|A recent view of the house shows the Great Hall on the left of the entrance, lit by the big bay window of 1913, and the croquet lawn where the sweep used to be.|
The history of Forthampton Court has been closely bound up with the town of Tewkesbury and the River Severn. Despite its famous capacity for floods, the Severn was less of a barrier to communication than might be supposed. There was no bridge over the river at this point until 1826, but there were two ferries, the Upper Lode and the Lower Lode, the roads from which traversed the Forthampton estate, and crossing the river by barge was an accepted part of life for the occupants of the Court.
Forthampton with the township of Swinley was one of the foundation gifts to Tewkesbury Abbey in 1102, and had probably been church property from the 8th century. The estate was attached to the office of abbot of Tewkesbury. Until the Dissolution, Forthampton Court was the abbot’s country retreat, and was where he escaped from the harassments of his responsibilities. The abbot built a great hall in the early 15th century which still exists at the core of the house; it has five bays, with a fine roof of arch-braced collar beams and double purlins. An upper floor was later inserted, but the hall is now restored to its original form. Appropriately the Norman tower of Tewkesbury Abbey is framed between trees in the view from the lawns on the north-east side of Forthampton Court. The estate was also the source of produce: grain, calves, poultry, cheese and eggs used in the abbey’s kitchens, and many pigs. Swinley was the swine pasture.
To reach Forthampton Court the abbot used the Lower Lode crossing, the road from which led directly to the Court. From Tewkesbury, the ferry was reached by a long lane leaving the town close to the abbey’s site, and skirting Tewkesbury Park. The Upper Lode was reached by crossing the Mill Avon, the waterway close to the town site, and the great meadow called the Ham, the name indicating early medieval appreciation of its situation as in the River Severn’s flood plain. There is a small Ham on the Forthampton side of the river. Tewkesbury Abbey controlled both crossings and collected the tolls. In the medieval period the river was less fast-flowing and deep – it may even have been possible occasionally to ford it; in mid-19th century the channel was deepened and canalised to enable larger ships to navigate higher up the river.
After Tewkesbury Abbey surrendered to the king in 1540, almost the last great monastery to do so, Forthampton was assigned to John Wakeman, the last abbot of Tewkesbury, as part of his pension. Following the death of the abbot of St Peter’s, Gloucester, Wakeman became the first bishop of the new Gloucester see, created in 1541, and is said to have died at Forthampton Court in 1549. He is credited with bringing the large stone tomb, probably of William la Zouche, Lord Zouche of Ashby, across the river from the Lady Chapel when it was demolished; it is now a remarkable garden ornament at Forthampton Court.
In the following two centuries the estate changed hands several times and was partially dispersed. From 1653 ownership of the ferry and of the ferry house, where the ferryman lived, was reunited with ownership of Forthampton Court. The Upper Lode ferryman’s house was on the Tewkesbury side of the Severn. About 1749 Forthampton was purchased by Isaac Maddox, Bishop of Worcester. His heir was his daughter Mary, who married James Yorke, the youngest son of the first Earl of Hardwicke, in 1762, and the Yorke family have remained the owners until the present day. James Yorke gradually purchased lands which had been separated from the Court estate and carried out substantial alterations about 1788, designed by Anthony Keck. Alterations and extensions designed by the arts-and-crafts exponent, Philip Webb, in 1891, are particularly highly regarded.
Mary and James Yorke occupied the house in the summer, otherwise living in the official residences of the Dean of Lincoln and later the Bishop of St David’s, Gloucester and finally Ely. After she was widowed in 1808, Mary retired to Forthampton. She was a diligent and vivid correspondent, writing regularly to her sister-in-law, Jemima, Marchioness Grey of Wrest Park, and niece Amabel, who became Countess de Grey. Her letters are preserved at Bedfordshire Archives, being part of the Wrest Park archive. It is obvious that the River Severn was a constant backdrop to life at Forthampton Court. Journeys were planned to avoid the danger of floods, and comment was frequently made on whether the river had taken a ‘step over its banks’ and affected the hay-making.
A severe flood could reach almost to the abbot’s Great Hall, which was sited on the first rising ground after crossing the river; church and village are some distance further inland, on slightly higher ground. As Mary Yorke wrote to Marchioness Grey on 1 October 1774: ‘I hope your Ladyship has not been drowned with rain, as we have here, it has been allmost incessant for this last Ten Days; & this Morning the Severn took a Step over its Banks, & advanced towards us; however, if it does not intrude upon our Gravel Walks, I shall not be very angry; as there is nothing unwholesome in a River Flood’ (L30/9/111/52).
