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Steve Hobbs: Radnor Lecture

An audience of over 80 welcomed Steve Hobbs, archivist at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre at Chippenham, to talk about the Earls of Radnor and their South Wiltshire estate – which was, Steve pointed out, only part of much wider holdings in Wiltshire and elsewhere, notably Folkestone and London.

The family seat at Longford Castle was originally owned by the Gorges family and constructed in a triangular shape following a Swedish model.  This was retained in subsequent redevelopment.  The des Bouverie family, later Earls of Radnor with the family name of Pleydell-Bouverie, purchased the castle in 1717.  They were Huguenots, originally from Lille, who had earned their wealth from trading in the Levant.  They had extensive dealings in Europe and the Near East in a wide range of products including fabrics, precious metals and even opium.  Steve showed archive records detailing the range of transactions and recording events such as fires, sinking ships and attacks by pirates.  Customers included banks, the East India Company and the founder of Yale University.  The family also made charitable donations, e.g. for fire victims, and arranged benefit performances and Christmas boxes.  The second Earl of Radnor paid for a new Council House after it was destroyed by fire in 1780.

One donation which was never activated by the recipients could, Steve thought, have changed the course of history.  This was an offer of £500 in 1737 to the trustees of the colony of Georgia in America to abolish slavery.  

On a more domestic scale, Steve showed that the account and rental books, ledgers, maps, drawings and associated documents contained a wealth of material illuminating daily life over the centuries for the family and all those with whom they had dealings – tradesmen, well diggers, doctors, priests, bell ringers, servants and tenants.  Records included signed agreements about land boundaries, names, acreage and condition of fields, plans for flooding water meadows, details of works to the gallery, walls and floor in Odstock church, notes on repairs to the castle, lists and valuations of possessions and much more.  Some of the papers date back to the first owners.

Tenancy records also illustrate the system of copyhold, a manorial scheme which effectively gave the tenant the right to remain for life, with the property reverting to the landlord on decease of the copyholder – though widows had a right of succession.  Copyhold was not replaced by freehold till the 1920s.  The borough of Downton sent a member to parliament and so the Earl of Radnor could control the votes of his tenants in the burgage tenements and have an influence in Parliament – with no secret ballot, tenants were reluctant to vote against the landlord’s interests.

Many of the records were in Latin, except during the Commonwealth, when Cromwell decreed they should be in English.  Steve cited some intriguing quotes, for example an injunction to clear dung now, and a reference to a penalty if nothing was done about a tree annoying the road.  There was a payment to the doctor to visit the chicken woman, and another, in June 1743, for scaling teeth.  More recently, visitors’ books illustrate who came and went to the castle, and what they ate.  British and Belgian officers’ names appeared when the building was used as a hospital in 1916.

In conclusion, after answering questions, Steve urged attendees to visit the archive with its 8½ miles of shelving and extensive contents covering the whole county except for Longleat and Bowood, which held their own archives.  This could be done without travelling by accessing http://www.wshc.eu/our-services/archives.html.