A history of Laverstock

Laverstock House in Dorset is the focus of an isolated estate situated about three miles south west of Stoke Abbott. It falls within that parish for the purposes of record-keeping. In 1858 Stock Abbott was the scene of the last public hanging in Dorset. A cottage in the village caught fire. When the blaze was extinguished, the body of 23 year old Sarah Guppy was found among the embers with her throat cut. A relative, john Searle, was convicted of her murder and hanged on 10th August that year.

Laverstock house stands on land which at the taking of the great Domesday survey of 1086 was held by Osmund [d. 1099] Bishop of Sarum (or Salisbury], the nephew of William the Conqueror. Osmund accompanied his uncle to England, fought the battle of Hastings and was canonized in 1457. In the 15th century, the income from the Laverstock Estate was utilized for the maintenance of the monks of Sherborne Abbey. It continued in this use until 1544, the thirty-fifth year of the reign of Henry VIII, when the king granted it, together with other land falling within the parish of Stoke Abbott, for the use of Sir John Leigh and his heirs. It later passed to the family of Codrington, the most famous member of which was Admiral Sir Edward Codrington [1770-1851] who commanded a ship at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The Admiral’s great great grandfather, William Codrington, had farmed a 210-acre estate centered on Laverstock Farm [not to be confused with the present Laverstock Farm].

According to John Hutchins’ History of Dorset [1863] the estate was sequestered in 1645, very probably by parliament as William Codrington was an avowed supported of Charles I. He lent the king large sums of money, which ‘he never again did see’. In 1641 Codrington’s estate at Laverstock has been valued at 3100 p.a. or about £50,000 in modern money. After the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Laverstock was returned to the Codringtons. Although no records survive to prove as much, circumstantial evidence suggests that it was next acquired by John Seymour [1628c – 1675] 4th Duke of Somerset, Member of Parliament for Marlborough 1661-1671. His Grace died in Amesbury in Wiltshire, without issue, 19 April 1675 aged about forty-seven, and was buried in Salisbury Cathedral. He left Laverstock, which during his lifetime had been occupied by tenant farmers, in trust, the income being applied to the poor children of Salisbury.

During the Duke of Somerset’s time, and for many years thereafter, Laverstock was let on a series of copyhold ‘lives’ to a family named Bullen, who claimed descent from Henry VIII’s second wife, whose name was anciently spelled ‘Bullen’ rather than ‘Boleyn’. In this way one Bullen was succeeded by his son or brother – the next life. Details of these successions were termed ‘copyhold’ because they were, literally, copied into the manorial court rolls. At what date the Bullens surrendered their copyhold interest we do not know; but it must have been before 1841 because the census taken in that year shows it occupied by John Peach 55 and Mary 45, his wife, who shared the house with their children: Jonathan 25, Betsey 15, Mathew 15 and Walter 10. [If these ages appear to be in suspicious symmetry, it is because in 1841, although not at all subsequent censuses, the enumerators were usually ordinary folk, with no great claims to numeracy, the results could sometimes be very misleading. There is no reason to think they were so in this case.]

John Peach was sufficiently prosperous to be able to maintain one live-in servant, Mary Turner 25, for whom we should spare a thought down the tunnel of the years. As the only general domestic kept she would have been responsible to all the chores outside the kitchen – and a good many within it – including the carrying of coals and bath water to the top of the house and the lighting of all the fires. [A thrifty and dexterous servant was expected to light a fire with no more than six pieces of kindling.

John Peach was killed in a farm accident in 1848. [Then as now, farms were dangerous places.] In 1851 his widow, Mary, was farming the estate with the help of her unmarried sons, Matthew and Walter. Her other son, John, occupied the dairy quarters with his wife, Hannah, and with their children: Matthew 11, Jane 10 and John 5.]

