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The Curse of Frampton

Alan Chedzoy looks at the ill-fated Sheridans of Frampton Court

Some five miles north of Dorchester, passing travellers on the Crewkerne (A356) Road may notice Peacock Lodge at the entrance to the Frampton estate, once the home of the Sheridan family.
‘From Town’ or Frampton, runs along a fertile valley bottom, and was said to comprise over a thousand acres of prime agricultural land. Long the home of the Browne family, Frampton Court was built by Robert Browne in 1704, on the site of an ancient priory. In 1790, the park was laid out by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the house enlarged, and faced with Portland stone. But rumour had it that, at the expulsion of the monks by the command of Henry VIII, the last Benedictine had appeared at the Browne’s dinner table, and placed a curse on them. No first-born son would ever inherit the estate.

The Portico at Frampton Court, now believed to be ‘elsewhere in West Dorset’

Despite the Brownes presiding over Frampton for some 130 years, at no time did an elder son inherit, and the family simply died out. The property passed to a relative by marriage, Lt. General Sir Colquhoun Grant, a veteran of Waterloo. Sadly, he had already lost his only son, so that the heir to Frampton was Marcia, his 19 year-old daughter.
To his consternation, in 1835, Sir Colquhoun discovered that the girl was conducting a love affair with a certain Richard Brinsley Sheridan. This was not the famous author of The School for Scandal, but his grandson and namesake, a profligate, penniless, but charming man, ten years Marcia’s senior. Sir Colquhoun resolved to keep the girl close at Frampton, away from city temptations. One day, however, he was obliged to leave home to contest an election, and he left Marcia in the charge of a military comrade, Sir Robert Macfarlane. Meanwhile, she had contrived to inform Richard of the situation, and consequently he was able creep into Frampton Court, and make off with her. It was a Sheridan tradition. Both his father and grandfather had eloped with their wives. Aghast, Sir Robert went after the lovers but it was too late. They had been quickly married at the anvil in Gretna Green.
The affair became a national scandal but, true to the fashion of the Sheridan comedies, it all ended happily. Sir Colquhoun was soon reconciled to his daughter and her husband, and within a few months obligingly died, leaving Marcia the heir to Frampton. But as she was now married, the legal title passed to her husband, and so the Sheridans became the masters of Frampton.

Frampton House in 1930, shortly before its disposal

There were to be no more wild exploits from Richard, and he settled down at Frampton. The marriage seems to have been a happy one as witnessed by the fact that there were nine children, three girls and six boys. Popular with their tenants, he and Marcia carried out many useful schemes in the village, funding almshouses and a reading room. They also redesigned the house by turning it round so that what was the back became the front with ‘a pillared portico but no steps’. Richard also persuaded Brunel to dig a 700 yard tunnel for his new railway at Grimstone, so that the line should not spoil his view. The great engineer agreed that trains would always stop at the new Grimstone and Frampton station while the Sheridans remained at Frampton Court. It was Dr Beeching who finally closed it in the 1960s.
With Frampton money, Richard Brinsley was now enabled to fulfil his ambition of going into Whig (later Liberal) politics like his famous grandfather. He served as magistrate, High Sheriff, and later Deputy Lieutenant of Dorset. He became MP for Shaftesbury from 1845-1852, and, from 1852-1868, was MP for Dorchester. Frampton became a centre for Liberal politics, welcoming party grandees, though only once did it play a crucial part in national events. It was here at Easter 1835, that Richard’s sister, Mrs Caroline Norton, waited anxiously to learn whether her estranged husband, George, would bring
an action for ‘criminal conspiracy’ (adultery) against the then Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. It was a covert
attack intended to bring the government down. In the event, Norton lost the action and Melbourne’s
government survived.

