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Libya to Lulworth

Herbert Weld never expected to inherit Lulworth Castle. When he did, he had to watch his inheritance go through many changes, including a disastrous fire. Alan J Miller tells his story.

Herbert Joseph Weld
Herbert Joseph Weld

On the afternoon of Thursday 29 August 1929, Herbert Joseph Weld sat in an armchair on the lawn in front of Lulworth Castle and watched as flames consumed the home which had been in his family since the 17th century. Early that morning, a fire had broken out in a linen room at the top of the north-east tower and rapidly spread. By 11 am the fire brigades of Dorchester, Weymouth, Swanage and Poole had arrived, but they could not contain the conflagration as the supply of water from a tank below the garden ran out and their efforts to bring sea water from the Cove failed. The Castle staff, estate workers, villagers, men from the local gunnery school, and even a troop of 36 Girl Guides who had been camping in the grounds, set about rescuing as many of the precious pictures, furniture and books from the state rooms as they could, but now nothing more could be done but watch as the floors collapsed and the flames roared through the interior.
Herbert Weld was then a man of 77 and as he sat there on that fateful day, he had never witnessed such a calamity during his long career as an explorer, archaeologist and big game hunter. In 1891, after an education at Stonyhurst (the Catholic school set up by the Welds in 1794) and Queen’s College, Oxford, he had led an expedition to the ruins of Persepolis in Persia, and as late as 1922, he travelled to Iraq and obtained the concession to excavate the ancient Kish site at Tell Aheimar with a team from Oxford University, recovering thousands of inscribed tablets now in the Ashmolean Museum. During the Boer War he had signed up as special correspondent for the Morning Post and his dispatches were printed alongside those of Winston Churchill. His work was backed by a scholarly knowledge of ancient texts and languages and in recognition of his work he was granted the honorary degree of Doctor of Literature by the University.

A photograph from 'a Daily Mirror aeroplane' of the fire at its height
A photograph from ‘a Daily Mirror aeroplane’ of the fire at its height

