An article relating to the life and times of one of the most iconic of Melton’s Lodges, ’The House’, which once stood in Sherrard Street and the people with who it was connected. It was later to be named ‘The Elms’ and could be said to have epitomised the life and times of a wonderful period in the colourful history of the old market town of Melton Mowbray.
REMEMBERING JOSIAH GILL (1874-1933)
Yet another valued son of old Melton Mowbray who is now almost lost – or forgotten – in the mists of time was Josiah Gill, the son of a farmer of the same name who owned and worked his land in the very small village of Holwell, just to the north of the town. A first-born child to the former Mary Ann Gilson of Twyford, he was soon to be one of seven siblings, but at the age of 26 years Josiah, articulate and well schooled locally as a child entered college as a pharmacy student in London and as expected, he qualified as a dispensing chemist. Returning to Melton at the end of this training, he set up in business as the proprietor of a combined chemist and grocery shop and in the summer of 1915 he married Kathleen Broxholme of Ashby-de-la- Zouch, though no children were born to the marriage. A younger brother, Leonard Gill, was also to open a shop in Melton which was remembered until quite recently as ‘Leonard Gill’s Hardware’ in the Market Place. Kathleen died in 1961 and Leonard followed in 1965. Both of the businesses were to cease trading within the lifetime of the the following generation.
Josiah was greatly interested and personally involved in the social and political side of his home town, and county, especially in the matter of children’s education and in particular, those of the Sunday schools of which he was the local Superintendent and in which he frequently taught and preached. Politics interested him greatly and he was at different times, Chairman of the Melton Mowbray Urban District Council and a prospective councillor for the Leicestershire County Council, making frequent attempts at election to that body – all abortive, though he did achieve a welcome as a member for the Liberal Party in his town. As Second-in-Command of the local branch of the Salvation Army, Josiah was said to be thrilled to be deputed to meet and greet with General Booth and his wife when he visited Melton to great fanfare and excitement in his ubiquitous open automobile and entourage, to address many of his followers at the Corn Exchange in Nottingham Street in July of 1907.
His father sadly took his own life in 1917 at the age of 70 and Josiah himself was to pass away in June 1933 at the relatively young age of 59 years. Thankfully, much of his work is still discoverable today and I have ‘discovered’ Josiah in this new, twenty-first century by reason of the fact that amongst all of his many interests, like myself he had a great passion for learning and talking of the rich social history of his beloved town, producing a number of scholarly and readable articles for occasional publication in the local press. I have no scruples about occasionally ‘lifting’ a whole piece of prose in the interests of presenting an accurate account and so, with the proper as an example of one of Josiah’s valuable literary contributions, I have reproduced the following article which memorialises in the wonderful detail and style of the time the life and times of some of the most iconic of Melton’s many old hunting lodges.
‘MEMORIALS OF A GREAT MELTON FAMILY 1793-1932.
‘The House’ and Other Famous Local Residences.
By Josiah Gill.
From The Grantham Journal of Saturday June 25th, 1932
After about six years of being the hub and heart of the rising Hunt, the centre of ‘a most select company of noblemen and gentry of sporting celebrity,’ the fortunes of ‘The House’ appear to have changed. In the September assessment for the year 1793, the name of Lambton is erased, and that of ‘Norman’ substituted by pencil. The House was forthwith designated after the new owner and so remained until comparatively recent years when it unaccountably characterised itself having no prefix to its generic name.
With all the dignity and amenity of a country house, planted in the very heart of the town, ‘Norman House’ continued for upwards of half a century, the abode of one of Melton’s most honoured families. Lady Elizabeth Norman, generally known by the appellation of ‘The Good Lady Elizabeth,’ was a veritable ‘Lady Bountiful’ amongst her humbler neighbours. The sense of ceaseless responsibility to poorer neighbours of the noblesse oblige, was strong in those days and during very many years Lady Elizabeth’s discerning sympathy and delicate generosity were the means of brightening the lives of scores of her fellow-citizens. Her benevolence among the poor was unbounded; wherever there was sickness or distress her heart was open to sympathise and her hand to relieve. Often she was found at the bedside of the afflicted, reading portions of Holy Writ, and many times was she observed on her way to the house of some sick and almost destitute person, herself carrying the means to minister to their needs.
