Many of England’s once prosperous country houses are either no longer with us, or cared for by organisations like the National Trust. When the visitors go home, the doors are locked, the lights go out and these preserved icons of a past age lie silent and empty. But at Hesleyside Hall in the North Tyne, the pitter-patter of tiny feet, the clink of glasses during a party, and day-to-day life, still go on as they have done for several hundred years; for the house and estate is still in the hands of one of the most prominent families in the North – the Charltons. And thanks to some 19th century memoirs and stories still told today by the current family, the links between past and present are being kept very much alive.
IT was the summer of 1839 when young bride Barbara Charlton first set eyes on Hesleyside. She had spent the last few days enduring the arduous journey from London, first by train to Hull, then boat to Newcastle and finally by horse and carriage along unmetalled roads to the North Tyne.
By marrying William Henry Charlton, she had swapped the bright lights of the capital for a life that was completely alien to her. By all accounts it was a wet and miserable summer that year and the weather wouldn’t have portrayed Northumberland in its best light. Perhaps Barbara gained some relief on her journey by catching her first glimpse of the ancient Roman Wall, before the horses left the Tyne valley and pulled her carriage north towards her new home.
And as that new home came into view, Barbara got her first close look, not only at the house, but the eccentric array of relations she would be sharing it with. These included her husband’s parents William John Charlton and his wife Katherine, and her husband’s elderly great aunt Miss Catherine Fenwick, who left an indelible impression on Barbara when she arrived.
We know all this because in her dotage, Barbara wrote a series of entertaining memoirs, which paint a fascinating picture of life at Hesleyside during the 19th century. They form a gold mine of information and today are among the family’s treasured possessions.
As Barbara was ushered in, Catherine Fenwick, by then an 83-year-old, burst out of the library and gave her an effusive welcome. “To my great astonishment, she spoke the broadest Northumbrian, this being the first occasion on which I had heard that peculiar sing-song accent,” recalled Barbara. “And it seemed so strange hearing it for the first time from a lady looking like a duchess and speaking like a cook!”
Barbara, it seems wasn’t too enamoured by the “rather short man” who was her father-in-law. “He had the features of his mother, a bad nose and a bad mouth, the most sarcastic, disagreeable sneering mouth I ever saw.” Barbara did concede though that he had an “undeniably good-shaped leg and foot” before tempering this compliment by pointing out that he’d had rotten teeth since his teens.
So much for the in-laws, but what about her new home. Many of us used to 21st century basic comforts – warmth being fairly high on the list – would have found the Hesleyside Hall of 1839 uninhabitable. The Charltons had owned land in the North Tyne since at least the mid-13th century and in the 14th century built a pele tower at Hesleyside which became their ancestral home. The pele went, but in its place an 18th century house was built. But by the mid 19th century, conditions for Barbara were uncomfortable, to say the least, with fungus growing everywhere and the downstairs being “a cave of icy blasts.”
At least she expected to be well fed and watered at her country seat. So as the dinner gong rang, Barbara, perhaps feeling a little nervous, sat herself down at the dining table with her in-laws. But amid the flickering candlelight, things were about to get a lot worse as the meal was served.
“In those days the food was execrable and coarsely served,” she said. “I looked on with astonishment at Mrs Charlton’s disgusting way of eating, not to mention other nauseous table habits, and soon accustomed myself to eating my own rations with downcast eyes.”
She went on: “No wine was ever served at dinner, though this did not touch me, as at that time I drank nothing. Water, drunk out of a black glass was the family beverage. Nevertheless, the butler and his pantry cronies appeared to indulge freely in wine! In that way it was hardly possible to find a more drunken establishment; Hesleyside was simply a house of refreshment for the neighbourhood.”
What Barbara wasn’t aware of until much later in life was that the laundry was being used as a brothel by the drunken servants. She only found out when one of her sons revealed all on his death bed.
“He gave the names of some of the upper servants as among the most licentious women of whom I had no suspicions, believing them to lead blameless lives. It horrified me, so long ago as that, to hear about the scenes of profligacy he himself had witnessed as he passed the laundry to and fro at odd times of the day; and I had no doubt, although he did not say so, that he was similarly au fait at the indoor servants’ amours in the pantry.”
Barbara’s early experiences at Hesleyside though were comparably pleasant compared to those previously endured by her mother-in-law, Katherine. Barbara was to learn how her husband’s grandmother Margaret Charlton (née Fenwick) and her sister Catherine Fenwick had made life unbearable for Katherine, when she had arrived as a young bride at Hesleyside 30 years earlier. The two matriarchs had been against the marriage, but grudgingly accepted Katherine into the household, seeing her only purpose in life as being a producer of children.
