Driven to failure: the demise of Eggesford Estate

In the early years of the twentieth century, the sight of a car was still a rarity in Lapford. But one keen motorist, who could occasionally be spotted in the area, was Lord Portsmouth.

Mid-Devon was proud of its high-flying “Red Earl”, with his characteristic mane of ginger hair. The area welcomed his benefaction and patronage. But there was growing concern amongst people whose livelihood depended on the local Eggesford estate: the Earl’s tastes were changing. Were the days of the Eggesford estate numbered?

Eggesford House, the Devon home of the Earl of Portsmouth, was 6 miles down the road from Lapford. It stood high above the River Taw, and with its proliferation of mock-Elizabethan turrets, battlements and chimneys, it was an impressive sight on the skyline. Although never an estate village, Lapford bordered the earl’s farmlands, and a part of the parish, Bowerthy Woods, belonged to the estate. Several Lapford villagers were employed by the earl’s tenant farmers, and for many years, Lapford was the location of the estate office under the stewardship of the Croote family. The earl and his estate were, then, an important influence on Lapford life.

The ‘Red Earl’ was born Newton Wallop. He grew up at Eggesford and became a popular local MP. He knew Lapford well, chairing village meetings, opening events, socialising with yeoman in the Yeo Vale Inn, and hunting with them in and around the parish. But, visits to his old Devon constituency began to decrease once he had succeeded his father into the House of Lord’s as the 6th Earl.

The age of motoring had given him a new outlook and his Hampshire estate, Hurstbourne Park, proved to be a better base from which to tour, socialise and pursue hobbies.

The hounds of the Eggesford Hunt, his father’s great pride, held little interest. The earl preferred fine art to fete-opening; and socialising in the upper echelons of Westminster politics to the company once enjoyed with his tenant farmers.

The fast pace of London life appealed, although the earl often grew impatient at the city’s traffic congestion. On one occasion, he thrust his head out of the window of his cab, and roared at the cabman in his unsubdued Devonshire voice to proceed faster. The cabman explained that the streets were crowded. “Crowded?” retorted the Earl. “Bless my heart man, clear the road. I’m the Earl of Portsmouth!” The cabman laughed: ” You may be Lord Portsmouth in Devonshire, sir, but you ain’t Lord Almighty here!”

In the spring of 1901, the earl arrived at Eggesford in his new car and and his driving excursions around the area soon became a talking point. His, was probably the first car seen in Lapford village. A correspondent to the Western Times reported:

Lord Portsmouth, had a spin in his coach without any horses
his head was wrapped up as if he had toothache, but that was only to keep off the dust.

The reporter conjured an image of the earl’s father with the Eggesford Hunt on “a hard gallop from Chulmleigh Beacon to Lapford Forches”. What would have been said in those days if the earl had walked to his kennels and asked for a car?

“Times change”, concluded the reporter. “We must change with them!”

‘Party’ Politics
Lord Portsmouth’s spring visit to Eggesford in 1901 was brief and he didn’t return for his usual long summer residence. He had recently resigned from the Liberal Unionist Party and needed time to rebuild alliances and plan his next political move. British politics were under flux with party loyalty challenged by the matters of Irish home rule, free-trade and imperialism.

Eggesford House, c.1880

The earl decided to spend some of the summer holidaying with a group of like-minded imperialists on Lord Tweedmouth’s Scottish Estate: Guisachan. There is no record of the conversations that took place, but the gathering forged bonds that would shape British politics. As they chatted together after an afternoon’s shoot, little could the earl have imagined that in five years time the group would all be at the heart of a new Liberal government, and that he would own the 22,000 acre Guischan estate.

The 1901 summer hunting party included Richard Haldene, who became Minster of War with Lord Portsmouth his under-Secretary; Edward Grey, who would be Foreign Minister and who famously played a key role in last ditch negotiations before the outbreak of WW1; Lord Tweedmouth, who became First Sea Lord; and last, but not least, a promising man, fresh from the Boer War by the name of Winston Churchill.

Churchill’s time at Guisachan with the Liberal imperialists helped to woo him away from the Conservative Party and into his first government role. During the holiday he learnt to drive, perhaps assisted by keen motorist, Lord Portsmouth!

