Combermere Abbey, Cheshire

1881 and 1882

Combermere Abbey
Combermere Abbey

To see a map of Combermere, click here

It was now apparent that Elizabeth would not be allowed to hunt in Ireland as the political situation was uneasy and for a Catholic Empress to visit would cause too many problems and the Emperor would not allow her to return. Another venue would have to be found. Her secretary, Herr Linger, had at one time been a cook in the employ of Watkins Williams-Wynn and he wrote asking his former employer if he knew of a suitable house that could be rented for the hunting season in 1881 for the Empress. At the time a friend of his, Lord Combermere, was visiting Wynnstay Park, and said that he would be going to the West Indies to visit his property and that Combermere Abbey would be available.

Wellington Henry Salusbury-Cotton was the son of the 1st Viscount, Stapleton Cotton, who had joined the army at the age of 16 and whilst a lieutenant-colonel with the 25th Light Dragoons had become a favourite of King George III. After a successful career he became heir to the family baronetcy and exchanged into a regiment at home. This was the 16th Light Dragoons where he was stationed in Ireland. After a period as an MP for Newark from 1805-14 he was sent to war in Portugal becoming the commander of Wellington’s cavalry. At the conclusion of peace in 1814 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Combermere. Although he was not sent to Waterloo, Lord Uxbridge had been given the command, but when the latter was wounded Stapleton was sent for and remained in France until the reduction of army occupation. In 1817 he was appointed Governor of Barbados and Commander of the West Indian forces. After 3 years as commander in Ireland his service concluded in 1826 with a year in India where he took a previously impregnable fort; for this he was created Viscount Combermere. This was followed by a long period of peace where he became a privy councillor, and in 1852 succeeded Wellington as Constable of the Tower and a Lord Lieutenant and finally his long career was honoured by becoming a Field-Marshall and G.C.B. He died in 1865 succeeded by his only son, Wellington, friend of Watkins Williams-Wynn. Stapleton Cotton whilst Governor of Barbados probably bought property there and that is where his son intended to visit in the winter of 1881 leaving Combermere Abbey in Cheshire available for the Empress to rent for her usual large entourage and horses.

A rent of £600 per month was agreed for the months of February and March. Staff was sent over to make a chapel and gymnasium and install electric bells for summoning staff. A waiting room at Wenbury Station would have to be built with extra sidings for her goods wagons. All this was at a cost of £10,000. The following is an account of the arrival in February 1881:

“The Empress of Austria left Vienna on the 17th and will arrive at Wrenbury station for Combermere Abbey on the eve of the 20th. Her Majesty will be accompanied by Prince Liechtenstein, Countess Festetics, Baron de Nopsca, Herr Aiuger and her secretary Herr Firfallach. We understand that Her Majesty will hunt chiefly with the Cheshire hounds and those belonging to Mr Watkin Williams-Wynn. Eight of the Empress’s horses arrived at Whitchurch station on the 30th ult. from Ireland and were at once taken to Combermere Abbey. Other horses from Vienna are expected. Major Bulkeley, Oak Cottage, Whitchurch, will pilot Her Majesty and will have the management of the horses and stabling.”

Combermere Library
Combermere Library

On the 15th February 1881 her train arrived at Wenbury and Bay Middleton, her pilot on previous visits, was waiting to greet her. Again her party was so large that some of the household had to stay in the nearby town of Whitchurch and an overflow of horses had to be stabled at Burleydam, a nearby house.

Her private suite at the abbey consisted of a sitting room, bedroom, bathroom, gymnasium and chapel, a room for her clothes and a room for attendants. A special staircase had been built to connect her sitting room, overlooking the lake, with the kitchens so that meals could be served privately. Countess Marie Festetics, her lady in waiting, was in the room where William of Orange slept in 1682. She complained that she did not like the faded orange wallpaper and high bed.

Despite the winter weather they managed to have 22 days hunting out of a possible 28 with the lost days due to bad weather and snow. Bay Middleton was her pilot for 20 days and despite her complaints that the fields and the fences were too small he said that he would show her how to cope with the conditions. Major Rivers-Bulkeley, from Whitchurch, was asked to be her other pilot. Her outings on the non-hunting days included a visit to the Grosvenors at Eaton Hall, south of Chester; to Watkin Williams-Wynn at Wynnstay Park, west of Whitchurch and near Ruablon, just in Wales. One day Bay Middleton took her to Aintree, near Liverpool to see the Grand National when Linde’s horse ‘Woodbrook’ was the winner and the jockey was Tommy Beasley. The Empress had visited Henry Linde’s stables at the Curragh on her last day in Ireland the previous year and would have seen that horse and his jockey. Her previous landlord while in Ireland, Lord Langford, came to visit, and Lord Spencer whom she had met many times.

