Horses, Dowagers And The End Of Cottons At Combermere

Although Field-Marshal Sir Stapleton Stapleton-Cotton, Viscount Combermere of Bhurtpore had a hugely successful military career and was a national hero, he wasn’t as wealthy as he could have been. He lost a lot of his money in a failed bank during his time in India, and from then on the Cotton dynasty struggled with liquidity until they finally gave up Combermere Abbey just after the First World War. The men of the Cotton family were always good at marrying into money, but less good at hanging on to it. They probably suffered from a self-destructive prejudice, common among the upper strata of the gentry and the aristocracy, that being seen to care about money was what concerned the bourgeoisie, and such matters were not for gentlemen to worry about.

One way of raising cash quickly was to sell one’s stable of well-bred and proven horses, and then bring on foals in their wake. A bit like Manchester United offering its first team for sale and then fielding their apprentices. Good horses were very valuable, and quite apart from the great value put on well-respected blood-lines, there was a great social cachet to be had from buying and riding a horse bred and owned by a member of the aristocracy.

In the late spring of 1859 Viscount Combermere’s son and heir by his second wife, Caroline, put almost four dozen superb horses up for auction. Wellington Henry Stapleton Cotton was forty one, and had become heir to the title and the estate as his elder brother, Robert Henry Stapleton Cotton, had died in Galway in 1821, aged just nineteen.

The auction was organised by the famous equestrian sales-house of Messrs. Tattersall, and as well as the horses a large amount of tack, clothing, and hunting paraphernalia was offered. The date and place of the sale were both well chosen. It was held at James’s Farm in Ruabon, walking distance from Ruabon railway station, just over the border from Combermere, in Denbighshire. The date chosen was May 7, which was the day following a large race meeting in Chester, so equestrian enthusiasts could easily stay overnight in the city and travel down on the train. The sale opened late – at noon – presumably to allow for potential purchasers to make the journey. James Farm, as it is called nowadays, still stands where it was over a hundred and fifty years ago – just off the modern A483 – but is now a caravan park.

The reason given for the sale was that Wellington – a Lieutenant Colonel in the First Life Guards at that point, so referred to as Colonel Cotton throughout  (his father was still alive to he had not ascended to the Viscountcy, and would not do so for another six years) – was “giving up the Management of the Hounds”. That may have been so, but it seems highly surprising that he was clearing out his entire stables.


Wellington Henry Stapleton Cotton, second Viscount Combermere, caricatured in Vanity Fair magazine in 1888.

We have what seems to have been his own sale catalogue, with the prices reached written alongside each lot in pencil (sadly so, because they are now faded and very hard to read), along with who had placed the winning bid. All the lots were offered without reserve and everything – apart from one five-year old, Courtier – seems to have sold.

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Catalogue for the 1859 sale

About a dozen horses sold in the high two hundred guineas range. It is possible that the sale raised more than five thousand pounds, which was a very large amount of money for most Britons, but obviously not so impressive for an aristocrat with huge outgoings (equating modern values to historical prices is fraught with danger, but for a guide, the rent on a good-sized cottage would be around six shillings a week in the 1860s, and a vicar’s stipend might be £50 a year or more. The National Archives compute that £1 in 1860 is equivalent to more than £43 today, which suggests that the auction raised something in excess of £200,000; in fact, in real terms in 1860 it would have been worth far more than that sum is worth today).

By the summer of 1871 the Colonel had become the second Viscount Combermere, and once again he was offering his “entire stud” for sale. The auctioneers were again Messrs. Tattersall, and this time the auction took place at the Abbey. The lots comprised “Over sixty Hunters, Steeplechasers, Brood Mare, Stallions, Foals, Yearlings, and Hacks”, as well as a large amount of tack, harness and clothing. With the exception of three stallions, all the lots were offered without reserve, and the date was set for July 15.

Almost exactly two years earlier the Viscount’s wife, Susan Alice, daughter of Sir George Sitwell, had died at the age of fifty – leaving him with two sons and two daughters. These were Robert Wellington Stapleton, who was to become third Viscount Combermere of Bhurtpore; Caroline Susan Mary, who married Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Lennox Peel, of Easthampstead, Berkshire; Colonel Richard Southwell Cotton, who married Jane Charlotte Methuen, daughter of Baron Methuen of Corsham; and Hester Alice, who married Alexander Victor Paget, whose heir was Charles Henry Paget, sixth Marquess of Anglesey of Plas Newydd, Anglesey. The Cottons of Combermere were no longer merely marrying into Cheshire gentry; now that that they were aristocrats they married other aristocrats, and cast their net widely.

