Column: A tale of old Northamptonshire - George Whyte-Melville

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Our columnist David Saint tells us of a famous Northamptonshire character - novelist George Whyte-Melville...

As I walked along St Giles’ Street the other day, I glanced up and noticed once again the Whyte-Melville Hall.

But who was Whyte-Melville?

He was George Whyte-Melville, born in Bennochy, Fife, the grandson of the Duke of Leeds. From Eton he joined the 93rd Highlanders and in 1846 he moved to the Coldstream Guards, where he reached the rank of captain. When the Crimean War broke out, he went out as a volunteer major into the Turkish irregular cavalry.

His first marriage was extremely unhappy; his wife the Hon Charlotte Bateman-Hanbury, daughter of Lord Bateman, deserted him and remarried bigamously.

However, they had a daughter, Florence, who did rather well for herself by marrying a man with the unbelievable name of Clotworthy John Eyre Skeffington, but that didn’t matter because he was the 11th Viscount Massereene & Ferrard!

In fact, all was obviously forgiven because the present 14th viscount, was baptised
John David Clotworthy Whyte-Melville Foster Skeffington. So the name lives on.

George came to Northamptonshire and settled in Boughton. He chose the county for its famous fox-hunting; indeed, his favourite pastime became the subject of many of his novels when he started writing seriously.

His first of 25 novels, Digby Grand, appeared in 1853 making his name known in literary circles. But it was his 1860 historical novel, Holmby House, that clinched his real fame.

Set here in Northamptonshire, its opening words reveal its theme!

“The Pytchley hounds have had a run.”

With familiar local gentry like Vaux of Harrowden and Cave of Stanford and villages like Boughton, Althorp and, of course, Holdenby mentioned, it is a rip-roaring romance, mixing factual history with fictional fantasy, a sort of “faction”.

George lived in a fine house below Boughton’s parish church until 1863. He moved to the original Wootton Hall that was demolished in 1911. His house in Boughton was named Melville House.

The Whyte-Melville Hall was a club started in a reading room in 1863 by the vicar of St Giles, The Reverend Henry Robson. He managed to get Whyte-Melville to donate £500 to the fund, money raised from the publication of George’s newly published novel The Gladiators. The Whyte-Melville Working Men’s Club was born.

On March 29, 1884, a new magazine, Horse & Hound, was launched. The title page of the first edition carried these words: “The best of my fun, I owe it to horse and hound”, quoting George’s poem The Good Grey Mare.

In an extraordinary twist of fate George died 140 years ago today, on December 6, 1878. He was hunting in the Vale of the White Horse when his horse fell and he broke his neck and was killed instantly. He is buried in Tetbury, Gloucestershire.

Arthur Mee in his King’s England account of Boughton tells us that in 1945 “the home of an old-fashioned writer is here, now an inn bearing his name”. It has been a pub been ever since and he still has a presence, leather-bound volumes of all his novels are kept on the premises!