In 1851, the year of The Great Exhibition in London, Field-Marshal Sir Stapleton Stapleton-Cotton, Viscount Combermere of Bhurtpore was head of the household at Combermere Abbey. He was seventy three years old, had been born at the larger Cotton house of Llewenny in Denbighshire, and was one of Britain’s great living military heroes.
We know this through our own records and researches, but also because the facts were written in an elegant script in the first British census which we know to have included Combermere. There are forty names shown, but it must be incomplete – the total number of people on the estate would have been greater.
In that year Viscount Combermere was married to his third wife, Mary Woolley Gibbings, formerly of Kilbolane in County Cork, who he wed in 1838. We know for certain that she was born in 1799, but her age is noted as fifty – taking one, or possibly two years off her age (depending on when in the year the census was compiled. The only other member of the family still living at the Abbey was the Viscount’s daughter, Meliora (born in London, noted as “Middlesex”), who was to marry John Hunter of Straidarran in County Limerick two years later. Everyone else mentioned in the census was a servant. Interestingly, the family’s names don’t head the list, as one might expect; ten servants are mentioned before the Viscount, including four men whose occupation is given as labourer.
Although one labourer was fifty, another fifty eight, and a woman whose occupation is not listed was sixty five, the members of staff were all in their twenties and thirties. Lucy Pritchett, who had the very responsible and well paid job of housekeeper was thirty seven, though the other great servant of the house, the butler – Charles Biggins – was forty eight. All the other posts which one would expect in to see in a Victorian country house were represented; an under-butler, footmen, coachmen, housemaids, two lady’s maids (one for each of the two Cotton ladies), and a humble laundry maid and a scullery maid – on the very bottom rungs of the servants’ ladder. There is no mention of outside staff such as gamekeepers and gardeners, so they must have been recorded on continuation sheets which we don’t have.
Although the majority of the servants were born in Cheshire and Shropshire, unsurprisingly, quite a few were a long way from home. One footman was from the village of Charing in Kent, one coachman was from Chelsea, while another was from Wiltshire. One of the lady’s maids, Adreana Krell, was German, while a housemaid, Elizabeth Bignole, was from Northampton. The servants’ quarters at the Abbey would, for the most part, have rung to the rich rural accents of the English side of the River Dee.
Fifty-year old James Simister was a labourer, originally from Wrenbury – only about three miles away – and he is recorded as living at the Abbey with his wife, Elizabeth, who was forty four, and three children. They were eighteen-year old Elizabeth, sixteen-year old John, and twelve-year old Hannah. John is described as a “scholar at home”, while his elder sister is a “schoolmistress”. How very interesting that the daughter of a labourer should have attained that position, and a sixteen-year old boy was still in education. That certainly doesn’t gel with our preconceptions of the mid-Nineteenth century rural working class.
A decade on, in 1861 – the year Prince Albert died, and with Lord Palmerston prime minister of the nation – the census was conducted again. The first Viscount Combermere, and Lady Mary were still in residence, now aged eighty six and sixty. They had a number of guests on the day of the census, who had to be included as they present overnight. One of these had the first name ‘Robert’ but his surname is illegible; he was “attaché to [the] French Embassy”.
There were also three members of the Hervey family. The surname of the Marquesses of Bristol, of Ickworth in Suffolk was Hervey but we do not know if they were these visitors. Again their first names are frustratingly illegible, but the first named was fifty one and was described as a “Lady”, then two other ladies – one aged twenty seven and the other aged fourteen. The elder girl was born in Madrid, and the younger in Paris, but each are described as being a “British subject”. There then followed a couple with the last name Martin; he a forty seven-year old “author” (Born in Tyrone in Ireland), and she a “lady”.
There was also a Daniel Chesters, who was described as a “Clergyman”. He is noted as being a “British subject” and his place of origin is obscured, but the second word of two could be Colombo. That is the capital of what was then Ceylon, and it had been part of the British Empire since 1815, so he was presumably from a colonial family. He was forty five years old, so must have been born in 1816. If he was from Colombo he must have been one of the first British subjects born after Imperial occupation.