As a young man, Herbert had not been in the direct line of succession to the Lulworth Estates. He was the son of Thomas Weld Blundell of Ince Blundell in Lancashire, second son of Joseph Weld of Lulworth who was given the Ince Bllundell estate when his father inherited it in 1837 and added the name Blundell. A series of unforeseen circumstances gradually brought Herbert closer to becoming the master of Lulworth: two Weld brothers, Reginald and Humphrey, successive life-tenants, suffered mental health problems and neither married to produce an heir, and their other brother, Shireburn, also a bachelor, had died in 1915; so ended the direct line and the succession reverted to Charles Weld Blundell, Herbert’s elder brother. He had two sons but both died before him, Richard in 1916 and Louis in 1919, so by the latter date Herbert realised that on his brother’s death, which came in 1927, he would become the heir to the Lulworth Estate – not an unqualified gift as they were burdened by death duties.
A lifelong bachelor, in 1923 he surprised everyone by marrying at the age of 71 the 23-year-old Theodora McLaren-Morrison of a Protestant family, who was rumoured to have had some acting experience and was certainly a lively character. In anticipation of their future role, Herbert and his young wife took up a lease on the Castle for 21 years from 25 March 1924 at £446 p.a. It had not been lived in by the Welds for some years, but Herbert dropped the name Blundell by deed poll that year and they settled there to make it their home. But in December 1928 the first of a succession of sad events occurred when Theodora suddenly fell ill and died from peritonitis on Christmas Eve.
With the deaths of the two bachelor life-tenants, Reginald in 1923 and his brother Humphrey in 1928, the trustees of the estate were faced with massive death duties. After Humphrey died, Herbert Weld was now life-tenant and he decided to sell two valuable books: the early 14th-century Luttrell Psalter and the 15th-century Bedford Book of Hours, both of which had been in the possession of the family since the 18th century but had been on loan to the British Museum.
So began a remarkable series of events which he had not predicted. The Museum’s lawyers came up with a revelation that challenged his ownership of these books. The Lulworth estates had been settled by a Settlement of 1869 which entailed them on the male line by a life-tenancy which controlled the actual land, but by an old law the heirlooms, including furniture, pictures and books, went to the heir mentioned in the entail who first attained the age of 21. This, the lawyers maintained, would have been Richard Weld Blundell, Herbert’s nephew. This young man, born in 1887, had thus reached his majority in 1908 but, as mentioned above, had died in 1916 at the age of 29. He had married only the year before Mary Angela, the eldest daughter of Captain Jasper Mayne of Gidleigh Park, Devon, but she had married secondly in 1927 Alfred Noyes, the poet, and they lived at Hanover Terrace in London and had a house on the Isle of Wight.
Until alerted by the Museum, Mrs Noyes had no knowledge of her first husband’s right of inheritance but she then entered a claim to the heirlooms, including the two valuable books. The sale had to be cancelled three days before they came under the hammer and although Herbert Weld contested the claim through the High Court, he lost the case and the books were duly auctioned to the benefit of Mrs Noyes, the Psalter fetching £31,500 put up by an anonymous benefactor until the British Museum could raise this sum. She also laid claim to items of furniture and pictures which Herbert had to surrender, some of which were later bought back by the family.
After the fire, Herbert Weld made a statement which was printed in The Times on 14 August 1930 that the Castle would be re-built, but added that some years might elapse before the work could be carried out due to unjustified financial penalties imposed by successive governments on landed estates. He had in fact tried to install himself in the basement under the terrace, but the roof let in the rainwater and he stayed at first with Mrs Shipton at the Lodge at Bindon Abbey. This was too far from Lulworth, though, and later he leased a house called Achandra at West Lulworth from Lieutenant Colonel Clark.
Herbert Weld was by no means a flamboyant character but he felt that as lord of the manor he should maintain a certain lifestyle, yet as life-tenant he received only £500 a year from the estate. The estate accounts for the years 1930 to 1935 include a section called ‘The Establishment’, which financed what might be called his ‘perks’. These included the cost of running a Rolls Royce, its petrol, licence, repairs and insurance and the wages of a chauffeur. It also covered his bill for wining and dining at the Cove Hotel and sundry expenses such as his newspapers.
One further thing dogged Herbert Weld’s last years at Lulworth. As early as 1896, the War Office had its eye on parts of the Dorset heathland to use for military purposes. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 elevated the area to a major training establishment and Bovington Camp appeared on the map. But the advent of the tank completely changed its purpose and in 1923 the estate was obliged under the threat of a compulsory purchase to sell 442 acres of Wool Heath for £2500. Next the War Office made an application to purchase 973 acres of the coastline between Lulworth Cove and Arish Mell as a permanent gunnery school.
The taking of part of the heathland was resented but acceptable, but the taking of this area of outstanding natural beauty was not and it roused a storm of protest not only from the Weld Estate but from further afield. But opposition was overruled in the face of government arguments of the national interest and Herbert Weld was reluctantly forced into granting a five-year lease back-dated to 1 September 1924. The lease included the stipulations that there was to be no firing on Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays and that walkers would be given access to the paths up Bindon Hill when the range was not in use. Even when the initial lease was up in 1929, the War Office secured an extension and now hold a 99-year lease from 1937, which was recently re-negotiated and a new lease granted.
Herbert Weld never lived to see this as he died on 5 February 1935 after a very short illness and was buried in the chapel alongside the Castle. He would have been delighted to see the Castle restored with the help of English Heritage in the 1970s and the building of a new Weld family home, Lulworth Castle House, in 1977. His attitude to the changed role of the estate with its increased farming activity and its promotion as a tourist and holiday centre can only be surmised, but he would certainly not have been pleased with the booming of the guns on the now permanent ranges.

 A page from the Luttrell Psalter
A page from the Luttrell Psalter, showing the imaginative skill of the illustrator. Herbert Weld thought he owned the book but then found that he did not.

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