By Jonathan Hudston

Henry Peek.

A Peek at the family who built the Rousdon estate

Henry Peek – who transformed the cliff-top parish of Rousdon near Lyme Regis – was an unusual man. He held the record for exhibiting the heaviest bunch of bananas ever grown in the UK; it weighed 97lbs. He introduced school dinners, to improve children’s health and their capacity for learning, 70 years before the Government passed the School Meals Act. His private menageries of animals included Indian buffaloes, ponies from Iceland, Chilean swans and piping crows from Australia. Three emus were imported through Axmouth harbour, though the coastguards objected to plans to populate the Undercliff with kangaroos.

Henry bought the 350 acre Rousdon estate in 1869 for £11,500. In today’s money, that’s probably just over a million quid. Rousdon then had three houses, lived in by 18 people, in fairly primitive conditions. A large treadmill was used to draw water up from a well. It was powered by a 12-year-old girl called Mary Anne Ostler, helped by a dog. The church – according to various accounts – was in a ruinous state, with worm-eaten pews, a tottering pulpit, broken windows repaired with oiled paper, damaged books and religious vestments in rags. Rousdon was regarded as being “miles away from the beaten track”, in “wild and rough” country, only reachable through “almost continuous ascent”: it’s about 500ft above sea-level.

Farm labourers were poor and hungry. Nicky Campbell quotes a 10-ten-year-old Dorset boy who considered himself lucky, in the 1880s, if he had a raw turnip for his breakfast. She notes how, as late as 1913, villagers in Beer would take to eating swede-tops, snaring wild birds and cooking them in winter pies, and hanging skate-wings on blackthorn spikes outside their back doors (the fish would be cooked in margarine with lots of pepper to disguise the smell of decay). More than half the occupants of Axminster workhouse were children aged under 16.

So the news that Henry Peek had bought Rousdon caused great excitement in West Dorset, East Devon and parts of South Somerset. When Henry and his wife arrived in Lyme Regis (they stayed at The Three Cups), the church bells rang and the Volunteer Band turned out to play rousing music in front of the hotel. What’s more, the excitement turned out to be justified – for quite a while anyway.

Mr and Mrs Gapper with their daughter Elizabeth at Landslip Cottage. Elizabeth worked as a maid at Rousdon mansion.
Mr and Mrs Gapper with their daughter Elizabeth at Landslip Cottage. Elizabeth worked as a maid at Rousdon mansion.
Mr and Mrs Gapper with their daughter Elizabeth at Landslip Cottage. Elizabeth worked as a maid at Rousdon mansion.
Mr and Mrs Gapper with their daughter Elizabeth at Landslip Cottage. Elizabeth worked as a maid at Rousdon mansion.

Nicky Campbell’s new book To Buy A Whole Parish: Rousdon and the Peek Family is about what the Peek family did in the triangle of land between Axmouth/Seaton, Axminster and Lyme Regis between 1869 and 1937, when the estate was broken up and sold. The book details the lives of the enormously wealthy; the lives of “ordinary” people; and shows how these intertwined. It’s full of memorable facts, and achieves the remarkable feat of changing one’s whole sense of how West Dorset and East Devon used to fit together and work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most people (in my experience) think of Rousdon nowadays as a funny sort of place, of interest chiefly to estate agents. This book reveals why it deserves much wider attention.

The south front of Henry Peek's mansion at Rousdon; the drawing is by architect Ernest George.
The south front of Henry Peek’s mansion at Rousdon; the drawing is by architect Ernest George/

