The Manor of Gawsworth lies around 3 miles South West of Macclesfield. It was given in the twelfth century by Randal de Meschines, Earl of Chester to Hugh, son of Bigod. Hugh took the name Gawsworth, together with the right to hold his own courts without pleading to Macclesfield. For this right he rendered annual one caparisoned horse to the Earl.
The original hall was built as a wooden Norman stockade in the middle of the Macclesfield forest. A manor house was built in 1480 and since then there have been numerous restorations.
The manor was subsequently granted to Herbert de Orreby in 1130 on condition that he find one man in time of war to assist with the defence of Aldford Castle. The Orreby family held the manor until 1316, when Thomas De Orreby died without a male heir and his daughter Isabella, having married Thomas Fitton, the manor came into the possession of the Fitton line. Thomas’ son, also Thomas (d 1397) had the chapel at built at Gawsworth. Prior to that, parishioners had to go to Prestbury.
Thomas’ son was Sir Lawrence Fitton (1375-1457) married Agnes Hesketh of Radford. He succeeded to the manor on the death of his father and held it for 60 years. In 1399 Richard II went to Ireland to avenge the death of Roger Mortimer (his heir presumptive), it was Sir Lawrence who raised an army of Macclesfield Archers to fight with the King. However, during Richard’s absence, Henry Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt landed near Hull and took the Kingdom for himself.
The banish’d Bolingbroke repeals himself
And with uplifted arms is safe arrived
Richard II, William Shakespeare
Wales had been strongly aligned with Richard, and Owen Glendower rebelled against the new king, and in 1403 Henry commanded Lawrence to defend his Welsh possessions against Glendower. Lawrence died on 16 March 1457, and his son, Thomas having predeceased him, the estate descended on Lawrence’s grandson, Thomas (1432-1494 ). Thomas fought in the Wars of the Roses and defeated the Lancastrians at Bloreheath, where he was knighted by a grateful King. He married Ellen, the daughter of Peter Legh of Lyme. It was Thomas who had the Hall built at Gawsworth around 1480.
The couple had no issue and the estate passed to his brother, Edward (1434-1511 ) who was by then aged 60. He was succeeded by his son, John (1471-1525). John had a daughter, Elizabeth, and a daughter Helen as well as a son, Edward (d 1548).
More recently in 1981 Liz Howard (nee Fitton) who had worked for ICI Macclesfield, claimed that she was the reincarnation of Elizabeth Fitton. Her father was also John, and she has a brother Edward and sister Helen as well. Discussions with the current owners has shown that she knows many details about the house. The story has also been shown on BBC Television. I’ll leave you to read the book and decide.
Returning to the past via more conventional means, it was Edward who inherited the estate and then Edward’s son, also Edward (1527-1579).
This Edward married Anne Warburton (1527-1574) in 1539, when aged only 12. Anne was a month younger than her husband. Edward was despatched to Ireland by Queen Elizabeth to become First Lord President of the Council of Munster and Thomund. This was not necessarily a prime posting as the area was devastated by war, a contemporary description of his posting, also by a Cheshire man said:
The land itself which before those wars was populous well inhabited and rich in all the good blessings of God being plenteous of corn full of cattle well stored with fruits and sundry other good commodities is now become waste and barren yielding no fruits the pastures no cattle the fields no corn the air no birds the seas though full of fish yet to them yielding nothing Finally every way the curse of God was so great and the land so barren both of man and beast that whosoever did travel from one end unto the other he should not meet any man woman or child saving in towns and cities nor yet see any beast but they were wolves the foxes and other like ravenous beasts
He stayed there three years and on his return in 1572 he was promptly sent back the following year to Dublin to fill the post of Treasurer for the war and Vice Treasurer and Receiver General in Ireland. Tragically Anne died the following January and was buried in St Patrick’s Cathedral and Sir Edward died 3 July 1579 and was buried alongside her.
Edward and Anne’s son, Edward (1549-1606 ) inherited the Gawsworth estate. He also served in Ireland. He married Alice Holcroft. Edward had a pleasure garden built in 1590 with a long gravel path giving views over the Cheshire plain. There was also a maze and ornamental lake, possibly built with the intention of hosting water shows to entertain Queen Elizabeth. It also had space for a jousting arena. This garden was only rediscovered at recently as 1987. Elizabeth never did venture this far north. Edward died at Gawsworth and was buried there.
