History of St Giles

History of St Giles

St Giles house lies in Wimborne St Giles on the southern edge of Cranborne Chase. The River Allen rises nearby, and in old documents the village was known as Upwimborne, along with Upwimborne Malmayne and Up Plecy. The earliest record of a family dates to the thirteenth century, when a Malmayne daughter married Robert de Plecy, who died in 1301. His great grandson, Sir Nicholas de Plecy, died without a male heir and his daughter, Joan, married Sir John Hamely, who died in 1398. Sir John, by his second marriage, had a daughter, Egidia, who married Robert Ashley from Wiltshire and their descendants have continued to live at Wimborne St Giles to this day.

In the sixteenth century two of the Ashleys, father and son, were knighted. The second Sir Anthony, who was briefly Elizabeth I’s Secretary for War, is worthy of a culinary footnote in that he is thought to have introduced the first cabbage into England from Holland.

He also built the lovely range of brick almhouses adjoining Wimborne St Giles church. He died in 1628, and at the foot of his canopied tomb inside the church is the kneeling figure of his only daughter Anne, who married Sir John Cooper of Rockborne and was the mother of Sir Anthony Ashley-Cooper, later the first Earl of Shaftesbury.

Anthony Ashley-Cooper was born in 1621, and was only ten when his father died. Much of his inheritance was squandered due to the incompetence of his trustees, but the uncertainties of childhood shaped the man. “Sagacious, bold and turbulent of wit,” he grew into one of the most influential statesmen of the late seventeenth century.


First signs of his strength of purpose became apparent in the Civil War. Initially a Royalist and Governor of Weymouth and Portland, in 1644 he changed sides, leading the Parliamentary attack on Wareham and the much more ferocious onslaught on Sir John Strangways house at Abbotsbury. Here he showed a crueller side of his character, later admitting that he not only intended to refuse quarter to the garrison but did his best to burn them alive. Perhaps understandably, Sturminster Newton and Shaftesbury offered no resistance to his forces. Ten years later he changed sides again, resigning from Cromwell’s Council of State in protest against his dictatorial policies.

First Earl of Shaftesbury

Four years later he played a key part in the Restoration of Charles II and was duly rewarded by being made Baron Ashley and appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1672 he became Lord Chancellor and was created Earl of Shaftesbury. Aligning himself with the Duke of Monmouth against the succession of the Catholic Duke of York, he fell from favour. He was twice imprisoned in the Tower. In 1681 he faced a charge of high treason. Although the charges were later dismissed, he fled to the Netherlands where he died two years later.
The bare facts do not do justice to his achievements, or his failings. He was unscrupulous, bore grudges, and made enemies more readily than friends. But as the founder of the Whig party and a brilliant parliamentary debater he was also perhaps the first truly modern politician. He was anti monopolies, pro immigration, in favour of religious toleration and the supremacy of parliament (“the power of the king does not extend further than the laws parliament determine”). He had the tastes of a country gentleman, dabbled in alchemy and horoscopes, and had three wives, two of whom predeceased him, and to all of whom he was devoted.

He also built the nucleus of St Giles House. In his diary of March 19th 1650, he wrote, “I laid the first stone of my house at St Giles’s.” He had been born in Wimborne St Giles, and it is quite probable that the previous house was incorporated into the new one. St Giles House is architecturally amongst the most complex of all Dorset’s great houses. Successive generations of Ashley-Cooper have both added to it, and subtracted from it. Though a plan of the original house cannot as yet be clearly defined, thick walls of red brickwork can be seen in the lower storey of the present central range. In a cellar are the remains of a moulded sixteenth century stone doorway. Other relics include fragments of oak panelling, and a fifteenth century carved alabaster panel with a shield of arms showing Ashley quartering Talbot: John Ashley married Edith Talbot in the reign of Richard II. There is also a roundel of stained glass showing the same arms with the inscription “scutum Henrici Asheley,” as well as three square pillars of rusticated ashlar, probably early seventeenth century.

The earliest drawing of the first Earl’s house is a small bird’s-eye view from the north-east on an estate map dated 1659. A branch of the River Allen is shown flowing between two groups of buildings, and to the south can be seen a small structure, probably a mill. On a later map of 1672 the mill had disappeared.

