold 1835 to Joseph Martineau (d. 1863); sold 1863 to William Nicholson MP (1824-1909), gin distiller; to son, William Graham Nicholson MP (1862-1942); to son, Otho William Nicholson (1891-1978); sold 1944 to William Thomas George Wentworth-Fitzwilliam (1904-79), 10th Earl Fitzwilliam; sold to Leslie James Langmead (b. 1942), who rebuilt the house.

Stepleton House, Iwerne Stepleton, Dorset

A most attractive house built of a fine ashlar stone, which has been remarkably little altered since the 18th century. The central block of the present house is six bays square (except for the east front, which had only five bays, to allow for a central doorcase), and of two storeys over a basement. It seems to have been built for Thomas Fownes soon after he acquired the estate in 1654, and was built around a small central courtyard. On the north side, the basement storey still preserves mullioned windows, and the original fenestration on the upper floors was no doubt at first mullioned and transomed cross-windows; there may have been dormer windows in the roof, but the present dormers are 20th century. The original entrance to the house lay on the east, where there was probably a great hall, but the internal layout was much altered in the 18th century.

Stepleton House: view of the central block from the south-east. This part of the house dates in essence from the 1650s, although altered after 1728. Image: Country Life.
In 1728, Thomas Fownes married Meliora Portman (née Fitch), and they inherited Stepleton two years later and evidently began alterations soon afterwards, for the heraldry of the dining room ceiling refers to their marriage. How much more Fownes was able to do is uncertain, as by 1739 he was in financial difficulties, and an Act of Parliament vested his estates in trustees, with a view to limiting his expenditure and paying off his debts. This scheme was unsuccessful, however, and in 1745 Stepleton was sold to Julines Beckford for £12,600. Although not as rich as his elder brother William, Julines was much better placed financially to make extensive alterations to the house than Thomas Fownes, and the probability is that most of the mid 18th century alterations to the house were undertaken after he bought it. Externally the main change was to substitute sash windows for the original cross-windows and to insert new centrepieces in the middle of the east and south fronts. On the south front, a new doorcase and a niche above it draw the windows either side into a three bay Venetian composition united by fluted pilasters and a pediment. The doorway hood and flanking windows are so similar to those of Sir Peter Thompson's House at Poole and Moreton House (Dorset) as to suggest that John Bastard (1687-1770) was the designer. Inside, the house was more comprehensively remodelled, and there are mid 18th century plaster ceilings in most of the ground floor rooms. A new top-lit principal staircase was inserted into the internal courtyard of the 17th century house, and this has a fine wrought iron balustrade (suggesting a date no earlier than the 1750s) and an upper arcade opening to the first-floor landing.

Stepleton House: staircase hall. Image: Country Life.

Stepleton House: north front, showing the wings added in 1758. 
In 1758, rectangular wings were built either side of the main block and connected to it by screen walls with Ionic loggias on the south side to create a Palladian composition. The wings are set well back from the main south front but project slightly on the north front. The wings are Palladian not only in form but also in their design and detailing, and are clearly by a different hand to the alterations to the main block. Since they were built by Richard Kittermaster of Yeovil, it is likely that they were designed by his father-in-law, Nathaniel Ireson.  Work may have remained incomplete in 1762, for in that year Edward Gibbon expostulated that Stepleton was 'unmeaning, expensive and unfinished', although his comments may have related in part to the landscaped grounds, which were largely the creation of Peter Beckford after he inherited in 1764. He gave the grounds a Brownian character, with a section of the River Iwerne widened to form a serpentine lake west of the house. A long approach drive from lodges to the east of the estate gave the impression that the park was much larger than it actually is, but the inconvenience of this approach led its abandonment later on. The construction of a turnpike road through the Iwerne valley in the late 18th century made possible a shorter and more convenient approach, and was prevented from disturbing the peace of the grounds by diverting it circuitously around the western edge of the park.

In 1811 the estate passed to Horace William Beckford (1777-1831), who had taken the name Pitt-Rivers on inheriting (by a special remainder) the title of 3rd Baron Rivers from a maternal relation. In 1828 he also inherited the Rushmore House estate (Wiltshire), which became the family's principal seat. Stepleton was either let or occupied by impecunious relations until 1917, when it was sold to Sir Randolph Baker (1879-1959), 4th bt., owner of the adjoining Ranston estate, who in turn sold it in 1923 to the tenant, Sir Ronald Charles Lindsay (1877-1949). The present owner and her late husband purchased it in 1985 and undertook a careful restoration of the house and its interiors. More recently, the gardens close to the house have been redesigned.

Descent: George Pitt sold 1654 to Thomas Fownes (d. 1673); to son, Richard Fownes (1652-1714); to son, Richard Fownes (d. 1730); to son, Thomas Fownes (b. 1699), who sold 1745 to Julines Beckford (c.1717-64); to son, Peter Beckford (c.1739-1811); to son, William Horace Beckford (later Pitt-Rivers) (1777-1831), 3rd Baron Rivers; to son, George Pitt-Rivers (1810-66), 4th Baron Rivers; to daughters, Blanche, Caroline and Gertrude Emily Pitt-Rivers... sold 1917 to Sir Randolph Baker of Ranston; sold 1923 to Sir Ronald Charles Lindsay (1877-1949); to nephew, David Alexander Robert Lindsay (1900-75), 28th Earl of Crawford and 11th Earl of Balcarres; to younger son, Hon. Patrick Lindsay (1928-86), who sold 1985 to Derek Coombs (1931-2014); to widow, Jennifer Coombs (b. 1953). The house was let in the 19th century.

Beckford family of Fonthill House, Basing Park and Stepleton House

Peter Beckford (1643-1710)
Beckford, Col. Peter (1643-1710). 
Son of Peter Beckford, 'a shadowy and humble figure' who was perhaps a citizen and butcher of London, and his wife Phillis, baptised at St James, Clerkenwell (Middx), 19 November 1643. He emigrated to Jamaica in 1661, sailing in one of two Royal Navy vessels in a passage arranged by the Rev. Thomas Fuller with Samuel Pepys. Little is known of his early life in Jamaica, but a contemporary account 
described him as being very active, honest, and sober, and recorded that 'he was bred a seaman, then became a merchant, and, having some knowledge of gunnery, was appointed captain of the forts at Port Royal'. In 1675 he was described as a merchant at Port Royal, 'the wickedest city in the West Indies' and six years later was the owner of land, a dwelling house, a storehouse, and a wharf in that town. He was Secretary of the Jamaican Patent Office, 1674-78, a member of the House of Assembly for Jamaica from 1675, and in 1691 was appointed to the governing Council of the island (later President). He was an active member of the island militia (Capt.; Col.) and was made commander of the forts at Port Royal, 1683-87 and 1689 onwards. Receiver-General for Jamaica, 1691After the earthquake of 1692 destroyed the greater part of Port Royal, he became the first custos or principal JP of the port town of Kingston; and he was appointed acting Lieutenant-Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Jamaica in 1702. He married 1st, Bridget (d. 1671), daughter of Sir William Beeston, Governor of Jamaica, 1692-1702; and 2nd, about 1672, Anne Ballard, and had issue:
(2.1) Peter Beckford (1673-1735) (q.v.);
(2.2) Priscilla Beckford (b. 1675), baptised at St Catherine, Jamaica, 20 May 1675;
(2.3) Charles Beckford (b. & d. 1677), baptised at St Catherine, Jamaica, 3 August 1677; died in infancy and was buried at St Catherine, Jamaica, 14 August 1677;
(2.4) Elizabeth Beckford (b. 1678), baptised at St Catherine, Jamaica, 8 October 1678;
(2.5) Thomas Beckford (1682-1731); married Mary, daughter and heiress of Thomas Ballard esq. and had issue two sons and four daughters; murdered by a man he had offended, 1731.
He lived in Jamaica and built up an extensive portfolio of sugar plantations and other property, from which he derived 'immense wealth' by the time of his death.
He died in Spanish Town (Jamaica), 3 April 1710 and was buried in Spanish Town Cathedral, where he is commemorated by a monument. His first wife died in 1671. His second wife's date of death is unknown.

