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The Seymours at Burton Hall

Joan Shaw

Burton Hall was put on the market for the first time in 1834. Situated as it was in popular Quorn Country, there was much interest among the hunting fraternity, and it found a buyer in the Duke of Somerset who had been looking for a property for his second son, Archibald. The price negotiated was 59,000 but completion was slow, and the former owner, Charles Godfrey Mundy, whom debts and ill health had forced to live abroad, died before legal formalities could be completed.

Archibald St Maur was in his late twenties when he took up residence; Burton Hall remained his favourite home for the next forty years. The life of a country squire suited him well and much of the work on his farms and in the parish he oversaw himself. He personally picked and marked trees for felling and directed the making of the new macadamised road to Six Hills, and he eagerly welcomed new innovations – buying off-the-peg cowsheds and introducing 'steam cultivating' to his fields. At purchase the estate had included 1200 acres of land, along with a blacksmith's shop, the houses occupied by the gardener and Mr Jackson the agent, thirty-eight cottages and four farms; over the years Archibald added still more land and property.

"It is a truth universally acknow-ledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife", are the opening words of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, but Leicestershire's unmarried daughters were disappointed; Archibald remained a bachelor. He did have several brothers and sisters, however, and Burton Hall was very much a family house. In the early years of his occupation the family of his eldest brother, Lord Edward Seymour, spent much of their time there and later he had the company of his younger brother, Algernon Percy Banks St Maur.

Lord Edward Seymour was Member of Parliament for Totnes and a government minister. His wife and their children often stayed at Burton while he was busy with affairs of state or indulging in his passion for sailing. Lady Seymour was the lovely Jane Georgiana (known as Georgy), youngest daughter of Tom Sheridan and granddaughter of the famous playwright.

When both parents were occupied, Ferdinand, Edward, Hermoine, Ulrica and Guendolin Seymour were left in safety and obscurity at Burton. Here they drove their triumphal chariot (the family dogcart), fed the donkey and tended their gardens. In Loughborough they bought new winter boots and consulted old Mr Robinson about a mulberry tree for the silkworms, and at Barrow station the younger children waved their brother off to school. Their parents wrote often – their father's letters caring and practical, their mother's crammed with all the imagination and artistry of the Sheridans. She encouraged in her sons a sense of chivalry and fed their thirst for adventure. Ferdinand was her Knight of the Black Flag, little Edward her White Prince.

Georgy Sheridan and her sisters, Helen and Caroline, were known collectively as The Three Graces. Helen Sheridan, the eldest, once said that Georgy was the beauty, Caroline the wit, and she was supposed to be the good one but she wasn't. In truth, Helen probably was the good one, but all three were talented and very attractive. Georgy's looks, however, were quite outstanding, and in 1839, when she was 28 and already the mother of three children, the forty knights at Lord Eglinton's lavish tournament unanimously voted her their Queen of Beauty. With her warm personality and a sense of humour that took mischievous delight in cutting the pompous down to size, she became a firm favourite in and around Burton. She was also a brilliant horsewoman and rode with a style and vigour that drew admiration from the most experienced huntsmen.

Leicestershire was the place to be in the hunting season and though there are no accounts of Archibald's social life, it is reasonable to assume that he entertained in a manner befitting his position. Georgy's popular brothers would surely have been among his guests as would her sister Helen, daughter-in-law of Lord and Lady Dufferin. Whether Archibald would have invited Georgy's other sister, the notorious Mrs Norton, is less certain. Caroline Norton was seldom out of the newspapers and her blemished reputation barred her from some of England's best houses, but she did stay at the Seymours' principal residence, Maiden Bradley. Her story has been told many times: in print, on radio and on television. Trapped in marriage to a cruel and vindictive man, deprived of her children, she supported herself by her writings, and worked tirelessly to reform the law relating to married women. In 1836, her husband accused the Prime Minister of the day, Lord Melbourne, of adultery, and though Melbourne always maintained he was innocent of the charge, he and Caroline had a very strong relationship. She often sought refuge with her sisters and Burton Hall was but a few miles from Melbourne's home at Melton.

Burton represents just a short chapter in the lives of Edward and Georgy Seymour and their colourful family. In the years to come, a Knight would hoist his black flag in battles around the world, a White Prince would meet with a bizarre and tragic accident, and a Burton charioteer would marry one of England's greatest philanderers. And within the bosom of one of England's noble families, an eccentric but still lovely Queen of Beauty would raise two gypsy grandchildren.

Long before these events, holidays at Burton had given way to foreign travel but it was not long before the sound of children was again to be heard coming from the Hall gardens. When the census was taken on the night of 30th March 1851, there were just four small boys in residence and a retinue of servants. Algernon (4), twins Percy and Ernest (3) and Edward St Maur (2), were the sons of Algernon Percy Banks St Maur and their association with Burton was destined to last well into the next century. A newspaper report following his death stated that Algernon Percy Banks was not connected with Leicestershire but this is inaccurate. He did in fact share his brother's home for many years and was very much involved in the running of the estate. Local writer Thomas Rossel Potter recalled seeing him stripped to the waist and working alongside the reapers at harvest time.

By the 1860s, the somewhat conventional Archibald and Algernon, and their straight-laced sister Henrietta, were finding intolerable the manner in which Edward Seymour, by then Duke of Somerset, was managing the estates and the lifestyle of his family; a rift developed which was never healed.

