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Kempston Manor

Kempston Manor in 1803 by William Henry Pyne [CRT130Kem33]
Kempston Manor in 1803 by William Henry Pyne [CRT130Kem33]

Kempston Manor may be on the site of the mansion house of the Manor of Kempston. In 1254 the manor was divided into three one third being given to each of the sisters and co-heirs of John le Scot, Earl of Huntingdon. The medieval manor house seems to have become the mansion of the Manor of Kempston Daubeney. Former County Archivist Patricia Bell wrote the following history of Kempston Manor in 1986 [CRT130Kem43]: “The extensive manor of Kempston was split into three, and the original manor house went to Dervorguilla, wife of John de Balliol, and daughter of the eldest sister [of John le Scot], Margaret. The Lady Dervorguilla is said to have resided during her widowhood both at Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire, and at Kempston. She died before 10th March 1290, and was succeeded by her son, John Balliol, afterwards King of Scotland, and founder of Balliol College, Oxford. When John de Balliol, as King of Scotland, rebelled against Edward I, his English manors were confiscated by the Crown in 1296”.

“Subsequently, Kempston was granted in 1333 to William Daubeney, and remained in the Daubeney family until 1502. The house seems to have been extensive, and was probably used by King Henry III at the time of the siege of Bedford Castle in 1224. There were gardens, a dovecote, and the lord’s own rabbit warren (both dovecote and rabbit warren provided fresh meat in winter). The warren was probably in Hill Grounds, now part of the Robert Bruce School premises”.

“In the middle ages, currency was scarce and owners of manors, who received rents often in kind or as work done by tenants on the lord’s land, moved from one estate to another with household and retainers, staying until they had consumed the surplus produce, and then moved on”.

“The Daubeney family were of considerable standing, with estates in Somerset and Lincolnshire, and even a lordship in Brittany. Sir Giles Daubeney bought Kempston and Tottenham in Middlesex from William Daubeney in 1357, and for several generations the family seems to have made Kempston manor their main residence. Sir Giles was Sheriff of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire in 1379-80. He died in Somerset; but his widow died and was buried at Kempston. Their son Giles was born in November 1370, probably at Kempston, and was Knight of the Shire for Bedfordshire in Parliament in 1394-1395 and 1400. He died in 1403 and in his will asked to be buried in the porch of Kempston parish church [the current south porch is 15th century]. His eldest son died at the age of 15, and the eventual heir was the second son, another Sir Giles; and when proof of his age was wanted, witnesses gave evidence that he had been born and baptised at Kempston on the Monday after the feast of Saint Luke the Evangelist [i.e. 18th October] 1395, and the villagers would have seen the procession of father and godparents and servants pass from the manor house along Church Walk to the church of All Saints”.

The east side of the south porch March 2012
The east side of the south porch March 2012

“Giles asked to be buried in South Petherton (one of the family estates in Somerset), and from that time on the head of the family seems to have been less at Kempston, though it seems to have been used as a dower house, and widows often lived and died there. At the Public Record Office [now The National Archives], there are two royal inquisitions post mortem on the property of two Daubeney widows, and both are said to mention the rooms in the manor which each had as her thirds or dower … There was certainly “one high chamber above the gate” besides other rooms”.

“The estate and house remained with the Daubeneys until 1502 when they were sold to Sir Reginald Bray. The Brays later sold to Thomas Snagge in 1569, soon after he had married an heiress in the neighbouring parish of Marston Moretaine. Snagge had made his fortune as a lawyer. He was eminent in parliament in the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), being appointed Speaker of the House of Commons in 1588. His eldest son Thomas was certainly a tearaway, and earned his father’s disapproval when a young man. The father put in his will that Thomas had “ledd a very badd and loose lyfe” and had already borrowed on the expectations he had of the property coming to him on his father’s death. This was (as always) an unwise thing to do, and as a result he was left an annuity only, and would get more only if there was evidence of reformation in his life and manners. The son’s wife, Anne, was allowed to choose which of the two manor houses she would like to live in, either at Marston or at My Manor House of Kempstone … with the Orcharde and garden thereof”. However, Thomas reformed, and in time held all his father’s estate, and was Member of parliament for Bedford Borough, was knighted and served as Sheriff”.

