When it comes to name swapping within the British aristocracy, the Egertons are champions. At various times their surname has been Malpas or Grey or Tatton, or more recently Leveson-Gore or Grosvenor. In fact, the dynasty’s founders used the name Le Belward before marrying the heiress of the barony of Malpas in the southwestern corner of Cheshire. They were one of the families who settled these sensitive borderlands between Wales and England in the 11th century. There are claims that William le Belward was in fact descended from Welsh lords in Gwynedd; but other family histories suggest that they, like many of their contemporaries, came from Normandy (and that Belward is a corruption of Belvoir). By the end of the next century, the family had split into three lines, each taking the surname of their feudal estate, Malpas, Cholmondeley, and Egerton. The last of these is a small village not far from Malpas, close to the southern border of Cheshire with Shropshire. The Egerton family would go on to form several branches, and in time would hold a number of titles, including Duke of Bridgewater, Earl of Wilton and Baron Egerton of Tatton. The family has strong connections to the city of Manchester, as former owners of Heaton Park and Worsley Hall, and giving their name most famously to the Bridgewater Canal, as I’ll explore in this post.
The senior line of this multi-lineal Cheshire family, de Malpas, remained prominent in the county until they died out in the 14th century, and the barony passed to the Breretons. The Cholmondeleys (pronounced ‘Chumley’) continued in the area, and still do today, having been elevated to an earldom in 1706 and a marquisate in 1815. Since 1778, they have also possessed half of the hereditary office of Lord Great Chamberlain, one of the ceremonial officers of state in the United Kingdom, who carries the long white staff at the opening of Parliament and dresses the monarch before a coronation. The office alternates between the Marquess of Cholmondeley and the other co-heirs, by reign—this family has held the position since 1952, but will give it up in the next reign. They have two family seats, an 18th-century Palladian villa in Norfolk, Houghton Hall, and the ancient family seat, Cholmondeley Castle in Cheshire, rebuilt in the 19th century as a neo-Gothic medieval fantasy.
The junior line, the Egertons, also continued to thrive in Cheshire, regularly holding the office of sheriff and other county posts in the 14th and 15th centuries, and inter-marrying with other members of the local gentry whose families names are familiar to anyone interested in the history of Cheshire and the northwest of England: Venables of Kinderton, Brereton of Tatton, Warburton of Arley, or Grosvenor of Eaton. Through marriage they acquired the estate of Oulton, not far from the villages of Egerton or Malpas, which became their seat. There was once a grand 18th-century house at Oulton, but it was destroyed in the 20th century.
The main line of Egerton of Egerton and Oulton added further properties to their portfolio, notably Wrinehill in Staffordshire, and were created baronets in 1617. The first baronet, Sir Rowland Egerton, married well, in 1620, to Bridget Grey, daughter of the 14th Baron Grey de Wilton, a former Lord Deputy of Ireland. The Greys were one of the oldest and most well-established noble families in England, with numerous branches in various counties. Bridget Grey ultimately inherited one of these, and her family’s properties in Herefordshire, notably at Wilton (though the ancient castle itself had already been sold). Her descendants would have to wait over a century, however, before they could bear the title Baron Grey de Wilton, as her brother, the 15th Baron, had been attainted in 1603 for his participation in a plot against the life of the new king, James I.
Meanwhile, the family continued to add properties in the northwest of England through heiresses, notably in 1684, when they acquired Heaton Park from Elizabeth Holland. Today a sadly abandoned, yet still stately, 18th-century mansion on the northern outskirts of the city of Manchester, Heaton Park was once the centre of a large estate in what was then southern Lancashire. Built on a rise overlooking the Mersey and Irwell valleys and the Pennines to the east, the hall was an early commission for one of the great architects of the later 18th century, James Wyatt, built in the 1770s for the 7th Egerton baronet, whose rise in fortunes was further marked by the elevation of his title, first to Baron Grey de Wilton, 1784, then Earl of Wilton, 1801. The hall had an elegant saloon with painted ceilings and a built-in organ, which survives in situ today; its park, with a boating lake and an observatory (and at one point a track for horse racing) was originally laid out by William Emes in the style of Capability Brown. Heaton Park would serve as a centre of the county nobility of Lancashire in the early 19th century, who watched from afar as a new industrial city was blossoming on their very doorstep.
The Grey-Egerton earls of Wilton died out only a few years later, in 1814, though the title was allowed by royal licence to pass to a grandson in the Grosvenor family, another ancient Cheshire family who suddenly rose to national prominence in the 18th century as property developers in London (Belgravia, Mayfair), and were created Earl Grosvenor in 1784 (the very same year as Wilton), and later Marquess of Westminster, 1831, and finally Duke of Westminster in 1874. The new earls of Wilton changed their surname from Grosvenor to Egerton, until 1999, when the title passed to a different branch of the Grosvenor family. Meanwhile, Heaton Park was sold to the Manchester City Council in the late 19th century, as the earls of Wilton found the encroaching city just a bit too close for comfort (in fact, the Manchester to Bury train line was run through a tunnel directly under the estate), and they relocated to their family estates in the south.