Although the name of the architect employed by the earl is not known, the influence of Inigo Jones is obvious in the Renaissance north and east fronts with their Classical facades. The original plan was for a square courtyard to which was added two large ground floor rooms with rooms above.Battlements once edged the parapet of the complete house, but these were removed in the nineteenth century. The east front, with its seven bays, remains much the same today. In the drawing of 1659, the long range on the east bank of the stream extends north to south beyond the ends of the 1651 building, and the south part of this range still stands.The 3rd Earl was born in 1671 in his grandfather’s London house, and it was he who played a crucial role in his upbringing. His own father, the 2nd Earl, was, according to one report, “of feeble constitution and understanding.” No two men could have been less alike in temperament than the 1st Earl and his grandson. The latter’s education was entrusted to the philosopher John Locke, who as a young physician had successfully operated on the 1st Earl and ultimately became his advisor and closest friend. The 3rd Earl was quiet and studious, and though he sat in parliament as the Whig M.P. for Poole, ill-health and asthma brought on by London’s smoke forced him to abandon politics for literature, and it as a philosopher that he is remembered.

John Locke

Put simply, he believed that it was the role of philosophy to “learn what is just in society and beautiful in Nature and the order of the world . . . to have a sense of right and wrong.” “Thus virtue is the good, and vice the ill of every one,” he once wrote. “Taste,” he argued, “should be expressed in human conduct no less than in architecture and painting.” He wrote widely, and his collected essays were published in 1711 as Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, and Times.

Although the 3rd Earl made no changes to St Giles House, his interest in the estate never flagged. His letters to his steward and housekeeper ask that they show hospitality to strangers, report all cases of need, and find out which children on the estate show signs of justifying further education at his expense. One architectural legacy that does endure is the two storey brick gazebo, reputedly built as a place of contemplation, that stands set back from the B3078 beside the turn to Verwood.

The 3rd Earl was nearly forty when he married. An earlier courtship foundered when his prospective father-in-law rejected him as a suitor for his daughter on the grounds that he was not well enough to sire an heir. In due course, a group of friends arranged his marriage to a Miss Jane Ewer, who he did not meet until their wedding day and who to his surprise proved to be a great beauty.

The Earl found himself “as happy a man now as ever”. A son and heir duly followed. In due course ill-health forced the Earl and his bride abroad, first to Holland [whose tolerance and freedom he admired], then to Italy, where he died in Naples in 1713 “with perfect cheerfulness and the same sweetness of temper he always enjoyed when in the most perfect health.”The 4th Earl was a devoted admirer of his father, whose Life he wrote, and whose principles of good taste he adapted to suit the more fashionable mid-eighteenth century when in due course he began modernizing St Giles House. The great state rooms have all the craftsmanship and brilliance of the period. The dining room is the work of Stephen Wright, a protégé of the Earl of Newcastle. The Tapestry Room owes its name to a set of Brussels tapestries depicting the Triumph of the Gods. Two new west wings were built, and in due course the house filled with fine furniture and paintings. The Earl’s first wife was a crucial influence. She was an early admirer of Chippendale and a friend of Handel, a frequent visitor to the house.

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Fourth Earl of Shaftesbury, bust by John Michael Rysbrack

George Frideric Handel, portrait by Balthasar Denner

The surrounding park also benefited, and was landscaped by the 4th Earl as a tribute to his father’s belief in a “natural” pattern. Richard Pococke, visiting in 1754, described it as follows:
. . beautifully laid out, in a serpentine river, pieces of water, lawns, etc., and very gracefully adorned with wood. One first comes to an island on which there is a castle, then, near the water, is a gateway with a tower on each side, and passing between two waters there is a fine cascade from the one side to the other, a thatched house, a round pavilion on a mount, Shakespeare’s house, in which is a small statue of him and his works in a glass case. There is a pavilion between the waters and both a Chinese and a stone bridge between them.

There was also a two room grotto, designed by a Mr Castles of Marylebone, whose walls were lined with shells, fossils, coral and stone.
Visitors could warm themselves before the fire in the inner room, or inspect the architectural fragments placed in small compartments round the walls. After succeeding his brother, the 6th Earl employed Thomas Cundy between 1813-20 on further alterations, including roofing over the inner courtyard to form the Stone Hall and completely modernizing the library, transforming it into a long south-facing Regency room divided by bays of bookshelves. Further changes followed in 1853, when P.C. Hardwick was employed by the 7th Earl to rebuild the kitchens. A year later he added a pair of Italianate towers at the junction of the eighteenth century west wings with the original building. The 7th Earl of Shaftesbury was born in 1801, his mother Anne was the daughter of the 3rd Duke of Marlborough. He entered parliament in 1826, succeeded to the earldom in 1851 and died in 1885. Tall, handsome, quietly spoken, troubled only by deafness and gout in old age, the 7th Earl was one of the great philanthropists of Victorian Britain.
Inside the Grotto at St.Giles Park