Barbara recalled: “Should she (Katherine) sit reading in her own room for the sake of peace and quiet, then her mother-in law would rout the poor woman out in double quick time, impressing her destiny on her own words to this effect. ‘You will never breed if you mope over your books. My son, remember, only married you because you looked to be a good breeder!’”
The bullying by these two “spirit-breaking hags” during Katherine’s life wasn’t only verbal. One incident was witnessed by Barbara’s mother during a visit to the hall, which Barbara later recorded: “My future mother-in-law by that time was quite disturbed in the mind, and when her brain was out of health she was apt to chatter nonsense, reminded all the time by the really regnant Mrs Charlton that she was a born fool, quite daft, and had no business to proffer an opinion on any subject, all being beyond the scope of any intellect.
“One day when all the ladies were grouped round the fire conversing, Katherine Charlton boldly asserted there was no such thing as bodily pain, but that all feeling of that sort emanated from, and was the creation of, the mind. ‘Indeed!’ said the leading spirit breaker and taking hold of her daughter-in-law’s hand, thrust it into the flame.” No wonder Katherine was unhinged by the time Barbara moved in.
“You will never breed if you mope over your books. My son, remember, only married you because you looked to be a good breeder!”
As the years went by and Barbara and her husband became masters of their home, conditions at the house improved. A French drawing room was created, and central heating was installed, as well as gas in most of the rooms. Barbara’s husband was responsible for the building of the Border County Railway, which ran from Hexham through the North Tyne into Scotland. And being staunch Catholics (the Charltons had taken part in the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion), Barbara converted one room of the house into a chapel.
More than 100 years after Barbara’s reign at Hesleyside ended, William and Anna have become the latest generation in a long line of Charltons to take over the estate, moving in last summer with their three children. William’s grandmother and Barbara’s great-grand daughter, Mamie Charlton, who ran the estate for many years with her husband, Major John Charlton, is now 93 and still lives in the house. Her husband died last year, just weeks short of his 96th birthday.
History leaps out at you from every corner at Hesleyside, from the artefacts hanging on the walls to the portraits of the many Charltons who made a name for themselves. And as Barbara’s memoirs bring much of that history to life, so too do the stories told by Mamie Charlton who first came to Hesleyside as a small child with her parents in 1920.
After Barbara moved out, the house passed into the hands of her son, William Oswald Charlton who married an American debutante, Mary Grant Campbell (President Grant’s godchild). She much preferred London to Northumberland and so the house was eventually let until their son, William Henry Charlton, moved in with his wife and daughter, Mamie.
It must have been love at first sight when William Henry first set eyes on his future wife and Mrs Charlton clearly remembers the story of how her parents met. “It was before the First World War in 1913,” she said. “They gave tea parties in those days. My father was walking down Sloane Street, aged 36, with a friend in the Life Guards. He went to tea at the home of a widow with four pretty daughters and two months later, married my mother.” That pretty young girl was Bridget Purcell, the daughter of William Purcell, who had made his fortune in Mexico.
“Then the house became empty and my father came up by train and they drove up by pony and trap and had a cup of tea in the library, but never saw anything else,” said Mrs Charlton. “Then in 1920, when I was two, they said, let’s have a go at living there. They took on four little orphans as staff. There was no heating and I was on the top floor. My mother shocked all the neighbours by putting plumbing in the front of the house. All the neighbours had flunkies and we had the orphans and our parties were more fun. I was not at them. I was on the top floor with Nana.”
The house was bitterly cold, just as it was in Barbara’s day, but Mrs Charlton has nothing but happy memories about her childhood – a far cry from the experiences suffered by her great-great grandmother, Katherine. “Barbara’s grandmother-in-law Margaret Fenwick was a bully,” said Mrs Charlton. “It must have been hell. Fenwick was very nasty to Barbara’s mother-in-law.
“Barbara’s husband, built the workhouse in Bellingham, the railway and the town hall. All through my childhood, my father used to carve the joint at the workhouse on Christmas Day.
“Barbara roofed over the courtyard here to create a billiard room which caused dry rot. It later had to be pulled down. I can remember the mushrooms as a child. People used to kick the mushrooms. Nobody minded.
