WILLIAM LEIGH 1802-73
Woodchester Mansion was built by William Leigh, a wealthy Catholic convert who was born in Duke Street, Liverpool, in 1802. His father, also called William Leigh, was a Liverpool merchant who traded principally in groceries, Cheshire salt and tobacco. He married Catherine Robinson, the daughter of another merchant, in 1798. William Leigh senior was a quiet and hard working man who was born at Lymm in Cheshire in 1754, the second of eight sons. His ancestors appeared to have been yeoman farmers in Lymm for some generations. By 1800 there were at least four members of the family trading in Liverpool, with a network of partnerships between them. Leigh senior prospered, and acquired the Roby Hall estate at Huyton on the outskirts of Liverpool in addition to his substantial Georgian town house in Duke Street. He seems to have retired about 1812, and when he died in January 1815 he left about £10,000 in Liverpool, the Roby Hall estate, and £100,000 in London banks. The majority of this fortune – the money alone being worth some £6 to £10 million at today’s values – went to his thirteen year old son William. Catherine Leigh received £1200 a year for life and lived with her son until her death in 1840.
William Leigh senior left instructions in his will regarding his son’s education. He said “I wish my Son to have a liberal allowance for his Maintenance and Education and his Education to be such as to fit him for the Society of those with whom his ample fortune will afford him the means of associating.” So young William was sent to Eton and matriculated at Oxford in 1819. He attended Brasenose College but left in 1822 without taking a degree. Next he travelled in Europe with his mother for a few years before marrying Caroline Cotterell at Mansell Gamage in Herefordshire on 15th April 1828. Caroline, born in 1807, was the fifth daughter of Sir John Geers Cotterell, Bt. and his late wife Frances. She provided the wealthy William Leigh with connections to the landed gentry, and in return their marriage settlement promised her £1000pa in the event of William’s death. At the time of the marriage William was recorded as a resident of Huyton in Liverpool. However, he must have sold Roby Hall in 1828/9, for by the time their first child was born in September 1829 the couple owned Little Aston Hall in Staffordshire.
William and Caroline Leigh’s three children. From L to R: William (Willie)1829-1906,
Caroline Blanche (Blanche) 1830-52 and Beatrice Catherine (Beatrice) 1834-67
The child was a son, called simply William – like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather. To avoid confusion this William was known in the family as Willie. He was followed by a daughter, Caroline Blanche, born in December 1830, a second daughter, Beatrice Catherine in August 1834, and a second son, James Henry, in October 1835. James died at the age of eight months in 1836 and there were no more children. All the children were baptized into the Anglican Church. Indeed William Leigh funded improvements to the church of St Peter at Stonnall near Shenstone, close to little Aston Hall. He is said to have always taken his religion seriously, and with the arrival of his family he ensured that everyone attended prayers regularly. Leigh also supported church charities such as the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Records show that by 1835 he had invested £150,000 in the Little Aston Hall estate, and in 1837 he put money in the embryonic colony of South Australia. He bought land in the city of Adelaide and the surrounding countryside.
In the mid 1830s Leigh’s attention to religion sharpened and he developed a serious interest in the burgeoning religious revival known as the Oxford Movement (or Tractarianism). This started in the 1830s, involved a resurgence of Catholic traditions, and led to the development of the present day Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England. Prominent members included John Keble, John Henry Newman, Edward Pusey, Richard Froude and Robert Wilberforce. The Oxford Movement caused much controversy in the Church at the time, and its influence and ideas caused some of the followers to convert to Roman Catholicism. Newman is the most well known of these, but his conversion in 1845 was preceded by William Leigh’s on March 10th 1844. Leigh was received into the Roman Church by the Rev Dr Henry Weedall at Leamington. By this time he had moved away from Little Aston Hall, and had commenced selling the estate. His grand-daughter said that his neighbours in Staffordshire “cold shouldered” him on his conversion – at this time it was felt that it was “not quite the done thing” for an English gentleman to become a Catholic. Before his conversion William Leigh had become acquainted with a charismatic Catholic monk called Father Dominic Barberi, who was the leader of a group of Passionists. These were a missionary order whose aim was to increase the number of Catholics in England. It was Father Dominic – now Blessed Dominic, he was beatified in 1963 – who received Newman into the Catholic Church in 1845.
William Leigh embraced his new religion with fervour, and sought a new estate where he could develop a Catholic community. One of the advantages of Woodchester was that there was no Catholic Church within a circle of circumference a hundred miles centred on the estate. On arrival at Woodchester the Leigh family settled into “The Cottage”, an extended gardener’s house on the lip of the Woodchester valley towards Nympsfield, and William Leigh started drawing up plans for a Catholic Church at South Woodchester. He had promised his friend Father Dominic that he would build him a church and a monastery to further his missionary efforts. This was done in thanksgiving for the gift of William Leigh’s new Catholic faith. Leigh’s initial consultation with Augustus Pugin was abandoned when Pugin declined the commission, and he turned to the Bristol architect Charles Francis Hansom – probably with Pugin’s plans in hand, as Hansom’s finished church bears a marked similarity to Pugin’s concept. The Church of the Annunciation at Woodchester was consecrated in October 1849, and it cost William Leigh some £9000.
