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Sturminster Newton and the Pitt-Rivers family

The manor house at Hinton St Mary has for four centuries been the property of the Pitt-Rivers family and their predecessors, and the heart of an estate of major importance to the surrounding area. John Newth explores its background.

There is a story – possibly apocryphal but one of those tales which, if it is not true, ought to be – of Anthony Pitt-Rivers being accosted in the Market Place by a distinguished ex-soldier who had retired to Sturminster Newton and who did not suffer from a lack of belief in his own worth. The military man complained bitterly that he was finding it difficult to be accepted by the local community and asked brusquely how long it would take for the people of Sturminster Newton to recognise his obvious talents. ‘My family found that the first 150 years were the worst,’ murmured Anthony in reply.

The gardens and house at Hinton St Mary in Edwardian times. www.flickr.com/photos/alwyn_ladell/

The manor house at Hinton St Mary, just north of Sturminster Newton, has for four centuries been the property of the Pitt and Pitt-Rivers families, and is the heart of an estate of major importance to the surrounding area. The story begins with two wayward sons called William, each of whom played a part in the arrival of the Pitt family at Hinton St Mary and their assumption of an estate that included most of what is now the neighbouring town of Sturminster Newton.
The first was William Stourton, son of the 7th Lord Stourton, whose seat was at Stourhead. Lord Stourton had been given eight manors, including Hinton, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1535, that event marking the end of the Shaftesbury Abbey lay brothers’ settlement that had previously occupied the site on which the manor house at Hinton now stands. William Stourton, despite being Lord Lieutenant of Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset, was so dissolute and extravagant that he earned the nickname, ‘the wicked nobleman’. He swore vengeance on the steward of the Stourton estate, who was trying to protect it from William’s worst excesses. The poor man was forced to seek sanctuary in Stourton church, from where he was dragged by William and four of his servants and killed on the very steps of the church. William was found guilty of murder and exercised the right of a nobleman to be hanged by a silken rope when he was executed at Salisbury in 1556.

The entrance to the Hinton St Mary estate. www.flickr.com/photos/alwyn_ladell/

The manor and estate were taken away from the Stourtons and granted to the Freke family. Their fortunes were founded by Robert Freke, Auditor and Teller of the Exchequer under Henry VIII. Such posts provided ample opportunities for wealth and advancement, and Robert acquired substantial holdings of land throughout. A descendant, William Freke, was born in 1662 and moved to Hinton St Mary in 1696. He took an interest in theology and published a book giving his views on the Trinity that caused an uproar. The book was burnt by the public hangman, while William Freke was fined £500 (the equivalent of at least £50,000 today) and forced to recant publicly outside Westminster Hall. As a result, he was disinherited by his father, who left all the Freke estates to his daughter-in-law and her younger sister. The older sister died young so the younger, Lucy, inherited. She was married to George Pitt and so it was that her son, also George Pitt, came into the Freke estates, including Hinton St Mary and Cranborne Chase, early in the 18th century.

The manor house with the church partially hidden to the left in the trees. www.flickr.com/photos/alwyn_ladell/

The Pitts themselves were a family very much on the rise, their story reflecting in some respects that of the Frekes. Sir William Pitt had been Principal Officer in the Exchequer under Elizabeth I and Comptroller of the Household for James I and Charles I. Becoming MP for Wareham, he bought land throughout Dorset and Hampshire, including Stratfield Saye, which the family retained until it was sold to the Crown following the battle of Waterloo and presented to the Duke of Wellington in gratitude for his victory.
Although William Freke had been debarred from inheriting Hinton, he and his descendants continued to live there as tenants until 1799, apparently enjoying a cordial relationship with the Pitt family, their landlords. Part of the wider Pitt land holdings, the whole Hinton estate at that time comprised some 8000 acres of the Blackmore Vale and after the Frekes, the house became in effect the estate office. The main family residence was now Rushmore, near Tollard Royal, which had been built in 1776 as a hunting lodge but which in the 1880s formed the base for General Augustus Pitt-Rivers’s famous archaeological investigations on Cranborne Chase.
The Rivers part of the surname was added comparatively late. A 17th-century Pitt was married to the daughter of the 2nd Earl Rivers. The title died out, but was revived by a later Pitt when he was raised to the peerage with a barony in 1776. Under the terms of the will made by his son, who died a bachelor, Pitt-Rivers was the name that had to be taken as a condition of inheriting the estate. For many years there was a pub in Sturminster Newton called the Rivers Arms, whose name lives on in the cottages which stand on its former site.

A typical country house scene at Hinton St Mary

Hinton St Mary became a family home again in 1927 when George Pitt-Rivers, the General’s grandson, moved there, having decided not to live at Rushmore. Today George’s son, Anthony, lives in the manor and is responsible for the estate. Although reduced from the original 8000 acres, it still includes much of Sturminster Newton and surrounding villages. Anthony Pitt-Rivers has served on both North Dorset DC and Dorset CC and his wife, Valerie, is currently the county’s Lord Lieutenant.
The family and the management of the estate do not involve themselves much in the detail of everyday life in Sturminster Newton but are well thought of for being receptive to ways in which as landowners they can help in its development. For example, the recreation ground was leased to the town as a war memorial following World War I, but the estate has recently given the freehold to the Town Council. A family charitable trust provides important support to selected local causes. The house and its tithe barn – a survival from its time as a lay brothers’ settlement – are used for charity events, and the estate has a good reputation for maintaining a strong relationship with the families of former tenants. Anthony Pitt-Rivers is the patron of the living of St Mary’s, Sturminster Newton but, curiously, not of  St Peter’s, Hinton St Mary, right next door to the manor house; it was an out-chapel of Iwerne Minster and its patron is the Rector of the Iwerne Valley benefice.

Sturminster Mill, one of three in the Pitt-Rivers' family possession. bobsmallphotograpy.co.uk

A practical example of the estate’s involvement with the town is its mills. The estate owns three mills near Sturminster Newton: Fiddleford, Sturminster and Cutt. The last of these was burnt down by vandals in 2003 and remains derelict despite various attempts to find a future for it. Sturminster Mill might have become similarly disused but was preserved as a working mill by various enthusiasts and eventually came under the care of Sturminster Newton Museum, which changed its name to the Sturminster Museum and Mill Society, of which Anthony Pitt-Rivers is President. The estate lets the mill to the society at a peppercorn rent and also allows it limited cannibalisation of the mill at Fiddleford, which is of a similar design.
With pressure to find land for development, the estate has an important part to play in shaping the future face of Sturminster Newton. It forms a sort of unofficial green belt to the north of the town which, with the Stour to the west and south, limits the opportunities for unwelcome urban sprawl. Some might say that such an estate, with its connotations of feudalism, is an anachronism in the 21st century, but not only is it a modern, efficient farming and property business, it continues to be
of quiet but effective benefit to the Sturminster Newton area.

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