The couple had a daughter, Mary (1578-1647). Mary Fitton became maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth. She had several affairs with William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, Vice Admiral Sir Richard Leveson and is thought to be the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. She entered service with the Queen around 1595. Edward had put her in the care of Sir William Knollys, the Comptroller of the Queen’s household.
Sir William however had designs on Mary and despite promising that he will be as careful of her well doing as if I were her own true father, the 50 year old Knollys who was married made advance on her. This made him an object of ridicule in Court.
She was however by now a bolder woman, and at a masque to celebrate the marriage of Lady Anne Russell with Henry Somerset, Marquess of Worcester she became the mistress of the Earl of Pembroke and became pregnant by him. He admitted paternity, but refused to marry her, and was cast into Fleet Prison. The baby was born in 1601, but died almost immediately, probably from syphilis. Both Mary and Pembroke were banished from Court.
Seeing his chance, Knollys tried to woo her again, but she again refused him, and had an affair with VIce Admiral Leveson, bearing him two daughters. After this she had an affair with one of his officers, Captain William Polwhee. By this time her mother, Alice was scandalised and wrote such shame as never had a Cheshire woman, worse now than ever. Write no more to me of her.
Polwhee died in 1610 and continuing her penchant for sailors, she took up with Captain John Lougher a gentleman lawyer and former MP. He died in 1636 and she died in 1647, being buried at Gawsworth, where her ghost is said to walk the Hall.
It was suggested in 1890 that she was the Dark Lady, and many authors initailly took up this argument, saying that Mary had ruined Shakespeare’s life and he died broken hearted for her love, but more recently these claims have been doubted.
Gawsworth then fell to Mary’s brother Edward (1603-1643 ) He married first Jane Trevor of Denbighshire who died in 1638 and then married Felicia Sneyd of Keele, parading his second wife through Congleton on their first visit, as recorded in the Corporation Books of the town:
1638: Paid for an entertainment for Sir Edwd Fitton of Gawsworth his bride father and mother in law on their first coming through the town and divers other gentlemen who accompanied him and his bride on their going to Gawsworth to bring his lady He sent his barber two days before to the mayor and aldermen and the rest to entreat them to bid them welcome 12s 4d
Now were the years of the Civil war and Edward took up Charles’ fight at Edge Hill and Banbury, however the people of Congleton were not as keen as the Gawsworth men to fight as an entry in the town’s books shows:
1642 Wine gave to Colonel Fitton not to quarter 500 soldiers on the town 3s 4d
Not as much spent on keeping him out, as on celebrating his second marriage. Edward took part in the storming of Bristol, and when the town surrendered in 1643 he was left in charge of the Garrison, but died on July 27 1643 in the town, of consumption. He was carried back to Gawsworth to be buried, the council again shelled out:
Paid for carrying Sir Edwd Fitton through the town and for repairing Rood lane for the occasion 4s 0d
Edward left no issue. This caused his four sisters, Penelope, Anne, Jane and Frances to take possession of the estate, but this was thrown out in court by William Fitton, the son, of Alexander, who was second surviving son of Sir Edward Fitton, the Treasurer of Ireland. William claimed a deed signed by Edward had made him the rightful heir.
Penelope Fitton married Sir Charles Gerard of Halsall they had a son Sir Charles Gerard who became Lord Brandon in 1645 and Earl of Macclesfield in 1679. Charles was Gentleman of the Bedchamber in Court. He had a large residence in Soho – Gerard Street and Macclesfield Street. Charles’ wife was French and a gossip, she is mentioned in Pepys diary.
Charles also eventually managed to prove that the deed that passed the estate to William Fitton was a forgery, and had the inheritance reversed. Pepys was not a fan of Charles and wrote:
My cosen Roger Pepys he says showed me Grainger’s written confession of his being forced by imprisonment etc by my Lord Gerard most barbarously to confess his forging of a deed in behalf of Fitton in the great case between him and my Lord Gerard which business is under examination and is the foulest against my Lord Gerard that ever anything in the world was and will all do believe ruine him and I shall be glad of it
Alexander Fitton was sent to prison, and stayed there until James II ascended. James having embraced Catholicism made him Chancellor of Ireland, where he happily persecuted and seized the property of Protestants.
