or Would you sell your great grandmother?

by Rafe de Crespigny and Anne Young June 2020

England has so many people waiting for other people to die.”

Kathleen Cavenagh Symes nee Cudmore (1908-2013)

On 4 January 1901 Charlotte Frances Champion Crespigny nee Dana, then living at Beaufort in Victoria, wrote to her daughter Ada in Melbourne with news of their English cousins and a letter describing their sad disappointment:

Dearest Ada,

I send you poor Gwen’s letter… I am so sorry for them and it is very hard to lose so much money. Y[ou]r Uncle G[eorge Blicke] thinking Harry provided for by this wealthy man who adopted him, and Harry Trent, his godfather, left him nothing, Georgina getting George’s money.

“Gwen” was Gwendolyn Blanche Champion de Crespigny nee Clarke-Thornhill (1864-1923), who was the wife of George Harrison CdeC (1863-1945), known as Harry; they had married in 1890 and had three children. Harry was the son of George Blicke CdeC (1815-1893), an elder brother of Charlotte Frances’ late husband Philip Robert (1817-1889), so he was Charlotte Frances’ nephew by marriage.

The indication from Charlotte Frances letter is that since Harry CdeC was expected to receive a considerable legacy, his father George Blicke had bequeathed his own property to his daughter Georgina Elizabeth, Harry’s sister. She duly inherited after his death in 1893, but when Harry CdeC’s godfather Harry Trent died in 1899 it turned out that he had left nothing to his godson. So Harry CdeC and Gwen gained nothing from either source.

Gwen’s original letter has now been lost, however, and without its guidance Charlotte Frances’ text is misleading as it stands. The facts were a good deal more complex.

George Blicke ChC (1815-1893) second son of Charles Fox ChC (1785-1875), joined the Twentieth Regiment of Foot in the British army and rose to be Paymaster in the School of Musketry at Hythe in Kent, retiring with the rank of Colonel; he died at neighbouring Folkestone in 1893.[1] In 1851 he had married Elizabeth Jane Buchanan, daughter of a leading lawyer in Montreal, Canada. Of their three children, Julia Constantia was born in 1852 and died in 1876, and Georgina Elizabeth was born in 1856 and died in 1938; neither married. George Harrison was their third child and only son.

In 1890 George Harrison CdeC married Gwendolyn Blanche Clarke-Thornhill. They had one son, George Arthur Oscar (1894-1962), and two daughters: Mildred Frances (1892-1946), who would marry a Major Harold Cartwright; and Gwendolyn Sybil (1900-1967), known as “Guinea,” who never married. Charlotte Frances had received photographs of the two elder children in February 1900, but Gwendolyn Sybil was not born until the following December; the letter from Gwen which Charlotte Frances discusses on 4 January 1901 must have been written in the last weeks of pregnancy.

The godfather of George Harrison CdeC was Harrison Walke John Trent (1830-1899); both godfather and godson were known as Harry.

Harry Trent was the son of Francis Onslow Trent (1797-1846) and the grandson of John Trent (1770-1796) of Dillington House in Somerset. Eliza Julia, wife of Charles Fox ChC, was the daughter of John Trent and the sister of Francis Onslow, so her three sons George Blicke, his elder brother Charles John and his younger brother Philip Robert, were Harry Trent’s first cousins. Harry’s grandfather John Trent had held property in Barbados, both in his own right and through his wife Judith nee Sober, but very little money had passed to later generations: a court case in 1804 found that the Dillington estate had limited value,[2] and when Harry Trent’s grandmother Judith died in 1871 her property was less than £2000.

Harry Trent had joined the Sixty-Eighth Foot – the Durham Light Infantry; he was awarded medals in the New Zealand wars of 1864-66, and became Colonel in command of the School of Musketry where George Blicke ChC had been Paymaster.[3]

Harry Trent did not marry until 1889, when he was aged fifty-nine. His wife Rose nee Plunkett was a sister of Frances the third wife of Charles John CdeC, elder brother of George Blicke, so there was already a family connection.

