It could have been the headline in a red-top scandal-sheet: Earl’s young daughter found in ‘a compromising situation’ in the summer house. Today no-one would care, but in 1846 by being found hidden away in the garden, unchaperoned and with ‘ a notorious rake’ Dorothy Walpole ruined her marriage prospects. But by the end of her life all this was forgotten, and she was revered as a great figure in the Conservative party who helped form the Primrose League, and more importantly a great gardener.
It didn’t help that her family had a history of risqué behaviour which placed them on the fringes of polite society. Her father, Horatio Walpole the 3rd Earl of Orford gambled heavily, and once wrote that he “would rather live in the land of sinners than with…saints.” Her brother fathered a child with the notorious Lady Lincoln [google her for details of her divorce case which set London tongues wagging] and then eloped with her.
They could get away with it because they were men and it was Dorothy who drew the shortest straw. Read on to find more about how she overcame the scandal, became friends with Darwin, Disraeli and William and Joseph Hooker of Kew, and developed one of the greatest exotic gardens in 19thc Britain.
Born in 1826 Dorothy grew up on the Orford’s two country estates, Ilsington in Dorset and Wolterton Hall in Norfolk since their London townhouse had to be sold to pay gambling debts. Her parents took a keen interest in the gardens in both places and her early diaries also records visits well-known seedsmen and nurseries with them.
Wolterton was particularly interesting. Built for Sir Robert Walpole’s brother Horatio, it dates from the late 1720s with formal gardens probably planned by Horatio himself with assistance from Thomas Ripley the architect, Joseph Carpenter of Brompton Nursery and Charles Bridgeman. In the 1820s Dorothy’s father commissioned Humphry Repton’s son, George, to enlarge the house and the landscape gardener William Sawrey Gilpin to ‘modernise’ the gardens. For a full description and history of the garden see our database.
Ilsington is a late 17thc grey stone house and apparently had a garden full of topiary. I can’t find much more information about the gardens but the house was sold in 2010 and there is an article about the sale in Country Life at: http://www.countrylife.co.uk/property/country-houses-for-sale-and-property-news/large-dorset-estate-once-owned-by-horace-walpole-22116
Dorothy also saw a lot of European gardens, particularly in Italy and Germany because the Orfords spent a lot of time travelling in her teenage years, largely it would seem to save money. They returned just in time for her to be presented at court, as a debutante, in 1846 and her diary is full of the balls and visits she made that year. At one of these events she met the 42 year old Benjamin Disraeli and they became friends for life.
It was through Disraeli that she met his closest aide, fellow Tory MP, George Smythe. Whether he pursued her or she him we’ll probably never know but in August that year he followed her to Hampshire where she was staying with her parents. After being discovered one night with him in the summer-house, Dorothy eloped with him to Brighton the next day. It was ten days before she returned. There was soon a report in The Morning Post of “a painful occurrence affecting members of two noble families” and eventually the story hit the scandal press. Dorothy was confined to her room, allegedly recovering from a fall, while the family worked out what to do. The answer was clearly marriage but who would take such spoiled goods? The answer was her much older cousin, Reginald Nevill, grandson of the earl of Abergavenny, and Dorothy looked certain to be condemned to a quiet life of country living and pious good works. If you want to know more about the scandal then Mary Millar’s Disraeli’s Disciple: The Scandalous Life of George Smythe is a good place to start. Luckily the relevant pages are available via Google at:
Fortunately for her, Reginald was, according to Disraeli, “a real good fellow” and helpfully he was also, extremely wealthy. He obviously doted on Dorothy, showering her with jewellery before the wedding, and did not even mind when she took her menagerie of lizards, snakes, tortoises and dogs with them on their honeymoon. Soon they started looking for a country house so that he could indulge his passion for both racing and agriculture, while she could develop her interests in horticulture. They chose Dangstein, an estate of over 1000 acres just over the border of West Sussex from Petersfield in Hampshire. It was considered remote and backward country and still had to be reached by stagecoach.
