The Radcliffe Family
The Radcliffe family's connection with Hertfordshire began shortly after the Dissolution of the Monasteries with the purchase by Ralph Radcliffe, a younger son of a Lancashire landowner, of the Carmelite Priory at Hitchin. The Victoria County History (vol 3 pp 12-13) gives the date of the purchase as 1553 but a monument in Hitchin Church to the memory of Ralph erected in 1675 by his great grandson Sir Ralph Radcliffe states that he enjoyed the Priory for 14 years before his death in 1559.
Regrettably no documents survive amongst this collection to settle the point. Ralph, a scholar of Jesus College, Cambridge, began a school in Hitchin and is known to have been a prolific writer (see Dictionary of National Biography). His second son Edward became physician to James I and was knighted by him.
A considerable family estate including lands in Cambridgeshire and Kent acquired through the marriages of Sir Edward and his eldest son Edward was inherited in 1660 by another Ralph, great grandson of the first. This Ralph, later Sir Ralph, was the longest liver of any of the Radcliffes, dying at the age of 87 in 1720.
His long life and the prolific family of his son Edward resulted in a number of grandsons requiring allowances or employment long before the death of their grandfather. Ralph, Edward, George, John, Arthur and for a short time John's son (also John) all participated in the Levant trade and laid the basis of a second family fortune. The business papers and correspondence covering the period from 1706 until 1767 form a substantial part of the family archive (ref: DE/R/B1-390). A book by Ralph Davis Aleppo and Devonshire Square-English Traders in the Levant in the 18th Century based on these papers is available in the Record Office Search Room.
On inheriting the family estates and much enlarged fortune in 1760, John junior set about rebuilding the Priory with the aid of the Adam brothers and living the life of a country gentleman. He also successfully held the seat as M P for St Albans from 1767 until his death in 1783. A long series of bills for the "new building" at the Priory 1770-1776 (ref: DE/R/F210-222) and accounts of the St Albans election expenses 1767-1781 (ref: DE/R/034-47) are to be found amongst his papers. However the lack of any male heirs from his marriage to Frances Howard the daughter of the 4th Earl of Carlisle meant that the family estates were inherited by his sister Penelope the wife of Sir Charles Farnaby who took the surname of Radcliffe.
In 1802 the lack of a male heir again saw the Priory estate inherited by a woman. Penelope's neice Anne and her husband Emilius Henry Delmé also added Radcliffe to their surname so beginning the association of the Delmeé -Radcliffe family with Hitchin. Their son Frederick Peter a captain in the Grenadier Guards was a notable sportsman, Master of the Hertfordshire Hounds and author of The Noble Science: a few general ideas on Fox Hunting, 1839 which went through four editions and has become a sporting classic. During the nineteenth century the family estates were gradually consolidated in the two counties of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. The estates in Surrey, Sussex, Kent and Cambrigdeshire inherited by various family marriages in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were gradually sold.
Several of Frederick Peter's sons pursued a career in the army or navy, the two eldest of whom were both killed in action, Frederick Peter in the Crimea in 1854 and Seymour Walter in India in 1860.
Ralph Hubert John Delme£-Radcliffe succeeded to the Priory estate in 1916 on the death of his uncle Francis Augustus and to him fell the task of modernising and restoring Hitchin Priory, a task he undertook with great energy and care. Regrettably the County Record Office holds very few items dating from this period. One notable exception is the set of plans of the Priory dated 1923 drawn up in all probability to aid the restoration work (ref: DE/R/P4-8). Two years after his death his only child Anne sold the building to the Hertfordshire County Council thus ending her family's association with the area which had continued for more than 400 years. The Priory was used by the County Education Department as a centre for residential courses. Only recently (1984) has the building been conveyed to an insurance company for conversion to offices