A group of people in Victorian clothing standing around a newly planted tree.

Landowners, Bishops and Singers: the Story of the Elwes Family

The Beginning

This exhibition looks at the history of the Elwes Family and their impact on the local area. Discover what it was like to have Cary Elwes as your landlord. What impact did Valentine Elwes’s conversion to Catholicism have on Brigg?  Learn about the legacy left by Gervase Elwes, the famous singer.

In 1674 Jeremy Elwes bought the Tyrwhitt estates of Wrawby, Brigg and Bigby for £2,300. At this time they consisted of nothing more than a few houses. The Elwes family began the development of these estates into the towns and villages we know today. 

The Elwes family also owned land at Risby, Roxby, in parts of Yorkshire and Billing Hall in Northampton. Many houses in these villages are still owned by the Elwes family who live at Elsham Hall.

Black and white photograph of four people stood in front of an ivy covered house.
Billing Hall, Northampton, June 1905. Gervase and Alice Cary Elwes are third and fourth from left.
A group of people in Victorian clothing standing around a newly planted tree.
Gervase and Winefride Cary Elwes planting a tree to commemorate their marriage in 1889. Winefride is holding the spade.
Black and white photograph showing a group of people in Victorian clothing standing outside a white washed cottage.
Shop owned by William and Joseph Thompson on South Street, Roxby, c.1895. The building is still owned by the Elwes family.

Cary Elwes (1718 – 1772): Landowner and Landlord

Cary Elwes began to develop the family estates after inheriting in 1752. He saw great potential for Brigg, situated as it was on both the River Ancholme and the turnpike road between Lincoln and Barton. Cary rebuilt the estate’s traditional mud and brick housing in brick and tile. He added a ‘party wall’ between every two residences. This wall was a brick and a half thick. He also insisted that it should rise above the tile to ‘prevent the communication of fire as in London’.

The new housing saw an increase in rent for tenants. Cary realised that he could make more money using land for housing rather than farming. Among the tenants who lost fields to housing were the landlords of the Angel and the Packhorse Inn. Many tenants were angry, and a series of minor riots took place in 1760. Cary instructed his Lincolnshire agent, Henry Holgate, to deal with the rioters. Those who continued to riot were threatened with losing their houses. Within a month all was calm again in Brigg.

Black and white photograph of a white washed two storrey pub.
The Dying Gladiator, Brigg, 1919. The image is from a sale catalogue of buildings from the Elwes estate.
Cary Elwes' development of Brigg made Wrawby Street a very desirable place to live.

At election time, Cary would visit Brigg to influence votes for Parliament. His tenants were expected to vote for his favoured candidates. He would view a vote cast for another candidate as a personal insult. In 1760 he asked his agent, Holgate, for the names of the tenants who did not vote for Lord Brownlow Bertie. Although not evicted, they would have lost favours such as access to extra land.

Cary also exercised control over religion. He made attempts to rout out non-conformists from his estates. In 1773 he asked Holgate to investigate Methodism in Wrawby. Then, in 1775 he ordered the eviction of Methodist tenants in Roxby.

This behaviour was much like that of other landowners of the time. Yet, unusually for an absentee landlord, he knew the names of all his tenants and their family history. He was also very kind to tenants he believed had earned it. In 1858 he instructed his Yorkshire agent to offer assistance to Jane Smallwood of Morkside after her husband died. He was responsible for much of the building development of his estates. He also gave money to schemes such as the Brigg Turnpike Trust.

Black and white photograph of a paved market place surrounded by buildings.
Market Place Brigg in the 1890s. Many of the buildings have been knocked down and rebuilt since Cary Elwes first began developing Brigg.
Black and white photograph of an archway leading to an alley.
Entrance to Change Alley, Brigg.

John Meggott (1714 – 1789): Scrooge?

John Meggott changed his surname to Elwes in 1751. This was so he could inherit the estates and fortune of his uncle, Sir Harvey Elwes. He became MP for Berkshire in 1772, a post he held until he retired in 1784. He spent 18 pence on his election campaign.

