Feature 1: Lovers’ Vows Poster
One of the things that make this collection so special is the odd inclusion of what could be termed ephemeral documents that would not have normally survived the passage of time.
This bill or poster dated 1802 for a performance of Lovers’ Vows in Exton is one of my favourite examples of such a document. It is amazing that such a flimsy bit of paper has survived in tact for over 200 years.
Lovers’ Vows was adapted by Elizabeth Inchbald in 1798 from the German play Das Kind der Liebe (written by August von Kotzebue in 1780). Readers may remember that the play famously appears as a key element in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park published in 1814 (see chapter XIV).
The performance of the play – or indeed plays – in the village gives an interesting insight into village life in that period and raises all sorts of questions: was this a one-off performance or were villagers familiar with plays and travelling players?
I wonder if this was a proof for a poster that would have been put up around the neighbouring towns and villages. I like the fact that someone has corrected the date by hand. Note also the printing error (we have a ‘thyming’ instead of ‘rhyming’ butler) and the use of the old ‘s’ character.
The poster is not only of literary interest, for it is a piece of political history too – Col. Gerard Noel (later Sir Gerard Noel) puts on the play in the run up to the Rutland County Elections in July 1802.
Reading between the lines, the poster gives a glimpse of the early nineteenth-century voting system, where voters – limited to landowning males in this period – could expect things in ‘return’ for their support.
In case you are wondering, Gerard Noel did indeed win the election in 1802!
Feature 2: Architectural Drawing of Exton Hall
One early May morning in 1810, a horrendous fire broke out at Exton Hall. It gutted part of the hall, though men worked hard to save and salvage what they could. Some attributed the cause to Sir Gerard Noel leaving a candle alight amongst his papers.
Nevertheless, enough of the Old Hall (as it became known) remained for parts of it to continue to be used as living and even cooking quarters. A cutting of a newspaper found in the collection dated 1833 describes a dinner for the tenants held in the remains of the “long neglected” hall. The Old Hall was in a “comparative state of decay and desertion”, “more than one half of the fine old Elizabethan structure” having fallen as “a sacrifice to the flames”.
Photograph of Exton Old Hall 1916 (Henton Photographic Collection, ROLLR)
After the fire, the family moved into a late seventeenth-century house only several hundred yards away from the Old Hall. The architect John Linnell Bond made several alterations to this house in 1811, the year after the fire. Financial problems, however, prevented any extensive changes.
In the mid nineteenth century, Sir Gerard’s son Charles, 1st Earl of Gainsborough (second creation), employed the architect Henry Roberts to radically enlarge the late seventeenth-century house into what we know today as the New Hall, leaving the Old Hall to decay. The New Hall is still home to the Noel family today.
Exploring the collection, I have come across a set of eighteen drawings, dated around 1841, for a new Hall at Exton. I think these plans are quite fascinating – they depict what might have been (the Exton Hall that never was), as well as a little of what existed and what was to become into existence as elements of both Halls are evident in the designs. Unfortunately all eighteen drawings are unsigned.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there are many stories attached to the Old Hall at Exton. It is said that the old Christmas Carol or Ballad called “The Mistletoe Bough” written by H. R. Bishop was based on an event at the Hall. The carol relates how a young bride vanished one Christmas:
“They sought her that night and they sought her next day,
And they sought her in vain, till a week passed away.”
Years later, they found the girl who “in sporting jest” had “hid from her lord in the old oak chest”.
The Noel Family throughout the ages have loved to perform amateur theatricals (some of the scripts still exist in the collection). It is said that during the course of one of these theatricals, a Catharine Noel (daughter of one of the Baptist Noels) suffocated when she accidentally became trapped in a wooden chest.
How far this tale and the association of the carol with Exton is true is unclear (I have not come across any evidence in the archive!). Other places have similar echoes of the grisly tale (not least the manor at Minster Lovell, which is actually mentioned in the carol).
Feature 3: Map of Cottesmore and Barrow c.1730
There are over one hundred maps and plans in the Exton Collection and this is one of my favourites.