The area around Combermere was non-conformist and Sunday observance was obligatory so local people disapproved of her holding Mass at the Abbey and when she was out practising jumps over fences she had put up for her in the Abbey park.

Charles Kinsky who had been included in her party on many occasions became Prince Kinsky and he won the Grand National in 1883 on ‘Zoedone’; Bay Middleton had advised him to buy that horse. He married Countess Elizabeth van Wolff-Metternich in 1895 but nursed a passion for Lady Randolph Churchill. He was made a member of the Jockey Club in 1906 but at the beginning of the First World War, was branded an enemy of Great Britain; he died in 1914.

The following letter was written by Ellen Harriet Tollet who was a daughter of George Tollet of Betley Hall. He took the name of Wicksted in 1814 and inherited the hall in 1855. He was a noted foxhunter and breeder of hounds.

Betley Hall

Crewe

25 Feb 1881

My dear Ellen

I trust you have recovered from the attack of bronchitis which we were truly sorry to hear you had. I am glad to give a very good report of Penelope as regards body and mind, Thomas thinks her improving in the latter as well as former.

Mr Fenwick who is here went with Anna Severne to see Mab and visited some of her grooms in their own wretched homes.

We had a great meet at Woore to see the Empress jump. Cartlick is splendid about the reception at Woore Hall where H.M. put on her habit, her manner Mrs C says was “most queenly”. She is still a pretty looking woman with a fine figure and an awfully tight habit, so tight, she descended the stairs at Woore Hall sideways, she could not walk straight in her habit.

She was I hear very civil to Margaret in the hunting field whose horse she slightly cannoned when at Wrinehill and took 1st opportunity to come up to apologise, talking English perfectly. The funniest thing was her enormous orange fan which she used out hunting, when at a check. Where she kept it I don’t know. She gave £200 to the United Hunt races near Whitchurch yesterday and was present galoping about with her fan up.

I saw young Andrew Boughton Knight at the races, he is quartered at Evesham. Old Mr ?aliot and his Tom were there.

Yours aff

E HT

Yr father and Willy too may be accounted with this. I am certainly better today. EHT

Shropshire RO Ref: 4629/1/1881/7

Margaret was George’s wife; Penelope Tollet was her aged sister-in-law, living in the same village.

The reason she was mentioned descending the stairs at Woore Hall is because it was the Empress’s wish that a room be reserved in a suitable house where the hunt was to commence so that she could change and be sewn into her riding habit. A groom and maid travelled to the chosen house early each day of a hunt with all necessary clothes and equipment. There are also folk memories of a local Whitchurch tailor being called on to sew her into her tight riding clothes. She used a leather fan so that she could hide her face and not be obliged to speak to people; she apparently hung it on a pommel.

It is not clear to whom the letter was written but it is in the Bridgeman family archives; the Earls of Bradford.

The meat house and dairy
The meat hanging house and dairy

In 1882 she did return to Combermere Abbey again but this time Bay Middleton would not be present as her pilot; a date for his marriage had been arranged and he had been advised by the family of his fiancée to give up piloting the Empress. This impending marriage of Bay Middleton to Charlotte Baird caused great disquiet to the Empress as she never wanted those close to her to marry. She had already prevented her friends Marie Festetics and Ida Ferenczy from marrying and Rudi Liechtenstein, who had accompanied her on each hunting trip, was a permanent bachelor; Charles Kinsky did not marry until the Empress had died. She did not want to lose Bay Middleton to marriage.

But Bay had been engaged a long time and Charlotte Baird’s family were becoming restive and had insisted that a date be set. At first he was not available to be her pilot but the Empress sent a message to him through her niece Marie Larisch and he then travelled down to Combermere being unable to resist one last chance to hunt with the Empress. His marriage was now definite and she realised she could not enjoy hunting without him and this then would be her last hunting trip to the United Kingdom. On the last evening she shared a small dinner party with him and the next day was inconsolable with grief as she probably knew they would never meet again. He was at the station to wave her a final farewell never to meet again.

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