NORFOLK’S MOST RADICAL PEER
Edward Lord Suffield broke the suffocating mould of the aristocracy in the early 1800s. They had become locked into confrontation with ‘the masses’ out of fear of the revolution. Edward looked to wider horizons to break the deadlock so he supported Parliamentary reform in the Upper House of Parliament but he also looked for a way to divert the massive middle class indignation about poor representation through the abolition of slavery. He accomplished this in the Upper House single handedly – a mighty task given the entrenched vested interest in maintaining slavery. It was an achievement for which he has been sadly forgotten, in Britain anyway – perhaps not so much in Canada where a suburb of Toronto is named after him.
His eureka moment came in the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, when many of his Lancashire tenants were killed, maimed and traumatised when the Manchester magistrates launched the military on a peaceful demonstration. Alone he challenged the legality of that fateful decision in the face of royal and governmental support for the action. From then on he was a radical reform force in British politics but his life was cut tragically short soon after his greatest triumph – the abolition of slavery.
Both William and Edward used Gunton primarily as a place to indulge in what they called ‘country sports’ which meant shooting edible wild-life. For that purpose, 60 -70 game-keepers were employed to rear young pheasants and guard them against poachers. Thirty men were employed on the Stanninghall part of the estate alone. Harbord Lord Suffield like his father and great uncle before him were very strict about enforcing the Game Laws. These meant that the privilege of ‘sport’ was restricted to the gentry so if anyone was found walking a dog for example on Roughton Heath just to the north of Gunton, the animal was liable to be shot on the spot. This even applied to those of the local clergy! Keeper’s lodges were built around the edges of the estate so their occupants could patrol the woods at night. Despite the introduction of early agricultural machinery, farming was still labour-intensive so it needed all the man-power it could find. Farm work was poorly paid whereas it was too easy for men to feed their families by relying on poaching. It is probable that the notorious man-traps were used on the Gunton Estate and in late 1819, the Tory MP for Norfolk, Edmund Wodehouse wrote a letter to Edward saying that an old woman had been shot by a spring-gun in Thorpe Woods on the east side of Gunton Park and he was going to raise the incident in Parliament. Confrontations between keepers and poachers had the potential of being very violent. For that reason the legal penalties were severe and were often imposed on youths. All this became an absorbing issue for Edward.
Edward took his service as a Norfolk Magistrate very seriously and allotted some time in every morning to study criminal law. One of the blights on Norfolk society was the medieval Gaol then used to accommodate prisoners in the dungeons deep under the Norman keep of Norwich Castle and others under the Guildhall next to the central market-place. Neither had any lighting, ventilation or sanitation so people were put in there to rot. When prisoners were dragged out in chains; taken to the Shire Hall for judgement and placed before a line of coiffured and powdered Norfolk gentry sitting behind a long table, their physical condition must have been awful, to say nothing of the stench. Edward was appalled that such a state of affairs could have survived into the 19th century. The existing situation was demeaning for all concerned and it needed urgent action so he campaigned to build a new prison along ideal plans as set out by the social reformer, Jeremy Bentham. The big questions were, how was it to be paid for and who would bare its running costs? Eventually it was Edward himself who bore half the capital costs. The architect Sir John Soane designed new additions for the prison between 1789-93, but in 1820-27, considerable more alterations were also made. The proposal for a new wing at Norwich County Gaol was finally agreed, with a budget of £26,000. After several years of effort Edward’s endeavours at last were paying off. Edward was free of constituency matters though many of his widespread tenants still wrote asking for his support in their affairs.
Edward’s next move was to make it very clear to all his many tenants (there were 70 farms on the estate and several villages) that they were completely free to vote without fear of prejudice, in any forth-coming election. During the time when William was Lord Suffield, most of them had voted Tory in line with his politics, so when Edward toured the estate it was unclear how his views would be received. He published them under the title; ‘Reasons for my opposition to the principles and measures of the present administration’. Edward tried to persuade his land-owning neighbours to follow suit. He also assiduously performed his duties as a Magistrate and although he was prone to making mistakes, he did listen to criticisms. One of the difficulties was that by preserving large amounts of wild-life, they preyed on the local field crops to the anguish of the cropping farmers. As a routine, these pests were protected until it was the season to shoot them. Then 4,000 rabbits and hares were often shot in 4 – 5 weeks. Hares especially were the worst offenders for ravaging crops so Edward ordered them to be eliminated. He offered all of the game that had been shot, to the local community in a free hand-out. Mayhem followed and the offer was abruptly withdrawn. Mishaps from the furious battles fought by game-keepers were not only due to poachers. On one occasion Edward led a night-sally with the keepers but forgot to put on gaiters over his white socks so he was mistakenly fired on! It was estimated that the land could have been let at 10s more per acre, had not game-rearing played such a big part in the management of his estates. The total cost to the estate combined with that of Blickling (20,000 acres) was enormous.
Soon after he inherited his peerage in August 1821, Edward made plans to revamp Gunton, but first, he fulfilled an earlier promise by his late brother to bequeath the un-entailed properties of the estate to William’s widow. This still left Edward with considerable funds at his disposal. Perhaps he or his wife had been dreaming for some years previously on how they wanted to bring Gunton into the Regency era; a time of elegance – not that he had much spare time for such dreams. The core of Gunton Hall was a square block designed almost as a free-standing pavilion detached from service wings as was the ideal set out in the mid-18th century Palladian fashion. A 17th century service wing was attached only to the north-west corner of the main building. When that was demolished about 1780, a new detached service wing had been built near the opposite north-east corner but leaving a large gap between it and the main house. The lack of bedrooms for large-scale entertaining led to the gap between the two blocks being filled in with what became known as the ‘Pillared Wing’. The 1st Lord Suffield built this about 1790. The famous landscaper, Humphrey Repton spent his early married life living in the village nearby Sustead and to the west of Gunton. About the same time, he suggested a new layout for the park, though no ‘Red Book’ showing his comprehensive proposals has survived – if it ever existed. In the 1820s, Edward employed his architect son, John Adey Repton to design a projecting wing on either side of the main block of the Hall but at the rear, thus giving this relatively small mansion much more visual bulk when seen from the park. To these were added elegant, 3-storey balconies made of cast-iron in the Regency manner. They have already been alluded to above. John seems to have also designed some of the building features in the park – perhaps the Bridge in 1812; an Orangery and Lodges.
Richard Harbord is a retired architect-planner who has always taken a keen interest in the historical landscape especially where it impinges on his own family history. In retirement he has taken to writing about local history centred on the three market towns in North Norfolk where he lives. The focus of this area is the great Gunton Estate which he has known since a child and he is fascinated by the history of its historic Harbord occupants. With its contents dispersed and its conversion into multiple occupation there is a danger this history could be lost especially as it leading characters have been air-brushed from history. His passion is to make the meaning of their lives be relevant to the issues we face today; in our changing and pressurised landscape; in our threatened traditional British values and so on. He hopes his books are also enjoyable and entertaining.