Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Shaw House

On the outskirts of Newbury, not far from the Great Bath Road (or the A4, now that we are no longer travelling in horse-drawn carriages) there is a very old house with a chequered history – Shaw House.

It was built towards the end of the 16th century by Thomas Dolman, whose father and grandfather had made a fortune in the cloth industry.

The Dolmans were going up in the world. Eleven years after their grand new house was finished, they were hosting Queen Elizabeth I. She was the first but by no means the last monarch to visit. Over the years, the house was to welcome James I, William of Orange on his way to London to be crowned as William III, and later on Queen Anne. For many years it was also said that Charles I had used the house as his headquarters during the Civil War. To this day, on the embrasure of a first floor window, there is a plaque that marks the spot where a musket ball fired by a Parliamentarian soldier was allegedly embedded, having narrowly missed the king. Historians now think that in fact Charles I did not stay at Shaw House during the conflict. Nevertheless, the plaque is still there and the legend is still told.

When I first visited, it was not the plaque that caught my eye, but some casual reference that in 1728 the house became the property of James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos. And why should that put a smile on my face? Because the Duke’s sister Mary was Jane Austen’s great-grandmother.

The Duke spent most of his time at his townhouse in Albemarle Street and in the vast mansion at Cannons (now the site of Canons Park, Harrow). At both these houses he entertained his political and business acquaintances with lavish hospitality.

Shaw House was not purchased for the same purpose, but as a quiet retreat from the bustle of London and also as a convenient stopping place, on his frequent trips to Bath.


By the time he acquired Shaw House, the Duke was twice married. His first marriage was an arranged one. His second seems to have been a matter of choice.
And he chose Cassandra Willoughby, his first cousin (whom, incidentally, Jane Austen’s mother and sister were named after). 

The marriage was a happy one. They shared an interest in art and music (the Duke of Chandos was George Frideric Handel’s major patron), she was a perfect hostess and a great support in his political career. Sadly, they had no children (the Duke’s only surviving children were two sons from his previous marriage). When he lost Cassandra, twenty years later, the Duke wrote to his nephew Henry Perrot:

‘Somewhere I must go into the country for the air, and Cannons and Shaw I hate the thought and dread the sight of. Adieu, dear Sir, may you enjoy all the happiness this world can give, which is now taken away from me.’

Nevertheless, the Duke remarried for the third time. On his death, his widow retired to Shaw House and later sold it to Joseph Andrews, a strong supporter of the Speenhamland System (whereby the relief received by the poor of the parish was in direct proportion to the cost of bread). In fact, the Speenhamland System was instituted at a special meeting of the Berkshire Court of Quarter Sessions held at the nearby Pelican Inn – the famous and notoriously expensive Pelican that features in so many Regency romances and is lampooned in the well-known verse:

'The famous inn at Speenhamland
That stands below the hill
May well be called the Pelican
From its enormous bill.'

From Joseph Andrews, Shaw House passed to distant relatives and was eventually sold in 1905. It was even a school for a while – not a private school but the ‘local comprehensive’. The local council school was damaged in WWII and as a temporary measure the students were relocated to Shaw House. The temporary measure lasted 40 years and the local children were taught in Thomas Dolman’s house until 1983, when the school was moved to modern premises. After a long and expensive process, the house  was restored to something approaching its Elizabethan splendour. 

Unlike many similar properties, it remained unfurnished, but some would argue that as a result the visitors can better appreciate the structure of the house, the elaborately carved panelling or the delicate wallpaper in the ‘Chinese’ Dining Room, closely resembling the original decorations completed in the 1730s for the Duke of Chandos and his second wife.


This is not a grand dining room of stately proportions. The grandeur must have been saved for Cannons. This suggests quiet elegance and comfort, a cosy place where his grace might have enjoyed a good dinner before retiring to listen to his wife playing the harpsichord. A nearby information board lists some of the delicacies that would have been found at his table: ‘Pigeons in Scallop Shells; Stew’d Soles; Lobster Pye; Larks roasted; Collared pig and Truffles’

Sadly I can hear no harpsichord, there is no fire in the grate and no ‘lobster pye’ for dinner. 
But there’s tea and scones in the cafĂ© – and I can’t say fairer than that!

6 comments:

Arturo Ramirez said...

Thank you for bring the house to life again . . . worth a visit.

Barbara Silkstone said...

Thank you for this wonderful piece.
I imagine spending the night there. If those walls could talk.

Your research is a delight!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I enjoyed this post very much, Joana. Loved the jingle about the Pelican! And I don't think the connection with Jane Austen is that tenuous - the connection is clear. Jane herself may well have seen the house - I can imagine a small detour to view it as the family were on their way to Bath - even if she never visited.

Jane Odiwe said...

Fascinating post, Joana-I didn't know about Shaw House or its wonderful connection to Jane!

Diana Birchall said...

Wonderful. And I've learned something new, too!

Joana Starnes said...

Many thanks for stopping by to read the post and for your wonderful comments! I'm so glad you liked the trip to Shaw House :)