To make a change from investigating the urban underworld of Victorian cities, I thought I’d check out the glittering façade of local stately home, Basildon Park, to see if I could uncover some dastardly deeds beneath its shiny surface.
I began my search by scanning the local papers, but I didn’t find a single clue to any nefarious activity – not even a poaching incident or a minor theft. Most articles from the 19th century were about the lord of the manor handing out charity to the local poor. However, when I turned my attention to the original owners, the skeletons began to fall out thick and fast.
Basildon Park was built between 1776 and 1783 by Sir Francis Sykes, following his return from India after a successful and lucrative career in the East India Company. There were so many British ‘nabobs’ living in Berkshire in the 18th century, that it was the ideal place for Sir Francis’s country seat. Unfortunately his luck soon changed and his funds began to dwindle fast. An investigation initiated by Parliament into charges of corruption during his time in Bengal resulted in a fine of £11,000 for his misdemeanours (over a million pounds today) and all but finished him off.
Subsequent generations of the Sykes family didn’t behave much better. Sir Francis’s son and heir was known for his dissolute lifestyle, which he enjoyed in the company of the Prince Regent (later George IV), throwing wild parties and spending money extravagantly. As the second baronet died shortly after his father, it was his young son who inherited the estate. Sir Francis III doesn’t feature as prominently in the family’s chequered history, but his wife, Henrietta more than made up for it. She was the mistress of Benjamin Disraeli, a regular house guest in the 1830s. The politician even immortalised their affair in his novel, Henrietta Temple in 1838. There was further scandal when Henriette struck up a relationship with lowly painter, Daniel Maclise. It is alleged that, when her cuckolded husband denounced Maclise publicly, the painter’s friend, Charles Dickens, came to his defence, naming the villain of Oliver Twist, after Sir Francis Sykes.
I visited the local church of St Bartholomew, where the graves of the Sykes family lie. This tiny rural church is full of memorials to the family, which give extraordinary detail about the various characters. The most touching inscription is that of the first owner himself. In a poignant memorial, his wife couldn’t quite overlook all his faults, but it ends on a rather moving note:
He possessed many of the virtues of public,
All of social and domestic life;
Which he practised without pretension under
The influence of the warmest affections
His widow erected this monument as a consolation
To her sorrow for a deservedly lamented husband,
And as a memorial of the affection which
Had ever subsisted between them.