What Weston owes to its Smyth-Pigott squires

THERE is a tendency to take an unjust view of village squires of former days and to regard them as dominant, ruthless landlords, extracting every penny they could from their estates and keeping the people down

THERE is a tendency to take an unjust view of village squires of former days and to regard them as dominant, ruthless landlords, extracting every penny they could from their estates and keeping the people down. Some squires undoubtedly tried to rule with the toughness of the old Norman barons, and were mean and acquisitive.Village Weston and later the growing seaside resort appears to have been lucky in the Smyth-Pigott squires. True, at times they exerted their authority and reacted to criticism with autocracy that would not be tolerated today, but in general their rule was beneficent. They had taste. It would have been so easy for them to spoil Weston, but instead they gave it its woods, created the Boulevard, Kewstoke toll road, and Grove Park.Presenting a collection of family portraits to the Borough Council in 1947, Group Captain Ruscombe Smyth-Pigott commented: "If you look at them all and take them by and large, it's true, of course, that they made many mistakes. They were country folk, ignorant of the growth of industrialism with all its crimes and horrors in the great cities, and of the eventual necessity for seaside holidays for workers, so they wouldn't allow the railway to pass through Weston; they wanted to keep your town a quiet, gentle resort for the old people, hence your loop-line today! But I claim they did possess an eye for beauty and for posterity."They planted the oak, the beech, the lime; they preferred the yew hedge to the macrocarpa (planted today to get a quick effect and which dies from the base upwards in a generation)."They built in a spirit of love and reverence. Come out to Brockley Cottage where I live, and have a good look at it. It is built for beauty and posterity; then return, as you enter your town - look to the right and left of you - ask yourselves were most of those architectural horrors built with love and reverence for beauty and posterity?"I submit that when the squirearchy ruled such horrors would not have been perpetrated or the ghastly deeds during the period in between the two great wars. The speculators' last fling could not have happened. Thank heaven all parties are now agreed that such a thing will never happen again."Group Captain Smyth-Pigott was, of course, over optimistic in his closing paragraph. There have been many Weston developments since the Second World War for which the planning authorities and the Borough Council should blush for shame. Weston, one does not hesitate to surmise, would be a much more attractive place than it is if the Smyth-Pigotts still ruled.The Smyth-Pigotts' association with this district originated with the purchase of the manor of Brockley by Lieut-Col Thomas Pigott in the 17th century. In 1696 his son John added the manors of Weston and Clapton to the estate.The lives and livelihoods of hundreds of people in North Somerset hinged on the village of Brockley in former days, when the Smyth-Pigott estates stretched from Bristol to Weston Bay. It was to the squire at Brockley that people went to make their pleas or grievances.Those were times when salmon were to be caught in the Bristol Channel, and the first catch by the Weston fishermen had to be taken to the Lord of the Manor at Brockley.Samuel Norvill, one of the old Weston worthies interviewed by Ernest Baker in the last century, said: "I carried up the largest one ever caught here. It weighed thirty-two pounds and a quarter, and I rode up to Brockley on a pony with it."Where did I catch it and how? Why, on the west side of Knightstone, in a net on the mud. The nets were stretched between two poles and pinned down on the mud: and when the tide ebbed we used to go and take the fish out of the mud and water at the foot of the net. Richard Jones rented the fishing, and I worked under him."Whoever took the fish to Brockley was always given half-a-crown and as much as he and his pony could eat and drink. When I went up there the Rev Wadham Pigott, the Lord of the Manor, gave me a three-shilling-piece, on account of the extra large size of the fish. We caught five or six more salmon the next tide, but none of them were half the size of the first. Half-a-crown a pound we sold them for."It was to Brockley, too, that people flocked as guests or sightseers at the christenings, weddings, coming-of-age celebrations, and funerals of the Smyth-Pigotts.When the Smyth-Pigotts took over the manor of Brockley they lived for a time at Brockley Court, the former home of the Harveys who had held the manor since 1528. Brockley Court is believed to date from the 14th Century. Brockley Court today