by Hilary Matthews, PhD student
My thesis explores the idea of an ‘agricultural friendship’ among a group of men, from different backgrounds, who were interested in progressive farming at the turn of the nineteenth century. I am especially interested in the regular attendees at the 1804 Woburn sheepshearing, whom George Garrard identified in his print of the same name. Most of these men are not well known; indeed, many are hardly known at all, which has made compiling biographical sketches of them challenging, to say the least. One of them, Francis (Frank) Sitwell (1774-1813), was a rich, young Northumbrian landowner, who fell on hard times.
A fascinating glimpse of Sitwell’s personal life survives in a letter he wrote from Amersham, in 1810, to his 13-year-old son of the same name. Knowing he was dying, Sitwell’s intention was that his son should receive this letter after his death, which came just two and a half years later, when he was 39 years of age; the letter was accepted as his last will and testament. A long, intense missive written when Sitwell was on the run from his creditors, it reveals a sad story of folly, hatred, and love which makes fascinating reading.
Sitwell grew up in Sheffield. In 1791 his father, John Hurt, came into a large inheritance, which necessitated a family name change from Hurt to Sitwell. He did not enjoy his new-found wealth for long: he died two years later, when Frank was only 19. At his death, Frank’s eldest brother, Sitwell Sitwell, inherited Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire, and it is from this side of the family that the literary Sitwells, (Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverall), are descended.
Frank also benefited from his father’s death, inheriting the Barmoor Castle estate in Northumberland, with just over 3,700 acres. In 1803-6 he sat as an MP, siding with William Pitt in the House of Commons, but it was farming that fascinated young Frank most. He immersed himself in all things agricultural, becoming a member of the Highland and Workington agricultural societies, attending the sheepshearings at Woburn and Holkham, and joining the Smithfield Club.
Not only did he sit on the committee of this club, he also exhibited his livestock at its Christmas Show, sending animals over 300 miles to London: no mean feat, as this was forty years before the advent of the railway. Specialising in New Leicester sheep and West Highland cattle, he began hosting his own livestock events, handing out invitations to his shows at other agricultural meetings. In 1806, some of the attendees of the Holkham sheepshearing made their way from Norfolk to Barmoor Castle to attend Sitwell’s own sheepshearing.
Sitwell was obviously well-liked, because in 1809, after he had left Barmoor, his fellow Northumbrian agriculturalists contributed to a handsome trophy which they sent to London to be presented to him by Lord Somerville at the Spring Cattle Show that year. This was the pinnacle of Sitwell’s agricultural achievements.
It was also, however, probably the last livestock event he ever attended. Young and impressionable, and undoubtedly influenced by his elder brother’s wild and extravagant lifestyle, Sitwell got himself into financial difficulties. As he wrote to his son, ‘My desire having no control knew no bounds I found everything subservient to the power of money.’
He encountered marital troubles as well as monetary ones: he had married a woman he did not love, whose brother he subsequently came to hate. He suffered from poor health, too. Then, in the summer of 1809, as his life was unraveling, his London house was burgled. Although he must have been upset by this, it had far worse repercussions for the two intruders, both of whom were caught and sentenced to death.
These circumstances help to explain Sitwell’s letter, in which he admits his failings as a husband and father, advises his son how to avoid the same pitfalls, and asks him to take care of those he loved, something Sitwell himself was now unable to do. Addressing it ‘To my dearly beloved son Frank’, he begins by saying, ‘Should my misfortunes increase, which probably they may, indeed I look forward to little hope of future happiness, the advice I now give you I so trust you will receive as a dutiful son from an indulgent father.’
He tells his son how spoilt he himself was as a child, with his father indulging his every wish, and then, after his father died, how he was left to his own devices with an ‘independent fortune and every comfort this world could afford.’ Sitwell implores his son to ‘steer clear of the rocks on which I have split on, and on which the fairest prospects of my life have been utterly and totally destroyed.’ He tells his son that having heard the truth, he should turn a deaf ear to all those sycophants who would not only give him advice, but try to misrepresent the facts about his father.
He blames many of his failures on marrying the wrong woman, describing it as the ‘most unlucky lottery I ever took a ticket in.’ He tells his son that he was just 21, and on the rebound, when he married Anne Campbell just six weeks after meeting her. He actually likens choosing her to selecting livestock at Smithfield Market, calling her one of the ‘Scottish misses without fortunes, who have passed their teens yet pretend they are only escaped from the nursery.’
The marriage, which produced five children in just over ten years, was decidedly unhappy. Although Sitwell tells his eldest son he would never run her down in front of him, his letter does just that. Having vented his anger on his wife, he then turns his attention to his brother-in-law, who (as far as Sitwell is concerned) has ruined his life, and will endeavour to do the same with his son’s. He tells Frank to ‘shun him as you would a viper’, because ‘The world knows not the cause of my affliction, the cause of my decided animosity against the Campbell family.’
He then turns to the importance of love, saying ‘There is no occurrence in life on which your future happiness so much depends as the choice of a wife. The intended partner and partaker of your prosperity or afflictions.’ Sitwell tells his son that provided he heeds the old-fashioned advice of ‘look before you leap’, he doesn’t care whether he marries the daughter of a duke, or one of Barmoor Castle’s domestics, so long as he loves her. For Sitwell, happiness with the right woman, even if she is socially beneath him, ‘is more enviable than splendid misery.’