Henry Peek spent £250,000 – at today’s prices, that’s probably around £27million – on building a mansion at Rousdon, and creating a model estate and village. Repeat: £27million. You can see why Lyme’s Volunteer Band gathered to serenade him. Over the next few years, more than 200 builders and 70 donkeys were employed at Rousdon. The donkeys’ job was to haul limestone up the cliffs from a quarry on the beach. Needless to say, they weren’t any old donkeys, but extra-large animals specially imported from North Africa. Labourers included 10-year-old John Gosling from Colyton, who walked to work each day, five miles there and five miles back, starting from home at 5.30am. Frederick George Penny was a carpenter from Charmouth. “He walked to and from Charmouth, five miles away, each day and had to pass Charmouth church at 4.30am to get to work at 6, when the foreman blew the whistle. If he was late then there were no wages. He worked 5½ days a week, finishing at 12 on Saturdays.” One of Mr Penny’s jobs was to lay the parquet floor in the 60ft great hall, using horrid-smelling glue.

The great hall was lit by six windows, filled with stained glass illustrating local events, such as St Wilfrid teaching Lyme Regis men the art of fishing, and a battle near Axminster between Saxons and Danes. (It’s possible that not all of the events portrayed actually took place). One single slab of marble over the fireplace weighed 11 tons. Marble used all round the estate was recovered at enormous cost from the SS Carrara, which sank in nearby Charton Bay, in 1864. The house was filled with the very finest and most expensive things, and what’s probably best described nowadays as odd stuff. For example, ornaments in the hall included a large bronze equestrian statue from China, candlestick holders in the shape of cranes, three toads of diminishing sizes, 12 William IV leather fire buckets with painted armorial bearings, and four man traps. There were 40 bedrooms and eight bathrooms; separate cellars for wine, beer, wood and coal; a 100ft-long bowling alley for the entertainment of servants; a museum with nearly 800 stuffed birds (including specimens of almost every British species) plus a bizarre range of other items: for example, there were two Chinese papier-mache models, “which especially interested and excited the young, one portrayed in a very lifelike manner the ‘Death by a thousand cuts’ and the other was of flagellation of soles of the feet.”

Gardener Walter Rowe in front of Rousdon mansion.
Gardener Walter Rowe in front of Rousdon mansion.

Outside were 134 acres of parkland. Again, it’s possible here just to pick out a few details. There was a run of glasshouses 600ft long, in which peaches, nectarines and grapes did well, an artificial lake with islands, gardens designed for children with paths edged by stones and shells, a four-acre walled garden for which soil was imported as the natural soil was too chalky, a palm house, a summer house and extensive lawns. “The lawns were mowed by a cutter pulled by a pony. The grass had to be mowed twice, in different directions to prevent any mowing lines showing. The pony wore leather boots to stop hoof prints marring the end result.”

Groups of builders used to visit Rousdon to learn about new methods and debate points of style (such as the wonderfully-named ‘snail-creep’ mortaring). One such outing lasted 15½ hours. The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette described another: “The farm buildings aroused the admiration of the master builders, on account of the excellence of the work, and it was interesting to hear them expiate upon the perfectness with which walls constructed of irregular shaped stones had been built and pointed.”

It was an immense project. Peek complained about it all taking longer than he wanted, but he would also occasionally treat his crews to a surprise lunch (with, say, a roast pig and a barrel of cider) or a big dinner in Axmouth. At one such do, The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette spoke to a contented-looking brawny man: “I’ve worked now, man and boy, for more than forty years and I never had a master who treated [his workers] so kind, or who cared so much for ’em. He’s a good sort and no mistake.

“An I’ll tell ’ee what,” pursued he, “no master loses by treating his men well: it gives ’em heart to work for him, and he gets better served.”

The Peeks’ fortunes stemmed from the efforts of Richard Peek, the son of a farm labourer from Loddiswell near Torquay, who – so the story goes – went to London “with three pence in his pocket, which was all he had to live on for three days until he got work in the warehouse of a tea establishment near the Monument, and here, governed by the influence of his mother’s pious counsel, his honesty, industry and good manners led him from one step to another until he became as rich as he started poor.”

