Handbags at dawn!
When history and local politics are played out together I tend to become quite animated, and that’s just what happened this week. Not far from where I live is Kirby Hall. A place that I’ve known quite intimately since I was a boy. Many a childhood bike ride has been planned for various reasons at different times of the year to this Elizabethan ‘shell’ of a family home, which, to this day, is still owned by The Earl of Winchilsea, and managed by English Heritage. I went to school in Corby with the son of the gardener which would often give us exclusive access to one of our counties greatest little secrets. As children we’de explore this fascinating old building which would invariably bring to life all of those old TV costume drama’s. In the autumn my friend and I would cycle out to Kirby for some of the biggest conkers on the planet! In 1984, with a possy of photographers, makeup folk, management, A lovely red Porche and heaps of props it became the backdrop to our bands single and album cover. In 1998 I became an ‘extra’ in the Miramax adaptation of Jane Austin’s Mansfield Park. I can still see me standing for hours next to one of my greatest hero’s, the late Sir Harold Pinter, the two of us waiting patiently by the fireplace in the great ballroom: to this day I can l feel the cold of that unforgivving stone floor. Its hard sometimes to remember that this was once a great family home full of life throughout many generations. Indeed, one could talk for hours about the Staffords, Finch-Hattons or Earls of Winchilsea, such was their history in this magnificent pile. Yet this week, almost by fluke, a little envelope came into my possesion which had a date-stamp of 5th July 1834. It had been posted from London and was addressed to the Reverend James Hogg of Kettering (Geddington) and had been signed ‘Winchilsea’. This was the signature of George William Finch-Hatton, the 10th Earl of Winchilsea and the 5th Earl of Nottingham . He’d been born at Kirby hall in 1791. To cut a very long story very short, he’d gone into politics, and on 21st March 1829, at Battersea Fields in London, he fought a dual with the Duke of Wellington, who, at that time had been Prime Minister for one year. It was because of their dissagreement over the Catholic Relief Bill of 1829 and the language used by Winchilsea toward the Duke. Incidentally, both men survived. I think it was a clasic case of ‘handbags at dawn’. Yet very few men would have survived such a contest with the ‘Iron Duke’. I can just picture Gordon Brown with a pistol in his hand: at whom it would be aimed and would he have missed! Just one little signature on a little piece of paper had led me to this almost forgotten piece of local political history. Long before ticket offices and car parks, Kirby Hall had been home to a remarkable family. Oh, and Winchilsea would have claimed the cost of the postage on his expenses: I’m serious!