The Lechmere Family
Land in the Hanley area is said to have been given to the Lechmere family by William the Conqueror. According to family legend, the original grant was discovered at Severn End in the 17th century in Edmund Lechmere’s time, but its whereabouts today is unknown. Certainly, the Lechmeres were established here before 1173 when Reginald de Lechmere is recorded as paying taxes.
According to Nash’s History of Worcestershire, the name derives from Lech, a branch of the Rhine in Utrecht. But Lech also means love in old Breton and mere mother, from which comes the family coat of arms of a pelican, the emblem of self-sacrifice, feeding her young with her blood, and the motto Christus Pelicano (Christ is like the pelican), which was assumed by Thomas Lechmere in the reign of Henry VII.
A diary left by Sir Nicholas [Judge] Lechmere (1613-1701) provides much interesting information. The family estate, which was centred on a site variously known as Lechmere’s Field and Lechmere’s Place, expanded in Tudor times, partly by the marriage of Richard Lechmere to the heiress Margaret Rocke of Ripple, but chiefly because of the friendship of Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London [a Catholic, although he acted for Henry VIII and took the oath of Supremacy], who was born in a Lechmere house at Hanley Quay and educated at the expense of Richard’s father, Thomas. Littlebury’s Directory of 1879 says “The notorious Bishop Bonner, whose persecutions in the reign of Mary have covered his name in shame, was born in this parish.”
Richard’s son Edmund (1550-1616) and his wife Anne (1557-1620) built Severn End around 1580 and lived together for more than 40 years but, noted Nicholas, “in theyr daies the estate of our family received much diminution“ partly because of their religion [Catholic] and certain lawsuits, but chiefly “. Their son Edmund (1577-1650), presumably the first Lechmere to adopt the Protestant faith, is described as “exceeding temperate in all things, but tobacco, and very kindly affectionate to his children“ [he and his wife Margaret had eight sons and seven daughters].
Edmund’s eldest son Nicholas, later known as Judge Lechmere, was the first in the family to enter the law. After a shaky start, he restored the family's fortunes. He supported Parliament during the Civil Wars and in 1651, a year after he inherited the estate, on the eve of the Battle of Worcester he narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Scottish forces of Charles II who were quartered at Severn End. He was elected MP for Worcestershire in 1654 and the following year was appointed to the profitable position of attorney-general of the duchy of Lancaster. In 1658 he was invited to Cromwell’s funeral and was returned to the last Cromwellian parliament at a cost (for entertaining friends at several inns) of £614 (£60,000 today).
When Charles II was restored in 1660, Nicholas managed to obtain a pardon for the comparatively modest sum of £200 (£20,000), keeping most of the land he had bought during the good years of the 1650s. In that time he rebuilt Severn End as a splendid mansion, adding a new kitchen, walling in the garden, building the great barn and a study in the south-west corner of the garden [restored in 1861], and planting an avenue of elms. His diary notes the killing of a seal in the Severn at Hanley in 1664 and reports an outbreak of plague in Upton in 1665.
In 1672 Nicholas bought the right of patronage of Hanley from his neighbour Thomas Hornyold. The following year he began the most important addition to the house by the erection of two brick wings on the north and south sides of the green court, as he called it. A builder, John Averian, was contracted to do the work for £250 (£30,000) but, Nicholas sadly records, “He fayled in all things.”
In 1677 he built a new pigeon house and enclosed a coal pit in Northfield, adding a malt house and a brew house in 1681. His diary reports a malicious accusation against his son by Sir Edward Dingley, his kinsman, which was rejected by the court “to the shame of the most ungrateful wretch Sir Edw. D. if any shame bee in him”.
Judge Nicholas was a whig and anti-Catholic in outlook, suspecting that the great fire of 1666 was a popish outrage. At the revolution of 1688, his whig credentials secured for him a knighthood and the appointments of Baron of the Exchequer and deputy-lieutenant of Worcestershire. The last entry in his diary records that his grandsons Anthony and Nicholas were admitted to the Middle Temple in 1693. He resigned from his judgeship in 1700 at the age of 87 and died the following year.
