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They say crime doesn’t pay, but being a loan shark sure does. Just ask the Robartes family who once lived in the extravagant Lanhydrock Estate – widely considered the grandest home in all of Cornwall. Behind the “rough” walls of Lanhydrock, lies shady business dealings and family tragedy.
Every time I visit a National Trust property, I become convinced that this is my favourite. I loved Uppark, and Trelissick in Cornwall also pushed my buttons. Right now, however, I’m all about Lanhydrock near Bodmin.
I visited Lanhydrock Estate knowing nothing apart from some Cornish friends told me it was the “the” Cornish National Trust property I had to visit. It certainly is grand, and amazingly well preserved. It really does look like the family may have just popped out the back.
However, what really piqued my interest
It soon slipped out that while the Robartes family said they made their money through tin (a likely story) they were actually known for their loan sharking; in fact, they served as the inspiration for the villainous Warleggan family in the TV show Poldark.
Well, that was enough to get me down the rabbit hole of research. So here’s a review of Lanhydrock Estate, plus some more information about the family that came from very little to own more than 40,000 acres of Cornish land.
The history of Lanhydrock Estate
Fair warning: this section will likely be long, because I am a total history nerd and think every detail is important. If you’d rather not hear the long and possibly arduous history of Lanhydrock Estate, and are all about the here and now, skip on to the “Visiting Lanhydrock Estate” section.
The land that is now part of Lanhydrock Estate was once in the hands of the Augustinians, types of Catholics. In the 1530s, however, Henry VIII – in between ordering his wives’ executions – decided he needed more cash. As a result, he began disbanding the religious orders like monasteries and convents, so as to take the money and fund his various military campaigns.
As a result of this, the land was sold and bought by private buyers including the Glynn, Littleton and Trenance families.
1620: Richard Robartes and John Robartes
Around this time, a local family known as the Robartes had risen in prominence by being very, very rich. And how had they become so rich? Well, most sources say mining, and that was certainly part of it. However, private records of the family apparently indicate that it was loan sharking that really made them their millions.
Essentially, the family would loan money to poor people in Cornwall – but they didn’t make the money off the loans themselves, despite the steep interest applied. Instead, the bulk of it was made when the poor people defaulted, allowing the Robartes to seize their land and amass an enormous property portfolio of more than 40,000 acres. Meanwhile, the poor ended up destitute and locked out of the property market.
If this was a more political blog, I’d insert a snipey comment here.
Anyway, despite the loan sharking, money talks and Richard Robartes, the patriarch of the family, was even knighted and given the title of Baron. He decided to celebrate as most newly-minuted rich people do: by building himself a mansion and sending his kids to private school.
He wasted no time doing both – his son, John Robartes, was packed off to Oxford and the land at Lanhydrock was purchased. Richard began building Lanhydrock, with its distinctive U-shaped design and courtyard in the middle.
Shortly thereafter, he completed the “rich old English guy” trifecta, and bought himself a Lordship, too. He was officially the 1st Lord Robartes – and it had only cost 10,000 pounds!
Enter: John Robartes
Only four years later, Richard died, and John – freshly returned from Oxford – decided to take over the project and see it through to its completion. Before his death, his father had done him one more “solid”: he’d arranged a marriage between John and Lucy, the daughter of Robert Rich, the Second Earl of Warwick.
This was particularly important as, you see, while the Robartes had fortune – a lot of fortune – they were considered ‘new money’. If you’ve seen Poldark, Downton Abbey or just spent too much time looking at the bizarre traditions of English aristocracy, you’d know that ‘new money’ is frowned upon. It’s basically like being a ‘cashed up bogan’ in Australia.
So John has things pretty good, considering the a) Oxford education, b) title, c) mansion, and d) beautiful, rich, powerful wife who gives him legitimacy. They go on to have four children, although one sadly died in infancy. Lucy herself would pass away at just 30 years old in Boscastle.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only bad luck to befell poor old John. A civil war broke out in England and troops stormed Lanhydrock, taking it from the royal-sympathising Robartes. It wouldn’t be until there was yet another revolt (turns out Brexit is not the most tumultuous time in British politics!) and the king was executed that Lanhydrock returned to John.
Meanwhile, John had remarried, this time to Letitia Smith, who was his first wife’s cousin. She was 25 years his junior – at the time of their marriage, John was 42 and Letitia was 17. No comment. They had an eye-watering fourteen children – so I guess they needed all those bedrooms, after all.
