The Vernons of Hanbury Hall
The Vernons of Hanbury trace their origins to the Vernons of Whatcroft, a junior branch of the Vernon Barons of nearby Shipbrook in Cheshire. The first Baron Shipbrook was Richard de Vernon, who came with William the Conqueror from a town of that name in Normandy, and fought at the Battle of Hastings. Unfortunately there is a gap in the surviving Vernon genealogy between the Whatcroft Vernons and a family that appeared in Newcastle under Lyme in the sixteenth century, a descendant of which was Randle Vernon of Audley (1517-79), a village not far from Newcastle under Lyme.
Randle had eight children, two of whom became clergymen. The youngest, Edward, seems to have been curate of Hanbury before becoming Rector of Upton Snodsbury, and this probably led to his brother Richard following him as curate and, after the death of the rector William Tomlinson in 1580, the new rector. This was a fortunate appointment for Richard, as the Hanbury rectory was one of the best endowed in the county, with a very good income from tithes. Rev Richard Vernon (1549-1628) married Frances Wylde, and they seem to have been endowed with the house and Wylde family land at Astwood, Hanbury and in Dodderhill. A fine timber framed wing at Astwood has been dated to 1584, just before Richard and Frances’s wedding, and it was there rather than at the rectory house that they brought up their 13 children.
By the time Richard died in 1628 he had acquired substantial estates in Hanbury and Dodderhill, and his eldest son Edward (1586-1666) was able to build on these by acquiring in 1630 the manor and advowson of Hanbury. But things became difficult in the civil war, as Edward was fined by both sides, and there is some evidence that he may not have enjoyed very good relations with his eldest son Richard (1615-79), who had Parliamentary sympathies.
Edward probably lived in Spernal Hall, the building on the site of the later Hanbury Hall, and on his death Richard took up residence at Astwood, and John, one of Edward’s younger sons, followed his father in Spernal Hall. Richard had studied in the Middle Temple and may have practised as a barrister, and he was followed there as a pupil by his eldest son Thomas (1654-1721). Thomas married, in the year after his father died, Mary the daughter of Sir Anthony Keck, a leading chancery lawyer and briefly Lord Chancellor, and this no doubt helped his legal career, which soon blossomed. His fee income became substantial, and when his uncle John died in 1692 in Spernal Hall, Thomas took over and started a rebuilding campaign that eventually led to the present Hanbury Hall, which was probably finished in 1705, and which was decorated in 1710 by Sir James Thornhill.
Thomas’s success as a barrister enabled him to substantially increase his family’s estates, which by his death in 1721 amounted to around 7,000 acres, giving an income of over £5,000 a year, and included land in Hanbury, Dodderhill and Feckenham in Worcestershire and further estates in Warwickshire, Shropshire and Lincolnshire. Thomas and Mary had no children, and in his will he made his second cousin Bowater Vernon (1683-1735) his heir. However, there was a dispute over his will, as his closest relation was his sister Elizabeth, whose husband Roger Acherley, an unsuccessful lawyer, claimed he should be a substantial beneficiary. Acherley managed to protract the case for several years, but was unsuccessful, and Bowater continued to enjoy the fruits of his inheritance, some of which he spent on a magnificent set of plans of his estates by the Dougharty family of map makers of Worcester, still preserved in the Worcester Record Office.
Bowater divided his time between his London home in New Bond Street, Mayfair, and Holt Castle in Worcestershire during the life of Thomas’s widow Mary, who continued to live at Hanbury Hall until her death in 1733. At last back in Hanbury Hall, only two years later Bowater himself died from a stroke, leaving a son and a daughter. His son Thomas (1724-71) inherited the estate, and when only 22 served as MP for the City of Worcester for 15 years. He married Emma Cornewall, a lady 13 years older than himself, and probably as a result only had two children, one of whom died young. His only surviving child was Emma (1754-1818), who inherited when her father died, like his father, from a stroke when only 47, and after he died was brought up mainly in New Bond Street by her mother.
In London Emma met a young newly elected MP, whom in 1776 she married in the fashionable Mayfair church of St George’s Hanover Square. He was Henry Cecil (1754-1804), who was nephew and heir apparent to Brownlow Cecil, 9th Earl of Exeter of Burghley House, who had no children. Henry was a great improver, and on taking up residence at Hanbury Hall substantially altered the interior by enlarging the rooms, undertook exchanges of land with the Bearcrofts and others to consolidate the Vernon estates and enclose the remaining open fields, and sponsored the Hanbury Enclosure Act (1781) which enclosed Hanbury and Ditchford Bank Commons.
