Expanding the Estate
When Thomas Anson succeeded his father in 1720 his house was a fairly modest William and Mary style building. built by the wealthy lawyer, William Anson from Derrington, in the 1690s. It would have been impressive in comparison with the small village of Shugborough which lay across the meadows near the site of the present farm. The village consisted of cottages, farm and mills (manufacturing paper) and did not form part of William Anson’s property. During the course of the 18th century the village and a wide area of surrounding land was gradually absorbed, piece by piece, into an ever growing Shugborough estate. It was a slow process.
The old village remained in the landscape throughout Thomas Anson’s time and is a feature of several of the landscape paintings in the house. The last cottage was demolished as late as 1805.
Thomas certainly acquired property in the village and the surrounding valley and woods, but did he intend to remove the village, as other landowners did, simply to improve the view from the house?
By the time of George Anson’s death in 1762, the land in front of the house had become an elaborate landscape of lakes and follies, including a cascade and a pagoda. The triumphant arch was already being constructed on the slope below the forest of Cannock Chase. But the village was still there, as can be seen in the paintings by Nicholas Dall which record the landscape in the last few years of Anson’s life and immediately after his death.
It is impossible to know at what point he began to plan his elaborate landscape. None of the exotic decorative features can be dated earlier than 1747. It is quite possible that, before that time, Thomas was simply buying up neighbouring property, or, as some say, “squatting” to absorb vacant property into the estate, as it became available, without any grand design.
The first property acquired by Thomas was the fulling mill. It had been in the possession of the Dudson family, and the lease was acquired by Thomas in 1731. This mill was some way from the house, and the bulk of the village lay in between. Fulling mills are used to clean woollen cloth. Thomas kept extensive flocks of sheep on his land and had a serious interest in agriculture and the development of modern methods as his connection with the agricultural reformer Nathaniel Kent demonstrates in the later part of his life.
After his voyage to Asia Minor, which may have kept him away from home for a considerable time, he began his large-scale take-over of the village. By this time, he may well have begun to have grand designs inspired by his travels and enthusiasm for the art and ideal landscapes of Ancient Greece.
Frederick Stitt, whose study of “Shugborough. The End of a Village” is the source of the detailed information about the purchasing of property in the area, pointed out that the evidence suggested that Thomas had formed a plan for the estate well before George Anson set sail on the voyage that would make him wealthy between 1740 and 1744.
Stitt suggests that the “new found wealth created the opportunity to indulge existing ambitions.”
(Frederick Stitt, Shugborough. The End of a Village, Collections for a History of Staffordshire, 4th Series Vol. 6)
This raises an important question.
Did George contribute any money at all to the development of Shugborough before his death?
There is no evidence at all that the expansion of the estate, the landscaping, and the extensions to the house, had anything to do with George’s wealth.
The land was acquired piece by piece. The landscaping and building of the monuments took place over many years, beginning in 1747. The first monuments were modest, the pagoda and obelisk being built of wood. Surely, Thomas Anson, as inheritor of the estate of a wealthy lawyer, would have been able to do these things with his own financial resources?
More to the point, would any 18th century younger son dream of giving his elder brother money? It wouldn’t be done, unless there was an idea that, as Thomas was childless, the estate would be eventually be inherited by George’s offspring, if there were any.
Buying property for the family estate as an investment for the future might seem understandable, but for gifts from George to be used to create a fanciful landscape to Thomas’s taste seems unlikely.
After George married Elizabeth Yorke in 1748, he bought Moor Park, a very expensive property. His brother advised, says Lady Anson, on “combing”, or improving, the grounds. George may have seen Moor Park as his permanent seat. It was a much grander place than Shugborough at that point.
The 1741 tax return shows that Thomas had acquired a quarter of the village property before George set off on his circumnavigation and Thomas travelled to Egypt.
The property acquired between 1731 and 1741 included some land away from the house, including, in 1737, Gillwicket Close, near Haywood Park. In 1739 he had acquired the houses near the millpond and was in occupancy of a property called The Leas.
These were patchy acquisitions, but they suggest that the plan was to acquire the entire surrounding land and, ultimately, the whole of the vale stretching south of the house, with more property added to the estate between 1747 and 1756.
Thomas was buying land beyond the vale of Shugborough from 1750 or earlier. By the time of his death he had extensive estates in Staffordshire, land in Norfolk bought from Lord Leicester at Holkham, and property in Hampshire that had belonged to George. To unravel the history of all this property, and to identify exactly which parts of it were originally Thomas’s purchases and which came from George, would be a very large task indeed.
Elizabeth Anson died childless in 1760 and George died in 1762 and all the wealth came unexpectedly to Thomas. With this sudden increase in wealth he was able to enlarge his house further, build a grand house in London, and complete the expansion of the estate on a far larger scale than he could ever have anticipated in 1747
The Nicholas Dall paintings suggest that some buildings in the old village might have been demolished before Thomas’s death in 1773, but there is no sign that there was any whole-scale demolition to remove the village entirely, and no evidence that that was ever the intention. In fact, the reverse is true.
The pictures show that some cottages and buildings remained in the late 1760s, visible around the Tower of Winds. This gives a picturesque effect which might have been intended, as the original Tower of the Winds, in Athens, is surrounded by other buildings.
Most interestingly, the pictures show a row of cottages which had been built new not long before Dall painted the views. These are marked as “Almshouses” on a 1771 plan, but there is no evidence that there was ever a charitable trust in existence to look after the poor and elderly in the village. Stitt wondered if Dall’s pictures showed the views as they were intended to become, rather than as they actually were at the time, but there is no reason to doubt their accuracy.
The travel diary of the young Irish MP and lawyer John Parnell described the new cottages as they were in the summer of 1769.
Parnell found two rows of between 20 and 30 small but “very neat” brick houses with a “little street between them.” Parnell thought these houses were for estate workers, but he found that they were for
poor people who kept little huts bordering on…a common or heath called Cank.
(Extracts from John Parnell’s diaries from original in London School of Economics, anonymous transcription, William Salt Library, Stafford.)
Parnell says these are the
first thing that strikes you on Entring the approach to his house
and that from the street of cottages you
enter a Plain low farm gate and drive on a gravel’d road open to the lawn
towards the house.
This can only mean that he arrived from the Lichfield Road, past the present farm, and that these cottages were, indeed, two rows quite close to the Tower of the Winds.
The fact that Thomas built new cottages as late as 1769, and that these were, in some way, “almshouses”, surely contradicts any idea that he had an intention of removing the village in the ruthless manner of Lord Harcourt (whom he certainly knew, and who also employed James “Athenian” Stuart) at Nuneham Courtney.
There may have been a practical benefit of this generosity to the poor as Thomas was in the process of improving part of the Chase into “as fine a sheep walk as can be wished.”
The village, including these new cottages, was demolished around 1800 by a later generation who had grander ideas, removing the more fanciful parts of the park and expanding the house from a villa to a stately home. The old village finally vanished, though the inhabitants were moved to well-built new cottages in the nearby villages of Great and Little Haywood, most of which (apart from “The Ring” between the two villages) still exist.