|Administrative / biographical background:
This is the history of a house and of the people who lived in it and of the effect that each had on the other. It is not a remarkable house nor have its owners been especially distinguished, but it is an interesting story in so far as the house has been so constantly subjected to changes which have reflected the fashions of succeeding generations, who expanded or reduced it according either to the size of family or to the prevailing economic conditions. At the same time the house, or rather its geographical situation so near Newcastle and a large centre of industry, has acted like a mould and imposed a remarkable similarity on the ten generations of men who have lived there.
They have all been possessed of a noteable business sense and shown keen interest in the industrial developments of their times; they have all exhibited a public spirit of service to the local community which is above the average; they have all shown a selfless devotion to duty and to the obligations of their wealth. There has not been one black sheep among them for the past two hundred and fifty years, nor have there been any artists, writers nor intellectuals. They have all been closely attached to the land to which they belonged, so that in spite of their ability they have none of them been tempted to seek fame or fortune elsewhere, and although they represented their city or their county in many successive parliaments, it was the local representation that mattered to them more than political ambition.
This attachment to their home has been reflected in the way in which they treated it. They none of them had any architectural respect for the house, but they loved it and lived in it, each generation shaping it to its needs, and before a fire in 1944 gave opportunity to restore it more or less to its original size, it had become like an old coat which has assumed the shape of its wearer through constant use.
This attribute of a house, where past and present are merged into one, gives Blagdon an atmosphere which is lacking in more strictly beautiful and untouched buildings, while the sense of belonging to a place, of having roots deeply buried in a familiar earth, is one of the most essential elements of human happiness.
Blagdon stands to the west of the Great North Road, ten miles north of Newcastle. It was formerly always written Blaikdene or Blaigden, blake from the northern dialect meaning of yellow or golden, or from the Anglo-Saxon meaning of bleak - cold - exposed. Either of these could apply to the dark, woody dene in the grounds, through which runs a small tributary of the river Blyth, where the beech trees turn a wonderful colour in the autumn. Incidentally, the house is still called Blaigden by older people in the county, so that the more familiar pronounciation is probably quite modern.
The earliest surviving deeds  of the property reveal that it was owned, in 1240 by Sir John de Plessey, who "held this manor of the Barons of Morpeth". In 1349 it passed, together with the townships of Shotton [20/22] and Plessey , to the Widdringtons, in whose possession it remained until 1568, when it was either purchased or inherited by a branch of the Fenwick family. In 1652, William Fenwick of Blagdon forfeited his estates to the Commonwealth. At the Restoration, in 1663, the king, by patent, granted to Henry Gilford and John Horton the Lordship or Manor of 'Blackeden' - "to hold in fee at the request of George Collingwood Esq." The Fenwicks, however, continued to hold property at Blagdon  until 1692 when another William Fenwick conveyed it to Matthew White Esq., and on December 12th, 1700 "released to him all title in Blagdon and Phoenix Nest". The Phoenix Nest was so called from the crest of the Fenwicks and consisted of a few cottages on the west side of the main road, a little north of the south entrance to Blagdon. Over the doorway of one of these cottages the stone lintel was carved with a phoenix rising from the flames. These cottages were pulled down in the eighteenth century, when the present park wall was built and this carved stone was incorporated in it. It was since disappeared, however, presumably in one of the wall's frequent collisions with skidding motor cars.
The Whites can be identified by their crest (of three cocks' heads with combed and wattled gules) as descendants of the Whites of Redheugh in County Durham, a family with a pedigree dating back to 1280. The particular branch from which Matthew White was descended came from Hawthorn, however, also in County Durham. Surtees, in his history of Durham, records that in 1607 "Francis and Edward Radclyffe granted the whole manor and ville of Hawthorne to Richard White". Richard's son and heir Miles, born in 1609, either did not inherit this property or preferred the town to the country, for he came to Newcastle and was enrolled as an apprentice to the Merchant Adventurer's Company in 1688, his master being Nicholas Fenwick.
Matthew White was the son of Miles and he was typical of the new men who were rising to power in this great period of the development of the coal trade. "Men of enterprise, vision and resource who were prepared to take risks and to seize opportunities with both hands", as they have been described by Professor Hughes in his book 'North Country Life in the Eighteenth Century'.
Nicholas Ridley was another of these adventurous young men, who had deserted the country for the greater wealth and opportunity of the town - although it can hardly be said that life on the border was ever quiet, and the Ridleys, from their stronghold or Pele Tower of Willimoteswick on the South Tyne, had played an active part in the border raids and family feuds for several centuries. Maybe the quieter conditions on the border and the fact that the extensive lands that the Ridleys had owned since 1154 had been sequestered by the Commonwealth for their loyalty to Charles I, incited young Nicholas to seek new adventure in a wider and more lucrative field. Certainly he brought to his new activity much of the courage and acquisitive which had motivated the 'Broad Knights' from whom he was descended.
