Vast wealth - and an exotic gold-digger

What started as a look at church restoration uncovered tales of love, riches beyond imagination, human folly and lives turned upside-down - and their roots lay in rural Suffolk.

Steven Russell

What started as a look at church restoration uncovered tales of love, riches beyond imagination, human folly and lives turned upside-down - and their roots lay in rural Suffolk. Steven Russell lapped them up

IT would make a cracking costume drama: the story of how a fortune is amassed, used for good, virtually splits a family asunder and finally triggers a court action that is the talk of London society. It's a tale that moves from opulent Paris drawing-rooms to the East Anglian countryside and involves a cast of marquises, the illegitimate daughter of an Italian dancer and the French shop assistant who becomes a Lady. There's also a middle-aged millionaire whose head is turned by an aristocratic gold-digger.

First, to set the scene. In the village of Orford, nearly a decade ago, improvement work was planned at the church. As cupboards were emptied in readiness, some interesting things came to light. They included the Church Restoration Committee's Minute Book from 1892 to 1915, logging a major restoration of St Bartholomew's.

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It was fascinating stuff for a history enthusiast like Jane Allen, “that awful thing, a weekender!” since 1984 and a permanent Orford resident with husband Tim since 1998, following retirement.

Then an architectural inspection in 2002 revealed serious defects. A restoration appeal was launched and, at a fund-raising event, Jane gave a talk about how renovations were done 110 years earlier.

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By that time she'd already pieced together much of the remarkable family drama being played out at the same time. “I did not know that I would uncover quite such an interesting and at times sensational story,” she admits.

Back to 1754, now, when Francis Seymour Conway, Earl of Hertford and later to become the first Marquis of Hertford, acquired the Sudbourne estate in Suffolk. It included most of the property in Orford.

The estate forged a reputation for some of the best shooting in the country, explains Jane's new book, and both the Prince Regent and the Duke of Wellington were regular guests over the years.

At the age of 21 the 3rd Marquis married Maria Fagnani. “Mie-Mie” was the illegitimate daughter of an Italian dancer and the 4th Duke of Queensberry. Her elder son, destined to become the 4th Marquis, never married but did have a son in 1818. Young Richard was from the age of six brought up in Paris by his grandmother, Mie-Mie, and in 1842 took his mother's maiden name: Wallace.

Grown up, he became involved with Amelie-Julie-Charlotte Castelnau, said to have been an assistant in a perfumer's shop. They had son Edmond in 1840, but didn't marry until 1871.

Wallace's father had received large inheritances from both parents and, like the 3rd Marquis, was a serious collector of fine furniture, paintings and objets d'art. When his father died in 1870, Sir Richard inherited these dazzling collections and two properties in Paris, substantial estates in County Antrim and a house in Piccadilly, but because of his illegitimacy couldn't inherit the title and the properties that went with it.

However, in 1872 he bought the Sudbourne estate from his father's second cousin, who had become the 5th Marquis. Wallace added to the lavish collection, helped by his French-speaking secretary, John Murray Scott. Scott had become Wallace's assistant in Paris, where they witnessed the besieging of the city by the Prussians.

Sir Richard decided to settle in England. He improved or rebuilt many of the tenants' houses in Orford and Sudbourne, and the National School in Orford was built with his financial help. He also renamed the London property Hertford House and began improvements with the aim of housing his family's exotic collection there. Life wasn't quite so rewarding for Lady Wallace, suggests Jane. She never learned to speak English well and found her position as a society hostess rather trying.

John Murray Scott's role undoubtedly led to the arrival of his clergyman brother, Edward. He replaced the Rev John Maynard, rector of Sudbourne with Orford, who died in 1877. Edward Scott would be the prime mover in the major church restoration later that century.

In 1884 Sir Richard, not in good health, sold the Sudbourne estate to a banker and moved to London. It was the end of an era and a turbulent time for villagers, as an Act of 1883 meant Orford lost its status as a borough, with a mayor and corporation, that it had held since 1579.

With his autumn years dogged by illness, Sir Richard returned to France and a reclusive life; his wife stayed in England. Wallace died in Paris in the summer of 1890 - and then the story really hotted up.

His widow and John Murray Scott both lived at Hertford House. Scott's mother and sisters lived nearby and visited daily. The group holidayed together and became firm friends.

When Lady Wallace died in 1897, the magnificent works of art were left to the nation as The Wallace Collection (and are still on show to the public today). She had four grandchildren across the Channel but little time for their mother, a former actress. She did leave them the freehold of a house in France, however.

And here's the whammy: while Sir Richard's widow left £100,000 to charities, most of her enormous fortune went to John Murray Scott - the fluent French-speaker who had proved a faithful friend. It included the lease on Hertford House, estates in Ireland, Bagatelle (a beautiful house set in 60 acres in the Bois de Boulogne) and an apartment in rue Lafitte in Paris.

It was wealth virtually beyond imagination. Little wonder Jane says: “Rather in the manner of today's Lottery winners, he bought houses for his family and paid for their holidays.”

John Murray Scott's fortune increased when the Government paid £35,000 - just over £2million in today's money - for the rest of his lease on Hertford House. The Wallace Collection was opened in June, 1900, by the Prince of Wales. Scott had become Sir John in recognition of his role.

Enjoying a preview of the collection a few years earlier was Victoria Sackville-West, one of the illegitimate children of Lord Sackville, of Knole, Kent, and a Spanish dancer named Pepita. Victoria had married her cousin, heir to the title, and in 1892 they had daughter Vita, who would become a writer.