The last visitor at the Abbey was Georgina Pitt, described as a “niece”, who lived at Peover in Cheshire. She was Georgina Pitt, the daughter of George and Charlotte Pitt, who had married in 1832. Charlotte was the third daughter of Sir Henry Mainwaring Mainwaring (1804–1875), second baronet, of Over Peover. The Mainwarings had connections with the Cottons, and the third and fifth baronets had the Christian name Stapleton, which was very much a Cotton family name.
Forty nine people are listed in the 1861 census, assuming that we have it all. The German lady’s maid, Adreana Krall is still in post and is of course ten years older (so we can assume that she was Lady Mary’s maid, as Meliora was married and gone). The butler, Biggins, now described himself as Charlie rather than Charles, but his age is given as fifty six – despite him being forty eight a decade before. His being the oldest servant was to be expected as he was in the senior post in the household, but perhaps he thought it wise to knock a couple of years off his age so as to appear younger. Or maybe he had a poor memory.
Study of it shows something particularly fascinating; apart from Frau Krall and Mister Biggins, there were no other servants in post who had been at the Abbey in 1851. This is astonishing; we assume that members of the working class who managed to obtain a job in a large country house would hang on to it at all costs, and that mobility of employment was limited. This was certainly not the case at Combermere Abbey. Apart from the butler and M’lady’s maid, no surname is even common between 1851 and 1861, so no children or siblings of earlier staff were following in their parents’ footsteps.
The servants’ job titles had changed too. No one was listed as a labourer – who, one assumes, would have been farm labourers on the home farm – but there were now six gardeners. Or had the gardeners been previously described as labourers? There is one new title, that of Land Bailiff. This post was held by the then-thirty seven year old John Wall. His wife, Elizabeth, who was three years older, had been born in “Middlesex, London”, and that is interesting because apart from her and the German lady’s maid, the staff were less metropolitan than they had been; no others were born outside Cheshire and Shropshire.
Sadly we only have one page from the census for 1871. The first Viscount had died in 1865, and Wellington Henry Stapleton-Cotton, second Viscount Combermere of Bhurtpore had inherited at the age of fifty three. He had married Susan Alice Sitwell, daughter of Sir George Sitwell, Baronet, in 1844, but she had died in 1869, leaving him with two sons and two daughters.
The only member of the Cotton family we have, on the one page of the census we have had sight of, is the younger daughter, Hester Alice, who was ten years old. Nine years later, in 1880, she married Alexander Victor Paget of Plas Newydd on Anglesey; their son, Captain Lord Victor William Paget, had a very colourful life. He was a dedicated trans-atlanticist who spent his life to keeping the gossip columnists busy. He was the brother of the Marquess of Anglesey and the Countess of Pembroke, and he married one Olive May, am American ‘Gaiety’ actress and good-time girl – who divorced him not long after and who gained custody of their two children on account of his caddish behaviour.
We can be sure that we are missing at least one other sheet because – quite apart from the absence of the second Viscount, or any other member of the Cotton family – many of the usual job titles of a county house are not included. No butler is mentioned, so we do not know if Charlie Biggins was still in post (or if he had reduced his age still further). Most likely he had taken his savings – from what would have been a very good salary, and the generous tips from visitors to the house – and retired to the southern coastal towns so preferred by retired senior domestic staff. Ten years further on, the Abbey butler in 1881 was a man from Derby, thirty eight-year old Samuel Needham, who, it is noted, was married.
Once again there are no servants in 1881 who were listed on the 1871 census, so the turn-over of staff from one decade to the next was now complete. Apart from the Scottish head gardener, the butler, and the housekeeper from further down the borders, all the staff were relatively local, and several were from only a couple of miles away. It is interesting that it is the senior staff who seem to have been the most mobile. Labourers, scullery maids and footmen were recruited locally, but experienced and valuable senior staff replied to advertisements in national publications and thus had a much wider horizon.