At her funeral, in 1852. hearse nor carriage was present, but members of the families of Manners, Grant, Straton and Forester, headed by the Marquis of Granby, were numbered among the mourners who witnessed the interment by Orlando, afterwards fourth Lord Forester, in the almost forgotten God’s acre hidden away off King Street [The new cemetry]. In relieving the poor, Lady Elizabeth not only fed them, but physicked them also. Perhaps the most enduring memorial of this great lady is found in the form of a homely recipe, which even to-day survives as a magnificent proof of her benevolence and charity. Within last few days enquiries have reached the town from Africa respecting the formula of this cheap, effective medicine, with a view of employing it among indigent natives of Umtata. Owing to lapse of time the appellation of dignity very often varied by the present generation from “Lady” to “Queen,” “Mother,” “Aunt,” “Mary” and even ‘Saint’ Elizabeth’s cough mixture. Thus is paid unwittingly the highest compliment due to a good soul of bygone days.
After the death of Mr. Norman, a beautiful font, with its exquisitely carved oak canopy, was erected to his memory in the Parish Church ‘as a token of love and affection by his widow and fourteen surviving children.’ A romantic interest attaches to this house from its close connection with ‘the most beautiful woman in the Kingdom of high rank’ as Wraxall styles Mary Isabella, widow of His Excellency the Duke of Rutland who died Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland in 1787. Towards the close of her life, this magnificent Peeress – four times painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds – spent a portion of several winters at The Poplars, a house now almost lost in modern use to which trade has converted it [now a butchers shop in Sherrard Street]. Apropos of this circumstance, the Duchess not infrequently provided her immediate neighbours with one of those wonderful pieces of pomp and pageantry which in that era were so often associated with the most common-place events in life, for we have it on excellent authority that when this Ex-Vicereine paid a casual visit to her daughter, who resided on the opposite side of the street, she invariably chartered her four-in-hand pony phaeton, with its complement of liveried servants, by which in almost semi-regal state she traversed the few yards of thoroughfare.
But ‘The Duchess Rooms’ of today suggest to us a much more intimate and prolonged association with ‘The House’ than was conceded to its neighbour. That the Duchess and her dandy sons were great habitués of the place is certain. In an interesting side-light on the social life of this mansion about a century ago, Mr. Brereton, the gossipy Headmaster of the School, was accustomed to give private instruction to the juvenile members of the Norman family. On one occasion, after exhibiting some experiments, this local diarist confided to his journal under date 1822, “The Duchess of Rutland is electrified.”
The best features of country-house life were again united during the long residence here of Colonel and Mrs. Markham and their numerous family. Colonel Markham considerably enlarged the house and also beautified the gardens. Thenceforth the place became a most agreeable rendezvous for the junior members of the hunting families, where festivities and jollifications of merry young folk frequently took place. On December 12th, 1877, this mansion formed a fitting background for a bridal cortege and surely no more splendid spectacle ever graced old St. Mary’s Church than the nuptials of Cecile Markham and Cecil Samuda when a great throng of the elite of the town, dressed in full hunting attire, honoured the ceremony by their presence. On emerging from the Church the bridal party, which included ten bridesmaids, each wearing a robin in her hat, passed under an avenue cf garlands supported by scarlet-coated huntsmen, among them the venerable Duke of Rutland.
Benevolence, like hunting, runs in families, and Mrs Markham inherited from her grandmother a keen sense of personal responsibility for her neighbours welfare. The House again became sacred to scores of townspeople who reverenced the character or benighted by the unostentatious charity so naturally bestowed by this hereditary, ‘Lady bountiful.’ Melton was stirred to its depth, when, on July 20th, 1880, it heard of the death of this great-hearted lady, at the age of 44 years. This sad event left upon the mind of the writer an ineffaceable impression. Two days afterwards there took place the National Sunday school centenary celebration. The silencing of the bands and the dipping of the flags and banners, as the great procession on its way to Church, passed The House, was a token of affection towards one, who, in many ways, had befriended the youth of the town.
The only other name which counts in the annals of this mansion during the past fifty years is that of John Adrian, Earl of Hopetoun, a Chamberlain to Queen Victoria and one of her favourite ministers. After leaving Melton, Lord Hopetoun achieved distinction by becoming first Governor-General of the Australian Commonwealth, and eventually received the honour of a Marquisate. Since the death of Mrs. Lionel Powell in 1929 ‘The House’ has stood forlorn and dismantled, awaiting, doubtless, only the coup de grâce it will one day receive at the builder’s hand.
Few Melton houses carry more historical reminiscences than does the old homestead situated in illustrious obscurity on the southern slope of Mount Pleasant, [Dalby Road] the name of which we again crown with the definite article. The earliest notices we possess of ‘The Lodge’ appear in the year 1870 when it functioned as the hunting-box of that popular patron of ‘agricultural improvements’, the ninth Lord Kinnaird. The place conjures up memories of many notable people to whom it has been let during the century. In the ’Seventies, whilst in the tenancy of Lord and Lady Dupplin, King Edward added a distinctly interesting page to its history by a brief visit. Again, the Americanisation of Melton may be said to have been set when James Gordon Bennett, son of the founder and himself the proprietor of the ‘New York Herald,’ first took up his residence at this house during the absence of the Grants.
