A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode

The Catholics of Overbury

Overbury is a pleasant village just over the county boundary into Worcestershire. It is nestled between the villages of Kemerton and Beckford which both have important Catholic connections. Across Bredon Hill, into the parish of Eckington, is the ancient recusant home of the Hanford Family – Woollas Hall. Some readers may remember Dom Geoffrey Scott leading our society on an expedition there some years ago.

Woollas Hall has a fascinating history, which is worthy of a substantial article in its own right. Suffice to say that Thomas Hanford acquired the estate through marriage and through the purchase of further land. The existing house was built sometime before the inscription was carved above the round headed doorway in the front porch – ‘Memorare novissima 1611’. The Hanfords were Royalist as well as Catholic and they had a chapel constructed in the roof of their home. From the time of the first Hanford of Woollas Hall, the estate was enjoyed by his descendants without intermission right through until the death of Charles Hanford in 1816. The end of the Hanford line is the beginning of our story.

Charles Hanford of Woollas Hall had married Mary Doffkin the daughter of J. Doffkin, a London merchant. Mary had a brother Jeremiah Doffkin and a sister, Sarah, who was married to Richard Huddleston of Gray’s Inn, London. Sadly, to date I have been unable to find out any more about Mary Doffkin’s ancestors but in contrast the Huddlestons were an ancient Catholic family from Sawston Hall in Cambridgeshire.

Before Charles Hanford died he made a will and from this we discover that he left Woollas Hall to Charles Edward Hanford, the son of his cousin, Charles Hanford of Redmarley d’Abitot. However, Charles Hanford of Woollas Hall also provided for his widow, Mary and, as a result, she seems to have moved from Eckington to the Red House at Overbury some time after 1816. In the Muniment Room at Overbury Court there is a schedule of deeds for that year when the lease of a parcel of land and a house passed from James Nind to Mary Hanford. Mary Hanford lived at Overbury until her death in 1823. In her will she described her property, which included a mill, and she made a number of bequests, which included one to the local Catholic priest. The Rev. J.B. Jolly of Beckford was to receive one hundred pounds in addition to the salary owing to him at the time of her decease ‘as a token of remembrance for his kind attention to me’.

Returning to Woollas Hall it was inhabited by Charles Edward Hanford until his death in 1854. Charles Edward, a Catholic, married Elizabeth Martin (died 1844) of Overbury Court and they had two children – Compton John Hanford and his sister Frances. The Martins, who were Anglicans, were to play an important, if passive, part in this story. Overbury was built by John Martin, the banker, but was burnt down in 1735. A few years afterwards the present Court was erected and is a fine early Georgian ashlar fronted house set in attractive parklands. This house is still owned by members of the Martin Family.

Compton Hanford survived his father and he lived at Woollas Hall until his death in 1860. He was a bachelor, a magistrate and a respected local Catholic. After his death, Woollas Hall passed to his sister who had married William Lloyd Flood and she owned the house until her death in 1875. The last of her line, Annie Whitworth, died in 1949 when the house was sold off and turned into flats.

The Catholic Chapel at Woollas Hall, which was described by William Cobbett in his ‘Rural Rides’, probably closed in 1860 when the furnishings passed to St Benet’s Church, Kemerton. Nils Wilkes, in his recently published ‘History of Eckington’, has reproduced a photograph of Woollas Hall Chapel taken in 1923, the original of which is deposited in the Worcestershire County Archives.

The Red House, Overbury

Meanwhile, back at the Red House at Overbury, Mary Hanford died in 1823 and left the property to Ferdinand Eyston, the grandson of her sister, Sarah Huddleston. Richard and Sarah Huddleston had a daughter, Mary Jane, the widow of Basil Eyston of East Hendred. Mary Jane’s husband died in 1817 so she was a widow for thirty years before she died at her son’s house at Overbury in 1847. It was Mrs. Mary Jane Eyston who hosted Mass at her oratory at Overbury during the years between the close of the chapel at Beckford and the opening of St Benet’s Church at Kemerton. Ten years before her death she had made a codicil to her will leaving £50 for the establishment of a Catholic Chapel ‘in this neighbourhood’. Christine Collins has, of course, traced the realisation of that dream in her recent parish history.

Mary Jane’s bachelor son, Ferdinand Eyston, had two elder brothers and these included the eldest child, Charles Eyston of Hendred House, Berkshire, who died in 1857, and her other unmarried son, George Eyston, a solicitor. In July 1849 George Eyston was living in Overbury and, in Birmingham Diocesan Archives, there is correspondence with his cousin, Edward Huddleston.