Matthew White and Nocholas Ridley soon became closely associated, both in their business dealings and in their civic responsibilities. White was Mayor of the city in 1691 and in 1703, and Ridley held the same office in 1688 (the year of the Glorious Revolution) and again in 1707 - another suspicious year when the Treaty of Union with Scotland was signed and peace came at last to the troubled border. Together Matthew White and Nicholas Ridley built up an extensive interest in the coal trade, acquiring mines at Blaydon, Willington, Benton, Byker  and Heaton [15, 35/12] and Jesmond [35/13]. Matthew White extended his interests north of the city, buying the Blagdon estates in 1700. There is no description of the existing manor house of that date, but it stood on the site of the present one and traces of it remain in the cellars where there is still a fine stone chimney piece, carved with the White coat of arms. The exact date of the present house is unknown. Matthew White died in 1716 and his son, the second Matthew White, married in 1718 Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of John Johnson, another wealthy merchant who owned land and coal at Bebside. It is more than likely that it was he who built the house as Bourne, the Newcastle historian writing in 1736 says:-
"Since the present gentleman was the possessor, Blagdon vastly surpasses what it was formerly; and whether we consider the stateliness of the house, the grandeur of the avenue, the beauty of the gardens, or the art and ornament of the curious fish ponds, we shall find them exceeded by few in the whole country."
On the other hand the White arms are quartered with Johnson's in a beautiful coat carved within a scroll in the pediment on the south front, which would indicate that it was built by their son, since the husband of an heiress only impales her arms. This theory would also seem to be supported by the fact that the earliest rain water head is dated 1752, two years after the third Matthew White inherited. It is possible, of course, that the second Matthew White built a two storey house and the third one added another storey, but there is no architectural evidence of such an addition. This uncertainty of the date is an instance of the anonymity of architecture, for although Blagdon has been lived in continuously and in direct descent, we do not know which generation built it nor who was the architect.
A contemporary picture of the east front shows a charming and elegant house with fluted Corrinthian pilasters surmounted by a cornice and balustrade. There was an attic storey behind this balustrade which is not evident in the painting. This house reflected the growing wealth and elegant way of life in its owner.
The second Matthew White was, like his father, a noteable figure in the public life of Newcastle. He was Governor of the Merchant Adventurer's Company from 1712 to 1739 [27/22], and of the Hostmen's Company from 1713 to 1736. He was Sheriff of Northumberland in 1720 [27/3], and distinguished himself during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 by his defence of the House of Hanover. He also took advantage of the Rebellion when, upon the execution of the Earl of Derwentwater, he bought up the lands forfeited by that tragic and ill fated Cavalier at Newsham, Plessey [17-18], Shotton and Nafferton. He thereby enormously increased his estate and acquired some valuable coal fields. He also, about this time, bought some tythe lands at Warkworth, and the altar rails and gates in the Parish Church at Warkworth still bear his monogram and crest in wrought iron.
The business partnership between the Whites and the Ridleys continued and flourished, while the two families were even more closely linked by the marriage of Matthew White's sister, Margaret, to Richard Ridley, son of Nicholas. Richard Ridley was a man of great independence and he is described by Professor Hughes as the 'stormy petrel' of the coal trade because of his reluctance to join in any alliance to regulate the terms and conditions of the trade.
He went through times when he was said to be "scandalously short of money", but his weekly costs at the collieries were £600 and the business was precariously dependent on the vagaries of weather to get the coal ships out of the Tyne, to say nothing of the activities of the Old Pretender, so that he was often at a loss to find the interest he owed on borrowed capital. But in spite of his own avowed reluctance to "stretch my arm beyond my coat sleeve", he was a good and generous employer, and he made a fortune eventually, owing to his foresight and imagination in installing steam engines into his pits to pump out the water, thus enabling the coal to be mined at a much greater depth than had been possible hitherto. His patent to do this was granted in 1729 , the first of its kind in the north of England, which reveals the measure of his progressive and adventurous nature.
With his newly acquired wealth Richard Ridley bought a large estate at Heaton, now a suberb of Newcastle, but at that time well beyond the city walls, and he built a house there designed by an architect called Newton, which was owned by the Ridleys until 1826. (This house was pulled down in 1936 to make room for a housing estate but much of the garden still remains as a public park.
Richard Ridley died in 1739, having had nine children of whom only four survived their infancy. Of these, Matthew was the third and eldest surviving son, and he followed the pattern of his White and Ridley antecedence with extraordinary consistency. He was a very intelligent boy and was the first member of either family to go south for his education since Bishop Ridley (the courageous and cultivated scholar who was burnt at the stake by Bloody Mary in 1555, and to whom Latimer addressed the famous words: "Play the man, Master Ridley, we shall this day light such a candle by God's Grace in England as I trust shall never be put out.").
Matthew Ridley went to Westminster School and St. John's college Oxford, where he matriculated in 1727 at the age of sixteen. He was called to the Bar in 1732 but does not appear to have practised, and indeed he entered so young into the public life of Newcastle that he could not have done so. He became Mayor in 1733 at the age of twenty two, being probably the youngest man that ever occupied that exalted position. He entered Parliament [25/1-6] as a Whig in 1741 and he represented Newcastle through four successive Parliaments until 1774, when he retired in favour of his son, who has been M.P. for Morpeth since 1768. He was Mayor of Newcastle again in 1745, when the responsibility fell upon him to organise the defence of the town against the threatened invasion of the Young Pretender [27/4]. For this "Loyalty and good Conduct" he was assured by H.R.H. the Duke of Cumberland, that he had earned "the particular Thanks of my Royal Father" George the Second.
