A Weston squire's coming of age

PUBLISHED: 15:11 04 September 2006 | UPDATED: 09:49 24 May 2010

The shattered front door of Grove House, former home of the Smyth-Pigotts in its derelict years following destruction by incendiaries in the Second World War. Note the Smyth-Pigott arms above the doorway.

The shattered front door of Grove House, former home of the Smyth-Pigotts in its derelict years following destruction by incendiaries in the Second World War. Note the Smyth-Pigott arms above the doorway.

The Smyth-Pigotts, a family of Norman descent whose rule of North Somerset as lords of the manor lasted for several generations, have today vanished from the scene

Cecil Smyth-Pigott, whose coming-of-age Weston so memorably celebrated, but who was little interested in his estates, spent a great deal of time abroad, and died at a comparatively early age in a crowning mishap overseas.

The Smyth-Pigotts, a family of Norman descent whose rule of North Somerset as lords of the manor lasted for several generations, have today vanished from the scene. Their memory is perpetuated in the places they built, the woods they planted, family memorials and stained glass windows of churches, and the collection of portraits at Weston's Town Hall.Beneath the sanctuary of Weston Parish Church is a capacious Smyth-Pigott family vault. It was built to take 24. There is an iron gate to it from which steps lead upwards to a filled in and long forgotten entrance, which no doubt came out on the path beyond the east end of the church. Only four of the twenty-four chambers have coffins in them. Soon after its immense vault was built the family became Roman Catholic and the association with the church and the district ended. It is doubtful if the vault will ever be opened again.Life's tragedy comes to both manor house and cottage, and the Smyth-Pigotts had their sorrows. One of the four coffins in the vault is that of Emily Isabella, the daughter of John Hugh Smyth-Pigott. She was only sixteen when she died. There is a graceful monument of her in the church chancel.Another Smyth-Pigott tragedy was that which ended the life of Cecil Hugh Smyth-Pigott. His father, John Hugh Wadham Pigott was born in 1819 and in 1857 married Blanche Mary, second daughter of H. Raymond Arundell, of the Arundells of Wardour. John Hugh had four sons and four daughters, and great were the hopes that Cecil, the eldest, would follow his father's footsteps as a squire keenly interested in his estates and the well-being of the people living on them.Dressed in his best velvet suit, Cecil headed the procession at the opening of the Birnbeck Pier. Lavish celebrations marked his coming-of-age.A newspaper report opened with the comment: "The coming-of-age of the heir to the manorial estate of a fashionable watering place like Weston-super-Mare, which depended so much on the enhancement of its natural attractions by the lord of the manor, ought to be a red-letter day." It certainly was.Weston itself was ablaze with flags, buntings, and mottoes. There were illuminated stars in front of the Railway Hotel (now the Anchor), and coloured fires in High Street.Although it was November, Birnbeck Pier was specially decorated, the tollhouse being illuminated at night with Chinese lanterns. In the windows of the Cabman's Rest at Claremont appeared the wish of "Long Life and Happiness to Our Young Squire." In Church Road over a shop was hung the message, "Weston's Squire, Weston's Hope." After dark the message as lit by a massive lantern made out of a pumpkin.In High Street a canvas banner, adorned with laurels and palm leaves, wished, "Long Life, Health, and Happiness."At the Drill Hall (later covered by the rear of Messrs. Trevor's High Street premises), 1,400 children from ten National, British, Christ Church and Emanuel Day Schools, each received a bun and threepenny piece. The young squire, accompanied by his mother and sisters, assisted in the distribution.A large company of hunting folk met at Grove House at 11 o'clock and were entertained to lunch, after which the young squire's health was toasted. The hunt and its followers then trotted around the grounds of the Grove before making for Shiplett Hill, Bleadon, where a stag was uncarted.It bounded in the air and made off to the fields on the level, over the River Axe and then through Lympsham. Skipping the road at Edingworth it went through East Brent, crossing the turnpike road east of the Knoll Inn, and then made for Mark.Because of the river the riders had to detour. Stag and hounds got three miles ahead of them, and when the field reached Mark all traces of stag and hounds were lost.The hunt broke up into three parties, one going towards Highbridge, another towards Wedmore, and a third - the lucky one - turned towards Weare, and came up with the tail end of the park on Mark Moor. John Durston swam his horse across the river, going straight for Chapel Allerton.The stag now made for Axbridge Moor and went on through Cheddar Moor to Draycott and Westbury. At Knole Hill it was seen cantering across a field and topping a gate, still as fresh as a daisy. It made for Hinton, doubled back, and ultimately the hounds ran it into a rhyne where it was captured without a scratch and brought home after a magnificent