Charles Eyston of the Red House, Overbury
Charles Eyston and Maria Teresa, his wife, at St Benet’s Kemerton

The architect, Gilbert Blount, wrote in his personal diary that he visited Overbury with William Amhurst on 6th August 1852 and that when they arrived they discovered that George Eyston had not received Amhurst’s letter. Two days later Blount wrote: ‘Went to prayers at Kemmerton (sic). Handford (sic) and Son took lunch with George Eyston …’. Amhurst and Blount left Overbury on the following day and returned to Kenilworth by coach to Leamington.

Ferdinand Eyston was a respected local Catholic, a friend of Compton Hanford of Woollas Hall and, like him, a Justice of the Peace. On 12th April 1836 the Town Council of Tewkesbury had recommended the two of them to the Crown for appointment as Justices of the Peace and this nomination was approved shortly afterwards.

Another example of collaboration between the residents of the Red House and those at Woollas Hall occurs in the Trust Deed for the Catholic School at Kemerton which was drawn up in 1852 and became the blue print for later Catholic Schools. Charles Edward Hanford, Compton John Hanford, Ferdinand Eyston and George Eyston were all involved with this and a further Indenture of 1859 also mentions Charles John Eyston of Hendred House and George Basil Eyston of Gray’s Inn were also mentioned.

Lady Etheldreda Chichester recorded in her annals of the Berkeley Family for the year 1852 or thereabouts that:

“Ravens used to nest every year in a crooked oak in Pole Wood until Dewey the keeper about this time, destroyed them. Ferdinand Eyston then living at Overbury used to watch them flying to Spetchley from Bredon Hill.” (Volume II, page 382)

Eyston Family Grave
Eyston Family Grave at St Benet’s Kemerton

Ferdinand Eyston lived at the Red House, Overbury, from 1823 until his death in 1869 when the property passed to his brother, George. The freehold had been conveyed to Ferdinand Eyston from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in 1863. In 1872 Charles John Eyston of Hendred House acquired the property from his uncle George Eyston and eight years later Charles John sold twenty-seven acres of land and associated buildings to their neighbour, Robert Martin of Overbury Court for £2178-5-0d. In the year 1900 the executors of Miss A.M. Eyston sold the Red House itself to Sir Richard Martin for £2,400. The Eyston connection with Overbury was now broken.

However, Catholicism in Overbury was not confined to the Eyston Family of the Red House but from about 1840 until 1864 there was a succession of Catholic tenants leasing Overbury Court from the Martin Family who were at the time living abroad. The first tenant was John Vincent Gandolfi (later Gandolfi-Hornyold) who rented Overbury in about 1840 and lived there with his sister and brother-in-law, Mr and Mrs Fitzherbert, until just before he married in 1846. After his marriage he moved to Foxcote, the home of the Cannings, before succeeding in 1859 to Blackmore Park, the estate of his uncle, Thomas Charles Hornyold. It was this John Vincent Gandolfi who was largely responsible for the erection of the delightful Redemptorist Church of Our Lady and St Alphonsus at Hanley Swan.

At the time of the opening of St Benet’s Church, Kemerton in 1843, Francis Fitzherbert was living at Overbury Court and, from 1846, the Fitzherberts were to take on the tenancy for seven years. A reference in the Muniments Room at Overbury Court notes that they would make Robert ‘very nice tenants’. Francis Fitzherbert (1796-1857) was the fifth son of Basil Fitzherbert of Norbury and Swynnerton. His father’s eldest brother, Thomas, had married Mary Anne Smythe and, some years after her husband’s death in 1781, she became wife of King George IV. In 1828 her nephew Francis Fitzherbert married Maria Teresa Gandolfi and, as a result of this union, Francis Fitzherbert and John Vincent Gandolfi became brothers-in-law.

When St Benet’s Church in Kemerton was opened in 1843 we find the following were present – ‘Lord Southwell and a portion of his family, Robert Berkeley, Esq. and Mrs. Berkeley, of Spetchley Park; T.C. Hornyold, Esq. of Blackmore Park, and his lady…(and) Francis Fitzherbert, Esq. of Overbury House…’

Viscount Southwell was closely related to the Berkeleys and so it is not surprising that the Berkeleys were to become tenants of the Martins at Overbury Court. However, these Berkeleys should not be confused with the Protestant farming family of Berkeley who lived at Overbury – the descendents of William Berkeley of Ripple. There are many monuments to this cadet branch in the churchyard at Overbury and in Mary Hanford’s will of 1823 Thomas Berkeley was described as her servant.