Emma and Henry only had one child, who died only a few weeks old. Then soon after his appointment in 1785 Emma fell in love with the new curate, Rev William Sneyd, and eventually confessed this to her unsuspecting husband in June 1789. After a period of emotional turmoil Emma and William eloped together, leaving Henry Cecil alone in Hanbury Hall. He quickly decided he had no further interest in Hanbury, shut up the Hall and his London home, and, under an assumed name, went to live in a remote Shropshire village, leaving his friend the rector, Rev William Burslem, to pay off his considerable debts from the rental income. The following year the complete contents of Hanbury Hall were sold in a sale lasting nine days.
Henry eventually arranged to divorce Emma by Act of Parliament in 1791, after which Emma and William married. The couple went to live in Lisbon as William was in poor health, but he died there in 1793, and Emma returned to England. There in 1795 she took as her third husband John Phillips, but they were not able to return to Hanbury Hall till 1804 when Henry Cecil, by now 1st Marquis of Exeter and who had retained a life interest in the estate, died. Between 1789 and 1804 the estate had much deteriorated, and many of the farms had to be repaired or rebuilt by Emma and John Phillips after 1804. Emma died in Hanbury Hall in 1818, leaving her second cousin Thomas Shrawley Vernon as ultimate heir to the estates after the death of John Phillips. Probably rather to the annoyance of Thomas Shrawley Vernon John Phillips decided to remain in Hanbury Hall, and indeed took a second wife and had two daughters there before finally leaving in 1829. By this time Thomas Shrawley Vernon had died, and at last his eldest son, Thomas Tayler Vernon, was able to occupy the family seat for the first time for 40 years.
In 1831 Thomas Tayler Vernon married Jessie, the sister-in-law of his brother, Rev William, the rector of Hanbury, and had two boys, Thomas Bowater (1832-1859) and Harry Foley (1834-1920). But only a year after the birth of Harry, Thomas Tayler Vernon died. His widow Jessie married a second time in 1840, but this marriage lasted less than a year before she too died, leaving the two small boys to be brought up by their uncle George Croft Vernon.
Thomas Bowater was now the head of the family, and after going to Oxford lived the life of a rich young bachelor, making frequent shopping trips to London, buying things for himself and the Hall. But before he had a chance to marry Thomas Bowater fell ill and died in 1859, leaving his younger brother Harry his heir. In 1861 Harry married Lady Georgina Baillie-Hamilton, the youngest daughter of the 10th Earl of Haddington. The same year Harry was returned as a Liberal MP for East Worcestershire, but in 1868 he decided not to stand again, concentrating on bringing up his young family and managing the estates. At this stage Harry was still master of about 7,000 acres, the fifth largest landowner in Worcestershire, but in 1880 he was badly affected by the agricultural depression, which lasted until the outbreak of war in 1914. Tenants couldn’t pay their rents and arrears built up, vacant farms remained unset, and the estate income was much reduced. Financial pressure led to new mortgages being raised and some land sales took place, followed in 1919 by the sale of the outlying portions of the estates, including land in Dodderhill
Sir Harry (he had been awarded a baronetcy by Gladstone in 1885) died in February 1920, at which point his elder and only surviving son George was travelling to Jamaica for a winter holiday. George had spent most of his younger years abroad in Argentina and South Africa, and must have been something of a stranger when he occupied Hanbury Hall early in 1920. In 1905 he had married Doris Allan, a daughter of a wealthy ship owner, but the marriage was not successful and it is said that Sir George had a wandering eye. In 1930 he took up with Ruth Powick (1910-1980), a maid in Hanbury Hall, Lady Doris left to live with her mother, and Sir George and Ruth spent the 1930s together in Hanbury Hall.
The 1930s was another period of agricultural depression, and Sir George’s income from the reduced estates was quite modest, and in that period he was active in the anti-tithe movement, at one point refusing to pay the tithes on part of his estate. He was also active as a Droitwich magistrate, being well known for his strong views on various subjects, and throughout the ’30s continued to winter abroad. In the winter of 1939-40, despite being by now over 70 and in poor health, he went as usual to Jamaica, but unusually went alone. When he returned in May 1940 Europe was engulfed in war, and he suffered badly from a heart condition. On 14 June 1940 he decided to ‘take the short cut’ as he wrote in his brief suicide note, and shot himself in Hanbury Hall.
Ruth Vernon (she had by his time changed her name by deed, but they had not married as Lady Doris was against divorce) had then to leave Hanbury Hall, and Lady Doris, who had lived in London in the 1930s, came to reoccupy the Hall, remaining there till her death in 1962. Meanwhile it was agreed between her and Ruth, who was Sir George’s general heir, that on her death The National Trust would take possession of the Hall, park and small area outside, although Ruth, who lived the remainder of her life in Shrawley Woodhouse, inherited the remainder of the estate. Substantial repairs were made to Hanbury Hall after The National Trust took it over, and for a time it was let to tenants with restricted opening times. But after about 10 years a manager was appointed and the Hall made more interesting to the general public, and today it is a popular place to visit.
This article has been contributed by Andrew Harris