“You no longer feel that the Kempston manor house was as large or fine as it had once been. Probably during the later years of the Daubeneys it was allowed to decay; it is unlikely that the Brays needed to use it at all; and by now the evidence does not suggest that it was anything more than an ordinary house, probably more suitable for a younger son, for the second Thomas Snagge left Kempston to his second son Ralph. Ralph had two sons, and the younger, Charles, sold his properties in Kempston and Marston in 1659 to Robert Yarway, a citizen and merchant tailor of London, undoubtedly one of the Kempston Yarway family. The next year, Robert Yarway resold to another Kempston man, William Denis, who had made good as a London merchant. William had no children, and he settled the estate on nephews and their descendents. It was not now so very considerable, just the house by the river with farm buildings, and a couple of hundred acres of arable, pasture and woodland”.

“The Denis family, who began as substantial yeomen, turned into minor gentry; they did not have sufficient property to play much of a part in county affairs. In the eighteenth century, members of the family appear occasionally in the letters of the well-off Caters, who lived in the imposing red brick mansion a little way to the west, called The Place or The Bury. The Denises were not wealthy. At a county election “Mr. Denis is desired by Sir Phillip Monoux to vote for Mr. Ongley”. Margaret Cater favoured another candidate, but she went on to say “I can’t be angry with Mr. D. for doing so, as he depends co much upon Sir Phillip for providing for one of his Children”; and there were at least eight to provide for! In February 1777 “Poor Mr. Denis was taken insensible yesterday” [M10/4/39] and it was thought that he may have had a return of his “paralytic Complaint. I can’t tell, but I believe he is very bad, poor soul! I greatly pity his Family”. Mr. Denis lingered on a little, but was buried toward the end of the following April”.

“Robert Denis, the eldest son, inherited a burdened estate. Of his brothers and sisters, we know that Richard went to sea, probably as a merchant. The next year Mrs. Cater wrote to her friend Mrs. Williamson “I am very sorry that Mr. Richard Denis is likely to be disappointed in going out this year, at least til very late, as they were surprised in the Middle of the Night, about a week since, with about eighty men coming on Board their ship, with swords and pistols, and pressed all their men, excepting five. Poor Richard was one of the number, but his friend Mr. Strong, with great difficulty, begged him off. He was the only one they would give up. It will be a great pity if he is obliged to idle all this summer, as he has lost a great deal of time already” [M10/4/51]”.

“Robert Denis, the head of the family, married Elizabeth Hanwell in 1776, and had three daughters with a son John, who died young. A memorandum kept by the Williamson family runs: “Kempston: The Estate purchased in 1809; Taken possession of Michaelmas 1813; House built 1815” Thus between 1809 and 1813 Robert Denis sold the Manor House and a small estate. A family memoir said that the “three elderly unmarried daughters … had to give the house up and died at Bedford. Grandmamma could remember being taken to Bedford when she was about sixteen (c.1840) for the day by her mother. She visited the three old ladies, who were very poor and lived in a small house in Bedford”. This writer said that the Manor House was “originally an Elizabethan, three-sided thatched house. Aunt Mia could remember running races along the top storey of Kempston Manor with her sisters and brother. That part of the house was uninhabited”.”

“The wealthy Bedford brewer, Sir William Long, who bought the neighbouring Bury estate from the Cater family, made his will in 1841 and said “I give to Elizabeth Denis, Sophia Denis and Frederica Denis the three daughters of my late friend Robert Denis of Kempston, aforesaid, Esquire, deceased (who have always shewn great attention to my Daughters) £100 each” [SH32/1/10], so we might hope that they were more comfortable in their old age”.

“In the Denis’ time the manor house was as it is in the watercolour by the artist W. H. Pyne in 1803 [see above]. The family tradition was that the house was Elizabethan, and it could well have been built when the Snagges first came. However, by now it was in disrepair, and so the Williamson family, the new owners, decided to pull it down completely and rebuild”.

Elevation of Kempston Manor by John Wing 1815 [X254/88/155]
Elevation of Kempston Manor by John Wing 1815 [X254/88/155]

“The Williamsons were a family of gentry and clergy, who for two generations were presented to the living of Campton in Bedfordshire by the Osborne family of Chicksands. They knew Kempston well, for they were friends of the Cater family at Kempston Bury, and many of Mrs. Cater’s letters about local people and happenings had been written to Mrs. Williamson. They needed a small house that could be used as a dower house, where widows and unmarried daughters could live apart from the head of the family, who was at Campton Rectory. They employed John Wing, the Bedford architect, who designed a neat, square stone mansion house, of moderate size, and this remained the Williamson dower house for the rest of the century and is the house still standing today [X254/88/153-155]”.