Rose had previously been married to Anthony Stoughton of Owlpen House in Gloucestershire, a wealthy landowner, Justice of the Peace and Deputy Lieutenant of the county. He died in 1886, leaving an estate probated at more than £14,000, and his widow received the bulk of that property. When Harry Trent married Rose three years later he obtained royal licence to take the name of Stoughton-Trent – a mark of the importance of the Stoughton inheritance – and when he died in 1899 his personal property was valued at just £1400, with his wife as executor and principal beneficiary. Rose had no children by either marriage, but lived a presumably wealthy widow until 1926.

Since most of the money was his wife’s, it does not appear that Harry Trent had a great deal to leave his godson. There may have been a token of goodwill, but nothing substantial.

While neither the Trent nor the CdeC families were particularly well off at this time, Harry CdeC’s wife Gwendolyn came from a prosperous background.

Gwendolyn’s father, born William Capel Clarke, married the heiress Clara Thornhill in 1855 and added her surname to his own. Their first child, Thomas Bryan, was born in 1857, and five more followed in the next six years. Gwendolyn, the youngest, was born at Eaton Square – a good London address – and her mother Clara died three months after her birth.

William Capel Clarke-Thornhill inherited his wife’s estate, which included the very large Rushton Hall in Northamptonshire with other properties in the country and in London, and he was a Justice of the Peace and Deputy Lieutenant of the county. Gwendolyn went to a private school at Brighton, and in the census of 1881 the staff at Rushton Hall numbered eighteen, while two porter’s lodges and other houses on the estate gave accommodation to gardeners, labourers and other servants. The house remained in the family until the 1930s, then became a school and is now a hotel.[4]

Rushton Hall, Northamptonshire
Photograph from Wikimedia Commons by user Daderot

Harry CdeC himself, moreover, may fairly be said to have had great expectations, for he had been adopted by Oscar William Holden Hambrough, the owner of Pipewell Hall, which was close to the Clarke-Thornhills’ property at Rushton Hall in the parish of Desborough.[5] It is not known how Harry became acquainted with his patron, nor why the arrangement was made. It may have been through neighbourly connection, but it happened that the Hambroughs were linked by marriage to the Windsor family which held the earldom of Plymouth – and the baronet lineage of the Champions de Crespigny had also married with the Windsors. Though the connection was distant, Harry CdeC was considered to be a cousin.

A summary table of kinships

Oscar had been born in 1825 on the Isle of Wight, where his father John Hambrough built Steephill Castle in Victorian baronial style.[6] John died in 1863, leaving the castle to the family of his eldest son Arthur, who had died two years earlier, but Oscar received Pipewell Hall. As a leading landholder of Northamptonshire he became a Justice of the Peace and served a term as Deputy Lieutenant of the county.

A postcard of Steephill Castle c.1910
from Project Gutenberg

In 1859 Oscar had married Caroline Mary Hood, daughter of the third Viscount Hood and descended from a noted admiral of the eighteenth century. The couple had no children, and Caroline died in January 1890.

In 1864 Oscar obtained royal licence to take the name of Holden Hambrough.[7] His grandfather John had married Catherine Holden, daughter of a Lancashire family, and combined their surnames, but his son had chosen to drop the addition. Oscar now revived the connection, no doubt in part to distinguish himself from his brother’s lineage.

For his part, George Harrison CdeC was listed with the surname Champion de Crespigny in census records until 1881, but when he married Gwendolyn Clarke-Thornhill at Rushton on 18 December 1890 the parish recorded his surname as Champion Holden de Crespigny. We may assume that the adoptive relationship had been established in the course of that year, and George Harrison took the additional surname – albeit in curious and clumsy fashion – as acknowledgement of his new patron. Harry and Gwen’s only son, born in 1894, was christened George Arthur Oscar with the surname Champion-Holden de Crespigny.