Earl of Shaftesbury

Writing in his diary aged 25 the earl described himself as “neither wise, nor good, nor useful.” The impetus for his transformation from landowning earl to social reformer was an 1828 enquiry into mental asylums, whose cruelty and often inhuman conditions awoke his conscience. A visit to the industrial north brought him face to face with the appalling injuries suffered by those working long shifts in mills and factories and the plight of women and children working underground in collieries. To a stunned parliament, he told of how, in darkness and for up to eighteen hours a day, bridled children as young as five dragged trucks of coal through mine shafts on all fours. Thanks to his efforts, an act was passed excluding anyone under thirteen working underground, and in 1847 the first of the Factory Acts limited the working day to a maximum of ten hours. He next championed the Ragged School movement, whose Union he was chairman of for nearly 40 years, and thanks to which 300,000 of the great invisible army of vagabond street children were given a basic education.

The building of model housing in inner cities, the setting up of childrens’ refuges, the ill-treatment of apprentice chimney-sweeps and “shoeblack” boys, the work of the Church Missionary Society, hospital sanitation and the reforms advocated by Florence Nightingale, the evils of the Chinese opium trade, the building of training ships – few causes escaped his attention.
The public rewards were many, and included the Freedom of the City of London, but the one that gave him most pleasure was the gift of a donkey from the city’s costermongers, which saw out its days grazing contentedly in Dorset. The memorial to this great statesman is one of London’s most loved icons, Alfred Gilbert’s fountain of “The Angel of Christian Charity” (better known as Eros), which stands at the end of Shaftesbury Avenue in the heart of Piccadilly Circus, and whose arrow points in the direction of Wimborne St Giles. The 9th Earl inherited the title and estate aged sixteen in 1886. Unlike his father, a Naval captain and earl for less than a year, the 9th Earl was to occupy St Giles House until he was ninety-three, living there through its late-Victorian heyday, the years of plenty that preceded the First World War, and the gradual decline of both the fortunes of the family and those of the house. His grandfather’s extravagance and father’s death within six months of becoming 8th Earl meant a period of uncertainty, during which the house was occasionally let, and which only ended when he married Lady Constance Grosvenor in 1899. Grosvenor wealth enabled the earl to embark on a much-needed programme of modernization. The house was reroofed, the plumbing improved, electricity installed. Paintings and tapestries were restored.

St.Giles House in 1868

Trees were planted, new gardens designed. Oddly, for it is his grandfather that history regards as the paternalistic Victorian landlord, the 9th earl did just as much to improve the lives of those who lived and worked on the estate. A village green was laid out. Learning, leisure and prayer were catered for by the building of a village school, a pub – the Bull, and the virtual rebuilding of the church by the architect Ninian Comper following a fire in 1908.

Comper also helped the earl build a small chapel in the south-west wing, at least in part to placate Lady Shaftesbury’s High Anglicanism.

For a while it seemed that nothing could mar their good fortune. When the Prince and Princess of Wales (later George V and Queen Mary) came to stay in 1907 1,200 partridge fell to the guns. In summer the estate cricket team took to the field once a week on the Green. In winter the Portman Hunt met outside St Giles’s House and the Hunt Ball was regularly held in its state rooms. In due course the countess bore a son and heir, Lord Ashley, followed by three daughters and another son. One daughter later married a neighbour, Lord Alington at Crichel, whilst their youngest son, the modest John Ashley-Cooper, went on to become a famous salmon fisherman and author of a series of acclaimed books on angling.

On the outbreak of the First World War many of the estate labourers left the harvest to join their regiments. Part of the house became a hospital for the wounded. Although as a general officer nominally commanding a brigade, the earl was entitled to remain saddled, most of the 20 or so horses in the stables were commandeered. The period between the wars was one of marking time. From 1916 until 1952, an extraordinary 36 years, the earl was Lord-Lieutenant of Dorset. Despite his title and status, he chose to enlist as a humble private in the local Home Guard during the Second World War, junior to his head gamekeeper, Captain Carter.

The platoon’s sergeant was also his lordship’s butler, Mr Curry, who twice a week put out his uniform for meetings in the village hall or on the Green. Occasionally the earl offered the terrace in front of St Giles House as a parade ground when a senior officer came on a tour of inspection.