“In November 1818 the son of the family, Edmond Williamson, had left Cambridge and was living in the newly-built house while he read for orders, and he wrote to a family friend in London, asking for some books he needed. Mr Goodhall was a keen antiquarian, and Edmond’s letter ran “I am sorry to inform you that our Workmen here the other Day found five very large and handsome Roman Urns, and smashed them all to pieces, in hopes of finding Money in them, but I am happy to say that they were disappointed. I have some of the fragments by me, and with the help of some Vancouver’s Iron Glue, of which send a bottle, I hope to restore one of them to its original shape. It is as red as vermillion and very hard, and there were a great many burnt Bones in them “human and inhuman”.”

“The family intended to let the new house for a few years, and Edmond was on the point of moving into a newly built cottage to continue his reading and to oversee the farm and the workmen. If these were Roman pots, and by the description this seems likely, the somewhere on the ground bought by the Williamsons, the Romanised Britons had had at least a burial site, if not a dwelling”.

“The executor’s of Edmond’s daughter, Anne Charles-Williamson, sold the house and grounds in 1928 [CCE882/1], and after a few changes of ownership, the property was bought by the Bedfordshire County Council in 1951 [CCE882/3 – for use as a headquarters for civil defence then, from 1970, as a teachers' centre [CA8/823]] who sold it to the Institute [of Legal Executives] in the early 1980s [1982- CCE882/21]. A great deal could be written about the Williamsons in the last two centuries, but the house today is still essentially the house designed by John Wing and completed in 1815”.

The Rating and Valuation Act 1925 specified that every building and piece of land in the country was to be assessed to determine its rateable value. The valuer visiting Kempston Manor [DV1/R25/18] found it owned by Charles Williamson and leased by W. J. Cusack for £150 per annum. Ground floor accommodation comprised: a small hall; a drawing room; a dining room; a kitchen (“about 15 yards to dining room”); a servants’ room (“small”); a housemaid’s and butler’s pantry; a scullery and a washhouse. Upstairs lay four bedrooms, two dressing rooms, a bathroom, a W. C. and a small library. Four more “Good Bed Rooms” lay on the second floor, a box room lay in the roof and there were “good cellars” beneath the ground floor. Outbuildings comprised: a brick and tiled brewhouse (“small”); a brick and tiled coal shed; a brick and tiled barn; two brick and tiled W. Cs.; a brick and tiled store with a loft over measuring 18 feet by 45 feet; a pig sty; a wood and tiled barn and two heated glasshouses measuring, respectively, 8 feet by 35 feet and 8 feet by 11 feet. There was also a brick and tiled coachhouse (“now garage”), a two-stall stable, harness room and loose box.

The house was listed by the former Ministry of Public Buildings and Works in December 1962 as Grade II, of special interest. The listing notes that the roof was reworked in the late 19th century and that the property has a cement rendered and colourwashed front elevation. The property is partly constructed of coursed limestone rubble and has slate roofs, with that to the main block being a mansard roof. The main block comprises two storeys with attics in a double-pile plan, that is, two parallel roofs covering the block. There is also a two storey block and a single storey block to the west.

Kempston Manor as Civil Defence Headquarters about 1960 - from The Bedfordshire Magazine
Kempston Manor as Civil Defence Headquarters about 1960 - from The Bedfordshire Magazine

Directories for Bedfordshire were not published every year but every few years from the early to mid 19th century until 1940. The following occupiers of Kempston Manor can be identified from directories:

  • 1847, 1852, 1853 and 1864: The Misses Williamson;
  • 1869: Mrs. and Miss Williamson;
  • 1877: Miss Williamson;
  • 1885: Alexander Monro;
  • 1890: Colonel William Stenhouse;
  • 1894: James F. F. Sintzenich;
  • 1898: J. Mein Austin;
  • 1903: J. F. Biddell;
  • 1906 and 1910: Albert Adolphe Armstrong;
  • 1914, 1920 and 1924: William Joseph Cusack;
  • 1928 and 1931: Major Harold Edward Doyne-Ditmas;
  • 1940: Ewart Edward Martell; Ewart K. Martell.