Shaftesbury’s Gold Hill Museum opened for the 2019 season today and one of the special displays tells the story of our water supply. The second presentation documents the dramatic events of 1919, when our town was sold – three times!
Matthew Tagney has spent most the autumn and winter preparing this exhibition. And he understands the significance of marking this occasion. “It’s important because it’s the centenary of the sale of Shaftesbury. The town was sold three times in a year. The upheaval for people was quite extraordinary,” said Matthew. “We also want to celebrate the fact that, during the third sale, the open spaces that we all know and love, such as The Park, Castle Green and Castle Hill, which used to be known as Boltbury, were saved as open spaces for the town to enjoy forever.”
The idea of one individual owning a town seems an odd concept today. But it proved a useful way to exert political influence back then. “Landowners used to buy up town properties in order to influence the election of Members of Parliament, before there was a wide suffrage. Such places were called rotten boroughs and Shaftesbury was one. Earl Grosvenor bought it up so that he could decide who was going to be the MP for Shaftesbury,” said Matthew.
“Then the Reform Act came in the 19th century. More people were able to vote, still not women, but the point of holding a rotten borough died away. The Earl’s son was a model landlord and had a social conscience. He dug the well and donated the school,” added Matthew.
Matthew explained that the following generations continued his work. “His son was a politician and was still socially involved. He was a Minister in Gladstone’s government. The fourth generation, the great grandson, Hugh Grosvenor, was a brave man. He won a military cross in the First World War. But after that, he decided he was more interested in horse racing. Taxes had gone up, as he said in his letter to a tenant.” That letter is on display as part of the exhibition.
Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd Lord Stalbridge, decided to sell the town but it was not unusual. “There were lots of estate sales in the decade after the First World War,” said Matthew. The sale proceeds were likely spent on the horses. “He trained two winners of the Cheltenham Gold Cup and one winner of the Grand National, so who’s to say that he didn’t invest his money well,” laughed Matthew.
Locals were resigned to the fact that their properties would go under the hammer, but some residents would have relished the chance to bid for their homes. Then they had a nasty surprise. “The week before the auction, he announced that he had sold the whole lot in a block to James White. We have discovered that James White was quite a character. He was a wheeler-dealer. He was always buying and selling. There was a hue and cry, because people were hoping to try and buy their own properties. So at the last minute, conditions were imposed on the sale and that led James White to sell again. This was the second sale, one week later, to a local syndicate,” said Matthew.
White made a £5,000 profit in a week. “In today’s sums, you could add a few noughts to that,” said Matthew. There have been suggestions that James White was a made-up name, a cover for the real investor, who wanted to conceal his identity. “One of the local Dorset magazines said he was just a pseudonym, and we thought that was the end of the story, but it was not. And we’re very grateful to Andrew Ginger, the biographer of Cecil Beaton, for pointing out that James White really did exist. The headline on his obituary said ‘from bricklayer to millionaire’, and he did come to a sticky end, sadly. When his debts became due and there was no cash left, he went bankrupt and took poison, I’m afraid,” Matthew said.
So a syndicate of three locals bought the town and quickly put it up for sale again, so tenants had a chance to bid for their homes or businesses. “They were the Mayor, Dr Harris, who was known as a very kindly gentleman who would go out to the traveller camps when they were having their babies so they didn’t have to have babies in the workhouse, a former Mayor, RW Borley, who ran the Grosvenor Hotel and also the merchant Herbert Viney, who ran the biggest shop, Stratton Sons and Mead. They got together paid £80,000 to buy the town from James White.”
Matthew says that Viney was an entrepreneur. “We were told that he was a very perceptive businessman. He was not going to make a loss on anything that he took part in.” One of Viney’s businesses was a bottling plant. “The tall building next to the swimming pool in Barton Hill was, for a while, his mineral water bottling plant. I have an elderly neighbour who remembers looking through the window and seeing all the bottles lined up in there.”
Images of two of the men are on show in the exhibition but Matthew has been unable to track down pictures of the third. “If anyone has got a photo of Herbert Viney, if he was your great uncle Bert, we would love to see that photograph. He’s the missing link at the moment.”
The walls of the exhibition are papered with some of the sale documents. It’s quite incredible seeing the extent of Shaftesbury properties that were for sale, coloured-in on a map. 90% of the town appeared to be up for auction.
“It was about 400 properties and they bundled them together into 300 lots. So there are 240 homes, 50 shops, 70 building sites, allotments or gardens. And to finish it off, there were four pubs, three schools, two banks and the farm. The Council did manage to buy the Cattle Market, Produce Market and the Fire Station before the auction. I’d be interested to know how much they paid for those,” said Matthew. “There was a range of characters involved in buying. Some tenants did buy their own properties but there were out-of-towners as well. There was a builder from Salisbury snapping up things. There was somebody else from Crewkerne and people from Bournemouth.”
