The Manor Of Ecton
There was not always just one manor in Ecton. At some time after Domesday the manor was divided into at least three, including one owned by the Tresham family which later combined with the main manor, and another, the ‘Newhall manor’, which gave its name to Manor Farm.
The first recorded owner of the main manor, in the Domesday survey, was Bondi; he was succeeded by Henry de Ferrers, who also owned the nearby manors of Earls Barton (his chief manor), Great Doddington, Wilby and Mears Ashby. Ownership descended through the Duchy of Lancaster to the Montgomery family who held it until 1574 when the brothers William and Theophilus Montgomery sold the estate to Thomas Catesby. The Catesbys probably made substantial alterations to the house and may well have established the first formal planting around the Hall. In 1699 the estate passed by marriage to Ralph Freeman, who probably made further alterations to the house and outbuildings as well as laying out terraced lawns and a bowling alley, the evidence of which is still visible. He also did extensive planting to screen his view of the main village and of Little Ecton, that part of the village lying in front of the Hall.
In 1712, for only the second time since Domesday, the estate was sold again. The buyer was Thomas Isted, whose family had originated in Denmark and settled in Sussex in the 14th century. Thomas liked it enough to make it his home and lived there until his death in 1731, when it passed to the man who, in the next fifty years, would develop the estate largely into what it is today, his son, Ambrose Isted.
Ambrose was only fourteen when he inherited the manor of Ecton but by his twenties he was already buying up land to extend his estate and petitioning the Court of Chancery for permission to close the road which ran in front of his house and the top end of Middle Street and East Street in Little Ecton. His petition was granted providing he made an alternative access; he did but made sure it would not spoil his view by screening it with a deep ha-ha at the bottom of his lawn. In 1755 he embarked on a two year redevelopment of the Hall, the most notable feature of which was the complete redesign of the south front which he built in the fashionable ‘Strawberry Hill’ Gothic style using golden-brown sandstone from a quarry at Mears Ashby. At the same time he was embellishing his house with fine furnishings and objets d’art and commissioning portraits of himself, his wife Anne and his children. One of these has him proudly mounted on his horse ‘Reindeer’ with his house in the distance. It was almost certainly Ambrose who built the Gazebo, an elegant little building probably designed by Sanderson Miller - not, as was formerly thought, by Inigo Jones.
Inclosure Act 1759
Ambrose’s ambitions for the estate were helped enormously in 1759 by the Inclosure Acts, which enabled him to offer land near The World’s End in exchange for property in Little Ecton, which he promptly demolished to extend his park. Within twenty years most of Little Ecton had gone. He continued to buy up land, built farms, planted belts of trees, dug ponds, laid out a walled kitchen garden and replaced the formal gardens with the natural style of planting then in fashion. There must have been those, particularly some residents of Little Ecton, who resented the methods he used in achieving his ambitions, but he seems to have been generally fair in his dealings and well liked. John Cole quotes a contemporary, a Mr Cumberland, who knew him well: ‘The benefits he conferred upon his poorer neighbours were of a nature far superior to the common acts of almsgiving (though these were not omitted) for in all their difficulties and embarrassments he was their counsellor and advisor, not merely in his capacity of acting justice of the peace, but also from his legal knowledge and experience.’
The Visit Of Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson visited Ambrose in 1764 in company with Thomas Percy, the rector of Easton Maudit, (later Bishop of Dromore). Percy was, at that time, preparing for publication the ‘Reliques of Ancient English Poetry’, based on a manuscript which he had rescued from a friend’s house where it was about to be used by a housemaid to light the fire. Thirty-one years later Percy’s daughter, Barbara, married Samuel Isted and the manuscript took its place in the library at Ecton Hall. Ambrose Isted suffered for many years towards the end of his life with ‘a tormenting and incurable disease’, which was relieved only by large doses of laudanum. When he died in 1781 at the age of 64, he was still planning further improvements; indeed many were already in hand.
Ambrose’s son Samuel continued his work and also bought many rare and valuable books for the library, which impressed John Cole with its ‘cheerful character, in conjunction with the soft and quiet scenery from the lawn in front. Cole was also much taken with the large billiard room which had the family arms carved over the fireplace with the motto: Nosce Teipsum - Know Thyself. When the occasion called for it Samuel could arrange a celebration on a grand scale. The ‘Festival in honour of Peace’ in 1814 (at the end of the Napoloenic Wars) was such an occasion when over five hundred people, rich and poor, were entertained to ‘as comfortable a dinner as was ever cooked’ on the lawn in front of the Hall, with dancing to ‘an old militia band’, rustic games and a firework display. At one point Sam Isted stood on a form, with a two-gallon can of ale, and led the singing of ‘God save the King’, accompanied by the band. Upon Samuel’s death in 1827 the estate passed to his son Ambrose, who had sadly been born deaf and dumb; he was then thirty and his coming of age had been commemorated by the planting of a Cedar which still flourishes today. He is credited with the establishment in about 1840 of the Beech Avenue, now sadly in decline. He also made further improvements to the house, including a new north porch but his grand design for a large domed circular dining room was not carried out.
