Three cheers for Sawbridge Drax
John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge Drax was labelled as the ‘The Wicked Squire’. Alan J Miller separates fact from fiction.
Published in January ’11
Along the A31, between Wimborne and Bere Regis is a brick wall, some three miles in length, which skirts the northern boundary of Charborough Park, the home of the Erle family for over four hundred years. It was built in 1841/42 – or rather paid for – by John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge, a man to whom it is fair to say, history has not been terribly kind. The Erles had a rather unusual history as, for several generations, they produced no surviving male heir and thus each generation’s eldest daughter became a much sought-after heiress. In 1720, Elizabeth Erle married Henry Drax, who added his name to that of the family. Their son, Edward Erle Drax, had a daughter, Sarah Frances, who married Richard Grosvenor who added that name also. The offspring of this union, Jane Frances, was ultimately the next heiress, and it was she whom John Samuel Sawbridge married in 1827. Now this poor chap has been labelled as ‘The Wicked Squire’, described as an eccentric who locked up his daughters, lavishly rehearsed his own funeral and built himself a huge mausoleum in which to be buried. How much, if any, of this is true?
Let us start with the accusation that John Samuel married the heiress for her money. In fact, the Sawbridges were a wealthy landed family in their own right with a large estate at Olantigh near Wye in Kent, graced by a magnificent mansion called Olantigh Towers. Moreover Jane Frances was not the heiress when they married, she had a brother Richard – an eligible bachelor of thirty – who died the year after the marriage. John Samuel has also been accused of mortgaging his wife’s property to buy an estate of his own at Holnest in North Dorset. Again not true. He bought Holnest from the widow of Mark Davis in 1826 – a year before he married Jane Frances. There was admittedly an unusual feature about their marriage, which was the difference in their ages: Jane being thirty-nine and John Samuel twenty-seven. It has been cruelly suggested that she was on the shelf and nobody else would marry her.
The marriage to Jane Frances, in fine Erle tradition, produced two daughters: Maria Caroline and Sarah Charlotte, in 1828 and 1829 respectively, whom John Samuel has been accused of imprisoning to prevent them marrying. In truth he was merely trying to protect them from adventurous, avaricious suitors. He was devoted to his wife and suffered great grief when she died in 1853. The name ‘Crazy Jane’ has been applied to her, indicating a certain wildness or mental imbalance, but this is most unfair and, along with much of the other denigration, comes from the pen of a writer named Ella Panton, who wrote a vicious little book in 1908 about the families in the Wareham and south-east area of Dorset. This book was frankly libellous and she had to withdraw it in 1909 in the face of legal proceedings. She used the term Wicked Squire, describing (but not naming John Samuel) as ‘an old man who looked as evil as Mephistopheles and who had revolting manners and language’. Her assertion that John Samuel kept a mistress in each of the lodge-houses was totally fanciful and malicious.
As to John Samuel’s career as a Member of Parliament, he was elected as MP for Wareham in 1841 and was to serve with short breaks until 1880. There are two versions of the old chestnut about him being the silent member who never spoke in the House. The first is that the only time he opened his mouth it was to ask if a window could be closed, and the second is that the Speaker ordered the windows to be opened after he had spoken to let out the hot air. What are we to believe? Whilst it seems hard to believe that a man who was so vociferous on the hunting field could sit silently in the Commons when such matters as land taxation were under debate, Hansard records the total contribution in terms of speeches by John Erle Drax (or John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge) as… zero. By way of contrast, Benjamin Disraeli – admittedly a rather more careerist politician who served nearly twice as long as an MP – is recorded having made 3532 speeches. When John Samuel lost the Wareham seat in 1880 he is said to have left the town cursing the inhabitants and vowing never to return. One cannot blame him for a small display of pique at the ingratitude of the townspeople he had served for so many years. They seemed to forget that he had repeatedly fought to defend Wareham from disenfranchisement in the years following the 1832 Reform Act.
John Samuel was a generous man who believed in doing things in style. When he was appointed High Sheriff of the county in 1840 he put on a grand reception for the circuit judges the like of which Dorchester had never before seen. As Master of the Blackmore Vale Hunt, he disdained the usual scarlet outfit and fitted out his men with canary coloured coats with blue collars bound in gold and cream silk breeches. To complete the effect the whole entourage was mounted on grey horses. Some other Dorset masters, it is fair to say, thought this a little ostentatious.
He was also a conscientious guardian of the Charborough estate – although it always belonged to his wife or his daughter – doing much to enlarge and embellish it. The famous wall was built at his expense when he promoted the construction of the turnpike road from Wimborne to Puddletown in 1840, and he was instrumental in steering the legislation through Parliament. The ensuing work of brick-making, building and road construction provided much-needed local employment at a time of agricultural depression.
He refurbished parts of the mansion house, constructing a picture gallery and an armoury, which he filled with a large collection of weapons. He was a great collector of old wood-carvings and placed an altarpiece from a church in Antwerp and a fine set of Renaissance choir stalls in the chapel of the house. The picture gallery has a dado made up of an astonishing variety of early Tudor carved panels that he had collected. He was also an able landscape gardener, creating the High Wood plantation of specimen trees and he planted extensively throughout the estate. When the pagoda-like tower, built by Edward Drax in 1790, was damaged by lightning in 1838, he had it rebuilt – adding 40ft to take it up to 120ft, which makes it the wonderful landmark it is today.
The subject of building brings us to the question of his funeral and the mausoleum he built in Holnest churchyard. Yes, he did rehearse his own funeral but, on reflection, it appears to be a sensible forethought in the spirit of the British tradition of doing such things well. Lots of people rehearse their weddings, so why the fuss that John Samuel should have his coffin carried by the estate workers to see they got it right. As for the story that he stood up for this, maintaining his balance in a moving coffin, he was an enfeebled man in his eighties at the time – so the story lacks verisimilitude. When the time actually came in January 1887, the funeral went off very well; a great crowd saw him off, just as he would have wished. The mausoleum had been built fifteen years earlier by Italian workmen, a solid edifice with one-foot-thick stone walls and an arched roof supported by great steel girders. Lucinda Lambton would have enthused over it, but unfortunately John Samuel left no money for its upkeep and, as the years went by, it fell into disrepair and the Sawbridge family obtained a special faculty from the bishop to have it demolished. The vast coffin of oak and lead containing John Samuel’s remains was rather unceremoniously reburied under a white marble slab.
There is no doubt that villains make better reading than angels; look what Shakespeare did to Richard III. But like that much-maligned monarch, has not the time come to rehabilitate John Samuel? At the very least, we should be thankful for the majestic splendour of the Stag and Lion Gates that add a touch of style to that section of the A31 that will never be achieved by any modern motorway engineer. Three cheers for Sawbridge Drax!