From the desk of Tracy Hickman:
The Grove was a large country house and estate in Chiswick, England owned by Humphrey Morice, the son a highly successful London merchant and slave trader. Morice was an animal lover, and in contrast to the common practices of his day, did not destroy animals that were unable to work any longer. He kept a number of horses, dogs, and other animals at Grove House, causing many of his contemporaries to consider him an eccentric.
The main attraction of Life in an Eighteenth Century Country House is the series of letters written by head groom Will Bishop to Morice during his stay in Italy from 1782-1785. Bishop wrote regularly to his employer, sending detailed accounts of all the bills for the house and stables for Morice’s approval. This was unusual, as most estate owners employed a “man of business” to handle these matters. As head groom, Bishop was mostly concerned with the welfare of the animals of the estate and wrote extensively about them, especially those that were unwell. He also kept Morice abreast of the personal lives of the staff, recounting their illnesses and conflicts with other workers, as well as general news about local people Morice would have known. One of my favorites was the “he said, she said” battle in the kitchen between the cook and stable lads:
I am sorry to acquaint Your Honour that there is scarce any bearing with the goings on between Elizabeth Roberts & the stable lads. It is not one in particular but all of them at times, they are continually a-quarreling, she with them and they with her. The lads says that they cannot pass in the house quietly for her, that she is always abusing them, calling them blackguards & dirty fellows and such like expressions. On the other hand she says that they are always abusing her, that she cannot be at quiet for them. (21)
The letters also recount changing prices for coal and other household necessities, occasional incursions onto the estate by thieves and would-be robbers, and repairs to fences and outbuildings. A stable lad stricken with venereal disease was sent to hospital for treatment, while another accused of fathering an illegitimate child was given a salary advance to pay ten pounds for child support. From the mundane to the extraordinary, Will Bishop recorded and shared it all with Morice in his letters.
Following the letters are chapters containing a biography of Humphrey Morice, illustrations of Grove House, including black and white photographs from the early twentieth century, and a history of the Grove Estate spanning roughly 500 years until its demolition in 1929 to make way for a new development. A local legend claims that the house was not destroyed but taken down, transferred to America, and rebuilt. Although the authors could find no confirmation of this story, they did note that one of the fireplaces from Grove House was sold to the Huntington Library and Art Collection in California and was on display as part of the Quinn Room until recently, when it was sold at auction. (121)
Several appendices detail Morice’s associates and friends mentioned in the biography, the Morice portraits painted by Pompeo Batoni, the treatment of the animals at the estate, and Morice’s will and several letters to his executors. One of these letters makes provision for a yearly sum to maintain the animals at Grove House and pay salaries for Will Bishop and several other servants to look after them. In this letter, Morice noted his reasons for not including this provision in his will:
…as their being mentioned in my Will would perhaps be ridiculed after my death, and although I should be ignorant of it and of course not care about it, yet the friends I leave behind me might not like to hear it. (142)
While Life in an Eighteenth Century Country House is a scholarly work and might not be as thoroughly enjoyed by readers looking for a lighter treatment of the subject, I found it both informative and engaging. The authors have studied the house for nearly a decade and their well-researched book reconstructs the lives of Humphrey Morice and his staff. While Morice’s detractors may have considered him an oddity, modern readers will more likely admire his concern for the welfare of the Grove House staff and animals, and feel that his trust in Will Bishop was well founded.
4 out of 5 Stars
Life in an Eighteenth Century Country House, by Peter and Carolyn Hammond
Amberley Publishing (2013)
Trade paperback & eBook (160) pages
Cover image courtesy of Amberley Publishing © 2013; text Tracy Hickman © 2015, Austenprose.com
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