Lord Portsmouth was included in the new Liberal Cabinet of 1905 alongside the other members of the 1901 summer shooting party: Winston Churchill, Richard Haldane, Lord Tweedmouth and Sir Edward Grey

Pictures taken from The Sheffield Independent,
Wednesday 13 December 1905

The following summer, Lord Portsmouth was back in Eggesford. He had bought himself a new Napier car. A reporter for The Western Times wrote that the earl’s “coach without horses runs smoothly and smartly” but wished that “the occupants of motor cars could attire themselves in a more attractive guise”.

Lord Portsmouth was, according to the newspaper, still the only person to have driven a car into the area, with the exception of Mr. Chavalier, a well known music hall star of the time, who drove through en route to a performance in Barnstaple.

The Carnarvon connection
Lord Portsmouth’s love of cars may have been acquired from his cousin, Lord Carnarvon (of Tutankhamun fame), who lived at Highclere Castle (of Downton Abbey fame) only 7 miles from his home at Hurstbourne.

Lord Carnarvon was known for his love of speed, and was reckless in his thirst for it. In 1898, he was driving on a public road in excess of 30mph (more than twice the speed limit) when a policeman stepped out to stop him and was duly ignored! Lord Carnarvon managed to avoid prosecution—influence went a long way in those days—but he managed to clock up numerous speeding fines over the following years.

He chose not to evade a speeding fine in 1907 declaring that the police had done him a great favour that same day. A mounted policemen had accidentally hindered a racehorse during a race allowing the lord’s horse to win!

Lord Carnavon’s fast driving eventually led to a serious accident and he suffered breathing problems for the rest of his life. Some writers have suggested that the need for recuperation in a warm climate led to his love of Egypt, Egyptology and his role in discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

In contrast to his cousin, Lord Portsmouth had a reputation for being over-zealous in his calls for improved road safety. In government he unsuccessfully called for harsher punishments for speeding, claiming that fines were too small for wealthy motorists (like his cousin). He pushed for escalating fines and prison sentences for repeat offenders. His views were considered extreme at the time.

Whilst sitting on Hampshire County Council, he supported driving licences when other leaders regarded them as “inconvenient”, and he called for speed signs in villages— the suggestion was rejected in case drivers became lax in villages without them! When the 1903 Motor Act was debated at Westminster, Lord Portsmouth suggested that fines should not be limited to reckless drivers but should apply also to those not driving with due care.

He may have been ahead of his time: his ideas were largely rebuffed but they slowly became part of the road legislation we still use today.

Despite the earl’s interest in safer driving, the motoring era brought him a succession of negative publicity. In May 1903, a man was killed when he ran out in front of the earl’s car. Two years later, he was stopped by a policeman for speeding 4mph above the 20mph limit. He told the officer that it would be absurd to bring charges against him as he was a highly respected magistrate.

His attempt to evade a fine did not go down well. To the earl’s frustration, the police operated a speed trap for the next few months on a public road passing through his Hampshire estate. It was reported that “hedges were full of constables”. The London Mail joked that “a partridge drive on the opening day of the season could hardly have yielded better sport”. It became the countries most lucrative trap, netting £360 in a single year.

In 1907, the earl’s butler, to whom he was close, was killed in a motoring accident on the Gusachan Estate. The earl was not involved but the story, nevertheless, provided negative headlines.

Cars and the Devon farmer
With the earl now rarely seen at Eggesford, it was left to his brother and heir, John Wallop, to have discussions with tenant farmers about the need to modernise agricultural practices on the estate, including the introduction of motorised vehicles.

He was not a keen motorist but recognised that motor-transport had significant commercial benefit.

It was a hard sell. Farmers saw little threat of horses ever being superseded by motor-vehicle, but they were deeply concerned that horse prices might be affected. In 1903, John Wallop addressed a meeting of local agriculturalists:

Nobody dislikes the motor car more than me but I think the motor will give you the best opportunity of selling your produce … the best chance that Devon agriculture has is the introduction of electricity and motor-cars.

His comments were met with laughter.

Fortunes changed for the earl. He had once been a rising star, tipped as a future prime minister—bright, charismatic and able to deliver stirring rhetoric honed in the debating chambers of the Oxford Union. But in Westminster, his performances became lack-lustre. It was even rumoured that his early promise had been down to his mother writing his speeches.

In 1908, whilst Under-Secretary for War, he struggled to answer basic questions on a new Act introducing the Territorial Army. Lord Haldene, the author of the Act, sat next to him unable to hide his embarrassment. Weeks later Herbert Asquith became prime minister and Lord Portsmouth found himself without a ministerial role.

