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Boyle Farm

With a new owner came a new broom, ready to bring sweeping changes to the house. Mrs. Boyle Walsingham set about turning the place into a modern mansion, appropriate to her standing as one of the wealthiest women in Britain.

She had the old house demolished, and rebuilt on a grander and more up-to-date style. In December 1783, she renewed the old fire insurance taken out originally by George Tash nearly thirty years earlier. Which again gives us details of the house, and shows us just how it was at that time. It was still in three parts; a centre portion, three storeys high, sixty-nine feet by thirty- two feet, with a part twenty-four feet long protruding out from it by eight inches. The two wings were each thirty-eight feet by twenty- six feet. All built of brick, and valued at Two thousand, six hundred pounds. Most of the outbuildings, but not all, had also been rebuilt, and they were valued at four hundred pounds(126)

In 1786 Mrs. Boyle Walsingham decided to improve the house even further, and to drop the name "Fords", by which it had been known for generations. Henceforth it was to be called after herself - "BOYLE FARM". On 5 March she notes in her diary; "I laid the first stone of my new house - Boyle Farm"(127). This statement has previously been taken to infer that the house was reconstructed in its entirity in that year(128), but as we can see from the fire insurance policies it had been mostly built nearly three years earlier. What was new in 1786 was only a fairly small addition and the change of name.

When the additions were complete the insurance was amended yet again, and from these records it is possible to see that it was only the centre block which was altered. It had been thirty-two feet deep, this was now extended by another twenty-four feet on the northern side, more or less to line up with the two wings. And an additional floor was put over part of it, increasing the height of that to four storeys. This is basically the house we see today, except that the curved bay which forms such a delightful feature of the river front must have been added later, as it is not mentioned on the policy.

A stable block, forty feet by twenty feet, with lofts and rooms over, which is mentioned on all three insurance policies, still remained as possibly the last remnants of the old Hatton house. It is this which, as already mentioned, can still be traced as the wall extending from the river front of the house, and which afterwards became the conservatory.

There are in existence at least two separate prints of the house. One depicting the south, or entrance front; the other drawn from across the river and showing the north side (see this page)

As can be seen from the prints on the preceeding page, the architecture of the house was mainly plain, square, and restrained. Horace Walpole, the high priest of elaborate neo-Gothicism, found the conception very ordinary, and wrote: "Mrs. Walsingham is making her house at Ditton, now baptised Boyle Farm, very orthodox"(l29). Even so some concession was made to the Strawberry Hill taste by the adoption of a crenellated parapet which surrounded the top of the house, and, except for the extremely tall gables of the two wings, completely hid the roofs, which must have been either flat or very shallow.

Such a consummate medley of styles, even including a portico in the classical mode, surely never arose from the drawing board of a professional architect. Was it the child of the ever fertile brain of Mrs. Walsingham herself? And was the embattled parapet a surrender not to Walpole but to the strictures of Moses? - "When thou buildest a new house, thou shalt make a battlement for the roof, that thou bring not blood upon thine house, if any man fall from thence"(130).

If the house was dull outside, internally it really displayed the Boyle Walsingham artistic bent with a vengeance. The creations of mother and daughter filled every room. The walls were rich with exhibitions of their art. As indeed were those of their town house in Stratford Place, Marylebone. Fanny Burney had this to say of them: "They appear to me surprisingly well executed, and the subjects are admirably chosen and selected. They are chiefly copies from old pictures, or from Sir Joshua Reynolds. She has also copied Gainsborough's sweet Shepherd's Boy; and there are originals, by herself, of Capt. Dalsingham, and her son, and Miss Boyle. These are all in oils. There are also some heads in Crayon, and several small figures in Plaster of paris by Miss Boyle, who inherits her mother's genius and fondness for painting"(131).

Mrs. Boyle Walsingham had herself sat for her portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds on at least three occasions, and the artist became good friends with her and her husband(131). He is known to have visited her here at Boyle Farm.

The daughter, Charlotte Boyle (She refused even as a girl to use the additional surname adopted by her father. Proof that like her mother she was a child of spirit), was all round considered to have a talent for artistic interpretation. Even whilst only fourteen years old she was highly praised by Mary hamilton, the novelist, who called her:"the most accomplished young person I have ever met with. She is mistress of Music & Painting, models in a surprising manner, knows perfectly Modern & Ancient History, French, Italian, Geography, Mathematics, Astronomy, the English Classics, is learning Spanish and Latin, &c. &c."(133).

Walpole compared her to his cousin, Mrs. Delany, one of the best-known sculptresses of the eighteenth century(134), and wrote to the earl of Stratford: "Miss Boyle, who has real genius, has carved three tablets in marble with boys, designed by herself. These sculptures are for a chimney-piece, and she is painting panels in grotesque for the library, with pilasters of glass in black and gold"(125).