A newspaper entry of 1893 summarises the situation, commencing with Dudley Arthur, the son of Oscar’s elder brother:[8]

…Mr Dudley Arthur Hambrough … represents the elder branch of the Hambroughs of Steephill Castle, Isle of Wight, and Pipewell Hall, near Kettering, Northants. Mr D A Hambrough’s great-grandfather [John (1754-1831)] married into the good old Lancashire family, the Holdens of Holden, and added their surname to his own; but this distinction was dropped by Mr Hambrough’s grandfather [John (1793-1863)]. The latter, however, bequeathed the Pipewell property to his younger son, who revived the double patronymic, and still survives as Mr Oscar William Holden-Hambrough. He is married to the only daughter of the late Viscount Hood and sister of the present peer, and, having no issue, he is understood to have adopted as his heir Mr George Champion de Crespigny, a remote cousin of Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny, the Essex baronet.

Oscar Holden Hambrough had properties in London and elsewhere, and in the census taken on 5 April 1891 Harry and Gwen are recorded at Pipewell Hall with the surname Champion Holden de Crespigny. There were five servants in the house: a butler, a lady’s maid, a cook and two housemaids, with other workers on the estate housed separately. Though adequate for a new family, this was a much smaller establishment than the one maintained by Oscar Holden Hambrough ten years before: the census of 1881 had listed a staff of fourteen, including kitchen, laundry and scullery maids supervised by a house-keeper, together with footmen, a coachman and grooms – almost as many as the complement of eighteen at Rushton Hall.

Pipewell Hall; now a wedding centre
Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, photograph by user Maypm – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Some time later, Oscar returned to Pipewell, and Harry and Gwen moved to the Manor House in Desborough itself. Now known as the Old Manor House, it is a substantial building of the seventeenth century, and though smaller than their previous accommodation it was not inappropriate to their needs and could be regarded as a place in waiting for the future residents of Pipewell Hall.[9]

The Old Manor House at 47 Gold Street, Desborough,
now owned by the local council
from Google street view March 2009

When Oscar died in 1900, however, the provisions of his will were somewhat unexpected. They were summarised by the Northampton Mercury:

Northampton Mercury 2 November 1900 page 8 [10]

Whereas Harry and Gwen had evidently believed that he would be the chief legatee, he now received only a life interest in some furniture – whatever that may have meant in practical terms – and a pension from the income of the lands at Desborough. It was not ungenerous, but it was not what they had hoped for and – allowing for the time that letters took to reach Australia by ship – Gwen was writing to Charlotte Frances quite soon after the provisions of the will were known.

The will itself must have been prepared some time earlier, for Oscar’s younger brother Windsor Edward, a clergyman, had died in November 1899. He was not wealthy – his estate was probated at just £156 – so the pension of £1 a week was not generous, while it appears that Oscar had no interest in his two nephews and a niece.

At the same time, the appointment of Otho as residuary legatee was a reasonable balance between Oscar’s obligations to his adoptive son and to his natural family. Otho was the fourth son of Oscar’s brother Albert John, but two older brothers were dead; by this means, once the life interest and trust had expired, all property would revert to the Hambrough lineage. In the event, Otho died in 1925, leaving no children, but George Harrison CdeC lived until 1945.

In immediate terms, the will must have been a disappointment: a life pension and a collection of furniture is not the same as full ownership of a large house with extensive grounds. Two further blows came at much the same time. Harry’s godfather Harry Trent died in August 1899, one month before Oscar Holden Hambrough, and he too left no substantial legacy – he had, as we have seen, limited money of his own; and Gwen’s father William Capel Clarke-Thornhill had died in June the year before, leaving an estate valued for probate at more than £100,000. Most of that property was real estate and the principal legatee and executor was naturally his eldest son Thomas Bryan; Gwen would already have received a marriage settlement, which meant she had small claim to more – and Harry’s expectations would have meant that her father, like Harry’s, felt there was no need. It must nonetheless have been galling to see her family home so near and yet so far removed.