It was now the Gerard family who owned the Manor and Hall. Charles died in 1694 and his son, Charles, married Anne Mason but divorced her in 1698 after she had committed adultery with Richard Savage, the 4th Earl Rivers. One of the illegitimate children was Richard Savage (1697-1743) an English Poet, about whom Samuel Johnson wrote a Life. After his divorce, Charles was sent to Hanover to act as Ambassador, and died there on 5 November 1701.
Gawsworth passed then to Fitton Gerard, who died unmarried in 1702 and the line became extinct. This caused another inheritance battle. Fitton’s will passed the estate to his niece, Charlotte Mainwaring who had married Charles, Lord Mohan. Unfortunately this offended the Duke of Hamilton who had married another niece, Elizabeth.
The matter went to Chancery and during the hearing, Mr Whitworth, the former steward of the Macclesfields gave evidence and the Duke said that there was no truth or justice in Lord Mohan, to which the steward replied that he was an honest man and has as much truth as your grace. A little later when Mohan met with General McCartney and Colonel Churchill who had been removed from the army under command of the duke, he was persuaded to settle the matter by duel.
The two men met in Kensington Gardens in Hyde Park early on 15 November attended by their seconds, Colonel Hamilton a relative of the Duke and McCartney. Within minutes of crossing swords both men were quite dead. Their seconds even came to blows. McCartney fled to the continent but the Colonel was arrested. Hamilton attested that McCartney had delivered the fateful blow to the Duke and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He returned to face justice and was acquitted of murder, but found guilty of manslaughter. He was allowed to return to his regiment and found favour later with George I.
The estate now went to Lord Mohan’s second wife, Elizabeth Lawrence, the daughter of Thomas, physician to Queen Anne. Elizabeth held the property in trust, with the stipulation that on her death the property be sold and the proceeds go to her two daughters by her first husband, Elizabeth and Ann Griffith.
Ann was married to William Stanhope (1683-1756) who in 1729 became a peer in recognition of his military service, becoming Baron Harrington eventually becoming Earl of Harrington and Viscount Petersham in 1742. Although he had a seat at Elvaston he purchased the Gawsworth estate in 1727.
In 1773 a Samuel Johnson (1691-1773) was buried in the Gawsworth estate. This was not the Samuel Johnson of Boswell fame, but a Cheshire dancing master who had staged a play, Hurlothrumbo at the Haymarket Theatre in London in 1729. This saw great success having 50 performances despite being thrashed by the critics. Johnson gained an elevated view of himself saying I am so highly exalted with a celestial quill of an angel’s wing that I have leap’t up in extasies divine and dip’t my pen in heaven. The play had been funded by Lord Montague who took great pleasure in mocking the pretensions of Society, so was delighted to be able to back a play which was so awful that it became a cult.
Johnson himself acted in Hurlothrumbo, taking the role of Lord Flame. His character sang, took most of the curtain lines and even performed a scene on stilts. He was showy and the audiences loved it. After this success further ventures into theatre were not as successful and Lord Flame (he had taken the name offstage by now) was said to have fought with the audience at the first night of his All Alive and Merry in 1773. However, he did anticipate rejection, saying I have heard… if Homer was in London at this age and did write for the Playhouse he would be thrown away.
Just before he died he fired an arrow from the church spire into the air and asked to be buried where it landed. It landed amongst the trees and his wish was granted, the area now known as Maggoty’s Wood. Johnson also played a part in introducing Jiacomo Justerini to his nephew George Johnson who became the founder of what is now J&B Whisky.
Flame retired to Gawsworth where he became jester for Lord Stanhope and was given appartments Gawsworth New Hall. Whilst he was the darling of local gentry he was more Victor Meldrew to the lower orders, he was short tempered and argued with them, gaining the nickname of Old Maggoty. He even rallied to try and stage a compilation show of his greatest works shortly before his death.
