Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Pitt the Elder's house: Burton Pynsent, Somerset

by Jacqueline Reiter

A lonely tower stands perched on top of a ridge overlooking the valley of Sedgemoor in Somerset. It can be seen for miles from the winding country roads crossing the plain. The tower is the highest thing around for miles, one hundred and forty feet tall, its empty viewing platform gazing austerely out onto the flat, water-logged landscape.

This is the Burton Pynsent monument, erected between 1767 and 1769 by Lancelot "Capability" Brown for William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham. Close up, it is covered with moss and lichen, carved with graffiti, peppered with metal pins to stop it falling down.

The story starts off well enough. Pitt the Elder woke up one day in 1765 to the news that he had unexpectedly inherited a house and estate. Pitt was by that time a famous politician, widely credited with masterminding Britain's victories during the Seven Years War, but even so he had never met his benefactor, and possibly never even heard of him.

Sir William Pynsent was a wealthy Somerset landowner who died without issue and in a state of hostility with all his relatives. In 1763 he cut them almost entirely out of his will and, partly in recognition of Pitt the Elder's stand against a tax on cider, named the late Secretary of State as his executor and primary beneficiary. The surviving Pynsents were horrified and challenged the will in the courts, but it was too late, because Pitt the Elder (Lord Chatham after 1766) had taken enthusiastic control of the estate.

Burton – or Burton Pynsent, as Chatham renamed it in honour of the man who had left it to him – was a magnificent bequest. By the time it passed out of Pitt family hands in 1805 it had grown to "eleven hundred and sixty-eight axres and three roods ... of fertile meadow, grazing, arable, and wood land ... abundantly stocked with capital oak, elm, and other timber trees" and brought in £3000 pounds a year (...........nominally).[1] For Pitt the Elder, who had no "proper" country estate of his own beyond a modest estate at Hayes in Kent, it was a dream come true. He promptly sold his Kent home and set to making Burton Pynsent his own.

Chatham added a completely new wing onto the old-fashioned Tudor and Jacobean house he had inherited. That wing is now all that survives, denuded of many of its original classical features (the portico, the colonnade connecting it to the original house) but still recognisable as part of an 18th century aristocratic home.

In 1791 the house was described as "a large irregular building, erected at different periods ... The apartments are elegant, and contain some excellent paintings ... The principal front is to the north, commanding a rich and very extensive prospect of all the flat country between Mendip and the Quantock hills, the channel and Welch [sic] mountains".

By 1804, the house consisted of a dining room and a ball room, two drawing rooms and "a Grotto Room", a library, bird room, morning room, "twenty chambers and dressing rooms", "arched vaults and cellarage", a separate kitchen, bakery, brewery and laundry, "Five Coach Houses, [and] Four Stables for Twenty-Five Horses", and various servants' quarters.[2]

Chatham also levelled the landscape, planting cedar, beech and elm, designing walkways, pleasure grounds and alcoves, and (emulating his brother-in-law at Stowe) erecting temples and follies all round the estate.

Only one of these follies still survives: the Burton Pynsent monument, on Troy Hill. The monument was designed as a mark of gratitude to Sir William Pynsent, inscribed with the Latin lines "Hoc saltem fungar inani munere" ("Let this perform the empty office [of gratitude]"). A statue of Fame had been intended to stand on top of the viewing platform, but it was never erected. Chatham's visitors often climbed the two hundred-odd steps to the top of the tower to enjoy the view over the plains below, and on special occasions a beacon was lit on the platform in celebration.

All this work on the estate was expensive, and Chatham had no money. This, to him, was not a problem. He cheerfully went about taking loans off close friends and family, generally without the faintest intention of paying them back (he was lucky that his wife, at least, made some attempts to do so, and to smooth over the resulting rifts when repayments were not forthcoming). Hayes had been sold, of course, but that was repurchased in 1767 at great expense, and immediately mortgaged for £10,000.

Burton, inevitably, went the same way. In the early 1770s Chatham was in considerable financial trouble. He took out a series of loans from a family friend, Alexander Hood, on the security of Burton Pynsent which, by 1777, totalled £13,000 (a sum Chatham cheerfully palmed off onto his brother-in-law, Earl Temple, when Hood demanded repayment).[3] There were additional sums attached to the estate as well, and Chatham made matters worse by tying his younger children's inheritance to Hayes and Burton in a way that made it impossible to fulfil the conditions of his will without selling and settling the enormous mortgages.

