Warfield Park Case Study: A New Generation

Coopers Hill

Cooper’s Hill, which in 1970 became the Royal Indian Engineering College and is now part of Brunel University’s Runnymede Campus.

In 1819, when John and Margaret Benn-Walsh’s son John came of age, John Walsh’s will ensured that he inherited all the properties that John and Margaret had inherited in 1795. Nevertheless, it seems that the family continued to live at Warfield until 1825. In that year Margaret’s husband John Benn-Walsh died after suffering a series of strokes. Six months later Margaret’s son John married and Margaret, now a dowager, began to look for a new country house. In his memoir John described how it was his wish that his mother should continue to live at Warfield as ‘its Mistress’ and that he and his wife should live at the London house on Upper Harley Street. His mother, however, ‘would not hear of such an arrangement’ and resolved to find another house in the vicinity of Warfield.[1]

Finding a suitable country house near Warfield was not easy and Margaret increasingly found herself travelling at speed across the country in order to secure first refusal on a particular house. A letter written by Margaret in August 1826 recounts how she had spent her summer poring over various newspapers for house advertisements. At length she was surprised to see an advertisement for Cooper’s Hill – ‘ready furnished in capital letters!’ [2]  Although situated out of the immediate range of Warfield, Margaret decided that Cooper’s Hill was an ideal house and so she ‘instantly determined to set off & endeavour to obtain it.’ Accompanied by her maid, Margaret took the post from Malvern, slept at Tewkesbury and finally arrived in Harley Street. Before ten the next morning she presented herself at the house agent for Cooper’s Hill and found that three applications had already been made for the property.[3] Seeing that she had no time to lose, she directly travelled to Cooper’s Hill with her maid. The house was offered for six hundred pounds per year and could only be rented until February 1828. After seeing the property, Margaret considered its advantages and disadvantages at length. As she did not require the house for six months and because the price of the lease was so high she was reluctant to agree. Nevertheless, she felt that by living at Cooper’s Hill she would be well placed to find another property in the area without ‘scampering 150 miles to catch a place’.[4] At the same time although the rooms were ‘low’, she liked the location of Cooper’s Hill, describing is as ‘high’, ‘dry’, ‘healthy’ and ‘shady’. For Margaret it was ‘a most pleasing residence’. [5] In the end, however, her negotiations for Cooper’s Hill fell through and she resorted again to poring over advertisements, which she then neatly noted down in the back of her diary.[6] Eventually Margaret secured the residence of Hurst Lodge from Mr Elliott. She planned to lease Hurst Lodge for a short time until the tenants of Binfield died, at which point she would lease Binfield from Mr Elliott.[7]


Hurst Lodge, Berkshire

Around six miles from Warfield, Hurst Lodge had been bought by Robert Palmer in 1742. By 1796 the Palmer family’s main residence became Holme Park in Sonning and it seems likely that the house was then rented out, possibly to the Elliott family. Margaret recorded some of her responses to the experience of renting Hurst Lodge in her diary. These brief notes suggest some of the anxieties endured by widows on removal from the main family home. She described how in early October 1827 her servants had worked hard to clean and tidy Hurst Lodge, removing ‘the immense confusion occasioned by Mr Elliott’s long continuance’ there. By Friday 11 October when Margaret finally took up residence in the house, ‘everything was put in its place’. Despite the servants’ hard work, despite everything being put in place, when Margaret ventured into the new home she could not ‘conquer the melancholy that seized’ her on ‘taking possession of a new home!’ Margaret experienced grief for all that she had lost. For Margaret that past was ‘still so vivid’ in her remembrance ‘it seemed like reality’.[8] The next day Margaret continued to feel downcast by her new surroundings. Although she conceded that ‘the pleasure ground is pretty & the house comfortable’ it gave her ‘very little pleasure’. She described how she ‘regretted that [she] had taken it, & yet condemned [her]self for any discontent’.[9] Margaret’s wealth protected her from the trials of dependence that many women experienced. Nevertheless, the independence that her wealth bought her also guaranteed her removal from a home that contained multiple meanings and pleasures.[10]

[Could anyone help locate an image of Binfield Park? Originally built in 1775 by Onesiphorus Elliot, during the Second World War the house became a military hospital. It then became a National Health Service Residential Home, before recently being turned into luxury apartments.]

Margaret continued to live at Hurst Lodge until the summer 1831 when she finally took up the lease of Binfield. It seems likely that Margaret rented Binfield Park from a descendant of the original builder of the property – Onesiphorus Elliot – who constructed the house in 1775. Her move to Binfield was a happy one. Her son John felt that his mother was much happier at Binfield because her happiness was so dependent on her proximity to him. After his father’s death in 1825, John felt that ‘the interest, the consolation, the enjoyment’ of his mother’s remaining years ‘were all centred’ in him.[11] Nevertheless, in the memoir he also writes at length about the interiors of Binfield and the time and money that Margaret invested in improving them. His lengthy descriptions of her improvement projects suggests that as with Warfield, Margaret invested in this house and worked hard to secure her own comfort and that of her fellow inhabitants within it.