Dangstein had been built in the 1830s and James Knowles the architect ‘had made an attempt to construct a sort of huge Grecian temple..[but] a great portion of the interior had been sacrificed to afford room for a great central staircase’. The Nevills moved in in 1851 and found it ‘a comfortable house’. In her Reminiscences she noted that “Mr Nevill took a great interest in his estate while I devoted a great deal of time to my garden.”
In fact she approached gardening in a very scientific way, experimenting with what would grow on the sandy loam around Dangstein and as a result the gardens flourished. Over the next four or five years all the accoutrements of a grand Victorian estate garden were put in place. This included a complicated system of using every drop of rainwater, firstly in the glasshouses and conservatories, then the various beds and terraces before it was finally channelled into a bamboo grove at the bottom of the garden. Of course it helped that she had 34 gardeners!
Lady Dorothy began as she meant to continue – in grand style. Workmen began by scooping out dells, ponds, sunken lawns and terraces then tons of earth were imported to level a small valley to the east of the walled garden for growing more vegetables and fruit. Terrace walks and winding broad gravelled paths were laid out to take the visitor around the garden. With the structure in place it was time to plant.
Lady Dorothy became friends with most of the leading botanists and horticulturists of the day, including Darwin to whom she sent specimens of insectivorous plants. They corresponded about both them and orchids and she visited him at Down House. For more information see: http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk
and for further digitized letters between them see: https://digital.case.edu/ and follow the links to the Stecher Collection of Darwiniana
But it was the William and Joseph Hooker at Kew that she seemed to get on with best. She was constantly asking for plants and seeds from Kew, sending up her gardener, Mr Vair in his uniform and top hat to collect them.
Guy Nevill in his biography of Lady Dorothy says “she seemed to treat Kew rather like a philatelist does with a competitor’s stamp album; plants were there to be swapped.”
The Hookers were invited to Dangstein to see what she was up to and as a result did not seem to resent this. Indeed just the opposite and vol.82 of the Botanical Magazine is dedicated to her.
The result was , as the Morning Chronicle said in , that “every gardener knew Dangstein” and “all make pilgrimages” to see its more than 30 “miniature Crystal Palaces containing more than 40,000 square ft of glass” although they “could not begin to enumerate one hundredth part of the objects of interest” which formed “one of the finest ever amassed by a private individual.”
Of course it was not all plain sailing, and Lady Dorothy recounts a disaster that occurred in one of the hothouses, which highlights the dangers of greenhouse technology of the time. It
Dangstein was not just the home of a great collection of exotic tropical imports. As Lady Dorothy herself said “there were a great many curiosities of different sorts in my garden.” She planted many ‘exotic’ trees and a fashionable pinetum with newly imported redwoods, wellingtonias and monkey-puzzles. The garden also had some of the earliest herbaceous borders in the country, as well as a menagerie, an aviary and a silk-worm farm. The pet’s graveyard she set up came complete with tombstones made from recycling those ‘discarded’ in the ‘modernization’ of the local parish church!
She collected china and works of art, both the serious and fashionable but also the unusual and the more ephemeral – everything from snuff-boxes and silhouettes to wax medals and corset-buttons – creating a museum to house them. Her collection of old Sussex ironwork, much of it discarded by her farming neighbours, has ended up at the V&A.
Perhaps the most amusing of her collection gives the title of this post. It was her aerial or winged orchestra.
If you don’t believe me [or Lady Dorothy] then check out these recent stories and video clips about pigeon whistles and their sounds!
W.Trotter, her biographer for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, says that “Lady Dorothy’s habit of collecting extended to people” with her earlier disgrace pushed into the shadows as she established herself as a society hostess. She held regular salons at their London house in Mayfair which attracted not just politicians but writers, artists, scientists, and soldiers. Chief amongst her regular guests was Disraeli – indeed he was so close a friend that according to family tradition, Disraeli was actually the father of Ralph, her youngest son. She was later to help found the Primrose League in his honour. Although she was an ardent Tory her friendship extended across the political divide and entertained Radicals and Liberals as well as the Prince of Wales and prominent conservatives like Joseph Chamberlain. This was often because of shared horticultural interest.
