Englefield House Case Study: The Benyon Legacy (1796-1854)

Englefield Constable

Englefield House by John Constable, c.1832.

Richard Benyon the Younger died in 1796, leaving his son Richard Benyon (1770-1854) to inherit. On 27 September 1797, a year after his father’s death and inheriting Englefield, Richard Benyon married Elizabeth Sykes, only daughter of Sir Francis Sykes of Basildon Park. Upon this marriage Englefield’s connection with the East India Company grew stronger still. At the same time, Benyon’s connections to Berkshire and the English establishment became stronger too.

In An Open Elite? Lawrence and Jeanne C. Fawtier Stone argue that in the period between 1540 and 1880 the elite were not as open as has previously been assumed. They assert that ‘Only a very small handful of very rich merchants succeeded in buying their way into the elite, and by the second generation they were fully assimilated’.[1] In contrast to this, this case study demonstrates that ‘rich merchants’ did not necessarily buy but could in fact marry into the elite. Moreover, in this case it took a third generation to become assimilated and even then such assimilation was not necessarily ‘full’. Richard Benyon assimilated himself into the elite by focusing on parliament, local civic responsibilities and building. Nevertheless in his marriage and in his building schemes he revealed his other connections to the East India Company – he continued to be part of local, national and global worlds.

In 1802, Richard Benyon became MP for Pontefract and remained in his seat until 1806. He may have been helped to this position by his father-in-law Sir Francis Sykes who had connections to Pontefract both through his upbringing in Yorkshire and his marriage to Elizabeth Monckton, daughter of Viscount Gallway. In the same year, Benyon sold Gidea Hall to Alexander Black and Englefield became the principal family seat.[2] In the following two parliaments, from 1806 to 1812, Benyon acted as MP for Wallingford. He continued to focus his attentions on Berkshire by becoming Justice of the Peace, Deputy Lieutenant of Berkshire and High Sheriff of Berkshire. From 1806 onwards, Benyon also began making changes to Englefield.[3]

Although the alterations were relatively simple, Benyon employed Sir John Soane to complete the designs.[4] One alteration was particularly simple – they added roof-timbers above the long gallery. The second alteration, however, was more complex as Benyon added an elevation to the east front. Gervase Jackson-Stops argues that this change suggests that they intended to remove the eighteenth-century Venetian windows on the south side and the cupolas to the towers and insert a new door and windows.[5] Jackson-Stops also suggests that the construction of the elevation might have been connected with the removal of ‘Paulet Wrighte’s offices’ on the east front.

In 1814 Benyon was in the fortunate position of acquiring an extensive inheritance through his connections to the Powlett Wrighte family and rapidly adopted the Powlett Wrighte name. Eight years later, Richard Benyon Powlett Wrighte lost his wife Elizabeth. In that same year 1822, he also gained a fortune and became Richard Benyon de Beauvoir.  He inherited the fortune of his de Beauvoir cousin, who owned land in Hackney and used it to begin another improvement campaign at Englefield.[6] Initially Benyon de Beauvoir approached architect Thomas Hopper who had previously worked on Penrhyn Castle and Leigh Court and restyled Purley Hall between 1818 and 1820. In the earliest surviving letter to Hopper, Benyon de Beauvoir included a pencil sketch of the south-east corner of the house – he outlined the addition of two bay windows, which would light the room and rooms above it.[7] In response to Benyon de Beauvoir’s desire for more light Hopper added windows to the dining room side that replicated the proportions and decorations of the central porch bay. Hopper also changed the silhouette of the house by adding a series of tall, square turrets, many of which disguised chimney stacks. He also made some internal alterations, for instance the ceilings of the library and dining room even though the latter incorporates earlier plasterwork. These alterations carried on throughout the decade. Benyon de Beauvoir finally made his last payment to Hopper in 1829.[8] By around 1832 Benyon de Beauvoir was ready for others to see Englefield and decided to commission John Constable to paint the house. On gaining this commission, Constable went on to create an almost Gothic vision of Englefield (shown above). In doing so, Benyon de Beauvoir marked out his dual identity. As the owner of a financially buoyant family estate, well-established in national politics and the local community, Benyon de Beauvoir had assimilated into the British establishment. At the same time, his connections to the East India Company remained and were perhaps expressed through his Gothic taste. Moreover, Constable’s vision reflected not only the exterior character of the house but also the taste found within it.

Very little of the furnishings bought by Richard Benyon de Beauvoir survive, but when Jackson-Stops researched the house in 1981 he found a battlemented state bed supplied in 1833 by the upholsterers Allaway and Davis. It was originally hung with blue and silver brocade, the tester “trimmed with 52 Blue silk Gothic shape ornaments.’[9] By this point the Gothic has emerged as a distinct taste within the house. [During the project we hope to examine further what appears to be a link between East India Company families and the Gothic taste.]

Benyon essex housesIn 1849 Richard Benyon de Beauvoir purchased South Ockenden Hall in Essex (see map). The property remained in the family until 1937 when it was sold along with the family’s other Essex properties.[10] Five years later, in 1854, Richard Benyon de Beauvoir died and Englefield passed to his nephew Richard Fellowes, second son of his sister Emma, on condition that he took the name Benyon. Richard Benyon (formerly Fellowes) died in 1897 and was succeeded by his nephew, James H. Fellowes, later Benyon (d. 1935).[11] After James H. Benyon’s death in 1935, his son Henry was forced to sell North Ockenden, together with the other Benyon estates in Essex, in 1937 to pay for death duties.[12] Nevertheless, Englefield remained in the Benyon family and does so today.

Englefield’s Elizabethan facade is just that. By employing a social history approach to country house history and focusing on the processes which shaped the house its dynamism is revealed. Processes such as inheritance, marriage and renting brought new occupiers to its door. Amongst those new occupiers Richard Benyon, Lady Clive and Elizabeth Sykes brought their East India Company connections with them. Englefield took its due part in the English Hindostaan not necessarily because its exterior or interior changed but rather because the people connected to it changed its character. During this time Englefield was made by the marriages, rental agreement and bequests that brought new people within its rooms and halls.

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[1] Lawrence Stone & Jeanne C. Fawtier Stone. An Open Elite? England 1540-1880. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 283.

[2] Thanks to Georgina Green for these references. Victoria County History of Essex, Vol. VII, p. 67-69.

[3] Jackson-Stops, ‘Englefield House, Berkshire II’, p. 565.

[4] Gervase Jackson-Stops notes that two of Sir John Soanes drawings remain in the family papers.

[5] Jackson-Stops, ‘Englefield House, Berkshire II’, p. 565.

[6] Williams, The Nabobs of Berkshire, p. 173; Jackson-Stops, ‘Englefield House, Berkshire II’, p. 565.

[7] Jackson-Stops, ‘Englefield House, Berkshire II’, p. 565.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Thanks to Georgina Green for this reference. Victoria County History of Essex, Vol. VII, p. 119.

[11] Web image not available – but portrait in NPG – Richard Benyon (Richard Fellowes), by William Henry Southwell, albumen carte-de-visite, 1860s).

[12] Thanks to Georgina Green for this reference. Victoria County History of Essex, Vol. VII (1978), p. 112.