has central heating and modern decorations and furnishings, but interesting old structural features remain. The rooms are lofty and generally spacious. The large reception room has carved pillars around the fireplace, and the dining room is oak panelled.The Court, as the Smyth-Pigotts knew it, was described as "a quaint old house, tall and picturesque, with four or five gables facing south, and bathed in pleasant sunshine, whilst its windows (enlarged at some later date) looked upon the deer park. There is a square porch, covered with stone tiles, and an antique sundial in the gable over the door. The door, of massive oak, with its heavy, iron fittings, would defy any blows."The house," we are told, "is remarkable for the height of its rooms, for in general our ancestors were given to low ceilings; and the great dining room, panelled with oak in large lofty panels, must be as old as William the Third's time, and is of fine proportion."The former deer park covered about 40 acres of finely wooded country. There is a story about a deer that wandered as far away as Cadbury Hill, and two poachers resolved to have some cheap venison. At night, taking a gun with them they made for the wooded slopes. One began beating the bushes and trees to rouse the deer and the other stood by with his gun.Suddenly an animal sprang from the undergrowth and the poacher fired. The animal fell and the poachers ran to take it - they had shot a donkey.The Smyth-Pigotts are linked with a legend of the Monmouth rebellion. Locking's farmer squire Plumley is said to have fought for Monmouth and to have escaped after the battle and made his way back to Locking.His wife hid him, but when soldiers came to search he was betrayed by the barking of his dog. He was hung by the King's men and his distraught wife committed suicide. With the dog in her arms she threw herself down a well. There is a well in the grounds of Locking Manor adjoining the Coach House Inn that is still pointed out as that of the legend.Group Captain Smyth-Pigott said that one of the Smyth-Pigott squires sided with the King, but that "his pal Plumley, the Squire of Locking, backed the wrong side and a price was put on his head and his property was seized."Old Pigott hid a Plumley son in a cave at Brockley Combe; when the storm blew over the Plumleys were forgiven but never got their property back. So they remained as our gamekeepers for over 200 years at Brockley."In the early years of the last century the Smyth-Pigotts, needing a more commodious house for the considerable entertaining they did, planned and built Brockley Hall, which stands at the Brockley corner on the Weston-Bristol road.Of this change the Rev W W Hardman in some notes penned nearly a 100 years ago said: "In the first quarter of this century the then living Squire quitted the Court and built the larger part of the mansion well-known as Brockley Hall, and which, with its classical portico, was quite in the fashionable style of Regency days. Inserted in the wall above the front door there is, however, a curious relic of real classical days - the sculptured front of an ancient slab - probably part of a sarcophagus - representing the nine Muses, one with a mirror in her hand and another with a lyre. This was no doubt brought from Italy."The Hall used to contain an interesting collection of paintings, ancient and modern, and the family portraits, which still remain, and used to hang around the long, low, but picturesque entrance hall, with a fireplace at each end, were from the brush of well-known artists such as Lely and Gainsborough."There were also ebony chairs belonging to the great Cardinal Wolsey, on silver castors, which came from his palace at Esher; there were also articles of furniture which had once been in the possession of the Royal martyr, Charles I, and others from Napoleon and Josephine's rural palace at Malmaison. There was also a library of 6,000 volumes."In the centre of the roof of Brockley Hall there was an octagonal dome fitted out as an observatory and having a fine telescope.Historian Rutter mentioned some of the paintings to be seen there in his day. They include works by Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Titian, Tintoretto, Murilllo, Rubens, Salvador Rosa, Holbein, Vandyke, Claude, and Thomas Barker. The last named, of Bath, was a family friend who did several pictures of them."Many of the Smyth-Pigott family portraits were presented to the Weston Borough Council some years ago. One of them was subsequently discovered to be a Gainsborough, and is now hung in the Mayor's Parlour. Others were sold many years earlier at Christie's, and they were found to include three hitherto unknown Gainsboroughs.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on January 13, 1967

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