Richard and his brother James (who had “a horror of beards” and for years never took a holiday) became leading merchants in tea, coffee and spices. Later, the family also diversified into biscuits and rubber. Henry was one of James’ eight children. He worked in the family businesses and was eventually reckoned to earn more than a pound a minute. He was the first chairman of the Commercial Union Insurance Company and became a Conservative MP. “If anyone in the Commons deserved the title of ‘Liberal Conservative’ it was Sir Henry” (by this time, he’d been knighted too).

Nicky Campbell suggests that Sir Henry never forgot his family’s humble beginnings in Devon and wanted to put something back. She quotes a local newspaper article which asked why he had spent quite so much on Rousdon: “His one idea was to purchase a whole parish and devote his wealth to improving the condition of the people in it without pauperising them, a principle which all true philanthropists work upon.” Indeed, when Peek bought Rousdon he said: “I am going to give my labourers 15s. a week, and give them every opportunity of earning money and making themselves happy homes.”

To the same improving end, Peek also built model schools, considered to be among the best in England. When they opened in 1876, Sir Henry said: “In the present day an uneducated person stood no chance whatever in the race of life, and therefore it was the duty of all those who had it in their power, to do something in the way of providing education for their less fortunate brethren.” Children used to walk up to four miles to school at Rousdon, “and the piece of bread-and-butter which most brought with them for dinner was utterly insufficient for its purpose.” The headteacher William Burgess suggested they would learn more eagerly if they were better fed, so Sir Henry had a school kitchen built and he provided a garden, so the boys could learn how to grow vegetables. Every child paid a penny per meal. About 90 dinners a day were cooked by the headteacher’s wife, assisted by a rota of girls, “one of Sir Henry’s objects being” – to quote a local newspaper report – “to train up the girls to be useful housewives when they get a home of their own.” Remember: we are talking about Victorian times here. The same report describes how dinner is “brought in and served by the older girls, and whether it be treacle and suet pudding, boiled rice and jam, or the favourite dish of all, roly-poly and bacon, the slices disappear with marvellous rapidity. No-one is stinted as to quantity, and the bigger boys often dispose of five or six helpings with ease. When the meal is over and grace has been sung, they go back to their games while the big girls clear the table and wash up.”

At Burton Bradstock, the master was known to whip children who came to school barefoot. At Rousdon, by contrast, a boot club was set up. The infants were paid a penny for every verse of poetry they learned; older children earned a penny for three verses. This was popular and effective. For example, four-year-old Flora Holt, a shepherd’s daughter, repeated all 110 verses of Watts’ Hymns without prompting and “quite surprised” the headteacher.

It would be interesting to know whether Henry Peek ever read many of the novels of Dickens, and was influenced by them, as he appears to be an extraordinary real-life example of the benevolent and wealthy gentleman who plays such a major role in salvaging the lives of unfortunates such as Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.

The England Family at Landslip Cottage, before 1914. Note the gramaphone (in the centre back of the picture), which had to be delivered by boat.
The England Family at Landslip Cottage, before 1914. Note the gramaphone (in the centre back of the picture), which had to be delivered by boat.

The book also includes a lot of valuable information about the lives of “ordinary” people across West Dorset and East Devon. There are some fine vignettes and pen-portraits. Albert England – always known as Alf – used to live at Undercliff Cottage: he was the “proud owner of a motorbike which he ingeniously used to power a saw to cut logs. His mother took in washing, made and sold treacle toffee at ½d a bag, and delivered telegrams that came to Rousdon Post Office.” PC Small from Chardstock investigated the selling of beer without a licence. “Showing remarkable devotion to duty, PC Small got a job on the railway as a navvy and obtained lodgings at Hartgrove Cottage where he was often served a pint of beer with his breakfast…” There’s also a very good 19-page selection of chatty letters from different schoolchildren: for example, “About a month ago we had such a lot of rain that the roads were flooded. William Austen was coming from Uplyme, and he got into a hole, and was up to his neck in water; but he managed to get out by himself.” Six pages are also devoted to a list of some of the estate staff employed by the Peeks, with notes on what Nicky Campbell has discovered about them.