The Peaches were succeeded by the Popes. In 1861 William Pope 44, a native of Yeovil, was farming 246 acres here with the help of five men, four women and four boys. By his wife, Harriett 48, he had produced at least seven children: Jane 17, Dinah 16, William 14, Mary 12, Emma 11, Harriett 9 and Thomas 7. He kept a resident housemaid and a governess for the children: Elizabeth Taylor 26. The Victorians considered the ideal governess to be one ‘who is our equal in birth, manners and education, but our inferior in worldly wealth’. As such, Miss Taylor could have been expected to live ‘above stairs’ en famille. However, as the word ‘governess’ shown against her name on the 1861 census has been three times crossed though and the word ‘servant’ substituted, one suspects that she was treated as an ordinary domestic. The 1851 census, ten years earlier, has put the number of governesses in Britain at twenty-five thousand, which meant that employers like the Popes could afford to be very selective and to pay low wages. Sometimes as little as £8 a year was offered for a ‘day’ governess [i.e. one who lived out] a similar wage to that of a housemaid. In her final post as a governess, Charlotte Bronte received just £20 a year, of which £7 was deducted for laundry.

By 1865 the Popes had been replaced at Laverstock by John Lenthall and his family. Lenthall, who farmed about 250 acres here, was succeeded by his son, John Henry Lenthall [1837-1924c] who in 1911 told the census enumerator that his house contained twelve rooms including the kitchen but excluding any sculleries, landings, lobbies, closets or bathrooms. He and his wife, Alice 44, had been married for nineteen years and had produced two children: Eli 18 and Janie 15. The family was completed by John Henry’s widowed mother, Jane Lenthall 79.

There are no very adequate records covering the period 1925 to 1930; but Kelly’s Directory for the County of Dorset for 1931 places Laverstock House in the occupation of Eric Reid Corson [1887 – 1972] M.V.O. a captain in the Royal Navy. Corson claimed descent through his mother from the miniaturist, Alexander Reid [1749 – 1823] described as ‘a wondering limner who found his way to Dumfries’. In 1795 the poet, Robert Burns, wrote from Dumfries that he was: ‘just sitting to Reid in this town for a miniature; and I think he was hit by far the best likeness of me ever taken ….’ Eric Reid Corson, who was still residing at Laverstock in 1939, retired from the Royal Navy in 1933 with the rank of rear-admiral (hence Admiral’s Cottage). He lived at Laverstock House with his American wife, Marjorie [d. 1969], the daughter of James Winants of New Jersey.

As some point post-war, perhaps when Reid decamped to a flat in Lowndes Close in London, Laverstock House was acquired by the British diplomat and businessman, Sir Frederick Warner [1918 – 1995], who after serving in the Royal Navy during the Second World War joined the Foreign Office in 1946. In 1950 he was promoted to First Secretary and posted to the British Embassy in Moscow. In 1951 he returned to a London posting and found himself working with Guy Burgess, one of ‘the Cambridge Spies’, in the private office of Hector McNeil shortly before Burgess defected to the Soviet Union. Burgess’s wayward behaviour at this time led to accusations that Warner should have raised concerns about him. These accusations briefly stalled Warner’s career and he remained in London for the next five years.

Warner married for the first time in New York in 1971, Simone Georgina de Ferranti, who gave him two sons, one of whom is the TV chef, Valentine Warner born at Laverstock House in 1972. At the end of 1971, Warner was appointed Ambassador to Japan and in this capacity made arrangements for the visit of Edward Heath, the first such visit to Japan by an incumbent British Prime Minister. Warner was popular in Japan despite his legendary unstuffiness, which ruffled feathers among the Japanese civil servants, who expected more formality. At the end of his posting he hoped to be given a fashionable embassy, such as Paris or Washington; and when this did not happen he decided to retire from the service while still young enough to carve a second career for himself in business. He picked up a number of directorships and became chairman of the Wessex region of the National Trust. In 1979 he was elected to the European Parliament in the Conservative interest for Somerset.

In 1980 Laverstock House was acquired by Alice Ellen Cooper Dean of Parnham Farm, Netherbury, ‘one of the wealthiest landowners in Dorset’, who owned racehorses, a herd of award-winning cattle and property in Bournemouth. When Miss Cooper Dean dies in 1984 at the age of eighty-five, she left £200,000 to form a charitable trust and legacies totaling £25,000 to staff and other workers. She bequeathed the rest of her estate, including Parnham Farm and Laverstock, to her long-time companion, faithful friend and business partner, Sylvia Bowditch.