“There were no other children in the house. I was an only child, but I had the maids who played with me. The maids married very well. They had such pretty uniforms and they were all orphans taken on by my parents. When my mother held a party, she would the next day have a party for all the maids and people who worked here. People at the Black Bull (in Bellingham) played the piano – anyone who could do something. It was all light-hearted, but there were no other children.”
Things changed though when Mrs Charlton’s cousins came to stay. “We got up to all sorts of high jinx,” she said. “We went up on the roof which was terribly dangerous. There was none of this health and safety. They were terribly brave girls. It was great fun.”
And it was during one of those visits that her 12-year-old second cousin, John, arrived with his brother Michael. It was a friendship that would last a lifetime as they later became devoted to each other as man and wife.
“I was four years younger at the time,” said Mrs Charlton. “They came to shoot. My husband’s brother was mauled by a lion in Tanganyika just after he married. He could not do much after that. He was a solicitor by trade. He grew tomatoes and hunted down in Somerset.
“It was great fun when my future husband came to stay. We played croquet and tennis and all those sorts of things. He was always fun. Then I was a bridesmaid to his sister. His home was Burghwallis and his father was George Anne who founded Tote Investors. He gave wonderful parties and died in 1960.”
Mrs Charlton married on March 4, 1944, at St Oswald’s Church in Bellingham, but unusually, her husband later had to change his surname, to maintain the Charlton name at Hesleyside. Three months after the wedding he embarked for France, only a week after the D-Day landings. “He had a week’s leave and I was a Wren and had a month’s leave so we went to Ireland,” said Mrs Charlton. “But we could not travel together even though we were married because he was an officer and I wasn’t. We had to go in different parts of the ship.”
Major Charlton was part of the so-called Forgotten Army of Burma during the Second World War and spent five months behind Japanese lines. “He started out with 600 and brought back 80 from Rangoon,” said Mrs Charlton. “He lost all his friends. It was a dreadful time. I never knew all about it, but he never banged on. He was such fun to live with. We romped through life with hard work.”
Tragedy was to strike the couple in 1976 though, when two of their five daughters, Jenny Loyd and Kate Lloyd-Baker, were killed in a train crash in Mexico. It is Jenny’s son, William who, with his wife Anna, took over the reins at Hesleyside last June with their children Matilda (6), Kitty (4) and Henry (2).
But unlike Barbara, Anna was already well accustomed to the area. Married for seven years, the family had already lived for some time at nearby Charlton. And hailing from the Brecon Beacons, the landscape of the North Tyne felt like home from home for Anna.
“It’s very much a family home with toys scattered everywhere,” she said. “We have always known it as a family house. We always have a lot of people to stay and always use all the rooms. The joy for me is, the children run around and play hide and seek in it. They sleep in the old night nursery that all the other children have slept in. They have an amazing place to live.
“The children help Mumma (Mrs Charlton) with the garden and when I see photos of her as a child, it is not much different. The cattle are the same, the paint is still peeling off the walls… it is perpetual. You wake up and think, a lot of people in the past have looked at that view. There is so much history and so many ancestors looking down on us. We are determined to keep it as a family home for the future.”
Some things, it seems never change at Hesleyside. When Mrs Charlton moved in there was no electricity and her mother put in a generator to power electric lights. “We could never have lights on all the time,” she said. “It always fused when we had a party.”
And the same thing still happens today, despite the house being connected to the mains. “It was the last dinner party,” said Anna. “We had a house full of people. It could not cope with all the electricity and we had a power cut for 12 hours and had great fun. The dinner party conversation was much better over candlelight.”
The responsibility of running the estate comes with a lot of hard work. Anna recently bought herself a pedometer and found out she was walking up to 12km a day around the house. “Like any of these old houses, they are a struggle,” she said. “But we are determined that if we can pass it on in a slightly better condition, that is a huge success because it is extremely difficult.”
William lists a range of worsening problems ranging from dry rot, cracks in the walls and the need for a new roof – plus the fact there is no proper central heating. “It dominates our thoughts on how we can maintain and continue, but that is a privilege as well,” he said.
“In some houses it just takes one generation to sell it, but we are not like that. There are now about five farms and 20 houses on the estate and it just about washes its face. It means we can pay the electricity and oil bills and do up a bedroom. The temptation is put a new roof on and sell a farm, but that is not a temptation we are into.”
“We think day and night about making sure there is another 600 years of family history here,” added Anna. “That is one of my first thoughts when I get up in the morning – how privileged we are and what we are going to do to keep all that wonderful history going.”