John was so scared of losing his fortune that he survived on about £50 a year, or around £7000 in today’s money. Many people mistook him for a beggar. After his retirement from politics, he moved between his many houses. He often sat in cold, damp rooms, as he refused to pay for firewood. When he died in 1789, he left £500,000 to his two illegitimate sons and nephew. This would equate to around £66,668,918 today.

His miserly habits were so famous that he is believed to be the inspiration for Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’.

John Meggott.

Valentine Cary Elwes (1832-1908): a Catholic Conversion

In 1865 Valentine Cary Elwes married his second wife Alice Ward. The couple moved into the Manor House at Brigg in 1869. They had three children, Gervase, Dudley and Maud. Valentine played a big part in the local community. He campaigned to have a national school built in Brigg. He also developed the water supply granted by his father and was the president of the Choral Society. Valentine was also a keen hunter, organising hunts on his estates for friends and family.

In 1874 the family visited Nice in France. Whilst there, they converted to the Catholic faith. At this time there was no Catholic church in Brigg. So, in 1875 Valentine converted the old coach house next to the Manor House into a chapel. It was dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of St. Mary but was known as St. Mary’s. The building served as the Catholic chapel in Brigg until a new church was built in Barnard Avenue in 1965.

Valentine provided an income for the priest despite the small number of worshippers. This allowed the Catholic Church to continue in Brigg until its popularity grew.

Black and white photograph of a bearded man in a suit seated at a table.
Studio portrait of Valentine Cary Elwes in 1873.
Black and white photograph of a lday wearing a high necked Victorian dress, with her hair up and tucked inside a bonnet.
Studio portrait of Alice Cary Elwes in 1873.
Black and white photograph of three children in Victorian clothing.
Studio portrait of Gervase, Maud and Dudley Cary Elwes taken in Paris, June 1875.
Black and white photograph of the back of a house and its garden.
The garden and back of the Manor House on Bigby Street, Brigg in 1892. The Catholic chapel was in the old coach house next to the house.

Gervase Elwes (1866 – 1921): the Singer

Gervase Elwes was born in 1866 at Billing Hall, Northampton. In 1889 he married Lady Winefride Feilding, daughter of the 8th Earl of Denbigh. Gervase trained as a lawyer and diplomat. The couple spent several years in Brussels before returning to England. Between 1890 and 1904 they had eight children. The family spent their time between the Manor House in Brigg, Billing Hall and London.

Though always musical, Gervase did not begin formal singing lessons until he was 28. It was unusual for someone of his class to become a singer. His father, Valentine Cary Elwes, particularly objected. Gervase gave his first professional performance in 1903 at St. James’s Hall in ‘Wallfahrt nach Kevlaar’. In April 1904 he performed Elgar’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’. The performance secured him as Elgar’s favourite performer of the role. As Gervase’s popularity grew he was in high demand amongst the London elite.

Gervase was keen that music should be heard by everyone and regularly performed at poorer venues or charitable events for a small fee. During the First World War he sang for military charities. He also visited the front line three times to entertain the troops.

Black and white photograph of a young boy sitting on a pony with a groom holding the harness.
Gervase riding his horse Puck in November 1872.
Black and white photograph of a street parade.
Gervase and Winefride parade down Station Road, Brigg after their wedding in London on 1889.
Black and white photograph of a group of musicians sitting outside a house.
Family and friends outside the dining room of the Manor House, Brigg, on 10 October 1892.
Black and white photograph of a group of people around a wooden bench.
Family and friends in Paris on 1 June 1905.
Black and white photograph of a group of children standing outside a house.
Gervase and Winefride's children standing outside the Manor House, Brigg at Easter 1906.

Lady Winefride Elwes, nee Feilding (1869 – 1958)

Winefride was the daughter of Mary Berkeley and Rudolph Feilding, the 8th Earl of Denbigh. Winefride married Gervase Elwes in 1889, and they had eight children together. She was National President for the Catholic Women’s League for several years. It was through her support that Gervase was able to have such a successful singing career.