Killed in Action
As the eldest son, Anthony inherited the Lechmere estate. One brother, Nicholas, had a distinguished legal career, becoming Solicitor-General, Attorney-General and Baron Lechmere of Evesham. Another brother, Edmund, served in Samuel Pepys’s new Navy and at the age of 22 was promoted to Captain. A brilliant future was cut short by his death in action against the French in 1704. His mother, Lucy, kept his letters home, which record shipboard life and his adventures capturing French prizes and fighting pirates and slavers.
One early letter to his father passes on a request from his captain for 12 dozen flagons of best Hanley cider and adds, “I should be very glad to have a little sent too, seeing the ship’s Beer is all the liquor we drink.” Two weeks later he writes to his mother complaining that letters to his father asking for cider have gone unanswered and hoping for this to be remedied soon. He also undertakes to look after one of the Severn End estate workers, who had been press-ganged into the Navy. On leave in London, he visits his brother Nicholas and finds him “much mauled with the smallpox”. In January 1703/4, in command of the 32-gun frigate Lyme, Edmund Lechmere engaged a 46-gun French privateer and was fatally wounded by musket fire during the encounter. He was buried in St Andrews church, Plymouth, and his sea chest was sent back to Severn End.
Writing 50 years later, Horace Walpole described the view from Severn End as “the finest meadow covered with cattle that ever you saw; at the end of it is the town of Upton, with a church half-ruined, and a bridge of six arches”.
Sale and Repurchase
The house passed in due course to Nicholas’s great-grandson Edmund Lechmere (1710-1805), who lived to 94 and had sons from two marriages. From the first to Elizabeth Charlton came Nicholas, who inherited Severn End as well as his mother’s estate in Herefordshire, which he made his main residence, letting Severn End as a farmhouse. After his wife died in 1762, Edmund married another Elizabeth, Whitmore, and their son, Anthony Lechmere (1766-1849), in due course built a new home about a mile and a half upstream at Rhydd Court. From the drawing room of this Italianate mansion, there were fine views of the River Severn with Worcester Cathedral in the distance. Anthony was created a baronet in 1822 by George IV who, as Prince of Wales, had met him at Croome Court and was struck by his appearance “as a fine specimen of a country gentleman”. In 1830 his cousin sold Severn End, but 22 years later it was repurchased by Sir Anthony’s son, Sir Edmund Hungerford Lechmere, who let it to his farm steward.
Writing in 1854, Sir Edmund described the house as in the black and white timber and plaster style with a massive door studded with iron knobs opening onto a passage, on the left of which were the servants’ hall and domestic offices, while on the right was a small panelled hall connecting to the best apartments. A door at the end of the passage opened onto a formal garden. The brick wing extensions enclosed a courtyard formed by an iron palisade with pillars on either side of a florid iron gate. In the centre of the wall opposite the house door was a heavy gate leading to a crescent-shaped avenue of elms about ¾ of a mile long with a pathway underneath leading to the village of Hanley.
E P Shirley in Hanley and the House of Lechmere, 1883, adds “The old house had few striking features, nor were its arrangements convenient or suited to modern taste. The entrance hall was not of large size and wainscoted with oak. The dining room adjoining the hall is the largest room in the house – very low with a heavy ceiling of stucco, panelled with oak painted white. The drawing room is a small room in the north wing. The greater part of the building is occupied by staircases and long passages, and now and then a dark retreat or closet.”
