Lord Hambleden and Moretonhampstead

 

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The Lord Hambleden who was involved with Moretonhampstead early this century was the second Viscount Hambleden and was the Lord of the Manors of Moretonhampstead and North Bovey, and the owner of much of the countryside round here, from 1891 when his father died until 1928 when he himself died and the property was put up for sale. During that time he made a lasting physical impact the district - he restored St Andrews and North Bovey churches, he built a new Rectory for Moretonhampstead, he built and endowed the Moretonhampstead Cottage Hospital, and he built what is now the Manor House Hotel to be his own home. On all the farms he owned, he rebuilt and restored barns and houses or built new houses to a high standard. He also built terraces of houses in Moretonhampstead and North Bovey to house estate workers. That is a formidable record in stone.

As we shall see, he wasn't actually "Lord Hambleden" until 1913 when his mother, the first Viscountess, died - he was the Hon. Frederick Smith for half the time he was here, but we are so used to talking about Lord Hambleden that it is a convenient title.

 

Family background

First a word about his family background, which is the history of the firm of WHSmith & son.   His great-grandfather started selling newspapers in London around 1800, and succeeding generations expanded the business using the most modern methods - stage-coaches, then the railways - to distribute papers nationally - their motto became "First with the News". When the last W.H. Smith took the further step of getting franchises from the various railway companies to run station bookstalls (with newspapers and respectable books) for the new mass of rail travellers, his fortune was made and he was able to move into politics, to become a gentleman and to buy country property. This last W.H. Smith was an important figure nationally - he became the Rt. Hon. W.H. Smith, cabinet minister and finally the leader of the Tory party in the House of Commons (on the way, he was the First Lord of the Admiralty lampooned in HMS Pinafore). He was a substantial philanthropist, though not many people knew this, but he was widely respected for his integrity. He was still a commoner when he died in 1891, but only because the Prime Minister - Lord Salisbury - was in the House of Lords so Smith was needed as party leader in the Commons.

On his death, Queen Victoria gave a peerage to his widow who became Viscountess Hambleden, and his son Frederick succeeded him in business as the Hon. F.W.D. Smith.

 

The Moretonhampstead estate

So what about Moretonhampstead ? In the second half of the 19th century the finances of the Courtenay family were in a bad way, and from about 1880 large amounts of the land they owned in Devon were being sold off. By 1890 W.H. Smith already owned a large house, Greenlands near Henley, where the family spent much of their time (his widow's title was taken from the village of Hambleden near there), and an estate in Suffolk with good shooting. In 1890, not long before his death, W.H. Smith bought the remaining Courtenay lands in Manaton, Moretonhampstead and North Bovey, together with the lordship of the manors and the advowson of the churches of Moreton and North Bovey. He also bought Hayne, near Moretonhampstead, to live in, though that was not part of the Courtenay estate. The main interest of the Moreton lands appears to have been the rough shooting, but I was told that even in 1890 a politician would still buy country property to "buy votes". This was the estate that his son inherited in 1891, and in which he took a considerable interest.

 

Lord Hambleden

What was Lord Hambleden like ? I was told that his main interest was first the family business - he owned the whole of WH Smiths - but a close second was his work for hospitals, especially King's College Hospital where he served on the governing body (as his father had done before for Kings College, London) and for a long time was chairman of the committee of Management. As a landlord he was strict but conscientious and generous and took a great interest in the details of the estate. He was a conservative MP (having inherited his father's seat) but never interested in politics in the way his father had been. From the first he took an interest in Devon, perhaps to some extent because both his elder and his younger sisters had married into the Acland family, and one of his brothers-in-law had become a director of W.H. Smith?s. He and his wife spent their honeymoon in Devon in 1894, finishing up with a grand fete in Moretonhampstead. At about the same time he joined the Devonshire Yeomanry, the precursor of the Territorials, in which his brother-in-law was a senior officer, and he became a life member of the Devonshire Association. He also became chairman of the local Conservative Association and attended various local meetings.

 

So what did he actually do for Moretonhampstead ?

