The Fane family owned Basildon Park when Sir Francis Skyes, 1st Baronet purchased it in the 1700s. Sykes had money to buy it because he had joined the East India Company (EIC) in India and like others who had traveled there, he amassed a fortune. He had also become good friends with Warren Hastings (godfather to Eliza de Feuillide) and Robert Clive, who were part of the Bengal administration.
When Skyes returned to England from India, he bought Ackworth Park in his native Yorkshire. In 1770, Skyes also acquired the 2,200 acre estate of Gillingham Manor in Dorset. These purchases allowed him to become a Member of Parliament and he hoped to achieve even more, both politically and socially, and therefore needed an estate closer to London than either Yorkshire or Dorset. Sykes began looking found that Basildon Park in Berkshire fulfilled his requirements.
It had been up for sale since 1766 and although Clive had attempted to buy it, he had been unsuccessful. Sykes, however, succeeded. He purchased the Basildon Park estate in 1771 and after purchasing it, he set about to make the site exactly the type of estate where he could entertain his London friends. Unfortunately, his good luck did not hold.
Although he wanted to immediately begin building a mansion on the site, he experienced a long delay because of various problems. First, EIC stock crashed and he lost a reputed £10,000 in a single day. The next fiasco came when he and Clive were investigated for their activities in India. Skyes had worked as the Bengali Tax Collector and the investigation determined he had levied unjust taxes and was therefore publicly censured. Two years later, in 1774, while still being criticized for his role in India, his finances suffered further when allegations of corruption pertaining to his constituency were made against him. As a result, he lost his parliamentary seat and was forced to pay £11,000 in compensation.
Because of all the problems, Skyes could not begin building at Basildon Park until 1776. Nonetheless, when construction began, it lasted for the remainder of his life. He died in 1804 and by the time of his death his fortune had dwindled, and Basildon Park was mortgaged. The estate was inherited by his son, Sir Francis William Sykes (2nd Baronet) who died a few weeks later. It thus passed to 5-year-old Sir Francis William Sykes (3rd Baronet).
As an adult, the 3rd Baronet’s finances suffered partly because of his association with the spendthrift and extravagant Prince Regent. Like other royal members, he visited Basildon Park, with his visit to Basildon Park happening around September 1813 when he arrived with his royal brother, the Duke of Clarence, and several others of nobility. During their stay many visitors wanted to pay their respects to the Prince. This included the mayor, aldermen, and burgesses. Many local inhabitants of the Borough also appeared, with hundreds arriving on horseback and many others coming by carriage. “An address of congratulation was presented to the Regent by the Mayor … and his Royal Highness was pleased to offer the honor of knighthood to his Worship, which mark of condescension the worthy magistrate respectfully declined.”
In 1829, when the 3rd Baronet began having serious financial problems, he placed Basildon Park on the market. He attempted to sell the estate through Messers Daniel Smith and Son. They ran a newspaper advertisement that described the Basildon estate in the following manner:
“The magnificent estate of Basildon situated in one of the most fertile and picturesque parts of the county, and commanding on all sides a vast variety of grand beautiful scenery, nearly midway between the capital towns of Reading and Wallingford, upon the turnpike road, which runs under the Park wall skirted by luxuriant belts of timber, for a considerable extent, nearly parallel with the River Thames, the grand and romantic boundary to a greater part of the Estate, near the village of Panbourn, only 20 miles from Oxford and 47 from London. … Appendages of every description; a fine park, containing above 300 acres within the walls, beautifully timbered, and approached through several handsome lodges; extensive woods, belts, and groves, very thickly stored with the most thriving timber, forming noble features of the estate, and fine preserves for game … the Manors, or reputed Manors, of Basildon, Breamores and Crooks, and Dunts; the next and every alternate right of Presentations to the Vicarage of Basildon, and annexed Chapelry of Ashampstead, with an enviable Parsonage, and valuable glebe lands. The impropriate Great Tithes of nearly the whole Parish; and several capital Farms, with excellent homesteads; a valuable brick kiln; free public-house; keepers’ and gardeners’ lodges, and numerous cottages and premises … also the grotto, an admired and delight detached residence for a smaller establishment with meadows, shrubberies, & upon the bank of the river about half-a-mile from the Park. The whole property embracing above two thousand six hundred acres.”
Unfortunately, the 3rd Baronet did not sell it. That was partly because he refused to accept one dime less than £100,000. During this difficult financial time, the house was often let, although between 1834 and 1835 the 3rd Baronet and his family were in residence. It was during that time that one of their house guests was the future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.
