To strive with difficulties, and to conquer them, is the highest human felicity.

Samuel Johnson


One of the New Men: Henry Peters

Henry Peters (ca. 1762–1827) was one of the more successful exemplars of the ‘new men’ who increasingly occupied Darking Hundred’s mansions in 1800. The son of a onetime governor of the Bank of England, Peters was born into the higher echelons of the merchant class. His brother was a successful linen merchant, and Henry maintained an interest in that business, but on the strength of his father’s success he was able to obtain a gentleman’s education, initially at Lincoln’s Inn but afterwards at St John’s College, Cambridge. There he was a contemporary of Sir Henry Paulet-St John-Mildmay, the person on whom the character of Sir Nugent is based; Sir Henry it was who sold Betchworth Castle and its surrounding property, including Box Hill, to Mr Peters in 1798.

     Peters appears to have been adept at playing the London money-and-power game, in which so many Darking residents made their mark. By 1790, when still in his twenties, he was already a partner in a bank, Masterman & Co., and had been made a director of the South Sea Company. (Contrary to its name, the South Sea Company—best known for its perpetration of a massive Ponzi scheme in 1720—at this point in its chequered history risked very little of its capital in actual trading ventures, but seems to have existed principally as a vehicle for managing government debt.)

     Although he served from 1796 as a member of Parliament for Oxford, elected in opposition to aristocratic interests there, he also along with his father supported the government with massive loans in 1795 and 1797, in addition to voting for Pitt’s exorbitant new taxation scheme in 1798. On the strength of his loyalty he sought to obtain a coveted directorship in the East India Company but appears to have been unsuccessful. His constituents at Oxford accordingly soured on him, and he was not returned to his seat in 1802.
The stables at Betchworth Castle as they appear today (now repurposed); originally designed by Sir John Soane. Photo by the author 2018.

     Meanwhile, he took possession of Betchworth Castle, a short distance to the east of Darking, and commenced an ambitious plan of improvements under the direction of the architect Sir John Soane. This project earned him a good measure of popularity in the town when he employed local masons and labourers. The castle has now largely disappeared, but traces of his renovations may still be seen in its ruins.

     Having married in 1784, he raised a large family there, numbering six in 1800 (later perhaps ten). One of his daughters, Sarah Peters, eventually married a son, seven years her junior, of their disgraced neighbour George Barclay of Burford Lodge.

Some of the ruins of Betchworth Castle today. Photo by the author 2018.
     In Coldharbour Gentlemen Henry Peters appears as a successful but not prideful man, affable to his neighbours of all classes, a practical man of the world with a flexible set of ethics. I have no reason to believe this portrait to be either true or false; as with the other characters who use the names of historical figures, my portrayal is the purest speculation based on the fragmentary biographical data I have been able to uncover.
7 September 2021


John Burke, A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain (1846).

History of Parliament Online, ‘Peters, Henry (?1763–1827).’ 

Wikipedia, ‘South Seas Company.’ 

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