It is a map of Cottesmore and Barrow, a village and hamlet close to Exton, surveyed by Thomas Badeslade (1715-1750), a leading draughtsman of the period. It was commissioned by Baptist Noel, Fourth Earl of Gainsborough and dates back to around 1730, when Badeslade was apparently working on the ‘waterworks’ in Exton Park.
A section of the map showing Cottesmore Village
It is quite a shock to see it fully rolled out for the first time because of its size (approximately 6 by 5 feet) and because, instead of the patchwork quilt pattern of fields we see today, the map is covered in narrow stripes depicting the ridge and furrows system, making the map quite dark.
The map really captures the changing landscape of England because it depicts the change from the open field to the enclosed system.
Evidence of the medieval ridge and furrow – or open field – system still exists today in many English fields, but it is particularly prominent in the East Midlands. This gives the fields an undulating appearance not unlike corrugated cardboard!
Each tenant may have had several of these strips dotted around the parish, which meant it could be a long walk between their holdings! However, the system had its advantages – it meant that the good and bad agricultural land was shared out between the landholders.
The open field system was increasingly seen as inefficient and new agricultural methods were taken up in a period that has been dubbed ‘the Agrarian Revolution’. Fields were gradually enclosed from the seventeenth century onwards by local agreement and private Acts of Parliament. The map demonstrates that by 1730, the process of enclosure had begun around Cottesmore. The General Enclosure Acts of 1836, 1840 and 1845 made the process of enclosure easier for landholders and accelerated the trend.
The map is one of the most detailed maps of its kind in the Record Office. The information content of the map is fantastic: each narrow stripe of land has been annotated with the name of the tenants and the acreage it covers.
For example, here we have Thomas Hardy (not the famous author!) listed on the map as being a tenant, his former dwelling place and the amount of land he worked, firstly listing his ‘inclosed’ (enclosed) lands and then the amount of open field land measured in acres, roods and perches.
When we look at the map, we can see how the land he worked was scattered about the fields. Thomas owned more open land than enclosed land. However, Arthur Hardy, on the other hand, owned much more enclosed land than open field land, demonstrating the changes that affected the countryside.
The map also names many of the furlongs (a measurement of land, originally the length of the furrow), which can give us a clue as to the use of the land.
One is called ‘Mummy Furlong’, which is rather puzzling – is this a reference to ‘Mummers’ (people disguising themselves in costumes around Christmas and Plough Monday)? In fact, one of Exton’s accounts refers to giving money to the ‘witches’, a reference to this tradition, so it is possible. However, do let me know if you think you have the answer!
The detail of the drawing is phenomenal – the gardens of Cottesmore Hall and the parsonage are depicted very accurately. In fact, in an extraordinary twist of fate, Cottesmore Hall – sold by the Earl of Gainsborough to his cousin, Lady Bute in 1927 – was destroyed by fire in 1928.
It is fascinating to think how one corner of the map has changed dramatically over the last century, with the establishment of the airbase at Cottesmore in 1936: the undulating ridge and furrows making way for smooth runways and aircraft hangers for the RAF!
It is said that every picture tells a thousand stories – this map certainly does!
Feature 4: Exton Chantry Grant 1382
Exploring the collection, I came across this fantastic document dating back to 1382. It is a Licence for Alienation in Mortmain (Letters Patent) in which Joan, widow of Nicholas Grene of Exton, gave lands for the maintenance of a chaplain named Thomas Hogekyn of the Chantry in the chapel of St John the Evangelist in the Manor of Exton.
The document, which is written in Latin, has a beautiful illuminated capital ‘R’ with an illustration of St John and his eagle. Richard II’s Great Seal, featuring a knight on horseback on one side and an image of the king on his throne on the other, hangs beneath the document on green and red silk tags.
I hope to regularly post a ‘feature’ on this website, looking at different ‘gems’ of the collection, so keep an eye out on the website for the next choice!
Page Last Updated: 13 February 2012