The Brandsby Estate in 1890

by Hugh Fairfax-Cholmeley (1916)

Brandsby in the year 1889 was a very different place from what it is now, twenty-six years after I succeeded my father.  To me, and to all of us who had been brought up there, it was the ideal country home, the most perfect English country, the most desirable home in the world.  Apart from the prejudice natural to us who had lived there through the best part of our childhood, it certainly had a charm and fascination for all who came to visit it, and I have always noticed that once a person took up his abode in Brandsby he left it most regretfully.  

The Hall was built in 1745 by my great, great grandfather, Francis Cholmeley, on the site of an older house.  It was and still is instilled with the 18th century ideal.  The house was the hub of the Estate, which comprised practically the whole parish.  Behind the court yard, where were the stables and offices of the household, was a yard we called ‘the chicken yard’ in which were some cart sheds with an old-fashioned saw mill with an upright boiler engine.  Two magnificent walnut trees stood near the saw mill, and behind these were two cement courted dog kennels built by my cousin Francis between 1869 and 1876.  In the joiner’s shop, in this estate year, the estate joiner worked quietly and somewhat somnolently at repairs and making such gates, doors and other oddments as might be wanted for farms on the estate.  The chief part of the yard was occupied by poultry and hen coops;  the joiner’s requirements were kept tidily within a smaller enclosure in front of his shed.  At one time the cart sheds had evidently been intended to hold the carts required for estate purposes, or for the use of the family in the days when railways were scarce.  But in my father’s time the carts he used were kept at the Home Farm, a small farm of about 60 acres.  Such carting as was required was done chiefly by the tenants, each farm being liable in proportion to its size, according to its agreement, to give so many days carting to the Squire.

The Hall was obviously the centre of interest in the Estate life, just as it was the geographical centre.  From the lawn or the west terrace a large portion of the parish lay in view, with hedge row timber and occasional clumps of trees carefully disposed so as to hide all buildings and farm houses from view, and even in some cases the fences were so screened by trees as to give the effect of an extensive park from in front of the house.  The cleverness of the plan was wonderful and great regard had been paid to utility in making it.   This characteristic of the older generation of squires adds greatly to the charm of their influence.  But the chief note of these dispositions of  houses, fences and trees, was that the appearances were considered always from the ‘point de vue’ of the Hall and grounds, in the first place.  As you walked over the estate you found the same attempt to conceal buildings from sight, the idea obviously being that buildings spoilt the beauty of nature. Beyond stretched the plain of York, with the Western hill in the distance.  You might see from the west terrace a good forty miles, the little sugar-loaf of Crake in the foreground only three miles off crowned with its castle, and far away in the background Ottley Sheven, the Whern sides and Penn Hill. 

The church is perhaps an interesting instance of the same attitude of mind.  It had been removed from the lawn, near the Hall door, by my grandfather,  who was the last of the landowners to whom a faculty was given for such a purpose.  He built the new church in the then fashionable ‘Classical Style’, but as plainly as was permissible.  The chief architectural feature, however, was a cupola, which was visible from various parts of the grounds and was reminiscent of those classical temples so dear to the creators of parks, tag that time. 

The catholic chapel

In the Hall was a Catholic Chapel, built into the house so as to be as unobtrusive as possible.  It had a stone staircase leading to an outer door into the courtyard, so that it could be used by Catholic tenants on Sundays without their entering the private portion of the dwelling house.  There were two doors into it from the house, one of which led into the tribune or gallery occupied by the family.  The Chaplain came from Ampleforth College every Saturday night, to officiate on Sundays and the Squire paid the Prior, who was then head of Ampleforth, £40 a year in return for this service.  There had always been a covert struggle between my father and the Ampleforth people on the question of supremacy in the chapel arrangements, though no doubt the claims of the clergy may have become more insistent as time wore on.  My father was a good and devout Catholic;  but he had inherited something of the sturdiness of the Old English families in their relations with their clergy.  He liked to call the priests “Mr.” in the old-fashioned way, and deplored the innovation of  “Father” imported from Ireland since his youth.  We looked upon the Chapel as our ‘private chapel’ and the priest as chaplain.  The clergy on the other hand  were always trying to emphasise the fact that the Bishop treated it as a public chapel.  The rights of the case were complicated by technicalities of Roman Catholic ecclesiastical regulations.  Later on in my time this assumed some importance, when a certain crisis was reached which will be recounted.  My father was considerably annoyed at one time over this question of authority;  but he held his own on the whole in the controversy.  The recollection of the Chapel is still fresh in my Father’s time.  The front bench of the lower chapel was occupied by the household servants, sitting in their order of precedence;  the second bench was occupied by two families of farmers, the Radcliffes and a farmer from Farlington named Andrews.  Then behind these came the lesser folk.  As the door from the outside entered the chapel at one side of the chancel facing the Tribune, it must have been something of an ordeal for the congregation to have to pass in and out, under the scrutiny of the whole family overhead.  It subjected everyone to a sort of inquisition on their attendance and punctuality, which must have been very galling, though in those days regular attendance at church or chapel was so customary as to be essential and beyond question.  By the time I succeeded to the estate, however, we had ceased living at the Hall and the front bench of the servants was no longer filled.  

