The Lushingtons and their celebrity circles: Surrey’s answer to the Bloomsbury Group
- Credit: Surrey History Centre
For three generations, the Lushington family of Cobham, Ockham and Pyrford left an indelible mark on the celebrity circles in which they moved. Viv Micklefield travels back in time to ‘meet’ Surrey’s answer to the Bloomsbury Group…
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2015
With the recent BBC TV series Life in Squares bringing the Bloomsbury Group very much back into the spotlight, interest has never been greater in this bohemian set of thinkers, writers and artists – but what many people don’t realise is that we also had our own equivalent here in Surrey.
Right at the heart of this group was the Lushington family, of Cobham, Ockham and Pyrford, whose list of connections reads like a veritable Who’s Who. Yet, until recently, the family’s remarkable contribution to Victorian intellectual and artistic life lay lost in the mists of time. That’s all set to change, however, thanks to the discovery of an astonishing collection of letters, papers, diaries and photographs, dating back to the 1860s. And now that these are in the care of the Surrey History Centre in Woking, it means we can all enjoy a peek into the Lushingtons’ lives.
The man responsible for painstakingly piecing together this genealogical jigsaw is Cobham historian and writer Dr David Taylor. “My interest in the Lushingtons began over 30 years ago when I started to research the history of the house where Vernon Lushington lived, Pyports in Cobham,” he explains. “The property is one of the town’s most historic, dating from the 16th century, and has been home to a number of interesting figures. By chance, one of their neighbours, at Cobham, was the poet Matthew Arnold, who lived at Painshill Cottage, and the Lushingtons and Arnolds frequently visited each other.
“I soon realised that the Lushingtons had been a family of some distinction with a wide and varied circle of friends, which included many well-known artists, musicians, writers and politicians of the 19th century.”
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On the trail
Just as in an episode of Who do You Think You Are?, it took patience to acquire the records from one of the Lushingtons’ living descendents, but finally, in 2005, nine crates arrived on David’s doorstep. And by 2011, another two had been added, thanks to the generosity of a private collector in America. Supported by a grant from the National Archives, David has spent the past 24 months cataloguing almost 7,500 individual items, which has, in turn, become one of the History Centre’s largest deposited collections.
And with enquiries already coming in from other researchers and from museums around the globe, Surrey’s county archivist Mike Page believes this is a major coup. “The Lushington collection is of international importance because it’s so diverse,” says Mike. “Surrey was very much the Lushingtons’ home county; it’s where they became established as a family and it’s only right and proper that the collection came here. It sits alongside others with important local connections such as Vaughan Williams in Leith Hill and Lord Farrer in Abinger, which are also in our care.”
Someone with an intimate interest in the Lushingtons’ story is well-known author Henrietta Garnett, whose family is, in her own words, “closely entwined” with the Lushingtons, and Vernon’s daughter Kitty in particular. “I’ve known a bit about Kitty Lushington all my life because she inspired my great aunt Virginia Woolf, and Kitty was also a family friend of my grandparents so they all talked about her,” recalls Henrietta. “I can see that she was not only very beautiful but also very charismatic.” With Kitty the best friend of Virginia’s older half-sister Stella, it seems this only added to the allure. “Nothing is more romantic to a young, innocent girl than growing up in someone’s glamorous aura,” adds Henrietta. “In her novel The Years, Virginia actually still calls her ‘Kitty’, whereas in Mrs Dalloway she’s called her ‘Clarissa’.”
Movers and shakers
Another of Henrietta’s ancestors, the famous anti-slavery politician William Wilberforce, was a contemporary of Kitty’s grandfather Stephen Lushington, who was himself a campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade. Included in the collection are photos of Stephen’s former Surrey home, Ockham Park, which was sadly gutted by fire in 1948. However, writing to his daughter Frances in May 1846, he paints a wonderful picture of life beforehand: “Ockham is really in perfection; many of the rhododendrons (are) out and quantities to come; how I wish you were all here to enjoy this lovely house and a concert given gratis by the thrushes and nightingales.”
Amongst his many exciting discoveries, David highlights the letters sent from Vernon Lushington whilst staying with William Morris in Kelmscott, Oxford, and those from the Lushington family during time spent with Virginia Woolf’s relations at Talland House in Cornwall. However, with manuscripts penned by the likes of writers Thomas Hardy and Elizabeth Gaskell, the celebrated gardener William Robinson and the composer Sir Hubert Parry, the list goes on and on.