Peter Beckford (1673-1735),
 a posthumous portrait
by Benjamin West 
Beckford, Peter (1673-1735). 
Son of Col. Peter Beckford (1643-1710) and his second wife, Anne Ballard, baptised at St Catherine, Jamaica, 5 April 1673. Educated at Merchant Taylors' School, and Middle Temple (admitted 1689; called 1695). Sugar planter in Jamaica, who 
made large profits from his slave-operated sugar plantations; he invested his capital in financing other business ventures, and at the time of his death was widely acknowledged as the wealthiest man in Jamaica, with total assets estimated at £300,000 sterling. He used his wealth and the influence it bought to build an unrivalled position in Jamaican society, becoming a member of the Jamaican House of Assembly, 1701-31 (Speaker, 1709-13, 1716) and controller of customs for Jamaica. He was noted for a vicious temper, and in 1698 was accused of murdering the deputy Judge Advocate for Jamaica and using his influence to escape conviction. He married, c.1703, Bathshua (d. 1751), daughter and co-heir of Col. Julines Herring, and had issue:
(1) Peter Beckford (1705-37) (q.v.);
(2) Anne Beckford (1706-46), said to have been born in 1706; married, 8 November 1726, George Ellis (1704-40), chief justice of the island of Jamaica, and had issue four sons and one daughter; died in January 1745/6;
(3) Phyllis Beckford (b. & d. 1708), born 21 May 1708; died in infancy, 28 July, and was buried in St Catherine, Jamaica, 29 July 1708, but is commemorated on her father's monument in Spanish Town Cathedral, Jamaica;
(4) William Beckford (1709-70) (q.v.);
(5) twin, Richard Beckford (1712-56), baptised at St Catherine, Jamaica, 3 February 1711/2; educated at Westminster School (admitted 1721), Balliol College, Oxford (matriculated 1728), University College, Oxford (BA 1731), and the Middle Temple (admitted 1730; called 1736); in 1754 he was the absentee landlord of 9,241 acres in Jamaica; MP for Bristol, 1754-56; Prime Warden of the Goldsmiths Company, 1755; alderman of the City of London, 1754-56; he was unmarried but in his will provided for Fanny Scott and her daughter Elizabeth and for Jane Foot and her son Beckford Foot in Jamaica and for Elizabeth Hay in London 'who I do esteem... in all respects my wife' and her son, William Beckford (1744-99), later an historian of France; died at Lyon (France), 24 January  and was buried at Fonthill Gifford, 7 March 1756; will proved in PCC, 4 March 1756;
(6) twin, Thomas Beckford (b. 1712), baptised at St. Catherine, Jamaica, 3 February 1711/2; educated at Westminster School (admitted 1721), but died young;
(7) Nathaniel Beckford (1713-37), born 3 December 1713; educated at Westminster School (admitted 1722); merchant in London; died unmarried, June 1737; will proved in the PCC, 29 July 1737;
(8) George Beckford (1715-25), baptised at St Catherine, Jamaica, 14 December 1715; educated at Westminster School (admitted 1724) and died there; buried at St Margaret, Westminster, 2 September 1725;
(9) Julines Beckford (c.1717-64) (q.v.);
(10) Bathshua Beckford (b. 1720), born and baptised at St Catherine, Jamaica, 11 June 1720; living in 1737 but probably died unmarried;
(11) Francis Beckford (1723-68) (q.v.);
(12) Elizabeth Beckford (1726-91), born 18 and baptised at St Catherine, Jamaica, 23 February 1725/6; a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Charlotte, 1761-69; married 1st, 14 February 1744/5 at St James, Piccadilly, Westminster (Middx), Lt-Gen. Thomas Howard (1714-63), 2nd Earl of Effingham, and had issue two sons and four daughters; married 2nd, 21 May 1776 at St George, Hanover Sq., Westminster, as his second wife, Field-Marshal Sir George Howard KB (1718-96), Governor of Royal Hospital, Chelsea; died at Royal Hospital, 13 October and was buried at Great Bookham (Surrey), 20 October 1791.
At his death he was owner of 11 sugar plantations and 1,737 slaves and part-owner of five plantations and 577 slaves, all in Jamaica, and was estimated to be worth £300,000. Conflict between a settlement of the majority of his property on his eldest son, dated 1721, and his will was further complicated by the death of Peter junior in 1737 and the subsequent falling out between his widow and their son William.
He died 23 September 1735 and was buried at Spanish Town Cathedral, Jamaica; his will was proved in the PCC, 6 October 1735. His widow was buried at St Margaret, Westminster (Middx), 14 January 1750/1; her will was proved in the PCC, 4 February 1750/1.

Beckford, Peter (1705-37). Eldest son of Peter Beckford (1673-1735) and his wife Bathshua, daughter and co-heir of Col. Julines Herring, baptised at St Catherine, Jamaica, 18 February 1704/5. Educated at Westminster School, 1715-17, Christ Church, Oxford (matriculated 1720) and the Inner Temple (admitted 1720). By the time of his father's death he was a cause of concern to his mother and siblings because of his unpredictable behaviour. In 1736 he visited England but soon returned, and in the last months of his life he committed unspecified extravagances, and 'his mind was filled with strange and unreasonable fears and apprehensions of people's affecting him and endeavouring to destroy him by magic'. He died unmarried and without issue.
He inherited the bulk of his father's property in England and Jamaica, but at his death it passed to his next brother.
He died 16 August 1737 and was buried at Spanish Town Cathedral, Jamaica; his will was proved in the PCC, 16 December 1737.

Alderman William Beckford (1709-70) 
Beckford, William (1709-70). 
Second son 
of Peter Beckford (1673-1735) and his wife Bathshua, daughter and co-heir of Col. Julines Herring, baptised in Jamaica, 19 December 1709. Educated at Westminster (admitted 1719) and Balliol College, Oxford (matriculated 1725; BA 1729; MA 1732), before becoming a medical student at the University of Leiden (admitted 1731) and studying at the Hôpital des Invalides in Paris until 1735. On the death of his father he abandoned his medical studies and returned to Jamaica to sort out the family's affairs and to manage the estates. He was a member of the Jamaican House of Assembly, 1737-44, and took an active part in the administration of the island, as well as being a member of a local militia unit. Rather unexpectedly, he befriended Cudjoe, the leader of the Maroons (runaway slaves and their descendants), and took him sailing. In 1744 he returned to England and settled in London, where he was described as a West India merchant, although his activities seem to have been limited to marketing the produce of his own estates and organising supplies and equipment for his plantations. He also became involved in the city's financial industry, and it was probably through money-lending that he further increased his fortune. He became MP for Shaftesbury, 1747-54 and for the City of London, 1754-70, and was a regular if rambling and sometimes inaudible speaker in the House of Commons. After Pitt became Prime Minister he attached himself firmly and permanently to this new leader, who found particularly useful his ability to shape and direct the views of the populace of London. In 1752 he was made free of the Ironmongers Co. (Master, 1753), and shortly afterwards was elected alderman for Billingsgate Ward (sheriff, 1755-56; Lord Mayor, 1762-63, 1769-70). After John Wilkes' election as MP for Middlesex in 1768, he found it useful to endorse some of his views, and this brought him into sharp conflict with King George III during his second mayoralty. His political opponents were quick to point out the double standard by which he offered vociferous support for the freedom and liberty of the Englishman, while being a large-scale slave owner in Jamaica. He married, 8 June 1756, Maria (1725-98), daughter of Hon. George Hamilton and widow of Francis Marsh, another absentee Jamaican planter; they had issue:
(1) William Thomas Beckford (1760-1844) (q.v.).
He also left the following illegitimate children, reputedly by three different partners, including Hannah Thwaites alias Maxwell (d. 1794) (for whom he provided in his will):
(X1) Bathshua Barbara Beckford (c.1739-77); married, 15 December 1757 at East Knoyle (Wilts), as his second wife, Rev. Dr. Charles Wake (1722-96), rector of East Knoyle (Wilts), and had issue three sons and eight daughters; died 17 September 1777 and was buried at East Knoyle;
(X2) Richard Beckford (1741-96), baptised at St Catherine, Jamaica, 8 January 1741/2; West India merchant in London, in partnership as Beckford & James of Nicholas Lane, Lombard St., London; MP for Bridport, 1780-84, Arundel, 1784-90, and Leominster, 1791-96; he was unmarried but had a long term relationship with Amy Ashton, for whom he provided in his will; died 12 August and was buried at St James, Piccadilly, Westminster (Middx), 20 August 1796; will proved 24 September 1796;
(X3) John Beckford (d. 1814), born after 1744; in 1765 he was 'now employed in the counting house of Messrs. Hope & Co., merchants in Amsterdam', a Dutch bank specialising in loans to plantation owners in the West Indies at this time; later an officer in the Guards (Cornet, 1770; Sub-Lt., 1772; Guidon & Capt., 1776; retired 1779); married, 6 May 1797 at St George, Hanover Sq., Westminster, Maria Ann Strange (c.1756-1820); will proved in the PCC, 29 July 1814;
(X4) Charles Beckford alias Jennings; 'a youth now living with Mr Benjamin Molineux of Wolverhampton' in 1765;
(X5) Rose Beckford (d. 1801)*, of Offley Holes, Hitchin (Herts), born after 1744; educated at Peckham (Surrey); absentee owner of plantations on Nevis; died 28 August 1801 and was buried at Hitchin, 4 September 1801; administration of his goods with will annexed granted in the PCC, 2 November 1803; and a further grant of administration made 13 January 1863; he left an illegitimate daughter (Rose Hannah Beckford (1791-1836), unprovided for; 
(X6) Susanna Beckford* (c.1750-89), born about 1750; educated at Kensington (Middx); lived in London; portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds; died unmarried and was buried at St George, Hanover Sq., Westminster, 10 September 1789; will proved in the PCC, 8 September 1789;
(X7) Thomas Beckford* (1752-1824), born 13 June 1752; educated at Peckham (Surrey) and Balliol College, Oxford (matriculated 1769); lived at Bath (Som.); married, 27 September 1774 at St George, Hanover Sq., Westminster (Middx), Phyllis Howard (c.1748-1826); died 9 April 1824 and was buried at Woolley (Wilts); will proved in the PCC, 10 June 1824;
(X8) Nathaniel Beckford* (d. 1810?), born after 1749; plantation and slave owner in Jamaica, who divided his time between London and Jamaica; a member of the legislative council of Jamaica, 1777-1810 (President, 1806); married, apparently as a child, August 1763 at Edinburgh (with a fortune of £3,000), Elizabeth, daughter of James Carroll (d. 1753), a Jamaica plantation and slave owner, and had issue one daughter; 'now living with Dr Wake at Knoyle (Wilts)' in 1765; said to have died in 1810.
He inherited part of his family's estates in Jamaica from his father in 1735, and the bulk of his father's property from his elder brother in 1737. He purchased the Fonthill (Wilts) estate in 1744, the Witham Friary estate in 1761 and the Eaton Bray estate (Beds.) in 1763. In 1754 he owned 42,075 acres in Jamaica, and at his death his property in Jamaica included 13 sugar plantations and over 3,000 slaves.
He died, reputedly of a fever brought on by 'political excitement', 21 June and was buried at Fonthill Gifford, 30 June 1770; his will was proved in the PCC, 18 July 1770. His widow lived at West End, Hampstead (Middx); she died 22 July, and was buried at Fonthill Gifford, 2 August 1798; her will was proved in the PCC, 31 August 1798.
* Children of William Beckford and Hannah Maxwell.