He became lover to the 3rd Baronet’s wife, Henrietta, who had been born in 1801. She was three years older than Disraeli. Their relationship was reportedly passionate and open and although the 3rd Baronet knew of it, he tolerated it by taking his own lover.
When Disraeli began the relationship with Henrietta, he also began writing his ninth novel, Henrietta Temple, and the eponymous heroine of his novel was supposedly based on the real life Henrietta. To perhaps understand how Disraeli was head-over-heels in love with Henrietta, in his novel, the hero Ferdinand says after meeting the fictional Henrietta:
“There is no love but love at first sight. This is the transcendent and surpassing offspring of sheer and unpolluted sympathy. All other is the illegitimate result of observation, of reflection, of compromise, of comparison, of expediency. The passions that endure flash like the lightning: they scorch the soul, but it is warmed for ever.”
Eventually, Henrietta and Disraeli’s relationship cooled partly because she had an affair with Daniel Maclise. Her husband caught her in bed with him and then began proceedings against her new lover. The 3rd Baronet also threatened divorce and published an announcement that he would not pay his wife’s debts. The scandal ruined Henrietta’s reputation, and when Charles Dickens learned of the Baronet’s actions and Henrietta’s affair, he was so appalled he gave the name of Bill Sykes to a character in Oliver Twist.
In 1838, the same year that Jane Austen’s disabled brother George died, the same year that America’s John Muir was born, and the same year that Oliver Twist was published, the 3rd Baronet found himself publicly humiliated over his wife’s affairs. He also ran out of funds and was thus forced to sell Basildon Park. After the estate sold, “valuable Effects” from the mansion were also offered for sale that included the following:
“HOUSEHOLD FURNITURE, including handsome winged bookcases and library table, carved and gilt antique chairs; in the Saloon and Hall, marqueterie tables, &c.; numerous Brussels and Turkey carpets … a capital full-sized billiard table, by Thurston; upwards of 50 paintings … marble busts … copper and other culinary utensils; the furniture of the offices, large ale casks, a rick of superior hay (about 20 loads), a useful horse and cart, garden roller, engine, and tools; hand-lights, greenhouse plants, and various other effects.”
James Morrison purchased Basildon Park for £3,000 less than the £100,000 the 3rd Baronet had been asking. Morrison was a Hampshire born, self-made millionaire who started his occupational life by becoming an employee to a London haberdasher and draper. He then married his employer’s daughter, Mary Anne Todd, and formed a partnership with his father-in-law, Joseph Todd. The firm became known as Morrison, Dillon & Co, and was later converted into the Fore Street Limited Liability Company.
Morrison created a fortune so that by the 1820s he was one of the wealthiest men in England and referred to as one of the “Merchant Princes” of the city of London. Morrison was also associated with the Whig party in London and in 1830 entered Parliament. In the 1830s, Morrison also established the American trading company, Morrison, Cryder & Co., and invested heavily in the railway industry both in the United States and in France.
Morrison was entirely self-educated and built a large library, perhaps even visiting James Lackington’s famous bookstore in Finsbury Square to fill his library. Morrison likewise became an art collector accumulating paintings of the “old masters” and forming what was described as a collection “of a very high class.” He housed this valuable collection at his house in London in Harley Street and at Basildon Park. In fact, Basildon was the spot where some of his finest artworks were displayed.
Morrison had originally vacillated on whether to purchase Basildon Park because several years before buying it he wrote in 1830 that “Basildon is at a better distance, altho’ still too far. But then such a House and such a situation! What a casket to enclose pictorial gems!” So, perhaps the idea that Basildon Park was the perfect setting for his artworks may have been part of the reason for his purchase of that estate later.
To create the right setting at Basildon Park Morrison employed architect John Buonarotti Papworth, a prolific architect, artist, and a founder member of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Papworth’s role was to combine architecture and interior decorating at Basildon. This was something he had done at other estates owned by Morrison, such as at Fonthill in Wiltshire were he “effected general repairs and decorations to the house, and designed furniture, with the arrangement of pictures, and works of art. His attention was, however, principally devoted to the improvement of the extensive grounds, including plantations, new roads, the bridge at the head of the lake, the quarry gardens, etc., entrances, lodges, gates, lamps, garden pedestals, and vases; seats and other embellishments.”
