In 1810, Catherine Tylney Long was the ‘richest commoner in the British Dominions’. The 21-year-old heiress was highly unusual because landed estates ordinarily passed along the male line. How did such enormous wealth accumulate and why did it end up in the hands of – A WOMAN?
To answer this question we must look and Catherine’s ancestors – Who were they? What did they contribute? What were their aspirations?
1. JOSIAH CHILD (1631-99)
Catherine’s great-great-grandfather, was a remarkable businessman who rose from obscurity to become one of the richest men in Britain.
Wealth – Josiah Child started out as a brewer, but soon secured a contract to supply beer and other services to the navy. By 1659, he was provisioning East India Company ships, and reinvesting heavily into the company until he became the controlling shareholder. As Governor of the East India Company, Sir Josiah acquired fabulous wealth, monopolizing trade between Britain and the Far East.
Power – Gritty determination spilled into Sir Josiah’s private life. He used his fortune to pursue social advancement through powerful family connections. He provided huge dowries to ensure that his children married into the highest echelons of society. This paid dividends – his grandson was Henry Somerset, 2nd Duke of Beaufort, and his granddaughter Elizabeth became the Duchess of Bedford.
Old Wanstead House c.1708
Ancestral home – Sir Josiah wanted to leave his mark by establishing a family seat that would proclaim his incredible success. In 1673, he paid £11,500 for the manor of Wanstead, in Essex, a scenic estate comprising of rolling hills, forests and lakes, with the River Roding flowing through it. In his final years, he devoted his time to remodelling his gardens, planting avenues of trees and creating ornamental lakes.
Knyff and Kip’s bird’s eye view of Wanstead c.1710 shows the spectacular landscaping, demonstrating why Wanstead Park became renowned as the ‘English Versailles’.
2. RICHARD CHILD (1680-1750), 1ST EARL TYLNEY
When Richard Child inherited his father’s fortune in 1704, he not only embraced Sir Josiah’s vision for Wanstead, but raised his aspirations to a new level.
Wealth – Richard shrewdly added value to the family coffers by marrying advantageously. He married a wealthy heiress and acquired the vast Tylney estates in Hampshire from his wife’s family.
Power – Richard gained titles that elevated the family status. In 1718, he was made Viscount Castlemain. On being raised to the peerage in 1731, he adopted his wife’s surname and became 1st Earl Tylney.
Hogarth’s Assembly at Wanstead c.1729
Ancestral home – Richard chose to invest his money on a home that would rival royal palaces. Wanstead House was the first private residence in Britain to be constructed in Palladian design, appealing to a change in taste to more understated classical architecture. The Assembly at Wanstead House, by William Hogarth, captures the splendour of the staterooms: the sumptuous furnishings, ornate gilding and richly painted ceiling frescos.
Wanstead House – Britain’s first Palladian mansion
3. JOHN CHILD (1712-1784), 2ND EARL TYLNEY
Wealth – Rather than striving for more, John Child enjoyed his wealth, spending for the joy of it and indulging his passion for art, music and theatre. He is thought to be a character in this 1760s painting of the English connoisseurs at Florence.
Power – The 2nd Earl Tylney was homosexual; when he inherited Wanstead in 1750, he had no desire to marry for the sake of appearances or to produce heirs. In an age when homosexual liaisons were a capital offence he was vulnerable. Eventually, he was compelled to flee to Italy after being found in bed with a male servant (or two as the rumour goes).
Ancestral home – Wanstead House lay empty for almost two decades while the 2nd Earl lived abroad. As a connoisseur of art, he devoted much of his time to collecting artwork and treasures for Wanstead House. The highlight of his collection was three ancient bronze statues recovered from the ruins of Herculaneum.
4. SIR JAMES TYLNEY LONG (1736-1794) – (Catherine’s father)
Sir James Tylney-Long memorial, at Draycot Cerne
Wealth – Catherine’s father inherited the Tylney property including Wanstead House from his uncle John. By now Sir James was aged forty eight, and already extremely wealthy as he owned the Long family estates in Wiltshire. With the two legacies combined, his accumulated fortune was enormous – approximately 25,000 acres of land spread over six counties, several stately homes plus stocks and bonds.
Power – Catherine’s father was an unassuming country squire renowned throughout Wiltshire for his charitable endeavours. He was a pioneering forward-thinking man with strong ties to the Shaftesbury family. As MP for the county, he used his power and influence to do good, setting up schools and providing welfare for the poor and infirm.
Draycot House, Wiltshire
Ancestral home – Sir James was perfectly content with life in Wiltshire, and reluctant to leave his ancestral home at Draycot. Although he had no desire to live at Wanstead House, he felt it his duty to produce heirs to the Tylney estate. He married in 1785, at the relatively mature age of forty nine, and four children were born in quick succession – the eldest was Catherine. Crucially, Sir James opted to name his own daughters as heirs, ahead of distant male relatives. So it came to pass that when Catherine’s only brother died in 1805, she was suddenly thrust into the limelight as ‘the richest heiress in the kingdom’.
These were Catherine’s ancestors – four remarkable men who each brought something to the table. But which one was the most historically important?
- Josiah Child – whose meteoric rise enabled everything that was to follow at Wanstead
- Richard, Earl Tylney – who had the vision to commission a relatively unknown architect to build Wanstead House. Colen Campbell’s scheme provided the perfect model for gracious modern living, and it sparked a Palladian revival in Britain.
- John, 2nd Earl Tylney – for his exquiste taste and gathering of an amazing array of priceless art and furnishings fit to adorn Wanstead House
- Sir James Tylney Long – who almost doubled the size of the Tylney estate, and crucially had the foresight to overlook rules of primogeniture, which opened the door to Catherine gaining the inheritance.
Wanstead House – sparked a Palladian revival
Personally I would argue that Richard, 1st Earl Tylney, was the most important of these men. He was a man of great taste, a patron on the arts who promoted and supported influential artists such as William Kent, Hogarth, Nollekins and Casali. It is a shame that his contribution to British culture has been overlooked, as he played a key role in the Palladian revival, which revolutionised Georgian architecture – changing the landscape of 18th century Britain. The many elegant squares and sweeping terraces that adorn our country today owe much to his innovation.
On inheriting Wanstead House, the pressures on Catherine must have been immense. Each one of her predecessors had added value in some way, enabling her inheritance to snowball into something rare and remarkable. The hopes and dreams of her ancestors now rested firmly on her shoulders. What was expected of Catherine? I would like to think their advice might have been:
- Gritty Josiah – Add value through powerful marriage connections and produce lots of heirs
- Shrewd Richard – Marry well, produce heirs, display your wealth and taste
- Flamboyant John – Enjoy your wealth and follow your heart
- Benevolent James – Be charitable and pioneering
Whether she could live up to their hopes and expectations only time would tell!
I hope you have enjoyed this post which sheds light on the enormous responsibilities befalling 16-year-old Catherine the moment she became heiress to Wanstead House and its fabulous treasures.
The decisions Catherine made from this point onwards will be fully recounted in my forthcoming book The Angel and the Cad, (published by Pan Macmillan in June 2015). I aim to show that Catherine was every bit as worthy and influential as her ancestors, leaving behind an important legacy of her own.