William Thomas Beckford (1760-1844) 
Beckford, William Thomas (1760-1844)*. 
Only legitimate son of William Beckford (1709-70) and his wife Maria, daughter of the Hon. George Hamilton and widow of Francis Marsh, born in London, 29 September 1760 and baptised at Fonthill, 6 January 1761. After his father's death he was nominally in the guardianship of Lord Cobham, Lord Lyttelton and Lord Camden, but in practice he was in the control of his mother. He was educated privately at Fonthill by tutors including Alexander Cozens (for drawing) and Sir William Chambers (for drawing and architecture); Cozens had lived in Russia and Chambers in China and India, and from them he acquired a fascination with the east and some familiarity with the Arabic and Persian languages. To complete his education he was sent to Switzerland with a tutor in 1777-78, where he was moved by the sublime landscapes, and and then undertook a Grand Tour in 1780-81, visiting Venice, Lucca, Florence, Pisa, Rome and Naples. He was a novelist, critic and writer, being particularly famous for his Gothick novel Vathek (1786) and for his travel writings; but was perhaps more significant as a patron and collector of the arts. He was MP for Wells, 1784-90 and for Hindon, 1790-94, 1806-20. He was said to be England's richest commoner, and his hopes of obtaining a peerage were close to realisation in 1784, when his name was included on a list of those to be granted peerages. However, he was then accused of homosexual behaviour with the Hon. William Courtenay (1768-1835) and an affair with the wife of his cousin Peter Beckford was discovered. Although he was never charged with any offence, his scarcely veiled bisexuality made him a social outcast and he and his wife went into voluntary exile in Switzerland in 1785-87, returning only after his wife's death. His family then sent him to Jamaica, but he disembarked at Lisbon and settled in Portugal, where he lived at several different houses in and around Sintra, all of which he altered. From Sintra he made several expeditions, including one to Paris in 1791, during the French Revolution. In 1796 he returned to England permanently, and embarked on the building of Fonthill Abbey. From the 1800s onwards the income from his Jamaican estates plummeted due to a fall in the price of sugar and rising costs. However, his expenditure was not curtailed to match and he accumulated large debts which he cleared in 1822 only by selling the Fonthill estate. He then moved to a house in the Royal Crescent at Bath, bought lands on the hills behind the Crescent, and built the 154 ft. Lansdown Tower there as a place of retreat. He married, 5 May 1783, Lady Margaret (1762-86), daughter of Charles Gordon, 4th Earl of Aboyne, and had issue:
(1) Margaret Maria Elizabeth Beckford (1784-1818), born 9 April 1784 and baptised at Fonthill Gifford, 24 March 1785; raised by her maternal grandmother at West End, Hampstead (Middx); disowned by her father after she eloped and married, 16 May 1811 at St George, Hanover Sq., London (without her father's consent), Lt-Gen. James Orde (1775-1850) of Weetwood (Northants), and had issue one son (who died in infancy) and two daughters; died at Bath (Som.), 7 September, and was buried at Fonthill Gifford, 12 September 1818;
(2) Susanna Euphemia (k/a Susan) Beckford (1786-1859), born at Chateau-la-Tour, Vevey (Switzerland), 14 May, and was baptised at Vevey, 17 May 1786; raised by her maternal grandmother at West End, Hampstead (Middx); married, 26 April 1810 at St Marylebone (Middx), Alexander Hamilton (1767-1852), 10th Duke of Hamilton and Brandon, and had issue one son (later the 11th Duke) and one daughter; died 27 May 1859 and was buried at Hamilton (Lanarks); will proved 8 July 1859 (effects under £14,000).
He inherited his father's Fonthill and Jamaican estates in 1770, when the West Indian property was estimated to yield £40,000 a year, although this figure later declined rapidly. He built Fonthill Abbey from 1796 onwards and pulled down Fonthill Splendens in 1807 before selling the estate and moving to the Royal Crescent in Bath in 1822.
He died in Bath, 2 May 1844, and was buried in Lyncombe Cemetery there; his body was later reinterred in the grounds of the Lansdown Tower. His wife died in Switzerland following childbirth, 26 May 1786.
* A much fuller biography will be found in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and there are several biographical studies of his life including J. Lees-Milne, William Beckford, 1976 (now rather dated) and T. Mowl, William Beckford: composing for Mozart, 1998. Of particular interest in relation to his collections is D.E. Ostergard (ed.), William Beckford 1760-1844: An Eye for the Magnificent, 2001.

Julines Beckford (c.1717-64). 
Beckford, Julines (c.1717-64). 
Seventh son of 
Peter Beckford (1673-1735) and his wife Bathshua, daughter and co-heir of Col. Julines Herring, born about 1717. Educated at Westminster (admitted 1725). High Sheriff of Dorset, 1749-50; Tory MP for Salisbury, 1754-64. He married, 17 January 1739, Elizabeth (d. 1762), daughter of Solomon Ashley MP of Ashby St. Ledgers (Northants), and had issue:
(1) Peter Beckford (1739-1811) (q.v.).
He inherited 8,197 acres of his father's estate in Jamaica in 1735, and bought the Stepleton House estate in 1745 for £12,600. He added the Shillingstone estate to it in 1759 and later the Durweston estate, and remodelled and enlarged the house.
He died in Jamaica, 27 November 1764; his will was proved in the PCC, 21 May 1765.  His wife died in Jamaica, 15 March 1762.

Peter Beckford (1740-1811) by Batoni.
Beckford, Peter (1739-1811). 
Only child of Julines Beckford (c.1717-64) and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Solomon Ashley of Ashby St. Ledgers (Northants), born 28 October and baptised at St Giles-in-the-Fields, Holborn (Middx), 26 November 1739. Educated at Westminster and New College, Oxford (matriculated 1757). In 1765-66, he undertook a Grand Tour through France, Switzerland and Italy, meeting Voltaire and Rousseau in Geneva and hunting with the King of Savoy, before going on to Rome where his portrait was painted by Pompeo Batoni. He became the patron of the composer and pianist Muzio Clementi, whom he brought to Britain on his return from the Grand Tour. MP for Morpeth, 1768-74, but after one term he did not stand again, being more interested in hunting than politics; his book, Thoughts upon hare and fox hunting (1781) being one of the classics of the sport. Due to his wife's declining health, he returned to Italy in 1783 and remained there until 1799, afterwards publishing Familiar Letters from Italy (1805). He married, 22 March 1773, Hon. Louisa (c.1755-91), daughter of George Pitt (1721-1803), 1st Baron Rivers, of Stratfield Saye (Hants), but his wife had an affair with William Thomas Beckford (1760-1844) of Fonthill and they were separated for a time until she became ill. They had issue:
(1) Louisa Beckford (1774-88), born 4 May and baptised at St Marylebone (Middx), 31 May 1774; died young, 2 September 1788 and was buried in the English Cemetery at Livorno (Italy);
(2) Maria Beckford (1775-80), born 20 June and baptised at Iwerne Steepleton,18 July 1775;  died young and was buried at Iwerne Steepleton, 16 July 1780;
(3) William Augustus Beckford (b. & d. 1776), baptised at Iwerne Steepleton, 9 June 1776; died in infancy and was buried at Iwerne Steepleton, 29 September 1776;
(4) William Horace Beckford (1777-1831), 3rd Baron Rivers, born 2 December 1777; as a young man he ran up gambling debts of £12,000 which his maternal grandfather paid off; he inherited his grandfather's barony under a special remainder in the peerage patent in 1828 and took the surname Pitt-Rivers in lieu of Beckford for himself and his male issue and the name Pitt for his female issue; married, 9 February 1808, Frances (d. 1860), daughter and heiress of Lt Col. Francis Hale Rigby, of Mistley Hall (Essex), and had issue two sons and two daughters; he drowned in the Serpentine in Hyde Park (Middx), 23 January 1831, arousing suspicions of suicide;
(5) Harriet Beckford (1779-1853), born 2 January and baptised at Iwerne Steepleton, 30 January 1779*; married, 27 January 1807 at Iwerne Steepleton, Henry Seymer (later Ker-Seymer) (1782-1834), of Hanford (Dorset), and had issue; lived latterly at Southampton (Hants); buried at Hanford, 27 December 1853; will proved in the PCC, 7 January 1854.
He inherited the Stepleton House estate and plantations in Jamaica from his father in 1764, but the income from his Jamaican estates steadily diminished due to soil erosion, hurricanes, an increase in the cost of slave labour, and mismanagement by his agents. To avoid insolvency he sold the Durweston part of his Dorset estate to Henry Portman of Bryanston in 1774 and mortgaged two of his Jamaican plantations to his father-in-law in 1778.
He died 18 February 1811 and was buried at Stepleton Iwerne (Dorset); his will, proved 28 March 1811, made provision for Signora Rosa Buggiani of Florence, who may have been a former mistress or an illegitimate daughter. His wife died of tuberculosis at Florence (Italy), 30 April 1791, and was buried in the English cemetery at Livorno (Italy).
* The parish register gives her name erroneously as Henrietta.

