From Astley’s Circus to Dunham Massey

From Astley’s Circus to Dunham Massey

This is a portrait of Catherine Grey (née Cox) in bedding plants.
Catherine Cox
In the early 1850s she was a trick rider with Astley’s Circus in London (the first modern circus) but she married George Grey, the Seventh Earl of Stamford. They were married for three decades, and she survived him for another two, dying in 1905. Today she is commemorated in the gardens at Dunham Massey, a house that they lived in briefly after they married.

Our guide to the gardens seemed to think it was a little surprising that Catherine was better at managing the estates than her husband, but quite frankly it takes a lot more common sense and self discipline to be a circus performer than it does to be an aristocrat. If you can learn how to jump through a flaming hoop from the back of a moving horse, then learning how to pay the bills on time and not run up massive gambling debts is no big deal.

Catherine was George’s second wife. After Eton, George attended Cambridge University for a year. Most aristocrats at the time did not bother taking degrees or studying very much. For them university was more of a way of making social connections. Studying was for scholarship boys hoping to become Church of England priests.

BED-MAKER. Women employed at Cambridge to attend on the Students, sweep his room, &c. They will put their hands to any thing, and are generally blest with a pretty family of daughters: who unmake the beds, as fast as they are made by their mothers.

So says Captain Francis Grose in his invaluable 1811 Dictionary in the Vulgar Tongue. So it was apparently for George Grey, but being a man of moral principles he married the bedmaker’s daughter who was unmaking his bed. This was scandalous. They had a happy marriage, but Victorian society breathed a sigh of relief when she died of tuberculosis after six years of wedded bliss. Now perhaps the Earl of Stamford could find a suitable wife from the right sort of people.

In a giant f*ck you to Victorian society, George found a wife even less socially acceptable, a circus performer with gypsy blood and an illegitimate daughter from a previous relationship. They were ostracized in London. Queen Victoria refused to sit in the box adjacent to theirs at the opera, in case the stench of scandal should burrow through the wall of the box and envelop the monarchy. When they returned to his ancestral estates at Dunham Massey, the local bell ringers at the church nearby started ringing the bells to welcome them home, but the church wardens broke down the church doors to silence them. When they attended the local horse race meeting, everyone turned their back on them, and the ladies opened their parasols to protect themselves from the shadow of sin.

At that point the newlyweds gave up on Cheshire, and moved to the more accommodating county of Staffordshire, taking most of the furniture, paintings, and silverware with them, and even some of the more useful (or perhaps decorative) servants.

The house was closed today, so I can’t show you the inside, but the outside looks like this.
Dunham Massey
As I was taking this photo we got talking to a very nice couple, Anne and Mike. Anne is a volunteer room guide in the house, and came to visit the gardens on her day off. She gave us the story of the first and second Earls. The first one got his title by picking the winning side in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. That got rid of James II who had a good claim to the throne but was catholic, and replaced him with William III (no claim to the throne) and his wife Mary (decent claim to the throne but female and therefore not to be trusted with it) who were protestant. William escalated the process of settling catholics in Northern Ireland, setting the scene for hundreds of years of sectarian prejudice and violence. On the other hand without the exiled James II’s son Bonnie Prince Charlie there would have been no Outlander books, so I think we have to say the Glorious Revolution was a wash.

Right, where were we? Oh, yes. The first earl was not a good money manager, to the point where his wife was reduced to borrowing money from the servants, so their son the second earl set out to rebuild the family fortunes. He did this in the traditional way of English aristocrats, hard work and enterprise.

Just kidding, he married an heiress. He’s the one who built the house above with his wife’s money, apart from the ghastly Victorian neoclassical facade in the middle.

The guy holding up the sundial apparently represents the continent of Africa.
Apparently in the 18th century the entire continent of Africa had nothing to do except kneel on a plinth and balance a sundial on his head. It’s not as if sundials work more than one day in four in Northern England, any way.

“I say old chap what time is it now?”
“Well the weather forecast says it will be sunny next Thursday, so I’ll be able to tell you then.”

As with most National Trust properties, the gardens are lovely.
Dunham Massey Gardens
Dunham Massey Gardens
Dunham Massey Gardens
This spherical topiary is a hundred year old oak tree. It has been pruned once or twice a year for the past century.
Dunham Massey Gardens
Dunham Massey Gardens
The rose garden is stunning.
Dunham Massey Gardens
Dunham Massey Gardens
Dunham Massey Gardens
These giant lilies bloom for a week or two after growing for six years and then die. We timed our visit just right.
Dunham Massey Gardens

After lunch we took a brief cruise to Lymm (pronounced LIM) past a strange mooring with hand crocheted tiki covers. Strange Mooring

The coming of the railway turned Lymm into an early commuter town. It is professionally cute and is suffering from a bad attack of bunting, but at least has a small Sainsbury’s and several thrift stores, so you can buy stuff you actually need.
A sandstone column of no known purpose dominates the main intersection.
Sandstone Column
It sits on a stepped pyramid. The signs say that it was restored in 1897, which means that the Victorians probably thought it was a phallic symbol so they built a cage around it.

Meanwhile in the window of the butcher’s shop a few kidneys are making a desperate bid for freedom across the sea of pork. Escaping kidneys
There is no hope for them I’m afraid, a steak and kidney pie awaits.

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