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Archive - Friday, 19 December 2003
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Castle of Shafto's lovelorn follower
We discovered in last week's Durham Memories that Brancepeth Castle was forfeited to the Crown following the rising of the northern earls in 1569.
It had been the great stronghold of the Nevilles who lived there for 400 years up until their involvement in an unsuccessful catholic rebellion.
With the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 the lands of the crown passed to the new monarch James I who gave Brancepeth and other territories to his Scottish favourite Robert Carr (or Ker), the Earl of Somerset. However Carr and his wife were implicated in a poisoning scandal and Brancepeth was confiscated. In 1633, the King's Commissioners sold Brancepeth to three buyers who sold the property three years later to Ralph Cole of Newcastle. Ralph's grandson a Durham City MP also called Ralph then sold the property to Sir Henry Belaysyse.
Sir Henry, who also became Durham's MP was succeeded at Brancepeth by his son William whose daughter and only heir was Bridget Belaysyse. Bridget reputedly fell in love with the Durham MP Mr Robert Shafto who resided at Whitworth Hall, two miles south of Brancepeth. Unfortunately, her love for him was unrequited and it is said that she died of a broken heart. Her ever-hopeful love was immortalised in the famous North East folk ballad, Bobby Shafto:
Bobby Shafto's Gone to Sea
Silver Buckles on his knee
He'll come back and marry me
Bonny Bobby Shafto
Bridget Bellaysyse succeeded to the Brancepeth estate in 1769 but in 1774 it was devised to the Earl Fauconberg and subsequently sold to John Tempest. The Tempests sold it to William Russell for £75,000 at the end of the eighteenth century.
William Russell of Newbottle was a Sunderland Banker, coal owner and one of the richest and most powerful men in the north. He was one of "the Grand Allies" a cartel of coal barons who dominated the region's eighteenth century coal trade.
Russell's son Matthew, the MP for Saltash, was reputedly the richest commoner in England and it was he who instigated the virtual rebuilding of Brancepeth Castle around 1817. Russell spent £80,000 a year for several years on the project, employing labourers from Brandon working under the guidance of a Scottish architect called Patterson. The notable architect, Anthony Salvin, also undertook restoration of the castle in the 1860s and 70s.
Matthew Russell was married to Elizabeth Tennyson, aunt of Lord Tennyson, the famous poet. Tennyson reputedly composed "Come into the Garden Maude" during a Brancepeth visit. Matthew was succeeded at Brancepeth by his son William who was yet another MP for Durham. William left no heirs and it passed to his sister, Emma Maria who in 1828 married Gustavus Frederick John James Hamilton the son and heir of Viscount Boyne.
Succeeding Viscount Boynes adopted the name Hamilton-Russell and continued to reside at the castle until the 1920s when heavy taxes and maintenance costs forced them to depart for Burwarton in Shropshire. During their residence at Brancepeth the Boynes saw the birth of the railways and a boom period for collieries, many of which were built on land leased from their estate.
By the beginning of the twentieth century the future of Brancepeth castle was uncertain. During World War One, part of the castle was converted into a military hospital where one hundred and twenty six patients from Newcastle General Hospital could convalesce here at any given time. By the end of the war it had cared for around 4000 soldiers. After the war the castle became the regimental headquarters for the Durham Light Infantry and a huge military camp comprised of over 100 huts was built south of the village during the Second World War. Brancepeth's history had come full circle with the castle reverting to its original military role.
The withdrawal of the DLI from the castle and its subsequent disbanding in the 1960s made the future of the castle once again uncertain. Several ideas were forwarded including the conversion of the castle into a private school, a nightclub or country club but nothing came of the plans. Interest was subdued and the agent in charge of selling the castle even considered advertising the property in Playboy. The locals of this quiet village without even a pub on its doorstep were highly concerned that the life of their village was about to change.
It was ironic that whilst properties in the village were expensive and highly sought nobody seemed to want the castle. After a brief tenancy by a London businessman, the castle eventually came to be occupied by a Sunderland glass firm as a research centre in 1966, but it was back on the market in the early 1970s. There were rumours that the castle would be purchased by Arabian oil sheikhs or that the American actor Telly Savalas, famous for his role as Kojak was about to move in after it was reported he would like to live in an English castle. Some witnesses claimed they had even seen Telly's limousine's parked up near the castle gates but the rumours were denied.
The eventual purchaser turned out to be Mrs Margaret Dobson, the fifty-year old head of a London publishing business who moved to Brancepeth in 1978. The castle became Mrs Dobson's family home and a headquarters for the business started by her late husband. Other parts of the 260 room castle were rented out to small businesses or students and in 1981 she set up the village post office in the castle gatehouse. Mrs Dobson and her family have brought new life and purpose to the old castle without destroying the quiet charm of the neighbouring village.
Durham Memories will return on Friday 2 2004 when we will explore Brancepeth village and the surrounding lands.
If you have memories of Durham, including old photos or stories of people and places you would like to share with The Northern Echo, write to David Simpson, Durham Memories, The Northern Echo, Priestgate, Darlington, DL1 1NF, e-mail david. simpson@ nne. co. uk or telephone (01325) 505098.