Archibald's anger turned to depression, he became morose, ill-tempered and argumentative, earning the reputation of a crusty bachelor. There was a particularly bitter quarrel between him and the masters of the Quorn Hunt when he threatened to kill every fox coming on to his land if he could not have the shooting rights to Walton Thorns. In 1886 he succeeded Edward as Duke of Somerset but the title brought him no joy, only the burden of putting things to rights; in his opinion, his brother had "scraped and plundered" the family estates for years, and left their main house at Maiden Bradley "a filthy ruin". The famous Hamilton collection of pictures had been split up and sold. On his wall, Archibald hung a framed statement full of hate for his brother and the "low born, greedy beggar woman he would marry in opposition to his father".

Jane Georgiana Sheridan had certainly been poor; by no stretch of the imagination could she be described as low born or greedy.

Even thoughts of his beloved home at Burton failed to lift Archibald's spirits. The estate had already been subsidised by the family's Hamilton Trust to the tune of 100,000 and was probably worth only half that sum. Despite this, he was reluctant to sell. In a letter to Algernon Percy Banks, his agent said, "it is sad to see him – he sleeps not and thinks of nothing but his brother's sad will".

Eventually, Archibald's nephew Algernon, the eldest of those four little boys recorded by the census enumerator in 1851, moved back to Burton Hall, but not until the house had been empty for several years and needed a considerable amount of repair. It may have been at this time that the extra rooms were added to the west wing; the somewhat ugly room to the right of the main entrance was not built until after the Seymours left.

Algernon proved a worthy successor to his uncle and father. Having lived at Burton on and off since early childhood he was a familiar and popular figure, and was able to contribute much from his own experiences. A man of bearing and stature, he had served in the Royal Navy and as an officer in the 60th Rifles, and had spent some time ranching in America. He was also an enthusiastic sportsman – in addition to his abilities in the field, he was a competent golfer and a member of the four-in-hand club. One of the first things he did for the village was to lay out a new cricket pitch on the park and provide a complete set of cricket equipment. Doubtless he had fond memories of old village games, he may even have played himself. The following anecdote well demonstrates his love for the game and support for his team. One Saturday he had arranged to go to the repository at Leicester to buy a horse but discovered that his groom was due to play for Burton in an important match. He consulted his wife, with the result that the groom took his place in the cricket team, her Ladyship drove Lord Algernon to the station, and he personally bought the horse, saw it into the railway box and led it from Loughborough to the stables at Burton Hall.

In 1894 the Burton Parish Council was formed and Algernon became its chairman. The first minutes are signed simply 'Somerset'. Algernon was now the 15th Duke. His father had died just a few weeks earlier after having held the title for only three years.

Despite having to leave Burton, Algernon retained close ties with the parish through his twin brothers Percy and Ernest. The village hall that he and his brother Ernest built in 1909, and dedicated to Percy, still stands in the centre of Burton – a fitting memorial to three very popular landlords. Some years later Algernon donated a piece of land to the east of the village for a new burial ground.

Burton Hall photographed around 1916

Burton Hall photographed around 1916 while Lord Ernest St Maur was in residence.

Lord Percy St Maur rented Burton Hall from his brother in April 1896, along with the gardens, some pasture land, a couple of cottages in the village, the keepers cottage, the sporting rights and 'the use of the estate horse and cart'. He and his twin brother Lord Ernest – said to be as like as two pins – could be regularly seen driving around the district in a dogcart with yellow wheels. Could this have been a much repaired and refurbished triumphal chariot?

Lord Ernest St Maur

Lord Ernest St Maur

Though less involved in political and public life than their elder brother, the two men continued to play a full part in the local community. Both were keen sportsmen and particularly fond of cricket; while he was in the Army Percy had captained the Royal Fusiliers Cricket Club. Lord Ernest regularly led the Burton estate side in matches against Sir Edward Packe's Prestwold team and he also instituted annual matches against the Leicester Police.

Lord Percy St Maur

Lord Percy St Maur

Lord Percy's most practical gift to Burton was street lighting. An oil lamp was erected at the eastern end of the village, near the pinfold, in the optimistic hope that it would shine down Back Lane and up as far as the Greyhound on Main Street. Although it is not on record, he probably also installed a lamp near the entrance to his own drive.

Lord Percy died in 1907 leaving a widow and three daughters, and was buried with his forebears at Maiden Bradley. None of the Seymours were buried locally. The only reminders of the family within Burton are the stone above the door of the village hall and two street names: Seymour Road and Somerset Close. However, in the church at nearby Wymeswold is a small organ with a plaque stating it was presented to the Mission Room at Burton by Lord Percy St Maur. The little schoolroom, or mission room, in the centre of Burton was part of the Burton Hall estate and throughout their time in the village the Seymours supported Sunday Schools and services held there.

Lord Ernest continued to live at Burton Hall and run the estate. Like his brothers before him, he took the chair at parish council meetings, and in those grim dark days of the First World War he and his wife arranged for the village hall to be fitted with beds for convalescent Belgian and Canadian soldiers. In July 1920 he and Lady St Maur hosted a sale of work in the Hall gardens to raise money for the new cemetery. It was probably their last public engagement in Burton. A report of the proceedings gives no indication that they were due to leave the village but after being owned and occupied by the Seymour family for almost ninety years, Burton Hall was up for sale.

Sources

Sales catalogues, census returns and directories in the Record Office for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland.
Massingberd-Mundy papers in the Record Office at Lincoln.
Somerset papers in the Record Offices at Aylesbury, Exeter and Trowbridge.
Newspaper reports in the Local Studies Room at Loughborough Library.
Hunting books in Melton Mowbray Library and Melton Carnegie Museum.
Published biographies of the Somerset and Sheridan families.

Originally published in the WHO Newsletter 2002.

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