Englefield House Case Study: The Wrightes Return (1770s)


Mould, London, England, c.1850, Boxwood, W.637:1=1989, V&A Museum.

During the 1770s Powlett Wright made many changes to Englefield. He added a neo-Classical frieze featuring a repeating lotus and anthemion pattern (which originated in Ancient Egypt and profoundly influenced the arts of Eurasia – see example left) to the drawing room.  At the same time, Wrighte also picked out a matching white marble chimneypiece and Corinthian pilasters for the dining room.[1] Such opulence was matched in other areas of the house. Powlett Wrighte’s executor accounts list payments of over £1,400 to the upholsterers Ince and Mayhew for two sets of chairs and settees.[2]

A few clues remain as to whom Powlett Wrighte might have employed as an architect. A certain ‘Mr Woods Surveyor’ was paid 10 guineas by Powlett Wrighte’s executors in January 1781. Jackson-Stops argues that Mr Woods was ‘most certainly’ the landscape gardener Richard Woods who came from Essex and who laid out the park at Gidea for Wrighte’s half brother Richard Benyon.[3] Another surveyor, Clement Read was paid £60 in November 1781.

In making these changes Powlett Wrighte accumulated many debts upon the estate. As John Habakkuk has argued, such house building often arose from motives of comfort, aesthetics, prestige or taste and was generally paid for not by capital or an enlarged income but by a landowner’s current income. In paying for house building using this method many families accumulated debt as costs became uncontrollable.[4] The debts incurred on the estate by Powlett Wrighte the Younger ultimately became a problem that the next owner of Englefield would have to solve.[5] Although Powlett Wrighte the Younger married in 1777, he died childless in 1779 and left Englefield to his uncle Nathaniel Wrighte, in accordance with his father’s will.[6]

At this point, according to Nathaniel Wrighte an ‘Inventory and Appraisements of the Household goods & Furniture of Englefield House’ was carried out by Higgs, while a ‘Catalogue of & Valuation of the Books in the Library’ was completed by Fletcher.[7] As a result of the appraisement the ‘Goods’ were valued at ‘160’ and the books at ‘144’. After having the books ‘clean’d and properly arranged’, Wrighte offered to send the books to Benyon, ‘if you would chuse to have them sent to you, please to let me know where and I will send them immediately’.[8]

Just one year later, in 1780, Nathaniel Wrighte wrote to Richard Benyon the Younger (1746-1797) expressing his concerns about the amount of debt owed on the Englefield estate.[9] By the summer of 1781, Nathaniel Wrighte had begun to take action – he was keen to let Englefield. Although renting remains understudied in country house literature, it was an important strategy by which houses could be retained within families. As this case study shows, however, renting simultaneously stabilised and destabilised the country house. Although in the long term it allowed Englefield to remain within the wider structure of the Wrighte and Benyon families, in the short term renting resulted in a change of character for the house as a new occupier inhabited it. Nathaniel Wrighte and Richard Benyon were alert to the possibility of destabilisation, which renting prompted and worked hard to find a ‘suitable’ tenant.

Initially Wrighte courteously offered Richard Benyon first refusal on the estate, which Benyon turned down despite his hopes that the estate would remain in the family. In a letter to Wrighte, Benyon described how he felt ‘much obliged to you for your attention in giving me the first offer, which numberless reasons tender it absolutely impossible for me to accept. I hope however that your resolution is not unalterably fixed & that you will still pass many happy years there.’[10] Wrighte was determined, however, and after careful consideration felt that ‘I am to find myself obliged to make a temporary resignation of it, but so it must be, for after having been now all most two years in possession of this Estate, I am fully convinced, that the unavoidable outgoings and deductions are greater than any Income can support’.[11]

Almost three weeks later, Wrighte wrote to Benyon again. He valued Englefield highly and estimated that the rent should be four hundred guineas per annum, ‘for the use of nearly two thousand Pounds worth of furniture & Books, a hundred acres of exceeding rich lands, a Park well stocked with Deer a Pond or rather Lake abounding with the most excellent Fish, the sporting Liberties of three good Manors, cannot be thought one farthing too much’.[12] Wrighte hoped that Benyon would be able to recommend some potential tenants, ‘such a one as you yourself may approve of’.[13]

It is difficult to know who Richard Benyon would have recommended to Wrighte – perhaps one of his mother’s family or one of his father’s East India Company connections. Wrighte though clearly felt that Benyon was well-connected enough to recommend someone suitable. From Benyon’s correspondence it seems that he was keen for a certain Mr D’Oyly to take Englefield.[14] But after making enquiries through Mr Southouse, he found that Mr D’Oyly had already taken Ware Park in Hertfordshire.[15] By December 1781, Mr Wrighte had found a tenant, although he had been persuaded to let it for three rather than four hundred guineas.[16] The new tenant of Englefield House was the widow of Lord Robert Clive – Lady Margaret Clive (1735-1817).

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[1] Gervase Jackson-Stops, ‘Englefield House, Berkshire II’, Country Life, March 5 1981, pp. 560-61.

[2] Jackson-Stops, ‘Englefield House, Berkshire II’, p. 561.

[3] Ibid., p. 562.

[4] John Habakkuk, Marriage, Debt, and the Estates System: English Landownership 1650-1950 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), pp. 285-289.

[5] For more on the significance of debt and credit in modern England see Margot Finn, The Character of Credit: Personal Debt in English Culture, 1740-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[6] The National Archives, Powlett Wrighte of Englefield (1741), PROB 11/708 (106/114).

[7] Berkshire Record Office, Benyon Papers, Letter from Nathaniel Wrighte, Tidmarsh to Richard Benyon, Grosvenor Square, 27 September 1779, D/EBy/C1.

[8] Benyon Papers, Letter from Nathaniel Wrighte, Tidmarsh to Richard Benyon, Grosvenor Square, 27 September 1779, D/EBy/C1.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Berkshire Record Office, Benyon Papers, Letter from Richard Benyon to Nathaniel Wrighte, 29 June 1781, D/EBy/C3.

[11] Berkshire Record Office, Benyon Papers, Letter from Nathaniel Wrighte, Englefield House to Richard Benyon, Gidea Hall, 3 July 1781, D/EBy/C3. For more on Englefield in debt see Gervase Jackson-Stops, ‘Englefield House, Berkshire – II’, Country Life, March 5 1981, p. 562.

[12] Berkshire Record Office, Benyon Papers, Letter from Nathaniel Wrighte, Chicklade to Richard Benyon, 21 July 1781, D/EBy/C3.

[13] Benyon Papers, Letter from Nathaniel Wrighte, Chicklade to Richard Benyon, 21 July 1781, D/EBy/C3.

[14] This is not Charles D’Oyly (1781-1845) or his father Baron Sir John Hedley D’Oyly as he did not return to England from India with his family until 1785.

[15] Berkshire Record Office, Benyon Papers, Letter from Mr Southouse, Bridge Lane, Blackfriars to Richard Benyon, 9 August 1781, D/EBy/C3.

[16] Berkshire Record Office. Benyon Papers, Letter from Nathaniel Wrighte at Mr Fisker’s, Galloway’s Buildings to Richard Benyon, 19 December 1781, D/EBy/C3.

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