He repeated the same theme to Hannah More: "Miss Boyle has decorated their house most charmingly; she has not only designed, but carved in marble, three beautiful bas-reliefs, with boys, for a chimney-piece, besides painting elegant panels for the library, and forming, I do not know how, pilasters of black and gold beneath glass; in short, we are so improved in taste, that, if it would be decent, I would like to live fifty or sixty years more, just to see how matters go on"(136).

Miss More herself, when writing the piece which is quoted on the first page of this work, went on to say that the house was:"already completely furnished; all the purple and gold pilasters of the magnificent library, the chimney pieces, sculpture as well as paintings, both designed and executed by Miss Boyle. The doors are adorned with rich paintings, copied from the Vatican; the panels, pictures emblematic of the arts and sciences, from Herculaneum, all done by that young lady in the short space of a year"(1).

Horace Walpole surely have been gladdened could he have but known that not just fifty or sixty years after he had written, but two hundred years on, these self-same glass panels, twenty-eight in all, including one signed "C. BOYLE NOVEMBER 2D 1786", with other painted designs, can still be seen and admired and are well cared for. In 1962 they underwent a complete restoration and regilding(137).

The former library, whilst in use as a ward, showing the decorations designed and painted by Miss Boyle in 1786. Monogram of Miss Charlotte Boyle, over the doorway.
The former library, whilst in use as a ward, showing the decorations designed and painted by Miss Boyle in 1786. Monogram of Miss Charlotte Boyle, over the doorway.

The library is perhaps the most magnificent room in the house. Of grand proportions, with a great bow and large windows, and a fine prospect overlooking the lawn down to the river and across to Hampton Court Park and the Pavilion. Once used as a ward, called "The Ward of the Good Shepherd", it is now used by the patients as a lounge.

Miss Boyle's talents were also displayed in other ways. For instance, she used her art for the entertainment of the guests with a puppet show, devised and produced entirely by the young lady herself. Walpole, in playful mood, warned the ladies: "Mrs. Walsingham may think what she will, but if she and Miss Boyle make Boyle Farm so delightful, as they are capable of doing, they will live to repent of it. The wise men will come from the east, and all the foolish men and women in Europe to visit it, and Miss Boyle will have made a puppet-show, that for once she did not intend"(138).

Not long after moving to Thames Ditton, Mrs. Boyle Walsingham and her daughter had an unforgetable experience. Which proves just how lawless the roads were like in this district in those pre-policed days. On their way home, and not very far from it either, their carriage was stopped by a highwayman, who held a pistol to the girl's breast, and threatened to pull the trigger if they did not make haste to hand over their valuables(139). Walpole reported the incident to Henry Seymour Conway, Lord Hertford's brother: "One is never safe by day or night. Mrs. Walsingham, who has bought your brother's late house at Ditton, was robbed a few days ago in the high road, within a mile of her house, at seven in the evening"(140).

Mrs. Boyle Walsingham was a great socialite. She entertained on a lavish scale. Even before taking over Boyle Farm her town house was noted for its balls and coversaziones. It must be said, however, that she had a reputation that she "took care to invite no company to her house whom she disposed to disdain". For "she has the character of being only civil to people of birth, fame, or wealth, and extremely insolent to all others"(141).

Nonetheless, the list of guests who flocked to Boyle Farm contains such famous names as: Sir Joshua Reynolds, Horace Walpole, Mrs. David Garrick, Fanny Burney, Hannah More, and Mary Hamilton. Each of whom have written about their visits here. There must have been many more, equally as well-known, who did not.

Perhaps the best account of a stay in the house, demonstrating the gentle easy way of life which the well-off spent in a country mansion in the late eighteenth century, comes befittingly from the pen of Mary Hamilton, one of the most popular novelists of the age, although very little read these days. It is rather lengthy, with a welter of detail, some parts of it deserve to be quoted here.

"I accompanied Mrs. Walsingham & her daughter to Thames Ditton. Mrs. W. is very much pleased with this place; I do not wonder at it after having been at the Castle(142), with all the restraint which naturally attends such a situation; here she is sole mistress, & everything around her being her own property, it interests & amuses her. Mrs. W. showed me the house & we walked in the Garden till near ten, at that hour we sup, Miss Boyle goes to bed; Mrs. Walsingham was very lively, we talked, & did not retire till 12, when she politely conducted me to my room"(143).

"On Sunday I got up at 6; as soon as I was dressed I went into the garden. The morning was heavenly, I was joined by my hostess, we walked till 9, when the bell rings for breakfast, at 10 we separated & met again at 11 to go to Church, which is very near the house. It is a very pretty Country Church & we had a very decent Well behaved congregation; the Clergyman's appearance was suited to it, an amiable looking old Man with Silver locks, he read the prayers devoutly, & gave us a good Sermon, the style unaffected & not above the comprehension of his country parishioners. The little Band of Vocal performers quite excelled in singing the Psalms, & they sang an Anthem in a manner far superior to what I have ever heard in a village Church"(144).

"The Dinner hour is 3 o'clock & the hours are strictly kept; we separated 5 till 6 when we drank tea under some Trees upon the Terrace which has the Thames running under it"(145).