Francis Beckford (1724-68) 
Beckford, Francis (1723-68). 
Eighth son of 
Peter Beckford (1673-1735) and his wife Bathshua, daughter and co-heir of Col. Julines Herring, born 23 February and baptised at St Catherine's, Jamaica, 24 February 1722/3. Educated at Westminster School (admitted 1730) and St John's College, Oxford (matriculated 1741). He stood for Parliament in Boston (Lincs) on his father-in-law's interest in 1747 but was defeated by six votes and did not stand again. He married 1st, 8 March 1743 at St George, Hanover Sq., Westminster (Middx), Lady Albinia (1723-54), second daughter of Peregrine Bertie (1686-1742), 2nd Duke of Ancaster & Kesteven, and 2nd, 4 February 1755, Susannah (1728-1803), only daughter and heiress of Richard Love of Basing (Hants), and had issue:
(2.1) Thomas Beckford (1757-81), born 6 March and baptised at St George, Hanover Sq., Westminster, 7 March 1757; died unmarried and was buried at Ashtead (Surrey), 20 April 1781;
(2.2) Susannah Beckford (1758-73),  baptised at Epsom (Surrey), 15 September 1758; died young and was buried at Froxfield (Hants), 27 March 1773;
(2.3) William Beckford (1759-71/1806), baptised at Epsom, 19 December 1759; died young and was buried at Froxfield, 15 November 1771 or was buried at Mitcham (Surrey), 9 December 1806;
(2.4) Charlotte Beckford (1761-1803), said to have been born in Jamaica; married, 19 February 1793 at St Marylebone (Middx), John Charles Middleton (1755-1826), son of Rev. Samuel Middleton, and had issue three sons and three daughters; she and her husband rented Hinton Ampner (Hants), Rossington Hall (Yorks) and Shawford House, Twyford (Hants), and as a widower he settled at Hildersham House (Cambs); she died in London, 27 February 1803, and was buried at St Mary, Battersea (Surrey), 5 March 1803;
(2.5) Bathshua Beckford (1762-1804?), born 15 August and baptised at St George, Hanover Sq., Westminster, 28 August 1762; said to have died in 1804;
(2.6) Francis Love Beckford (c.1764-1838) (q.v.);
(2.7) Maria Beckford (1766-1854), born 30 August and baptised at St George, Hanover Sq., Westminster, 27 September 1766; lived at South Stoneham House (Hants); died unmarried, 25 June 1854, and was buried at Froxfield (Hants); will proved in the PCC, 15 July 1854.
In 1735 he inherited 2,616 acres of his father's estate in Jamaica. He and his wife occupied Basing Park (Hants) in his father-in-law's lifetime.
He died 24 November 1768 and was buried at Froxfield (Hants), 6 December 1768. His first wife died at Bungay (Suffk), 'of a violent fever', 12 February 1754. His second wife died at her house in London, 5 January, and was buried at Froxfield, 13 January 1803.

Beckford, Francis Love (c.1764-1838). Third son of Francis Beckford (1723-68) and his second wife, Susannah, only daughter and heiress of Richard Love of Basing (Hants), born in Jamaica late in 1763 or early in 1764. An officer in the army (Ensign, 1783; Lt., 1785; retired 1788) and in the Bramdean Volunteers (Cornet, 1798). A Whig in politics. JP and DL (from 1821) for the Borough of Southampton. He married, 14 April 1788 at Goldielee, Dumfries (Dumfriess.), Joanna (1758-1814), third daughter and co-heiress of John Leigh of Northcourt House (IoW) and widow of Richard Bennett Lloyd (1750-87) of Maryland (USA), and had issue:
(1) Francis Love Beckford (1789-1875), of Mitcham (Surrey), born 15 February at baptised at St Marylebone (Middx), 20 March 1789; educated at Eton (admitted 1802) and Christ Church, Oxford (matriculated 1807); an officer in the Coldstream Guards (Ensign 1810; retired 1813), who served in the Peninsula Wars; died unmarried, 1 June and was buried at St Andrew, Ham, 5 June 1875; will proved 12 July 1875 (effects under £25,000);
(2) William Beckford (1790-1859), of Ruxley Lodge (Surrey), born 23 March and baptised at St Marylebone, 30 March 1790; plantation owner and West India merchant; married, 12 January 1822 at St James, Piccadilly, Westminster (Middx), Maria Elizabeth (1802-90), daughter of Rev. John Bramston Stane of Forest Hall, High Ongar (Essex) and had issue one son and three daughters; died in Rome (Italy), 22 January 1859; will proved 8 March 1859 (effects under £25,000);
(3) Cdr. John Leigh Beckford (1791-1858), baptised at St Marylebone, 25 July 1791; entered Royal Navy in 1803 (Lt., 1810; Cdr., 1821; retired on half pay, 1821); married, 6 November 1829 at Northwood (IoW), Harriet (1803-86), fourth daughter of George Ward of Northwood House (IoW); died 28 October 1858; will proved 17 November 1858 (effects under £12,000);
(4) Carlton Beckford (1793-1829), born 15 January and baptised at St Marylebone (Middx), 2 March 1793; died unmarried and was buried at Nursling (Hants), 14 March 1829;
(5) Anne Harriet Beckford (1795-1878); married, 29 August 1816 at St George, Hanover Sq., Westminster, her cousin, Andrew Arcedeckne MP (1780-1849) of Glevering Hall (Suffk), son of Chalenor Arcedeckne, and had issue one son and one daughter; died at her house in Grosvenor Square, Westminster, 27 March 1878; her will was proved 2 May 1878 (estate under £7000);
(6) Rev. Charles Douglas Beckford (1798-1884), baptised 2 March 1798; educated at Brasenose College (matriculated 1816; BA 1819); Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, 1821-31 (MA 1823); ordained deacon, 1820 and priest, 1821, but never held a benefice; married, 26 May 1831 at Mitcham (Surrey), his cousin, Charlotte Maria (1795-1889), daughter of John Middleton of Hildersham House (Cambs), and had issue two daughters; lived in London; died 18 July 1884; will proved 9 September 1884 (effects £4,641);
(7) Thomas Henry Beckford (1799-1814), born 11 January and baptised at St Marylebone, 19 February 1799; died young, 9 July, and was buried at All Saints, Southampton, 15 July 1814.
He inherited Basing Park and estates in Jamaica from his father, but sold Basing in 1802. He lived subsequently in Southampton (until 1831) and later at Ruxley Lodge, Thames Ditton.
He died at Mitcham (Surrey), 24 February and was buried at All Saints, Southampton, 3 March 1838; his will was proved in the PCC, 15 March 1838. His wife died at Southampton, 19 August 1814.

Principal sources

Burke's Landed Gentry, 1850, vol. 1, pp. 77-78; B. Alexander, England's wealthiest son: William Beckford, 1962; R. Wilson-North & S. Porter, 'Witham, Somerset: From Carthusian Monastery to Country House to Gothic Folly', Architectural History, 1997, pp. 81-98; T. Mowl, William Beckford: composing for Mozart, 1998, esp. ch. 15; J.M. Robinson, James Wyatt, 2011, pp. 233-38; P. Gauci, William Beckford: first Prime Minister of the London Empire, 2013; M. Hill, East Dorset Country Houses, 2013, pp. 304-10; M. Hill, J. Newman & Sir N. Pevsner, The buildings of England: Dorset, 2018, pp. 336-37; C. Dakers (ed.), Fonthill Recovered: a Cultural History, 2018.

Location of archives

William Thomas Beckford (1760-1844): correspondence, papers and literary manuscripts [Bodleian Library, Oxford MSS Beckford]; papers [Private Collection]

Coat of arms

Per pale, gules and azure, on a chevron argent between three martlets or, an eagle displayed, sable, within a bordure of the fourth, charged with a double tressure, flory and counterflory, of the first.

Can you help?

  • Can anyone provide photographs or portraits of the people whose names appear in bold above, for whom no image is currently shown?
  • If anyone can offer further information or corrections to any part of this article I should be most grateful. I am always particularly pleased to hear from current owners or the descendants of families associated with a property who can supply information from their own research or personal knowledge for inclusion.

Revision and acknowledgements

This post was first published 30 September 2022.

(524) Beckford of Fonthill, Basing Park and Stepleton House - part 1

Beckford of Fonthill
This post has been divided into two parts. This first part contains the introduction to the Beckford family, and an account of the architectural history of their Fonthill estate in Wiltshire. Part 2 contains an account of their other houses, and the genealogical record of the family.

The Beckford family claimed descent from a family of that name that is said to have originated from Beckford (Glos, now Worcs), but whether or not this was so, the origins of Peter Beckford (1643-1710), with whom the genealogy in Part 2 of this post begins, are obscure. His father, another Peter Beckford, may have been the citizen and butcher of London, whose son Peter was apprenticed in 1658. In 1661, the young Peter Beckford obtained a passage with Royal Navy vessels to Jamaica, and although his presence in the island is not otherwise evidenced until 1667, it seems likely that he did emigrate then, or shortly afterwards. The island of Jamaica had been captured by the British from Spain in 1655, and the potential it offered for rapid riches through the production of sugar by a workforce of African slaves and indentured servants was quickly realised. Although Peter Beckford's origins are obscure it would seem that he was not without access to capital and influence, and it may be that he was supported by his presumed kinsman, Richard Beckford, a rich Atlantic merchant based in London. Life for white settlers in the Caribbean in the 17th century had a distinct tendency to be 'nasty, brutish and short', but Peter Beckford seems to have been a survivor. By the 1670s he was building up his holdings of land and buildings on the island and becoming a significant figure in island life, and the process continued, culminating in his acting appointment as Lieutenant Governor of the island in 1702. His elder son, Peter Beckford (1673-1735), continued the process of acquiring wealth, influence and political power, but he seems to have had a vicious temper and found it easy to make enemies. In 1698 he was accused of murdering a judge but he avoided conviction because of the strength of his father's influence both in Jamaica and in London. In 1709 he had contrived to be chosen as Speaker of the House of Assembly, but his opponents made a concerted effort to unseat him at a meeting on 3 April 1710, and something approaching a riot resulted. His father, hearing the tumult, rushed to the courthouse, fearing his son's life was in danger, but collapsed and died en route.

