Chairman Eleanor George took us through a tale of complex inheritances and contested legal proceedings at the Court of Chancery to find out who owned what in a talk on Acton House and Hall, or Taking A Chancery.
What followed was a comprehensive tour of the histories of Acton House and Hall from the mid 1600s to the 1950s.
In the 1600s the Acton estate was owned by the Lisle family. With the death of the head of the family, it was divided among his three daughters, who inherited a third each.
South Acton comprised a third and contained an old bastle house.
In the mid 1730s this house, which had served its function during the Border Reivers period, was upgraded with a new frontage to a grander property and renamed Acton Hall.
By this time, the Hall was in the ownership of a ‘man on his way up’ and boasted “a grand room, six bedrooms and stables”.
The estate then passed into the hands of an illegitimate son, who passed it on to Thomas Naters, at that time resident in Quebec. Naters changed his name to Jakob van Matter before moving to Zurich.
Confused? Well, so were the various claimants to the estate, who went to the Court of Chancery to seek a determination of who was the rightful heir. Unfortunately, soon after the heir came into possession, he was killed by a fall from his horse.
The estate passed via his brother and nephew to his great niece. She married Robert Douglas, who claimed descent from the Lairds of Lidderdale. He was also the grandson of Martin Douglas, who told many tales of his ‘derring-do’ as a Keelman of Sunderland and the inaugurator of a local lifeboat service.
Meanwhile, the tenants of the estate farm at South Acton did not enjoy the same lifestyle and lived in squalor, with liquid manure seeping into their home. Notwithstanding that, Robert Douglas advertised the farm as “desirable”. Douglas, too, was killed when he fell from his horse.
Another dispute over inheritance ensued when his widow died in 1908 and the Court of Chancery decreed that the Hall should be sold by auction.
The new owner rented out the hall, although up until the 1950s there were only two tenants – Mr and Mrs Douglas Watson and Dr and Mrs Duke.
At this stage of the story we took a break and waited whilst Acton House’s history ‘caught-up’. North Acton comprised another third of the Acton estate when it was divided in the 1600s.
When the owner died in 1739 in considerable debt, the future of the estate needed to be decided by the Court of Chancery. It was sold at auction and the new owner had a large house built.
In 1781 it was sold again and the well-known architect builder William Newton was commissioned to enlarge and modernise the property. It was renamed Acton House.
When the owner died his heir was only seven years old and the estate was managed by his guardians. They came into dispute over the house contents and once again the history of the house was determined by the Court of Chancery, in the case of Davison v Fenwick.
These were two famous names – the first being the prize-agent for Lord Nelson, who lived in Swarland Hall, and the second of Newcastle upon Tyne fame.
The inventory for Acton House showed that the property contained three portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds, including one of Lady Hamilton, Lord Nelson’s mistress, not an unremarkable coincidence as she had visited Davison at Swarland Hall. A series of interesting, rich or nationally renowned tenants followed, all of whom Eleanor described in some detail.
Then in 1898 William Howley Forster took the lease. William was the uncle of EM Forster, the celebrated author of Room With A View and Passage To India.
EM Forster visited Acton House and used it as the model for Cadover House in his novel The Longest Journey.
It was an unusual domestic arrangement at Acton House, with William Forster sharing it with Emily, his wife, as well as a long-term ‘companion’, Leo Chipman. This arrangement continued until William’s death, after which Emily and Leo lived a happy life together.
This was the Edwardian era and one could only imagine the local gossip over these goings-on.
Subsequent tenants during the 20th century included Edward Curtis, who was a director of Coutts’s Bank (the Queen’s bank), and brother-in-law of Sir Edward Grey MP, who as Foreign Secretary, famously quoted at the outbreak of the First World War that: “The lights are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
They also included Barbara Dunn, Europe’s first licensed female amateur radio operator, who rigged Acton House with aerials and wires to accommodate her passion.
Acton House was requisitioned for army accommodation during the Second World War. It sustained damage, not from enemy action, but from Allied troops’ army boots.
It only had one more tenant after the war – Geoffrey Preston Carrick, director of F Carrick and Co.
Throughout its history ownership of Acton House had remained with the Lisle family, however, in 1954 the property was sold.
It was at this juncture that Eleanor brought the stories of the two properties to a halt. It was an illuminating presentation, told with considerable skill and humour, and supported by a wealth of research material and visual aids. As show business states, ‘leave them wanting more’, and Eleanor certainly did.
The next meeting of Felton and District History Society will be at 7.30pm, on Monday, November 20, at Felton Village Hall in Main Street.
Neal Skelton, a society committee member, will describe how he researched and created the Northumbria Police Air Support Unit, which after initial scepticism ‘took off’ literally and metaphorically. Although this is relatively recent history from the 1990s, it will be fascinating to hear first-hand how policing started to change to reflect technological advances.
Members and non-members are welcome. Members’ annual fees are £15, while non-members are charged £3 per talk, which is refunded if membership is taken up.