Dower House Project was Dobson’s Consolation Prize

Published in the Hexham Courant, Friday, 21 August 2009

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Estate House at Matfen – just yards from Matfen Hall – is the sort of modest mansion that could have housed a Jane Austen vicar, or the purple-gowned widow of the lord of the manor making way for the eldest son. And that is exactly why the Estate House was built; as a dower house to shelter relicts of the mighty Blackett dynasty, one branch of which has been at Matfen Hall for 250 years.

The Estate House, now available for long-term rent, can claim a dignity not shared by its grand neighbour, the hall. It was part-designed by the architect who is arguably the North-East’s finest – John Dobson. In 1828, Dobson had Newbrough Hall, Morpeth Gaol, and Newcastle’s Eldon Square already under his belt, and the Central Railway Station was 20 years away when he started work on Matfen’s dower house.

The dower house job was a consolation prize for Dobson. He had just finished a shooting box – Bonnyrigg Hall – for the energetic young lord of Matfen, Edward Blackett. But Sir Edward was not happy with the results (something to do with a leaky roof, according to family memory) and so he didn’t award Dobson the big prize – the Matfen Hall revamp. That plum went to Thomas Rickman, while Dobson had to be content with remodelling the hall’s dower house.

Perhaps later, Dobson was relieved he didn’t win the job of bringing 1690s Matfen Hall into the 1830s. An architect’s guide from the time says that Sir Edward was a “difficult client” who sacked Rickman before the project was complete, taking the Matfen Hall project into his own hands. It was the largest country house in Northumberland when it was finished, around 1836. By all accounts, Matfen Hall was a jewel in a peerless setting even before Sir Edward got busy with his blueprints.

A 420-year-old “holiday postcard” from Tudor traveller William Harrison describes the local scene: “Blithe water riseth about Kirke Heaton, and goeth by Belfe, Ogle, and receiving the Pont aliàs the Brocket, that springeth east of St. Oswolds, passeth by Whittington, Fennike hall and Madfennes (Matfen).” Speed’s Northumberland map of 1610 has “Madfennes” for Matfen too.

And in a county guide of 1826, the old Matfen Hall was described as “a neat stone building on a fine eminence, bounded by the Pont”.

This guide also records a rare piece of ancient history just yards from Matfen Hall and its dower house.

This was a tomb made of flat stone slabs, topped by a stocky pillar three feet wide and a foot thick. “It was the most curious piece of antiquity in the North of England!” declared the writer, who suggested it could be a druid mausoleum! Sadly, nothing can be seen of this wonder today.

The house-building Sir Edward Blackett was something of a wonder himself. Apart from his architectural abilities, he was also a cavalry officer with the 1st Regiment of Life Guards, a Justice of the Peace, Deputy Lieutenant and High Sheriff.

Sir Edward’s “reign” at Matfen, from 1816 to 1885, was an incredibly colourful period when the quiet village made Newcastle Chronicle headlines many times.

In the 21st century we complain of freaky summer weather and blame global warming, but on July 5 1852, “ice fell on Matfen in large masses”, during a storm which killed several people across Northumberland.

There was a different alarm in October 1855, when “the inhabitants of the quiet and retired village of Matfen were thrown into excitement and alarm by the discovery of a horrible local murder!”

This brutal strangling of wealthy widow Dorothy Bewicke was declared “without parallel for atrocity” since the murder of Warden’s “Joe the Quilter!” announced The Chronicle.

Then in September 1863, the Blacketts themselves made headlines.

“Fatal accident at Matfen Hall” read the billboards after Mrs Blackett, aged 30, mother-of-seven and wife of Captain Blackett of Wylam, was killed in a riding accident while visiting her Matfen relatives.

In 1865, the village was again agitated but for a happy reason: the youngest daughter of “the worthy baronet of Matfen” was united with the noble Capt Egerton, “an alliance every way worthy of her heart and hand”.

Meanwhile, Sir Edward himself managed to fit in four marriages from 1830 to 1880. He claimed his final bride – Althea Rianette Scott – when he was 77 and she was in the uncomfortable position of being recently jilted by Sir Edward’s own son!

Lady Althea found a few consolations as the wife of a doting older man – she had plenty of time to take photographs, paint and write. This turned out lucky for posterity because, a century later, Lady Althea’s journals became the basis of a book on that most adventurous and colourful family she had married into, entitled: The Ship That Came Home.

Maybe Lady Althea wrote some of her memoirs at the dower house, after Sir Edward died in 1885.

Dower houses were added to most great houses in the 18th and 19th centuries – substantial and lavish equivalents of our modern “granny flats”.

The last Blackett widow to live in the Estate House was the aunt of the current owner Sir Hugh Blackett. Lady Ursula Blackett had been married to 9th Baronet Sir Charles Douglas Blackett, who died in 1968. Lady Ursula’s widowhood in the dower house lasted more than 20 years.

As well as accommodating any widowed Lady Blacketts, the dower house was also used for the families of younger sons. And at one time, the Matfen estate’s agent also lodged there, which could be why the dower house has become known as the Estate House?