Iwerne Minster – the Titanic connection
James Ismay, a director of the White Star Line, owners of the Titanic, was for more than twenty years the benevolent squire of Iwerne Minster. Tony Burton-Page explores the link between a small Dorset village and the world’s most infamous shipping disaster.
Published in July ’12
It would seem that there is little to connect Iwerne Minster with the world of ships and the sea, despite the assurance of a local inhabitant that ‘Iwerne’ was actually an acronym for ‘Inland Waters Ever Running Never Ending’ – delightfully apposite but, alas, totally unconfirmed.
However, an examination of the history of this Blackmore Vale hamlet on the edge of Cranborne Chase reveals that the ‘lord of the manor’ for the first quarter of the 20th century was a member of the Ismay family. The Ismays had run the White Star Line since 1869 – the same White Star Line which was the proud father of the Titanic. James Hainsworth Ismay was the second son of Thomas Henry Ismay, a highly successful shipbroker, and he bought the Iwerne estate from Baron Wolverton in 1908.
Thomas Ismay took over the White Star Line in 1867, aged only thirty, taking it from the brink of ruin to a period of great prosperity – and from sail to steam. In a short time, its North Atlantic services had become the standard against which all other passenger services were measured. Thomas Ismay’s two elder sons, Bruce and James, became partners in the firm in 1891, and a year later Thomas retired. James was never particularly interested in shipping, to the disappointment of his father, whose favourite son he reputedly was. A third son, Charles, had even less interest in the family business, being obsessed by horse racing – his horse Craganour actually won the 1913 Derby, but was disqualified. Thomas Ismay died in 1899 and, when the financial giant J P Morgan took over the White Star Line in 1902, James took the opportunity to bid farewell to the shipping world and sell his share. His brother Bruce remained as White Star’s managing director and chairman until 1913, the year after Titanic met its end, although he had actually decided to resign some time before this.
James was now free to devote his life to his real passion: farming. Born in 1867, he had been educated at Harrow and Oxford before joining the family firm. To recover from a subsequent breakdown of his health, he went on a long sea voyage touring the British Empire, during which he studied with increasing fascination the various methods of agriculture he witnessed. The Iwerne estate came up for sale in 1904 and James eventually bought it four years later. It was a long way from the family home in Dawpool, a village on the Wirral peninsula in Cheshire within easy reach of White Star headquarters in Liverpool: perhaps news of the sale was slow to travel north.
The new home was Iwerne House, a mansion which the previous owner, George Glyn, 2nd Baron Wolverton, had commissioned from Alfred Waterhouse, architect of the Natural History Museum, in 1878. The only alteration Ismay made was to demolish the conservatory and replace it with a Tudor-style billiard room. But his alterations to the village over the next decades were far more significant.
He started by consulting J Francis Doyle, the Liverpool-based architect who had designed Albion House (as the White Star headquarters were known) in collaboration with Norman Shaw, with whom he had worked on the Dawpool house. Doyle designed a large complex of farm buildings on the land to the east of the main house, many of them timber-framed and all in a style sympathetic to a rural village. They are as fresh today as they were when they were completed in 1910, and the complex is still known as Home Farm.
He then turned his attention to the actual business of farming, determined to make his 400-acre farm work economically for the benefit of the whole area. He refused to be bound by local agricultural custom and experimented with different methods in every department: the Museum of English Rural Life speaks of him as having ‘drastically modified traditional regional practice’. He even adopted a novel system of detailed analytical accounting, based on the individual field. He was confident enough of his system to have three years’ worth of accounts published by the Oxford University Press in 1924.
Over the next few years Ismay’s farming methods became well known; articles on the subject appeared in Country Life. He earned a wide reputation as a breeder of Dairy Shorthorn cattle, pigs and chickens. For many years he owned one of the most successful flocks of Hampshire Down sheep, but it made way to provide more space for the development of his experiments in pig and cattle breeding.
But Ismay was just as attentive to his human flock. To him, his position as lord of the manor entailed a duty to his community, and it was a duty he embraced willingly and cheerfully. He became known as a thoroughly benevolent landlord, repairing buildings whenever necessary and providing new ones if required. During his time as squire of Iwerne Minster, he gave the village a social club and a shop, started a bacon factory, underwrote fruit-growing and jam-making by the villagers, and paid for a village nurse and surgery. He instilled a sense of community by selecting red as the estate colour: he supplied red roller blinds to estate houses and got the village boys to wear red jumpers with a blue band and the girls to wear Little Red Riding Hood cloaks.
The village could hardly have asked for a better person to lead them through the turbulence of World War 1. He was personally too old to be called up for active service, but he joined the 1/1st South-Western Mounted Brigade with an armoured car which he equipped himself; he was given a commission in the Hants Carabiniers and eventually transferred to the Queen’s Own Dorset Yeomanry. But he felt deeply for the Iwerne men who were sent away from the village to go to war, and also for the families they left behind. He therefore displayed newspapers every day at the village pump (which he referred to as ‘the War Office’) so that the local people could keep up to date with the war situation; later he had a shelter built by Giles Gilbert Scott complete with a carving on the gable depicting Mercury, the Winged Messenger – it is still used as the village notice board. But his most telling contribution was the letters he wrote to the Iwerne men fighting for their country many
For the last year of the war, he sent a letter every three weeks to each one of them. He gave all the news from the village, including all the little details of daily life at home which would have been so familiar to them – how the lambing season was going, the new initiative to grow potatoes – and also news of the deaths of some and the return of others.
The story of Charlie Brooks, who lost a leg in the Battle of the Somme, is typical. Ismay was instrumental in getting him a prosthetic leg; he then took him with him when collecting for funds for prisoners of war (‘he made a most persuasive Collector’); he arranged for him to go to London to train as a barber at Hill’s, his own hairdresser, finally setting him up as Iwerne’s barber, a post he held for the rest of his life. His house still bears the sign ‘Barber’s Cottage’.
Ismay was also the driving force behind a Ministry of Information film made in Iwerne during the last months of the war. It shows two days in the life of the village, and it was Ismay’s hope that it would be seen in military cinemas in France to show that all was well at home. In it are scenes from daily life – butter-making, bee-keeping, maypole dancing at the school. Ismay and Mr Spencer, the village schoolmaster, supplied the captions for the silent film.
Ismay’s benevolence continued long after the war. He was responsible for the War Memorial, designed, like the ‘War Office’, by Giles Gilbert Scott, and also for the ‘Village Club’, which must have been one of the most beautiful of its kind ever built. He commissioned Baillie Scott, the leading architect of the Arts and Crafts movement, to build it. It was not only a hall for the use of the village, for it also contained a tea-room, a ladies’ parlour, a billiard room, kitchens, a bathroom and lavatory, and even a rifle range underneath it all. There is wood everywhere – hence its present-day name, the Oak House.
Ismay always suffered from fragile health – indeed, he would have been on Titanic that fateful night if he had not been laid low by severe pneumonia. The story goes that he awoke from a coma on the night of the tragedy, exclaiming ‘Bruce is in trouble!’
James Ismay died in 1930, aged only 63. The Manor House became Clayesmore School a few years later, and farming soon declined in the village without Ismay to inspire it. There is a memorial window to him in Iwerne church. Fittingly, it depicts Boaz, the benevolent farmer from the Old Testament.