The Hall was held by the Stanhopes until 1937. However, they had Elvaston as their main seat and stayed only occasionally at Gawsworth. They also had a town house in Kensington. For some of these years the Hall was let out to tenants.
In 1919 the last male owner of Gawsworth, Charles Joseph Leicester Stanhope (1887-1929), Lord Harrington put the estate up for sale. He allowed sitting tenants to make offers for their properties, and if the offer matched or exceeded the valuation, the property was to be sold to them at valuation. it was quite an extensive estate as can be seen from this advertisement in the Scotsman:
He did not get a buyer, and the house was occupied by Oliver Shimwell, a weaver who patented a superspeed shuttleless loom in conjunction with Platt Brothers of Oldham from 1920 to 1937.
In the meantime he married Margaret Trelwaney Seaton (1898-1952) in April 1919. She was a society beauty as can be seen by her pictures:
The couple had a son, Charles born on 19 January 1921, but he died four days later. There was now a real problem that if he did not produce a male heir, the Hall would pass to the second heir presumptive, Aubrey Stanhope. Aubrey had been special correspondent of the New York Herald on the outbreak of the First World War, but he went to Berlin and edited the Continental Times, a publication funded by the German Government as an English language propoganda vehicle. He was so reviled that in 1916 a German thrashed him publically in the Hotel Bristol in Unter den Linden, calling him a dirty English dog and rogue pummeling him with a stick and knocking him to the ground. He lived in luxury in the Wittenberg Platz, and was free during his time in Germany to walk around at will.
Fortunately the next year William Henry Leicester Stanhope was born (1922-2009) – pictured above with his mother – and the succession was safe. Sadly, Charles fell from his horse in November 1929 whilst out hunting in Derbyshire, and despite being attended by Dr Gordon Morrison who happened to be driving past, he died of massive head injuries within 20 minutes.
There was talk of the house being sold the nation in 1935 but instead it was bought for around £10,000 by Denis Sebastian Ziani De Ferranti (1908-1992) and his second wife Germaine De Courey Moore. Denis was the youngest son of Sebastian Ziani De Ferranti (1864-1930), the founder of Ferranti. Denis however fell out with his elder brother and started a company, Denis Ferranti Meters which now trades as the Denis Ferranti Group. He also set up a market garden company which traded from the Old Hall
During Ferranti’s time at the house, the Hall suffered from four fires, thought to be caused by the oil heating system which overheated and set fire to the joints, eventually the system was replaced.
In 1962, The hall was sold to Raymond Richards (1906-1978) for £30,000, a Cheshire Historian, and rescuer of old houses. He collected items from historic buildings that were being demolished in the 1960s, either incorporating them into the house or displaying them in the grounds. Over time he also amassed a collection of paintings, and worked hard to restore Gawsworth to its old glories.
He was born in Liverpool and his wealth came from tea and coffee. He married Monica Relf in 1941 and the couple worked hard to make Gawsworth a place to visit. From the late 1960s an annual Arts festival has been held at the Hall, with open air Shakespeare performances. The Hall was also made a popular tourist destination for parties and day trippers, Raymond would often guide the tourists himself around the grounds and hall.
After he died, the Hall was inherited by his two sons, Timothy Raymond Roper Richards (1941-2016) and John Roper Richards. John sold out his share to his brother, and was a keen four in hand carriage driver, beating Prince Philip in competitions. A patriot through and through he headed a consortium in its unsuccessful bid to keep Rolls Royce in British hands.
His brother Timothy was also a close friend of Prince Philip and His Royal Highness often stayed at Gawsworth, it may not have tempted Elizabeth I, but Elizabeth II’s husband was a frequent visitor.
Let’s see some pictures:
I would recommend if you do visit, to do it around the time of the Christmas tree festival at the church opposite. The setting is beautiful around the mill lake, and it is a far better show than we do in Stockport.
Gawsworth Hall 10th Edition 1977
History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Shropshire, Samuel Bagshaw: 1850
Nooks and Corners of Lancashire and Cheshire, James Croston : J Heywood 1882
Elizabeth Fitton of Gawsworth Hall, Liz Howard: CC Publishing 2018
The Stage 31 August 2000
© Allan Russell 2021.