Our story about Crakemarsh Hall begins at the end. The last member of the Cavendish family left in 1968 and in the thirty years which followed the hall fell into disrepair before being demolished in 1998. So far, so standard for a minor country mansion. Less standard however is that as decay crept over Crakemarsh, the only item remaining in its derelict shell was the curse carrying, life-sized portrait of Robert Dickinson, father of former owner Elizabeth Ann Cavendish.
Elizabeth had bought Crakemarsh in June 1900, with money given to her by her father on the occasion of her marriage to Charles Tyrell Cavendish who sadly died three years later at what was then known as the Royal Cheadle Asylum, the life assurance policy taken out in his name describing him as ‘a person on unsound mind’. The painting of her father was hung in pride of place at the foot of the salvaged seventeenth century staircase around which the hall had been rebuilt in 1815. However, following the death of two maids who had recently cleaned it, remaining staff refused to touch it. Was it these fatalities which led Mrs Cavendish to write the following warning onto the reverse of the canvas?
“I hope whoever succeeds me at Crakemarsh Hall will cherish this painting above all others or evil will befall them. It was my father’s money that enabled me to by Crakemarsh and the right to be called the master of the house”.
When Elizabeth died in 1933, the contents of the hall were put up for sale, including the cursed painting, although that’s not how they described it in the catalogue. Perhaps if they had, someone might have bought it because I would argue that buying a hexed work of art isn’t as weird as buying a picture of someone else’s Dad. Anyway, the presence of Mr Dickinson remained in the house his mining money had paid for until 1980, when the painting was cut from its frame by someone who I like to think got it home, spotted the curse and then had to hang it up and cherish it for evermore. If you ever go round someone’s house and there’s a massive painting of a Victorian bloke on their wall that looks completely out of place but well cared for, do let me know. As fate would have it was probably this act of larceny which prevented the portrait from going up in flames, when hall was gutted by fire. The place had obviously acquired a reputation for being creepy Crakemarsh at this stage as, when asked if the blaze had been started by someone sleeping rough there, a representative of East Staffordshire District Council commented, ‘Well, I wouldn’t like to spend a night there. It is a weird and eerie house, the nearest to a haunted house I’ve been in. It is an odd place to go in on a bright sunny day, let alone at night’.
As if one family curse wasn’t enough, Elizabeth’s son Tyrell Cavendish and his new American wife Julia Florence Siegel made Little Onn Hall their marital home at the end of 1906. Locals called the house unlucky, most likely due to a sinister stone, which had supposedly been kicked by a cow as it escaped from a witch (it’s a long story. You can read more here) sitting at the end of one of its driveways. The cursed stone was said to predict the family’s fortunes. If it remained above ground, all would be well. However, if it were to sink into the Staffordshire soil it stood on, there was trouble ahead. Some say that in the days before Tyrell and Julia Cavendish boarded the RMS Titanic, to visit her parents in America, the stone had almost sunk into the ground entirely.
As well as the not so subtle sign of the sinking stone, a further portent of doom followed in the form of a premonition Elizabeth had about the ship her son was to sail on sinking. Little wonder then that the will of Tyrell Cavendish is dated April 9th 1912, the day before he boarded the infamously ill-fated vessel. Accounts of his final hours aboard the stricken ship describe how Tyrell Cavendish saw his wife Julia and her maid Miss Barber to safety before returning to help fill the remaining lifeboats with women and children, keeping men who tried to take their place at bay with a revolver. His final words were, ‘Well there are no more boats to fill so we will shake hands and hope that we meet again soon”, before jumping overboard. Two weeks later his body was found off the Newfoundland coast.
Running alongside the story of the Cavendish family is a subplot involving a cab driver from Burton who lost his leg in an act of heroism trying to stop a runaway horse at the now demolished White Hart Hotel in Burton on Trent. Or maybe Benjamin Tyrell is actually the main character because, like his father and his father before him, he was utterly convinced that he was the rightful heir to both Crakemarsh and Thornton Hall in Buckinghamshire. The Tyrells claimed to be descendants of Sir Thomas Tyrell and wanted their baronetcy back, along with the associated estates. In the past, the Tyrells had taken the family tree idea quite literally by sneaking into the grounds of Thornton Hall and felling some timber to assert their ancient rights. In August 1880, a Press Association telegram reported that Tyrell senior had entered the then unoccupied Thornton Hall but had eventually been persuaded to leave by the Head Gardener. I can only hope that at one point he asked, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’. Tyrell had announced he would ‘return on the ‘morrow with assistance to demand admission and possession’. In response, the property agent and members of the Buckingham constabulary turned up on the morrow but Tyrell declined to make an appearance.
Benjamin, the Cabman Baronet of Burton, decided that he would pursue the family title a different way, amassing a range of evidence acquired in libraries and record offices over forty years, in the hope of mounting a legal challenge against the Cavendish family. A local lawyer was so impressed by the strength of Benjamin’s claim that he offered to take on the case for free. At first the story seemed far-fetched but in a tale already involving a murderous portrait and a fortune telling stone I was willing to suspend my disbelief even further and incredibly it seems that the Tyrells were not just some family tree fantasists and there had indeed been some shady shenanigans going on down south in Thornton. According to the Wolverton and District Archaeological and Historical Society, local Tyrell descendants said that the monuments of their ancestors were torn from the church and thrown into the river by the Rev William Cotton who married Hester, the official Tyrell heir, and seemed pretty determined to eliminate any evidence which might cast doubt on her status. It’s a claim that seems to be backed up by an account of the church from 1735 describing how there were no memorials to any of ‘the six (Tyrell) baronets, their ladies and children’. Equally suspicious is the fact that several pertinent pages had been torn from the church’s parish register and so, despite my initial scepticism, I found myself rooting for Team Tyrell.
It was to no avail though as despite securing an audience with Edward VII to discuss his claim, Benjamin Tyrell never managed to restore his family’s fortune and died on 22nd March 1927 aged 80. I’d love to find his grave and see it makes any reference to his adventures in ancestry. Benjamin’s son Thomas, a brewery labourer from Burton, was interviewed by the Daily Mirror in October 1954 and said at the age of 68 he was giving up on his family’s claim, despite him believing it to be legitimate, as he and his wife had no children of their own and no-one to continue to fight for their rights to chop down trees in Buckinghamshire. ‘Still, it’ll make a good story’, said the Baron of Queen Street Burton. How right he was.
The Ancient Manor of Crakemarsh, a history by John Walker
Northern Whig 13 May 1924
Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press 13 April 1913
Burton Observer and Chronicle 15 May 1924
Birmingham Gazette 18 October 1954
Liverpool Mercury 30 August 1880