We do have a housekeeper for 1881 – forty one-year old Ann Hill, who was born in Herefordshire. The head gardener in 1871 was a Scot; thirty year old Daniel McIvory (?), who was young to hold such a responsible position. His two sons, Donald and Thomas (aged ten and five) were scholars, as was seven-year old William Brown, son of an agricultural labourer, Henry Brown.
The United Kingdom census was first held in 1801 (to mass suspicion from the populace, it must be said) and has been held every ten years since then, with the understandable exception of 1941. It was the first exercise of its kind since King William I ordered the compilation of The Domesday Book in 1086. One of its ambitions was to ascertain how many men could be mobilised to fight in any British army against Napoleon Bonaparte.
The statistician John Rickman promoted and ran the operation, and he presented a list of practical questions which he said needing answering
• “the intimate knowledge of any country must form the rational basis of legislation and diplomacy
• an industrious population is the basic power and resource of any nation, and therefore its size needs to be known
• the number of men who were required for conscription to the militia in different areas should reflect the area’s population
• there were defence reasons for wanting to know the number of seamen
• the need to plan the production of corn and thus to know the number of people who had to be fed
• a census would indicate the Government’s intention to promote the public good
• the life insurance industry would be stimulated by the results”.
Up until 1831 it was no more than a head count, but other facts were noted from 1841, including full name, age, occupation, whether the individual was born in the county in which they were now residing, and whether born in “Scotland, Ireland or Foreign Parts”. From 1871 the subject could be described – a little unkindly, some would think – as an “imbecile, idiot or lunatic”. From 1901 some details about the home were required, such as how many rooms there were – in theory at least; we don’t have this for the Abbey.
The 1881 census must have been undertaken early in the year, as Elisabeth, Empress of Austria was still in residence at Combermere Abbey. Once again, and particularly frustratingly, we don’t have the full census results, but alongside the many servants whose places of birth were within a small radius of the Abbey, we see Austrians and Hungarians – with a note stating, a little unnecessarily, that they were “not British subjects”. Their particular occupations were not listed, and they were merely described as being “in the employ of the Empress of Austria”.
The one sheet we have from 1881 includes no Cottons, obviously, and sadly not the Empress herself or the rest of her retinue, either. It would be fascinating to know how many servants she brought with her, and whether or not she brought her own priest – as has been said.
Once again no members of staff have remained in place since the previous census, and Europeans notwithstanding, they are mostly local in origin – though a housemaid named Louisa Reynolds was from Sutton Coldfield in Warwickshire, and two rather lowly male servants came from Wiltshire; Joseph Hill, a waiter, and Thomas Wheeler, who is merely and unusually described as “servant”. There were two grooms – Edward and John Harris, aged twenty four and twenty eight and both from Shrewsbury – who may well have been brothers. Apart from them there is no evidence of any familial relationships in any of the censuses. We do not have the name of the butler, housekeeper or head gardener.
We have two sheets for the 1891 census, showing fifty nine names, but the handwriting is so dense that any attempt to fully decipher the information is doomed. The second Viscount died in that year and was succeeded by his son, Robert Wellington Stapleton Cotton, who had been born in London forty six years earlier. By 1891 he had lost his first wife and both a son and daughter by her, and was married to Isabel Marian Chetwynd of Grendon, Warwickshire, daughter of Sir George Chetwynd, baronet – who he had married in 1880. They had a four-year old son and heir, Francis Lynch Wellington, who was four years old in the June of that year. No member of the Cotton family is mentioned on the documents for the simple reason that another family was in residence at the Abbey; it had been leased at a hunting box once more.