Sitwell underlines phrases and words about things that affect him most deeply: primarily his love for Harriet Augusta Manners. When he wrote the letter, Sitwell was separated from his wife Anne, and was on the run from his creditors with his ‘beloved Harriet.’ There is very little evidence about her early life. Sitwell himself is evasive about it, saying only that her ‘parents are very superior to mine.’ She may have been the illegitimate daughter of unmarried aristocratic parents. Sitwell calls her ‘his nearest and dearest friend’, saying ‘she alone of all my friends, male or female has had the resolution to stand by me to the last.’
His son obviously knows Harriet Manners well; Sitwell says she has been like a second mother to him, as well as nursing Sitwell himself. He writes that she has got precious little out of their relationship, sharing his misfortune with fortitude, and selling what little property she possessed to keep him out of prison. He calls her the person ‘I most esteem, nay almost revere’, and laments that she ‘is by her attachment to me left totally unprovided.’ He therefore requests that his son must not only look after his siblings, which as their father he has sadly failed to do, but he must also look after Harriet, saying ‘as you love your father so love her.’ He believes that if he had married Harriet ‘I should have made a good and indulgent husband, as now to the world I may seem a bad one.’
As his letter builds to its conclusion, Sitwell first addresses his forthcoming death, asking his son to bury him where he dies, unless he is in prison. If that is the case, then he would like his body taken back to Barmoor, saying ‘I have built what ought to be my tomb [the castle] for it has become the cause of my premature death and there I shall want no stone to signify who or what I was.’
He then outlines the provisions he has made for his son: ‘Having no property to leave of any kind, either real or personal, a will is of no use to us.’ Sitwell obviously has little money, owes a considerable amount, and has no day-to-day control over the estate. But, critically, he has not lost the estate, because his letter indicates he has left it in trust for his son. He explains that the estate will afford his eldest son an independent fortune and a good education, because he has tied it up with long-standing tenants paying good rents.
He then lists the names of the three executors, who will also be his son’s guardians – one of whom is Harriet herself. He stipulates that under no circumstances should the estate be put into chancery, and he concludes his letter by saying that he has left the lawyer, John Scott, in charge of the government securities which accumulate from the estate rentals. He derisively states ‘I have tried many lawyers and out of the few decent ones I have met I think him the best.’ But his good opinion of Scott was apparently short-lived, because he later added a final sentence, presumably shortly before he died, which reads ‘Since this I have found him as bad as the rest of them.’
Two and a half years later, in February 1813, Frank Sitwell died in Aberystwyth, where he had gone to try to improve his health. His son Frank was 16 at this date, and, by my reckoning, Harriet Manners was about 24 years of age. Although Sitwell wrote and signed the letter himself, it was contested at his death by two of his creditors, one of whom was William Lowrey, who by then had taken up residence at Barmoor Castle. However, Sitwell’s handwriting was verified as genuine, and this letter was accepted as his sworn last will and testament. It was proven in front of a judge on 6 March 1813, with Harriet Manners herself swearing the oath.
It has been almost impossible to convey the intensity of Sitwell’s letter, and the despair that emanates from it. Having finished transcribing the letter, I was left with more questions than answers. Did Frank junior do what his father asked of him in the letter: indeed, was he even able to?
Researching further, I discovered that Sitwell’s faith in his son was not misplaced. His interpretation of his father’s request, ‘as you love your father so love her’, was to marry Harriet Manners. They were married in Paris, in the chapel of the British Ambassador, on 26 September 1818, five years after his father died, and just three weeks after he came of age at 21. Two years later, on the death of his mother, the pair took on, and won, the battle to regain the Barmoor Castle estate from Sitwell’s creditors.
Over the next four decades the estate flourished, and with the young Sitwell having obviously inherited his father’s love of agriculture, he was elected vice-chairman of the Northumberland Agricultural Society. Their marriage, although childless, lasted 42 years, until Harriet died in 1860. When Frank died four years later, he left Barmoor Castle and the estate to his brother, just as his father would have wished.
Undoubtedly Frank Sitwell senior’s life was not a success, and he cannot have been a good husband, but to read his letter and hear him admit to his failings, knowing he was dying, and trying to rectify his mistakes, was almost humbling. It is never pleasant to watch a life spiral out of control, as his was doing: ‘split upon rocks’ from which he knew there was no safe haven.
Yet the two most important people in his life found each other, amid the wreckage of his short existence. They went on to cement a life together, in a union that would last longer than Sitwell’s entire life, and I for one will raise a glass on 26 September 2018 to Frank junior and Harriet Sitwell, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of their marriage.
Primary Referenced Sources
Agricultural Magazine for 1806, Vo. XIV.
British Newspaper Archives.
Dublin Evening Post, 25 June 1808.
History of the Houses of Parliament: Sitwell, Francis (1776?-1813); Sitwell, Sitwell (1769-1811).
Farmer’s Magazine, Vol. VIII, 1808
National Archives; Kew, England; Prerogative Court of Canterbury and Related Probate Jurisdictions: Will Registers; Class: PROB 11; Piece: 1543.
Perthshire Courier, 15 Oct. 1818.Universal Magazine, Vol. XI, 1809.