Episode 23 – Abbots Leigh, Somerset

Another long episode for you all today, but unlike last week at Abbots Langley we’re visiting several different periods in British history. Hang onto your hats, people!

The pleasant, rural village of Abbots Leigh is situated on the west coast of England, south west of Bristol, and close by the banks of the River Avon. The area’s rich history dates back to the stone age, as evidenced by flints that have been discovered there.

Later on, iron age Britons constructed hill forts nearby – there’s Stokeleigh Camp at Leigh Woods, and Burwalls Camp and Clifton Down Camp on either side of the Avon Gorge where the Clifton Suspension Bridge now spans the river. The forts were inhabited from the 3rd Century BC to the 1st Century AD, when people moved out during the Romano-British period. Later, they returned to the hill forts, possibly due to the Roman departure from the islands. Pottery and coins have been found there.

The church period (1066-1560)

The town of ‘Lege’ was looked after by a man identified only as ‘Thurstan’s father’ during the reign of Edward the Confessor. He was most likely a priest of some sort, the same as his son Thurstan who was the area’s steward in 1086. It was a tiny place back then, with only two households.

William the Conqueror put Abbots Leigh under the lordship of Bedminster, which was looked after by Geoffrey de Montbray, bishop of Coutances which is in Normandy. He came to his role not through the church but instead through his brother’s arrangement, and he did a lot of work in looking after the church region under his control. He was also a warrior, and fought at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 before helping William the Conqueror to suppress the English rebellion that followed.

Now we come to Robert Fitzharding. During the war between Stephen and Matilda he provided financial support to Matilda’s son, the future Henry II. Interestingly he was not a Norman, but descended from Anglo-Saxon officials under Edward, and was a local to the Bristol area.

Robert founded St. Augustine’s Abbey, an Augustinian monastery, in Bristol in 1140, and included Abbots Leigh among its lands. The revenue from Abbots Leigh was used to support the construction of the chapter house, which was done under the supervision of the first abbot, Richard of Warwick.

Abbots Leigh continued under the supervision of St. Augustine’s up to the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, and then became a member of the church diocese of Gloucester. But it was soon included in the diocese of Bristol, which Henry VIII set up in 1542. The first bishop of Bristol was Paul Bush.

Bishop Paul had been given Abbots Leigh as part of his lands, to help provide income to the bishopric. After the reformation he married Edith; the Catholic church forbade priests and higher ranks from marrying, but the Protestant churches including the Church of England permitted it.

Sadly Edith died three months after Mary I became queen. However, when she and her husband Philip of Spain began to enforce Roman Catholicism on the population, he was brought up on charges for being a married priest despite his wife’s death. The next year he was forced to resign, and would later die in 1560.

The Norton family (1560-1715)

The land did not remain under the bishops of Bristol, but instead reverted to Sir George Norton. George had been made a freeman of Bristol in 1558, and would later be Justice of the Peace for Somerset. His descendants would hold on to Abbot’s Leigh for several centuries.

One of these descendants was born in 1622. George Norton III’s life would intersect with that of the civil war, and he would play a small but important part in its events.

On 3 September 1651, the Royalists lost to the Parliamentarians at the Battle of Worcester. This was the final battle of the Civil War. The Royalist leader, present at the battle, was Charles Stuart, the crowned king of Scotland and uncrowned king of England and Ireland.

Charles fled, and a reward of £1,000 (a not insignificant £175,000 today) was put out for his capture. He had a distinctive figure, and there were movement restrictions on Catholics that made it very difficult, but somehow he managed to stay hidden from the Parliamentarians.

On 10 September Charles was at Moseley Hall near Wolverhampton. Charles’s friend Lord Wilmot had heard that Colonel John Lane of Bentley Hall, near Walsall, had a sister, Jane, who had permission to travel to Abbots Leigh to visit George Norton, since his wife was having a baby. So Charles was smuggled east across the country to Bentley Hall.

Disguised as a servant ‘William Jackson’, Charles shared a horse with Jane and they headed out as a small party. Lord Wilmot went on ahead of them, undisguised and claiming to be out hunting. On one occasion during the journey, Charles and Jane’s horse lost a shoe, and Charles took the horse to the blacksmith to be re-shod.

After Charles had been restored to the throne, he told the story of what happened to the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, “As I was holding my horse’s foot, I asked the smith what news. He told me that there was no news that he knew of, since the good news of the beating the rogues of the Scots. I asked him whether there was none of the English taken that joined with the Scots, He answered he did not hear if that rogue, Charles Stuart, were taken; but some of the others, he said, were taken. I told him that if that rogue were taken, he deserved to be hanged more than all the rest, for bringing in the Scots. Upon which he said I spoke like an honest man; and so we parted.”