But although he won honour and praise for his part in squashing the Rebellion, his private affairs suffered considerably by the disturbance. Writing to a creditor in January 1746 he said:-
"These cursed distractions in this part of the world have actually put a stop to all trade in so much that I have not received £600 since September last."
The truth was, however, that he and Matthew White were expanding the family business considerably at this time and borrowing capital where ever they could find it. In addition to the collieries they were working at Heaton, Byker, Jesmond and Winlaton, they were also mining at Cowpen, Blyth and Newsham. This latter property had been bought by Richard Ridley and given by him to his younger son Nicholas. But Nicholas does not seem to have possessed the family business acumen, for his nephew Matthew Ridley had to come to the rescue and take over the management of these estates in 1745, when Uncle Nicholas retired to Bath to take the waters for his gout, leaving his debts behind him.
The activities of the Ridley and White business were not confined to coal for they also owned fourteen salt pans at Blyth, producing more than a thousand tons of salt a year, a glass works, a pantile factory and a brewery. It is amazing that in addition to all these responsibilities in the North, Matthew Ridley also found time to attend the House of Commons, and though he was never a loquacious speaker, he was a regular attender and joined in any debate where local interests were at stake. Moreover, his agents do not appear always to have acted very efficiently in his absence, for his return to the North was invariably followed by a spate of apologetic letters to his creditors, blaming his agents for his unpaid bills.
It was about this time that Matthew Ridley inaugurated a Bank, later knows as "Sir Matthew White Ridley and Co." which was the first regularly constituted country bank in England, and in 1755 they began to issue their own notes. (One of the plates from which they were printed is still at Blagdon).
Matthew Ridley was Mayor of Newcastle again in 1751, the year that the building of the old Infirmary on Forth Banks was begun. A portrait of him in the Board Room of the present Royal Victoria Infirmary shows him in his Mayoral robes with the insignia of office beside him, pointing to a plan of the new hospital. It is a delightfully simple plan ("Plain but according to the true rules of architecture" as he himself described it) which made me - his successor in the chair of the building committee two hundred years later - extremely envious!
Matthew Ridley married first, in 1735, Hannah, daughter of a wealthy Newcastle merchant, Joseph Barnes, and grandaughter of Ambrose Barnes, the well known Nonconformist and writer [24/16]. They were married secretly and without witnesses in Newcastle, but remarried in London a year later when their child was born, before witnesses but under false names. I have been unable to discover why there was all this mystery. Hannah had a fortune of £800, their son was born more than twelve months after their first clandestine marriage, so that it would not have been a 'forced' one, and it is difficult to see what possible objections to their marriage there could have been. A pathetic bundle of letters from them both survive, written to Hannah's sister and brother-in-law, who were the only people who were in the know, imploring their support in concealing their situation. Matthew goes so far as to say, four years after their marriage:- "... It is with great difficulty I am able to keep the only Party (that I wish to have it concealed from) quiet, but it is absolutely necessary, in order to do so, to conceal it from all the World. Dear Sir, don't you pity me? ...". He goes on to say that if the secret is divulged "I must submit to what has been the Fate of many a man before me (tho' none more innocent) of being murdered in the dark." And Hannah endorses his plea:- "... I am at a loss for words to express the distress I am under. All I beg is that things may be concealed a little longer, we may then all be happy. If not, Poverty, Ruin, and Distraction must be our portion in this World." Who could this mysterious person have been of whom they were so afraid? I have been unable to trace a document referred to in volume 50 of the Surtees Society, described as "an angry tract", published by one of Hannah's brothers, when she died in 1741, blaming Matthew for her sufferings and declaring that the concealment of their marriage hastened her death. Whether Matthew was in fact to blame or whether the Barnes family were merely defending their sister, they certainly convinced little Richard, aged five, to take up the cudgels on his mother's behalf, for he is said to have brandished a wooden sword in his father's face, crying "Now let me see who dare call by mother a whore."
A year after poor Hannah's death, Matthew Ridley married his first cousin, Elizabeth, daughter of the second Matthew White and Elizabeth Johnson. This marriage was far more fruitful and, one hopes, happier than the first. It united the families of White and Ridley for the second generation, and when Elizabeth's brother died unmarried, she inherited the Blagdon estates. She had twelve children of whom eight survived. Matthew Ridley died of "dropsy in the chest" in 1788, aged sixty six. He was buried in St. Nicholas's Church, where a large and imposing monument designed by Bacon, was erected to his memory in the South Aisle.
His eldest son, Richard, son of Hannah, might have inherited the Heaton estate, but he surrendered this interest to his half brother, possibly in exchange for an annuity or a commission in the army. He was a regular soldier and remained all his life on the friendliest terms with his half brothers and sisters. At his death he bequeathed all his belongings to Blagdon, including the kidney stone from which he died.
