A new book by Dr Cynthia Gamble reveals the secrets of the family who made their home at Much Wenlock’s ancient country house, which was built around 1500 for the prior of the adjacent priory, now operated by English Heritage. Wenlock Abbey 1857-1919; A Shropshire Country House and the Milnes Gaskell Family explores the Abbey’s popularity with the literati of the time – and its connections to a very modern phenomenon.
The phenomenal success of the popular TV series Downton Abbey has inspired a new interest in English country house life. What you may not know is that the town of Much Wenlock, with historic Wenlock Abbey nestling on its edge, boasts a direct link to the fictional stately home that so captured the nation’s imagination. Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell, the Abbey’s aristocratic chatelaine from 1876 until 1935, was the favourite niece of the fourth Earl of Carnarvon who lived at Highclere Castle, near Newbury in Berkshire, where Downton Abbey was filmed. Lady Catherine was also the cousin of the fifth Earl of Carnarvon who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings and died soon after on 5 April 1923, subsequent to a severe mosquito bite. This may just have been bad luck, but it contributed to the legend of ‘the curse of Tutankhamun’.
Lady Catherine Wallop, the alluring daughter of the fifth Earl of Portsmouth, married Charles Milnes Gaskell, the owner of Wenlock Abbey and estate, on her twentieth birthday, 7 December 1876. Charles was an experienced man about town and somewhat sceptical about women, for he had had a turbulent secret love affair with Lady Mary Hervey, who then jilted him on the eve of their marriage. This marriage manqué, however, turned out to be a lucky escape, for Charles found great happiness with Lady Catherine.
A house transformed
Charles and Lady Catherine transformed Wenlock Abbey. They created a unique set of gardens with famous topiaries, and were hosts to most unconventional house parties that the American socialite Marian Adams described as ‘a gay houseful’. Guests included the writers Henry James and Thomas Hardy, both of whom were admirers of Lady Catherine and her ‘round, luminous eyes’, as Hardy described them. Hardy and Catherine, herself an aspiring writer, wandered over Wenlock Edge together, exchanging intimate confidences. Princess Alice, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, took tea in the Great Hall and strolled among the rose beds. Male guests acted in drag in the chapter house; others recreated medieval scenes, with Mrs Mary Milnes Gaskell (Charles’s mother) as Abbess.
Drama unfolded within the family with Charles’s refusal of a peerage, which was followed by the stunning discovery of the quasi-disinheritance of the couple’s son, Evelyn. The First World War had a terrible effect on Evelyn, leaving her shell-shocked, and the Abbey’s prospects looked uncertain following the death of Charles at Thornes House, Wakefield, and the much-delayed marriage of the couple’s daughter Mary to Brigadier General Ward. The future of Wenlock Abbey was however made secure, for Lady Catherine, who died in 1935, placed the property safely in the hands of Mrs Ward, sole inheritor.
Memories of the Abbey
William Motley, the great-great-grandson of Charles and Lady Catherine, spent his childhood at Wenlock Abbey and recalls some of his experiences, saying, “I loved the dusty atmosphere, the cobwebbed boxes of letters, and family portraits. I had great fun there – the big rooms upstairs had ping pong and billiard tables where we played billiard fives so furiously that the medieval windows had to be shuttered to protect the glass! It was ideal for hide-and-seek, too, with all those hidden doors and passages.”
Wenlock Abbey 1857-1919; A Shropshire Country House and the Milnes Gaskell Family(£18.99) is published by Much Wenlock-based Ellingham Press (ellinghampress.co.uk). The book is available online, at Wenlock Books in Much Wenlock High Street, and at selected book shops. Author Cynthia Gamble was born in Much Wenlock and went to school in Morville and Bridgnorth. She now lives in London – though she visits the area regularly.
To find out more about Cynthia and her latest book, visit cynthiagamble.co.uk.
Wenlock Abbey is not open to the public, but to find out about visiting times at Wenlock Priory, visit english-heritage.org.uk or call 01952 727466.
Find your WW1 family
If you’ve been inspired by the story of the Milnes Gaskells to find out more about your own ancestry, especially during the Great War, there are several groups in the local area that can help you fill in the gaps in your family tree.
Drop-in sessions are held at Southwater Library every Thursday from 10.30-12.30pm, with volunteers on hand to help people trace their WWI ancestors using free library resources such as Ancestry and British Newspaper archive.
WWI ancestry taster sessions will take place at Madeley Library on Wednesday 20 January from 10.30am to 12.30pm (call 01952 382950 or email firstname.lastname@example.org) and Newport Library on 18 February from 10.30am to 12.30pm (call 01952 382965 or email email@example.com).
These provide an introduction to using the military records on Ancestry to get people started on their own WW1 history. Places are free but you must book in advance.