The parish church and the rector

In the Parish Church there was a Cholmeley family pew, which I believe was occupied by the tenants of Brandsby Lodge, when they went there, or by Protestant visitors to the Hall.  The farmers had their seats and pews according to a customary precedence.  Their servants were obliged to attend church, once on Sunday, though discipline in this respect was not so rigid as in the case of our Catholic dependents.  Our household servants had no choice about any of the services, and out door servants such as gardeners and game-keepers, would be spoken to if they did not attend Mass, or even Communion sufficiently often.  

My knowledge of the Parish Church was chiefly obtained from what visitors said, but they were all of the horrified at the service and the method of conducting it.  The music, the sermon and the behaviour of the people at the back of the church and outside the door, struck them with amazement.  The schoolmistress or Mrs. Swann (the Vicar’s wife) usually officiated at the harmonium.  Mrs. Swann had no idea of music or time, but insisted on playing and singing and was very jealous of anyone else taking her place. 

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Brandsby Church (postcard collection: Ray Dobson).

The Protestant Church of the Parish was attended by most of the population.  The Rector was the Rev. Percival Swann and he had married a daughter of Sir Edward Strickland, a cousin of my father’s.  Swann was a most good natured and kindly man, but both he and his wife were phenomenally foolish.  Poor Swann himself was always regarded as not being in full possession of his faculties and everybody imposed upon his weak good nature.  There was a sort of legend in the place that he was marvellously learned, though we never could discover any possible ground for such an assertion.  The possession of a library, which he inherited from his father, who was Rector before him no doubt was sufficient cause for the supposition among the people of the Parish.   He affected a pose as an oriental scholar sometimes and once in later years when I lit upon a volume of Omar Kay on his shelves and drew attention to it, he babbled in his accustomed fashion, “Ah, yes, I love oriental writers, wonderful, wonderful,”  and so on ad. lib.  But it is very certain that if he had really read and understood ‘Old Kayam’ he would have had a fit! Unfortunately, there was always an under current of opposition between the Hall and the Rectory, natural enough in the circumstances, where the Squire was a ‘Papist’;  but it often took the form of a very silly rivalry on the part of Fanny Swann, who by the way, was my second cousin.  This attitude made our relations difficult later on when I succeeded to the estate.  

The Swanns were always in trouble with their dependents, as they had neither discretion nor common sense enough to manage them.  The schoolmistresses were a constant trouble and Swann was always in the hands of some imposter or undesirable character.  His church services too were extraordinary and sometime even farcical and disorderly.  This was an annoyance to us, since it caused difficulty in finding nice tenants for the Lodge.  I believe one of the tenants left the Lodge really on this account, as they did not like to remain, when the children were growing up, in a place where the clergyman was made ridiculous.  Poor Swann!  He was well liked by the people for his kindness and boundless generosity.  He was of the oldest fashioned Low Church school and that suited his people’s tastes;  one really wondered of what use such services as there were could possibly be to anyone.  Yet they did serve a religious purpose.  They were the family gatherings of the parish – a sort of sacrament of Home Life.  It is perhaps evidence of the truths that lie beneath the surface of Christian dogmas that these people were able to derive spiritual consolation from such a presentation of religion; but they certainly did so and without that weekly function their lives would have been poorer.  

His sermons were said to be strange rechauffées  of some old preachers – possibly his father’s – and he preached some of them over and over again in rotation.  They were of course read from manuscript and he continually lost his place in the pages.  Once he was known to throw them at a wasp that was annoying him.  

The estate

The estate outside the hall grounds was exceedingly beautiful, largely on account of  its being so well timbered.  Besides the great woods that crowned the hills behind the Hall, there was a great deal of fine hedgerow timber, and clumps of trees were artfully disposed here and there, often to conceal buildings.  The ashes were magnificent and there were also fine oaks and horse chestnuts and sycamores in places, and wild cherries on the fringes of the woods.  The result was that the country as a whole resembled a large park, with every unsightly object carefully concealed by foliage.  As you went from the Hall to the village, the road passed between pasture fields with some very fine ash and sycamore trees in them, till you reached the bailiff’s cottage which was one of those picturesque lodges built about the beginning of the nineteenth century – very low with broad eaves, mullioned windows and leaded lights.  I think it must formerly have been built near a gate opening into the enclosed fields round the Hall, which were then unfenced from the road side.  The Avenue leading into Town Street, Brandsby was situated at the East End of the lime tree avenue.  To the west of this cottage the road passed between two hillside fields covered with gorse.  They were now fenced in, but at one time must have been part of the common which covered a large part of the parish, running up over the hillside of Brandsby Bank and stretching over most of the uplands right away to Grimstone Moor and Maidensworth Wood.

