Who’s responsible for the fences? Back to Lord Chatham and Abington Hall

A few days ago I discovered that Cambridgeshire Archives had updated their catalogue, including a half-dozen letters from the 2nd Earl of Chatham I had not seen. As I’ve been a very good girl, I gave myself some time off from Popham to revisit Lord Chatham for an hour.

Lord Chatham’s seal on an 1816 letter (Cambridgeshire Archives)

It was a very good morning. Cambs Archives have moved since I last visited them, so this involved a train journey to Ely, which (as I’ve not been on a train in seven months) was far more exciting than it should have been. When I arrived at the archives my documents were already waiting for me.

The documents consisted mostly of correspondence with Thomas Mortlock, son of the man who founded what became Barclays Bank. Mortlock was Lord Chatham’s landlord. Lord Chatham rented Abington Hall, near Cambridge, from 1816 until he left for Gibraltar in 1821, although he seems not to have vacated the place completely until his return in 1825.

Abington Hall (photo by me)

For some of the period he was away, he sublet to William Wellesley Pole, Lord Maryborough, an old political contact and the Duke of Wellington’s brother. Abington was well known as prime hunting ground, and Maryborough seems to have enjoyed tormenting Lord Chatham about all the game he was missing out on while in Gibraltar:

We have commenced the Shooting Season with as good success as our Neighbours, and I have every reason to believe we are much better off for game this year than we were last Season. … To give you an idea of the quantity of Birds, I found in Mr Holt’s Pastures by the River and in the Field belonging to Mr Barlow bounded by the Lenford Road Nine Large Covies. … I have not yet been on Mr Lyell’s Farm but he says there are double the quantity than there were last year. … We have every appearance of its being a good year for Pheasants. I really think we have Four for every one we had last Season, and the Hares & Rabbits seem to be endless …’

PRO 30/8/368, ff. 17-22, 6 September 1822

And so on, for several pages, by which time Lord Chatham – in his words ‘chained to the Rock’ (he wasn’t subtle about his feelings) – must have been shouting ‘Stop! Please stop! I WANT TO GO HOME!’

All this talk of shooting, however, brings me back to my visit to Cambridgeshire Archives. Much of what I read was pretty tame: Chatham was writing to his landlord, who was neither a friend nor a social equal. The correspondence was curt and business-like. Chatham often wrote in the third person: ‘Lord Chatham presents his Compliments to Mr [Thomas] Mortlock…’. For his part, Mortlock usually replied in terms that stressed their unequal relationship: ‘I promise myself the pleasure of waiting upon you Tomorrow at the hour Your Lordship appoints.’[1] Chatham always signed off ‘Your Very Faithful Humble Servant’; Mortlock, in contrast, was always ‘Obedient’ rather than ‘Faithful’.

I’ve blogged elsewhere on how Lord Chatham wasn’t always a careful tenant. A survey of dilapidations (effectively a checkout inventory) carried out on Abington Hall in 1824 and 1826 compiled a list of £109 14s 6d worth of repairs to be carried out on the house and grounds (rented for £300 a year, so a sizeable sum). The gardens, the survey recorded, were ‘in a bad state’, with unpruned trees and uncropped soil. [2]

Abington Hall, from here

The estate seems to have been problematic for Chatham, and its state may have reflected a disagreement about the terms of his tenancy.

Chatham’s lease with Mortlock was signed on 15 March 1816 [509/T158]. In addition to maintaining the house itself, Chatham had to keep ‘the Mounds Walls Fences Hedges Ditches Gates Bridges Stiles Rails Pales Posts and Drains’ in good repair, which seems like a pretty comprehensive list. Apparently, however, there was wriggle-room.

On 11 October 1816, Thomas Mortlock wrote to Chatham from Cambridge. It’s clear this discussion was already running, and Mortlock was replying to a letter Chatham had sent him (now lost). From context, it seems Chatham had been asked to repair some fences – an inventory of the house had last been taken in August – but demurred.

