Matilda Theresa Talbot (born Matilda Gilchrist-Clark in 1871) was the last owner of Lacock Abbey. She inherited it from her unmarried uncle Charles Henry Talbot. He died in 1916 and left it to her in his will. She had an older brother William (her other brother Jack predeceased his uncle) and it was expected that William would inherit because he was older, a man, and married with children. Matilda, on the other hand, was unmarried and had no children, but it can be assumed that the reason she inherited the estate was because she had spent so much of her life living with her uncle at Lacock, with her aunt Rosamond Talbot until her death and then for the next ten years. She continued to live at Lacock until her own death in 1956, although for a decade of that she actually lived as a tenant of the National Trust having given the abbey and most of the estate over to the public in 1944. She offered the estate to William when her uncle died, but he declined it, saying that he would always be on hand to give advice if she needed it. There are letters that survive from William giving very good advice, and there are also some documents which show the influence and assistance of the agent, Richard Foley, who had been employed as a young man by Charles Henry Talbot and continued to work for the estate until the early 1940s. It appears from the estate records that she did very well being a Lady of the Manor. She ran the estate well, taking advice when she needed it and letting her agent help as much as he could. But she enjoyed running a large estate and the significance that came with it. She certainly put her own stamp on Lacock Abbey and its part in 20th century history.
Matilda was a very colourful character and this comes across in the sources in the Lacock archive as well as through personal memories – there are many people still alive today who remember her clearly even if they were young children when she was still living. Her autobiography, My life and Lacock Abbey, is another good source of knowledge of her character. The book describes her early life and her association with Lacock as she was growing up, and then how she took over the abbey and enabled the estate to flourish in the 20th century. Lord Methuen, in his introduction to her book, writes “She has been a great traveller, with a passion for learning foreign languages. A woman of many parts she has been, amongst other things, a professional and highly qualified cookery instructor. After inheriting Lacock Abbey from her uncle, she proceeded, after paying off the death duties, to put the house and estate in order and on an even financial keel and to live there: eventually, in 1944, making the property over to the National Trust as a measure of assuring its future existence and continuity”.
Much of Matilda’s early life was spent in Scotland, where her father was an agent for an estate. Her father died when she was only nine and she writes of not having many memories of him: he was often working, and if they went on a family holiday he often couldn’t go because he was too busy. They were as close as they could be under the circumstances though, and he clearly was a loving and devoted father who worked as much as he could to try and support his young family. Due to lack of money following his death, the family struggled and Matilda would have grown up with the knowledge that although there were a lot of people much worse off than her, she was not living a very luxurious life. She was never extravagant in her life, as a result of that upbringing. She writes in her autobiography of holidays she went on where she and her companions travelled the cheapest way possible: of course, the experiences she then had with the people she met on these cheap and interesting journeys were numerous. She loved to travel, but was used to living on a budget.
Whilst her aunts had thrown themselves into charity work in London, Matilda knew she needed to get a job and live by her own means. She enrolled in cookery school and ended up being a teacher of cooking, which she seemed to enjoy. Some cookery books and recipes have ended up in the Lacock archive and are fascinating insights into the cooking fashions of the early 20th century. She didn’t stick with cooking all her life but cooking and food were always a big part of her life. For example, in 1911 she went to a Cordon Bleu cookery school in Paris, and she also occasionally gave cooking demonstrations and lectures. During the First World War, she used Lacock as a base for giving some lessons to people who were afraid their cooks might be called up for national work. Many letters about cooking have ended up in the archive and it’s lovely to have some of her cookery books as well.
Matilda played an important part in the war efforts in the First World War. She had always wanted to be involved in the Navy and took the first opportunity she could, by joining the Women’s Naval Service. She was posted to the Royal Naval Air Service Training Establishment at Cranwell. She helped give homes to refugees and also helped in a soldier’s hospital in Corsham which opened just after the beginning of the First World War, then went out to France to help with a canteen for French soldiers. She and the Lacock community also helped in the Second World War by giving Lacock Abbey over to a London elementary school, using the South Gallery for the teaching of about 85 children. She was also required to house other people, usually servicemen with their wives and other people helping the war effort. She received an MBE in 1919 following her work in the First World War, which became a CBE in 1947.
When she was left Lacock in her uncle’s will, she was very surprised as he had never suggested any intention of leaving even part of his property to her. When her brother refused the estate, she took it on as best she could. The main difference she made at Lacock was to make the house and village much more sociable. She was a naturally sociable person, very different from her uncle. She was careful to maintain the good relationship between the landlord and her tenants which had been set up by Charles Henry Talbot, which was difficult during the war, but it seems that she managed it very well.
Matilda held many parties at Lacock. She wrote in her book, talking about the Great Hall, “In recent days, as well as receptions, we have had concerts, children’s parties, photographic commemorations, study circles and cookery exhibitions. We have danced Scotch reels in it and played Hallow-e’en games, and the room seems to adjust itself at once to whatever is wanted”. She also put on special events for the community. The first was held after the end of the war, and consisted of a party for the tenants held in the abbey, which seemed to go down very well with the Lacock residents. Matilda seemed to have a knack for making people around her get on with each other. The most notable party she held was a pageant in 1932 to mark the 700th anniversary of the founding of the abbey. In the pageant, local people dressed as they would have done in the 13th century, they cooked food that would have been eaten at the time, using traditional methods, and Matilda herself dressed up as Ela, Countess of Salisbury and led the procession. It was a large-scale event and we have many photographs and postcards of it in the Lacock collection and elsewhere at the History Centre, as well as programmes and a booklet, and some correspondence between Matilda and the estate agent Richard Foley concerning the arrangements for the pageant.
There were well over 10,000 attendees at the pageant. Two years later, in 1934, Matilda and her brother organised a centenary celebration of the work of William Henry Fox Talbot, and towards the end of that decade she hosted a two-day cookery exhibition at Lacock, showing off delicacies from all around the country and holding demonstrations in the ballroom. She certainly seemed to love providing hospitality for great numbers of people. In her book, she wrote “I remember in my uncle’s time, when life was necessarily sometimes very quiet, I used to feel that the house didn’t really want to be so quiet, but would like to have a party: if that were so, that desire has certainly been satisfied”.
In 1944, Matilda gave Lacock’s copy of Magna Carta to the British Museum. It was not really any part of Lacock’s estate history, having been part of the papers of William Longspee, Ela’s husband, when he was sheriff of Wiltshire. Matilda and her brother had often thought that it should not remain at Lacock but instead be available to the public. Despite going through some financial difficulties following her uncle’s death and her inheritance and subsequent death duties needing to be paid, she had no intention of selling the document, instead gifting it to the museum. They made a facsimile of the charter so that Matilda could keep a copy. The year after she gave the Magna Carta to the British Museum, the museum loaned the original document to the Library of Congress at Washington for two years. Matilda was invited to be a guest at the handing-over ceremony. She was a privileged guest there and took the opportunity to visit various places.
The same year, she finally decided to give Lacock itself to the National Trust. This was a decision that had been considered for some decades. She continued to live at the abbey as a tenant until her death.
Matilda died in 1958 and was buried at Lacock.