Lord Houghton at Fryston Hall

Lord Houghton at Fryston Hall  (1877) 
by Isabel Burton

Published as part of the Celebrities at Home series in The World periodical.


Whether to see Lord Houghton at home the reader would more appropriately be introduced to him in his Yorkshire or his London residence is a question not perhaps easy to decide. Since the house in Upper Brook-street has been given up, Lord Houghton has pitched his tent for the season in different parts of London. Ubi bene ibi patria; wherever Lord Houghton may have settled himself, he is equally surrounded with the signs of elegance and ease ; therefore, to adopt the Latin proverb, he is at home everywhere, even as, wherever he receives them, he makes the guests whom he delights to entertain with his graceful hospitality emphatically at home too. On the present occasion, however, let us elect to visit him within easy driving distance of Pontefract, which he represented for twenty-five years on both sides of the House, at Fryston Hall. A house more delightful than this it is difficult to imagine. Situated on the frontiers of the great West Riding industries, it stands in the centre of gardens and shrubberies, with prairies of park and miles of larch and beechen woods. Fryston Hall was originally a handsome square mansion, belonging to Mr. Charles Crowle, whose portrait is to be seen in one of the two grand pictures by Sir Joshua Reynolds, in the possession of the Dilettanti Society, and whom Horace "Walpole frequently visited there on his way to his neighbour Sir John Bland of Kippax Park, the fashionable gambler who shot himself. Towards the close of the last century this house was purchased by Mr. Milnes of Wakefield, M.P. for York, who added a handsome Italian front with Ionic pilasters and pediment, and a large corps de logis behind, and took up his residence here about 1790. His son was ' Orator' or ' Singlespeech' Milnes, as he was variously called in his time, and who, after his retirement from public life, lived a good deal on the Continent, where the youth of the present Lord Houghton, the wearer of the title which his father refused, was chiefly spent. Mr. Milnes returned to reside at Fryston Hall in 1835, and remained there till his death in 1858.

The hospitalities of Lord Houghton have long since made Fryston famous. None of those who have had that pleasant experience will forget the hearty reception which awaited them after their drive to the Hall — the figure of the host just about the middle height, his brown hair flowing carelessly from his broad forehead, his blue eyes beaming with gladness at the arrival of his friends, as he stood on the top of the stone steps, in front of the house, with both hands extended. Then followed the cup of tea in the library, a long, handsome, comfortable room, soft-carpeted, and replete with ottoman and sofa luxury, but walled with books, as indeed was the whole house, not in formal rows, but in separate cases, each with its own subject — Poetry, Magic, French Revolution, Oriental Thought, Theology and Anti-theo- logy, Criminal Trials, Fiction, from Manon Lescaut to George Eliot. Here in the old days the guests were softly welcomed near the tea-urn by one who is no more, but will never be forgotten — Lady Houghton, daughter of Lord Crewe, of whom Leigh Hunt has recorded that 'her smile was like a piece of good news.' Some peculiarities, which might appear as deficiencies, were to be noticed — there were no circulating-library books, so one was driven to sterling literature; and there was no billiard-table, so one had to make the best of a rainy day by a real conversation. As for art, while there was no formal picture-gallery, there was a host of fine family paintings — Reynoldses, Romneys, Gainsboroughs, Lawrences, Hoppners, and Richmonds ; some good landscapes besides. Guests would thus arrive at the rate of sixteen or twenty a day, staying the best part of the week ; and when they dispersed, with an agreeable recollection of new friendships sown, disjointed ones re-cemented, much fresh knowledge mutually given. Most of the guests had some peculiar charm or attribute to make them especially welcome. The men were highly educated, clever, and generally public characters. The women were always well-bred, and often beautiful.

Simple, pleasant, free from all restraint, was the order of the visitors' day. In the morning they appeared at breakfast when the spirit moved them to quit their bedrooms, taking their places at the little round tables dotted all about the room. The host would stroll from one cluster of breakfasters to another with a low laugh and a book in his hand, the sure sign that they were going to hear something original. "I have just come round to warn you all," he said upon one occasion that many will remember, "that the author of the "Soul's Agonies" and the essay on the "Conformation of the Skull of Cleopatra's Grandmother" is coming here this evening, and I have put his works on that table, that you may run your eye over them, and not quote him as an absurdity to himself." Late in the evening was the divan, when the esprits forts met in smoking costume, and lounged or sat cross-legged around with the cigar or cigarette, the hookah or chibouque. Politics and theology were fully but amicably brought on the tapis; and when Lord Houghton himself related his political experiences he became historical. Tales of travel were told by the travellers themselves, Swinburne declaimed his earliest, and, it may be, his best verses; and wit was free.