1680 – 1800: Mistresses, neglect and country houses
After his death, the Lordship passed down to his son Charles. Charles, in turn, passed it down to his nephew Henry in 1723.
Instead of being pleased with the gift of, you know, a multi-million pound mansion, Henry showed little interest. This was mainly due to the fact that he was busy gallivanting around Italy with his mistress, a popular stage actress. Apparently, the kind of menacing-looking home in Cornwall was far less interesting, and he only set foot in England to raid the family trust fund and then resume gallivanting.
As such, the house fell into ruin and soon after, the peerage died out due to there being no male heir (nevermind the Robartes women in the corner going ‘uhhh, guys?’).
1869: The second first Lord Robartes (got that?)
For some time, Lanhydrock was in the hands of a woman, Anna Maria Hunt. Her own life was tinged with tragedy – between 1810 and 1818, two of her sons and her husband died, leaving behind just the one son, Thomas James Agar.
For fifty years, Anna never remarried and carefully restored Lanhydrock Estate, also helping many miners in the area who were down on their luck and being an all-round decent and competent person. However, she could not inherit the title.
Why, you may ask? Well – something to do with peerage and the patriarchy, so I’m moving on.
Upon Anna’s death, Lanhydrock was passed down to Thomas James Agar, and he decided to take on the Robartes name instead.
Hence, he became the first Lord Robartes – not to be confused with the other first Lord Robartes, so we’ll call him the second first Lord Robartes. Got that?
Chuffed to bits with his new digs (and who could blame him), the second first Lord Robartes going all “renovation rescue” on Lanhydrock and turning it into his dream palace. With the help of architect George Gilbert Scott and his wife, Julianna, they made many new additions.
The fire of 1881
Unfortunately, in 1881 a fire began in the kitchen – possibly as the result of exposed beams that ignited. Gale force winds (this is Cornwall, after all), meant that the fire spread rapidly and was out of control within minutes.
News sources from the time differ on the exact circumstances of the fire. In particular, some say that Julianna was trapped and needed to be rescued from a second storey window, while others say that was a servant. Clearly, someone was rescued from a second storey window, and much of the home – and treasures inside – were destroyed.
Although Julianna escaped, she died about a week later. Newspaper articles at the time state it was from “nervous shock”, while the National Trust pins it, at least partly, on smoke inhalation. Thomas James himself died just a year later, leaving the home to his son.
1881 onwards: the Thomases period
We now enter a period I like to call the Thomases period, on account of the fact that the peerage was handed down as follows: Thomas I > Thomas II > Thomas III > Thomas IV.
Just think, all that money, and they can’t even afford a baby names book!
Luckily, Lanhydrock was insured and it was decided that it would be rebuilt, despite the enormous cost. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on how you feel about Victorian architecture – as so much had been destroyed, Lanhydrock lost much of its character. Instead, it was rebuilt in a distinctly Victorian fashion. This is part of what makes Lanhydrock such a distinctive National Trust property.
Sadly, in a way that’s kind of poetically tragic, disaster continued to befall the family even as they sat amongst their lavish possessions. The last of the Thomases was killed in action in France trying to rescue a wounded soldier during the First World War, cutting short a promising political career (albeit one that had been marred by accusations of vote-buying).
Due to Thomas’ death and lack of heirs, the title was passed on to his brother, Francis Agar-Robartes. Francis eventually died at 83, but had never married or had children. As such, next in line was his younger brother Arthur.
Enter: the National Trust
Arthur did marry and have children, but alas, they were daughters, meaning the peerage reached the end of the line. After trying unsuccessfully to find a buyer for the Lanyhdrock estate, it was decided that it would instead be gifted to the National Trust. You’ve got to wonder what the daughters thought of this development.
Incidentally, it’s worth mentioning the sisters of Tommy, Francis and Arthur. Both Violet and Constance Agar Robartes were said to be warm and compassionate. In particular, Constance turned her back on aristocracy, instead devoting her life to nursing. Again – you do have to wonder why neither of them were considered reasonable beneficiaries!
Nonetheless, I can’t be too mad, as it did mean that Lanhydrock was officially opened to the public in 1958. At this time, three members of the Robartes family were still living on the estate, which is yet another reason why it’s such a perfectly preserved example of a Victorian home.