That night they arrived at Long Marston, near Stratford-upon-Avon, where Charles was set to work in the kitchen. The cook berated him for his clumsiness, and Charles claimed his poor upbringing meant he had never cooked meat before. He was believed.

The next day they went on to Cirencester, and the day after that they arrived at Abbots Leigh. Charles stayed here for three days, in disguise the whole time. However, George Norton’s butler Pope recognised the king, as he was a former Royalist soldier. Pope fully supported his endeavour, smuggling Lord Wilmot into the house and searching to see if there were any ships in Bristol heading to France. Sadly there were none to be found.

On one occasion, Charles asked one of the servants there – a former member of his personal guard at Worcester – if he could describe the king, and the servant said “the king was at least three fingers taller than [you]!” Again Charles made sure people would not be able to identify him.

Charles needed to move on, but now Mrs Norton had given birth, sadly to a stillborn infant, and Jane could not legitimately leave without due cause. Pope forged a letter saying Jane’s father was ill and she would need to return to Bentley Hall.

On 16 September Charles left Abbots Leigh. Eventually, after many further adventures, Charles arrived in France on 16 October. Here he remained safely until the monarchy was restored in 1660. I imagine it must have been some shock to the Nortons when they learned who Jane’s servant had really been!

George’s son George married Frances Freke, and they had three children together. Two died in infancy, and only their daughter Grace lived to be an adult, but she died aged just 21, before both her parents.

Frances was devastated at her daughter’s death, but later this would inspire her to write two tracts on grieving and consolation: The Applause of Virtue, and Memento Mori (“Meditations on Death”). She also wrote poetry and did needlework for the Abbots Leigh furniture, which often contained her poems.

George died in 1715, and Frances re-married his cousin Ambrose in 1718. After he died she married once more, and outlived her third husband as well. She was later buried in Westminster Abbey, alongside her two sisters Judith and Elizabeth, where there is a plaque to their memory.

John Trenchard (1715-1723)

Since George and Frances had no heirs, Abbots Leigh was inherited by George’s distant cousin John Trenchard, the son of Ellen Trenchard, the daughter of George Norton senior. Born in 1668, his political ideology would end up changing the world.

He was a supporter and pamphleteer for the Whig party, who were not great friends of the royal family. One of his particular pamphlets got a lot of support in opposing a standing army in England (this was just before the Acts of Union in 1707 created the United Kingdom).

In 1719 he was trying to get into Parliament, and replace the standing MP at Taunton – William Pynsent. However, the Whigs refused to let him.

John was rather disappointed by this, and he protested against the party’s peerage bill. The bill would first: protect the chief ministers against impeachment if the Prince of Wales became king (he didn’t like the Whigs); second: resolve the disappointing Scottish representation in the House of Lords; and third: limit the ability to create new lords. The bill easily passed the Lords since it was in their favour, but Robert Walpole, leader of the opposition, managed to get it opposed and rejected in the House of Commons.

From 1720 John began working with a Scottish journalist, Thomas Gordon, to publish a newspaper called the Independent Whig. John and Thomas wrote a long series of letters under the pseudonym ‘Cato’. The name came from the ancient Roman politician Cato known for his moral integrity and dislike of corruption. Cato’s letters espoused a liberal ideology and opposed many practices they saw as unfair. For instance, they called “for public justice upon the wicked managers of the late fatal South Sea scheme.”

The South Sea Scheme was a quite disastrous plan wherein the South Sea Company would take on the UK’s national debt in exchange for bonds. The idea was that the company would make a ton of money in trade, and everyone would make loads of profit. Robert Walpole made a fortune, selling his bonds for 1,000% profit when they reached their top share price.

But the idea of markets and share prices was very new. People didn’t yet understand about price bubbles and the economics of the stock market. One day the price was going to stop rising. One day people were going to lose trust in their stock, and decide it wasn’t worth what they were paying for it. The day came. The bubble burst. Prices plummeted. Many lost out, and the company itself almost collapsed.

A House of Commons committee investigation into the scheme found widespread corruption in the cabinet. John and Thomas were going to print the investigation’s results, but the government had the papers seized and the printing press broken up. I imagine they did not want an independent reporter putting out an opinion against the government’s spin.

This was exactly the sort of behaviour that the pair were speaking up against in the Cato letters – against tyranny and for freedom of speech. “Freedom of speech is the great bulwark of liberty; they prosper and die together.”

The Independent Whig was written in the early days of liberalism, before it became a fully-fledged political ideology of its own. These were the days when kings still exercised their powers over the people, but parliaments were becoming something more than enactors of the king’s will. Perhaps this was further along in the United Kingdom than in other countries, thanks to Charles I and Oliver Cromwell.

