Highlights of Hursley History
By John Bull
The Cromwell Connection
Hursley House - the great families
"HURSLEY 2000 - A Collection of Memories"
By Stan Rawdon
These highlights are condensed and adapted from more serious histories of the village, with special acknowledgements to:
"All Saints' Church, Hursley - History and Guide" by S.C.Rawdon
"Merdone, the history of Hursley Park" by D. Len Peach, published by IBM UK Laboratories, Hursley Park, Winchester.
The King's Head and Lych Gate
Hursley became associated with the Cromwell family when Oliver Cromwell's son Richard married a local girl, Dorothy Major, in 1643. It was an arranged marriage but it seems to have worked because Richard truly prized his dark-haired, dark-eyed wife and was heartbroken when she died.
Lucky in love, unlucky at everything else, Richard was nicknamed Tumbledown Dick. His father Oliver, you may recall, led the Parliamentarians (also called Roundheads) who won the Civil War, executed Charles I, and ran the country as a Commonwealth. When Oliver died in 1658, Richard succeeded him as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth.
Hursley became important as the country seat of the nation's leader. But it didn't last. The all-powerful army didn't want Richard, because he wasn't a general, and Parliament refused to give him the money to pay the troops, or the navy, or for his Privy Purse. In 1659 he gave up and retired to Hursley.
Anti-Cromwell feeling ran pretty high after Charles II was restored to the monarchy, and later Richard had to flee with his wife to France, where Dorothy died some 15 years later. He returned to Hursley after his son, Oliver Cromwell II died in 1705 and lived on as lord of the manor until the age of 86 in 1712. He was respectfully buried inside Hursley church.
At one time, Charles is supposed to have visited Richard at Hursley, presumably in a sort of forgiving spirit of 'It's all blood under the bridge.'
You can imagine their conversation:
Richard: "Sorry my father had your father executed."
Charles: "That's all right, Dick. I'm sorry my people dug up your dad and chopped his head off. "
They did do that, and the head was stuck up on a pole for Londoners to gawp at. It started a rather bizarre chain of events. Because Oliver had been embalmed on his deathbed, his head was so well preserved it remained on its pole for years until a guard stole it. It changed hands many times down the centuries, often being exhibited by showmen, and eventually came into the possession of a clergyman. It was finally reburied at Oxford by the Cromwell Society -- in 1962, more than 300 years after the rest of him.
Richard's body was not much luckier. Apart from the fact that it lies under All Saints' Church, no-one knows the exact location, because John Keble, the famous Victorian vicar, who had no time for Puritans, removed all records of the Cromwells when he rebuilt the church in 1848.
Hursley House and the great families
Richard Cromwell's daughters sold Hursley estate to Sir William Heathcote, baronet, in 1718 for £35,100 (a tiny cottage in the village would cost you nearer three times that today).
Sir William built a red brick, Queen Anne style mansion on the site of a Tudor house in Hursley Park, a former hunting lodge, and started a Hursley dynasty that lasted until 1888.
He was a successful merchant who wanted to get out of 'trade' to be a country gentleman. At one time he was MP for Southampton.
His son, Sir Thomas, inherited in 1751 and almost immediately set about rebuilding Hursley's medieval church, which had practically sunk into the ground. The congregation had to go down a flight of steps to get inside.
Sir Thomas replaced it with a 'light and airy' Georgian brick building. It lasted less than 100 years before it was re-built by the Victorians, but you can get an idea of what it looked like because Sir Thomas also built a matching mausoleum in the churchyard, in which many of the Heathcotes are installed. One of them, the lovely Sophia, has an inscription that touchingly describes her as 'my sweetest wife.'
Sir Thomas was married twice and had eight children.
He was succeeded by the second Sir William, said to have been the 'much loved county MP in three parliaments.' His son, another Sir Thomas, was a patron of the arts and modernised Hursley House, but was blamed by later Heathcotes for property blunders that eventually cost the family the estate.
More popular was his nephew, William, who became the fifth baronet in 1825. He extended the house and also created Home Farm on the site of the old Merdon manor, which became a showpiece. When his first wife Caroline died in 1835, leaving him with three sons and a daughter, he retired from public life and resigned as MP.
But marriage to the lovely Selina in 1841 seems to have perked him up and he entered a new busy era of public service as MP and privy counsellor -- and had another eight children.
The Heatchcote era ended after he died. Selina sold the estate for £150,000 to Joseph Baxendale, the owner of Pickfords.
The second great era began in 1902 when George Cooper, later Sir George, and his wife, Mary, bought the house. She was an American who had been left an immense fortune by her uncle. The Coopers had an estate in Scotland and a house in Grosvenor Square, where the US embassy now stands.
Like many of her countrymen of the period, Lady Cooper set about turning Hursley Park into an opulent social showplace.
Some 400 craftsmen worked on the house; extra wings were added, electric light installed, a library with magnificent panelling, a sumptuous drawing room, and an entertainment hall, which was available to the village for functions. The 21st birthday party for their eldest son, George, in 1911, was still a talking point among older residents 60 years on.
The Coopers had their own livery -- for horse-drawn coaches and motor cars, which over the years included a Benz, Panhard, several Rolls Royces, even a 15-seat Commer coach.
In World War I, Sir George made a personal donation of about £5 million to the war effort, the largest private donation of its kind.
Meanwhile, Lady Cooper was instrumental in setting up an American hospital in Hursley Park, and ran her own Hospital for Officers on two floors of the house.
By the outbreak of World War II the estate employed 200 people -- most of the village at that time.
Sir George died in 1940 and Lord Beaverbrook requisitioned the house for the design staff of Vickers Supermarine, creators of the heroic Spitfire fighter, who had been bombed out of their Southampton base.
It was the end of an era. After the war, the estate was too expensive for the family to keep up and it was sold.
Present owners are St Martin's -- a subsidiary of the Kuwait Investment Corporation.
Since 1958 the house (and park) has been in the hands of IBM who have carefully preserved its finest rooms.
* Earliest folk known to live in Hursley were the Beaker people, of the prehistoric Bronze Age, about 2,000 years BC. They get their name from the drinking vessels they made. Obviously fond of a jar, they knew a good watering hole when they saw one. They came from northern Europe, probably on foot since in those days there was no water in the way.
* Merdon Castle, the original 'manor house' (remains are to the north of the village) was built by Bishop Henry de Blois (half brother of the last Norman king, Stephen).
Every couple have their tiffs, but Stephen and Matilda went too far and fought a war that lasted 18 years and dragged everyone else into it. That's why Henry needed a castle.
* Old inhabitants will tell you that Hursley once had a vampire. Don't believe it. The rumour got around because in 1610, a villager called Wool hanged himself and was buried in unhallowed ground with a stake through his body. That's how they dealt with suicides then. However, there are bats in the church belfry...
* In 1664, church records show that in the Great Plague 'many persons died, were not brought to church but buried in the waste ground near their houses.'
* The noted Victorian churchman and poet John Keble (Vicar of Hursley 1835--66), rebuilt the church in 1848 and installed the stained glass windows, now something of a national treasure. He preached once at Winchester Cathedral and was never invited back because they said he was 'too Papist.'
* Thousands of servicemen in transit have camped in Hursley Park. But the GI's of World War II from 1943 until D-Day and after, lived in 100 huts and were a culture shock for the locals. They won them over by sharing their food parcels from home and organising dances and parties.
(For serious history of Hursley see:
"All Saints' Church, Hursley - History and Guide" by S.C.Rawdon (available in church and post office, £2)
"Merdone, the history of Hursley Park" by D. Len Peach, published by IBM UK Laboratories, Hursley Park, Winchester. )