Mortlock, therefore, had looked into the matter further. ‘Upon referring to the lease,’ he wrote, ‘I find that the Schedule concludes with the words “repair the gates & fences where injured”.’ This certainly concurs with what I saw. Aware he was dealing with a high-ranking and potentially prickly character, however, Mortlock sugared the pill a little: ‘It appears to deserve some further consideration & I cannot but wish that when next I have the honour of waiting upon your Lordship you may be in possession of a Copy of the Lease’. [3]

Chatham’s response is utterly typical of a man who never liked to say anything without being absolutely sure of ALL the facts (it’s also utterly typical in the number of commas, which tended to multiply the more embarrassed Chatham felt himself to be): ‘I conceive it will be difficult to form any judgement, as to, how the concluding words of the Schedule apply, without having the whole subject before me, and I will endeavour to get such further information, with respect to it, as may be necessary, before I have the pleasure of seeing you again.’ [4]

So far, so much an impasse. Nothing much happened for a while, except that the man responsible for repairs to the estate, Mr Harrison, turned up at the end of November, so maybe Chatham won this round and Mortlock caved in? [5]

Or then again, maybe not, and this letter from Chatham to Mortlock in February 1818 suggests an ongoing dispute over a neighbour due to the inadequate fencing: ‘I have completed a small Plantation by ye water side, but it is really so narrow as to be scarcely worth the fencing in. Cou’d it be made broader, and of course a different form, It wou’d not only be much better for Game, but as great an advantage in point of look, to the Place, that if you were [to] see it, I can not but think you wou’d be induced to make some effort with Mr Ewin …  I really do not see, how he can be allowed to continue so very unaccommodating.’ [6]

‘Mr Ewin’ was John Ewin, who appears to have owned much of the land next door to Abington Hall. [7] However, note the point about the game and the fences. It’s subtly made here, but Chatham picked up on it a little more stridently a few days later:

I cannot help troubling you, in order to call your attention, to the deplorable state of the fences round the Belt, which is now almost entirely open, and I fear, besides the injury to the Plantations, I shall lose all the Game I have been endeavouring to rear. The slight temporary repairs done last year were of little avail, and ye stuff has been carried away.

Lord Chatham to Mortlock, 12 February 1818, 509/3/3/4/7

The remainder of Chatham’s letter is all about how ‘there is no time to lose’, which, by the way, is not the first time I’ve seen the famously slothful Chatham chivvying someone else to move faster (and the focus on hunting is absolutely on brand).

Mortlock’s response suggests he really just wanted to fling a copy of the contract in Chatham’s face at this point, and he must have taken a very deep breath before answering: ‘I purposed riding over to Abington to have some conversation with Mr Ewin [Lord Chatham: ‘Yes!’] … but I was unexpectedly called into Suffolk from whence I am just returned. [Lord Chatham: ‘No!’] … [However,] I hope early in next week to ride over to Abington and to call upon your Lordship if not prevented.’ [8]

Did Chatham’s fences ever get fixed? Did Chatham lose all his game? I don’t know, but I can tell you the dispute rumbled on for TWO MORE YEARS before Mortlock did eventually lose patience. The last letter on the subject is dated 14 February 1820 and is very short and to the point:

Mr Mortlock presents his respectful Compliments to Lord Chatham & begs to inform his Lordship that upon referring to the Lease it appears that the repairs which Lord Chatham spoke of to Mr Mortlock on Saturday as partially necessary are therein covenanted to be made by Lord Chatham.’

Mortlock to Chatham, 14 February 1820, Notebook 3, 509/3/3/1/3

Which translates, as far as I can see, to: FOR GOD’S SAKE CHECK THE FLIPPING CONTRACT!

Having said all this, my visit to the archives did help me answer one question. I’ve often wondered whether Chatham actually did ‘well and truly pay or cause to be paid unto the said John Mortlock his Heirs or assigns the said Yearly Rents of Three hundred pounds’, as per his contract. According to Mortlock’s rent book, [9] the answer is, perhaps surprisingly (given Chatham’s notorious financial problems) … yes, he did, in cash, and he was only late with it once.

I wonder if, despite all the damage to his property and the passive-aggressive correspondence about fences, Mortlock realised just how lucky he was?

References

[1] Chatham to Mortlock, 26 Nov 1816, and 27 Nov reply, 509/3/3/2/24

[2] ‘Survey of Dilapidations committed on the Mansion House, Offices, Buildings & Premises at Abington, Cambridge’, Cambridgeshire Archives: January 1824, 296/B29; May 1826: 296/B60, ff. 46-56

[3] Notebook 1, 509/3/3/1/1

[4] Chatham to Mortlock, 8 October 1816, 509/3/3/2/15

[5] Chatham to Mortlock, 26 November 1816, 509/3/3/2/24

[6] Lord Chatham to Mortlock, 6 February 1818, 509/3/3/4/7

[7] Lease, 15 March 1816, 509/T158

[8] Mortlock to Chatham, 14 February 1818, Notebook 3, 509/3/3/1/3

[9] Rent book, 509/7/1/6, ff. 7-8