In 1881 Constance Edith Corbet, daughter of Sir Vincent Rowland Corbet, third baronet, of Moreton Corbet and Acton Reynold in Shropshire – and head of a family which had known much contact with the Cottons and Combermere over the centuries – married one of the richest and most dashing men in England. He was Sir Richard Francis Sutton, fifth baronet. Sir Richard had inherited massive wealth, and had spent some of it ocean racing his famous 96-foot yacht, ‘Genesta’. Sir Richard entered the boat in the America’s Cup in 1885, losing in a very high-profile battle with the American contender, ‘Puritan’, owned by John Malcolm Forbes of the hugely wealthy Boston dynasty.
In the 1891 census, the Head of the household at Combermere Abbey was given as Constance Sutton, Sir Richard and Lady Constance having rented the estate for the hunting season, just as The Empress of Austria had done. The Imperial connection would have been very good for the Abbey’s reputation as a sporting estate, just as it was good for the Viscount’s finances.
Any member of the Corbet family would have known of Combermere, and it was probably Lady Constance who suggested it to her husband. She would have enjoyed being close to her childhood home and her family.
We don’t know if the Suttons had rented the house and land before, but they certainly never did again. Lady Constance is listed as the head of the household because Sir Richard became ill in the February – still within the hunting season – and after only a short illness, died. Sir Richard had enjoyed less than three years of marriage, and was aged just thirty seven when he passed away on February 25 1891.
There was more though; Lady Constance was seven months pregnant when she was widowed, and a son, Richard Vincent Sutton, was born posthumously on April 26, and became the sixth baronet – and fabulously rich – at birth.
No baby is mentioned in the census, so it must have been taken between February 25 and the point where Lady Constance left the house for London, possibly in search of the very best medical care. Perhaps surprisingly she did then return to the Abbey, not to their marital home or a Corbet house in Shropshire, and stayed on until December 1891 (after which she rented Chequers Court in Buckinghamshire, owned by friend Mrs Frankland-Russell-Astley – and now the country residence of the British Prime Minister – and bought her son up there until he was eight). Perhaps she thought she would be happiest at Combermere, and there might have been a feeling of continuity and tranquillity despite her grief. Lady Constance Sutton was to have a most unfortunate year; her father, Sir Vincent, died on May 22, aged sixty nine.
The census goes on to list a brother of Lady Constance’s, Gerald Corbet as being present in 1891. He was the ninth of the ten children born to Sir Vincent and his wife, Lady Caroline Corbet. Gerald was two years younger than Lady Constance, and therefore saw his twenty-second birthday during 1891.
One other sibling is listed as being at the Abbey in that year, Mabel Corbet, who was only a year older than Constance. There was also a visitor, one Katherine Hamilton, who was presumably a friend, but we know no more about her at all – except that she may have been twenty four years old; her age on the Combermere listing is obscured. The overall return for the Nantwich area shows a Katherine Hamilton who was the same age as Constance – which is unsurprising in a friend. It is hardly surprising that family and friends were gathering around the recently-widowed woman, offering help and support.
The young Richard was everything to his mother, as might be imagined, but tragedy was to visit the poor woman again. She was bereft when Richard went away to board at Ludgrove (where his cousin, Vincent Corbet, was also a pupil) aged ten, and then on to Eton. He joined the 1st Life Guards in August 1910, and was promoted to lieutenant in June 1912, and then captain in July 1914. The First World War began the following month, and Richard was in France by October 8 1914.
Just a fortnight later, at Zandvoorde in West Flanders, a bullet grazed his jaw. The following day he was hit in the thigh by shrapnel. He was wounded in the forehead in the action near the Ypres-Zonnebeke Road in May the following year. Pronounced fit for duty and returned to France from convalescing in England in August 1915, he served as aide de camp to General Sir Henry Rawlinson, and was awarded the Military Cross on January 1 1917. He returned to the 1st Life Guards, as adjutant, in September 1917 and was moved to the front line once more in May 1918 to serve with the Guards Machine Gun Regiment.
