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Estate correspondence

History in the estate office? The case of estate correspondence


Two thirds of Bedfordshire in 1883 was owned by estates of over 300 acres. A quarter of the County belonged to just two men, the Duke of Bedford and Samuel C. Whitbread. Their role in the social and economic development of the County was therefore vital. Their records: correspondence, financial papers, deeds, leases, maps and plans form an unrivalled historical source.

To administer a small estate needed a quite different organisation from that for the 33,000 acres of the Russell estate. Richard Orlebar, an exile in France, left his brother to run the Hinwick Estate in the 1820s. He was assisted by one of the tenants acting as Farm Bailiff [Ref: OR3346/18]. Another Richard, son of the house, did the estate accounts in between writing to his fiancee in 1861, [Ref: OR3346/44]. Only briefly did the Orlebars employ a Steward. John T. Brooks of Flitwick Manor did employ Samuel Swaffield as Steward but painfully did the accounts himself each Saturday, [Ref: Bedfordshire Historical Record Society Vol. 66]. By the 1860s Swaffield acted for a number of smaller estates including Tingrith and Harlington [Ref.SFM].

Such estates produced comparatively simple archives with the letters intermingled with the personal family papers. For estates employing land agents the landowner's letters are found in the firm's archive. By the 1900s Stafford & Rogers administered at least nine local estates including Howbury Hall and Odell, [Ref: BMB8].

The medium sized estates had similar structures to the smaller except that further stewards etc. were needed for additional estates far away from the centre. The oldest lay estate, Wrest Park, shows how the role of the estate's administrator changed. Rent collection was already sophisticated by 1467, [Ref: BHRS. Vol 46]. In 1628 Thomas Hill, Receiver General to three Earls of Kent, died aged 101. His successor, entitled Steward, was an architect as well, superintending the building of Wrest's north wing, [Ref: L31/228-43]. John Allen's job in 1730 entailed settling a disputed right of way at Newbury, Silsoe, finding a new tenant for Harrold Park, buying twenty-two cows at Harrold Fair, and ordering the felling of oaks at Cainho and Pidley Woods. He reported on John Duel's work in the gardens and on redecoration work in the house, [Ref: L30/8/211]. During Amabel Countess de Grey's ownership of Wrest, 17987-1833, her Steward, London solicitor and Farm Bailiff wrote to her constantly, [Ref: L30/11].

The Russell estate required a more complex and hierarchical scheme of administration to run estates in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Devon, Northamptonshire and London. An agent-in-chief, normally based in London, co-ordinated everything. At Woburn there was a Steward and a Land Steward, backed by a growing estate office. They had to look after the house, park, Park Farm and gardens and collect the rents and supervise property on the Woburn, Chenies and North Bedfordshire Estates. This included co-ordinating the rebuilding of estate farms and cottages. They administered the Duke's charitable giving as well as organising his political patronage designed to get at least one Russell MP in both County and Borough. Letters pass from official to official and to the Duke himself. The 6th Duke for instance took an active role in running the estate, [Ref: R3].

The survival rate of estate correspondence varies enormously. The Orlebars' estate has detailed correspondence for 1827-1830, (Ref: OR 2223/18-55). That of the Whitbread's is extensive for the Napoleonic Wars but virtually ends in 1815, (Ref: W.1)). The Brooks estate correspondence comprises a few items in the family's own letters and in Swaffield's papers, [Ref: LL17/251-2 and SFM 3/258-264]. Correspondence of scattered estates survives in longer runs: the Russell Estate, 1739-1899, [Ref: R3] and the Pym Estate 1882-1969, [Ref: PM2936/1/1-2/17]. Not every type of subject mentioned below therefore is to be found for every estate or at every date.

Routine repairs and even major extensions to the landowner's house such as Wrest and Woburn appear regularly in the correspondence. The Thornton papers for the 1880s include an inventory of St. John's Cottage, Moggerhanger and the sale of Kempston Grange, [Ref: BMB8/9/1].

Regular reports were made on the park and gardens. At Wrest William Sandon in 1816 was ordered to remove the bridge and old pale fence between Cainhill and the gardens, a feature of the eighteenth century landscaping, [Ref: L30/11/256/5]. Joseph Pawsey in 1779 advised employing a gardener at Southill with five men. He "could form connections in London for disposing of pines, plants, shrubs and vegetables after amply supplying his lordship's family", [Ref: L30/12/47/4].