Even the minor Peeks had an impact across the area. Rousdon’s first vicar was the Reverend Edward Peek, who “owned and lived in Poulet House, now the Alexandra Hotel, where he built the Peek Chapel in the converted stables.” Edward also founded St Michael’s College in Pyne House in Broad Street in Lyme Regis, for the education of sons of the clergy, and he built Coram Tower for college masters to live in. He also paid for the re-decoration of the inside of Lyme’s Elizabethan Guildhall.

Cuthbert Peek at a shooting party along The Undercliff, circa 1900. Cuthbert is facing centre front, behind the lady holding the gun over her knees.
Cuthbert Peek at a shooting party along The Undercliff, circa 1900. Cuthbert is facing centre front, behind the lady holding the gun over her knees.

Henry’s son Cuthbert (no-one is ever called Cuthbert anymore) was a keen scientist and maintained an important astronomical and meteorological observatory at Rousdon. He employed as Observer a popular, humorous man called Charles Grover, who was also a keen photographer, and was known locally as “The Star Man”. Cuthbert was also a director of the Axminster to Lyme Regis Light Railway Company, which built the Cannington viaduct and made it possible to travel from Lyme to London on the train in 3 hours and 26 minutes. The Peeks used it every day in season to send fresh fish, fruit and flowers up to their London property.

Combpyne Cottage, by Charles Grover, who was the Observer at Rousdon Observatory and a keen photographer.
Combpyne Cottage, by Charles Grover, who was the Observer at Rousdon Observatory and a keen photographer.
Joshua Loveridge with his son Arthur at Combpyne Forge, circa 1911, photographed by Charles Grover.
Joshua Loveridge with his son Arthur at Combpyne Forge, circa 1911, photographed by Charles Grover.

After Cuthbert died of congestion of the brain, he was succeeded by Sir Wilfrid Peek, who bought Rousdon’s neighbouring parish of Combpyne in 1909. Sir Wilfrid married an American called Edwine, the daughter of a millionaire paint manufacturer. Visiting Rousdon subsequently, “the bride was wearing a yellow dress, which the superstitious among the staff saw as a bad sign. Annie Gapper’s mother was there and she said that ‘no good will come of the marriage’.”

Lady Edwine Peek.
Lady Edwine Peek.

After the First World War, the couple spent less and less time at Rousdon. They preferred to travel abroad and entertain in London. Edwine compared the climate of the Lyme Regis area unfavourably to that of the southern states of America.

Sir Wilfrid died in 1927 aged 43. People said his death was hastened by his wartime experiences, especially in Mesopotamia. In his will he forbade any Roman Catholic to inherit any of his bequests in the future. Mrs Campbell suggests that this was because his brother Grenville Peek, a Captain with the 9th Lancers, had been shot through the head in an IRA ambush in Ireland. Captain Peek had two small children, one boy just eight weeks old.

Wilfrid and Edwine’s son Francis had no interest in Rousdon. Aged 22, he said: “Sell it.” So it went in 1937 for just £29,750; that’s about £1.8million in today’s money. Remember, it originally cost the equivalent of around £27million. The mansion became Allhallows School, which moved from Honiton. The remaining estate workers and many of the tenants were forced to leave. Alf England, for example, went to a remote cottage in the Marshwood Vale where the well was contaminated with dead rats.

Nicky Campbell’s book represents years and years of hard work and research and is exceptionally interesting. As she quotes someone saying of Charles Grover: “He was unique and things unique seem ever to find their way to Rousdon.”

To Buy a Whole Parish: Rousdon and the Peek Family (£14.99), by Nicky Campbell, is published by Wheatears Books of Colyton. The main stockist is probably Serendip in Broad Street, Lyme Regis, who’ve been selling lots, including (apparently) a big boxful sent to America.

Many thanks to Nicky Campbell for permission to reproduce some of the fine collection of photographs that she’s amassed.

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