Landowners, Bishops and Singers

Humber Museums Partnership - Landowners, Bishops and Singers

About Landowners, Bishops and Singers


This exhibition looks at the history of the Elwes Family and their impact on the local area. Discover what it was like to have Cary Elwes as your landlord. What impact did Valentine Elwes’s conversion to Catholicism have on Brigg? Learn about the legacy left by Gervase Elwes, the famous singer.

In 1674 Jeremy Elwes bought the Tyrwhitt estates of Wrawby, Brigg and Bigby for £2,300. At this time they consisted of nothing more than a few houses. The Elwes family began the development of these estates into the towns and villages we know today.

The Elwes family also owned land at Risby, Roxby, in parts of Yorkshire and Billing Hall in Northampton. Many houses in these villages are still owned by the Elwes family who live at Elsham Hall.

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  • Billing Hall, Northampton, June 1905. Gervase Cary Elwes is third from left and Alice Cary Elwes is fourth from left.

  • Gervase and Winefride Cary Elwes planting a tree to commemorate their marriage in 1889. Winefride is holding the spade.

  • Shop owned by William and Joseph Thompson, South Street, Roxby, c.1895. The building is still owned by the Elwes family.

Cary Elwes (1718-1772), Landowner and Landlord.

Cary Elwes began to develop the family estates after inheriting them in 1752. He saw great potential for Brigg, ideally situated as it was on both the River Ancholme and the turnpike road between Lincoln and Barton. Cary rebuilt the estate’s traditional mud and brick housing in brick and tile with a ‘party wall’ between every two residences. This wall was a brick and a half thick and he insisted that it should rise above the tile to ‘prevent the communication of fire as in London’.

The new housing saw an increase in rent for tenants and Cary realised that he could make more money if land was used for housing rather than farming. Among the tenants who lost fields to house building were the landlords of the Angel and the Packhorse Inn and the Westrum family. Many tenants were angry and a series of minor riots took place in 1760. Cary instructed his Lincolnshire agent, Henry Holgate, to deal with the rioters. Those who continued to riot were threatened with losing their houses and within a month all was calm again in Brigg.

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  • The Dying Gladiator, Brigg, 1919. The image is from a sale catalogue of buildings from the Elwes estate.

  • Wrawby Street, Brigg. Cary Elwes' development of Brigg made Wrawby Street a very desirable place to live.

Cary Elwes (1718-1772), Landowner and Landlord.

At election time, Cary would visit Brigg to influence votes for Parliament. His tenants were expected to vote for his favoured candidates and he would view a vote cast for another candidate as a personal insult. In 1760 he asked his agent, Holgate, for the names of the tenants who did not vote for Lord Brownlow Bertie. Although they were not evicted, they would have lost favours such as access to additional land.

Cary also exercised control over religion and made attempts to rout out non-conformists from his estates. In 1773 he asked Holgate to investigate Methodism in Wrawby and in 1775 he ordered the release of Methodist labourers and the eviction of Methodist tenants in Roxby.

This behaviour was much like that of other landowners of the time. However, unusually for an absentee landlord, he knew the names of all his tenants and their family history. He was also very kind to tenants he believed had earned it. In 1858 he instructed his Yorkshire agent to offer assistance to Jane Smallwood of Morkside after her husband died. He was responsible for much of the building development of his estates and gave money to schemes such as the Brigg Turnpike Trust.

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  • Entrance to Change Alley, Brigg.

  • Market Place, Brigg, c.1890s. Many of the buildings have been knocked down and rebuilt since Cary Elwes first began developing Brigg.

Valentine Cary Elwes (1832-1908) and a Catholic conversion

In 1865 Valentine Cary Elwes married his second wife Alice Ward. The couple moved into the Manor House at Brigg in 1869. They had three children, Gervase, Dudley and Maud. Valentine played a big part in the local community. He campaigned to have a national school built in Brigg, developed the water supply granted by his father and was the president of the Choral Society. Valentine was also a keen hunter, organising hunts on his estates for friends and family.

In 1874 the family visited Nice in France, where they were converted to the Catholic faith. At this time there was no Catholic church in Brigg for the family to worship in, so in 1875 Valentine converted the old coach house next to the Manor House into a chapel. It was dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of St. Mary but was known as St. Mary’s. The building served as the Catholic chapel in Brigg until a new church was built in Barnard Avenue in 1965.

Valentine provided an income for the priest despite the small number of worshippers. This allowed the Catholic Church to continue in Brigg until its popularity grew.

Gervase Elwes (1866 - 1921) the Singer

Gervase Elwes was born in 1866 at Billing Hall, Northampton. In 1889 he married Lady Winefride Feilding, daughter of the 8th Earl of Denbigh. Gervase trained as a lawyer and diplomat, and the couple spent several years in Brussels before returning to England. Between 1890 and 1904 they had eight children. The family spent their time between the Manor House in Brigg, Billing Hall and London.

Despite having always been musical, Gervase did not begin formal singing lessons until he was 28. It was unusual for someone of his class to become a singer and his father, Valentine Cary Elwes, particularly objected. Gervase gave his first professional performance in 1903 at St. James’s Hall in ‘Wallfahrt nach Kevlaar’. In April 1904 he performed Elgar’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’, becoming Elgar’s favourite performer of the role. As Gervase’s popularity grew he was in high demand amongst the London elite.

Gervase was keen that music should be heard by everyone and regularly performed at poorer venues or charitable events for a small fee. During the First World War he sang for military charities and visited the front line three times to entertain the troops.

Gervase Elwes and the Brigg Music Festival

In the early 1900s Gervase and Winefride started an annual Musical Competition Festival in Brigg. Gervase visited local schools and village choirs to conduct practices, ensuring the choirs were ready for an afternoon concert for children and an evening concert for adults.