The result, combined with poor maintenance of Burton's estate and farms, was financial disaster, although this did not become obvious till after Chatham's death in 1778. "I had no money to set out with," Lady Chatham recalled, "... till 1780 [Burton] paid nothing (being let) beyond annuitants and taxes ... the Farms all out of condition".[4] Hayes was swiftly sold (in 1785), but Chatham's widow, Hester, remained living at Burton Pynsent until her death in 1803. As she got older she got less and less capable of managing the estate, and restricted herself to living in the wing her husband had built. The old part of the building was shut up, and crumbled away with damp and neglect. "The Air [is] so Damp that the House except where there is Fire [is] almost as wet within as without," Lady Chatham's granddaughter wrote on one occasion.[5] Meanwhile, interest on the outstanding mortgages kept racking up.

By the time the Dowager Countess died in 1803 there was no doubt the house would have to be sold. Her eldest son, the 2nd Earl of Chatham, had estimates of Burton's value drawn up even before his mother died: he clearly had no intention of throwing money he did not have at what was, essentially, a ruin and a money-pit.[6] A year after his mother died the house and estates were parcelled up and auctioned off in several lots.

The house went to a local landowner named John Frederick Pinney. Already condemned – there was provision in the sales catalogue for pulling down the buildings – Burton did not long survive the sale. Pinney pulled down the older portion of the house and seems to have used the newer wing as offices for his farm staff. By the mid 19th century the house was derelict and deserted, and remained so until the Pinneys sold it at the end of the century.

The Burton monument did a little better. Pinney had intended to pull it down, but a subscription by locals, headed by a member of the Woodforde family (a relative of the famous Parson Woodforde, whose brother had been Lady Chatham's physician), bought it for the community. For over a hundred years the tower crumbled, slowly, into neglect. Cows found their way up the stairs, sometimes plummeting to their deaths, which led to the tower being blocked up. Only in the 1980s did the tower receive the attention it deserved when the family of the present owners secured a grant to have it restored. It is now safe to approach, although it is still blocked up at the base.

The story is a sad one, particularly as the Pitts loved Burton Pynsent so much, but the current owners are doing much to restore the estate and there is still much from Pitt's day that can be seen. The Burton Pynsent Monument is still accessible to the public and it is well worth visiting if only to see the ancient graffiti on its base (dating back to 1770 in some cases).

In the nearby village of Curry Rivel, the church contains one of the hatchments used at the death of the Dowager Countess of Chatham and a touching plaque erected to the Pitt family nurse, Elizabeth Sparry.

The memory of Lord Chatham is alive and well in the community, and his cedars still speckle the estate. Perhaps, then, the story is not so sad after all.


[1] "Sales particulars of ... Burton Pynsent", 16 October 1804, Somerset Heritage Centre DD/MK 101/1
[2] John Collinson, The history and antiquities of the county of Somerset ... (London, 1791) I, 24; "Sales particulars of ... Burton Pynsent", 16 October 1804, Somerset Heritage Centre DD/MK 101/1
[3] The deeds are at the Somerset Heritage Centre, DD/LC 54/9
[4] William Douglas Home, The prime ministers: stories and anecdotes from Number 10 (London 1987) p. 55
[5] Harriot Hester Eliot to Edward James Eliot, 9 February 1794, Ipswich RO Pretyman MSS HA 119/678/1
[6] "Estimate of Burton Pynsent in the county of Somerset..." February 1803, National Archives Chatham MSS PRO 30/8/71 f 158


Jacqueline Reiter has a Phd in 18th century political history. She is currently working on the first ever biography of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, due to be released by Pen & Sword Books in September 2016. When she finds time she blogs about her historical discoveries at http://alwayswantedtobeareiter.wordpress.com/, and can be found on Twitter as https://twitter.com/latelordchatham.


  1. I love your posts, Jacqui. Another great one. How wonderful that you got to see this.

  2. Thanks for this really detailed article with many interesting facts. I grew up in Curry Rivel and as children we often visited this monument, and at that time the entrance wasn't blocked like today, it was possible to climb up inside. The whole thing was full of twigs from decades of nesting birds so the stairs were tricky to negotiate and due to the tiny slit windows much of the ascent was in the dark. It was very exciting although perhaps not particularly safe, wouldn't be permitted now of course but health and safety was looser back then.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.