The exhibition information includes some of the sale inventory and reveals that Enmore Green’s Fountain Inn used to keep animals. “They had their own piggery, so I don’t know if that meant you got very fresh gammon slices with your chips at The Fountain in those days,” Matthew mused.
There was interest in some of the town’s grander properties. “There were half a dozen big houses. The gentleman in Castle Hill House was most put out that he didn’t manage to buy that. He was renting at the time. A Mrs Bennett managed to buy Bimport House for £1,600 pounds and Alderman Borley arranged for his daughter to buy Barton Hill House, which he then lived in. I am curious to know why he put down a 14-year-old girl as the buyer, especially since she paid £1,700 for it,” said Matthew. “He used to hold court at Barton Hill. That’s where Sir Cecil Beaton, the society photographer, used to come every year to pay his rent on Ashcombe and complain that Borley served ‘very low quality sherry’.”
The exhibition features the 1919 sales particulars for a property on Salisbury Street next to 2018 sales documentation from the former Gilyard Scarth Estate Agents. “Somebody has written in fountain pen in the margin that it went for £700 pounds in 1919. 100 years later they were seeking offers in the region of £495,000.”
Matthew has put those amounts into context and made comparison to today’s prices, as you can see in the exhibition. “The cheapest house sold was number one Love Lane, which went for £40. An average house in those days was about £200. The property market was not like it is now. Some people might say we should return to those days,” said Matthew.
The opens spaces gifted to the town are the real long-lasting legacy of this trio. “They agreed to donate The Park to the town straight off. And we’ve got the contract, which refers to them as ‘the donors’ and says that they want the people of the town to enjoy it in perpetuity. With Castle Green and Boltbury, there was a tangled history. At one point, Dr Harris was suggesting building another row of houses on Castle Green, parallel with the houses on the north side of Bimport. But it all came out well in the end and eventually members of the syndicate donated both spaces to the town, which I think is part of what gives Shaftesbury its unique character,” said Matthew, before adding, “The Ancient Monuments Inspector at Historic England in Bristol says that when you add up the scheduled monuments in Shaftesbury, it rivals some of the most historic town centres anywhere in the southwest.”
It’s curious that an area of Castle Hill was referred to as Boltbury. That term is not in use today. “The source for some of these names is Reverend Dr Hutchins, who lived down in Wareham and spent his whole life writing a huge book on the history of Dorset,” said Matthew. Boltbury seems to refer to a specific part of the Castle Hill. “I think it is most likely the entrenchments on the headland. Historic England says that there was definitely something there, possibly an illegal castle, during the 12th century Civil War. Other finds there go right back to prehistory. And historic England says that there is more to discover on that site.”
Alcester is another area of Shaftesbury, around Breach Common, which is rarely mentioned now. But it features on the 1919 sales map in the exhibition. “That’s named after Alcester in the West Midlands. If you were rich and had property, when you died, you donated the property or the proceeds to an abbey or a monastery, so that they would pray for you after you die. People believed that would help them get to heaven,” said Matthew. “The profits from the land used to go to Alcester Abbey in the West Midlands, which was a cell of Evesham Abbey. Alcester was a parish right into the 20th century. It was a manor and was sold in the early 1800s. It only got united with Shaftesbury when they were reorganising local government in the 1920s or the 1930s. And then there was no more parish of Alcester.”
Matthew has enjoyed uncovered the happier stories connected to the sale. “You could call me sentimental, but I like it when a widow manages to buy her own cottage for a tiny sum of money and isn’t paying rent to a landlord anymore. I think that’s one of the most heartwarming things,” he said.
It’s easy to view the sale as an action of speculators, making money by selling homes from under the feet of long-term sitting tenants. This exhibition highlights many of the outcomes. “There was a profit motive and some profits were made. But there was also some kind of social conscience at work,” Matthew explained. “Mr Imber didn’t get enough money together to buy his butchers shop, which was in the building that later became Turnbulls. But somehow the buyer was persuaded to give it back and Mr Imber bought it for less than the going price. I think there was some social buying going on behind the scenes. That’s one of the things I’d like to delve into a bit more.”
Perhaps it was in the interest of the syndicate’s trio to show some kindness towards townsfolk. They had to live here. “One of my cousins says that living in a small town keeps you honest,” Matthew offered.
If you have any stories, you’re welcome to share them at the museum and the exhibition is open every day until they close at the end of October. “We have a book for stories and if we come up with some good ones, and even documents and pictures, we’ll see if we can squeeze them in somewhere,” Matthew said.
We’ll feature the museum’s second new exhibition, on water and wells, later on ThisIsAlfred.