The first important charitable work was the building of Moretonhampstead Cottage Hospital, which was opened in 1900. This is not surprising, because work for the hospitals and in particular King?s College Hospital had been a major interest to the London side of his life. What he did for us was to give the land - part of Addiscott farm, pay for the building, and provide an endowment of £2000 in consols for running expenses as well as some furniture and surgical instruments. The hospital was also supplied with a large basket of vegetables each week from his gardens. He stipulated that a member of his family should always serve on the Hospital board, and this was done until the NHS took over in 1948.   (The 4th Lord Hambleden took a hand in the improvements in 1999-2000).

The next major work arose through his patronage of the parish church of St Andrews. When the previous Rector, the last of the Clacks, died Lord Hambleden appointed the Rev. Dawes Dewey from near his home in Henley, and the Rectory in which the Clacks had lived for a century was demolished and a superior one built close by - Mardon House as we know it today. This was completed in 1902, and Lord Hambleden then embarked on a major restoration of the church, which not only repaired all the dilapidations but involved major changes and the extension of the chancel by one bay. The gallery at the west end was removed, a new screen was made to replace the one removed in an earlier "restoration" in the 1850?s, and a vestry and organ loft were made. The whole operation lasted till 1904 and cost a substantial sum.

The next major building was at North Bovey. The building which is now the Manor House Hotel was built as a home for the Hambleden family, with spacious grounds and gardens. In order to do this the old farm of Week was knocked down. The building was elaborate, with good stonework and panelling inside. The architect for all three projects - the Rectory, the Church and the Manor House - was Walter Mills from Oxfordshire. The workmen who had done the actual building at the Manor, when they had finished there, moved on to start on Castle Drogo - another grand house built on the basis of a fortune made in trade. When the Manor House was completed, the family moved there and Hayne was occupied by the Seymours, Hambleden's sister and her husband, who continued to live in Moreton and effectively stood in for the Hambledens during their absences in London or elsewhere. In fact the Hambledens only came down to the Manor House at intervals, usually by a special railway coach which was routed straight through to Moretonhampstead where they were met by their carriages or later cars at the station. In fact, of course, it was much easier to get from London to Moretonhampstead by train then than now.

So for much of the time there was only a skeleton staff in the Manor, but nevertheless there was an army of estate workers - gardeners, carpenters, masons etc - responsible for seeing to the maintenance of all the property. Hambleden owned the woodland above the Teign at Fingle Bridge, and the sawmill on Court Street was his, while Mr East, who controlled this army of outside workers, lived at Court House.

Meanwhile, on a smaller scale, Hambleden was responsible for a steady programme of rebuilding and renovation of the farmhouses and outbuildings on the estate with good quality work and materials, and with the building of new houses for the estate workforce. In Moretonhampstead he built Jubilee Cottages in 1897 and another terrace in Pound Street in 1914, and occasional pairs of semi-detached houses as at Manaton, Lowton and other sites, for which he charged his tenants very low rents. The long term result of this was that when the estate was finally sold in 1928, excellent buildings were sold at low prices, because of the low rents, often to the tenants but sometimes to outsiders who assumed (wrongly) that the farming must be very profitable because the buildings were so well cared for.

 

The war, and North Bovey Church

Lord Hambleden, as I mentioned before, had joined the Devon Yeomanry, and in 1914 he immediately went into training as second-in-command. In due course the regiment was sent to Egypt then to Gallipoli, where they had a bad time, and Hambleden, by then in command, was invalided home.

After the war, his first building project was the restoration of North Bovey church, which was again a major undertaking in which he took a close interest. There is a considerable file on North Bovey Parish matters in the Record Office including correspondence which shows that he kept in close touch with the architect. Now we come to the end of the story:  Lord Hambleden died in 1928, and his estates here were immediately put up for sale by his heir. This was mainly because W.H.Smith was a private company - the family owned all the ordinary shares, and had to pay death duties of about £1 million on his bequest of £2.5 million, most of which was the capital value of the company. The estate was sold by Rendells, the farms quite often going by private sale to the tenants. The Manor House was only sold at the second attempt, and at a fraction of what it had cost to build, going eventually to the GWR who planned a golfing hotel to rival Gleneagles.

For further details see M.A. & R.J.J. Simkins, Lord Hambleden and Moretonhampstead, Trans Devon. Ass.. 123, 167-88 (1991)

 

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