run of thirty miles over heavy water country, and lasting four and a half hours.At Weston's Assembly Rooms in the evening a dinner of roast and boiled joints, plum puddings, and "a plentiful supply of nut-brown ale and sparking wine" was enjoyed by the tenants of the Pigott estate. The young squire presided, and his mother and sisters looked on from seats in the gallery.While this event was proceeding there was another dinner at the Town Hall attended by the local notabilities. "The hall," a report stated, "was decorated with hunting and choice stove and greenhouse plants, the tables were adorned with epergnes and rare exotics, and the festive boards we made to look unusually bright and attractive by a number of beautiful lamps."The young squire joined the company later, and a great crowd gathered outside the Town Hall to see him leave. His carriage was drawn in procession through Regent Street and High Street by several men. The Orpheus Italian Band provided music, and members of the Weston Rangers' Football Club and Weston Premier Cycle Club, in uniform and carrying torches, served as a bodyguard to clear a way through the crowded streets.At the Assembly Rooms when the Squire rejoined his tenants, the Town Band took over and led the torch-bearers to the Esplanade where thousands of spectators had gathered to see a fireworks display and a monster bonfire of burning tar and faggots. There were tremendous cheers when the principal piece produced in glowing fire the name "C.H.S. Pigott."The next day the old folk were given a dinner of beef and plum pudding, and in the evening the local and country gentry went to a colourful ball at Brockley Court, the music being provided by Mr. Windeatt's quadrille band.Alas for the high hopes expressed at that joyous coming-of-age. One of the speeches contained the following passage: "Some of us and our forefathers for 200 years back, were born in our present homes and upon our present holdings, which we have retained for various lengthened periods upon the security of the word of a Pigott only. As the eldest son of that family, we have watched from your childhood, and with more than common interest and anxiety, your disposition, education and training; while you have honoured us with a good right to hope that with your trust and confidence in us and ours, and our loyalty and affection for you and yours, we may offer to the agricultural world an example of what may be achieved, even in these times of depression and difficulty by such a relationship as ours."The young squire for a time endeavoured to interest himself in his Weston and North Somerset estates. At a time when bids were being made by speculators to purchase the Grove House park for building purposes he let the Weston Urban District Council have it for perpetuity, and for a mere peppercorn rent. Thus it was preserved as Grove Park.But Cecil Smyth-Pigott tired of his North Somerset acres. He loved travel, and spent much of his time overseas. He died tragically by drowning in foreign waters at a comparatively early age.His widow, Mary Agnes Ruscombe Smyth-Pigott, who had married him in 1888, died in 1947 at the great age of 91.There were seven children of the marriage, and the eldest son, John Hugh Smyth-Pigott, was the last lord of the manors of Brockley, Kingston Seymour, Worle, and Weston.Lavish celebrations marked his coming-of-age, and in speeches he fired the hopes of tenants and townsfolk that he would be an ideal landowner and devote his energies to their interests and the prosperity of Weston. But his enthusiasm also waned and his interests too became centred in foreign travel. Educated at the Oratory School, Birmingham, and Christ Church, Oxford, he developed a taste for cultural pursuits and a wanderlust. He visited China and the Amazon, collected rare books and old jade, and travelled Europe as a music lover. He was an accomplished pianist and a great follower of Continental opera. His local estates were managed for many years by a forbear of a well-known local family and a former local councillor, Mr J S Walker. John Hugh Smyth-Pigott died suddenly at Oxford in 1941 at the age of 59, and was buried at Wolvercote, Oxon.His mother saw the end of the Smyth-Pigott "empire" in Somerset. She felt deeply for it, and it was her great ambition that the succession of Smyth-Pigott squires should continue. One of her sons, Group Captain Ruscombe Smyth-Pigott, was a gallant airman who won the DSO and Bar and the Croix de Guerre in the First World War. His only son died when his Auster plane crashed near Godalming in 1947.A few years ago he presented some Smyth-Pigott portraits to the Borough. Concluding a memorable speech on the history of the family and the pictures, he remarked: "So, good-bye, and if and when you see these portraits hanging on the wall of some public building in Weston, give them a cheery nod as you pass by and let them rest in peace."The contribution of the Smyth-Pigotts to the development of Weston was most valuable. They were generously charitable, but could be most obstinately autocratic. But by and large their reign was a beneficial one. * This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on February 10, 1967

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