But Cato’s letters would soon be known across Europe and the American colonies, and those young Americans would be inspired by these words to throw off the shackles of Britain and forge their own way in a new country: the United States of America. The language John and Thomas used would be reflected by the founding fathers:

“…political power…This is the greatest trust that can be committed by men to one another; and contains in it all that is valuable here on earth, the lives, the properties, the liberties, of your countrymen…This great trust, Gentlemen, is not committed to you for your own sakes, but for the protection, security and happiness of those whom you represent.”

Today the Cato Institute in the USA still echoes the name that John and Thomas chose for their letters, and conducts research on the themes of individual liberty, limited governments, free markets and peace.

In 1721 as a result of the South Sea Company enquiry, many ministers were impeached including the leaders of the House of Commons. Robert Walpole was made the leader of the Commons, and it’s at this time that he became the first Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. While technically others may have used the title beforehand, Walpole was the first to really lead as Prime Minister.

Following the fallout from this political upheaval, in 1722 John Trenchard was permitted to stand in the election and became MP for Taunton. He came across rather anti-Scottish in his parliamentary proposals, but Walpole got him to back down after suggesting he seemed to be trying to break up the Union.

On 16 Dec 1723, having been MP for less than two years, John Trenchard died. He had no children, and his sister Ann inherited Abbots Leigh, which she would later pass on to her descendants.

The Miles Family (1811-1915)

In 1811 Philip John Miles, a Bristolian merchant, bought Abbots Leigh from the Trenchard family. His first wife died that same year, so it was a little longer until he finally moved in with his second wife, in 1814. They had eleven children together, and there were even more from his first marriage.

Now Philip’s father had made the family its fortune, travelling to Jamaica and running a large sugar plantation. He then traded the sugar in Bristol. They owned thousands of slaves, until 1832 when the trade was abolished. The government paid every slave owner compensation for the loss of the slaves, which would have left a bitter taste in the mouth for many abolitionists. Others, however, considered it was worth the country losing a fortune if it would end the trade faster.

Philip’s son William had been born in 1797, and inherited Abbots Leigh from his father in 1845, but he’d already had a long career as an MP in the Tory party.

His first seat was Chippenham, which he held for two years from 1818-1820. It was and is still the law that you have to be 21 to be an MP, so it must have been right after his birthday when he was elected. Back then, some seats did not have any opposing candidates, so he may have walked into his position.

I hope you’ll forgive me, but now we need to have a quick look back over Parliament’s history. Once upon a time there were two factions in Parliament – the Whigs and the Tories. These were not so much political parties as loose groupings of people with similar ideologies. In 1715 the original Tories had been driven out of Parliament by the Whigs due to their attempt at restoring James II of England and VII of Scotland to the throne after he’d been replaced by William III.

In the 1720s we saw that John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon coined the title ‘Independent Whig’. This was adopted by a group of Whigs in the 1780s who supported William Pitt the Younger as their leader, and after Pitt’s death they called themselves the ‘Tories’ after the old faction.

The name for the party stuck around until 1830, when J Wilson Croker suggested that ‘Conservative’ would be a better name. This immediately caught on, and in 1834 Robert Peel re-founded the party as the ‘Conservative Party’ – to get rid of the bad and conserve the good. Later on, the name was extended to be the ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’, but today most people still say ‘Conservative’ or ‘Tory’ (the latter sometimes as an insult).

It was in 1830 that William Miles returned as an MP, having been away from Parliament for a decade. This time his seat was New Romney, in Kent. William was a moderate ‘Ultra Tory’; this was the extreme right wing group of the day. They were never an official party, but a faction of the Tories who were committed to the Anglican church and hated the Catholic emancipation that was put into law in 1829 and gave Catholics the same rights as everyone else.

The Tories were struggling. They had 310 supporters, while the opposition Whigs had 225, and the remaining 110 MPs could not be relied on for support. This meant the Tory government was always in danger of being defeated when they tried to pass a bill. After an opposition motion to enquire into the civil list (money paid to the monarchy) passed 223 to 204, the Prime Minister the Duke of Wellington was forced to resign and the Tories were no longer in charge. The Whigs took over as the governing party, while Robert Peel became Tory leader.

The Whigs’ Prime Minister was Earl Grey (yes, the one whom the tea is named after), and he proposed an electoral reform bill that would fix a lot of issues with the current system. But Earl Grey had the same difficulty as the Duke of Wellington – there were not enough supportive MPs – and the Tories used their numbers to their advantage. They put a ‘wrecking clause’ into the bill that would make it unworkable in practice. Earl Grey needed to stop the bill from going ahead, so he got King William IV to reluctantly agree to dissolve Parliament and call a general election. Any bills still in progress would be forgotten.

The people of Britain were absolutely furious about what the Tories had done, to the point of rioting in Bristol! William Miles was one of those who’d voted for the Tory wrecking amendment, and only survived the general election due to being unopposed. But those Tories with opposition suffered greatly. The Ultras split over the bill, some rejoining the main party (including William), while others left altogether.

