The birthday cake that was a hundred years late
What would the “de-clutterers”, beloved of TV, have made of the Rouse-Boughtons of Downton Hall near Ludlow? For a start they would have had to toss out the window their prejudice that half the contents of the average room can be junked. This family NEVER THREW ANYTHING AWAY.
Result? When their line came to an end in 1991, Mary Frances left a paltry £5.6m at current prices. The real treasure trove was 190 boxes of family papers covering 600 years. This treasure can now be found at Shropshire Archives. It contains one item amongst the many thousands which produced a charming ceremony on the terraces of the former family seat. A party of some 25 fans of Shropshire history was tucking in to a 21st birthday cake which was “100 years late.”
A member of Shropshire Archives had tipped me off about a remarkable series of Field Diaries covering the First World War. They were the eye-witness, on-the-spot, day-by-day accounts of (initially) 2/Lt Edward Hotham Rouse-Boughton of the 15th (Kings) Hussars. I had barely begun transcribing the first volume when he came upon “August 23rd My 21st Birthday”. Even from the first few pages, it was clear the young officer was quite a laid-back type, not the least prone to exaggerate what he sees. His birthday fell on the day the Kaiser and his generals launched General von Kluck’s 160,000 men and 550 guns against Mons in Belgium.
Rouse-Boughton and the BEF’s 85,000 men stood in the way. The withdrawal of the French troops places the BEF in an exposed position: “After we had retired for about 10 minutes we heard firing all round us and eventually behind us, the [German] infantry deployed all round us and we halted by a small farm by a cross roads being unable to retire. The situation seemed very serious and in fact hopeless. …I cannot describe this march of about 4 miles. At one time our Guide said we were 300 yards from the Germans. However we got through safely.” When Rouse-Boughton writes this, you know it must have been a very close-run thing. I found a note from his sergeant, written many years later, congratulating R-B on his birthday and recalling what a close call they had that day.
Glancing over the icing of their cake, the Friends of the Shropshire Hills AONB and their guests were able to enjoy quite the finest view of Titterstone Clee in the county. When the Earth’s upheavals presented Titterstone with its dhustone (dolerite) cap, it was the icing on the Rouse-Boughton cake. The stone’s hard-wearing properties made it ideal for docks, railway ballast, setts to pave the towns and later for road aggregate.
Shropshire Archives collection records some 200 years of the Rouse-Boughtons’ ownership of a goodly chunk of the summit. Even the prospect of a handsome royalty per ton did not tempt the family to sacrifice its unique view. “The quarry shall be opened only at the place agreed with the Leaser and marked on the plan. Such a quarry shall be worked as far as possible so that the workings shall not be visible from Downton Hall. No spoil or waste soil, stone or other material shall be stacked in or near the opening of the said quarry except so far as shall be necessary for the construction of a platform for the effective working of the quarry, such a platform not to succeed a height of four feet or thereabouts. Except as aforesaid all spoil shall be taken to and deposited on the present spoil bank which is not within sight of Downton Hall.”
One last word of praise for the hoarding habits of this extraordinary family. Edward’s father, Sir William St Andrew Rouse Boughton, had planned in detail the 21st celebrations – regimental band, daytime and night-time fireworks including perhaps a ‘fire-portrait’ of the heir, boxing, Punch-and-Judy, vast lunches and teas. It all had to be cancelled, of course, but there was the complete file amongst the papers.
Telling the young officer’s story as part of our War Walks on the Home Front series I was able to contrast the Field Diary’s battlefield account with what SHOULD have been taking place in Shropshire. We owe a tremendous debt to this family of hoarders and to Shropshire Archives for looking after it and bringing our attention to it.
Thank goodness, the de-clutterers never got near to Downton Hall.