Richard’s diaries record the deaths of many of his contemporaries and friends from Eton, and one particularly close chum, Reggie Hargreaves, with whom he had rowed at school, was “terribly wounded”.
When the War ended on November 11 1918 Lady Constance’s golden boy – now engaged to be married – was scarred but alive. She must have been euphoric with relief, but just nine days after he developed influenza. He was taken to hospital two days later, but nothing could be done. He died on November 29 and was buried in a foreign field on December 1. One can barely imagine his mother’s grief. Richard’s estate at the time of his death was well over a million pounds in 1918 money, and he was succeeded in the baronetcy by his uncle. Lady Constance re-married and died on September 1 1940, shortly after the start of another world war. To the best of our knowledge she never returned to Combermere.
By the time of the 1901 census another widow – an even grander one still – was living at Combermere Abbey with her family. This was Katherine, Dowager Duchess of Westminster. She had become the first Duke’s second wife in 1882 – the Marquess, as he was, was elevated to a Dukedom in 1874, and lost his first wife in 1880.
Katherine gained eight surviving step-children when she married Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, first Duke of Westminster, and was younger than three of them. The Duke and his Duchess were to go on and have another four children before his death in 1899 (at which point he was thought to be the richest man in England). As Dowager she was expected to leave the vast Gothic Revival mansion of Eaton Hall – built over twelve years and at a cost in 2015 terms of more than seventy million pounds – so that the heir, her step-grandson, another Hugh Grosvenor (son of Victor Grosvenor, who had died in 1884), could take his place as second Duke. It is said that that there was no love lost between them, and the new Duke wanted her out of the house as soon as possible.
Eaton Hall, just south of Chester, is some sixteen or seventeen miles north west of Combermere Abbey, as the crow flies, and although it must have been verging on the cramped compared to Eaton, which had more than one hundred and fifty bedrooms and a dining room more than a hundred feet long, it must otherwise have been very convenient. It is telling that she did not move into another house on the Grosvenor’s 11,000 acre estate, such as her late husband’s favourite, Saighton Grange.
In the 1901 census forty three-year old Katherine (erroneously spelled ‘Katharine’) is described as the “Head” of the house, and her children were living with her; seventeen-year old Lady Mary, sixteen-year old Lord Hugh William (who was to die in action in The First World War), thirteen-year old Lady Helen, and Lord Edward Arthur, who was nine years old.
She maintained a very full complement of servants at the Abbey, and was obviously well allowed for financially. Again we see the senior servants coming from across Britain; the butler, Frederick Clark was from a small village in Essex, Eliza Bolt – the cook – was from Devon, and the housekeeper– Sarah Maria Whyte – was Irish. Interestingly, the two footmen were from far afield too; Surrey and Yorkshire. The majority of the staff were local, but several, with their places of birth being villages on the Eaton Hall estate, must have come to the Abbey with the Dowager Duchess. The children had a Swiss governess, sixty three-year old Marie Frank, and the forty two-year old Scot Margaret Elliott is listed as “nurse”.
By 1911 Katherine Westminster was still listed as a widow, and head of the household, but only Lady Helen was living with her at Combermere (she went on to marry Brigadier-General Lord Henry Seymour, and their son, Hugh, was became the eighth Marquess of Hertford). Marie Frank is noted as a visitor, now aged seventy three. Margaret Elliott’s occupation was “lady’s maid”, which suggests a promotion. We only have one sheet of seventeen names for the 1911 census, so are missing a considerable number of the staff. We have no name for the butler, and no outdoors servants are listed.
The Dowager Duchess moved out of the Abbey in 1917 (and died in 1941 at the age of eighty four). We do not know if the fourth Viscount Combermere – the thirty-year old Francis Lynch Wellington Stapleton-Cotton, who had inherited the estate and the title in 1898 – moved back into the Abbey, but very soon after the end of the First World War efforts to sell up were re-doubled; the contents were auctioned early in 1919, and the house and the land were bought by Sir Kenneth Crossley later that year.