Her daughter Elizabeth, grandchildren, their governess and the servants all lived in Binfield with Margaret. John describes how ‘Binfield Park was a large, handsome, commodious, well built mansion’ with ‘ample accommodation’.[12] The rooms were large and several showrooms were included in the layout. The drawing room and dining parlour were both ‘handsome moderate sized rooms, about thirty feet long’. On the first floor of the house, Margaret created a suite of rooms for herself, which included a spacious sitting room. Lined with book cases, the sitting room existed as a personal space in which surrounded by her ‘Books, papers and all her little personal belongings’ Margaret could read and study.[13]

Before Margaret began to inhabit the house with her family she had the whole property re-painted and papered. Like Warfield before it, Binfield benefitted from the skills of a particular carpenter – this time a certain ‘Morris’ who worked closely with Margaret to enact the various repairs and improvements she wanted to take place.[14] In the memoir John, as ever, uses his description of the project to emphasise his mother’s superiority and skill. In this case he describes her success by stressing how she implemented change at relatively little expense through tight management of the process. He describes how she ‘managed all this with so much calculation, & economy’. Here Margaret embodies the female ideal explored by Vickery. Yet the prudent economy employed by Margaret and commended by her son also suggests at Margaret’s vunerable financial position and her awareness of it. Moved out of her home – the home – Margaret remains mobile until she is able to rent a house on the periphery of the grounds. John’s claim that improving Binfield was ‘a great amusement & occupation to her’ needs to be treated lightly. His assertion that ‘Warfield was to her another home always in reach’ is perhaps more telling.[15]

John’s claim on Warfield after the death of his father and his marriage in 1825, precipitated Margaret’s peripatetic lifestyle and her removal from a house to which she was clearly very attached. It might be assumed that John’s very intimate relationship with his mother (‘The word reserve was unknown between us’[16]) assured that he would also assume a deep attachment to Warfield. Throughout the memoir Benn Walsh reaffirms the importance Margaret placed on Warfield – ‘[Margaret] loved Warfield, she had known it all her life, it had been the home in such measure, of her childhood.’[17] Yet before Margaret’s death on 29 September 1836, John expressed very little attachment to the house.   After her death, however, he established a much stronger relationship to the house and all that it represented about his mother.

On her death John wanted to be at Warfield. In his diary he described how ‘During my whole life I never was more disposed to remain quietly at Warfield.’ While there he began to enter into activities which he had previously enjoyed with his mother. He set to pruning and thinning the trees in the ground and tries to complete little improvements that Margaret ‘would have liked, or such as she had planned’.[18] These activities related to his earlier experiences, such as when he returned from school one Easter vacation and helped his mother to thin the trees in the shrubbery. He describes how he ‘was them about eleven or twelve, tall & strong enough to wield my Hatchet with very…desirable effect’.[19]  On Margaret’s death her son John imbued the house with new meaning. Rather than his childhood home, Warfield became important for its connection to Margaret and the sense of belonging he associated with her. Unlike for earlier generations who were displaced from the house and thus linked it to narratives of England, home and belonging, for John the house was so established in the family it could appropriate much more personal associations.


When writing a memoir of his mother’s life in the 1850s John Benn Walsh used the different houses she inhabited to organise her story. The structure he employed underlines the importance that Margaret Benn Walsh placed on the homes she lived in and the significance that the Walsh family as a whole placed on houses. More particularly, it is country houses that Benn Walsh repeatedly referred to in his account. It was these houses that mattered most and to which his family gave meaning.

Towards the middle of memoir Benn Walsh further extended the significance of the country house by using it as frame through which to examine the difference in his parents’ characters. He describes how the ‘difference in their characters was perceptible in the manner each followed what was a favourite object with both, the improvement of Warfield’.[20] His mother wanted to create a ‘handsome park like residence’ full of beauty, while his father fostered a husbandry approach, ‘always endeavouring to improve the soil, to enclose & reclaim the commons, to add to the productive value of the property.’[21] For the Walsh family the country house and particularly Warfield became the central means of understanding who they were and to what and where they belonged. Earlier generations had longed for not necessarily a ‘home’ in England, but rather a space ‘England’, and used it to ground their Indian experiences. In contrast later generations focused upon a particular place, Warfield, which became synonymous with home, England and belonging. The importance that this particular EIC family placed on the country house demonstrates how imperial agents, and the longings they experienced and gratified, reified the country house in a new way as a thing which could denote belonging. In this family, their native land was increasingly conflated with the country house, singling it out as an important component of a specifically ‘English’ landscape.

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[1] National Library of Wales, Ormathwaite Papers, Memoir of Margaret Benn Walsh, FE5/5, p. 45.

[2] Memoir of Margaret Benn Walsh, FE5/5, p. 71.

[3] Ibid., p. 75.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] National Library of Wales, Ormathwaite Papers, Margaret Walsh Diary, 1827.

[7] Memoir of Margaret Benn Walsh, FE5/5, p. 77.

[8] National Library of Wales, Ormathwaite Papers, Margaret Walsh Diary, Friday 11 October 1827, p. 69.

[9] National Library of Wales, Ormathwaite Papers, Margaret Walsh Diary, Saturday 12 October 1827, p. 69.

[10] For more on the trials of dependence that unmarried women and wives experienced see Amanda Vickery, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 184-206.

[11] Memoir of Margaret Benn Walsh, FE5/5, p. 25.

[12] Ibid., p. 127.

[13] Ibid., p. 129.

[14] Ibid., p. 131.

[15] Ibid., p. 133.

[16] National Library of Wales, Ormathwaite Papers, Memoir of Margaret Benn Walsh, FE5/4, p. 35.

[17] National Library of Wales, Ormathwaite Papers, Memoir of Margaret Benn Walsh, FE5/3, p. 163.

[18] National Library of Wales, Diary of Sir John Benn Walsh, 1st Lord Ormathwaite, May-November 1836, FG1/9, p. 162.

[19] Memoir of Margaret Benn Walsh, FE5/4, p. 115.

[20] Memoir of Margaret Benn Walsh, FE5/3, p. 175.

[21] Ibid.