On the other side of the family, when Harry’s father George Blicke CdeC died in 1893, his estate was passed for probate with a value of just £25; one must assume he had already passed most of his property to Harry’s sister Georgina. She died unmarried in 1938, with rather more than £11,000, and the major beneficiaries were her two nieces, Mildred Frances and Gwendolyn Sibyl, the daughters of Harry and Gwendolyn.

So Gwen and Harry had not done badly, but their immediate situation was disappointing. When the census was held on 31 March 1901, six months after the death of Oscar Holden Hambrough, the family was living at a house in Kettering named Bryher on a street named Headlands: husband and wife, three children – one aged three months – and three servants: a cook, a parlourmaid and a nurse for the baby. This was surely not the accommodation or the circumstances which they had expected. Not entirely surprisingly, the surname has reverted to Champion de Crespigny, without the Holden, while the six-year-old boy is listed as George A, with no mention of his first baptised name of Oscar; he would later be known as Arthur.

At the same time, however, by one route or another – possibly as a non-valued item in his father’s deceased estate – Harry had obtained the portrait of Dorothy nee Scott, mother of Charles Fox CdeC, which had been painted by the noted artist George Romney in 1790, and on 27 April 1901 the painting was sold at Christies for £5,880. Such an amount would have purchased a large house and land, and the proceeds were used to lease the Hall at Burton Latimer, a fine Elizabethan building in a village just east of Kettering. In another letter, written on Boxing Day 1902, Charlotte Frances expressed surprise that Harry had sold [the portrait of] his great-grandmother, but she admired the photograph of their house.

Portrait of Mrs. Champion de Crespigny [née Dorothy Scott] by George Romney
now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The staff now included a proper complement of servants, including a butler, a governess, a cook and maidservants, and three gardeners to keep the grounds in trim. Harry was a justice of the peace and an honorary colonel in the local militia, while Gwen – short and stout, with a formidable personality – was an energetic lady of the manor, holding garden parties for the aristocracy and gentry and quarrelling with the vicar of the local church.[12]

The Hall at Burton Latimer, 1905
from the Burton Latimer Heritage Society

So – with a little help from Harry’s great-grandmother – all ended well.

The Hall at Burton Latimer 1914
from the Burton Latimer Heritage Society

Extracts from Some Residents of Burton Latimer Hall Adapted from “Ladies of the Hall,” an original article by Douglas Ashby, transcribed by Sarah Gilbert retrieved from https://www.burtonlatimer.info/people/hall-residents.html:

After the departure from Burton Latimer of the Villiers about 1904, the Hall was leased to Colonel and Mrs. George Harrison Champion de Crespigny who had three children, Arthur, Mildred and Gwendoline.

Col de C, a tall handsome man with a distinguished military bearing, was later appointed a magistrate for the Kettering bench.  His wife was a short stout lady of very strong character who had been born a Clark-Thornhill of Rushton Hall.

Life at the Hall in those days was kept up in style, with a butler, two cooks and several house and parlour maids.  Three gardeners maintained the grounds in a beautiful state – the lawns velvet smooth, the yew hedges clipped and the long herbaceous borders a riot of colour.  The gardens were often opened for parties and charitable events.

Arthur was a Lieutenant in the Northamptonshire Regiment during the first world war and at home he had a favourite King Charles spaniel named “Pincher”.

Left: Mildred at her marriage to Captain Cartwright in 1913.
Right: Lt Arthur Champion de Crespigny with his favourite dog Pincher in 1917.
Photographs from the Burton Latimer Heritage Society

Mildred was very fond of painting and about 1907 a well known artist, a Mr. Stannard stayed at the Hall to give lessons to the young ladies: some of their friends were also invited to join them at classes, and one was Mabel Talbutt the baker’s daughter from Church Street.  Several of their paintings have survived, also Mildred’s easel.