A dry walk on the gravel terrace was normally possible. On 1 January 1822 when she looked out of her window she saw that ‘the Great Field with ye Oak in the Midle, resembles a Looking Glass Plateaue… on looking round I saw a light Boat crossing from one Corner to the other over this Lake and in it a Female & the Master of the Ferry himself conducting her towards my House.’ It led her to comment on ‘these enlightened Days when Bridges are rising up in all parts of the Kingdom’ (L30/11/339/554).
The improvements to the roads by Turnpike Commissioners made Tewkesbury people anxious to secure a bridge over the Severn. During times of flood the ferries were not passable; it was possible to cross the river at Gloucester, but this involved a circuitous journey and the next Severn bridge was up-river at Upton-on-Severn. James Bennett, the Tewkesbury bookseller and historian, noted about 1830 that agitation for a bridge had started in the later 18th century, but raising the finance for such a costly project was a big task.
More serious attempts were made in the early 19th century. In August 1815 Mary Yorke wrote about the project to replace the Haw ferry lower down the river with a bridge. She weighed the advantages and disadvantages of the scheme, later noting it would damage ‘her’ ferry, and was also apprehensive that this would cause the meadows to flood as far as Upton. The possibility was again considered in 1818. She and her son, Joseph, wished to have the ‘direction of the Road through our own Estates’, an indication of her alert management of the estate after her husband’s death.
In Tewkesbury three sites were under consideration: at one or other of the ferries or to the north at the Mythe; all would involve a road through the Forthampton estate. ‘A little controversy where the Bridge is to be erected upon my Estate will do no harm – I say it shall be at my ferry – the Tewkesbury [people] wish to place it a little below my Bee hive, nearer Mr Dowdeswell’s Ferry [the Upper Lode]… I am to be paid for my Ferry, & the Lands the Turnpike Road is to go through. If it was to go over at the spot the Tewkesbury People wish it to do – they must raise a high causeway across the Meadow called the Ham, which would cost them 4900£’ (L30/11/339/472).
The Beehive was the summer house on Cork Hill, where the family and visitors enjoyed the view of the river and of Tewkesbury Ham while drinking tea. Later she wrote: ‘My Neighbour General Dowdeswell is a very reserved Man, & keeps no sort of Company, of course is alarmed at the thought of a Bridge between himself & his constituents at Tewkesbury – who then might be coming to him in a few minutes at all Hours – in all manner: Horse – Foot – Chaise & in all states drunk or sober – in short he hears of it with Terror’ (L30/11/339/474).
By 1822 the site for the Severn bridge was close to a decision. Mary Yorke, although aged about 80 years, correctly assessed the practicalities and ‘was apt to think’ that the most northerly site at the Mythe was the most likely. She saw the laying of the foundation stone on 8 September 1823 from her summer house, not very long before she died. For Tewkesbury there were still difficulties because the foundations in the alluvial bed of the river were considered inadequate. In December 1823 Thomas Telford was called in, and while he confirmed that the site at the Mythe was the right choice, the design of the bridge was not. He designed an iron bridge with a single span, and cutwaters to allow flood water to pass.
The beautiful bridge was opened in 1826, still stands and is in use, although now restricted to one stream of traffic at a time. It spelled the end of the ferries. A ferryman occasionally still takes people across to the Lower Lode hotel in the summer. The Upper Lode ferry was completely lost when in 1853 an act of parliament approved the construction of a weir and lock at that point. This created a new river channel across a big river meander, and leaving the ferryman’s house, the Dowdeswell Arms, marooned on the Forthampton side of the river, where it can still be seen.
- Victoria History of the County of Gloucester VIII (1968)
- Bennett, James, The History of Tewkesbury (1830, reprinted Alan Sutton 1976)
- Jones, Anthea, Tewkesbury (1987, second edition 2003)
This article originally appeared as ‘Forthampton Court and the Severn’ in Context 170, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in December 2021. It was written by Anthea Jones, who was head of history and director of studies at Cheltenham Ladies’ College. Now retired, she is the author of several books on Gloucestershire history, most recently Johannes Kip: the Gloucestershire engravings (Hobnob Press in association with the Gloucestershire Gardens and Landscape Trust).
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