More Life at Hickleton Hall

In and around Hickleton

(See image gallery below)

During 1858 extensive alterations were carried out at Hickleton. The existing hall was converted into a sitting room and given an oak floor, while the portico was turned into an outer hall. At the same time a conservatory was built on, the room underneath being made into a studio for Charles and Emily. Other minor changes took place simultaneously, a terrace, bordered by a stone balustrade, being thrown up under the library windows. So extensive were the alterations that the workmen were in the house for the better part of the year.

The inconvenience of these operations for the family was accentuated by the fall of the Government in February. Lord Palmerston’s administration, after weathering the Crimean War and the worst of the Mutiny, was swept away by the backwash of the Orsini Plot. During the short-lived Government of Lord Derby which followed, Sir Charles was out of office, and the family, much to their distress, had to move from the Admiralty to a house in Belgrave Square, at a time when Hickleton was barely habitable.

The change in Government had its compensation. As Lady Mary gratefully recorded, it gave her husband a much-needed rest; and the children, although loyally and rightly contemptuous of Sir John Pakington as First Lord in place of Sir Charles, were delighted to have a little more of their father’s society. ‘We enjoy the unusual pleasure of Papa’s company all day,’ wrote Emily. ‘It really seems quite strange to have him sitting in the same room with us, and able to go out all times of day instead of sitting cooped up in his official den from morning to night.’

It would have been hard to find a happier or more united family. They corresponded voluminously with each other when they were separated, and through the letters runs a thread of affectionate banter; as when Sir Charles describes his encounter with a bat in his bedroom, remarking on the merciless absence of ‘Mama,’ who would have been torn between her horror of bats and her sympathy with the victim; or when Emily tells Francis how Freddie, unduly exalted by his new status as an Etonian, replied, ‘I shan’t!’ when asked by Charles to fetch a kettle at breakfast, and was promptly and properly sent to Coventry by his brothers and sisters. Charles was at this time the best correspondent among the elder children, Emily a very good second and Freddie easily last.

Francis, the midshipman, was often on the other side of the world in his ship, and his family plied him diligently with the latest news – about the alterations at Hickleton, the welfare of the stable, or the doings at Eton or in Parliament. He, in turn, wrote vivacious letters about his adventures in foreign parts; how two days out from Rio he fell from the futtock shrouds (part of a ship’s rigging), between the mizzen chains and the quarter boat, into the sea, and was picked up none the worse (‘Pray never do such a thing again!’ wrote Lady Mary, aghast); or how at Sydney, while landing a party of ladies, he was much incommoded by splitting the seat of his white trousers right across. He was evidently a lad to whom misadventures came easily; even when he visited his brothers at Eton, they went on the river in the dark and ran into a barge, with the result that their boat was capsized and Francis broke a leg.

Emily remained Charles’s particular companion and most faithful correspondent. They got on excellently together, as strong-willed people, contrary to all expectation, so often do. There was a complete compatibility of tastes as well as of temperament. They both loved sketching, riding and acting; they enjoyed the same books and – most important – laughed at the same jokes. Emily, too, was often summoned to children’s parties at Buckingham Palace or Windsor. These cannot have been an unmixed pleasure, since the Queen, like her husband, believed in supervising the amusements of the young, and was wont to move, a rather terrifying figure, among her small guests. After a children’s ball at Buckingham Palace in 1856, Emily wrote the Charles that the Queen had seemed to be in a bad humour. Her Majesty thought the ball spoilt by the number of tall dancers and did not propose on the next occasion to invite anyone over the age of fourteen – a disquieting thought to those of the visitors who, like Emily, were already past that age. Some of the children had behaved badly. Princess Helena had come in for a sharp scolding, and so had little Bertha Hamilton; while the Queen had told Kate Hamilton that ‘she was a great deal too wild and ought to be repressed.’

Emily grew up into a lovely and attractive girl. She went to her first real ball at Madame de Persigny’s (the wife of the French Ambassador) in February 1858, and danced every dance except one, when she had to go out and get her frock mended. There was another ball at Lady Palmerston’s the next night, and a small dance at Mrs. Clive’s on Thursday, and then came Lent to put an end to gaieties. Emily enjoyed London as a debutante should; but she enjoyed Hickleton still more, when Charles was home from Eton, and they could ride and sketch together and organise little plays.

In January 1859, just after Charles had returned to Oxford, Emily wrote to him:

“I am so miserable without you that I am going to console myself a little by writing you a few lines, though I have nothing to tell you except how exceedingly we miss you, and that you know already. Oh dear me, how I do hate people going away. Every time I think of you I feel a great lump come in my throat, and if it was not so foolish I should like to sit down and have a good cry. Mama is just as bad, I can see, though she does not say anything about it, and altogether we are most unhappy.”

Sir Charles was of the same opinion as his daughter about Hickleton. ‘My own family circle is my paradise on earth,’ he wrote to his wife, ‘with all my family round me.’ His relations with Charles were exceptionally happy. ‘God Almighty bless and preserve you, my dear boy,’ he wrote on Charles’s twenty-first birthday in 1860, ‘and when you are an old gentleman, may your son be as great a comfort to you as you have been to me.’

A few years earlier Lady Elizabeth Grey described Charles, Henry and Freddie as ‘the most perfect Eton boys.’ It amused her greatly to watch the three of them clustered together at home after dinner, to hear their talk and laughter – ‘such a pretty tone to their mother and sister. There is such beaming love and affection in Charlie’s eyes when they drop on his mother, and with all his conversation, spirits and fun, he is so gentle and gentlemanlike.’

