Lacock’s Great Hall Commemoration

on Monday, 02 February 2015. Posted in Archives

For my blog on Lacock this time I want to look at a bundle of documents only recently discovered in the Lacock archive, during my listing of some final boxes. The documents concern the 200th anniversary of the commemoration of the Great Hall in Lacock, which was rebuilt by John Ivory Talbot, the owner of Lacock at that time.

Talbot and the architect Sanderson Miller designed the Great Hall in a Gothic style and anyone who has been to Lacock will vividly remember the prowess of the room, with its great high ceilings, coats of arms decorating the ceiling, and breathtaking sculptures adorning the walls. Outside, Talbot built some grand steps.

In 1755, Talbot invited the friends whose coats of arms he had had put on the new ceiling to a commemoration event at Lacock Abbey to celebrate the completion of the work. Talbot invited 40 of his friends and neighbours to the event. An article in the Wiltshire Times 200 years later said that the emblazoning of the coats of arms “was most original, and a graceful compliment to his neighbours”. Whilst many sceptics would say that it was a way of really getting in with the local nobility, it is clear that Talbot himself was a high-standing member of the community and I’d like to think that his neighbours were pleased to be represented on that ceiling. The party brought together the local nobility and must have been a very grand event – if it happened. Unfortunately only a letter suggesting the possibility of an event was found, not any documents confirming that it had taken place.

200 years later, the final owner of Lacock Abbey before its presentation to the National Trust, Matilda Talbot, decided to host an anniversary event to commemorate the commemoration, and her intention was to recreate the event of 200 years earlier, by inviting representatives of those friends and neighbours of Matilda’s ancestor to the party. Although Matilda no longer owned the abbey, she continued to live there from 1944 until her death in 1956. Members of her family, the Burnett-Brown family who were descendants of her brother William, were living at the abbey as well and they also attended the event. The family and some acquaintances did some tireless research to find representatives of the 1755 party. Peter Summers of the Kingswood School did most of the research, which involved firstly trying to work out who some of the coats of arms on the ceiling were for anyway, and then painstakingly tracing their descendants down to the family member who appeared to be their most ideal representative. Those representatives were then invited to the commemoration event.

The article in the Wiltshire Times describes the event as follows:

“The guests sat down to a “cold Collation” at 7.30, and were offered such viands as might have been served at the party in 1755, namely cold meats with salmagundy salad, followed by syllabubs, trifles in the form of hedgehogs, manchet biscuits and gooseberry fool, all of which were popular at the earlier date. Altogether it was a unique occasion and a very pleasant one.”

In the archive, there is a bundle of documents, currently only temporarily numbered as the collection is still being catalogued, which tell the story of the 1955 event and offer lovely little insights into the way the research was done, and also how the event went. For example, there are some letters addressed to Matilda from attendees of the party thanking her for her hospitality. Some comments included a letter from Norah Methuen of Corsham Court, who said the party “made the tradition of friendship 1754 a living thing 1955”. William Bathurst wrote “What was remarkable was that we all seemed to be friends at once, although many of us can never have met before. But then it isn’t every day that one gets introduced to people by a ceiling”.

The bundle contains many letters, either accepting or declining invitations, or thanking Matilda for the event as I have just noted. However, there are also some fascinating related documents to do with the research carried out: letters from Peter Summers, for example, who regularly updated Matilda and the Burnett-Browns with information on his research and new links he had found. This includes a note on a Mrs Walker, who “tells me that she is the last of the Millers, and therefore the last descendant in the male line of Sanderson Miller, the architect”. Miller was obviously invited to the event, and therefore so was his last descendant. There are letters from people who had been contacted to ask if they were the same family as the one represented, lists of the probable 1755 guests, notes on the conception of the 1955 event with a far more detailed account than the one which ended up in the Wiltshire Times, notes on the guests invited to the 1955 event and whether or not they accepted, a lovely seating plan for the 1955 event, lists of food items and a menu, which had been researched thoroughly by Matilda Talbot herself, some pedigrees and other items.

My personal favourite from this bundle, although the whole thing tells such a lovely story, is a collection of address cards. They look like ordinary address cards at first, but when you look closely you realise that the name on the top is the 1755 name, which has been worked out from the coat of arms. There is often then a note of who the family member of that name was: for example, one card says “Seymour (probably Edward, 8th Duke of Somerset)”. Then the address is of the person worked out as being their descendant. Sometimes there is more than one person noted. On the back of most of the cards, in pencil, is a note of whether or not the representative accepted. Sometimes, if they did not, a note of who was asked instead appears.

The address cards and everything else from this show wonderful preparation work for what appeared to be a memorable event. It is lovely to think of representatives of the 1955 nobility gathering together under the emblazoned ceiling of the Great Hall, as they might have done for the original commemoration. Whether there was a 1755 commemoration or not, the effort taken by Matilda Talbot and those who helped her organise it allowed the then occupiers of Lacock to meet people descended from friends of their own ancestors, and I like to imagine them coming together as they would have done earlier.

Ally McConnell, Archivist

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