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Saturday 12 August 2023

Book review: Victorian Entrepreneur William Schaw Lindsay by Bill Lindsay

Front cover of William Schaw Lindsay by Bill Lindsay on wooden plate with sea glass and broken pottery

This book sits on the very edge of the time period I usually write about, which is late Georgian through the Regency. William Schaw Lindsay was born in the middle of the Regency, but almost his entire adult life was during the reign of Queen Victoria.

However, its appeal to me was the business angle. Early Victorian commercial life was not that different to that of the Regency period. Neither was life aboard a merchant ship, which William Schaw Lindsay experienced and described, during the 1830s.

Victorian entrepreneur

In 1833 William Schaw Lindsay was an unemployed 17-year-old living rough in Liverpool docks. An orphan, far from his Scottish home, he applied to ship after ship for work. Time after time he was refused, sometimes violently.

In 1877, some 44 years later, William Schaw Lindsay was an invalid sitting beside the River Thames near London. Aged 61, he’d been unwell for over ten years. But in the three decades between being alone in Liverpool and suffering a stroke, he transformed his life, and that of many others.

He rose from having nothing to becoming one of the world’s wealthiest ship owners, a Member of Parliament, and an influencer in maritime laws. He also wrote extensively, publishing his ‘magnum opus’ in the 1870s - the four volume History of Merchant Shipping and Ancient Commerce. 

A lively biography told as if by Lindsay

The author, Bill Lindsay, is descended from the ship-owning entrepreneur featured in the book.

The introduction states:

Lindsay’s journal provides fascinating first-hand insights into merchant shipping in Victorian days, mismanagement of the Crimean War, and European involvement in the American Civil War.

The author has chosen to adopt what I consider to be an unusual approach. William Schaw Lindsay’s birth is written in the third person, but the story quickly flips to being told in the first person.

We’re told that all the information in the book is drawn from William Schaw Lindsay’s journals and other writings. However, there seem to be no direct quotes from those writings. The author has chosen to tell the story in the first person, based on these sources, but rewriting them for a modern audience.

This is understandable, given the Victorian prose style would not suit a 21st century audience. However, it means we rarely hear directly from William Schaw Lindsay himself. For me, as a lover of primary sources, this was frustrating.

That said, the tale is a lively one, particularly the opening sections that cover William Schaw Lindsay’s sailing days. He rose from ship’s boy to captain in just a few years, experiencing first-hand the rigours of sailing on a merchant ship in the 1830s.

Fascinating Stories from Victorian England

There are some wonderful stories inside the book. They’re enjoyable to read and could be useful to those researching life at that time. These include:

The drama of a parliamentary election in the 1850s. These were highly disruptive to the community. Crowds got drunk, windows and furniture were smashed, and coaches were overturned. The buying of votes was open, and the winning margins were slim.

Bride ships and coffin ships. The former were vessels employed to take batches of women to Canada, where there was a shortage of marriageable women. Coffin ships were sent to sea in an unseaworthy condition by owners hoping they’d sink, leading to an insurance payout.

Trials of the Crimean War. A number of William Schaw Lindsay’s ships supplied the British forces in the Crimea. He also adopted a dog that remained faithfully beside its dead Russian master, until it was removed by a British soldier. The war lowered his opinion of British military logistics - in just one of many errors it shipped 500 tables to the army but left all the legs in England.

The American Civil War. William Schaw Lindsay met Abraham Lincoln and many other American leaders in the years before the war. His shipping business meant he had a close interest in transatlantic trade, and as a Member of Parliament he had involvement with British government officials. He supported the southern cause.

A Classic Rags-to-Riches Story From Victorian England

It’s interesting to see, almost at first hand, how a penniless orphan became one of Britain’s leading shipping magnates. Of course, we’re hearing his version of the story, but there’s no boasting about achievements and no sense of thrusting ambition.

William Schaw Lindsay was one of those influential and well-connected Victorians who stood in the shadows of others. He met Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He was in Parliament with two of Britain’s most famous Prime Ministers - Disraeli and Gladstone. Through his journals he told his own story, and now we can read it.

The book contains several appendices, including a list of ships he owned, voyages of the Tynemouth during the Crimean war with details of cargo, and a list of his considerable property on his death.

William Schaw Lindsay is published by Amberley and is available here.

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes faith-based Regency romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew, who wrote this review.

Find out more about Rachel's books and sign up for her newsletter here.

If you have enjoyed this blog and want to encourage us and help us to keep making our research freely available, please buy us a virtual cup of coffee by clicking the button below.