To return to Blagdon: The second Matthew White died in 1750 [24/22] "after a tedious indisposition", having had ten children of whom only three lived to grow up. (During one epidemic of smallpox they lost four children in the course of one month). The eldest was yet another Matthew, then Elizabeth who married Matthew Ridley, and Mary, who never married. She lied with her brother at Blagdon, and if she was at all like him to look at it is perhaps not surprising that she never found a husband in spite of her considerable fortune. They were both evidently great readers and started the excellent library. Many of their books are still at Blagdon, identified by their signatures in the fly leaf. These include a second folio Shakespeare and a first edition of Dryden.
His portrait reveals a rather dull and portly country gentleman in the uniform of the Northumberland Militia of which he was Colonel. He continued to take an active interest in the family business but was not engaged in civic affairs as his father and grandfather had been. He was created a Baronet in 1756, probably by purchase, since he did not do anything conspicuously to deserve it. When he died in 1763 the title passed to his nephew, son of Matthew and Elizabeth Ridley, who in due course was the first Sir Matthew White Ridley, and the two families were finally united at Blagdon.
The second Baronet was born in Westgage Street, Newcastle in the middle of the Jacobite Revolution of 1745. He was educated at Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford, and then went, in 1765, to the Academy at Angers for a year [30/3], and after travelling round the South of France he returned to England in 1767. In the Parliamentary election of 1768 he was returned member for Morpeth and thus began his long public service in the same pattern as his predecessors.
In 1774 he was elected Alderman of the City of Newcastle and Mayor eight months later. At the general election of that same year he did not stand again for Morpeth, but contested Newcastle in place of his father, who had resigned in his favour. He won the seat after a vigorous contest and retained it through eight successive parliaments extending over a period of thirty eight years [25/7-22].
I fancy he was a somewhat tedious orator. Those of his speeches which have survived invariably start by declaring that words fail him to express the depth of his emotion and then continue for many pages to express the shallowest emotion in the most long winded language. Nevertheless he must have had great personal charm, and his portrait by Hoppner fully supports the family tradition that he was irresistible to the opposite sex.
In fact he got himself into considerable trouble in this respect in 1793, when he was sued by a Dr. Bromel for 'Criminal Conversation' with Mrs. Bromel on the staircase of their house in Newcastle. Sir Matthew, who had been caught in 'flagrante delicto' by Mrs. Bromel's maid, was found guilty by a special jury, and ordered to pay £400 damages. This little incident did not, however, affect his public career, although he was Mayor of Newcastle and Member of Parliament at the time [27/10]. Perhaps the general public were of the same opinion as Sir Matthew's counsel who maintained, in mitigation, that Mrs. Bromel, although admittedly very beautiful, was not morally above reproach. Moreover, her husband had shown such a lamentable complacency in her affairs, that he suspected that they had conspired to rob this great but susceptible gentleman - not only of his money but of his peace and quiet. Any way, Sir Matthew continued to enjoy the confidence and affection of his constituents as well as his wife.
In addition to Sir Matthew's public offices, he furthered the various industrial concerns of the family. His chief interest seems to have been concentrated on the development of the port of Blyth [37/3-5]. At one time he commissioned Rennie, the famous engineer who designed Waterloo Bridge, to prepare a plan for the improvement of Blyth harbour, but it was never carried out as it was too expensive.
The second baronet made considerable alterations to Blagdon, some good and some bad. He, unfortunately, "altered the East front of the house by removing the Pilasters and a very heavy attick storey and making the windows conformable to the South Front (which before were two feet higher without Pediments) and building a Portico". It is difficult to understand why he did this, as the pilasters gave grace and elegance to the house and their removal has left some ugly scars. But in all his other additions and improvements he showed taste and sensibility. He employed James Wyatt, the well known architect, to build the fine stables and the lodges to the south entrance to the park, which with their white bulls recumbent on the gate posts, have become a familiar landmark to all who travel the Great North Road.
Wyatt also decorated the original dining room with some charming plaster enrichments which still exist and happily escaped the fire in 1944. The original coloured drawings for all this work of Wyatt's are preserved at Blagdon, signed and dated 1789. The Ridleys were more inclined to keep records of all kinds than the Whites.
Altogether, the second baronet was a great connoisseur and patron of the arts, and the marks of his patronage are to be seen in Newcastle, in the Assembly Rooms and the Moot Hall, both of which were built during his terms of office as Mayor. He also gave and caused to be erected in the Side, the Kale or Scale Cross, which was later moved to Blagdon when it began to obstruct the increasing traffic, and can be seen from the Great North Road.
In addition to Blagdon and Heaton, Sir Mattew owned a house in Portland Place, London. The journey to and from London took three days by coach and must have been a dreaded ordeal. The servants, linen and plate went by sea, and it is recorded that in 1796 a ship "containing goods, servants, livery and clothes, etc. was captured by the enemy". Sir Matthew valued the lost property at £200 but makes no mention of the fate of the servants.
He married, in 1777, Sarah, daughter and heiress of Benjamin Colborne, a wealthy apothecary and land owner of Bath [30/2]. He left all his property to Sarah's second son, Nicholas, on condition that he took the name of Colborne in addition to Ridley and also his coat of arms. Later, Nicholas took the title of Lord Colborne when he was raised to the peerage for his political services.
Sir Matthew and Sarah had six sons in all; the four younger ones all took Holy Orders. Their only daughter married John Scott, son of the Lord Chancellor, Eldon, who made local history by eloping with Bessie Surtees from her house in Sandgate.
