Reading Mercury

Saturday, August 7th 1858


Many of our readers, probably, are not familiar with the grounds and domain of the Countess Dowager of Craven, which are situated between three and four miles west of Newbury, bounded on the north by the Kennet and Avon Canal, as well as the winding bed of the time-honoured Kennet itself, which, pursuing its course from Avebury, in Wilts, follows the great peat valley through the county of Berks. This very picturesque estate spreads over the rising heights and uplands, but is much diversified by irregularity in surface, as it comprises hill and valley, open plain, copse and cover, majestic woods, sheets of water, tasteful walks, and highly cultivated gardens. A more genial spot for a great gathering of the English people, it is not easy to select; it is peculiarly the place to draw forth all the real national characteristics of cheerful, buoyant mirth, high spirits, freedom from care, and a universal exchange of kindliness which lie beneath the cold reserve which the conventional rules of what is termed "society," have imposed on the sons and daughters of Old England, and which imbues our continental neighbours with the idea that the vital current which animates the English frame, is all but frozen at its source.

Such was the spot, which by the kindness of the noble possessor of it, was thrown open to the public for the benefit of an admirable Institution, the fund for the Widows' and Orphans' of all employed on the Great Western Railway; the promotion of which the Directors have, with unfailing kindness, ever studied to advance. Upon this occasion, special trains were provided from Paddington, Oxford, Cheltenham, Hungerford, Newbury, and other places on the line; and with what amount of extraordinary success, we shall describe in its proper place.

Before entering into the details of the proceedings of this auspicious day, for never was there a more thorough English Summer day than Tuesday last, we will give a slight historical sketch of Hamstead Manor, and its natural beauties. We will not go farther back than the days of Queen Elizabeth during which Sir Thomas Parry, her Majesty's household treasurer, "built fine house Hamstead Marshall." In the year 1626, the manor passed by purchase to the Craven family. It was in the year 1662, that Sir William Craven son of the then Lord Mayor of London was created Baron, and afterwards Earl, for services he had rendered to the Stuarts, during the protectorate of Cromwell, and the losses he had sustained by confiscation; - the same year, the house built by Sir Thomas Parry, was pulled down, and the greatest architect of that day, Sir Balthaser Gerbier began a "stately pile of building" at Hamstead Marshall, and this building was finished in 1663; of its magnificence, some idea may be formed those who have witnessed the ruins of the Castle of Heidelberg, seated on the river Neckar Baden, for this castle was the builder's model. This fine place was destroyed by fire in 1718, and the visitors to the Park on Tuesday, will recognise the site of the old building, when they remember the brick piers of the entrances supporting urns which still remain on the fine upland in front of the parish church, which adjoins the park. In that church he the remains of the architect who was an eccentric character, as well as a man of talent. Of the great advantages of such a site for a mansion, there is no question; the celebrated Loudon, the landscape gardener on visiting this place some twenty years ago, gave his opinion of it for a building site as preferable to any site on the estate in Warwickshire. The building, however, erected in place of the ancient mansion, was for the purpose of a shooting lodge for the late Earl of Craven; it has been enlarged different periods, and is seen to advantage surrounded by umbrageous timber,- on an elevation quarter of a mile east of the position of the original mansion.

