Sunday, 18 September 2016


It was never going to work out between me and Wallington. I knew we were doomed from the minute I realised it had once been the home of Charles Edward Trevelyan, the Trevelyan mentioned in the Irish folk song, The Fields of Athenry. 

But before I get on to that, I'm going to start by focusing on Wallington itself, because it's a lovely house. 


Here are a few factoids:

  • Wallington was owned by the Fenwicks from the 15th century - they were known for being quite fierce and doing frequent battle with the Scots during various Border skirmishes
  • Sir John Fenwick, a favourite of Charles II, was wildly extravagant and had to sell Wallington to Sir William Blackett, a wealthy mine owner, in 1688
  • Sir William built the house that we see today 
  • His son, also William, left the place to his nephew, Walter Calverley, on the condition that Walter a) changed his name to Blackett and b) married William's illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth
  • Walter Calverley Blackett died in 1777 and left the place to his nephew, Sir John Trevelyan
  • The Trevelyans were originally from Cornwall, as the name suggests, and for a long time they retained their estates at opposite ends of the country

The Central Hall is very impressive - it was built in 1853 by covering the original open courtyard that the house was built around. The walls are covered in paintings of Northumbrian history, including Bede, Grace Darling, St Cuthbert (of Lindisfarne fame), the Vikings, and Alan Shearer (I might be joking about the last one).

The Drawing Room gives you an example of the warmth of the house - it felt quite homely:

But let me come back to Charles Edward Trevelyan. He inherited Wallington in 1879. It was left to him by his cousin, Sir Walter Calverley Trevelyan - Sir Walter was close to Charles' son, George Otto Trevelyan, and that's who Walter had in mind as his eventual successor.

I was doing my usual quick read-up on Wikipedia before I went to Wallington when I noticed this paragraph about Charles Edward:

Trevelyan is referred to in the modern Irish folk song "The Fields of Athenry" about the Great Irish Famine: "Michael, they have taken you away / for you stole Trevelyan's corn / so the young might see the morn / now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay." Because of Trevelyan's policies, the Irish consider him one of the most detested figures in their history, along with Oliver Cromwell, who conquered the country in the 17th century.

Charles Edward Trevelyan
Charles Edward Trevelyan -  in  the words of the Arctic Monkeys,
perhaps vampire is a bit strong but...
I was stunned. I'm half-Irish and although I'm normally pragmatic about history and our incapacity to change the past, I knew that this visit would be different - it was potentially the answer to the question of why 25% of the Irish population had either died or emigrated between 1846 and 1850.

So I bought the book A Very British Family: The Trevelyans and Their World to get myself fully up to speed. It was written by BBC journalist Laura Trevelyan, the great-great-great granddaughter of CET himself. And now I can tell you about him:
  • Charles Edward Trevelyan was born in 1807
  • He joined the civil service where he was a zealous reformer - he blew the whistle on his superior in India for corruption, and he eventually overhauled the way that the Civil Service recruited its staff - competitive exams replaced the usual 'jobs for toffs' arrangement
  • In 1846, a Relief Commission was created in response to the growing crisis in Ireland, where a potato blight was destroying the population's main source of food - the Commission bought in Indian corn, which was being sold cheaply to those in need
  • The head of the Relief Commission was Charles Edward. However, he had a very strange way of relieving things; on being told that the corn was being bought up too quickly from the depots, and that it wouldn't last until the next potato crop in September, he closed the depots. 
  • In July 1846, word reached London that the September potato crop had also been blighted and further disaster loomed. Charles's response? He closed the Relief Commission. In his own words "The only way to prevent people from becoming habitually dependent on government is to bring operations to a close. The uncertainty about the new crop makes it more necessary."
  • In 1847 the potato crop succeeded, but so little had been planted by starving people during a terrible winter that it wasn't enough. In 1848 the crop failed again as badly as before. This time there were no depots or relief commissions - the Poor Law was all that was left.
  • In April 1848 - ie in the middle of soup kitchens being shut down in Ireland while a total of one million people starved to death in a part of the United Kingdom less than 500 miles from London - he was made Sir Charles Trevelyan and awarded £2500. He paid it back following an outcry.
Nearly all of the above comes from Laura Trevelyan's book. She argues that Charles Edward has been personally vilified to an unfair extent and that he cared a lot more than is apparent from some of his more heartless letters, but even so - even she admits that at best he was guilty of a laissez-faire attitude, prevalent among the entire governing class, that people should be self-reliant, when those people had absolutely nothing to rely on.

By the way, you won't find any of this in the Wallington guide book. It says; "He visited Ireland and showed great sympathy for the starving, organising relief...with total integrity. He has been attacked, not always justly, for not having done more to help the victims of the Famine." So make your own mind up about that.

Anyway. The man who believed in people standing on their own two feet, who fought against nepotism in the civil service, ended up returning to India where he conveniently forgot all of his principles and got his son a job as his secretary. 

I really do recommend Laura's book, by the way. It's very well written and covers how the other Trevelyans that followed CET were an interesting bunch that occasionally shared his hypocrisy. His grandson, Charles Phillips Trevelyan, decided that Wallington belonged in public ownership and handed it over to the National Trust - but not until he was dead. He continued to live the landed life and decided that his children would be the ones to make the sacrifice. He also had an affair with his secretary and fathered a child with her when he was 72, utterly humiliating his poor wife.

But here's something I love about the Trevelyans; I absolutely love their coat of arms. It's basically a horse having a fabulous time at the seaside: 

And I'll tell you something else I loved - THE WALLINGTON SCONE. This was our fourth NT scone of the day, following George Stephenson's Birthplace, Seaton Delaval, and Washington Old Hall, and it was the best one by far. It was light and tasty and well worth battling a few wasps.

Wallington scone

So I recommend Wallington, for its scone and its friendly staff, and I recommend Laura Trevelyan's book as well - it's a fascinating and very honest insight. 

Wallington: 5 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Charles Edward Trevelyan: 0 out of 5

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