By the time of his death in 1735, Peter Beckford was far and away the richest man in Jamaica, and his total net worth may have been as much as £300,000 sterling, which would put him on a par with the wealthier British aristocrats of the time. His extensive property was 'a testament to [his] commercial acumen and sheer ruthlessness', and his wealth was, of course, very largely created by the efforts of his slaves. In 1722 he settled most of his Jamaican property on himself for life and then on his eldest son Peter Beckford (1705-37), but when the latter showed signs of mental imbalance he wrote a will in rather different terms, leaving Peter his English property and dividing his Jamaican estates between his widow and younger sons. The conflict between the two documents led to disagreements within the family and eventually to complex legal cases, and the position was not helped by the death of Peter junior in 1737, just two years after his father. When the dust settled, the principal inheritor of the estate was Peter's second son, William Beckford (1709-70). Peter's younger sons, although they were left modest property interests at the western end of Jamaica, were chiefly resident in England, where Julines Beckford (c.1717-64) and Francis Beckford (1723-68) subsequently acquired landed estates of their own: in the former case by purchase and in the latter through marriage, although neither survived in the possession of descendants with the Beckford name for more than a few years.

All of Peter Beckford's sons were sent to England to be educated at Westminster School, and those who survived to adulthood went on to Oxford or one of the inns of court. William Beckford intended a medical career, and went on to study at the University of Leiden and to receive practical training in Paris. Soon after his father's death, however, he gave up his studies and returned to Jamaica to manage the family estates. He remained there until 1744 when he moved permanently to England, where he operated as the agent for his own estates, selling the produce on the English market and sending out supplies to Jamaica. He also became involved in the financial services industry, and it was probably through money-lending that he greatly increased his fortune. He sought a seat in Parliament in order to defend the interests of the West Indian planters and slaveowners, and was also active in the administration of the city of London, serving twice as Lord Mayor in 1762-63 and 1769-70. His moderate support for John Wilkes and his willingness to stand up to King George III gave him credibility with, and enthusiastic support from, the populace of London, but the fact that his wealth came largely from outside the city, his brash manners, and his colonial morality, made him less popular with his fellow Aldermen. Political opponents were quick to spot the double-standard involved in his support for the liberty of the Englishman and his defence of slavery, although very few in England yet acknowledged the rights of slaves to equal treatment under the law, or felt the disgust which slavery excites today. Beckford was also proud of his shoal of illegitimate children, for eight of whom - all born before his marriage to the widow of another Jamaican planter in 1756 - he made generous provision in his will. He understood the need for a man of his background and exceptional wealth to assimilate into the landed elite if he and his successors were to be successful in public life, and it was no doubt with this in mind that he purchased the Fonthill estate soon after his arrival in England in 1744, and set about improving, and later rebuilding, the house there. He also went on to buy the Witham Friary estate in 1761 and to build a new house there; and to purchase the Eaton Bray estate in Bedfordshire in 1763.

When William Beckford died in 1770, his illegitimate children were all either adults or in their late teens. His only legitimate child, William Thomas Beckford (1760-1844), who was the heir to almost all his real estate, was, however, not quite ten years old. Nominally the young lad was in the guardianship of Lord Cobham, Lord Lyttelton and Lord Camden, but in practice he was in the control of his over-protective mother, who sheltered him from the rough and tumble of a public school and had him educated at home by a series of tutors (including Alexander Cozens and Sir William Chambers), before sending him with a tutor to complete his studies in Switzerland. He emerged from his schooling good looking, over-sensitive and self-indulgent, but with exceptional talents in the arts and with the authority and confidence of great wealth. He was married in 1783 but was pretty clearly bi-sexual, and involved himself in a long affair with his cousin's wife, while at the same time allegedly engaging in homosexual romps with William 'Kitty' Courtenay (later 3rd Earl of Devon). When news of the latter was published in the press, Beckford decided that it would be prudent to go abroad to avoid any risk of prosecution, and he went to Switzerland (with his wife, who died there after childbirth) and later to Portugal. His sojourns abroad exposed his Romantic nature to sublime landscape and architecture, and to the beauties of monasticism, and when he returned to England in 1796 he was fired with the determination to build a cruciform Gothic retreat on the estate at Fonthill in the form of an abbey. Mutual enthusiasm between Beckford and his architect, James Wyatt, saw the project grow from the original project for a folly into a replacement main house for the estate. Work began in 1796 and after the first central tower collapsed in 1800, was renewed on an even larger scale. The cost was astronomical, and more than even Beckford could afford, especially at a time when his income from his Jamaican estates was plummeting as a result of increased costs and the falling price of sugar on the world market. In the end, mounting debts and failing energy obliged him to sell the estate with the interior of the abbey unfinished, and three years later the central tower collapsed once more, leaving the house a permanent ruin. Beckford moved to a house in the Royal Crescent in Bath, and built a new, but more robust tower (now known as Beckford's Tower) on the hill behind the house, to the design of H.E. Goodridge.

Houses on the Fonthill estate, Wiltshire

Fonthill: the locations of the five building sites on the estate.
The building history of the Fonthill estate is exceptionally complicated, with nine short-lived houses having been constructed on five different sites within the estate between the 16th and 21st century. This is partly accounted for by the fact that what had been a single estate in the 17th and 18th centuries became divided in the 19th and 20th centuries, with one or more houses on each property. A fuller account of the descent and building history can be found in Caroline Dakers (ed.), Fonthill Recovered, 2018.

Fonthill I: the Tudor, Jacobean and early Georgian house

There was a house surrounded by a park at Fonthill by the mid 16th century. The earliest house of which anything is known was probably built between 1575 and 1600  for Sir James Mervyn (1529-1611), kt., and stood on the site of the present village cricket pitch on the west side of Fonthill Lake, about halfway between the villages of Fonthill Bishop and Fonthill Gifford. A painting of the house from the east, signed by Robert Thacker (d. 1687) and painted probably in the 1680s, shows a late Tudor or Jacobean house with alterations and additions made for Lord Cottington in the 1630s, at much the same time as he was working on his house near London, Hanworth Palace

Fonthill House: painting of the house from the east in the 1680s, signed by Robert Thacker.
The house was of two storeys with a further floor of gabled attics, and consisted of a five bay hall range flanked by long projecting wings: it is likely that the wings projected correspondingly to the west and that the house was thus H-shaped rather than U-shaped. The hall range had a slightly recessed centre containing a balustraded single-storey porch, and shaped gables of two different designs either side of the central triangular gable; the shaped gables may have been an early 17th century alteration. The gables on the wings were all of the plainer triangular form. A low pierced screen wall ran between the ends of wings, enclosing an inner court. Beyond this was a larger outer court, wider than the house, which was divided by stone walls with open balustrades and also bisected by a canal crossed by a small bridge. The entrance into the outer court from the approach drive was marked by an elaborate gatehouse with a first-floor room over the entrance archway and four tall pepper-pot turrets at the angles, strongly reminiscent of the larger gateway at Tixall House (Staffs), which was built about 1580. To the north of the main block of the house were two parallel service ranges, also of two storeys, but lower than the main building. Beyond these, at the right-hand side of the picture, is the detached stable block built in the 1630s for Lord Cottington in a precociously classical style, with a hipped roof, projecting wings and tall windows in the centre with lunettes above.

Fonthill House: view from the south-east, attributed to Antonio Joli, c.1750-55,
showing house and landscape as remodelled by Francis Cottington and William Beckford.
Fonthill House: the remodelled mansion from the north-east (detail from a view attributed
to Antonio Joli, c.1750-55. In the background can be seen the new Fonthill Gifford church.

The next visual evidence for the development of the house comes from a group of four paintings from a variety of viewpoints, executed between 1740 and the mid 1750s, which show that the Tudor and Jacobean house had been remodelled before 1740, replacing the gabled attics of the main block with a full third storey, infilling the recessed centre of the hall range to create a new seven bay east front between the wings, and creating a new main south front with an attic storey above the cornice and a three-bay centrepiece with giant pilasters and a pediment surmounted by statues. The service wings had been altered less, although sash windows had apparently replaced the original mullioned ones on the east side of the north-east wing, and the north front of the main house had been regularised. The stables seem not to have been changed at all. Since there is known to have been work in progress at Fonthill in 1738, it seems likely that the earliest painting (by John Lambert, dated 1740) was commissioned to celebrate the completion of the remodelling.

The house that Alderman William Beckford bought in 1744-45 was thus, externally at least, fairly up-to-date. The paintings that he commissioned in the mid 1750s - now attributed to Antonio Joli - show that either Francis Cottington or Beckford himself had infilled much of the area between the wings on the west front, turning the original single-pile hall range into a double pile, probably in the interest of creating more state rooms on the ground floor, such as a large saloon for entertaining. The most striking differences between the views of 1740 and those of the 1750s concern the landscape setting in which the house sat. The park had been completely transformed, with the clearance of much of the woodland around the house, the damming of the Tisbury Stream to form a new linear lake, the relocation of the public road to the east side of the lake, and the creation of a new approach drive which crossed the lake by means of a five-arched bridge. Alongside the landscaping works, Beckford created a number of new structures within the landscape.

Fonthill House: the entrance gateway, attributed to John Vardy. Image: Nicholas Kingsley. Some rights reserved.

The most striking of these is the triumphal arch at the northern entrance to the estate, which has distinctive bands of knobbly rustication, also found on the (now lost) entrance arch of the boat house-cum-cold bath at the northern end of the lake, and has been plausibly attributed to John Vardy. In 1747 Beckford obtained a faculty for taking down the old church of St Nicholas, Fonthill Gifford (which probably stood north-west of the house, although it is not shown on any of the views of the house) and building a replacement in the village of Fonthill Gifford, outside the park. This was a simple rectangular building with a front derived from Inigo Jones' St Paul, Covent Garden: this too could have been designed by Vardy. The Mervyn, Cottington and other memorials from the old church were not transferred to its successor, but were said to have been unceremoniously buried on the old site: they may still be there, and it would be wonderful if, as the antiquary Sir Richard Colt Hoare said 'some future antiquary may hit upon their place of deposit, and bring them again to light'.

