The Edgarley Story – pre 1945
In the beginning……
by Roger Parsons, Edgarley Archivist
Reprinted with Permission.
Edgarley would have been part of an Iron-age settlement around the Tor defended by the Ponter’s Ball earthwork which can still be seen a mile or so towards West Pennard, crossing the A361 at Havyatt. This earthwork is set astride the only way into the Isle of Avalon, but whether it was some from of cross-ridge dyke, defending the territory of the Glastonbury peninsular or the eastern boundary of the great Celtic religious sanctuary based around the Tor is unclear. Later on in the early 6th century it may have formed part of the defences of the local British chieftain who ruled the area around the Tor, against the Saxon invaders. In 658 the British lost this struggle at the Battle of Penselwood, and so around 670, the land was part of a grant of 6 hides ( 720 acres) by the King of the West Saxons, Centwine, to Haemgils, the Abbot of Glastonbury, making Edgarley a recognizable piece of Abbey land of about 200 acres within the ‘Glaston Twelve Hides’
The saxon personal name Edgar and ‘ley’ – land cleared of woodland – may refer to the site of the hunting lodge of Edgar, king from 959 to 975, as Phelps put forward in his 1836 History of Somerset, perhaps a little fancifully. It is nevertheless true that Edgar’s father, Edmund, king from 939-946, was a frequent visitor to the royal palace at Cheddar, who made Dunstan the Abbot of Glastonbury. He was also an important benefactor of the Abbey and was in fact buried in the Abbey grounds. Collinson wrote in 1791 ‘At the foot of the Tor is the hamlet of Edgarley, where there was a chapel dedicated to St.Dunstan, but at the dissolution it was converted into a barn.’ This refers to a St Dunstan’s Chapel marked on a tithe map as being in the north edge of field on the right hand side of the road just past Coursing Batch on the road down to Edgarley.
Phelps makes mention of this chapel and also of a large hall called King Edgar’s Kitchen, pulled down some years before the time of his writing, plus a spacious ancient manor-house decorated with carvings of wolves in chains. Wolves were to become an important part of the heraldic device of the owners of the estate.
The Henry factor
In the Middle Ages Edgarley was a small settlement with two large open fields, divided into strips, cultivated by peasants and Abbey servants. By the time of Abbot Bere in the early 16th century, Edgarley was referred to as a tithing (a group of ten men who stood security for each other’s behaviour), which indicates that there were at least ten households in the hamlet and at the time of the Dissolution in 1539 the estate seems to have belonged to the office of the Abbey chanter. For 200 years or so after the Dissolution it has a confused history away from the Church, originally belonging to the crown and then going through many hands before coming into the ownership of the Porch family.
The Porch family first came to own Edgarley some time in the 18th century, when, according to Burke’s ‘Commoners of Great Britain’ of 1815, “there stood a hall of great antiquity known as St.Dunstan’s Hall, but Mr.Porch, unconscious of so valuable a relic, gave orders for its destruction, which were too fatally carried into effect.” It was reputed to be a timber building of great distinction. On this site, Thomas Porch, who also had a large house overlooking the Cathedral Green in Wells where he owned a wool factory, built a Georgian house, which may have incorporated some remaining parts of St Dunstan’s Hall. Local experts have identified ceiling beams in the Reception Room leading into the offices as 16th century in origin, and this room, together with the old Dining Room, now the lower staff room, may well contain the foundations of the medieval house.
The Porches prospered and in the early-19th century married into the Reeves family of Glastonbury which owned the Abbey and the Abbey grounds, hence the considerable amount of Abbey stonework at Edgarley, particularly in the Summer House or Hermitage, as it was originally called, and the ‘Four Evangelists’ sculpture over the fireplace in the entrance hall. Some medieval glass is to be found in the small room upstairs now used as an office. The ‘pelican in her piety’ seen on the main house is a popular Christian device which became incorporated into the Porch coat of arms. It can also been seen inside the gateway to the Abbey House. John Fry Reeves in fact built the Abbey House in the 1820s and the Reeves/Porch family lived there for two decades, before selling the estate, which eventually came into the ownership of James Austin, the head of another increasingly influential local family who were originally from Baltonsborough. James had, like several other Austins, emigrated to Victoria, Australia where made his money, which he returned to England to spend.
It was not just the Austins who made their fortunes in Australia. In the 1850s, difficult times for workers on the land, one of the Edgarley estate’s young tenant farmers, Thomas Millear, settled near Willaura in the state of Victoria. If you go there and ask for Edgarley, you will be directed east for some miles, across the Hopkins River, to Edgarley Station, a house where the descendants of the Millears still live, at the only other Edgarley in the world today.
Porches in the community
Thomas Porch Reeves, son of John Fry Reeves and Maria Porch, married Jane Barber from Barston Hall, Warwickshire, and initially lived in the Abbey House. However on his 30th birthday Thomas inherited the Edgarley Estate and, rather confusingly, the Porch surname, from his maternal grandfather and the couple moved there sometime between 1830 and 1840. Thomas Porch Porch, as he was now known, became an important public figure in Glastonbury, as a Justice of the Peace and many times Mayor.
Thomas and Jane’s eldest son John Albert carried on the tradition of involvement and service to the community. He married Margaret Bagehot of Langport – another influential and affluent family (Margaret was the cousin of Walter Bagehot, then Editor of the Economist) – and she gave birth to a daughter Edith in 1868 and a son Robert in 1875; there were more births in other branches of the family, which grew apace.
But there is rumoured to be curse on secular owners of the Abbey and, whether it is true or not, within little over 30 years the Porch family had almost completely disappeared from the area, the family name diminished by a combination of unmarried or childless men or a predominance of baby girls. There was also murder, intrigue and tragedy.