"At 7 we got into Mrs. Walsingham's boat & were rowed for near two hours; nothing could have been more delightful; the Evening was serene, and you know how many beautiful Objects there are on the Banks of this River. When we returned, the fineness of the weather tempted us to walk & Mrs. W. took me round that part of the grounds which may be styled 'Ferme Ornee' "(146).

"I got up before 7, sat in the garden and read. Mrs. W. and Miss Boyle joined me at ½ past 8. Miss Boyle read the Psalms and chapters, she reads a chapter in the Old and one in the New Testament. At 6 o'clock Mrs. W. and Miss Boyle and I went in the phaeton to Oatlands, the Duke of Newcastle's, about 7 miles from Thames Ditton" (146).

On another visit: "After Dinner we went to the Medallion Seat, where we had our coffee & sat till tea time, we also drank tea there, the passing objects such as pleasure boats, Barges, etc. on the river & the Carriages on the opposite shore made an agreeable variety. This villa is on the Surrey side immediately opposite Hampton Court Palace, 2 of the Pavilions are the principal object, the Palace is hid behind the trees, the Terrace of the Palace Garden is so high that with a telescope from this seat one can easily distinguish who are walking there, if one is acquainted with them" (147).

"Mrs. Walsingham is a widow, & daughter of the celebrated Sir Charles Hanbury Williams & Lady Frances Coningsby, she has a great portion of her father's wit, is more informed than most women & is very highly accomplished, she is esteemed by the judges to be the first lady Painter"(147).

"Sunday I got up soon after 6, went into the garden, Miss Boyle joined me, she shewed me her birds, & the nests she has found; Mrs. W. joined us at 11, we went to Church. At 1 we had an elegant little repast brought, of fruit, cakes, & Ice water; at 3 Mrs. W's Maid attended me & dressed my hair, as I did not take my own Maid, at 4 o'clock 1 joined them in the Garden, Mrs. Garrick was arrived, but Alas! no Mr. Walpole, he had sent his excuse, being ill - we saw ye Prince of Wales on ye opposite shore, who went to pay a visit to the beautiful Lady Waldegraves who lodge in the summer in the Pavilion"(148).

So much of Boyle Farm and its life as seen through the eyes of a resident guest.

Mary Hamilton as drawn by Charlotte Boyle Mary Hamilton as drawn by Charlotte Boyle

Sometimes the mansion and grounds burst into animation as Mrs. Boyle Walsingham put on one of her celebrated receptions. In June 1788, Walpole was a guest at a ball here, which, expecting warm spring weather, was to be held on the lawn sloping down to the Thames in front of the house: "Which", he says,"would have been very pretty, for she had stuck coloured lamps in the hair of all her trees and bushes, if the east wind had not danced a reel all the time by the side of the river"(149).

Another account of the same jollity, which is virtually a catalogue of the nobility attending, was writtne by Mrs. Boscawen, widow of the admiral known as "Old Dreadnought". "I am going this evening to Mrs. Walsingham's ball at Thames Ditton, alias Boyle's Farm(sic). I shall meet there Lord Falmouth, Mrs. and Miss Price (150), Lady de Clifford and daughter. Many more London ladies and gentlemen I would have said but that the Prince of Wales gives a ball tonight also". And afterwards: "I have to relate that Mrs. Walsingham's ball was charming, abounding with dancing men and with great ladies, as the Duchess of Buccleuch and her daughter, Lady Weymouth and hers, Lady Mornington and hers(151), Lady Clarendon and hers; tho the Prince got away from her the Marlboros, Manchesters, Ladies Salisbury and Sefton, and I suupose many oters"(152).

This June ball was apparently an annual event, for in the following year it was described in The Times as "The splendid and costly ball". Costly it must have been, for they went on to say: an unlimited order, we hear, was given to the purveyor for supper, wine, confectionery, music, decorations, illumination, and everything expensive was procured, insomuch that the bills amounted to a small fortune: they were all, however, punctilliously paid the next morning so nice a sense has that lady of the propriety of discharging debts"(153).

However, before the next June ball could take place Mrs. Boyle Walsingham, after "a long and painful illness", had died(154). She was fifty-one years old.

In her will she expressed the desire "to be buried in a decent but private manner in the Parish Church of Thames Ditton"(155). This was done and a monument was erected on the wall of the south aisle to her memory.

Thus ended an era of great moment in the history of this house. Within eight years it had been re-built, re-named, and brought to the forefront of Society. All accomplished by a woman of great drive. Of whom one of her own friends said: "Mrs. Walsingham must be admired for her talents, & if she had made more allowances for those who had not so strong a mind &c. as herself, she would be more loved. She is keen & sometimes severe & wants a certain softness, without which no female can appear truly amiable. She has a very large fortune in her own power. I have been told 5 or £6000 pr. annum, besides money, she has everyting in style, lives like a person of fashion; she is a good economist, & though she lives expensively, yet not extravagantly"(156).

Next - Miss Charlotte Boyle

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