The Duke’s woodland

Century Wood is called Century Wood because it was first planted up as woodland by the Duke of Sutherland around 1900. The Leveson-Gower family gradually accumulated land in Shropshire, Staffordshire, and Cheshire over several centuries. Their stewardship ultimately affected the pattern of land ownership today and even what the land looks like.

There were a lot of Leveson-Gowers, but I’m only going to pick out three that made the most difference to how Century Wood looks today.

The first is George Granville Leveson-Gower, the 1st Duke of Sutherland. The dukedom is a bit misleading, as it was only granted to him in 1833 in the last year of his long life, and he was really known as the Marquess of Stafford from 1803 when his father died. 1803 also saw the death of his mother’s brother, the Duke of Bridgewater, and Leveson-Gower then added Bridgewater’s enormous wealth to his own estates. This probably made Leveson-Gower the richest man in the world for the rest of his life. Here he is with his prominent nose and Order of the Garter star, looking like the young Duke of Wellington.

George Granville Leveson-Gower, 1st Duke of Sutherland

In Scotland he is notorious for his part in the Highland Clearances, although in practice they were mostly overseen by his wife, who was Countess of Sutherland in her own right and brought extensive estates in the very north of Scotland into the family. It’s one of those unpopular opinions that people don’t want to hear today, but the Countess appears to have genuinely believed that moving tenants from precarious subsistence farming inland to coastal crofts with a variety of income sources was an enlightened decision. Arguably this was borne out in the 1840s when the Highlands suffered its own potato famine, which would have been far worse with a large inland population. The tenants didn’t know this was coming though, and strongly resented the step down from farming to crofting. There is a statue of the 1st Duke in Sutherland which to this day is subject to vandalism and even one failed bomb attempt.

The contrast with the Duke’s contemporary reputation in Shropshire is striking. Within sight of his new country house, Lilleshall Hall, his tenants donated almost a thousand pounds to erect the Lilleshall Monument in his honour, with the following inscription:

“To the memory of George Granville Leveson Gower, K.G. 1st Duke of Sutherland. The most just and generous of landlords. This monument is erected by the occupiers of his Grace’s Shropshire farms as a public testimony that he went down to his grave with the blessings of his tenants on his head and left behind him upon his estates the best inheritance which a gentleman of England can bequeath to his son; men ready to stand by his house, heart and hand.”

One of the reasons for his tenants’ gratitude was the amount of road building and land drainage work which he did, using the Bridgewater wealth he had inherited. Whole areas of marshland were made available for agriculture by this wholesale lowering of the water table, and his tenant farmers benefitted, either with more land to extend their own operations or to allow younger sons to start on their own.

Century Wood stands on some of this reclaimed land, and every time I dig a fence post hole I am reminded of that as I go through the peaty soil that accumulated when the land was still marsh. Here and there I come across layers of silt and sand where there was an old drainage ditch or stream.

We skip over the 2nd and 3rd Dukes, and reach the 4th Duke, Cromartie Sutherland-Leveson-Gower. He inherited the dukedom and the family estates from his father in 1892 when he was 41. He was an MP until he came into his inheritance and then took his seat in the House of Lords. With his wealth and political connections came a prominent role in London society with his wife Millicent, and he invited famous men of the day to his estates in Shropshire, Staffordshire, and Sutherland for weekend shooting parties – rather like the ones in “Gosford Park” or “Downton Abbey”.

Millicent’s portrait below was painted by John Singer Sargent in 1904. By then Sargent was the greatest portrait painter of the age and highly sought after by sitters. I was able to photograph this portrait at its home in the Thyssen-Bornemisza gallery in Madrid in 2013.

The papers relating to the management of his Shropshire estates are in the county records office in Shrewsbury, and include accounts for the sale of timber from his woods and the costs of establishing and maintaining them. There are even gamekeepers’ books listing the names of men who joined him on each shoot and how many birds were shot.

The land that is now Century Wood was a field and then planted up as woodland during this period in about 1900. There are references to shoots in the neighbouring woods, and the annual crop of pheasants was part of its produce along with the eventual timber harvest. One of the estate maps is a printed Ordnance Survey Map with the new woodland drawn in pen and ink. It’s tempting to imagine the Duke, his estate manager, his forester, and Charles Jeggo the head gamekeeper standing around this piece of paper agreeing where best to plant, and then committing to it in ink.

Thanks to the 4th Duke, Century Wood now existed.

I can’t mentioned the Duchess without a quick digression: the 4th Duke died in 1913 and the Duchess volunteered as a nurse during the First World War, organised an ambulance unit in Belgium, only to be surrounded by the Germans in late 1914. She managed to cross their lines and escape, wrote a best selling book about her adventures, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government. She travelled in the 1920s and 30s, and mostly lived in France. In 1940 she again found herself behind German lines, this time being captured, but escaped and returned to Britain via Spain and Portugal. She lived until 1955, longer than either of the two husbands she had after the Duke, and her ashes were buried with him in Sutherland.

Their son, George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, became the 5th Duke in 1913. He inherited what is now Century Wood along with the rest of the estates but was convinced having his money in land was a liability and sold it off in phases. Century Wood was sold in 1915.

After the war he entered politics and also took prominent roles in national institutions: he was Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (the monarch’s representative in its proceedings) and he was the first chairman of the British Film Institute. You may have seen him on film in another of his roles: he was president of the British Olympic Association in 1924 during the events shown in “Chariots of Fire”. He was played by Peter Egan, in a rather flattering piece of casting it must be said.

With the break up of the estate, mostly to smaller local landowners and farmers, the wood and the Leverson-Gower family parted company after more than three centuries. A few owners separate my purchase from the 1915 sale, and the wider landscape and the woodland itself are a product of all the management choices they made. Choices I now add to myself.

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