Wednesday 2 August 2023

Athelhampton House in Dorset revisited - a new Regency History guide

Athelhampton House - front entrance 2015
Athelhampton House
Athelhampton House, in Dorset, was a 326-year-old pigsty at the start of the Regency period. The ground floor of the Tudor Great Hall, built in 1485, and the connected West Wing, had become home to pigs and poultry. And they had been that way for decades.

Today Athelhampton is one of England’s finest Tudor mansions. It was pretty impressive when it was built, but a visitor in the Regency period would have seen it as a tired, rundown relic of a farmhouse. Little more than an ornate barn.

Not that many people would have visited Athelhampton. Despite King George III regularly passing nearby on his way to and from Weymouth, the house wasn’t on the itinerary of anyone of any consequence. It was lived in by tenant farmers—hence the livestock roaming the halls.

Athelhampton House - back of house and dovecote 2023
Rear view of Athelhampton House and the dovecote (2023)

A house protected by the pigs

In July 2023 Andrew and I were invited to tour Athelhampton, which has been under new ownership since 2019. The house, which was already ancient by the time of the Regency, offers an alternative narrative to what we associate with the grand halls of the period.

Athelhampton stands out as a historic mansion, because it’s not built in the classical style we associate with the Georgians. It lacks the symmetry and bold pillars of so many grand houses. The Tudor styling and unbalanced frontage would have looked quaintly old-fashioned to the Regency eye.

That the house survived for so long (the Great Hall is now over 530 years old) is probably because Nicholas Martyn died with no male heir in 1595. He was the grandson of the house builder, Sir William Martyn, who put it up in 1485.

Nicholas Martyn had four daughters, each of whom inherited a quarter of the property. Because no one person owned the house, no one was able to make major changes to it. By 1700, ownership had been consolidated to a three-quarter and a one-quarter share, split between two families, each of which owned other estates. Neither family lived at Athelhampton, preferring to rent the property to farmers.

This relegation in status protected the architecture we admire today. Had a wealthy Georgian had sole control over Athelhampton, it’s likely he would have wanted to make a statement by tearing it down, and rebuilding it in a more fashionable style. Hence, it’s the pigs that protected the house.

Ironically, it was also a farmer who helped the house survive into the 21st century. Tenant farmer George Wood bought the largest share of the Athelhampton inheritance in 1848. In 1861 he acquired the other share to become the first sole owner in over 250 years.

In 1891 the Woods sold the house to Alfred Cart de Lafontaine. He began the process of restoring the house to its former glory, and laid out the elegant gardens. This work, and that of subsequent owners, protected the house from the rampant demolition that destroyed so many historic buildings in the 20th century.

Ornate gate leading to garden at Athelhampton (2023)
One of the gardens at Athelhampton (2023)

Regency Athelhampton

During the Regency (1811–1820) Athelhampton was owned by Catherine Tylney-Long (1789–1825), an heiress believed to be the richest commoner in England. She inherited a huge portfolio of properties as a teenager in 1805, giving her the nickname of “The Wiltshire Heiress”.

As already mentioned, at the time the house was leased to farmers, and it stayed that way during her ownership. She probably never visited the house.

Catherine Tylney-Long by an unknown artist
Catherine Tylney-Long by an unknown artist

A close brush with royalty

Despite being incredibly wealthy, Catherine Tylney-Long’s story is tragic.

She also came close to being queen. She was courted by William, Duke of Clarence, third son of King George III, who was nearly 25 years her senior. The press mocked him for pursuing her.

The Duke of Clarence became William IV in 1830. Had Catherine married him, she would have become queen, if—and this is an extremely big if—George III had given his permission for the marriage. With that permission, the marriage would have been legal, and the eldest of their children would have become monarch after William, not his niece Victoria.

The Disconsolate Sailor (1811) - a cartoon by Argus (Charles Williams)
The Disconsolate Sailor (1811) by Argus (Charles Williams)

But Catherine turned down the Duke of Clarence and accepted a proposal from William Wellesley-Pole, a man with a wild reputation. They married in March 1812. William continued his outrageous lifestyle of womanising and gambling, spending much of her wealth.

She died in 1825, aged just 35. The newspapers reported:

To her, riches have been worse than poverty; and her life seems to have been sacrificed, and her heart ultimately broken, through the very means which should have cherished and maintained her in the happiness and splendour which her fortune and disposition were alike qualified to produce.1

Catherine was also connected with another major figure of the Regency era, the Duke of Wellington. Her husband was the great man’s nephew. It was Catherine’s son who sold Athelhampton to the tenant farmer, George Wood, in 1848, to pay off some of his father’s debts.