Mrs. De C had her own little buggy or trap drawn by a brown pony which would take her into Burton or Kettering .  Canon G.L. Richardson (Rector 1911-1920) incurred Mrs. De C’s displeasure one Sunday morning at Matins when he criticised in his sermon, people who preferred to be in their potting sheds rather than at church.

Col de C was fond of plants and also was not a regular churchgoer – so his wife took this as a personal slight – standing up in her pew she glared at the Rector and marched out of the church to the surprise and awe no doubt of the congregation.

Another unfortunate occasion in church – Mrs. De C arrived for service and was very annoyed to see a strange woman sitting in her pew.  Not saying a word she sat very close to the unsuspecting visitor, but every time it was necessary to stand up to sing or kneel to pray, the “interloper” was gradually eased out into the aisle, until she had to find herself somewhere else to sit.  

The great blizzard of March 1916 brought Mrs. De C out of doors on foot to make a call in Church Street, being heavily clad in furs and a cape, not to mention the large hat, she was probably not easily recognisable to the cheeky young machinists at Hart and Levy’s factory in Bakehouse Lane, who called out of the windows and poked fun at her.  But the furious lady stopped in her tracks and let forth such language that the windows were hastily closed.


[1]             His obituary was published by the Folkestone Express, Sandgate, Shorncliffe & Hythe Advertiser on 8 July.

[2]             See, for example, the account of Dillington House by Ewen J H Cameron (first written February 1998, updated September 2008), posted by Anne Young on 2 April 2012 at https://www.ancestry.com.au/mediaui-viewer/tree/38869109 person/19294193127/media/58ac0135-c236-4f46-8412-cd3f5ae0f8e9, citing Trent & al v Hanning & al, determined by the Court of Common Pleas on 24 November 1804.

[3]             His obituary was published by the Bristol Times and Mirror on 5 August 1899.

[4]             Wikipedia mentions a claim that Charles Dickens was a friend of Clare Clarke-Thornhill, that he visited Rushton Hall on several occasions, and that it became the model of Satis House, the residence of Miss Havisham in his novel Great Expectations.

However, since Dickens was born in 1812, he was twenty-four years older than Clara, and she was married at the age of nineteen. It is doubtful that her wifely and motherly duties would have allowed her much time to make his acquaintance, so the story is unlikely. Restoration House in Rochester, Kent, is a more convincing candidate for the original model.

[5]             Wikipedia has an entry on Pipewell Hall.

[6]             The house was demolished in the early 1960s and the land is now a housing estate: see Wikipedia and also “The Forgotten Castle” by David Paul (originally published in Wight Life, August/September 1973) at round-the-island.co.uk.

[7]             The name appears sometimes with a hyphen – as Holden-Hambrough – and sometimes without: e.g. Bernard Burke, A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain & Ireland, 1898 edition at 717; and Kelly’s Directory of the same year, cited in note 9.

[8]             From the Wigtown Advertiser of Scotland, 16 September 1893 [from FindMyPast]. The article relates to the death of Dudley Arthur Hambrough’s son Windsor Dudley Cecil Hambrough, who was killed by gunshot in most suspicious circumstances at Ardlamont in Argyle: see the Wikipedia entry for the Ardlamont Murder.

Wigtown is over two hundred kilometres from Ardlamont, but the case was widely reported and the quasi-local newspaper was providing some background to the story.

[9]             Kelly’s Directory of Northamptonshire 1898: Desborough has an account of the situation at that time: www.afamilystory.co.uk/desborough/transcriptions/directory1898-desborough-kelly.aspx.

[10]            Issue of 2 November at page 8; findmypast.com.au.

[11]            Personalty refers to personal and/or moveable property, distinguished from real property, which relates to houses and land.

[12]            On the Hall at Burton Latimer, see the site of the local Heritage Society at https://www.burtonlatimer.info, and notably the articles by Douglas Ashby on the Hall and on its residents.