Papworth helped to create the type of place that Morrison wanted and after doing so, numerous events were held at Basildon Park. One event was a fete given in 1847 for “cricketers of Wallingford” and the surrounding villages of Basildon. About a thousand tickets were sold and guests arrived by boat from Wallingford and on foot or in carriages from the surrounding areas. It was a splendid day described as “tropical” with the Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette reporting:
“At past twelve the wickets were pitched, and the true lovers of the game went well to work, but the fair sex fled for shelter to the shade of the noble trees, towards the front of the mansion, while to the ‘bold peasantry,’ their sons, and daughters, of whom there was a considerable preponderance, the tents under which a bountiful supply of good old English fare was provided, were the chief attraction. Never did a set of hungry travellers set-to with a more hearty good will, although we cannot say much for their good manners. … At 4 o’clock the tea kettle, or rather the large brewing copper, was in requisition, and tea pots were sent round to some forty or fifty tables, with plum cake and bread and butter, when all who enjoyed this cooling repast were amply regaled. At 6 o’clock the band struck up a tune to call the company together under the drawing room window, when three times three cheers were heartily given to the Queen, the band afterwards playing the national anthem. Three times three was then given to James Morrison … who appeared at the window. … Three times three were then given to Mrs. Morrison and the family, after which the Wallingford Band struck up a merry tune, and led the way off the grounds to the river side, and at 7 o’clock all were again on board, who wished to enjoy the sail up the river to Wallingford. The villagers from the immediately vicinity branching off right and left ‘as merry as grigs.’”
Morrison had been in a declining state of health for some years before he died on 30 of October 1857 at Basildon Park. With his death, the estate was passed on to his eldest son Charles. He liked the estate as much as his father and in 1863, it was briefly described as follows:
“Basildon Park, in which stands the mansion of Charles Morrison, Esq., is an extensive demesne, enclosed within a brick wall; the spacious residence is built in a modern style, with portico supported by Corinthian pillars. It contains a remarkably choice collection of paintings, and other works of art. The Grotto is a particularly pretty residence, now occupied by the Rev. Wm. Skyes.”
Like other estates Basildon Park had an abundance of wildlife, but that was also the reason why some workers got into trouble. In 1868 three men – Thomas Boseley, Daniel Cole, and Thomas Lovegrove – all employed by Morrison were charged with stealing three turkeys from the park and a fourth man, James Josey, was charged with receiving the stolen goods. The Berkshire Chronicle reported:
“They had when going from their work taken these birds. The men were at the time in the company of a person named [James] Withers, who would be the principal witness for the prosecution. As Withers took no means, at the time that the offence was being perpetrated, of preventing the commission of the crime, he was in the eye of the law an accomplice, and it was therefore necessary, before the prisoners could be convicted, that the evidence of Withers should be corroborated in some material particulars by other testimony.”
Prosecutors showed that the game keeper, Thomas Wren, who lived in a cottage on the premises had counted thirty-five turkeys. By November he counted only ten and found a track near where the turkeys had been. Police came and tracked the footsteps across the road, across some fields, and into a road near where Withers lived. When he was questioned, he admitted that he saw the accused men carrying three birds home but did not tell Wren or the police. In the end, the court found only one of the defendant’s not guilty and that was Cole. Boseley and Lovegrove were sentenced to four months and Josey to six months hard labor.
Charles Morrison passed away in 1909 at the age of 92, like his father had, he died at the Basildon Park house. After Charles’ death, the estate went to his sister Ellen, who died seven months later. She then left the estate to her nephew Major James Archibald Morrison, and although he never lived at Basildon, he was deeply involved with the estate and local area. The Morrisons continued to keep Basildon Park in the family until 1929.
-  J. Doran, The History and Antiquities of … Reading in Berkshire (Reading: Samuel Reader, 1835), p. 37.
-  Berkshire London Courier and Evening Gazette, “The Noble Estate of Basildon,” September 19, 1829, p. 1.
-  B. Disraeli, The Works of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield, Embracing Novels, Romances, Plays, Poems, Biography, Short Stories and Great Speeches: (New York: Walter Dunne, 1904), p. 92–93.
-  Berkshire Chronicle, “Sales by Auction,” October 27, 1838, p. 2.
-  G. F. Waagen and E. R. Eastlake, Treasures of Art in Great Britain (London: Murray, 1854), p. 134.
-  W. A. van S. Papworth, John B. Papworth (London: Privately Printed, 1879), p. 80.
-  Ibid., p. 79.
-  Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette, “Fete at Basildon Park,” July 17, 1847, p. 3.
-  Allen and Co Dutton, Dutton, Allen, & Co.’s Directory & Gazetteer of the Counties of Oxon, Berks & Bucks (Manchester: Dutton, Allen, & Co., 1863), p. 242.
-  Berkshire Chronicle, “Fowl Stealing at Basildon,” January 9, 1869, p. 6.