The Medley Family of Yew Tree House
On 29th May 1876 Messrs Hobbs of Worcester sold at auction “a very desirable estate, freehold and tithe-free, known as Yew Tree House“, stretching from Roberts End to Gilberts End. It included large walled-in gardens, greenhouses, coach-houses, stabling and compact agricultural buildings, and was described as ‘in every respect suitable for a Gentleman retiring from business and wishing to enjoy Agricultural pursuits.’ In total the estate covered 63 acres of “first-class arable and pasture land of unusual fertility in high cultivation, judiciously laid out and planted with choice fruit trees.“ In addition to Yew Tree House, the estate comprised a villa residence, The Elms, fronting onto Gilberts End, and two cottages fronting onto Picken End. The auctioneer’s particulars added: “Three first-class railway stations are within easy reach and two packs of hounds hunt the neighbourhood.“
The estate, sold on behalf of Henry Holder, was bought for £7500 [£500,000 today] by 24-year-old Alfred Kossuth Medley. He was to stay for 43 years. Alfred was the youngest son of a successful London baker, Edward Medley, and his wife, Harriet. A fortnight before Alfred’s birth in Brick Lane, London, in November 1851, a Miss Harriet Medley, his eldest sister then aged 14, attended a meeting addressed by the charismatic Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth. He had been President of the short-lived Hungarian republic in 1848, but it had been crushed with Russian help and Kossuth had fled into exile. A brilliant orator, he received a rapturous welcome wherever he went and in England, only Admiral Nelson and the Duke of Wellington had attracted bigger crowds. Fluent in six languages, he pleaded the cause of Hungary so eloquently that the anti-Russian sentiment aroused contributed strongly towards support for the Crimean War a few years later. Anyway, he made a big impression on young Harriet who must have told her mother all about the meeting at the Assembly Rooms, Hanover Square, because when her baby brother was born two weeks later he was named Alfred Kossuth Medley.
Incidentally, Harriet appears to have had strong opinions and behaved not always with the decorum expected of a young lady, for whoever took her to the meeting wrote on the back of her entrance card “Harriet Medley ought not to be allowed to enter any Assembly Rooms.“
In 1868 the lives of Edward Medley and his children (his wife having recently died) were transformed by a huge legacy from his sister-in-law, Eliza Gilbert, who left the bulk of her estate – considerable property in the Vauxhall area of London – to be shared equally between her brother-in-law and his six children. Edward promptly retired to York and the following year with her share, Harriet, now aged 32 and married to Cheltenham surveyor James McIlquham, bought the Staverton House estate in Gloucestershire. Harriet was not the sort of woman to be content with running a household. She was a strong supporter of women’s suffrage, became the first chairman of Staverton Parish Council, was elected one of the first women Poor Law Guardians (for Boddington, near Tewkesbury) and wrote many papers on sociology, philosophy and religion.
In June 1871, shortly after the end of the Franco-Prussian war, Alfred Medley went to Paris for a week, perhaps to see what he could buy and it may be that the fine Sevres vase decorated with scenes from the life of Napoleon, which was a treasured item in the Medley household, was a souvenir of that trip. His passport survives. Signed by the Earl Granville, Foreign Secretary, it requests and requires “in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow Mr Alfred Medley (British subject) travelling on the Continent to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford him every assistance and protection of which he may stand in need.“ It was stamped when he arrived in Le Havre and again at the British Embassy in Paris on his return journey.
Possibly on a visit to his sister in Gloucestershire, Alfred Medley met Sophie Allard, the daughter of a Tewkesbury doctor, William Allard, and his wife, Annie Higginson, who was the daughter of another eminent surgeon in the town, Joseph Higginson. In 1874 Alfred, then aged 22, and Sophie, 23, were married. A year later their first child, Gilbert, was born and in 1876, with a second child on the way, they decided to find a suitable property not too far from Sophie’s parents in Tewkesbury. Yew Tree House suited them perfectly and Alfred used his share of his aunt’s legacy to buy the estate and a further eight cottages fronting onto Gilberts End. He settled into the life of a gentleman farmer while continuing to receive an income from the ground rent of his London properties. A daughter, Annie, was born later that year and another daughter, Sophie Josephine, in 1877. In 1882 their last child, John, known as Jack, was born.