What you can see at Athelhampton today

Rachel Knowles by staircase in Athelhampton House (2023)
Rachel at Athelhampton House (2023)

Our comprehensive tour of Athelhampton House took several hours, as the extremely knowledgeable manager of the site—Owen Davies—showed us around. A new owner bought the house in 2019 and implemented a series of renovations. He opened up new areas of the house, and visitors are now allowed to enter rooms which previously you could only see from the doorway.

The previous owner auctioned off the house contents separately, and so apart from a few items, such as the portrait of Princess Sophia, which the new owner was able to secure, most of what you see today has come into the house since then. However, much of it is authentic period furniture, and the rooms have been set out to represent different periods in Athelhampton’s history.

Portrait of Princess Sophia by Robinson after Sir William Beechey (1820)
Portrait of Princess Sophia
by Robinson after Sir William Beechey (1820)

There is also more emphasis on one of Athelhampton’s most famous visitors—author Thomas Hardy.

These are some of the highlights:

Tudor doors

Tudor door at Athelhampton House (2023)
Tudor door, Athelhampton House (2023)

The Tudor Great Hall, with its impressive, beamed ceiling and Oriel window.

Tudor Great Hall, Athelhampton House (2023)
Tudor Great Hall, Athelhampton House (2023)
 
Ceiling of the Tudor Great Hall at Athelhampton House (2023)
Ceiling of the Tudor Great Hall, Athelhampton House (2023)

Oriel Window in Tudor Great Hall at Athelhampton House (2023)
Oriel Window in Tudor Great Hall, Athelhampton House (2023)

The Green Parlour, where author Thomas Hardy was dining in 1914 when a telegram arrived announcing the beginning of World War I.  

Green Parlour, Athelhampton House (2023)
Green Parlour, Athelhampton House (2023)

 The recently restored Elizabethan Kitchen.

Elizabethan Kitchen, Athelhampton House (2023)
Elizabethan Kitchen, Athelhampton House (2023)

The Marriage Chamber, with its original fireplace, showing the motifs of Sir William Martyn and his first wife, Isabel Farringdon—the ape and the unicorn—and an Elizabethan tester bed.

Marriage Chamber, Athelhampton House (2023)
Marriage Chamber, Athelhampton House (2023)

Marriage Chamber, Athelhampton House (2023)
Marriage Chamber, Athelhampton House (2023)

The Armada Chest in the King’s Room—a late 16th century portable safe.

Armada Chest in the King's Room, Athelhampton House (2023)
Armada Chest in the King's Room, Athelhampton House (2023)

The Library—originally Elizabethan bedrooms, there is a hidden door in the wood panelling leading to the staircase that comes out in the Great Chamber. The room is dominated by a billiard table dating from 1915.

Billiard table in The Library, Athelhampton House (2023)
The Library, Athelhampton House (2023)

Secret door in the Library, Athelhampton House (2023)
Secret door in the Library, Athelhampton House (2023)

The Great Chamber—used to store grain in the 1850s, the room is lined with Elizabethan oak panels, with Italian carving over the fireplace. And it hides a secret—a door leading to a priest hole and a staircase up to the Library, which was originally a bedroom.

The magnificent plaster ceiling is an early 20th century replica of the pattern used in the Globe Room in the Reindeer Inn, Banbury, Oxfordshire, thought to be where Oliver Cromwell held meetings during the English Civil War.

Italian carved panels, Secret door in the Great Chamber, Athelhampton House (2023)
Italian carved panels in the Great Chamber, Athelhampton House (2023)

Secret door in the Great Chamber, Athelhampton House (2023)
Secret door in the Great Chamber, Athelhampton House (2023)

The Great Chamber, Athelhampton House (2023)
The Great Chamber, Athelhampton House (2023)

Ornate plaster ceiling in the Great Chamber, Athelhampton House (2023)
Ornate plaster ceiling in the Great Chamber, Athelhampton House (2023)

Gardens

Gateway to one of the gardens at Athelhampton (2023)
Gateway to one of the gardens at Athelhampton (2023)

One of the gardens at Athelhampton (2023)
One of the gardens at Athelhampton (2023)

Find out about visiting Athelhampton here.

You can see what the house was like under the previous ownership on my original blog here.

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes faith-based Regency romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

Find out more about Rachel's books and sign up for her newsletter here.

If you have enjoyed this blog and want to encourage us and help us to keep making our research freely available, please buy us a virtual cup of coffee by clicking the button below.

 

Note   

  1. Englishman, 18 September 1825.
Photos © Andrew Knowles - RegencyHistory.net