A plan of Frampton after Capability Brown’s last alterations; this is how the Sheridans would have found Frampton

Immensely proud of his Sheridan ancestor, Richard made every effort to maintain a literary tradition at Frampton. He established a fine manuscript collection, and in the library hung Reynold’s portraits of R B Sheridan and his lovely wife. Guests included such luminaries as the American historian John Lothrop Motley, Tom Moore, William Makepeace Thackeray, Mary Shelley and William Barnes. Humane and civilised, talk at Frampton was one of high seriousness, devoted to the arts and public good.
The Sheridans had their heartaches. They outlived four of their children, including their eldest son, another Richard Brinsley. Marcia died in 1882, and Richard six years later. He had been squire of Frampton for fifty-three years. St. Mary’s, the parish church, contains many memorials to both the Browne and Sheridan families.
It was Algernon Thomas Brinsley who inherited the estate because, although only the sixth born, he had outlived his brothers. He was not a cultivated man like his father. An ex-naval officer, he occupied himself with shooting, fishing, and cricket. He married Mary Motley, and though they had five sons and a daughter, it seems that the marriage was not happy one. Of Mary, her sons said that ‘she never spoke a kind word or an untrue one’. Algernon was rumoured to have comforted himself with ‘the house– and other maids’. But when Mary died in 1918, he ‘continued to sleep in his wife’s dressing room, on a mingy servant’s iron bedstead’.

RB and AB Sheridan at a 1909 meet of the local hunt

Not a careful steward of either the estate or the family money, Algernon was soon making ends meet by selling off outlying cottages, and even valuable Sheridan manuscripts from the library. Increasingly eccentric, he had mania for cutting  the creepers on the house at the roots, ‘leaving dead branches to cling’.
Wilfred Sheridan, the surviving second son, was now the hope of the Sheridans. Unfortunately, however, his successful city career was ruined when his firm failed at the outset of the first world war. There was a desperate gallantry about him at this time, and though too old to be conscripted, he insisted on obtaining a commission in the Rifle Brigade. In the summer of 1915  his pregnant wife, Clare, joined him at Frampton, Both to spend his two week’s leave with him, and so that the next heir might be born there. Shortly afterwards, Wilfred was killed at the battle of Loos.
The heir to Frampton was an infant. Soon after he was born, Squire Algernon informed Clare that he could not afford to make her an allowance. So leaving Frampton with the heir, Richard (Dick) in her arms, she thereafter she lived a wandering life earning her living as a sculptor and newspaper reporter. Throughout the the 20s, she supplied gossip to the Daily Mail concerning such celebrities as Kipling, Lenin, Trotsky, Gandhi, Mussolini, her cousin, Winston Churchill, and the most famous person in the world at that time, Charlie Chaplin. Algernon and his wife considered her a vulgar and immoral woman, but she remained the mother of the heir.

The cover of the depressingly named ‘Demolition catalogue’ of 1932

Throughout his life, Clare Sheridan was terrified that the Frampton curse would fall upon her beloved son. She corresponded with a number of psychic ‘experts’, such as the poet, W.B. Yeats, hoping to find a solution. But in the end it was she herself who devised a plan to evade it. If Dick were not the heir, she argued, he would no longer be subject to the curse.
When the old Squire died in 1931, Frampton was losing money fast, and subject to swingeing death duties. Accordingly, the following year, Clare arrived back from Africa, and conferred with Wilfred’s three surviving brothers. As they were each to inherit portions, she needed their consent to sell. Having obtained their agreement, the estate was put in the hands of the auctioneers, Fox & Sons. Dick had had no say, because he was still a minor. Not obtaining a buyer for the entire property, the agents then disposed of it in sixteen lots, mainly to tenants. Only one acre was left unsold. Meanwhile, the house was demolished. No elder son had inherited Frampton throughout its entire history.
Dick paid one last visit there, to witness the demolition of the house where he had been born. He would certainly have visited the little plot he still owned down by the river. For Algernon had been buried here, so that ‘the rabbits could run over him’. As for Clare, she must have thought that she had cheated the curse, especially when Dick celebrated his twenty-first birthday in 1936. But four months later he died of appendicitis. Not disposing of Algernon’s acre may well have been her fatal mistake.

• Our thanks go to Doreen Smith of the historical society of Frampton for her assistance with the illustrations

picture credits

1.Historical Society of Frampton

2.Historical Society of Frampton

4.Historical Society of Frampton

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