Sarah's portrait by Gainsborough was painted when she was a young girl and he was still an unknown young man working in Bath. She was much loved and praised by the people at Blagdon who still remembered her, thirty five years after her death, saying that although "she was not beautiful she was good". Towards the end of her life she was crippled with rheumatoid arthritis, and after a long and "extraordinarily painful illness" she died in London in 1806.
Her husband "expired without a groan" seven years later in 1813, also in Portland Place. His corpse was conveyed to Newcastle and buried in the family vault at St. Nicholas, and a vast monument by Flaxman, which is a riot of symbolism, was erected to his memory in the nave.
The third Baronet, named inevitably Matthew White, was born in 1778. Like his father and grandfather he was educated at Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford, taking his B.A. in 1798. In 1800 he followed his father's footsteps in the Grand Tour of Europe which was considered such an essential part of a young gentleman's education in those days [30/7, 32/3]. But he went further afield than his father and travelled in Germany, Austria and Italy, returning to Newcastle in 1801.
Two years later he married and settled down at Heaton to learn the family business, and in 1812, when his father resigned his seat in Parliament, he decided to stand in his place [25/24]. He stood as a Whig and his canvas took him as far as South Shields where he "met with the most flattering promises of support". Out of 130 voters he did not meet with a single refusal. Even at Gateshead he "received the same favours and support".
The climate of local political feeling was to change considerably during the twenty four years he sat in the House of Commons [25/25-79]. He was re-elected four times without opposition but at the General Election in 1830 the seat was contested by C.J. Brandling of Gosforth Park and Sir Matthew was assailed by scurrillous, anonymous slanders which cast aspersion on his "Honour and Character". The charges against him were that he had spent too much time abroad (which he contended was unavoidable owing to the state of his wife's health) and also that as one of the Commissioners for the rebuilding of Windsor Castle who had underestimated the cost of it by £50,000, he had failed to safeguard the pockets of the tax-payers.
In spite of these accusations he won the election and was returned to Parliament. In the ensuing years he supported the Reform Bill through all its stages, but this was not enough to maintain his popularity against the growing radicalism of Tyneside. In the General Election of 1835 his "pretended old Whig friends" did not consider his "Principles sufficiently violent" and they put up a "Destructive Radical" from Edinburgh to oppose him. During the election Sir Matthew was "attacked by a brutal mob on the Sandhill" and he "was obliged to gallop off and get into the Inn" as fast as he could. In spite of this alarming incident he managed to hold the seat by 452 votes.
In addition to his political activities, the third Baronet was a partner in the Bank and continued to further the family interest in the collieries and at Blyth. But on the whole he was less interested in business than his forebears and more inclined towards country persuits. He established a pack of fox hounds in 1818  and is portrayed in the well known picture by Snow with two of his sons and Blagdon in the background. These hounds were later immortalised by Surtees in both Handley Cross and Hillingdon Hall (where "sir Matta's hunds cast off at Gosforth Gates"). It is said that Boag, the huntsman to the Blagdon hounds, who is also portrayed in Snow's picture, was the origin of James Pigg, but I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this.
The third Baronet married, as I have said, in 1803, Laura, daughter of a Dr. and Mrs. Hawkins. She was the most extraordinary character. I think she was probably a little mad and she was certainly very unpleasant. During her early married life her constant child bearing seems to have kept her eccentricities in abeyance though it may have soured her temper. She bore twelve children in the course of sixteen years, ten of whom survived. This was a much better record than any other generation, which may partly be attributed to the fact that her mother-in-law was one of the earliest protagonists of inoculation against smallpox. It is reported in the Newcastle Courant as early as 1791 that "Lady Ridley had given directions that all the poor children in the Parish of Stannington, whose parents were willing, should be inoculated at her expense, and that upwards of sixty had received the benefit of Her Ladyship's benevolence and had recovered." This was seven years before Jenner published his first treatise, and inoculation was by no means the harmless procedure that it is now. And yet I doubt if Stannington could boast of sixty children vaccinated today!
In 1813, when the second Baronet died, his son and daughter-in-law moved to Blagdon from Heaton where they had spent the first ten years of their married life. They immediately set about enlarging the house to fit their family. With no respect for the symmetry and grace of its Georgian architecture, they added a large dining room to the west and a long, ungainly wing to the north, with ten little rooms for their ten little children. Later, when they were older, only the girls and their governesses lived in this wing, which was called the Nunnery by their brothers. This wing was designed by Dobson, who was responsible for so much of the finest architecture in Newcastle, but it is a poor example of his work and is very clumsily attached to the older building.