Samuel was the last of the Isteds to reside at the Hall and when he died at the good old age of 84 in 1881 the estate passed by marriage to the Sotheby family in the persons of Charles Sotheby, who was the grandson of William Sotheby, the poet, and his wife Mary, the sister of Samuel Isted. Charles only lived for another six years but in that time he built a billiard room, installed central heating and drainage, upgraded the interior and built new tennis courts. The beautiful avenue of Lime trees lining the lane below the village was planted by him in 1884. He died in Antigua in 1887 whilst on a yachting cruise.
Major-General Frederick Edward Sotheby
Charles Sotheby’s half-brother, Major-General Frederick Edward Sotheby, now inherited the estate, which totalled 1868 acres in the parishes of Ecton, Cogenhoe and Earls Barton. General Sotheby had been in the Rifle Brigade and had seen service in the Crimean War (at only eighteen), the Indian Mutiny, the Chinese Wars and the Ashanti Wars. With his strong sense of public duty he became very active in local affairs and was the first Chairman of the new Parish Council in 1894. He continued the work of his predecessors by building a new library wing at the west end of the house and a conservatory at the east end where a camellia was planted, which has survived to the present day. He also built new vineries, tomato and fig houses and servants’ quarters, (there were eleven domestic servants in 1891). Outside the Hall he improved the farms, built cottages and, in 1897, built a ‘Reading and Recreation Institute’ for the benefit of the village. Datestones with his initials, F.E.S, can be found on this and many other buildings in Ecton.
Silver Wedding Celebrations
In 1901 he and his wife celebrated their silver wedding with dinners for their friends and relatives in the dining room and, the day after, for their tenants in the billiard room. These were hard times on the land and in his speech to the tenants the General sympathised with both landlords and tenants saying that he tried to divide the losses as fairly as he possibly could. He also expressed regret that the poultry fund of the Pytchley Hunt, (who met regularly at Ecton), would not allow of a greater recompense being made to the wives of farmers for the loss of their poultry! Following these events the whole of the village was entertained to a dinner and dance in the coach house. About 340 people were there but unfortunately, due to an outbreak of measles in the village, no children. Major-General Sotheby died in 1909 and left the estate to his widow, Edith, for life; she was much loved and merited the epithet ‘a Beloved Lady Bountiful’ in her obituary in 1921.
Lt.-Col. Herbert George Sotheby
Lt.-Col. Herbert George Sotheby now took over the estate. In the tradition of his family he had also had a distinguished military career with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in the Boer War and later in the First World War. No sooner had he taken on his responsibilities than he became embroiled in a dispute with his brother, William, over the settlement of death duties. By this time the estate was barely covering its costs and he was obliged to sell property, including the ‘Three Horseshoes’, and the cream of the library to settle the debt. Amongst the treasures which were sold were two first editions of Caxton’s 1480 Chronicles of England, a 1623 Shakespeare First Folio and a 14th century Bible. The library sale alone raised £24000, a huge sum in those days. Until the sale the estate had owned virtually everything in the village with the notable exception of church property.
The End Of An Era
Col. Sotheby’s tenure was not marked by substantial change but he will be remembered as the last lord of the manor to live at Ecton Hall. Older villagers still remember him and his wife and their invitations to the Hall for fetes and other events or, memorably, to admire the daffodils in the grounds in spring. ‘The Colonel’ was a familiar figure around the village, remembered for a certain reticence, which his station no doubt demanded, but always happy to stop for a friendly word.
When Col. Sotheby died in 1954 at the age of 83 his nephew and heir, Commander Sotheby, decided to sell up the contents of the house. Treasures which had taken centuries to assemble were disposed of in just a few days. They included Sheraton, Hepplewhite and Chippendale furniture, fine silver and porcelain, family portraits back to Thomas Isted as well as paintings by Breughel, Holbein, Guardi, Tintoretto, Fragonard and Sir Thomas Lawrence, a highly prized collection of English miniatures and the remainder of the library. A sad end to a great house.
The End Of Employment For Many Villagers
It should be remembered that this also marked the end of centuries of employment in the village for the Hall had provided generations of Ecton villagers with work. Not only were many employed as servants and estate workers but village tradesmen such as blacksmiths, wheelwrights and carpenters had a constant source of business.
The Threat Of Demolition
The house now entered its saddest period when for thirty years it was neglected and vandalised. The west wing containing the billiard room and kitchen was demolished by the owners but others stripped lead from the roof and removed marble fireplaces and panelling. There was talk of demolition but at the eleventh hour a deal was agreed with a property developer to rebuild the Hall as luxury apartments, saving for posterity the south front and the entrance porch. The old game larder, laundry and dairy were also converted and two terraces of stone houses were built around the courtyard to complete the scheme. The Ecton estate retained the farms and the park around the Hall.
The Ongoing Legacy
The manor of Ecton has made the village what it is today and protected it from the worst excesses of undesirable development. Whatever we think about the unequal distribution of wealth that enabled this to happen we should be grateful to the Sothebys, the Isteds and their predecessors for their creation and guardianship of the environment we now enjoy.