“Although the letters in the collection have been catalogued, you never know what you might still find,” observes Henrietta, who, encouraged by David, has plans to make a study of Kitty’s life. “Interestingly, you can usually tell what kind of a mood people were in; whether they were in a hurry and everything’s a scrawl, or if they were in a bit of a huff, or if it was a long, emotional love letter.
“David’s work on the archive will be an immense help to me; it’s invaluable that it’s all been preserved, and the Surrey History Centre is a wonderful place.”
So, having completed this mammoth piece of detective work, what’s next for David? Already in the pipeline is a new book on the Lushingtons in Cobham, with a foreword by Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes (his wife is another descendent!). And there’s more about Vernon Lushington left to unravel.
“I’m trying to track down a painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Arthur Hughes that’s mentioned in one of the diaries,” adds David. “It can also be seen in an interior photo of Pyports; but where is the original?”
It seems this family’s fascinating story continues; and, who knows, perhaps it will be the Lushingtons who are the next subject of a BBC drama series.
• Get in touch: Did your family have a connection to the Lushingtons? Perhaps one of your grand- parents was a neighbour, or a great aunt lived opposite? Write to us at the usual address or send an e-mail to us at email@example.com
• Lawyer Vernon Lushington (1832-1912) had connections to both the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood having introduced Sir Edward Burne-Jones to Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
• As secretary to Thomas Carlisle, Vernon had a crisis of faith, turning to Positivism and the ‘Religion of Humanity’ of the philosopher Auguste Comte.
• After marrying Jane Mowatt, the couple left Ockham Park for Wheeler’s Farm in Pyrford. They rented in Ripley, before settling at Pyports in Cobham.
• A county court judge, Vernon was a local benefactor, with Pyports also used to host village orchestra rehearsals, dances and sports days.
• Of their many venerable friends, Jane’s piano playing reportedly ‘soothed the furrowed brow’ of Charles Darwin.
• Vernon and Jane are buried in Pyrford churchyard.
• Vernon Lushington’s eldest daughter Kitty (1867- 1922) and her sisters Margaret and Susan grew up at Pyports listening to fairy tales read by family friend and author Mary de Morgan.
• After their mother’s sudden death, the girls, then aged 17, 15 and four, were taken under the wing of Julia Prinsep Stephen (whose first husband was a circuit judge with Vernon), one of whose own daughters became the writer Virginia Woolf.
• Kitty and newspaper editor Leopold Maxse got engaged at the Stephen family’s holiday home, Talland House in Cornwall.
• The couple went on to get married at St Andrew’s Church, Cobham, in 1890, and local tradesmen presented the newlyweds with a silver salt cellar.
• Having moved to London, Kitty became a society hostess. She died falling over the banisters at her South Kensington home.
• A baronet’s son, Stephen Lushington (1782-1873) gained fame as a barrister in the divorce of Queen Caroline before representing Lady Byron in arguably the most scandalous love triangle of the age.
• Stephen moved to Ockham Park in 1845 following the death of his wife Sarah; the house was owned by Lord Lovelace, Lady Byron’s son-in-law.
• As an MP for the Whig party, he campaigned for electoral reform, an end to the death penalty and for the abolition of the slave trade, which saw him publicly invite Ellen and William Craft to stay at his Surrey home.
• Other regular visitors included fellow social reformer FD Maurice and theologian and classical scholar Benjamin Jowett.
• Stephen is buried nearby at All Saints Church in Ockham.
Surrey History Centre cares for the county’s historic archives and is the local studies centre. Run by Surrey County Council, it is free to visit.
Where: 130 Goldsworth Road, Woking GU21 6ND. A 10-minute walk from Woking town centre, there is also free car parking available onsite.
When: Open Tuesday to Friday, 9.30am to 5pm, Wednesdays 10.15am to 5pm, Saturdays 9.30am to 4pm (closed on Sundays and public holidays).
How: A Surrey County Libraries ticket or proof of your ID and address is needed to access the collections and online resources. For more details on the records kept, see online: surreycc.gov.uk/heritage-culture-and-recreation/archives-and-history/surrey-history-centre