All for a time was rosy in the Porches’ garden. Albert and his growing family moved to Edgarley on the death of his father Thomas in 1877, and he took little time to enlarge the old Georgian house by extending the west wing in the 1880s (1882 is a date readily seen on guttering and eaves). We can imagine Edgarley at its grandest then – a country estate for the large family of one of the area’s most highly-regarded men.
A doomed marriage
However, little more than 15 years later Albert and Margaret’s world came crashing down upon them. In 1889 their eldest daughter Edith was married at St John’s Glastonbury amidst great pomp and ceremony. All Glastonbury was out in the streets to bless and cheer Edith and her new husband Walter Hallowell Carew, a distant relation of one of Nelson’s admirals, as the wedding carriage made its way from the church to Edgarley. But it was not to be a happy marriage. Albert and Margaret were worried. Their new son-in-law was 15 years older than their one and only treasured daughter. What’s more, he had a past, and, being a second son, no better prospects than work in the colonial service. Also, but unknown to them perhaps, he took arsenic as a general tonic and to alleviate the symptoms of syphilis, as was not uncommon in the 19th century. A crime of passion?
Walter and Edith sailed to Japan late in 1889 for him to take up a post in Yokohama. Within seven years he had died, aged 42. The coroner’s verdict: arsenic poisoning. Edith, who had been secretly obtaining arsenic for her addicted husband, and undoubtedly suspicious of her husband’s infidelity, was tried by a five-man ex-patriot jury, convicted, and sentenced to death, later commuted to life in prison. She was allowed to serve her sentence back in Britain and was finally released from Aylesbury Prison in 1910.
Family shame and a second murder?
Edith’s parents back at Edgarley were devastated, despite the support of the people of Glastonbury. The shame that Albert must have felt was compounded by the fact that in he was Mayor of Glastonbury in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. Life for the Porches would never be the same again.
10 years later came the second blow – the disappearance of their third son somewhere in the wilds of Alaska, where he had ended up as a fur trapper, having survived the San Francisco earthquake. The family was convinced that he had been murdered for the money he was carrying, sent out by them after he had become one of the many made destitute in San Francisco.
Crushed by this second tragedy, Albert more or less withdrew from public affairs, living out the rest of his life in quiet, undeserved isolation here until his death in 1914, doubtless unable to face the community which had held him in such high esteem. Unsurprisingly, the family, some of whom had already moved away, took the opportunity to sell up and leave the area that they had graced and influenced for so long.
Robert Porch – Somerset cricketer and Malvern stalwart
Robert Bagehot Porch, Albert’s second son, and one of three inheritors of the Edgarley Estate, seems to have been the one who felt most nostalgic about his family home. For much later, in 1945, on hearing that Edgarley was to become a school, Robert wrote a letter to Jack Meyer the tone of which intimated how emotionally attached he was to the old place. Robert was educated at Malvern College and returned there after Oxford, to teach and to be a mainstay of the school for many years. Like his father, he was a great cricketer, who played for Somerset towards the end of the 19th century.
A very famous Porch
One other member of the Porch family, though never a resident of Edgarley, Robert’s cousin Monty, who famously married Winston Churchill’s mother Jennie in 1914, returned to Glastonbury in later life, but died childless in 1964. Robert’s son Robin lived at Southfield, later to become a Millfield boarding house, with an elderly aunt, but he died young in 1969 and his family too moved away. No members of the Porch family, so wealthy, influential and well-regarded in Victorian Glastonbury remained in the area. Was it the curse of the Abbey?
By July1916 the Estate had been sold by auction, with much of the land being disposed of separately. The House and immediate grounds went for £4,000 to the Thomas-Ferrand family, who immediately had several improvements made, in particular the plumbing according to the plans of Edwin Lutyens, a family friend. They made Edgarley their home for the next 30 years, but their ownership too was to be curtailed by circumstances outside their control.
Life between the Wars
In the 20s and 30s the Thomas-Ferrands made Edgarley their own and for a while life was good, with the social round, dinner parties and thé-dansants. However with their income diminishing in the 30s they turned Edgarley into a ‘summer guest-house’ and renamed it ‘Edgarley Hall’. The Meyers were amongst those who came and played tennis; a Thomas-Ferrand went to Millfield, and so the connection was made.
The Army moves in – and out
The wedding of a daughter in June 1939, with a grand reception at the house, was to be the last family occasion at Edgarley for the Thomas-Ferrands who were forced to give up their home to the War Department as Britain prepared for the worst. The Army was not the first to move in – that honour fell to Windlesham House, a Prep School from Surrey whose removal vans and coaches even had to negotiate the long journey down without the help of roadsigns – all taken away to confuse any invading Germans! However it was not long before the staff and pupils of Windlesham found that life was no safer in deepest Somerset than it had been near London, with German bombers using the Tor as a pointer to their targets in Bristol, and they quickly moved on, this time to the Lake District!
Edgarley then became the Officers’ Mess for 522 company (an ammunition company) of the RASC (50th Infantry Division) which had been evacuated to Glastonbury and Street after Dunkirk, from August 1940 until May 1941.
More research is necessary to discover what went on at Edgarley during the war years, but the army continued to maintain a presence here, preparing it as a reception centre to receive Home Guard and American casualties in the event of a German invasion.
Millfield moves in – and stays
Needless to say, the Thomas-Ferrands returned to find Edgarley rather changed from the charming country house it had been before the war, so much so that they decided to sell up and move to Pembrokeshire. The house and grounds happened to be just what their old friend Jack Meyer was looking for to accommodate his increasing numbers of ‘Juniors’ and so Millfield ownership began – all for the modest price of £11,000!