Although little is known about any works William Beckford may have undertaken to the interior of the old house, it is known that on the 12-13 February 1755 workmen completing a new ceiling in the north wing lit a fire in a non-functioning chimney, and that the blaze that followed destroyed most of the north range and also the great hall, with a valuable organ installed only 18 months earlier. Beckford himself was in London at the time, but his staff and neighbours were able to remove the furniture and to save the majority of the south range. Beckford's library was, however, destroyed. Press reports stated that the house would cost £30,000 to rebuild but was only insured for £6,000, but Beckford was wealthy enough to shrug off the loss, and he determined not to restore the old house but to build a replacement, and the remains of the old house - apart from the stables which were unaffected by the fire and were retained - were demolished when its successor was complete.

Fonthill II: Fonthill Splendens and The Pavilion

The new house which Alderman Beckford began in 1756 as a replacement for the first Fonthill House was constructed on a new site, just to the south of its predecessor. It was apparently designed by a London builder named Hoare, otherwise known only as the designer of a court house at Maidstone (Kent), who was presumably known to Beckford for works in the metropolis. (An earlier attribution to James Paine is now discredited).  It was a sumptuous Palladian mansion of the type of Houghton Hall (Norfolk), and therefore slightly old-fashioned for its date, but it was extensively illustrated in the fourth volume of Vitruvius Britannicus published in 1767. 

Fonthill Splendens: watercolour by John Buckler on the eve of demolition, 1806. Image: Wiltshire Museum.
The immensely grand entrance front consisted of a nine bay central block linked by curved colonnades of coupled columns to two pavilion wings, five bays square. The main block was of two storeys above a high basement, and had a pedimented giant portico approached by flights of steps which occupied the whole width of the basement storey, and Venetian windows in the end bays of the piano nobile. The pavilions had low pyramid roofs surmounted by cupolas which disguised chimneys. The rear elevation was also of nine bays and had a pedimented centrepiece with Ionic giant pilasters. This feature, and the Venetian windows in the end bays of the first floor, echoed the design of the entrance front; to either side were recessed walls with blind arcading, screening the service courts behind the pavilions.

Fonthill Splendens: the rear elevation as illustrated in Vitruvius Britannicus (1767).
It echoed the form of the entrance front but with less movement in the design. 
Vitruvius Britannicus gives plans of the basement level, piano nobile, and attic storey of the main block, as well as of the ground floor of the pavilions, although only the basement floor plan is annotated with the names of the rooms. The left-hand pavilion contained the kitchens and associated offices; the right-hand pavilion the laundry and brewery. 

Fonthill Splendens: plan of the ground floor level, annotated with room names, from Vitruvius Britannicus, 1767.

Fonthill Splendens: plan of the piano nobile, from Vitruvius Britannicus, 1767.

An undecorated doorway in the centre of the house, below the portico, gave access to a hall running through the house from front to back. The basement of the main block was vaulted throughout, and included four modest polite rooms: common and eating parlours, a library (with some 1500 books) and bedroom, as well as the butler's pantry. It is likely that these spaces provided private accommodation for the Beckfords when they were not entertaining.

Statue of William Beckford from the gallery at
Fonthill House, now in Ironmongers Hall, London 
The interiors of the piano nobile were on a grand scale, and work on fitting them out continued intermittently until Alderman Beckford's death in 1770.  The 'Egyptian Hall' entered from the portico, was some 36 ft square, paved with black and white marble, and decorated with murals by Andrea Casali, and a new organ, replacing that lost in the fire at the previous house. Behind the hall was a saloon. The principal staircase lay to the right of the hall and saloon, and beyond this was the great picture gallery, some 69 ft long, with ceiling panels by Casali, a statue of Beckford by J.F. Moore (now in Ironmongers' Hall in London), and a celebrated collection of pictures. To the left of the hall and saloon were four further rectangular rooms, forming a state apartment, which included a dining room, bedroom, and a room hung with Gobelin tapestries, which may have been used as a drawing room. The principal interiors had chimneypieces by J.F. Moore and Thomas Banks, and pier glasses by Chippendale. Robert Adam made designs for fitting up the parlour and library in the basement in 1763, but it is thought these were not carried out.

Alderman William Beckford died in 1770 and his son came of age in 1781. Although in intermittent exile from 1784-96, he commissioned designs for alterations to the house from Soane in 1787 (a new gallery) and from James Wyatt after 1795 (refitting the library), but he never liked the house, which he described as 'false Greek and false Egyptian..[with] small doors and mean casements...dauberies a la Casali... ridiculous chimneypieces and... wooden chalk-covered columns without grace, nobility or harmony'. By 1796 he had conceived the idea of building an 'abbey' in the grounds, initially as a retreat from the main house, but after 1802 he decided to demolish his father's house and to use the stone to enlarge the Abbey as his sole residence. The east pavilion was demolished first, then in 1807 the main block, leaving just the west pavilion.
Casali painting from the gallery of Fonthill House showing Astronomy and Architecture
holding the elevation of the house (now at Dyrham Park). Image: National Trust.
Many of the fixtures and fittings of the house found an after-life elsewhere. Wyatt took the iron staircase balustrade and built it into the house he was constructing at the time at Dodington (Glos); a chimneypiece by Moore and a ceiling painting by Casali are at Beaminster Manor (Dorset), and five more Casali panels, including one showing Architecture holding the house plan, went to the Theatre Royal, Bath in 1801, and from there to Dyrham Park (Glos) in 1845. Two 16th century Italian chimneypieces went to Pythouse, Newton (Wilts) and a Gothic chimneypiece at Bathampton House, Steeple Langford (Wilts) is probably also from Fonthill.

The surviving west pavilion - originally built as a laundry and brewhouse - was retained as guest accommodation for use in connection with Fonthill Abbey. After the estate was sold to John Farquhar in 1822, it was further altered by Thomas Harrington, proprietor of the Black Horse Inn, Salisbury, who created a common coffee room, private sitting rooms and bedrooms to make it 'an elegant Inn' for the use of visitors to the estate, but before long John Farquhar's nephew, George Mortimer was in residence.

Fonthill House: view of 'The Pavilion' when it was in use as an inn for visitors to the estate, from Ackermann's Repository of the Arts, 1823.

Fonthill House: engraving of 'The Pavilion' in 1828 after conversion into a house for George Mortimer.
George Mortimer commissioned (the plans survive but are unfortunately unsigned) the enlargement of the pavilion with a front portico and new offices at the rear, while the interior was recast to provide a library, dining room and billiard room on the ground floor, and two drawing rooms, a boudoir, bedrooms and nurseries upstairs. At the same time he built a woollen mill at the south end of the lake (finished by 1826), a stable block on the hillside south of the Pavilion and a new bridge (dated 1826) at the north end of the lake. The woollen mill, which cost £20,000 but seems to have been erected without thought for its impact on the picturesque qualities of the site, was a financial disaster, and had ceased trading by 1829, when Mortimer sold his part of the estate to James Morrison.

In the early 1830s, Morrison brought in J.B. Papworth, whom he had employed previously to remodel his suburban villa at Balham (Surrey), to remodel the Pavilion. Relatively little was done to the exterior, except for the enlargement of the ground floor windows, the provision of canopies to the windows and first floor balcony, and the addition of urns to the parapet. Inside, however, all the rooms were redecorated, new floors, ceilings and chimneypieces were installed, and new suites of furniture were made, also to Papworth's designs. In 1844 Papworth and Morrison fell out over works at Morrison's Basildon Park (Berks) estate, and in 1846-50 a further remodelling in the Italianate taste was commissioned from David Brandon. 

Fonthill House: 'the Pavilion' converted into an Italianate house by David Brandon.
The Pavilion was given an additional storey and an Italianate tower, and the offices were enlarged to the north. The house was also given a new name, being known thenceforward as Fonthill House, and was given to Morrison's second son, Alfred Morrison (d. 1897). Alfred began improving the house and estate in the 1850s, and also began the formation of an important collection of paintings and objets d'art, especially Chinese porcelain. He employed the decorator Owen Jones to design new furniture, fabrics, carpets and fittings for a room at Fonthill, and also used him to decorate his large London house (16 Carlton House Terrace). After 1862 he turned to George Devey to design cottages on the estate and, later, the curved wing walls with balustrades either side of the grand Georgian archway at the entrance to the estate. In the 1880s an unidentified architect added three large top-lit galleries to the house to provide more space for Alfred Morrison's rapidly growing collections. When Morrison died, comparatively young, in 1897, he left Fonthill House to his widow, Mabel (d. 1933) for life, and his son and ultimate heir, Hugh Morrison (d. 1931), decided to build a new house on the estate at Little Ridge [see below]. Mabel actually gave up Fonthill House in 1912 after her last daughter was married and moved to a smaller property in Hampshire, and Hugh Morrison moved into Fonthill temporarily while Little Ridge was enlarged. 

Fonthill House: demolition of the house (including the last surviving fragment of Fonthill Splendens) in progress in September 1921.
Image: The Sphere, 24 September 1921.
Work was interrupted during the First World War, but once Little Ridge was ready for occupation in 1920, he decided to demolish Fonthill House, which was pulled down in the second half of 1921 and the building materials sold. The name Fonthill House was then transferred to Little Ridge.

Fonthill III: Fonthill Abbey

The great Gothick folly called Fonthill Abbey built from 1796 onwards for William Thomas Beckford (1760-1844) is arguably the most famous building of its time, despite existing for less than thirty years. Its sublime scale generated a frisson of Gothick horror which captured the public imagination and has continued to do so ever since.