Sir Edmund Anthony Harley Lechmere (1826-1894) inherited the estate in 1856 and 2 years later he married Louisa Haigh, heiress of Whitwell Hall, North Yorkshire. In celebration, the better-off people of Hanley Castle raised £60 (£4000 today) for a great feast for the poor of the parish. Held in a tent on Merevale Farm, it provided meat, potatoes, bread, cheese, plum pudding and cake, cider and ale for 600 people. Thomas Charles Hornyold proposed a toast to the bride and groom and the after-dinner amusement included an exciting race for a well-soaped pig. Upwards of 2000 people gathered in the field to witness the proceedings. When the couple arrived at Rhydd Court, their oldest tenant, Joseph Green, 82, addressed Sir Edmund with the words, “I was born on your estate and have had the privilege of occupying a farm under four generations of the Lechmere family. I can with truth bear testimony to their liberality as landlords, as well as their generous hospitality, courtesy and kindness in all relations of life. I have the honour of presenting to you an address of congratulations signed by about 120 of your tenants and neighbours, which I hope will be handed down to your posterity as a proof of the esteem in which you are held in this neighbourhood.”
In 1873 Sir Edmund negotiated with Thomas Charles Gandolfi-Hornyold the exchange of various parcels of land, whereby the Lechmeres gave the Hornyolds three large farms – Common, Upper Common and Danemoor – including what is now the Three Counties Showground, and land around Hanley Swan, in exchange for Cliffey Wood and the Hanley Castle site, including Lodge Farm and Burley Mill. The estate now covered about 1600 acres.
Sir Edmund was a founder of the St John’s Ambulance Association and the British Ophthalmic Hospital in Jerusalem. When the society magazine Vanity Fair published a caricature of him in 1883 under the title St John of Jerusalem, it noted, “Sir Edmund is a highly honourable very modest man, who has devoted himself with a single mind to doing, with as little noise as may be, whatever good he can effect in his generation.”
His daughter Katherine recalled having violin lessons in 1884 at Rhydd Court from Edward Elgar, who used to walk several miles to the house from Malvern. His fee for a lesson was 5 shillings and a glass of sherry.
Sir Edmund was a popular landlord who never had to advertise for tenants when one of his farms became vacant. His obituary in 1894 noted, “There are nearly 50 cottages on his estate and more than the total amount received for rent every year has been spent in repairs and improvements to them. Each cottage contains at least three bedrooms [actually, most had two] and has a good garden.” He had added a piece of land to each cottage for this purpose, at the request of his tenants. Elsewhere he provided allotments. He was one of the first to establish working men’s clubs and in 1860 he funded the conversion of the Coach & Horses Inn in Hanley Swan [now the village stores] to the Hanley Working Man’s Institute. The stables were rebuilt to provide accommodation for 12 single men as lodgers, the tap room of the old pub became a library and reading room, the bar parlour a refreshment room and the bar itself a smoke room where, however, “no stronger libations than tea and coffee will be permitted”. On the first anniversary of the institute, a tent was erected on Hanley Green in which 200 people had tea and cake. Afterwards, they adjourned to an adjoining field lent by Mr Grundy for recreation that included races with hurdle leaping, football, throwing sticks at Aunt Sally and country dancing, Sir Edmund leading off with Miss Foster of Gilberts End Farm.
Sir Edmund was a senior partner in the family bank, Lechmere & Co, and a good judge of pictures, his assets including three Rembrandts. In 1880 he was elected MP for West Worcestershire. When his tenants gathered at Rhydd Court to congratulate him, his obituary noted, “Nothing in modern life could have recalled more vividly all that was best in the feudal system.”
At 4.30 am one morning in October 1896 a kitchen maid in Severn End woke to the sound and smell of fire. It appears that a beam had ignited in the chimney of the buttery, which was used as a dining room during cold weather. The butler hurried to Upton-on-Severn for the fire brigade, which attached their hoses to a fishpond, but the fire was fanned by a keen wind and soon spread to both wings of the house. By the time the Norwich Union fire brigade in Worcester received the news by telegraph, it was 6 am. Within the hour their steam engine was at the scene, but it was soon seen how utterly impossible it was to save the centre and oldest part of the building. The walls collapsed with a noise like that of a bomb, but the chimneys stood firm, the old ingenious brickwork of centuries ago withstanding both the heat and the terrific dash of water, rising up into the sky like a charred tree.