Visiting Lanhydrock Estate
Today, visiting Lanhydrock is fascinating. As the home was lived in when it was turned over to the National Trust, it seems to be frozen in time. I also think this is one of the best examples of a National Trust property in terms of attention to detail – there are even cakes on the tables, freshly baked!
Here are the main details for visiting Lanhydrock Estate.
The estate and parking are free for National Trust members. I really recommend a membership if you live in the UK – it is so worth it for the free entry into various properties, and the parking.
If you aren’t a member, the adult price (at the time of writing) is £15.35 in summer and £8.45 in winter (November and December). Children are £7.70 and £4.20 respectively.
The house is generally open from 11am – 5pm (last admission at 4:30pm), the gardens are open 10am – 5:30pm and the wider grounds are open from dawn to dusk.
Lanhydrock house will be closed in November 2019 (although the estate will remain open).
Who isn’t the home suitable for?
According to the National Trust website, parts of the house are not suitable for people using wheelchairs. There are numerous paths through the garden, though, and there is also a golf cart/buggy if you need assistance going around the estate.
One thing I would warn you about is that there is a LOT of taxidermy in the property, including of rare species such as tigers and elephants. I personally found this a little upsetting, even though they are obviously very old antique items. As they are antiques, I do not personally feel the need to avoid visiting, but I understand that others may feel differently about this.
What can you see at Lanhydrock Estate?
There are over 400 acres of Lanhydrock Estate open so the short answer is, you can see a lot!
My favourite part of Lanhydrock Estate was the house itself. It is so incredibly grand, and no detail has been spared in terms of keeping it exactly as it would have been when the family lived there. It really gives you an amazing insight into what life was actually like when you were absolutely loaded in the late 19th century.
There are 50 rooms, which is super impressive. These include the Lord and Lady’s bedrooms (apparently they slept separately), the dining room, the drawing room, and the nursery wing. Apparently, the nursey was self-contained so that the children and parents had separate spaces (having recently visited a museum at half-term, I can sympathise).
The servants quarters are also open, giving you an idea of what life would have been like for the staff of the house. Spoiler: nowhere near as lavish, although the rooms were still larger than some London flats.
One highlight of Lanhydrock Estate is the incredible library. It is one of the largest collections in any National Trust property, and it is truly incredible. There are thousands of amazing books, with many dating from the 1500s and 1600s. There’s even about 19 that pre-date 1500, and one of six original copies of the famous Domesday Book. It’s truly jaw-dropping and right at the end of the tour.
The area immediately around the house is known as the “Upper Garden” and it is truly spectacular. Our visit coincided with spring, and as we rounded the corner and stepped into the garden I was totally amazed. For a second I thought we’d somehow taken a wrong turn and ended up at the Japanese/Korean cherry blossom festival!
The vibrant pink flowers (magnolias, I think, although I know pretty much nothing about flowers) were so beautiful, and there was even a babbling stream snaking through the middle. I can almost forgive the loan sharking since they ended up giving us such a beautiful garden. Almost.
There’s also a cute little cottage (yet another dream home of mine, although I’d live at Lanhydrock in a pinch) which happened to serve as the National Trust’s first ever tea room!
Over 400 acres make up the wider grounds, so there is no shortage of space to explore. There are many different walking trails which take you all through the property. They’re suitable for everyone, from hikers to children, and some of them change regularly with signage along the way.
The grounds are also extremely well set up for bikes with trails of all different difficulties from easy “green” trails to more difficult red trails. You can even hire a bike to use – just make sure you book ahead if you are going during summer or school holidays.
Dogs are most welcome in the grounds although not in the home itself, lest they knock over a Min vase.
Cafe, bookstore and events
The other facilities at Lanhydrock include a cafe that does hot drinks and light meals (be warned, the coffees are huge! My latte was about as big as my soup). Personally, I find the National Trust cafe to be a little on the steep side at £3 for a coffee and £4.75 for a relatively small soup, but I’m happy to consider it a donation. If you’re on a budget, bring a picnic lunch instead!
There’s also a secondhand bookstore on site, which is great since it’s hard not to leave that amazing library without feeling tempted to start your own!
Finally, there are frequent events at Lanhydrock Estate, as with most National Trust properties. Check out the calendar to see what’s on during your visit!