Beckford never had much enthusiasm for his father's Palladian house, Fonthill 'Splendens', which he inherited in 1770. His tastes were always for the exotic: as early as Christmas 1781 he laid on an elaborate orientally-themed entertainment at Fonthill with the assistance of the set designer Philip de Loutherbourg, which in turn inspired him to write the famous Gothick novel, Vathek (1786). From 1784-96 he spent much of his time abroad, and particularly in Portugal, where he conceived a passion for St Anthony of Padua, in particular, and for the monastic idea in general. In 1790 he began planning to build a Gothick tower on Stop Beacon, towards the western edge of his estate at Fonthill, as a retreat from the main house. He engaged James Wyatt, perhaps then the most famous architect in England, to provide designs, but as the two men egged one another on, the idea of a tower was expanded into an abbey and the site was changed from Stop Beacon to a flatter site further east on Hinkley Hill. Work began in 1796, at first on 'a pleasure building in the shape of an abbey' designed to resemble 'a pretty ruined convent', and drawing heavily on the Portuguese abbey of Batalha. 

Fonthill Abbey: view of the house from the south-west in 1799, by J.M.W. Turner. This shows the original short spire, which collapsed in 1800.
Work was carried on 'at a monstrous rate', keeping up to 500 men busy at any one time, and at first the building was largely of timber and lath-and-plaster, reducing costs and enabling rapid progress at the expense of structural stability. By November 1796 the abbey was 200 feet long and 'a good part of the building' had reached the first floor, and by the following year a tower 145 feet high, a gallery, and a chapel to St Anthony of Padua had been completed. The details of the design continued to evolve as construction proceeded, but the essential concept for the building was for four long narrow ranges forming a cruciform design 350 ft by 290 ft, meeting at an octagonal space under a central tower. The original crossing tower had a short spire, but this partially collapsed in 1800, and had to be rebuilt. 

Fonthill Abbey: the house as built, viewed from the north-west, showing the final form of the central tower, from an engraved view by J. Buckler, 1821.

Fonthill Abbey: plan as built, from Rutter's Delineations of Fonthill, 1823.

Fonthill Abbey: section of the house on the north-south axis.

Fonthill Abbey: engraving of the central octagonal hall, 1820.
From 1802, Beckford decided to make the Abbey his main residence, leading to an increase in the domestic accommodation, and to the reconstruction of large parts of the building in stone. The new central tower, an astonishing 280 feet high, was completed in 1809 (the idea for a spire that would have rivalled Salisbury Cathedral having been given up), the north wing in 1812, and the east wing, with the main reception rooms, was never finished inside. The west wing was occupied by a vast entrance hall, with a hammerbeam roof and steps across its whole width to the soaring octagonal central hall, some fifty feet high. From the octagon there opened St Michael's Gallery to the south, and King Edward's Gallery to the north, forming an immense vista running the entire 350 ft. length of the building. A short south-west range contained the habitable quarters where Beckford actually lived.

Fonthill Abbey: aquatint of St Michael's Gallery by John Rutter, 1823.
By 1822, Beckford was running out of money and energy to complete his building, and he sold the estate in its entirety to John Farquhar, a rich eccentric, who intended to carry on the building work, but before he could do so, the great central tower collapsed on 21 December 1825. Farquhar was in the house at the time, but was unhurt, although he died the following year. After much legal wrangling the courts decided that he had died intestate, and that his estate should be divided between a large number of nieces and nephews. George Mortimer took The Pavilion and his woollen mill as his share, but the rest of the estate was sold and divided. 

Fonthill Abbey: engraving of the ruins after the collapse of the central tower in 1825.
The Abbey was bought by John Benett of nearby Pythouse, who could afford to do very little with his new property. The rubble of the collapsed building was partly cleared in 1828, and the east wing was converted into a residence on a shoestring, with new service accommodation built on to it. The surviving north tower (the Lancaster Tower) was buttressed to reinforce it, and there were plans to convert it into a chapel; the Canterbury Towers at the end of the east wing were also still standing at this time. Beckford visited in 1835 and was not impressed: he is said to have asked whether Benett's new building 'was not intended as a workhouse for the use of the Poor Law Commissioners'. In 1844 Benett sold the estate to Richard Grosvenor, Earl Grosvenor, who succeeded his father the following year as 2nd Marquess of Westminster. He finally cleared the rubble of the collapsed house in 1845, but for a decade he dithered about whether to build a new house at Fonthill or on an estate he acquired in 1853 at Stalbridge (Dorset). He considered rebuilding on the site of Beckford's abbey, or restoring part of it, but when he finally contracted for a new house at Fonthill in 1857 it was for a new site a little further south-east, where New Fonthill Abbey had been erected by 1862. The surviving fragment of the old abbey was repaired and a cloister was added to the east in 1857, so that it could be used as a picnic spot from the new house.

Fonthill Abbey: the surviving fragment and the 'cloister' of 1857 built by William Burn for the 2nd Marquess of Westminster in 1857.
Image: Country Life.

Old Fonthill Abbey: the new house built onto the surviving fragment of Beckford's abbey in 2016.

The surviving fragment of Old Fonthill Abbey descended to Niel Rimington (d. 2009), and was sold with 1500 acres to the present owners, Mr. & Mrs Stephen Morant, after his death. They undertook urgent repairs to the Lancaster Tower, and then commissioned a new house from Mark Watson, of Watson, Bertram & Fell of Bath, which was linked to Burn's 'cloisters' and the Lancaster Tower by an arcaded range echoing the design of the 'cloisters'. The new house, which was built in 2016 and is of modest size, has two low storeys with irregular gabled attics. It is designed in a loosely neo-vernacular style and built of the same Chilmark stone as the Lancaster Tower. It deliberately does not assert itself against the strong verticals of Beckford's abbey, but makes the site once more a respectable centre for this section of the Fonthill estate.

Fonthill IV: New Fonthill Abbey

In 1846, the 2nd Marquess of Westminster invited William Burn to make designs for a new house at Fonthill. The initial intention was to build on the site of Beckford's abbey, and in 1845-46 the Canterbury Towers were demolished along with everything else except the Lancaster Tower and the three bays beyond it. There does not seem to have been any great hurry to make progress, and Burn worked on his designs for six years without anything been done on site, although a drawing of the proposed new mansion was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850. 

New Fonthill Abbey: design by William Burn for a new house, 1847. This was very similar to the design exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850.
Image: RIBA Drawings Collection.
In 1853, however, the Marquess bought the Stalbridge estate in Dorset and scrapped the idea of building at Fonthill, inviting Burn to make new designs for a house at Stalbridge instead. In January 1857 the focus switched back to Fonthill, and work began on a reduced version of the house proposed in 1850, not on the site of Beckford's house but on a new site a little to the south-east and lower down the hillside. Work was substantially complete by March 1862, when the Marquess slept in the house for the first time, and in September a celebration was held for the tenants and villagers to mark the family's occupation of the new building.

New Fonthill Abbey: ground plan from Ordnance Survey
25" map of 1886. 
The style of the house was described as 'French Scottish Baronial', but it was a big-boned, dour building. The main entrance was on the north side, set in the base of a round tower at the north-west angle of the house. The elevations were of two and three storeys, with a skyline given hectic variety by gables, gabled dormers, balustrades, bartisans with conical candle-snuffer roofs, and tall chimneystacks. The elevations below were, by contrast, remarkably plain, with no architraves to the majority of the windows. The north and west fronts had a studied if balanced irregularity, but the south front overlooking the gardens had a more formal symmetry, with three plain bays between two slightly-projecting gabled wings. The wings had canted single-storey bay windows with balustraded roofs, while in the centre was a broader rectangular bay with a similar balustraded roof. 

New Fonthill Abbey: the north (entrance) front of William Burn's house, built in 1857-62 and photographed in 1901. Image: Country Life.

New Fonthill Abbey: the south (garden) front of William Burn's house, photographed in 1901. Image: Country Life.
North-east of the main house was a two-storey service block with the stable court beyond it, which occupied a much larger area than the main house. Unfortunately, no plans are known to survive of the house as built, and, remarkably, no photographs of the interiors have yet been traced.

In 1879 the dowager Marchioness of Westminster sold her life interest in the New Abbey to her son-in-law, Sir Michael Shaw-Stewart (d. 1903) of Ardgowan (Renfrews.), who was the ultimate heir under the Marquess' will. After Sir Michael's death it passed to his widow, Lady Octavia Shaw-Stewart (d. 1921), and then to their son, Walter (1861-1934), whose widow was the owner until her death in 1943. The Shaw-Stewarts only son Michael had died in a shooting accident in 1936 leaving their daughter and her husband, Brigadier Reginald Rimington as the prospective heirs. During the Second World War the house was requisitioned for military purposes and Brigadier Rimington died of wounds after being captured by the Germans in North Africa. His young son, Niel [sic] Rimington (1928-2009) became the heir, but in 1946 his trustees sold about a quarter of the estate, including the New Abbey, to John Granville Morrison (1906-96), later 1st Baron Margadale, the owner of Fonthill House (see below), in order to pay the death duties on his inheritance. Lord Margadale had no immediate use for the house, and consideration was given to its use as an hotel, and to it becoming the home of his son, who married in 1952. But the cost of renovation was seen as prohibitive, and in 1952 the house was demolished, except for the stable block, with most of the stonework being pushed down into the basement.

New Fonthill Abbey: stable block in 1987 after partial rescue from demolition. Image: Nicholas Kingsley. Some rights reserved.