East Front of St. Giles’s House and ‘Sunken Garden’ ca. 1915.

Once again the earl and countess moved into a flat within the house, which now echoed to the blue-blooded shrieks of the 60 or so girls of Miss Faunt’s Academy, a Parent National Education School, evacuated to Wimborne St Giles from London. Along with the girls came their teachers and matrons, who in reality were their governesses and nannies (amongst the pupils were the daughters of Lord Mountbatten).
The immediate post-war years were difficult times for large country houses. In a little notebook kept by the 9th Earl, he wrote, “Domestic servants are practically unobtainable. Girls nowadays will not have anything to say to domestic service and footmen no longer exist – with the result that these large houses are no longer a practical proposition to live in.”

Within two years tragedy struck. The 9th Earl’s heir Lord Ashley had already shocked London society by marrying the chorus girl Sylvia Hawkes, who later went on to marry a second English peer before sailing across the Atlantic and marrying first Douglas Fairbanks Sr and finally Clark Gable. In 1947 Lord Ashley died suddenly, leaving his French-born second wife a widow and a young nine-year-old son, also called Anthony. Death duties forced the sale of the family’s Irish estates and large parcels of the St Giles estate. The 15,500 acres in Dorset inherited by the earl were gradually whittled away, ultimately leaving the 5,500 acres that survive today.

In 1954 the earl and his countess moved out of St Giles’s House, temporarily defeated by the struggle to keep it running. Following his wife’s death in 1957, and despite being in his eighties, the widowed earl moved back into the house. He soldiered on bravely, staging occasional concerts and opening the house to the public during the summer. He died, aged ninety-three, in 1961, one of the last survivors of a generation that had been born within a few years of the Charge of Light Brigade, had endured two World Wars, seen the invention of the motorcar and aeroplane, and what in old age must have seemed like the complete collapse of the way of life that had sustained the rural aristocracy and allowed houses like St Giles to flourish.

The 9th Earl lived long enough to pass on the estate to his grandson, the 10th Earl, largely free of the burden of taxation. Following his marriage in 1966, the new earl began planning how best to make the house habitable in changed circumstances. In 1973 the south west wing and the kitchen wing were demolished, as was the Victorian tower, leaving the chapel isolated from the house it had once been part of. His intention was to try and return the house to its original design. But although timber and other materials were acquired, he finally had to admit defeat, making his home in a smaller house on the estate, and instead setting up a successful joinery business in the basement of St Giles’s House as a way of retaining a toehold in the house.

The 10th Earl shared his grandfather’s love of music, and was chairman of the London Philharmonic Orchestra for nearly 25 years. But it was as a conservationist that he made his mark. The St Giles Estate is renowned for its woodland, planted over the centuries. The 10th Earl planted over a million trees on the estate, restoring woodland and creating habitats for specific species of birds and insects. In 1992 he was joint-winner of the Royal Forestry Society’s National Duke of Cornwall’s Award for Forestry and Conservation. Butterflies were a particular passion, and he was vice-president of the British Butterfly Conservation Society, as well as president of the Hawk and Owl Trust.

In 1976 he married as his second wife the Swedish-born Christina Eva Montan, the daughter of a former ambassador, by whom he had two sons, Anthony and Nicholas. Although they divorced in 1999, Lady Shaftesbury continues to live on the estate and has played a crucial role as its custodian, maintaining it in readiness to pass it on to the next generation. In November 2004 the 10th Earl was murdered in the south of France, a crime for which his third wife, a Tunisian from whom he was estranged, and her brother have recently been found guilty and given lengthy prison sentences. Six weeks after the body of his father was found in April 2005, his heir, the 27-year-old Anthony, died of a heart attack whilst visiting his younger brother Nicholas in New York. Both father and son have now been laid to rest in the family vault in the church, and Nicholas has become the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury.

On the front page of his notebook, in an entry written at the end of the Second World War, the 9th Earl wrote, prophetically: “What is to become of this old family home where successive generations have lived so long is impossible to foretell.” In recent years tragedy has made these words even more poignant. And yet despite the setbacks there is a now a sense of optimism and renewal. The new earl is young, unencumbered by the past. The gardens may be overgrown, the lake in need of dredging, but with time and energy could be restored. St Giles’s House still stands, its rooms empty, but one comes away from it today with a sense that new life may yet be breathed into it.

Written by David Burnett, The Manor Houses of Dorset Dovecote Press