The election gave the Whigs the strong majority they needed, and now they could push reform through Parliament. The Reform Act 1832 was desperately required. The industrial revolution had brought huge changes to the country, especially with large cities springing up, but the cities had very little representation. In addition, some seats were ‘rotten boroughs’, with very small electorates. William’s seat New Romney at one point only had eight people able to vote there, while other seats had electorates in the thousands.

After the reform, the electoral make up of each seat was much more even, and the number of people who could vote had been increased from 500,000 to 813,000. Which is still only 5.3% of the population. Rotten boroughs were removed, and new city constituencies were set up. Technically the reform act didn’t affect Scotland or Ireland, but those countries also enacted their own reform bills so the situation was equalised across the United Kingdom.

William Miles had to find a new seat for the 1832 election after New Romney was abolished, and he stood in East Somerset. But the peoples’ love for the Whigs saw them take both MPs there. When the second MP died in 1834, William stood again and this time was elected. He remained MP there for thirty years, only needing to contest the seat once.

In 1848 fire swept through the Abbots Leigh parish church. Leigh Court, the manor house, had a private fire engine, and that was the only thing that saved the building from outright destruction; Bristol’s horse-drawn engine took three hours to get there. William Miles, who no longer resided at Leigh Court, still kept an ongoing association with the village and paid for the rebuilding.

He stepped down as an MP in 1865. During his career he was a big fan of Protectionism (that is, charging tariffs for imports to give a preferable deal to British producers), and for that he was made the Baronet Miles of Leigh Court in 1859. He had by now inherited his father’s sugar business, and when he died in 1878 he was a rich man indeed.

William Miles’s son Philip became Baronet after him, and also became MP for East Somerset in 1878. He supported the Representation of the People Act 1884 that would have allowed for women who owned property to have equal voting rights with men. Sadly the act failed, and it would not be until 1918 that women got the vote in the United Kingdom. Even then, they would not have equal rights until 1928.

In 1885 a young woman from Abbots Leigh travelled to Australia, where she set up a girl’s school in Sydney called Abbotsleigh. The school, which has a strong Christian ethos, is still going strong today.

Sadly Philip died in 1888, and was succeeded by his son Cecil. Cecil was Philip’s only surviving son, having been born in 1873, but he died in 1898 aged just 25. So the title went back to Henry Miles, William’s youngest son but the only male heir still living. Henry died in 1915, but is notable for having brought the first car to Abbots Leigh.

The Twentieth Century (1915-present)

In 1915 the village was put up for sale, in a number of lots. There would no longer be a single person owning the whole place. However, Leigh Court was purchased by Reverend Harold Nelson Burden.

Rev. Burden was secretary of the Church of England Temperance Society, and the early probation service. In 1913 the Mental Deficiency Act had been put into law, which took “feeble minded” and “morally defective” people away from the workhouse and into separate institutions. The language and action seems horrific to us today, but only three MPs opposed the bill at the time. One of those was Josiah Wedgewood, who said “It is a spirit of the Horrible Eugenic Society which is setting out to breed up the working class as though they were cattle.”

Burden and his wife were happy to run Leigh Court as one of the ‘colonies’ that would look after these “mentally deficient” people. It became part of the National Health Service, who sold the place in 1984, though this was long after the act had been repealed in 1959. From 1959 the definition of a mental disorder was changed, and care for those affected by mental disorders moved from institutions into the community. You may also notice that the language used separated the diagnosis from the person.

Burden’s second wife Rosa had formed the Burden Trust in 1933 to support a medical research unit operating from nearby Stoke Park. The Burden Trust does not fundraise but makes its money through investments, some of which would have come in 1940 when a portion of the land they held at Abbots Leigh was sold.

Many men from Abbots Leigh fought during the First World War, and a memorial was set up in 1921 to commemorate those who did not return.

During the Second World War a rocket battery was set up on the cricket pitch. There was a barrage balloon tethered in the village, which was used to protect Bristol by interfering with Luftwaffe aircraft attacks. There were many children evacuated from London to Abbots Leigh, and they were taught in the village hall along with others from the local Army camps.

At the time, a popular hymn tune was ‘Austria’, shared by the hymn ‘Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken’ and the German national anthem. Nobody wanted to sound like they were singing the German national anthem during their church services, and the BBC also received many complaints about it during their religious broadcasts. So the BBC’s producer of Religious Broadcasting, Rev. Cyril Taylor of Bristol Cathedral, was asked to address the issue. He was staying at Abbots Leigh, so when he composed the new tune, he named it after the village. It is now probably one of the most well-known hymn tunes. The German national anthem still uses ‘Austria’ as its tune today.

Next week we’re off to Cambridgeshire for the first time, to a village whose name sounds familiar but is spelled differently: Abbotsley.



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