We have said above that we should attempt a short delineation of the natural beauties of Hamstead Park take leading instance the wild character of the "upland," where the large fern in full luxuriance spreads covert for the fawn, and with its graceful lofty stems affords even a retreat for the fallow deer, whose antlered heads form the telling breaks for the artists eve, in the line of sight; the timber planted by old Time is either picturesquely grouped, or in single stems spreads grateful shade over the verdant carpet beneath; and the numerous parties which on Tuesday availed themselves of these Sylvan tents, presented scenes such Rubens and Berghem loved to transfer to their canvas. Of the species trees the pollard-ash takes a prominent position, rich green contrast to the more sober avenues of the ''wide-spreading beech," throwing its chequered shadow over the grassy glades beneath; here and there a bleached and lightning-stricken oak with its dry "antiquity " stands boldly forth in angular but not ungraceful outline –
"Lifts its bare arms to the skies
"The ruin of six centuries."
The lovers of trees (and who are not?) will find nearly all the varieties which constitute in the language of the day "park timber." The rugged elm, smooth chestnut, sombre maple, dark sycamore, and sturdy thorn are all there - these grounds have a pleasing aspect in the arrangements, of the graceful wildness of Nature untrammelled with the rules and regularity of studied art, or the stiff propriety of smooth shaven lawns, trim hedges, and beaten gravelled way, where
“Grove nods to grove, each alley has its brother,
“And half the platform just reflects the other."
But amongst the striking beauties of Hamstead, are the views which its elevated position commands: to the south, lofty range of Hampshire hills presents to the spectator a fine contras - the densely wooded domain of Castle Highclere, with its classic temple, the smooth worn side of the "Beacon, and steep acclivity of Siddon;" to the south-west, Kintbury and its secluded roads; on the north, Benham Park, the seat of the late F. Villebois, Esq.; and to the east, the Kennet, wending its way to Newbury. There are few seats with more wide-spreading prospects, or richer foregrounds, and no scene could have been more animated than that which the park presented on the occasion which we are now describing.

We will now proceed to speak of that which was the immediate business of the day, namely - the Fête itself.

Hamstead Park received its first supply of visitors about eleven o'clock, by the arrival, at the Hamstead Crossing, of the Reading train, consisting of twenty two carriages, which was closely followed by the London, and Cheltenham and Oxford trains, the former of twenty six, and the latter of eighteen carriages, making altogether seventy-six carriage loads of persons intent (while assisting the funds of a society most deserving of support) upon spending a day of true enjoyment amid the rich and thickly wooded scenery of Berks. The visitors from Hungerford reached their destination at a quarter past twelve o'clock, and the empty carriages were taken to Newbury; they returned from thence at two o'clock well filled with the residents there, who preferred dining quietly their homes ere they partook of their share of the amusements of the day. The commendable system of shop-closing which has of late become so general on fête and other days of public rejoicing, having been adopted on this occasion in the towns of Newbury and Hungerford, on the recommendation of their respective chief magistrates, both the employer and the employed were afforded a day of relaxation. And so general was the departing that, in the afternoon of Tuesday, there was only one person in view in one of the principal thoroughfares of the town, and that was a police constable.

The first objects of interest that presented themselves to the visitor on alighting from the train, were two well-constructed triumphal arches, erected on either side of the railway, over the crossing, by Mr. George Boyer, of Newbury; in the centre of each of these were the words, in Roman capitals, "Great Western Railway Widows' and Orphans' Society." Here the Paddington and Slough bands, (the latter of which rendered their services gratuitously,) formed into order, and marched, playing lively airs, through short, winding, and rather dusty road to the entrance of the park, where was another triumphal arch of fine proportions, also executed by Mr. Boyer. The bands, in their progress under the arch, and the shady avenue, surrounded as they were by thousands of gaily-attired persons, presented a very animated scene.

The triumphal arch above alluded to, was composed of a central pediment, and surmounted by a crown, supported by flags of all nations, which fluttered in the breeze. The centre was supported on each side by bastions, bearing on one, the flag of old England, and on the other, that of our intimate ally: within the pediment in front, were the arms of the Earl of Craven, with the motto “Virtus in actione consistit," very effectively painted, and on the obverse, the mystic circle, held by five hands, with the motto "Bear ye one another's burdens,” emblematical of the bond of union, and the object of the Widows’ and Orphans' Society; on the bastions, the arms of the Great Western Railway were appropriately introduced, the whole of the work being covered with laurels, evergreens, and flowers of various colours. It fully supported Mr. G. Bover's fame as decorator.

The upland of the park fairly reached, the larger portion of the visitors paid especial attention to the refreshments, contained in a large marquee erected for that purpose, and provided by Mr. Staples, confectioner, of Newbury, in an excellent manner, and at an extremely moderate scale of charges. The extensive marquees erected for dining, &c., were also well patronised, and the liberal arrangements made by Mr. Thomson, of the Pelican Hotel, Speenhamland, in this department, were well appreciated. Every consideration was made by him for the comfort and requirements of the visitors, and feelings of approval were generally expressed. The arrangements for the tea were excellent; water, both hot and cold, was abundantly supplied by Messrs. Plenty and Pain, of the Eagle Iron Works, Newbury. The apparatus for boiling the water and coffee, was of rather novel description, and was a great object of attraction: it consisted of an eight-horse portable engine, with a pipe inserted in the boiler, which carried a jet of steam into four different iron water carts, holding 230 gallons each; the pipe had taps over each cart, so that one or all could be boiled at pleasure; the coffee, which was ready made, was boiled in a similar manner. There were two other carts engaged in carrying cold water, to keep good the supply, and, upon one cartful being boiled, it was drawn round to the various marquees, and its place supplied by another.

