Architecture and family life in early-Georgian Norfolk

John Buxton, Norfolk Gentleman and Architect, Letters to his son 1719-1729

Reading other people’s letters is not obviously legitimate, but past collections can fairly be explored to illuminate the lives of individuals and their families. Between 1719 and 1729, John Buxton (1685-1731), a south-Norfolk landowner remembered as a gentleman-architect, exchanged letters with his eldest son Robert (1710-1751).

‘Portrait of John Buxton (1684-1731)’ by Michael Dahl (attributed to) (1656-1743), oil on canvas, about 1720s
Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

The letters begin when Robert left home as a nine-year-old for boarding school in Suffolk, and end with his graduation from Clare Hall, Cambridge. The collection is complemented by John Buxton’s account of a tour he made in 1720, visiting country houses, and the record of Robert’s visit to Oxford in 1729. This was early-Georgian England, before industrialisation and the development of modern communications. The documents have been published by the Norfolk Record Society as their volume 69, 2005, edited by Alan Mackley, John Buxton, Norfolk Gentleman and Architect.

‘Portrait of Robert Buxton (1710-1750)’ by Thomas Bardwell (1704-1767), oil on canvas, 1751
Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

John Buxton, his wife Anne, and by 1727 eight surviving children, lived in sixteenth-century Channonz Hall, near Tibenham in south Norfolk. John Buxton in some ways led an unremarkable life, with little evidence of involvement in public affairs or of more than conventional piety. But he was far from a crude provincial squire. His horizons rarely extended beyond Norfolk, but his letters reveal a man of deep learning, of wide interests, and devoted to his family. Details of pre-industrial rural life emerge: the fear of disease; household and estate management, visits to Norwich, to Suffolk relatives, and even horse races at Bungay, with the difficulty of travel on poor roads.

Channonz Hall, by an unknown artist, perhaps before John Buxton’s 1720s alterations.
In a private collection.

Father and son.

John Buxton defined his hopes for his son in terms of morality and duty. Robert was not shielded from contemporary fears of disease and the prevalence of sickness and death. The melancholy toll of death among family, friends and aquaintances was recorded. The lack of knowledge of the causes of disease and the reliance upon tradition remedies led to the recommendation of practices that ranged from the possibly beneficial to the probably dangerous.

The father’s positive delight in his growing family was communicated. He shared activities with them, and reported the help Sarah (12) and George (8) gave to their mother when Isabella was born in 1727. Isabella when two was described as having peculiar charms and people could not help being delighted with her.

John Buxton made clear to Robert that he had no doubt that women had a particular role in life to play, but seemed to regret that they might not receive the education that would allow them to fully realise their potential.  He was impressed by one young lady about to embark on a visit to France: ‘what a fine thing would a right education have made her’.  Yet he reminded Robert to write to an aunt an ‘account of such things as you think women can understand or be pleased with’.

Robert’s education focussed on the things that were necessary for a gentleman to know. Books were very important. In his teenage library were religious books, language textbooks, and the works of classical and contemporary writers. There were instructions to young men, and books about human anatomy and health, history, geography, mathematics and travel. Robert was expected to develop the capacity for critical enquiry and the application of reason, to become a man of the Enlightenment.

Architecture.

In addition to a passion for books, architecture was the other great interest that John Buxton encouraged in his son. Buxton was among the gentlemen who took architecture from a polite interest to actual design and building. His first venture was Earsham Hall, built when he was in his late twenties as a family home. Another house south of Norwich, Bixley Hall, was designed for Sir Edward Ward Bt., an aunt’s husband. He also repaired and modernised Channonz Hall.

The letters to Robert cover the development of Shadwell Lodge, near Thetford. Winters were bleak on the south-Norfolk clays of Tibenham. John therefore resolved to build at Shadwell, where the family had owned land since the sixteenth century. He wanted a winter retreat in a drier more attractive landscape.

John Buxton set out the criteria he thought most important for achieving a good result. He sent his son sketches of designs, seeking comments and treating his son’s reactions with respect. John Buxton was indecisive. He wrote that he had ‘built’ more than forty houses only to immediately pull them down and soon after build another one. The foundations for Shadwell were dug in 1727 and by the end of 1729 preparations were being made to furnish the house. Building the house appears to have cost about £500, with the final cost under £1000, which was equivalent to about twenty per cent of John Buxton’s gross income during the building period.

Shadwell Lodge, artist unknown, c. 1730.
In a private collection.

John Buxton obtained a fashionable three-storey plus attic house with a three-bay symmetrical front but, dying in 1731, he had little time to enjoy his creation. Robert inherited the estates, cash, stock and annuities, the contents of Channonz and Shadwell, and cattle. Payments to some of the children were provided for but generally no provision was made for the younger children who, their father thought, were reasonably provided for. Room was left for their mother’s kindness to make whatever additions to their fortunes were within her power.

Sketch of proposed plan for Shadwell Lodge.
Cambridge University Library

Later.

Robert Buxton died in 1751 unmarried. The family anticipated that he would never have children to carry on the Buxton line and took legal advice to determine how settlements could be secured for the four youngest siblings. Opinion was clear that John (1717-1782) junior had to find a rich wife. ‘It will be highly expedient, if not absolutely necessary, that Mr John Buxton should marry a lady with at least £10,000: without which fortune it will be scarce prudent in him to marry at all’. John did marry an heiress who added Wiltshire property to the Buxton’s Norfolk estate.

Shadwell Lodge was massively enlarged in the nineteenth century but was sold in 1898.  The Buxton’s were ill-prepared for the agricultural depression of the late nineteenth century, with the collapse of rents, especially on the poor light soils of south-west Norfolk.

Of the three houses John Buxton built, Earsham Hall survives, Grade II listed, and can be hired for weddings and events.  Shadwell Park (Court), Grade I listed, is owned by the royal family of Dubai and is on the ‘Heritage at Risk’ register.  Bixley Hall was demolished in the early twentieth century, after being unoccupied for many years.

John Buxton, Norfolk Gentleman and Architect, Letters to his son 1719-1729, edited by Alan Mackley, (Published October 2005) and is available from the Norfolk Record Society.

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