Voice from the past

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The Alford cross is really an Ashridge artefact despite the fact that it stands outside the Park boundary in Little Gaddesden parish. Erected in 1891 to commemorate the life of of an aristocratic landlady who influenced the life of many workers on the Estate for some twenty years, it has recently had a makeover. Removing the decades of grime has brought it back to life, and the seating and water troughs for both horse and dog are now more apparent. It was built in the days of horse-drawn vehicles and working dogs.

The long reign of the Bridgewaters began to peter out in 1823 with the death of John William the 7th Earl who built the present house. He left his estate to Lord Alford, who succeeded in 1849 for just two years with his wife Lady Marian. Their young son, after complex legal wrangling, became 2nd Earl Brownlow in 1853, when he was twelve years old, and his mother remained his guardian and in effect, the manager of the estate, until 1867. She kept a journal which provides an insight into the aristocratic view of natural landscape, and in 1854 she reported that a deputation from the town had visited her, expressing their wish to have the Berkhamsted beech woods and commons grubbed up for cultivation. By 1863 she effected, on her son’s behalf, the purchase from the Duchy of Cornwall the entire Manor of Berkhamsted, including the common and all rights over it, for £144,546. She was then instrumental in the unsuccessful enclosure in 1866 of some four hundred acres of the common for inclusion in the Park, and later published a detailed explanation for this high-handed and illegal land-grab.

Lady Marian was an accomplished amateur artist and a generous patron of the arts in both England and Italy, where she was born in 1817 and spent most of her early years. Her appreciation of classical art was reflected in the interior decoration of Ashridge House as well as the Italiante garden. She had an especial interest in needlework and in 1886 she published a comprehensive treatise on the subject entitled ‘Needlework as art’. It was also largely owing to Lady Marian’s efforts that the Royal School of Art Needlework was founded in Kensington. Her numerous good works at Ashridge had included the design and building of almshouses and the provision of a water supply to the Estate cottages as early as 1858.
When her second son Adelbert succeeded to the title in 1867 she effectively left Ashridge and led a social life in London. In society she was one of the most noted conversationalists of her day and at Alford House, her lavish and ornate London home which she had built in 1872, she often played host to members of the royal family like the Prince of Wales and leading politicians like Disraeli, and Gladstone. She had presented her sons to the Queen in 1870, and was upset that her second son Adelbert was not given a post in the Salisbury government.

By 1873 she was already concerned about her mounting debts and her extravagant entertaining and liberal support for the arts forced her to sell Alford House in 1887, and in her final year she spent her time at Ashridge with Adelbert, where she died in 1888. So ended the life of an aristocratic visionary talent who achieved a lot in her time but was petulant if things did not work out as expected.
She is one of the “Voices” featured in the present exhibition in the Visitor Centre – women who have shaped the Ashridge estate.

Credits to Richard Mabey

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