In 1905 the composer Percy Grainger asked Gervase to include a folk song category in the competition. In 1906 Joseph Taylor sang two verses of ‘Brigg Fair’ for Grainger. He won the folk song category with a different song called ‘Creeping Jane’. Grainger was so taken with ‘Brigg Fair’ that he made an arrangement for the song and extended it by adding three verses from two other songs. In 1907 Fredrick Delius heard Grainger’s version of ‘Brigg Fair’. He used the song as the basis for an orchestral work which was performed in 1908 at the Queen’s Hall, London. Joseph Taylor, then aged 76, was taken to London to hear the performance. He stood up to sing along as the orchestra started playing.

Gervase regularly held music workshops in London and at Billing Hall. Musicians stayed with the family for up to a week at a time and put on concerts and productions. Gervase also looked after sick or distressed musicians at Billing Hall until they were recovered.

The Legacy of Gervase Elwes

Tragically, Gervase died on 12 January 1921 in Boston whilst touring America. After leaving a train Gervase realised he had mistakenly taken another man’s coat. As he ran along the platform to return it he slipped under a train and was killed. Upon hearing of his death Elgar wrote to Percy Hull, the organist and composer, saying, “My personal loss is greater than I can bear to think upon, but this is nothing – or I must call it so – compared to the general artistic loss – a gap impossible to fill in the musical world”.

A memorial performance was given at the Royal Albert Hall shortly after Gervase’s death. Several choirs introduced awards named after Gervase. A choir was even named after him in Walsall.

His friends set up the ‘Gervase Elwes Memorial Fund for Musicians’. In 1930 this became the ‘Musicians’ Benevolent Fund’ and in 2014 the name again changed to ‘Help Musicians UK’. The charity continues to help sick or distressed musicians as Gervase did during his lifetime.

John Meggott (1714-1789)

John Meggott changed his surname to Elwes in 1751 to inherit the estates and fortune of his uncle, Sir Harvey Elwes. He became MP for Berkshire in 1772, a post he held until he retired in 1784. He spent 18 pence on his election campaign.
Elwes was so scared of losing his fortune that he survived on about £50 a year, or around £7000 in today’s money. Many people mistook him for a beggar. After his retirement from politics, he moved between his many houses. He often sat in cold, damp rooms, as he refused to pay for firewood. When he died in 1789, he left £500,000 to his two illegitimate sons and nephew. This would equate to around £66,668,918 today.

His miserly habits were so famous that he is believed to be the inspiration for Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’.

Dudley Cary Elwes (1868-1932)

Dudley was the brother of Gervase Elwes. He was ordained into the priesthood in 1896 at the age of 28. In 1921 he was appointed Bishop of Northampton, in which role he served until his death in 1932.

Lady Winefride Elwes, nee Feilding (1869-1958)

Winefride married Gervase Elwes in 1889, and they had eight children together. She was National President for the Catholic Women’s League for several years. It was through her support that Gervase was able to have such a successful singing career.

Lt. Col. Simon Elwes (1902-1975)

Simon was the sixth son of Gervase and Winefride. He was a famous war artist and portrait painter. He painted many members of the royal family and was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. In 1933 Simon was elected a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. He suffered a stroke in 1945 which paralysed the right-hand side of his body. After two years of treatment, he managed to teach himself to paint with his left hand and was once again in demand painting the portraits of Hollywood stars.

Rudolph William Basil Feilding (1823-1892)

Rudolph Feilding was the 8th Earl of Denbigh. He was appointed High Sheriff of Flintshire in 1850. He was also the founder of the Franciscan monastery at Pantasaph, North Wales.
Rudolph married Mary Berkeley and they had nine children. The seventh was Lady Winefride Feilding, who later married Gervase Cary Elwes.

Margaret Keswick Jencks (1941-1995)

Margaret was a famous author and gardener. After battling with cancer for a number of years she founded Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres, based on the idea that ‘the joy of living could be lost in the fear of dying’. Maggie and her husband Charles designed the centres together.

The centres provided an informal, relaxed and happy place for cancer patients and their families. Unfortunately, Maggie died a year before the first centre opened. There are now fifteen centres across the country.

Bede Dominick Elwes (1931-1975)

Known as Dominick, he was a portrait painter like his father, Simon Elwes.

At the age of 26, Dominick met, and wished to marry, 19 year old shipping heiress Tessa Kennedy. Tessa’s parents objected to the union and in 1957 obtained a restraining order to prevent the couple from marrying.

Dominick and Tessa eloped to Havana, Cuba, where they wed in a civil ceremony in 1958. When revolution threatened the stability of Cuba the couple fled aboard a raft to Miami. They wed again in New York before returning to England.

Dominick turned himself into the authorities and spent two weeks in prison for contempt of court. The couple had three children, Cassian, Damian and Cary, before divorcing in 1969.

Dominick was a good friend of Lord Lucan. When Lucan disappeared in 1974, after the murder of his children’s nanny, Dominick gave information concerning his friend to the press. Other friends viewed this as a betrayal. He committed suicide in 1975.

Cary Elwes (1962-)

Cary is the son of Dominick Elwes and a famous Hollywood actor. He made his acting debut in 1984 in ‘Another Country’ alongside Rupert Everett.

He has since gone on to star in ‘Princess Bride’, ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’, ‘Hot Shots!’, ‘Liar, Liar’, ‘Saw’ and ‘Ella Enchanted’, amongst many others.

Cary has two brothers, Cassian Elwes, who works as an independent film producer, and Damian Elwes, who is a famous artist in America.

Humber Museums Partnership