The names of some of the more distinguished visitors during a period of eighteen years may be briefly recalled. In August 1859, soon after Monckton Milnes had become proprietor, there met at Fryston, Mansfield Parkyns of Abyssinia; Robert Curzon of the Monasteries; Richard Burton, just returned from discovering the Lake Tanganyika, Central Africa; Petherick of Khartoum; Sir Charles Macarthy, who rose from a friendless student of theology in the English College at Rome to be Governor of Ceylon; W. E. Forster, then a man of business in the North Riding, now an ex-Cabinet Minister, and a possible future leader of the Liberal party; and other travellers in distant fields and in many paths of practical and ideal life. In October 1860 Lord Palmerston halted at Fryston for some days in his triumphant Yorkshire progress. In July 1861 the Orleans Princes thence attended the great agricultural show at Leeds. In November of that year Mr. Adams, the Ame'rican Minister, while inspecting the ruins of Pontefract Castle with Mr. Froude the historian, received the telegram announcing the capture of Mason and Slidell, and with characteristic coolness remained quietly at Fryston for several days until he got authentic intelligence. In April 1863 Thackeray, looking out of the dining-room window, remarked a large elm-tree that had fallen in the night, and put his hand to his head, saying, 'That is ominous,' though his death did not follow till some months later. In October 1863 there was a party for the British Archaeological Association at Leeds, over which Lord Houghton presided, when Planche wrote those capital lines, 'A Literary Squabble,' in which the vowels contend for pronunciation of the name, whether it should follow 'through,' or 'ought,' or 'rough,' or 'dough,' or 'plough,' deciding in favour of the last; for

Even " enough" was called " enow,"
Plough was " plow,"
And no one who preferred enough
Would dream of saying "speed the pluff."'

In 1864 came Vambery, who afterwards dedicated his History of Bokhara to Lady Houghton, and General Todleben. A few hours before the latter arrived Lord Houghton had said, 'He will perhaps think that he ought not to smoke in his room, so I will have a preparatory cloud blown in it.' The delicate attention was fully appreciated; for the General cried out, with evident satisfaction, 'Ah, alors on peut fumer ici!' In 1865 Mr. Swinburne read his new poem, Chastelard, to the Rev. F. D. Maurice and Dr. Vaughan in Lord Houghton's library, when in reply to a question of Mr. Maurice whether he had ever known so wicked a woman as Mary, the bard replied sorrowfully, 'Too many.' Thomas Carlyle on his way to Edinburgh, and on the brink of the great sorrow of his life, Huxley, Tyndall, and Thirlwall Bishop of St. David's, Lord Houghton's tutor at Trinity College, Cambridge, to whose teaching he attributes his chief mental characteristics, were visitors in 1866. Later in the same year came Sir Samuel and Lady Baker, on their return from Africa, who helped to put out a dangerous fire in the centre of the house; a mishap premonitory of the graver disaster which was to occur.

In 1869 Lady Houghton's health began to fail, and the family went abroad for a while, but returned in 1870, and had the pleasure of showing the Emperor of Brazil, more suo, over one of their coal-mines at seven o'clock in the morning.

Five years later came the fire, which renders it necessary to speak of the Fryston Hall whose name will live in the records of English society, as well as English literature, in the past tense. Fuit Ilium; and though the building itself is in process of restoration, the pictures by the old masters, the rare collection of books and ancient Mss. in every tongue, from every quarter of the globe, whose collection, distribution, and arrangement were Lord Houghton's hobby and pride, whose contents he had mastered and stowed away in his brain, have been for the most part lost or dispersed.

This and the affliction he sustained in the death of Lady Houghton are the two hard blows which the lord of Fryston Hall can allege against Fate that he has received. His career from the first has, with these exceptions, to eouple the mensurable with the incommensurable bereavements, been almost unique in its unbroken success, prosperity, and brilliance. Yet there was a time when at least one authority would have declined to draw such a horoscope of Monckton Milnes's future. When he was a lad in Rome, he confided to a lady eminent in Roman society his ambition to shine in the Roman world. She looked down at the young man, shy and sensitive, blushing and awkward, and informed him with a smile that he had better abandon the idea. Years passed away; the boy had travelled, had entered Parliament, had become the author of the Memorial of a Tour in Greece, Poems of Many Years, Palm Leaves, and other works of poetry, memoir, and travel; had developed into a cultivated and useful man of the world; had taken his part in the political movements of his time; had made his ten-o'clock breakfasts, his quarter-to-nine dinners, and his subsequent receptions talked about, not only in London, but throughout Europe. He happened to meet the queen of Roman fashion who had predicted his failure in the seven-hilled city. Mr. Milnes went up to her, took a stool, and sat at her feet. Having asked after her health, he looked up quietly, as if resuming a conversation of yesterday, and said, 'You see, Lady -, I have carried out my idea in London, and with some success.'