They also found the London house in Portland Place too small or too unpretentious for their needs (for I think Lady Ridley suffered from a 'folie de grandeur', among other faults) and in 1827 Sir Matthew bought a site in Carlton House Terrace and built himself a house there for £15,000 [33/2]. Nash, who designed the Terrace, prepared plans for the interior, but Sir Matthew almost entirely altered them with the help of Mr. Bonomi, son of Jacob Bonomi, who was practising in Durham. Considering the period in which they lived, a period both of architecture and of interior decoration which is so much admired today, the third Baronet and his wife did not have good taste. But the Regency tide was on the turn and I feel sure that Lady Ridley would have been in the fore front of every fashion. That she had decided views on houses and how they should be lived in I know from a letter she wrote to her son in 1836, after her husband died and she was living in London. Her son was proposing to build two vast galleries at Blagdon to house replicas of the Elgin Marbles - a proposal which was, fortunately, never carried out! He sent a plan of them to his mother who commented in reply:-
"... I doubt if I would have windows even to the West. I should say not, better not, as to light, damp and all harms to the various objects, and smoke also, as by opening them the fire dust is thrown all over, and room dust also. Neither servants or friends over consider this sort of thing, a feeling you can't give either. The light from above you would like, I know. Many talk of view out - but the most beautiful is seldom looked at - and the greater part of the time in a room is after it is shut up. If at home of a morning it is generally for business or for reading, when there is no time or wish to look at a country, ever so good. But people run away very much with this idea and call it Dull without ..."
She seems to have suffered from a marked photophobia for she goes on to any:-
"... As to lights that is really one of the great difficulties in all houses and greatest expense. But I think it is not necessary to use all the rooms at night. All being used in the day time keeps all aired and comfortable and fortunately having coals on the spot makes all the difference - for good fires you must always have and in all the rooms - or you get cold smoke and it looks wretched and the said fires light for passing through to a certain extent ..."
It is strange to think that coals cost less than candles and were easier to come by!
Lady Ridley had certainly practised what she preached during the time she lived at Blagdon, for not only did she block up five windows on the south front but glazed most of the others with stained glass, which must have made the house intolerably dark. But the therapeutic value of sunlight had not then been recognised and I daresay they only thought it would fade the curtains. The stained glass not removed until the end of the 19th century and the south windows were not re-opened until 1930.
Lady Ridley was an exceedingly restless person and never seemed able to settle anywhere. In spite of having Blagdon, Heaton and Carlton House Terrace, she was constantly renting houses at Hammersmith or Hampton Court for the summer, and she was much given to wintering abroad. After her husband died in 1836 this restlessness became even more pronounced and during the twenty eight years of her widowhood she never stayed more than two years in any one place. We read of her taking houses at Worthing, Cheltenham, Bedford, Yarmouth, Brighton and St. Leonard's on Sea, while she had no less than four houses in London at various times. In spite of all this travelling and although she lived until 1864, she never went in a railway train, and she was so ignorant about them that when driving past the railway embankment at Brighton with her grandson on one occasion, she asked him if the train travelled inside the embankment or on top of it.
One cannot help feeling sorry for her and yet I have no doubt that she was very difficult to please. But her real tragedy was in her relationships with her children. She was a hard and domineering mother. She was called the 'Proud Lady' by the cottage people at Blagdon and there is a story handed down by them of how she used to make all her children dress up in their riding clothes every day and parade in the hall; but she would only take one of them riding with her and the others had to go back disconsolately to their rooms and change. It was also said that she never allowed any of the children to wander about the house; they were exclusively confined to the nursery and schoolroom and relatives staying at Blagdon had to see the children "by stealth or risk her anger and displeasure".
Why she treated them in this way it is impossible to explain, but the climax came in 1836, six months after her husband's death, when two of the girls, Marianne and Janetta, aged twenty six and twenty two, left their mother, as they were unable any longer to put up with her bullying and went to live with an older sister who had married a wealthy banker called Martin Smith in 1831. All their brothers and sisters, with the exception of the eldest, Matthew, who was either too fond or too weak to oppose his mother, supported Marianne and Janetta in this action. The result was that their mother never forgave any of them. She neither saw nor spoke to any of these nine children again. Even when years later, two of the younger sons went to the Crimean War, she refused to see them to say goodbye, although they wrote imploring her to do so.
The eldest son, as I have said, took his mother's side in this quarrel, which involved him in very strained relation with all his brothers and sisters. There is no doubt that he was genuinely fond of his mother, and when she died in 1864 he wrote in his diary: "Her decease has created for me a blank and void and the absence of a daily interest of such a special nature that no after years can supply".
The third Baronet died in London and was buried in the General Cemetery in Harrow Road. His son devotes two whole pages in his journal to justifying this action. He had qualms lest something so eminently sensible and economical should be criticised on the grounds of stinginess for not transporting his coffin to the family vault in Newcastle. But his father had already given a far more valuable gift to St. Nicholas's Church than his bones, in the shape of Tintoretto's magnificent picture of Christ washing the Apostle's feet, which hangs in miserable darkness and obscurity behind the reredos. Sir Matthew had bought this picture at Phillip's Auction Rooms, 73 New Bond Street, in 1814 for £43. 1. 0. One cannot help regretting that he did not give it to the Laing Art Gallery or some other body who might have been more appreciative of its artistic merit. Or better still - left it at Blagdon!
Matthew White, the fourth Baronet, was born in 1807 and educated at Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford, and he also followed his father and grandfather in the 'Grand Tour' [32/5]. He learnt to speak French so fluently and without any accent that it was said that no Frenchman could have guessed his nationality. On his father's death he refused to accept the offer to stand for Parliament in his place. He was a shy and retiring man and he did not share the Whig principles which had been held by his family for so long. His refusal broke the direct representation of Newcastle by the Ridleys which had lasted for eighty nine years. Sir Matthew resumed this continuity, however, many years later when in 1859 he was elected as a Tory for the North Division of Northumberland.
