‘Here is a good old mansion-house…


By the mid 19th century the Palladian mansion house at Lydiard Tregoze was a little the worse for wear. Generations of St John’s had chosen to spend their declining fortunes on racehorses, fine porcelain and grand tours rather than a bit of DIY and the ancestral home was beginning to show its age.

Radical politician William Cobbett rode through the parish in September 1826 and later wrote:

‘Here is a good old mansion-house and large walled-in garden and a park, belonging, they told me, to Lord Bolingbroke.  I went quite down to the house, close to which stands the large and fine church.  It appears to have been a noble place; the land is some of the finest in the whole country; the trees show that the land is excellent; but, all, except the church, is in a state of irrepair and apparent neglect, if not abandonment.

William had pretty much hit the nail on the head.

The house had served as a holiday home for the family for close on 150 years. Despite a major make over in the early 18th century subsequent St John’s had elected to live in London close to where the action was, popping back to Wiltshire for a spot of shooting and partying.  By the 1830s Henry, 4th Viscount Bolingbroke, was renting out the house and parkland.  His wife, Maria, Lady Bolingbroke was in Aberystwyth at the time of her death in 1836 and Henry was in Scotland at the time of his in 1851.

So, who was living in a house like this?

Not any old family, but one that had extended links to the St John’s.  At the time of the 1841 census Thomas Orby Hunter was the tenant at Lydiard House with his daughter and son-in-law Charles and Charlotte Orby Wombwell and their baby daughter.

On June 6, 1841 the servants quarters was pretty much full with sixteen members of staff living in on census night and a further three recorded in the stables.  Most gave their birthplace as out of the parish, so presumably Thomas brought his own staff with him.

Ten years later and Charles Orby Wombwell had taken over the tenancy.  He had cut down on the indoor servants but there were still an impressive eleven in residence on census night, including a governess, butler, housekeeper, cook, kitchen maid, two housemaids, a nursemaid, a footman and a groom. This time there were more local folk on the pay roll – Elizabeth Hiscocks, the daughter of Lydiard gamekeeper Robert Hiscocks, Ann Dobson from Lydiard Tregoze, Richard Weeks from neighbouring Lydiard Millicent and Jesse Turner who would later become butler to Lord Bolingbroke.

So what is the connection between the Wombwell and the St John families?

Charles Orby Wombwell  was the son of Sir George Wombwell and his second wife Eliza Little.  He and his elder half brother George both married daughters of Thomas Orby Hunter.  As we have seen Charles married Charlotte, his brother married Georgiana.

Sir George and Georgiana’s son George married Julia Sarah Alice Child Villiers – are you keeping up – now Julia was the daughter of George Augustus Frederick Child Villiers 6th Earl of Jersey and his wife Julia Peel.  The young Mrs Wombwell could trace her ancestry back eight generations to Sir Edward Villiers and his wife Barbara St John who grew up at Lydiard House, one of the six daughters on the magnificent St John polyptych in St Mary’s Church.


Kith and Kin

These two cousins, born just six years apart, bear an uncanny resemblance.

The portrait of Henry Bolingbroke by Jonathan Richards the Elder hangs in the dining room at Lydiard House where he was born in 1678, the only surviving child of Henry St John and his first wife Lady Mary Rich.  His mother died within weeks of his birth upon which the infant Henry was moved from Lydiard to Battersea Manor where he was raised by his puritanical grandparents Sir Walter and Lady Johanna St. John.

Henry, statesman, writer and libertine was undoubtedly the most brilliant and probably one of the most notorious members of the St. John family. He served as Queen Anne’s Secretary At War from 1704-1708 and Secretary of State from 1710-1714 and numbered satirist Jonathan Swift and the poet Alexander Pope among a wide, eclectic group of friends.

Instrumental in negotiating the Treaty of Utrecht which helped to end the War of the Spanish Succession Henry was created Viscount Bolingbroke, a huge disappointment as he was hoping for the earldom.

In 1714, with the Queen desperately ill and fading fast, Henry rapidly allied himself with the Jacobites and the Queen’s Catholic half brother James, the Old Pretender. Henry plotted with the Pretender while taking the oath of allegiance to the Hanovarian successor. However, the new King George, hammered the final nail in Henry’s political coffin, informing Henry that his services were no longer required. Henry walked to the Cockpit accompanied by the Duke of Shrewsbury and Lord Cowper to watch the sealing of his papers. It was, quite obviously, all over. On March 27, 1715, Henry set sail for exile in France.

A Bill of Attainder was served upon Henry that same year charging him with privately negotiating a dishonourable and destructive peace with France while a Secretary of State for Queen Anne and accusing him of advising the surrender of Tournai to the French and Spain and the West Indies to Philip of Spain. Deprived of his title, his estates and his wealth, Henry was considered by many as a traitor twice over.

Henry married twice, firstly to Frances Winchcombe whom he deserted and secondly to Marie Claire de Marci whom he adored. He eventually returned to England and his childhood home at Battersea. He died on December 12, 1751 and was buried with his second wife in the parish church of St. Mary’s, Battersea.

Henry’s younger cousin John Fitzgerald Villiers, 5th Viscount Grandison, was born at Dromana House in County Waterford in 1684, the son of Brig Gen Edward Villiers and wealthy Irish heiress Katherine Fitzgerald. The two lookalikes were third cousins, tracing their ancestry back to Sir John St John and his wife Lucy Hungerford. In this portrait painted in 1743 by Allan Ramsay John could be sharing the same jacket as well as the same face as Henry.

John got off to a good start following his succession to the Grandison title and the Fitzgerald land.  He transformed the Dromana estate, planting thousands of trees, building new stables and engaging in a modest bit of DIY on Dromana House.  His greatest achievement was probably the construction of Villierstown village to accommodate the workers in his newly instituted linen industry.  He built 24 houses, a schoolhouse, church, police barracks and a quay on the river.

But ‘Good Earl John’ found it difficult to live within his means – a common St John failing he would have appeared to inherited along with his features.

An account of the Villers-Stuart archive held at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland describes John as having a ‘pride of ancestry’ – shades of Henry 5th Viscount Bolingbroke here – and that his ‘somewhat limited intelligence caused him to be ripped off by unscrupulous agents who flattered and deferred to him’ when he was forced to sell some £50,000 worth of land.

John served briefly as MP for Old Sarum May-December 1705.  In 1721 he was made Privy Counsellor for Ireland when his title was upgraded to an earldom and in 1733 he was Governor of Waterford.  He married Frances Carey and they had five children.  John died on May 14, 1766 and was buried at Youghal, County Cork.




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