Again we have a bill of sale with the prices annotated in the same hand, so again we can assume it was the Viscount, dutifully making notes – though this time he did not write down who the new owners were. We don’t have the full accounts, but the prices seem to have been similar to what they had been twelve years earlier. A number of brood mares and four-year olds just made it into three figures of guineas, and among the three-year olds we have a highest price of one hundred and twenty five guineas. Sadly we don’t have the sale results for stallions and hunters, which would have brought in much more. It is astonishing that all of sixty horses were sold, as well as all the lesser lots of equipment.

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Bill of sale for Tattersalls’ 1871 sale of Combermere’s “entire stud”

In the spring of 1882 the second Viscount was sixty four years old, and in fact had only another nine years to live. All his children were married and gone, he had not re-married, and it is possible that he was rattling around in the Abbey, perhaps a little lonely.

His finances had been helped by the rental of the Abbey to the Empress of Austria for two hunting seasons, 1881 and 1882, and she would only just have left for the second and last time when he arranged to sell all his horses yet again. This time though he had celebrity provenance to add value to the lots on offer!


Elisabeth, Empress of Austria; a much admired horse-woman, who rented Combermere Abbey as a hunting lodge over the seasons of 1881 and 1882

In 1766 Richard Tattersall resigned his post of stud groom to the Duke of Kingston and set up as a horse dealer in premises near Hyde Park Corner, at that time next to open countryside on the extreme north west corner of London. Two rooms, known as the ‘subscription rooms’ were reserved for members of the Jockey Club, and these became a favourite meeting place and gambling den for men of the Turf. Tattersall handled large sales for his former employer, with raised his profile, and was also used as a broker by the Prince of Wales – later King George IV – indeed they jointly founded the newspaper The Morning Post. A son, a grandson, and great-grandson ran the firm over the next century or so, and by 1882 it was headed by Edmund Tattersall, a cousin, and was the premier horse dealing firm in Britain.

Messrs. Tattersall’s third sales of the second Viscount Combermere’s horses was held this time in Rugby, and set for Tuesday March 14 of that year. The bill of sale featured the name “Her Majesty The Empress of Austria” very prominently, but the small print included the words “ridden by the groom of . . . “. Elisabeth’s hunters had been her own; she had brought them to England (along with a cow, so that she had the milk she preferred) on her private train, and had taken them back to the continent with her. Mendacious advertising is nothing new.

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Catalogue for the third and final sale, 1882

Ten horses were advertised in the first group, with this imperial connection; four mares and six geldings; all with detailed bloodlines. Butterduck, Nightfall, Royalist, Princess, Miss Anna, East Lancashire, Land Shark (!), Life Boat, Haymaker and Zouave would all have been known to equestrian enthusiasts. A second rank of nine horses was advertised as having being ridden to hounds by The Prince of Liechtenstein (the titles dates back to 1608, and in 1882 it was held by Johann the second, who had succeeded to the throne in 1858, and joined the Empress hunting from Combermere). There was then something of a downward shift in status as twelve horses ridden by Major Bulkeley, a minor member of the south west Cheshire gentry, were listed.

It is possible that the Viscount did not travel to Rugby to attend the auction because the sales details we have had sight of are not annotated, and indeed are unthumbed. Sadly then we do not know the results of the sale. What we do know for sure is that the money troubles of the Viscount were not over.

The second Viscount died of a coronary thrombosis in December 1891 at his London home at Saint James’ Place, seven weeks after having been run over by a horse-drawn carriage. His son, Robert became the third Viscount Combermere, and he tried unsuccessfully to sell the Combermere Abbey estate in the closing years of the Nineteenth century. Between the start of the Twentieth century and 1917 the house was let to the Dowager Duchess of Westminster. In June 1882, two years after the death of his first wife, the first Duke had married Katherine Caroline, the third daughter of the second Baron Chesham and Henrietta Frances Lascelles.

Katherine was only twenty four when she married, and as such was younger than the Duke’s eldest son and two of his daughters. They went on to have four children, two sons and two daughters to add to his eight children from the first marriage. The first Duke died in 1899 and the now-Dowager Duchess moved out of Eaton Hall to make way for the new Duke, her step-son. In her years at the Abbey the Duchess undertook improvements to both the house and the gardens from her own purse, but once she had left (she died in 1941 aged eighty four) the estate was again unsustainable for the third Viscount.

It could not be decently or practically be sold during the war, but it was put up for sale as soon as possible after peace was declared, and it was bought in 1919 by the Manchester industrialist Sir Kenneth Crossley, great-grandfather of the present owner. A large auction was organised at the Abbey and furniture, painting, carpets, and every imaginable form of fixtures and fittings – from both inside and outside the house – were sold. The era of Cottons at Combermere had come to a somewhat inglorious end after the better part of four hundred years.