Chamberlain, for example, was renowned as an orchidist and his gardens and hothouses which she visited often, were, she said, ‘a delight’. It was through Cobden that she obtained ‘a special sort of silkworm’ which fed on the Tree of Heaven, Ailanthus glandulosa. Her experiences with the normal mulberry eating silkworm were less than satisfactory. They were kept in the house but ‘occasionally…strayed about and got up people’s trousers, much to their inconvenience and horror.’ These were sent over from the Jardin Imperiale d’Acclimitation in Paris, and flourished so well that she was able to have a dress made from their silk. However the moths did not last long because they became a favourite snack of flocks of the small birds in her garden!
Reginald Nevill died in 1878. “He was so very kind to me” she told a friend. “When he died I wondered how I could go on living without him” and then added “but you see I have!” In fact he was not so kind financially after his death. Most of the property was left to their children while she was left an annuity of £2000 a year which as Guy Nevill comments “effectively put a stop to extending the exotic groves” of Dangstein.
As a result although she maintained the Mayfair house, Dorothy had to move from Dangstein which by then had probably the best collection of exotic plants in Britain outside Kew. She could not afford the cost of their upkeep even if she had somewhere to house them so about 15,000 were auctioned off. The estate sold for £53,000.
Kew did not have the money to buy her plants, instead some ended up in the greenhouses of the King of the Belgians at Laeken whilst most were sold to the “Administration of Monte Carlo… and many of them found a home in the pretty gardens surrounding the great Temple of Chance.”
What remained she took in 3 vans to her new home, Stillyans near Heathfield in East Sussex which she rented from one of her botanical friends Dr Robert Hogg, editor of the Journal of Horticulture.
At Stillyans she started on a new garden, much smaller in scale and much wilder and less formal in approach to keep down the maintenance costs, but which became impressive in its own way. She found fresh scope for her energies there in breeding black sheep, as well as crayfish, storks and Cornish choughs. “I am not philanthropic,” she once said in a cynical mood, “and prefer animals to my own species.” However by 1894 she could no longer afford this house either and gave it up, spending most of her time in London and renting the much smaller Tudor Cottage outside Haslemere in Surrey so she could visit her son who was a clergyman nearby.
Dorothy Nevill wrote several books towards the end of her life, including one on Walpole family history and another on silkworms. These were followed by three volumes of autobiography. The Reminiscences of Lady Dorothy Nevill (1906), Leaves from the Notebooks of Lady Dorothy Nevill (1907), and Under Five Reigns (1910). All available at archive.org. She finally died aged 85 on 24 March 1913 at her home at 45 Charles Street, London.
Dangstein was bought by Charles Lane, a London solicitor, who must have dismayed Lady Dorothy by dismantling many of the glasshouses. It was sold again by his widow in 1919, and then again in 1926 this time to Walter Quennell a London property developer. Quennell demolished the mansion, which by this time was partly derelict, and built a more modest and comfortable replacement. The estate was inherited by his daughter, Joan Quennell who was Tory MP for Petersfield, and she in turn bequeathed it to the National Trust. The Trust felt the estate did not have sufficient historical interest to be opened to the public and, despite considerable local concern sold it in 2007. As far as I can discover, some of the outlying properties were sold off but the main part of the estate remains intact.
For more information see R. Nevill, The life & letters of Lady Dorothy Nevill (1919) · G. Nevill, Exotic groves: a portrait of Lady Dorothy Nevill (1984) · W. R. Trotter, ‘The glasshouses at Dangstein and their contents’, Garden History, 16/1 (1988), 71–89:
and of course the entry on our database: http://www.parksandgardens.org/places-and-people/site/5205/summary
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