The Coldstream, Paddington, and Slough bands soon commenced their performances in various parts of the park, and the lovers of cricket and archery speedily began the practice of their respective sports, - while the "Punch and Judy," and marionettes, from the Crystal Palace, were each drawing together large audiences. For the Crystal Palace "banjo gentlemen" (Messrs. Lawrence and Holber) a raised platform was erected. Their performances, at intervals during the day, were listened to by assemblies of several hundreds, all of whom pronounced their musical talent to be first-rate, and the applause they received was most enthusiastic. Their witticisms and droll dialogues kept the audiences in continued roars of laughter.

About two o'clock the sun shone out most brilliantly, and those who had brought umbrellas were to be seen converting them into protectors from the scorching rays. About this hour, the Paddington band marched from the centre of the park to the private grounds adjoining the residence of the Countess, (who had kindly thrown them open on this occasion,) and immediately returned. Shortly afterwards, the band of the Coldstream Guards took their position on the lawn immediately facing the mansion, and performed in the excellent style for which they are so celebrated, a varied selection of music. The Countess of Craven, on appearing at one of the principal windows, was observed by the members of the band, who at once ceased playing, and gave her ladyship a hearty cheer; they, joined by many of the visitors, subsequently paid a similar compliment to some lady relatives of the Countess, who honoured them with a visit in the park.

The family circle present at the Mansion included the Countess of Craven, and family (excepting Lord Uffington and the Hon. George Craven, who are abroad); the Lady Oswald and family, Sir Fred Johnstone, Mr. Geo. Johnstone, the Hon. F. K. Craven, together with very many of the neighbouring gentry who were invited to luncheon on that day. The Hon, F. K. Craven and family, as they passed through the grounds, were received with due respect and loudly cheered.

The quadrille, polka, waltz, redowa, varsoviana, &c., were danced with spirit during the afternoon, to the enlivening strains of the various bands, especially that under the leadership of Mr. Matthews, of Oxford, the members of which, as usual acquitted themselves in an admirable manner. The dancing however, was not shared in by so great a number as at the fête held at Nuneham, last year. Mr. Bareham, of London, satisfactorily discharged the duties of M.C.

The number of visitors at the fête was computed to be upwards of 8,000, all of whom appeared to spend the day most happily. The object for which the committee have put forth their efforts in such a strenuous manner was gained, as a large sum will be added to the Society funds as the result.

Towards eight o'clock the crossing was the point to which the majority of visitors were to be seen wending their way, and at five minutes past eight the first trainful was despatched homewards, to Oxford, Cheltenham and other towns down the line; the Paddington train left shortly afterwards, and ere the hour of nine had struck, the Reading train had taken its departure. Specials conveyed home the visitors from Newbury, Hungerford, and Kintbury.

The County police, under Supt. Harfield, preserved order, but we did not hear of a single instance where their aid was called into use, nor the occurrence of any accident. Notwithstanding the large number who perambulated the grounds, and we might say the extensive domain, on examining the park, it did not appear that anything had been at all disarranged or damaged. We believe the Inland Revenue officers are entitled to some praise in the matter, for through their exertions the sale of beer and spirits was kept within its legitimate limits, and therefore, tended much to prevent disorderly practices which otherwise might have occurred.

The polite manner in which the railway officials discharged their duties was universally remarked, as well as the judicious arrangements of Mr. Smythe, the Reading Superintendent.

We cannot close our report without acknowledging the great courtesy we received from the various members of the committee, and also from all who were in a position to afford us information.

Note:- The press reports use the spelling Hamstead, whereas it is shown on maps and in other documents as Hampstead.

Transcribed by Colin and Daniel Taylor, 2019