The fourth Baronet was even more of a countryman than his father. In addition to his refusal to stand for Parliament, he severed all personal interest in the family business. He leased all the collieries, which had hitherto been worked by the Ridleys themselves, and sold his shares in the family bank, declaring that the life of cities was intolerable to him, and that he would have his hands fully occupied by the proper management of his estate. In selling the bank shares he proved to be wiser than he thought at the time, for the bank failed a few years later.
He was an excellent landlord and a skilled and knowledgeable farmer. He enriched the property with some magnificent farm buildings which are still a model of what such buildings should be. He also bred prize cattle on a large scale and was all his life a keen sportsman. He bought a grouse moor in North Northumberland, called Hawkhope, and hunted regularly three days a week all his life, although strangely enough he sold the hounds in 1846, the year after his wife died. She had always hated "those tiresome hounds" so whether he sold them as a sort of posthumous renunciation I cannot say, but it is possible.
He took his share of local affairs and we read of his constantly taking the chair at various public and official meetings and he was High Sheriff in 1842. He was very reactionary in his outlook, and passionately opposed the early railways. In 1844 when the Newcastle to Berwick Railway was being planned to pass through his estate he fought against it bitterly, declaring that he would "derive no benefit whatever" from such a scheme, and that no amount of money "however great" would compensate him for "the loss of quiet" and that it would expose him to "every mental annoyance that can be conceived".
Having lost that battle he was even more incensed five years later when the Border Counties Railway was threatening to run across his grouse moor. He told the committee that "the only place he could get to now on wheels was his shooting box on the North Tyne and that he did not feel like being deprived of that satisfaction. And apart from that," he added, "why should that out of the way part of the country be opened up by a railway?. It would only disturb the game!" This remark was greeted with roars of laughter by the committee, who laughed even louder when Sir Matthew produced a sketch of the said shooting box. What would he have said if he could have seen the appalling depridation to his land by open cast coal workings!
He showed a more adventurous spirit in his interest in art and patronage of artists. He bought a great many pictures, putting aside several thousand pounds every year "for Art". But his greater interest was in sculpture. I have already said he wanted to build a sculpture gallery at Blagdon, and he was a most generous patron of the Newcastle sculptor, John Lough, declaring him to be the greatest sculptor since Michael Angelo [33/8]. If this estimation had been correct, his successors would have much cause to bless him, for he filled the house and garden with monumental examples of this gentleman's work.
He married in 1841 Cecilia, daughter of the well known judge James Parke, who later made constitutional history when Palmerston created him a life peer and the Committee of Privileges of the House of Lords decided that the crown had lost by disuse the powers to create a peerage with such a limitation. He was eventually made a peer in the ordinary way and took the title of Lord Wenslcydale.
Cecilia was an enchanting person, gay and wise and intelligent. She left a daily record of her life at Blagdon in letters to her mother [30/27]. These letters are worthy of a book to themselves with their vivid descriptions of the house, the neighbours, her servant problems and her three children. She was only twenty one when she married, and although Blagdon was far away from her home in Bedfordshire and the life was lonely and remote from her family, to whom she was very devoted, she never complained and faced all her difficulties with wit and humour and a complete lack of self pity. Alas, she contracted tuberculosis and after a long illness she died of an empyema in 1845, at the age of twenty five.
Her husband never recovered from her loss. Not only did he never marry again but he could not even bring himself to mention her name to the three children during the whole of the thirty two years that he survived her. He lived on alone at Blagdon, becoming more and more absorbed in the farm and the estate and the breeding of fatstock - a terrifyingly severe and remote character to the little boys and girls on the estate, who recalled him with awe in their very old age. But he was an affectionate and conscientious father, and as it must have been many years after Cecilia's death before they could have been any pleasure to him, the thought of his loneliness is haunting to me.
In 1859, when he surprised everybody by standing for Parliament, [87-91], his life was lightened by sessions in London, but he never made many friends and was always glad to get back to the North and to the routine of his daily life there. He died in 1877 following a fall from the roof of a farm building at St. George's Mental Hospital at Morpoth which he was inspecting.
The three children left motherless at such an early age were - yet another Matthew White, Edward, and Mary, the survivor of premature twins. They had a very lonely childhood, brought up at Blagdon by a series of nurses, governesses and tutors, who drove poor Sir Matthew nearly mad. Edward has left a record of what he could remember of those days, which makes desultory reading. Both the boys were brilliant, inheriting the great intellectual powers of their maternal grandfather Lord Wensleydale, though Edward's promise as a boy was not realised as a judge in later life [31/1].
For the first time the family tradition of going to Westminster School was broken, and these two boys went to Harrow, where they both distinguished themselves. Matthew, in particular, won a great many prizes and was the best classical scholar in the school. He was head of the school in 1860 and when he won a Balliol scholarship and went up to Oxford, he was succeeded in that capacity by his brother, a remarkable achievement which had never happened in the history of the school before. The two boys had equally distinguished careers at the University, where Edward followed his brother a year later with a Corpus Christi scholarship.
