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The fire of 1745

View of the renovated Rycote House, 1783.

Late on the night of 12 November 1745 a fire broke out at Rycote and burned into the early hours of the morning of 13 November (MS. Gough Oxon. 31, fol. 215r). The fire is said to have started in the kitchens and to have destroyed much of the building with only part of the east wing and the south wing escaping damage (Hirst, 'Rycote House', p. 71). According to Thomas Delafield, a contemporary source, a “good part of the back buildings” were also burnt down (MS. Gough Oxon. 31, fol. 215r). The 3rd Earl of Abingdon’s eldest son and heir, the ten year old James Bertie, Lord Norris, was burnt to death in his bed. The mansion was renovated after the fire according to Georgian tastes.

A report in The General Advertiser claims that the rebuilding of Rycote began shortly before 1 January 1747. The 2000 Time Team excavations uncovered remains of renovation works dating from the late 1740s and early 1750s. A coin dating to c.1752 was discovered in the Georgian restoration layers. Exact details of the renovations, however, are few. It appears to have been a slow process. A report in The Whitehall Evening Post suggests that Rycote was at least habitable by January 1750. An account of servants’ wages for the “new establishment at Rycot” provides clear evidence that the Bertie family were living in the mansion in 1760 (MS. D.D. Bertie c. 2, item 2). It is apparent that the renovations were not completed by the time of the 3rd Earl of Abingdon's death in 1760. His successor, the 4th Earl, is said to have “found Ricote in very bad repair, and was at a considerable expence before it was habitable” (MS. Top. Oxon. b. 220, fol. 161v).

In 1768 the 4th Earl lavished £5000 “and upwards, in the amending, improving, and furnishing” of Rycote in preparation for his impending marriage (MS. Top. Oxon. b. 177, fol. 51). Not content with remodelling the house, he also commissioned the garden designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown to re-landscape the gardens, seemingly throughout the 1770s. Brown is known to have been working at Rycote in 1769 and again in 1778 (Stroud, Capability Brown, p. 142; Willis, 'Brown Account Book', p. 384). The 4th Earl’s improvements, however, did not appeal to all tastes. In 1785 the travelling diarist Viscount Torrington recorded his horror at Abingdon’s restyling of the house (Bruyn Andrews, Torrington Diaries, vol. 1, pp. 213-14).

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Capability Brown‘s work at Rycote comes within a period of considerable activity locally. Five years earlier, in 1764, he had begun work at Blenheim and from 1778 he was engaged at Nuneham Courtenay in a collaborative project with William Mason (1725-1797), the poet and garden designer.

Helen Langley 23/10/2012

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The fire of 1745

Late on the night of 12 November 1745 a fire broke out at Rycote...
Find out what happened >