Robert Stayner Holford (1808-1892) was colossally rich. He was reckoned to be the richest commoner in Britain. Before we look at the interesting ways that he set about spending his cash, maybe we should see where all that money came from.
We need to go back to 1665 when Richard Holford, a 29-year-old barrister of Lincoln’s Inn, married 16-year-old Sarah Crew who had inherited a small manor house and estate near Tetbury, in Gloucestershire. The couple stayed in London where Richard became Master of Chancery. Mary died young and childless. Richard then married Elizabeth Stayner and children followed.
In due course the estate passed to their son, Robert, and then to his son, Peter. The family had done well from having generations involved in the legal profession and they had acquired a lot of land in the London area. Peter was Governor of The New River Company that dug a canal to carry drinking water from aquifers on the family land into central London where pollution of the Thames meant that clean water was desperately needed. The company made various members of the family a very large fortune.
Peter’s son, George, was the first Holford to take a real interest in the Gloucestershire estate. He replaced the manor house with a much larger property in the Regency style.
Right, we’ve finally reached the central character of this piece because George had a son Robert Stayner Holford; let’s call him RS.
RS kept a family tradition going by graduating from Oxford University with a law degree. He was a well known man-about-town in London. He dressed as a dandy and was well respected as a man of culture with a passion for books, architecture and art.
In 1838, when RS was 30, a bachelor uncle died and left RS a fortune comprising £1m in cash and six estates. According to one website, rumour had it that in the cellar of one of the properties was a wheelbarrow full of gold.
His father died shortly afterwards and RS inherited more London properties, a further dollop of cash and that small Gloucestershire estate. The man with the artistic passions suddenly had the money to indulge those passions – and he did it without stinting. He amassed an astonishing collection of rare books, paintings and engravings. The paintings included work by Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Botticelli, Tintoretto, Titian and Poussin, but apart from established artists he had an eye for new talent and gave a lot of young artists a boost. He needed somewhere to house the books and artworks that he was acquiring.
Among the properties inherited from his uncle was one on Park Lane. RS demolished it and hired architect Louis Vulliamy to build a house that would break the existing moulds for London. The result was Dorchester House, now the site of the Dorchester Hotel, and when in London RS lived there, surrounded by his growing art collection.
RS didn’t marry until he was 46. His wife was 25-year-old Mary Anne Lindsay, a member of another art collecting family, so the collecting gathered pace. Although the Regency house built by his father in Gloucestershire was less than 40 years old, RS demolished it and built a new magnificent house to another Vulliamy design. It took seven years to build and was thought to be the most expensive private house in Victorian England. Together with Dorchester House it provided plenty of space for the collection.
Anyone who knows me, if they’ve got this far, will be wondering why on Earth I’m interested in an obscenely wealthy Victorian art collector – and others may be wondering why the post is dotted with pictures of autumn colour.
That small Gloucestershire estate is Westonbirt, now the home of the magnificent National Arboretum, and it’s all down to RS. He came into his wealth when the Victorian enthusiasm for collecting plants and trees was getting underway and he became one of the leading figures in the field (sorry). He financed collecting trips all over the world and threw himself into designing the gardens around the house and then the planting of the 600 acre estate.
RS laid out the arboretum criss-crossed with a network of avenues carefully designed to create stunning vistas, and they were made wide enough to allow RS to take his visitors on carriage rides (with picnics) through his creation.
It’s worth bearing in mind that whereas such a carriage ride now would be an absolute delight, we are talking about a time 150 years ago when most of the trees were tiny saplings. His friends wouldn’t have seen what we see today. They would have received an enthusiastic lecture from RS about what they would see if they returned many years into the future.
Other tree collectors tended to group together trees from the same part of the world, so there would be a Mediterranean grouping, and a Japanese grouping etc, but RS didn’t do that. His artistic eye meant that he was determined to plant in arrangements such that each tree would be displayed to its maximum effect taking into account its size, shape and the colour of the leaves and bark.
The front windows of Westonbirt House look directly at the Old Arboretum. It’s easy to imagine RS sitting there, gazing out at his creation, excitedly making plans and dreaming of how his creation would mature.
A road passes between the house and the arboretum. RS was so keen that his view shouldn’t be interrupted that he paid to have the road lowered to ensure that any passing carriages/carts/riders couldn’t be seen.
He also paid to have the local village moved half-a-mile down the road. It seems that the new cottages were so much better than the old ones that no one objected.
RS had three daughters, who all married into aristocratic familes, and a son, George (1860-1926). From an early age it was clear that George shared his father’s passion for trees and plants: in George’s case it included orchids, in which he became a renowned expert. The two worked together on the continuing development of the gardens and arboretum. The extension of the arboretum across the valley into Silk Wood was George’s scheme. There he created wide avenues with verges and glades planted with ornamental trees, but the time he had available was curtailed when he joined the Army.
From 1888-1892 he was equerry to Prince Albert, Duke of Clarence and members of the Royal Family were frequent visitors to Westonbirt. Albert died in 1892 and George became equerry to Prince Edward. That same year RS died; George inherited and took over responsibility for the house, gardens, arboretum and an extensive orchid collection. His equerry duties and his Army service (including in the Boer War) kept him away a lot, but he extended the arboretum planting and created an Italian garden and water garden at the house.
In 1912 Sir George married the recently widowed Susannah Menzies. He was 52, she was 48. They had known each other for years. King George V and Queen Mary were at the wedding.
Sir George continued developing the Westonbirt gardens and arboretum until he died in 1926. He had no children and nearly all of the estate passed to his nephew, the 4th Earl of Morley, son of Sir George’s sister, Margaret.
Westonbirt house was sold and in 1928 it became a boarding school for girls, which still exists. The magnificent buildings still stand in the 210 acre grounds. Occasionally, during the holidays, the school is open to the public and is well worth a visit.
Over the years the Earl sold off the art collection and the properties – all except for the arboretum. He retained ownership of it until he died in 1951 when it passed to his brother the 5th Earl. Not long afterwards the 5th Earl died and his son inherited. Two deaths in quick succession meant that the combined effect of death duties forced the sale of the arboretum to the Forestry Commission.
The FC has maintained it according to the principles established by RS, so the avenues and the approach to planting remain, but many new additions have been introduced. Do you remember the Wollemi pine? In 1994 a very small number of them were found in a narrow gorge in the 500,000-hectare Wollemi National Park in Australia. The tree dates back to the Jurassic period and was believed to be extinct. Westonbirt has a Wollemi pine grown from seed obtained from those Australian trees; a member of the monkey puzzle family, it’s an odd-looking thing.
The arboretum is a wonderful place to visit. There are 15,000 labelled trees, 17 miles of walks, five National Collections (maples, Japanese maples, limes, walnuts and bladdernut), an exhibition hall and an excellent restaurant.
The autumn colour photos were taken during a visit in October.
If you love trees, you’ll love Westonbirt and you’ll join me in raising a glass to Robert Stayner Holford.