Alfred and Sophie appear to have been quickly accepted into local society, as shown by two letters from the vicar of Hanley Castle, Rev. A B Lechmere. One dated December 16th 1877 says “Dear Mrs Medley, It will give me much pleasure to accept your friendly invitation on Tuesday next at six o’clock. I hope Miss Sophie Josephine is none the worse for Friday’s ceremony [presumably baptism]. She stood it very well.“ The other dated 11th September 1878 says, “Dear Mrs Medley, Mr Gee [who occupied a house built on the site of the castle] has given me a haunch of Berkeley venison. I hope that you and Mr Medley will give me the pleasure of your company at dinner on Friday next at seven o’clock to try the merits of it.“
A buildings and contents insurance policy from Sun Fire Office survives from 1882. It provides the following valuations: house – £1500 [£100,000 today], contents (no one item valued at more than £10) – £1200 [£80,000], coach-house and 2 stables – £300, horses, carriages and another coach-house – £300, cart house and machine house – £150, drink house with room over – £70, cowshed and calves-house – £50, 4 pigsties – £25, The Elms farmhouse – £300, 8 cottages at Gilberts End – £410, 2 cottages at Picken End – £100, cider mill and cattle stalls – £60.
Sophie had several brothers and sisters, the youngest by 17 years being Ellen Maria, known as Nellie. She was only nine when her sister moved to Hanley Swan, but must have paid several visits over the years and got to know the neighbours. Living on the other side of the road not far away at Catterall (now Brummell Court) were the Hunters – Mrs Mary Hunter, the widow of Capt. Hunter, RN, of Severn Stoke, and her son Ralph, who, as a lieutenant in the North Staffordshire regiment, served in India for 7 years. In 1886 Ralph Hunter, aged 28, and Nellie Allard, 19, were married and lived at Catterall, where they brought up two daughters. Ralph was a staunch Conservative, presiding over many meetings in connection with the local organisation at Hanley Swan.
Sophie Medley had developed an interest in photography and began recording the family, estate staff and local views. In 1890 tragedy struck when their eldest child, Gilbert, who was a boarder at Bedford School, caught pneumonia and died. Jack was encouraged to follow in his maternal grandfather’s footsteps and become a doctor, but he was more interested in new technology, which in the 1890s meant electricity. He studied at Faraday House in London and became an electrical engineer, spending a year at Worcester’s first power station at Powick in 1902 before moving to Darlington.
His sisters stayed in the area, Annie marrying the organist at Holy Trinity Church, Malvern, Frederick Hickson, and Josephine, unmarried, living at The Laurels, Hanley Swan. When he retired, Jack went to live in West Malvern with his daughter Diana, who inherited the albums and scrapbooks that have made this memoir possible.
Back to Alfred and Sophie Medley. In 1897 Alfred was responsible for the general arrangements and preparation of a feast to celebrate Queen Victoria’s jubilee. A special tea for 350 children of the parish was laid on in a marquee at Severn End, after which the adults, more than 600, sat down to a meal of meat with cider or tea.
In the second decade of the 20th century, everything changed. Sophie Medley died in her 59th year in 1909. One month later her younger sister, Nellie Hunter, also died, aged just 43. Ralph Hunter survived only 2 years, dying at the age of 53, and Alfred Medley died in 1919 aged 67. The children had to sell up but, just after the First World War, there could hardly have been a worse time to put an agricultural estate on the market, as the Hornyold family discovered when they sold part of the Blackmore Park estate in the same year. Yew Tree House with its 63 acres was snapped up for a mere £3350 – equivalent to £100,000 today – one-fifth of the value of the estate 40 years earlier.
The buyer was the Birmingham industrialist John Wilson, who occupied the house until 1950 and had one of the first telephone numbers in the village, Hanley Swan 8. But he gradually sold off all the land and went on over the course of 30 years to acquire farms at Cygnet Lodge and Blackmore End.