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

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Sir Nugent of the Proliferating Surnames

One of the more outrageous characters in Coldharbour Gentlemen is Sir Nugent Lumley-Dacre-Prudhoe. Lee Steere Steere, no stranger to the absurdities of dynastic naming himself, holds him up for scorn on account of his family’s habit of tacking on a new surname every time they marry.

     Hyphenates were not uncommon among the British aristocracy, especially when a wife’s family brought a great deal of property or prestige into her marriage or when a distant and humbler relation inherited from the principal line. Occasionally the lesser gentry aped these practices, though they risked appearing ridiculous by so doing. For instance, it was a condition of inheritance that Lee Steere Witts abandon his surname and call himself Lee Steere Steere; without it he would not have become master of Jayes Park. But surely nobody would take things so far as to style themselves Sir Nugent Lumley-Dacre-Prudhoe, right?

     Sir Nugent is, I freely admit, a fictional character. The exigencies of the story of Coldharbour Gentlemen required him to act in so egregious a fashion that I was reluctant to pin his behaviour on a real person, however long dead. But—the truth is that he is very closely modelled on an actual person, one who owned property in the neighbourhood of Darking but inconveniently quitted it before the start of my tale: Sir Henry Paulet St John-Mildmay, Baronet (1764–1808).

Francis Hayman, ‘Portrait of Sir Henry Paulet St John Bt’ (before 1790). This is a very early image because he had not yet added Mildmay to his patronymics. Wikigallery.org.

     Sir Henry was a member of parliament who eventually came to represent Winchester, where he had a considerable family interest, in 1802. He also held the post of Mayor of Winchester in 1798. He had been a member of the Whig Club but resigned in 1797 after a conflict with Pitt. Despite this breach he continued to regard the Prime Minister as a friend, though Pitt made it clear the feelings went unrequited.

     In May 1800 Sir Henry introduced a motion in parliament calling for a review of the status of all Roman Catholics in Britain, with particular focus on clerics to make sure they were not recruiting the malleable to popery. This bill, which passed in July, cannot have endeared him to the Duke of Norfolk, who secretly lent support to many priests. Sir Henry also opposed the abolition of the slave-trade and favoured reforms to tithing laws intended to enrich the clergy at the expense of the masses. A contemporary, Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges, described him as ‘a capricious, vain, ill-tempered man, with some minor talents and insufferable pretensions.’ He repeatedly sought to be granted a peerage but never was—and no doubt what Pitt called his ‘blundering perverseness and vanity’ had something to do with it.

     So much for his public life; in his private capacity he offered little to endear him to his loved ones. After his father died leaving behind excessive debts, Sir Henry married a very wealthy woman and proceeded to aggrandise his life on her penny, whilst apparently treating her as little better than a brood mare—they had either fourteen or sixteen children, depending on the account. (Because two were born after 1800, I have chosen the lower number for my tale.) Her surname is one of the ones he adopted. He fancied himself an aesthete and a man of culture, but his manners were so repugnant that even in the world of ideas he found no friends. He inherited Betchworth Castle from an aunt in 1794 and owned the property only long enough to cut down most of the box trees on Box Hill, garnering some £22,000 pounds from the sale of the timber before selling the property in 1798 to Henry Peters. Small wonder that Mr Peters was popular in the neighbourhood!

     And yes, the story is told that in 1797 he so annoyed the horse he was riding that it bit him viciously enough on the hand to require the amputation of his fingers.

John Hassell, Pippbrook House (1828), watercolour. This is the only image I know of the eighteenth-century house, razed later in the nineteenth century. Reproduced courtesy of the Surrey Archaeological Society (S16514).

     How could I possibly allow such a delightful personality to slip through my fingers, simply because he happened to have quitted Darking before 1800? One account even holds him to have been a graduate of Winchester College (though another says he attended Cheam—he may have done both), putting him in the perfect position to ruin my young hero’s prospects. So I changed the name, moved him to Pippbrook House, and let his freak flag fly. With truth like this, who needs fiction?

6 September 2021

Sources

Martin Robb, “The Mildmays: from Moulsham to Dogmersfield,” Moulshamhistory.wordpress.com.

The Parliamentary Register; or, History of the Proceedings and Debates of the Houses of Lords and Commons, vol. 12/56 (1800).

History of Parliament Online, “St. John Mildmay, Sir Henry Paulet, 3rd Bt. (1764–1808).”

Cambridge Alumni Database, “St John [post St John Mildmay], Henry Paulet (ST781HP).”

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