Well tenanted farms were the lifeblood of the rural estates. The Steward's job was to keep tenants happy and avoid situations like that of the Hinwick Estate in 1827. Richard Orlebar had to make efforts to "re-establish the confidence and good fellowship that has hitherto subsisted between my tenants and myself', [Ref: OR2223/18]. In 1814 four tenants on the Whitbread estate quit, [Ref: W1/1527]. Financial hardships because of low corn prices, high labour costs and the weight of taxation were accentuated by pheasants eating seed corn and hares and rabbits destroying plants.

Despite late payment of rent, Richard Orlebar kept Austin as his tenant so long as he cultivated the land properly and took his proportion of labourers on the "Roundsemn" system, [OR2223/54]. In August 1808 William Wyman, schoolmaster of Clophill, surveyed Warden Abbey Farm for Mr. Whitbread. The pasture had not been properly mown and was full of thistles, [Ref: Z575/547]. After three more surveys William Inskip was evicted.

The Duke's enthusiasm for building estate cottages is reflected in the estate correspondence, 374 were built by 1862, (Bedford Estate Annual Reports). On the Whitbread estate James Milburne estimated in 1810 that a double cottage built of timber, splint, clay and rough cast (with outbuildings) should cost 400, the estate finding the timber, [Ref: W1/449]. The Mill House, Cardington was rebuilt in 1812, [Ref: W1/1391-1392].

Times of hardship saw massive poor rate increases and pressure for help from landowners in reducing rents and increased charitable giving. In 1799 the poor on the Wrest estate lacked coal as only a little had got through to Biggleswade from Newcastle via the Ouse and the Ivel, [Ref: L39/11/215/75]. In 1802 Wrest Park produced 103 bushels of potatoes of which the poor would be grateful for any the Countess could give. "Though...corn is cheaper than last year but yet too high for the poor to live by their labour", [Ref: L30/11/215/119]. In 1808 Harrison had to give the Wrest Park workforce an extra shilling a week but "this was hardly enough for those who have families to buy bread", [Ref: L30/11/132/6]. There pressures and high costs of enclosing the parishes of Blunham and Harrold created a difficult financial situation. As a result most of the lead statues were melted down, [Ref: L30/11/132/40]. In 1813 he concluded, "after another summer your ladyship will no longer receive a scanty remittance from so large an estate", [Ref: L30/11/132/141].

Similar problems hit rural society in the 1830s, [Ref: R3/3567 & 3574]. The Orlebars gave _50 to help Podington people emigrate, [Ref: OR223/51]. Wages increased temporarily but in 1835 were reduced again because of cheap provisions and small farming profits, [Ref: R3/2932]. Estates also gave occasional handouts. The Flitwick and Wrest estates gave beef on St. Thomas Day, [Ref: L30/11/32/51]. The Rector of Blunham issued charity bread and blankets there for the de Greys, [Ref: L30/11/20/1].

Predominantly agricultural though they were, Bedfordshire estates exploited what industrial potential they had. In 1795 the Woburn estate awaited the opening of the Grand Union Canal to exploit the London market for fuller's earth from Woburn estate awaited the opening of the Grand Union Canal to exploit the London market for fuller's earth from Woburn Sands, [Ref: R3/1688]. Later the estate sold larch and oak for railway sleepers for the Longon to Birmingham line in 1835, (Ref: R3/3648/28). Mention is made of Pearse's brickyards in Harlington, 1865-1866 [Ref: SFM3/286-291] and Cope's Brickyard on the Pym's Sandy estate, [Ref: PM 2936/1/34].

The role of the estate in political patronage has long been recognised. In 1767 "bounty" was given by the Russell estate in Bedford to freeman voters, [Ref: R3/317-318]. Ford a blacksmith "who voted for us in the last election", was got a job in 1792 by the architect Henry Holland, [Ref: R3/1240]. John Wing, The Duke's stonemason, was made Mayor in 1793 and he agreed to get Russell's friends made freemen, [Ref: R3/1538]. Russell's opponents did likewise. In 1795 Thomas Paine was burnt in effigy in Silsoe, [Ref: L30/9/73/10 & 18]. The Rector of Blunham acted as Wrest's political agent there, [Ref: L30/11/20/22].

For the twentieth century the extensive Pym archive contains details of revarnishing a Landaulette and selling a Crossley. The war years saw Hasells Hall requisitioned and Tempsford Aerodrome built, [Ref: PM 2936].

If you wish to find out more about estate correspondence come and see us here at the Archives Service.