Gervase and Winefride Elwes: the Brigg Music Festival

In the early 1900s Gervase and Winefride started an annual Musical Competition Festival. The festival was to be in Brigg. Gervase visited local schools and village choirs to conduct practices. The choirs took part in an afternoon concert for children and an evening concert for adults.

In 1905 the composer Percy Grainger asked Gervase to include a folk song category. In 1906 Joseph Taylor sang two verses of ‘Brigg Fair’ for Grainger. Though he won the folk song category with a different song called ‘Creeping Jane’. Grainger was very taken with ‘Brigg Fair’. He made an arrangement for the song and extended it by adding three verses from two other songs. In 1907 Fredrick Delius heard Grainger’s version of ‘Brigg Fair’. He used the song as the basis for an orchestral work, performed in 1908 at the Queen’s Hall, London. Joseph Taylor, then aged 76, went to London to hear the performance. He stood up to sing along as the orchestra started playing.

Gervase held regular music workshops in London and at Billing Hall. Musicians stayed with the family for up to a week at a time and put on concerts and productions. Gervase also looked after sick or distressed musicians at Billing Hall. 

Black and white head and shoulders photograph of a young man with wavy hair, wearing a suit and tie,
Percy Grainger, c.1902. He dedicated his time to recording folk songs, many of which would otherwise have been forgotten.
Black and white photograph of the head and shoulders of a man in a suit, with white hair.
Joseph Taylor of Saxby all Saints. Taylor sang Brigg fair at the 1906 Musical Competition Festival.
Black and white photo graph of a crowd of children singing, with a man playing a piano..
The Children's Music Festival at Brigg. Gervase can be seen at the piano.
Black and white photo graph of a crowd of children singing.
The Children's Music Festival at Brigg. Gervase can be seen in the centre singing.
An advert for Gervase Elwes on a public billboard.

Gervase Elwes: His Legacy

Tragically, Gervase died on 12 January 1921 in Boston whilst touring America. After leaving a train Gervase realised he had accidently taken another man’s coat. As he ran along the platform to return it he slipped under a train and was killed. Upon hearing of his death Elgar wrote to Percy Hull, the organist and composer, “My personal loss is greater than I can bear to think upon, but this is nothing – or I must call it so – compared to the general artistic loss – a gap impossible to fill in the musical world”.

A memorial performance took place at the Royal Albert Hall shortly after Gervase’s death. Several choirs introduced awards named after Gervase. A choir was even named after him in Walsall.

His friends set up the ‘Gervase Elwes Memorial Fund for Musicians’. In 1930 this became the ‘Musicians’ Benevolent Fund’. In 2014 the name again changed to ‘Help Musicians UK’. The charity continues to honour Gervase by helping sick or distressed musicians. 

A posed family photograph, parents with eight children.
Gervase and Winefride celebrating their silver wedding anniversary surrounded by their children, on 11 May 1914.
A group of men and women photographed outside a house.
Gervase and Winefride at a formal event at Burghley House on 6 August 1908.

Dudley Cary Elwes (1868 – 1932): Bishop

Dudley was the brother of Gervase Elwes. He was ordained into the priesthood in 1896 at the age of 28. In 1921 he was appointed Bishop of Northampton, in which role he served until his death in 1932.

Black and white photograph of a bride and groom, two pageboys and a priest.
Dudley conducting the wedding of Richard Elwes to Freya Sykes at Westminster Cathedral. Jeremy and Robin Elwes are the pageboys.
Black and white photograph of a boy stood in a gardenholding a cat.
Dudley Cary Elwes holding the family pet cat, Bundle.

Lt. Col. Simon Elwes (1902 – 1975)

Simon was the sixth son of Gervase and Winefride. He was a famous war artist and portrait painter. He painted many members of the royal family and was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. In 1933 Simon was elected a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. He suffered a stroke in 1945 which paralysed the right-hand side of his body. After two years of treatment, he managed to teach himself to paint with his left hand. Once again he was in demand painting the portraits of Hollywood stars.

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