Robert Berkeley (1823-)

From about 1852 Robert Berkeley (1823-) became the tenant of the Martins. He was the eldest of fourteen children of Robert Berkeley (1794-1847) of Spetchley Park, Worcester. Young Robert married on 4th March 1851, and his honeymoon lasted almost seven months, until 23rd October 1851. During 1994 Mrs Stirling Lee, the village historian of Overbury, corresponded with Fr Charles Crawford, the Archivist at Spetchley, and she received the following information which Fr Charles had extracted from an unpublished volume by Lady Ethedreda Chichester, entitled ‘The Berkeleys’, Volume II. This volume, he reported, was ‘of unspecified date, (and) gives various pedigrees, photographs, and biographical details’:

  1. (page 315) “1853. Mr and Mrs Berkeley paid short visits during the early part of the year to their son and his wife at Overbury…” A post-card of Overbury church faces page 315.

  2. (page 318) “1856. Mr Berkeley took Mary to Overbury for a few days.” Mary Frances (known as Fanny) was the second eldest child, and died in 1841, at the early age of sixteen.

  3. (page 318) “1857. In January Mr and Mrs Berkeley with Harriet and Mary spent six days at Overbury, and on May 24th they went there again to meet Cardinal Wiseman for the opening of the Cheltenham Church, returning home on June 1st.” Harriet Elizabeth was born in 1826, and was the third eldest child.

  4. (page 319) “1858. Mr Berkeley, with Harriet and Frederick … visited his son and daughter in law at Overbury for three days.” Frederick (known as Freddy) was born in 1835 and died at the relatively early age of thirty-one (in 1866).

  5. (page 321) “1860. (…) On August 23rd Mr Berkeley took Harriet and Freddy to Overbury to his son and daughter in law for a couple of days.”

  6. (page 322) “1861. Mr Berkeley and Harriet… during April, accompanied by Freddy they spent four days at Overbury.”

  7. (page 323) “1863. In November he (viz Mr Berkeley) spent two days at Overbury.”

  8. (page 324) “1864. (…) In July Mr Berkeley took his cob to Overbury to ride on the hill with his son for three days.”

Mr Robert Berkeley (Junior) and his wife departed from Overbury in 1864 and eventually, in 1874, inherited Spetchley Park. Three years earlier their daughter, Agnes Mary Philomena Berkeley was born at Overbury Court and she later became the celebrated Sister Xavier Berkeley, a Daughter of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, who spent 54 years of her life as a missionary in China.

The Red House is one of the largest houses in Overbury and its occupants from 1816 until the turn of the twentieth century played an important role in re-establishing Catholicism on the north Gloucestershire border during the years following the demise of the Wakeman Family of Beckford Hall. The presence of Catholic tenants at Overbury Court further strengthened this project and, if nothing else, provided a glittering backdrop for the visit of Cardinal Wiseman in 1857.

The biography of Sister Xavier Berkeley by M. L. H. (1949, Burns Oates) offers us fascinating glimpses into the days that Cardinal Wiseman spent at Overbury with various excerpts from Lady Catherine’s ‘Memoirs’:

‘Robert escorted the Cardinal to Cheltenham in an open carriage with four horses, postilions and outriders, and we all followed in open carriages. People were a little doubtful of the reception the Cardinal would get, as feeling had run high and the windows of the church had been smashed. Precautions were taken, but all went off very well, and he was greeted most cordially.’ (Lady Catherine’s Memoirs)

“Running down to Mass at Kemerton on one of the mornings of the Cardinal’s visit, I met him in what was then called the Filbert Walk, returning from saying his Mass in the little church. I thought to myself that never again would a Cardinal be met in that way on that spot.” (It was to the little Kemerton Church that the baby Agnes was taken to be baptized in 1861.) “Thursday, May 28th, was my birthday, and the Cardinal came down to breakfast with a charming sonnet he had composed for me, and which he presented with a bouquet of flowers. I have treasured the sonnet all my life.”

The Berkeleys were much attached to Overbury Court and its beautiful grounds, but when in 1864 the rightful owners desired to take up their residence there the ever-increasing family of Berkeley was obliged to move, first to Wolverton and then to Wootton Hall, Warwickshire.Finally, on the death of the old Mr. Berkeley, the family took up their residence at Spetchley Park in 1874; the little Agnes was then twelve years old.

Richard Barton

I am indebted to Mrs Elizabeth Stirling-Lee of Nindfield, Overbury, for making her research available to me.

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