Indeed, Lady Mary was never allowed to be left out of any fun that was afoot. The children adored her and chaffed her mercilessly; and in most of the letters to the absent Francis there is the latest story about ‘Mama’ to be recorded.

While letter tell as much of the life at Hickleton, the diary of William Johnson gives one rare and intimate glimpse of the family circle. He was on a visit in December 1863, so that to quote at this point is to anticipate. Much was to happen in five years – for Charles the full sunrise of religious conviction – but there is no doubt that in 1858 the visitor would have found the dme perfect family relationship as William Johnson found in 1863

1 pm

  • The well-known station at Doncaster……., nine years ago I went there for the first time, and truly it was a great day in my rushlight life.


  • A lively, gracious greeting at the door, to which I walked up silently…., Sir Charles and Henry out hunting: my own host [Charles] at home……. At once under the old inimitable spell, I became talkative, honest, cheerful, and comparatively courteous. I was myself put upon a luxurious rack of incessant suggestions and questions, having a feast of opinions set before me with a constant refrain of ‘Don’t you think so?’ invited every minute to commit myself to some statement, probed and teased for all such scraps of all such knowledge, or at least interpretation, as my rusty memory retains, urged to read this pamphlet or that book, never scolded for lukewarmness, but rather thanked for contribution towards the settlement of theories. His father and mother seemed to gather virtue from looking at him and talking to him, though they fight hard against his unpractical and exploded Church views, and think his zeal misdirected, and are very glad to hear me trying to modify his principles. He pretends to triumph over his mother, to convict her of inconsistency, to expose her half truths, to scout her old fashioned notions: she fights hard, repeats herself with indomitable confidence, scolds, and plays the domestic Pope; and all the while her face gets brighter and kinder because she is looking at him.

Tuesday, December 22nd

  • I went with George Palmer to follow the young sportsman Frederick Wood over the fields on a very cold, bright day. As I was well I enjoyed the walk and the chase of many rabbits.


  • We passed by the old quarries beyond that bank on the Barnburgh road, where the boy of 1855, in the spring, lay sketching, and who was too weak to get home without me fetching a pony for him. He took us to the edge of the hill, and gave us a very good view of the Don and the Castle (Conisborough). We crossed by a ferry. We sat cold and hungry in a little side-place hardly to be called a room, searched through and through by the wind. Fierce was the eating and high the merriment, and low and holy was our archaeology. On coming down we scrambled into a field full of picturesque lumps of limestone – just such a place as would have suited the Black Dwarf (Sir Walter Scott’s character in the novel of the same name); then along the right bank of the Don, past limekilns which reminded me of the Torridge (a river in Devon). Then the sun fell – and I suppose that is the signal for the stars of the soul to come out. And, as we stepped rather more slowly through the darkening woodland, turning about boldly in full reliance upon our guide, he began to ask such questions as one does not often have to answer.

Monday 28th December

  • I went very soon after breakfast to the ‘Studio’, here we were all at work tying with twine and wire toys, oranges, and wax tapers, to be ready for the spruce fir in the village schoolroom. Brassy and greasy were one’s fingers, we persevered and got some credit in the long run. All the things being armed with strings, I carried a flasket full of tied things down to the village whilst F. [Freddie] chased off the children for fear lest they should penetrate our mysteries too soon. We had a long and pretty task in hanging things to the tree. At sunset came the squire [Sir Charles], and all, to see our trophy: in trooped the grown-up people of the village; a dear shepherd-dog, inseparable from his master, the clerical-looking coachman; a bent old man called Kay with a foolish wig; plenty of ugly stupid women, all wondering at the brilliancy of the illuminated tree; somehow or other they slipped away and made room for the forty children who steadfastly gazed at the lower branches, ate buns with astonishing silence, and in due time received three or four trifles apiece cut off the tree. F.W. escorted old Kay home, and was late for dinner. The rest of us, all but the manager, went back in procession through awful darkness, by a new mysterious way, helped by a lantern, just as we used to come back from evening parties in Torrington. There was something patriarchal in this gathering of a whole village; a perfect family unity, great simplicity, and plenty of tepid benevolence. That night whilst we played whist, Mrs. Grey and her daughter and niece sang to us, far off. Late as we were in going to bed, Charles came to my room as usual, for it was my last night; his loving youngest brother came too; and after our chat was over I could hear them upstairs laughing with, or at their mother, whom they visited in her room. There can be no happier mother in Yorkshire.

Tuesday 29th December

  • I did as I was told, having slid back into the old habit of compliance. I went to see the hounds meet at Marr. They put me on ‘Brown Bess’, who behaved perfectly. It was a pleasant swift ride through Melton Woods: I had to turn and come back alone for fear of being late for the train. Lady Mary gave me a fragrant geranium leaf at parting, and the boy saw me off; and in two hours I had relapsed into my average dullness.

One response to “More Life at Hickleton Hall

  1. Elizabeth Thorp Chassereau

    Were there no paintings or stories of Samuel Francis Wood, or his sister Anne, brother and sister of Charles Wood, 1st Viscount? Son of Sir Francis Lindley Wood? Samuel Francis contributed much in his short life. He, along with a few others of a certain group, gave Catholicism quite a run, while they were at Oxford in the early 1830’s. Many books were written!! There was more in his life than nothing at all

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