At this point Leigh’s plans were upset, for Father Dominic Barberi had died unexpectedly in August 1849, and the Passionist monks decided not to stay at Woodchester. However, Leigh managed to persuade the Dominicans to replace them, and in 1851 the foundation stone of the new Dominican monastery and novice house was laid. This was completed by August 1853, and Charles Hansom was again the architect. Leigh funded part of the cost, and the agreement with the Dominicans included a clause that one of the monks would act as private chaplain to the Leigh family. It is said that Leigh expended about another £10,000 on the monastery. His religious faith was such that he had one object in life, simply to do the will of God, and according to the eulogy at his funeral, he “scarcely cared to know what this work had cost him”. Leigh’s generosity led to the establishment of Woodchester as a vital centre of the Dominican Order, with a significant influence on Catholicism in and beyond nineteenth century England. After the monastery was finished William Leigh turned his attention to the building of Woodchester Mansion.
Leigh’s wife and children had also become Catholics, and his elder daughter Blanche was a particularly ardent believer. The girls and their mother participated in the life of the church and embroidered vestments for it. Unfortunately Blanche developed TB and died from the disease at the age of 21 in September 1852. She was said to have caught a cold while painting the Stations of the Cross on the walls of the new church, and at the time this was blamed for the development of her fatal illness. Her faith was extremely strong, and although her final days were very painful, she looked forward to going to heaven. After her death her sister Beatrice is said to have dedicated her life to supporting the Catholic mission which William Leigh had established in the village of Nympsfield. Another invalid who lived at “The Cottage” in Woodchester Park in the 1850s was Archbishop Francis Nicholson, the Bishop of Corfu. He had suffered a stroke and was taken in and cared for by the Leigh family, living with them until his death in 1855. William Leigh was a kind, courteous and charitable man, who wished to live for God. He was very sincere in carrying out his religious duties and a diligent reader of the Scriptures and religious books.
From about 1855 onwards Woodchester Mansion was under construction. William Leigh’s finances were by this time stretched, largely due to his generosity to the Catholic Church, and progress was slow. The workforce was small and used for building work and repairs on the whole estate as well as the Mansion. Surviving letters show that William Leigh had a difficult relationship with his son, Willie, who did not appear to spend much time at Woodchester in the 1850s. In 1859 Willie married a young lady called Ada Jarrett, and they had six children, one of whom died in infancy. Between 1862 and 1867 Willie and Ada lived abroad, in France and Italy. In May 1867 William and Caroline Leigh’s younger daughter Beatrice died, also from TB. Further tragedy struck the Leigh family in February 1871, when Ada Leigh died, ten days after the birth of her sixth child.
During the 1860s William Leigh’s health was declining. According to a distant family member, writing some 120 years later, Leigh suffered from a bad chest and heart problems. His doctor advised him that the lakes in the Woodchester valley made the air damp, and if he lived in the Mansion he might well suffer from pneumonia which could be fatal. Leigh’s poor health, combined with the difficult finances and the family tragedies, meant that the impetus to complete the Mansion was lacking. In addition, the architect, Benjamin Bucknall, had by now built up a successful practice and was based in Swansea. He was not on site to superintend and push forward the work on the house. So the construction of the Mansion gradually came to a halt, and it was unfinished when William Leigh died in January 1873 at the age of 71. He is said to have spent about £20,000 on building the house.
Leigh was buried in the family vault at the Church of the Annunciation in Woodchester on 10th January 1873. The funeral service was held with the full Catholic ritual, including a sung requiem, and the church was draped in black. William Leigh was a great admirer of the Roman ritual, and one of the reasons the Passionists left Woodchester over twenty years earlier was his desire for a solemn High Mass every Sunday. He also loved plainsong. His funeral service was attended by the Dominican monks, conducted by the Bishop of Clifton, and the eulogy was given by Leigh’s friend, Bishop Ullathorne. There was a large congregation, including the leading residents of the neighbourhood and many of Leigh’s tenants. Bishop Ullathorne outlined Leigh’s life, and emphasised his kindness to the poor and generosity to the church. He described him as “orderly and accurate”, and “he loved perfection” and “actively superintended” everything he undertook. A contemporary newspaper account of the funeral described how William Leigh “fondly devoted himself” to the construction of the Mansion. It seems likely that his perfectionism and tendency to get involved with the work may have contributed to its slow progress.
Although buried in the family vault in the crypt, William Leigh is commemorated with an alabaster effigy in the chapel of the forty martyrs in the Catholic Church at Woodchester. The chapel commemorates the Leighs and has memorials to family members. On his death Leigh left about £9000, plus the Woodchester estate. His son Willie was left a life interest in the estate, which at this time was mortgaged for £10,000. The estate was entailed to Willie’s eldest son, and the will also included provision for Willie’s younger children to receive £5000 each when they came of age. Willie and his family moved to “The Cottage”, and the widowed Mrs Caroline Leigh went to live in Chester Hill House at Woodchester. She died in 1878, aged 71, and the accounts of her funeral show her to have been a well liked, kind, generous and sympathetic person, someone who did much good in a quiet, unassuming, “behind the scenes” way. She was also prepared to forgo the comforts of a large house and luxurious lifestyle so the Church could benefit from her late husband’s money. Overall Caroline Leigh appears to have had a warmer personality than her husband and was well loved by the small circle who knew her.