Ironically, 30 years previously, Asquith had been given employment at Eggesford House as the personal tutor to the future earl. Now, here he was, ending the political ambitions of his own pupil. It was a particularly difficult pill for the earl to swallow.

Lords Portsmouth became a bitter and outspoken critic of the government.

In April 1909, the earl gave a rousing speech warning of the possibility of war, invasion and the need for men in towns and villages to be trained:

We are no longer immune from the possibility of invasion... all classes of manhood in this country should be asked, I might say compelled, to take a share of defence in the interests of the country…
The Western Times, 03 May 1901

He was passionate. He seemed to have regained something of his old rhetoric and fire. It was a roaring speech, but not delivered in Westminster, where talk of war might have left him further ridiculed, but to a small assembly of Lapford Rifle Club. The earl had sort solace by returning to his Devon roots, back amongst friends. His speech was well applauded by the club who mostly consisted of aging farmers delighted to have the earl again in their midst.

The earl may have lost the ability to persuade the nation to prepare for war, but he might at least have persuaded the rifle club that they might need to seek some younger members!

Newton Wallop, 6th Earl of Portsmouth
by Walter Stoneman
bromide print, 1917
NPG x159719© National Portrait Gallery, London

The Demise of Eggesford House

In and around the Eggesford estate, there had been sadness, possibly anger, that Lord Portsmouth had preferred his other estates over Eggesford, but he was still treated with great respect and deference. Then, in 1912, he did the unthinkable: he put Eggesford up for sale. For the first time some newspapers printed what, for many years, had been unsaid:

The late Lord Portsmouth resided at Eggesford during two-thirds of the year, but his son has never cared for the place.
The Truth, 04 June, 1913

He does not care very much for the place and spends comparatively little time there.
The Bournemouth Graphic, 1912

Lord and Lady Portsmouth paid a short visit to Eggesford in the summer of 1913. It was their last.

Eggesford could no longer be afforded. Up and down the country estate houses were being sold, reduced in size or knocked down sometimes with seemingly little fuss. It was as if estate workers, trained over generations to keep their eyes down, hadn’t noticed. But, of course, they had. As estates disappeared so too did livelihoods and ways of living. Lapford would be amongst a number of mid-Devon villages to feel the effects of the demise of Eggesford estate.

Past glory. Dozens of mock-Tudor chimneys once made Eggesford House a striking feature on the skyline above the River Taw. After the building’s sale to a logging company it fell into ruin. In recent years the empty shell has been stabilised and incorporated into a residence.

Lord Portsmouth had acquired a small fortune thorough marriage, about £40 million today; thousands of acres of his Scottish estate had been sold; the Eggesford Estate had already been diminished for profit; but, it wasn’t enough. The estate went under the hammer and was bought principally for its timber.

The sale was largely blamed on the higher taxes that had been brought in by the Liberal Government as part of the 1909 ‘People’s Budget’.

The sale of the Eggesford estate is another ill sign of the times. How gleeful the Government must be that they have succeeded in rooting the Wallop family at length out of Devonshire! They will now no doubt be able to boast with pride that, the Prime Minister having driven the owner of Eggesford out of the Government, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has nobly completed the rout by turning him out of the West of England!
The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, Volume 114, 1912

It was 12 years since Lord Portsmouth had met Winston Churchill. Churchill was one of the architects and key supporters of supertaxation of the wealthy; Lord Portsmouth was one of its most prominent critics.

At the turn of the C20, the estate had acres of ancient woodland rich with wildlife, dog mercury, bracken, gorse, broom, fox-glove and blue-bell. The trees were broad leaved, managed for their timber. After the sale of the estate the woods were denuded—stripped of good hardwood timber to help the war effort.

When the Red Earl died in 1917, the earldom’s Devon interests were briefly revived through John Wallop, the 7th Earl who lived at Barton House, Morchard Bishop. Lapford villagers were pleased to have the earl as an even closer neighbour.

Having professed to not liking motor-cars in 1903, the 7th Earl served as Chairman of the County Main Roads Committee at a time of a £1.1M improvement in Devon’s trunk roads. In 1924, he chaired the meeting that approved the rebuilding and widening of the A377 from Exeter, almost as far as Lapford.

The Earl’s Scottish Estate, Guisachan House in Inverness-shire. After being sold off, it suffered a similar fate to Eggesford House and fell into ruin.

Photo credit: Tom Parnell