The Marquis of Lansdowne

The Lansdowne Monument

The Lansdowne Monument was built by my ancestor, the 3rd Marquis of Lansdowne in 1845. In the 19th century it was reasonably commonplace for landowners to build cairns, monuments and follies; sometimes simply for aesthetic reasons and others to commemorate individuals or historical events. For years nobody knew why Lord Lansdowne had built it, or if they did at the time, it was forgotten. There were a number of theories - one that it marked the western edge of the Estate, another the birth of Edward VII, but it was only confirmed in 1928 that the real purpose for building the monument was to commemorate a family ancestor, Sir William Petty. This was established beyond doubt when my great uncle came across a memorandum in our archives written by the 3rd Marquis, wife. Sir William was born in 1623 in Romsey, Hampshire. His father was a clothier. He went to the local village school, and by the age of 15 was fluent in both Latin and Greek. Equipped with one shilling in his pocket, he went to sea on a merchant vessel where he had the misfortune to break his leg, and was thrown ashore off the coast of France, near Caen in Normandy. His Latin stood him in good stead as he was taken in by the Jesuit Fathers of Caen who provided him with a free education in their college. After leaving Caen he spent the next three or four years travelling in Europe, hawking sham jewellery, hair hats and playing cards. He served for a short period during this time in the King’s Navy when, at the age of twenty, he had saved about three score pounds! Then came the Civil War. He decided to remain on the continent studying medicine at Utrecht, Leyden and Amsterdam. In 1645 we learnt that he was in Paris with Thomas Hobbs of Malmesbury. A year later, in 1646 he returned to England and found his way to Oxford, where he practised medicine, and was appointed a Doctor of Physics and a member of the Royal College of Physicians. Soon after he became a fellow and Vice Principal of Brasenose College, all within the space of about three years.

From these humble beginnings, Sir William Petty rose to prominence as a supporter of Cromwell, as Surgeon General for the Army, and was responsible for producing the first complete map of Ireland in 1653. It was, in fact, more than just a map. It was a cartogram parish by parish which Cromwell used to expropriate land from the Irish and give to his officers who supported him throughout the civil war. He later acquiesced in the restoration of the monarchy, and was knighted. He was a founding member of the Royal Society in 1662, published numerous socio-economic treaties, and died in 1687 an extremely wealthy man. His daughter, Ann, married one of my ancestors - hence the connection. The monument was designed by Sir Charles Barry for a fee of £92. The cost of building it was £1,395 which was a huge amount of money in those days. It sits on the highest point in the immediate locality at around eight hundred feet, and was therefore obviously not only a landmark, but also a potential hazard in overcast weather for pilots using the Yatesbury airfield. I had the good fortune of holding a private pilot’s licence from 1959 to 1974, and kept a light aircraft both at our home near Bremhill and subsequently at Bowood. The monument, in VFR conditions, was our landmark. In low cloud it was a major hazard. Thankfully, we were always able to descend through cloud on Lyneham’s radar, but I suspect that earlier pilots who didn’t have the benefit of such sophisticated equipment would have always been anxious on returning to base in poor weather conditions knowing that this eighty foot monument was towering above them. I would be interested to know whether there were any actual collisions - I am sure there must have been many near misses. The monument fell into disrepair after the war. Fortunately, the National Trust purchased the land it stood on some ten years or more ago, and with the help of a grant, restored it at a cost of £220,000. Sir William would be pleased to know that this landmark was built in his honour, and his successors to this very day, are reminded of him every time they look eastwards from Bowood.

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