Mr. Moreton Frewen tells how on one occasion, he dined here with that great sportsman, ‘sitting next to a strange hard-bitten American who regarded Melton as a ‘lunatic asylum in pink coats.’ “I did not catch my neighbour’s name and enquired of my host.” “Oh” he said. “Its Stanley, a man I am sending to Africa to hunt up Livingstone.” Art, rather than rank, has, however, given to The Lodge its greatest distinction. For the one name of supreme importance and consequence in its annals is, of course, that of Sir Francis Grant. Indeed there never was a place so associated with with the memory of one man as is this villa with the once popular President of the Royal Academy.Sir Francis Grant came to Melton as far back as the early ‘thirties. He began to paint and little by little, by dint of his genius and ability, he worked his way steadily onward until at length he gained a secure place among great English painters, ultimately reaching the highest position in his branch of art in this country. Three or four years before settling in Melton, young Grant commanded the notice of Sir Walter Scott in the following delightful entry in his ‘journal’ — “He is not going to be content with sitting at the bottom of his father’s table and passing the claret, but in giving himself heart and soul in following a delightful, though most arduous profession, and achieving in it a marked and independent position,” But the great Scotsman did not live long enough to see how brilliantly his foreshadowing of Grant’s career was realised.
Lady Dorothy Neville represents him as the only painter she ever knew who painted by gaslight, and he was further described by a lady at Court in the words of Queen Victoria as “ the handsomest man and the most gifted artist in the three kingdoms.” Two pictures, representing the company at Melton during the reign of the ‘Sailor King’ hang in numerous houses of the town. ‘The Melton Breakfast’ alone, with its graceful strength and repose, is sufficient to make immortal the name of the painter who exhibited during his career not less than 253 works.
As a rider, Sir Francis stood in the first rank. ‘Nimrod’ says of him; “He possessed the combined arts of riding over not only fences and brooks, but now and then over horses and men in the morning and by delighting Society in the evening by the sallies of his wit and humour. “It is not always that honours such as attended this young man’s funeral ceremony are so fitly bestowed. His friends seemed to have shared the feelings of the relatives of Lord Kelvin and Florence Nightingale, who alike declined the honour of a national burial which the nation, had it been permitted, would gladly have paid to the dead by interment in the central shrine of English Christendom. Like his great predecessor, Sir Godfrey Kneller, Sir Francis lies far from the bustle of the Capital having found sepulture in the cemetery in King Street among the hunting scenes he loved so well. The funeral, on October 12th, 1878, marked perhaps, one of the most imposing and impressive obsequies ever witnessed in Melton. Previous to the hour of burial, about three hundred members of the Royal Academy had luncheon at Norman House, and afterwards joined the funeral cortège. Nobles counted it an honour to support the pall, among the bearers being Lord Kinnaird, Mr. Cope R.A., the Duke of Rutland, Viscount Hardinge, the Marquis of Bristol, and other men of high consideration. The public attended in great numbers and the ‘Archbishop of Society’ as the northern Primate was styled, took the service.
Right to the end, while The Lodge remained the home of his venerated daughter, the gentle presence of the great painter seemed to hover around the house he loved so well and which remained much as it was in his time, replete with beautiful productions and souvenirs.Among street scenes of rather less than fifty years ago, which we remember as little more than shadows, the little donkey carriage carrying lady Grant and accompanied by her majestic daughter, stands out real and tangible. Daughter of Richard and Lady Elizabeth Norman, Lady Grant was born at ‘The House’ on May 25th, 1805. After the death of Sir Francis, Lady Grant made their winter hunting box her permanent home, until in the year 1893, she ‘shuttled off the mortal coil.’ Memories of this old and respected family are revived by inspecting the windows in the Norman Chapel of St Mary’s Parish Church. Especially noteworthy is the beautiful memorial to the great artist, the subject of which is a full length figure of Saint Luke as a painter.
Despite the brisk, pleasant modernity of young Mr ‘Hammerdown the Fourth’ [the auctioneer!] cheerfully stripping The Lodge of its historic souvenirs, one could not but view with genuine sadness the scene which marked not merely the end – as far as patrician associations are concerned – of two historic houses, but also deprived Melton of the last in direct succession of the fine old families which through five generations identified them with the life of the community.’