Between Brandsby Lodge and Peacock Plantation, on the righthand side of Brandsby Bank Road, opposite to Warren Farm, there is a race course marked on older maps, possibly relating to the time of Francis Cholmeley 1, when he lived at Warren House and laid out Warren and High Farms (See first account), but it could have been older. 

The gorse bank on the right, consisting of about three acres, was called the Hewthit Moor.  The gorse was so thick that a man could scarcely walk through it in some parts; but it ran out towards the village end where there was a corner of good grass.  The field was let to John White the carrier for ten shillings a year with the idea that he should improve it;  but he only turned out an old pony or horse into it and it remained to provide a beautiful vision of yellow bloom in spring.  On the left bank the gorse was not so thick and there were some rather poor trees growing here and there among the old disused gravel pits at the east end where the pleasure ground of Mill Hill runs up to the cottage already mentioned.  The site of Mill Hill was a small nursery for young trees, and the present garden and bowling green in front of the house was a bank of rough grass, practically uncultivated and valueless to the tenant of the field of which it formed part.  Further west where the lawn is, there was a neglected orchard belonging to the blacksmith, whose house and smithy stood at the corner where the road turns towards York.  This smithy is now occupied by Willie Grainger, but the farm buildings have been enlarged and improved and a new and larger forge has been built…” 

The name of the old smithy is Barr Cottage, which points to an older history.  The end of this cottage is a room where people went to pay their rates to the estate.  The layout of the room still shows evidence of this older use.  The external door to the room,  still has a vertical letterbox, designed to allow people to deposit their rent when the office was unmanned.  Oral history recounts that the estate office was formerly at Oswald Bank and when it was moved down to Brandsby the old structure, beams and everything were brought down and re-erected on what then became Barr cottage, referring to its legal and rent collection status. In 2015 this room was still serving a function for the village as a drop off point for the collection of daily newspapers.    

“…From the corner of the road, as it emerged from the Avenue no other house was visible;  but about a hundred yards to the right up the hill on either side of the main road was the village.  It consisted of the Post Office, which stood back hidden by huge sycamores and ashes and was almost entirely surrounded by them.  The Yard behind the house, which the postmaster had for his stacks and farm building, was occupied by a group of tall ash trees that were very troublesome to him as they left so little room even for a small-holder’s stacks and farm produce.  I cannot imagine how the house chimneys ever worked under the shadow of so many trees, or how he had the heart to try to cultivate the little garden in front.  The parlour fire could not be lit at all.  Beyond the post office were three rows of cottages, two on the right hand close up under the Hewthitt Wood, and one row on the left concealed in a hollow below the road up Brandsby Bank. 

 to be added

Village cottages, after HCFC improvements (postcard collection, Ray Dobson)

Near the post office were several small pasture and meadow fields, one of which measuring about two acres and of an irregular triangular shape, was called the Recreation Ground.  It was very rough and uneven, with two or three gorse bushes growing among the rough grass ‘tussocks’ and it was thought to be so useless for any such purpose as a cricket ground that it was let to the post master for £2 a year.  Further up Brandsby Bank, on the left, was a large area of waste land in the Dale, of which about 16 acres were covered with thick gorse and bracken, while there were a few acres at the village end on which were some scattered trees, briars and thorns, with about an acre and half of poor grass on the verge at the village end.  To the south, down the York Road and about 200 yards from the forge were two picturesque cottages on the right called Ivy cottages, and at the other end of the estate at Stearsby were six cottages in a row occupying the site of the present tiny flower gardens between the road and the three model cottages I built later.  They covered rather less than the area now occupied by the three new ones. 

Besides these there were three other isolated cottages on the estate, one at the south east corner of the Black Moor close to the end of Bonnygate Lane, one at the top of Oliver’s Bank near Brandsby Lodge and one half a mile to the south of the village on the York Road, which was then the keeper’s house and is now a small holding occupied by Hammond and known as Aumitt House.  

Going away from Brandsby, down Bonnygate Lane, past Stearsby Hag, on the left of the road lies The City of Troy, a maze, an amusement laid out by a previous Cholmeley, date not known.”