New Fonthill Abbey: interior of stables, 1987.
Image: Nicholas Kingsley. Some rights reserved..
The stable block had been abandoned in the 1950s and allowed to slide into dereliction, but in 1977 Lord Margadale sold it, with some of the surrounding land, to Professor Bernard Nevill (1934-2019), a textile designer and design director of Liberty & Co, who rescued the stables and filled it with an eclectic collection of pieces acquired through an enthusiastic devotion to architectural salvage. In 2011 Nevill became too ill to look after the stables, and he sold the property to the present owners, who set out to incorporate the former stables into a new country house on the site of the service wing of Burn's mansion. The stonework of the Burn house (some of which may have been reused time and again since the days of the first Fonthill House) was excavated from the cellars, and incorporated into the new building designed by local architect Timothy Reeve and built in 2018-20.

New Fonthill Abbey: the new house built in 2017-22.

Fonthill V: Little Ridge and Fonthill House

When Alfred Morrison died in 1897 he bequeathed to his widow Mabel (d. 1933) a life interest in 'Fonthill House', the much remodelled surviving pavilion of Fonthill Splendens, and 300 adjoining acres of the park. His son, Hugh Morrison (d. 1931) was left the rest of the estate, and decided to build himself a new house on a new site well to the east of the lake, which was picturesquely placed below a wooded hillside called Little Ridge. The architect appointed was the young Detmar Blow (1867-1939), who was probably recommended to the Morrisons by their friends Sir Edmund and Lady Antrobus of Amesbury Abbey, for whom Blow had undertaken controversial restoration work at Stonehenge and built a farmhouse. The house Blow designed was not, in fact, entirely new, for it incorporated the stonework of the ruined Jacobean Manor House at Berwick St. Leonard on the estate, of which only the shell survived.
The Manor House, Berwick St. Leonard by John Buckler, 1804. 

The stones of this house were carefully taken down, numbered, and transported to the new site for re-erection as the shell of the new building. The internal planning was, however, wholly contemporary in inspiration, with a series of reception rooms (drawing room, library and dining room) along the main south-west front, a hall in the centre of the house, and service rooms and the front entrance on the north side. Blow constructed a level terrace on which to build the house, supported by a great rampart to the west, and laid out an Elizabethan garden to complement the house.

Little Ridge: the house from the west in 1912. Image: Country Life.
Little Ridge: ground plan in 1912.
In 1906, the birth of a son and heir to Hugh Morrison led to the addition of a nursery wing with new kitchens and servants' hall on the ground floor to the east of the main block, also designed by Detmar Blow. Work was undertaken quickly, in 1907-08, and at the same time, a reordering of the main block was undertaken, with a new library in the north-west corner of the house, and a garden hall replacing the original library in the centre of the south-west front. It was the interiors from this remodelling which were recorded by Country Life magazine when they photographed the house in 1912, not the original interiors.

Little Ridge: entrance front after the addition of the nursery wing in 1907-08. Image: Country Life.

Little Ridge: the east side of the house and the nursery wing added in 1907-08. Image: Country Life.

Little Ridge: the library in 1912. Image: Country Life.
In 1909 Hugh Morrison inherited large sums of money from his uncle Charles and aunt Ellen, and he first added a wing to his property in Scotland, Islay House, in 1909 and then built a new London house in Halkin St. in 1910-13, to the designs of Detmar Blow and his partner, Fernard Billerey. In 1911 his mother vacated Fonthill House and moved to Shawford Park (Hants), and Hugh decided on a drastic enlargement of Little Ridge, begun in 1913. While the works were in progress, Hugh and his wife moved back into Fonthill House. Work on Little Ridge was paused while the workmen undertook remedial work at Fonthill House after a fire there, and a shortage of skilled labour during the First World War must also have hampered progress. Work was finally completed in 1920, by which time the house had been transformed. Only the main south-west front and the rooms behind it were little altered. The nursery wing was substantially rebuilt and balanced by a new west wing that made the greatly enlarged south-west front symmetrical once more. A new entrance hall was constructed on the north side of the central block, and a large new hall was formed on its east side. The west wing comprised a large drawing room and a long gallery, and a dining room and billiard room were formed in the east wing.

Little Ridge (later Fonthill House): the house after the enlargement of 1913-20, painted by Charles Geoffroy-Dechaume (1877-1944) in 1925.
The enlargement of 1913-20 made Little Ridge a very large house, about three times the size it had been when first built, and when Fonthill House was finally pulled down in 1921, its name was transferred to Little Ridge. The next generation found the house uncomfortably large and expensive to maintain, and John Granville Morrison (1906-96), who was MP for Salisbury, 1942-64 and created 1st Baron Margadale in 1965, determined to demolish his father's house and build a smaller replacement on the same site. The Blow & Billerey house was unlisted, so no consent was needed for its demolition, but there was opposition to the demolition from the Blow family and from the Victorian Society, who attempted to get it 'spot-listed' to prevent demolition. This was refused, apparently because of confusion in the Ministry, who thought that the house was wholly the result of rebuilding after a fire in 1920. 

Fonthill House: the entrance front of the present house, built in 1972-74 for the 1st Lord Margadale. Image: Fonthill Estate.

Fonthill House: garden front of the present house, built in 1972-74 for the 1st Lord Margadale.
Demolition was completed in 1972, and work then began on the construction of the present house, designed by Trenwith and Simone Wills, built in 1972-74. This is a rendered rectangular neo-Georgian block, with an eleven-bay, two storey entrance front, the middle seven bays of which are stepped forward, with quoins at the angles. The central three bays have giant pilasters carrying a triangular pediment that encloses an oculus. On the garden front, a section the same width as the central seven bays on the entrance front is again stepped forward, although here treated as three bays between a pair of rather narrow two-storey semicircular bow windows. There is no pediment in the centre, but the garden door sits under a triangular pediment, out of which rises an apron below the first-floor window. With the exception of the bows on the garden front, which look a trifle pinched, the proportions are generally elegant, although the overall effect is rather bland. The symmetry of the house is now rather marred by a single-storey stone-built extension at the east end, which partly wraps around the garden front.

Descent: Margaret, Baroness Botreaux; sold 1472 to John Mervyn... Sir John Mervyn, kt. (d. 1566), who reunited the manor of Fonthill Gifford; to son, Sir James Mervyn (1529-1611), kt.; to son, Sir Henry Mervyn, who sold 1620 to Sir Mervyn Touchet, 2nd Earl of Castlehaven (executed 1631 on charges of rape and sodomy); estates forfeited to Crown and granted 1632 to Sir Francis Cottington (1579-1652), 1st Baron Cottington; properties seized by Parliament and granted 1646 to John Bradshaw (1602-59), regicide; seized after his death by Lord Cottington's nephew, Francis Cottington (d. 1665), who recovered legal title at the Restoration; to son, Francis Cottington (d. 1666); to brother, Charles Cottington (d. 1697); to son, Francis Cottington (d. 1728), who was made 1st Baron Cottington of Fonthill Gifford in the Jacobite peerage; to son, Francis Cottington (d. 1758) (2nd Baron Cottington of Fonthill Gifford), who sold 1744 to William Beckford (1709-70); to son, William Thomas Beckford (1760-1844); sold 1822 to John Farquhar (1751-1826), who died intestate, leading to the break-up of the estate. 

One part (including the Abbey ruin) was sold 1826 to John Benett, who sold 1844 to Richard Grosvenor (1795-1869), 2nd Marquess of Westminster; to widow, Elizabeth Mary (d. 1891), Dowager Marchioness of Westminster; who sold her life interest in 1879 to the remainder man, her son-in-law, Sir Michael Shaw-Stewart (d. 1903) of Ardgowan; to widow, Lady Octavia Shaw-Stewart (d. 1921) for life, and then to her son, Walter Shaw-Stewart (1861-1934); to widow, Mary Beatrice Shaw-Stewart (1864-1943) for life; requisitioned by War Office in WW2; to grandson, Niel William Rimington (1928-2009), whose trustees sold part of the property, including the New Abbey, in 1947 to John Morrison, who demolished the house (except for the stable block sold in 1977 to Bernard Nevill, and converted into a house); the remainder of the estate was sold after Rimington's death to Stephen and Benetta Morant, who built a new house adjacent to the Old Abbey. 

The second part (including The Pavilion) was inherited by George Mortimer (d. 1832), who sold 1829 to James Morrison (1789-1857), who added to his property lands sold in 1826 to Robert Grosvenor (1767-1845), 2nd Earl Grosvenor and 1st Marquess of Westminster and Lord Arundell of Wardour; given 1850 to his son, Alfred Morrison (d. 1897), who left the house and 300 acres to his widow, Mabel Morrison (d. 1933) for life and the remainder of the estate to his son, Hugh Morrison (d. 1931); to son, John Granville Morrison (1906-96), 1st Baron Margadale; requisitioned by War Office in WW2; to son, James Ian Morrison (1930-2003), 2nd Baron Margadale; to son, Alastair John Morrison (b. 1958), 3rd Baron Margadale.

Principal sources

T. Mowl, William Beckford: composing for Mozart, 1998, esp. ch. 15; J.M. Robinson, James Wyatt, 2011, pp. 233-38; P. Gauci, William Beckford: first Prime Minister of the London Empire, 2013; C. Dakers (ed.), Fonthill Recovered: a Cultural History, 2018; J. Orbach, Sir N. Pevsner & B. Cherry, The buildings of England: Wiltshire, 3rd edn., 2021, pp. 328-33; R. White, Georgian Arcadia, 2022 (forthcoming).

Coat of arms

Per pale, gules and azure, on a chevron argent between three martlets or, an eagle displayed, sable, within a bordure of the fourth, charged with a double tressure, flory and counterflory, of the first.

Can you help?

  • If anyone can offer further information or corrections to any part of this article I should be most grateful. I am always particularly pleased to hear from current owners or the descendants of families associated with a property who can supply information from their own research or personal knowledge for inclusion.

Revision and acknowledgements

This post was first published 30 September 2022.