Most of the rooms on the ground floor were destroyed; the principal bedrooms on the first floor and all rooms on the top storey. Very little of the valuable furniture was saved, except the billiard table, although it was necessary to cut its legs off in order to get it out. The family museum was one of the first rooms to become ignited and burned like matchwood. The house had been occupied by Sir Edmund Arthur Lechmere (1865-1937) and his family, but luckily no one was hurt. Writing to Berrow’s Worcester Journal, Sir Edmund noted “…the old oak and curios I have myself collected are gone; the armour, panelling and priceless old chairs are burnt, as too the gable which was in course of restoration – a work which my poor father always contemplated and which I was carrying out. The time, the money, and the hopes which were centred on the place are of course gone forever. As it was God’s will the dear old place should go, it is at least a fitting end that it should go down loved and cared for by a descendant of the race who built it, and that after so many centuries it should fall as it has stood, the home and residence of my ancient house.”
However, the house and part of the furniture were insured and so Sir Edmund was able to rebuild Severn End in its former style in 1899 at a cost of £8500 (£640,000 today). At the same time, the drive was redirected from its old route to Quay Lane to emerge opposite Church End, and the lodge was built plus entrance gates and pillars with their carved pelicans for a further £892 (£67,000).
A year after the fire Sir Edmund married his second wife, Katharine Wright, his first wife, Alice Samuels, having died some years earlier. The presents showered on them included a silver salad bowl (Severn End, Eldersfield and Staunton estates), silver soup tureen (inhabitants of Upton), silver inkstand (Rhydd Court employees), silver cider mug (Severn End employees), cut-glass tantalus (cottagers at Severn End), gold and ormolu carriage clock (ladies of Hanley Castle), silver candelabra (Hanley Castle Grammar School) and a hot water jug (Hanley Castle almshouses). Sir Edmund held a ball at Upton Town Hall for all his tenants and the tradesmen of Upton, the supper being supplied by the White Lion Hotel. Dancing continued until 3 am and the ball was a brilliant success, reported the Worcester Times.
In 1908 the mansion was let for 7 years to Adelaide & Alice Savile of Tonbridge, Kent, at an annual rent of £370 (£26,000). The property included the entrance lodge, 28 acres of grassland and orchard, shooting and fishing rights over Sir Edmund’s lands and the obligation “to preserve a sufficient number of foxes for the Croome Hunt”.
In 1915 the Lechmeres allowed Rhydd Court to be used as a Red Cross hospital (after the war it was sold and became a school) and moved back to their ancestral home at Severn End. It needed modernisation and in July 1923 they installed central heating, but the system never worked properly and in April 1924 Lady Katherine wrote to their agent in a manner familiar to anyone who has struggled with a heating system, saying: “The hot water arrangement is a hopeless failure. As you know we had Ronald and all his family with us last week, but we could not have one single bath. We tried but the chill was scarcely off the water and yet the wretched stove was going from morning till night. There was nice hot water for the kitchen and warmish water in the housemaid’s pantry, but we were equally well supplied when we had the kitchen fire. Something must be done.” Something was done – a larger boiler was installed, which must have solved the problem for there is no further correspondence on the subject.
The following year Sir Edmund organised a petition to the Minister of Health protesting the proposal by Upton District Council to install a sewerage pipe from Quay Lane to Cross Hands at a cost to ratepayers of £1400 (£53,000 today). About three-quarters of the parish signed the petition, but the Minister supported the Council. However, the scheme could not go ahead without the consent of the owner of the disposal site, who happened to be Sir Edmund. After two years of fruitless negotiations, the Council bought the site by compulsory purchase.
In due course, the estate passed to Sir Edmund’s son Sir Ronald (1886-1965) and then to his son Sir Berwick (1917-2001), but he had no children and left the estate in trust to his second cousin Nicholas (b. 1960) whose father Sir Reginald (1920-2010) inherited the baronetcy.
It is said in the county that when there are no more Lechmeres left in Worcestershire, there will be no more apples.