Mary married in due course a clergyman called Cuthbert Medd and led a life for which she was ideally suited since she was deeply religious. She had not her mother's charm or beauty and was blind in one eye. She must have suffered even more than her brothers from her mother's death, particularly as Sir Natthew quarrelled with the Wensleydales for a reason I have been unable to discover, and the children were brought up in total ignorance of their existence. I fancy Lady Wensleydale, who was a sweet, wise and loving old lady, would have been a better grandmother than the Proud Lady.
In 1868, when Sir Matthew retired from Parliament, his eldest son stood as a Conservative for North Northumberland and was elected without opposition. This was the beginning of a political career that was more distinguished than that of any of his ancestors, [91-97]. He held North Northumberland until 1885. When Mr. Gladstone's government was defeated in June of that year and Lord Salisbury, after much deliberation, agreed to form a government, Sir Matthew (by now the fifth baronet) had reason to hope that he would be offered the office of Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Instead, Lord Salisbury offered him the post of Surveyor General to the Ordnance, which he "declined indignantly". But in September he was asked to be Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and this he accepted.
In a general election in November of the same year he stood for the newly created division of Hexham, but was defeated by 1500 votes. He stood for Newcastle in 1886 but was again defeated, finally returning to the House of Commons as member for Blackpool at a by-election in October 1886. He represented this constituency for the next fourteen years. He was Home Secretary in Lord Salisbury's government from 1895 until 1900 when the Prime Minister, in reconstructing the government, asked him to resign and offered him a peerage, which he accepted, taking the title of Viscount Ridley of Blagdon and Blyth, and resuscitating, as his second title, that of his maternal grandfather, Baron Wensleydale, who had no sons.
In addition to his political work, he was active in the affairs of his county, being Chairman of Quarter Sessions and the first Chairman of the first County Council in Northumberland.
Lord Ridley married in 1873 Mary Georgian, daughter of Sir Dudley Coutts Majoribanks, and by her had two sons and three daughters. She was very beautiful and had enormous charm. Everyone at Blagdon was devoted to her and she was a wonderful wife and mother, and is still remembered, by older people in the county, driving a pair of black horses and dressed in black velvet with a bunch of violets on each shoulder.
During this generation considerable additions and alterations were made to Blagdon, which were not improvements by present standards of taste or economy, and they have all since been removed. They built a large portico outside the front door on the east front, which distorted the proportion of the house, however convenient it may have been to waiting horses. Motor cars being less sensitive to standing in the rain, we removed this in 1945. In 1898 they also took out all the old paned windows replacing them with plate glass, one of the most disfiguring things that can be done to a house. We put the glazing bars back in 1930 and it seemed to open the eyes of the house, but alas we could never replace the old glass. In addition to these atrocities, the first Viscount built a large nursery and servant's hall on to the north end of the Dobson wing, and also a billiard room lending from the room so elegantly decorated by Wyatt, so that that room became little more than a passage. These additions were all pulled down after the fire in 1944. On the other hand, they put in the first bath, for the benefit of the Prince of Wales when he stayed at Blagdon. This bath is now a somewhat rare specimen, having the taps and plug in the middle, which is very conducive to the comfort of double bathers!
Viscount Ridley also built the North Lodge to the design of an architect called Lish, whose name might well be used as an adjective for his style. The same architect also disfigured the gardens and grounds with terra cotta balustrades and oval surrounds to the flower beds, and a small terra cotta edged pool and fountain, which assorted badly with the prevailing stone of the house.
Lady Ridley died in 1899 and her husband in 1904. Their eldest son, born in 1874, was educated at Eton and Balliol and was elected to the House of Commons as Conservative member for Staly-bridge in 1900, the year that his father was prompted to the House of Lords, thus continuing the parliamentary tradition of the family [98-102]. He was a passionate advocate of Tariff Reform and Chairman of the National League. In addition, he was, like all his ancestors, devoted to Blagdon and the various interests of the county. He married in 1899, the Honourable Rosamund Guest, youngest daughter of Viscount Wimborne. They did not live at Blagdon so constantly as any of their predecessors had done and they made no structural alterations to the house, concentrating their architectural activities on Carlton House Terrace. It is true that Lady Ridley had ambitious plans drawn up for her by Messrs. Burns, Cackett and Dick of Newcastle for doubling the size of the house; these plans involved building a replica of Blagdon to the north and linking the two mansions with an enormous gallery. Perhaps it was one of the few consolations of the 1914 war that it prevented these plans from being carried out.
At the beginning of the war the regimental headquarters of the Scottish Horse were billetted at Blagdon, and remained there until they were sent abroad in 1915. Carlton House Terrace became a hospital for officers and was run by Lady Ridley with outstanding competence.
Lord Ridley suffered for many years from gastritis, and in 1911 he had a serious operation for a ruptured duodenal ulcer, from which he never wholly recovered. It was a great disappointment to him that this illness prevented him from going abroad in 1914 with the Northumberland Hussars which he then commanded. In 1916, after another serious operation, he died at the age of forty one. He was a man of immense personal charm and was greatly loved by all who ever knew him.