“Life was not plain sailing for Victoria . . .” explains Jane. “After a happy start, her marriage began to fall apart and her husband was having affairs with other women. Her meeting with the fabulously wealthy bachelor John Murray Scott in 1897 gave her a whole new project to pursue.”

Mrs Sackville-West began lording it over the Scott family. According to Nigel Nicolson's book Portrait of a Marriage, Victoria “began by humiliating them in the guise of helpfulness. She rearranged the furniture in their houses; she asked her own friends to Seery's [pet name for Sir John] dinner-parties 'to make them more lively'; she then suggested that only one sister at a time, and later none, need attend these parties, 'for people don't come to meet your sisters'.”

This impossible, volatile and demanding woman even thwarted Sir John's plan to make his younger brother his secretary, alleging Walter was in love with her. Walter asked her to stop making mischief, “then had a heart-to-heart with Sir John . . . pointing out the damage the friendship was doing to the family. Their mother overheard the conversation, was deeply upset, rushed to her room, had a heart attack and died the following day . . . There can be little doubt that, in their grief, most of the Scotts felt that it was Mrs Sackville-West who had been responsible for their mother's death,” suggests Jane.

“She rang rings around Sir John. He was a great big softy, by all accounts. He was 6 foot 4 inches tall, he weighed 25 stone and was allegedly 60 inches round the waist. No-one believes that his relationship with Victoria was a sexual one.”

He was soon giving her large sums of money, nevertheless - and a house in Mayfair. “It was estimated that he gave her £84,000 (nearly £5million today) while he was still alive.”

Then, early in 1912, Sir John died of a sudden heart attack. When his will was revealed, the Scotts must have been appalled, thinks Jane. “They called the Sackvilles 'The Locusts' even before they knew about the will. It was then that they took the decision which made them the talk of London society and gave the newspapers a field day. They decided to contest the will.”

The estate was valued at a whopping £1,180,000; in today's money more than £66million. Lady Sackville was left jewellery, £150,000 and the goodies from rue Lafitte. To rub salt in the wounds, death duties would come from the rest of the estate - the part the Scotts would be sharing.

“If one takes the bequests to Lady Sackville as being worth £550,000 and the duties to be 40 per cent, she would be taking £770,000 of the £1,180,000 . . .”

The Scott brothers and sisters claimed the Sackvilles had exerted undue influence on Sir John. Both sides were represented in the High Court by top counsel. “The hearings in late June and early July 1913 caught the tail end of the London season,” says Jane. “The whole tale of Sir John's relationship with Victoria Sackville-West was paraded in public and humiliating detail.”

She proved “a vivacious but extremely slippery witness . . . She made the court laugh. The jury and the judge loved her. How dull the Scotts must have seemed in comparison.” The jury took only 12 minutes to find the will and its codicils were valid.

Victoria sold the contents of the rue Lafitte apartment to a Paris dealer for £270,000 (£15million today). She bought a Rolls-Royce and houses, and began an entanglement with the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, “causing him quite as much heartache as she had Sir John Murray Scott”. When Vita got married that autumn, all 12 jurors were invited.

Jane Allen believes Lady Wallace had left her fortune to John Murray Scott simply because the family had become supportive friends. “I don't attribute any evil motives to the Scotts; I don't think they were gold-diggers in the way that Victoria Sackville was.”

When Jane gave her talk a few years ago, on the 19th Century church restoration, she had a stroke of luck. Friends brought along a gentleman called Nigel Sheffield, the great-nephew of John Murray Scott and former rector Edward.

“This story, of course, he knew all about. He was such a charming man and didn't at all mind me mangling his family history for the entertainment of the masses! And he produced family photo albums. So, suddenly, these people we'd just been talking about, there they were. They'd come to life.”

It emerged, too, that Nigel's grandfather, Malcolm Scott, was a bit of an unsung hero. The stockbroker married the granddaughter of Edward's predecessor, the Rev Maynard. The Scotts, particularly Malcolm, continued to contribute generously to work on Orford church for the first half of the 20th Century.

So, with all this material, there was no excuse for not cracking on with a book, with this “rattling good yarn” running parallel with the account of the restoration that had initially aroused Jane's interest. “The risk, of course, is that you end up with a sort of fruit salad and that it doesn't satisfy anybody . . .”

Most unlikely.

The Wallace Connection - The Story of the Restoration of Orford Church is published by Orford Museum at £14.50. It is available from bookshops or for £16.50 (which includes postage) by sending a cheque, payable to Orford Museum, to Orford Museum Book, Bell House, Quay Street, Orford, Woodbridge, IP12 2NU. Queries:

Proceeds go to St Bartholomew's Church Restoration Appeal Fund and Orford Museum.

JANE Allen hadn't long been a resident when she noticed how a handful of people from the past tended to pop up everywhere. She knew Sir Richard Wallace had lived at Sudbourne Hall and noted his crest on many buildings in Orford. Then there was the church, where visitors couldn't escape the name of Edward Scott, because it's on numerous inscriptions.

“I'm always quite interested in the financial aspect of great enterprises and the restoration of Orford church must have cost an absolute bomb, and I wondered where the money came from,” says the chairman of the Friends of Orford Museum. “My first thought that it was essentially Wallace money, so began to investigate further.”

She and friend Valerie Potter noted John Murray Scott's role. Then Jane realised how many Scott graves there were, including John's and his clerical brother. It was the Rev Edward Scott who masterminded the restoration that began in 1894.

The full extent of the rector's personal financial contribution is not known, because the account books haven't survived, but he did give loans and donations and “we can only marvel at Edward Scott's determination and stamina in seeing it (the whole project) through”.

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