Ightham Mote is a unique property set deep in the countryside of the Kentish Weald. The earliest part of the house was built in the early years of the 14th century but successive owners have extended and adapted it to suit their needs. What we now see is a family home representing many periods of English domestic building since 1320. A notable feature is the moat which encloses and contains the house. It is now in the care of the National Trust.
My research, commissioned by the National Trust, concerns the Colyer-Fergusson family which lived there from 1890 – when Thomas bought the property – to 1951, when he died there.
Here we look back through two generations to Thomas’ parents and grandparents and their ownership of estates in Scotland and in Kent.
We also look forward through two generations to Thomas’ children and grandchildren and their generous legacy to the future.
The story thus extends through five generations and two centuries.
Thomas Colyer-Fergusson, the central character of this research, was born in 1865 and died in 1951. He thus lived during the reigns of five monarchs through a period of immense social change. Many of the conveniences of modern life that we take for granted were totally unknown – unimagined even – when he bought Ightham Mote and were slow to arrive there.
Thomas’ life – and indeed the property – was marked by two World Wars. Both his half-brother and his youngest son were killed in WW1 and his second son was damaged by it. His oldest son was killed in WW2 while his grandson was a prisoner of war.
Other tragedies marked Thomas’ life: his older brother died when he was eight and his mother soon thereafter. His step-mother died in bearing his first half-brother. His wife died only 12 years into their married life.
Many of these losses pre-date the advances in medical science which might have saved them. It is worthy of note that both his grandfather and one of his grandsons, as eminent surgeons contributed to advances in medical science and practice.
While Thomas himself pursued no career, he embarked on a life of public service. He was High Sheriff of Kent and a Justice of the Peace. He encouraged many local causes, particularly those concerned with genealogy and archaeology.
The Property, Ightham Mote, upon which Thomas Colyer-Fergusson lavished such care and expense in the early years of his ownership latterly must have become something of a burden: the fabric had become very fragile by the 1940s and the staff needed to maintain it was diminished by war and cost.
All of this is the story of an admittedly very privileged and wealthy family but it reflects the history of our country and many of its people. To consider the Colyer-Fergusson story is to consider the social history that brings us to where we are today. Small wonder that so many visitors to Ightham Mote are fascinated not only by the property and its contents but also by the families that have owned it over more than six centuries! Within that procession of owners Thomas Colyer-Fergusson has a very special place.
This research has now been published as a book.
Thomas Colyer-Fergusson image © Ightham Mote archive.