After the death of the last Egerton earl of Wilton, the Egerton baronetcy continued in a cadet male line, and still does: the current baronet is the 17th, William de Malpas Egerton (b. 1949). In the 19th and 20th centuries, several members of this branch distinguished themselves as admirals and generals, and further cadet branches were established, including the Bulkeley Egertons and the Warburtons (formerly Egertons) of Arley Hall, which is a familiar setting to fans of the TV show Peaky Blinders.
It is the second major branch of the Egerton family that interests us here as qualifying this family as ‘ducal’. Founded by an illegitimate son who rose to become Chancellor of England, this branch would ultimately become earls then dukes of Bridgewater.
In the late 15th century, a cadet branch of the Cheshire Egertons had been formed based in the nearby manor of Ridley. Sir Richard Egerton of Ridley (d. 1579) and his children married into the usual circles of the Cheshire gentry—a Grosvenor of Eaton, a Warburton of Arley, a Brereton of Tatton—but it was his son born out of wedlock who rose to national prominence. Despite his illegitimacy, Thomas Egerton was supported by his family and given an education in law, first at Oxford, then at Lincoln’s Inn in London. In the 1570s, he made a name for himself as a lawyer, and was hired by the Crown to work as a prosecutor in the 1580s—most notably at the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1586, and later at the trial of his friend, the Earl of Essex. By 1592, Egerton was Elizabeth I’s Attorney General, then Master of the Rolls (the head of the Court of Appeals) in 1594, and finally Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, 1596. King James kept Egerton on as his chief judicial officer, and promoted him to the top job, Lord Chancellor of England, in 1603, along with a peerage, as Baron Ellesmere.
Today the name Ellesmere is more usually associated with the port built at the terminus of the Ellesmere Canal in the later 18th century, but the original castle and town are across the southern Cheshire border in the next county, Shropshire. Baron Ellesmere also acquired lands in Cheshire, Tatton Park, from the Brereton family, lands in Northamptonshire, Brackley, and a large estate in Hertfordshire, closer to London, in the Chiltern Hills, the former Ashridge Priory (a former monastic building acquired by Henry VIII in 1539, home to Princess Elizabeth in the early 1550s). Ashridge would become the main Egerton family seat, and the nearby church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Little Gaddesden would host the family chapel and tombs.
As Lord Chancellor, Lord Ellesmere used his position to support some of King James’ ideas about strengthening the legal position of the crown, and in particular in fusing the governments of both the realms of England and Scotland, a project James was unable to complete due to hesitation in both parliaments. In 1617, well into his 70s, the Lord Chancellor was finally allowed to retire, and was honoured with a higher peerage title, Viscount Brackley, but died soon after. Evidence of his rise in the social hierarchy can be seen in his second marriage in 1600, to Alice Spencer of Althorp, widow of the 5th Earl of Derby—not bad for an illegitimate son of a junior branch of a provincial gentry family.
But the family’s rise was by no means complete. King James had reputedly wished to raise his Lord Chancellor higher into the nobility with an earldom, and he did so for his son, John, who was created Earl of Bridgewater in 1617 shortly after his father’s death. Like so many noble titles in England, the name of the earldom had little to do with the geographical concentration of estates or social standing of its bearer. The name was taken from Bridgwater in Somerset, where the Egertons did have some lands, but it was not their centre of operations. There is no ‘e’ in the Somerset town, as it is (apparently) referring not to a bridge over water—as you might logically think—but to the burg (fortress) of Walter. And of course Bridgewater would work so well as a descriptor for the most famous canal builders in England, but that is merely a convenient coincidence, as the canal duke didn’t live until the mid-18th century. There had been a previous earldom of Bridgwater, briefly, for the Daubeney family of Somerset, between 1538 and 1548, but there is no direct connection with the Egertons.
The first Egerton earl of Bridgewater succeeded his father with a seat on the Privy Council in 1626, and was appointed by King Charles I to act as Lord President of Wales and the Marches (Cheshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire) in 1631. He had solidified his family’s position in the court nobility, and in the county families of the northwest, by marrying his step-sister, Frances Stanley, only two years after his father had married her mother. Their children’s marriages reflect in some ways this expanded influence along the borders between England and Wales—a Vaughan of Carbury, a Herbert of Chirbury—but also court families like the Hobarts and Cecils. The eldest son, the 2nd Earl of Bridgewater, married into the top ranks of the nobility in 1641: Elizabeth Cavendish, daughter of the Duke of Newcastle. Both the Egertons and Cavendishes were royalists during the Civil War, and afterwards the 2nd Earl was rewarded in the Restoration with the posts of Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire, Cheshire, Lancashire and Hertfordshire, at one point holding all four at the same time (1681-86), which is rare.
The next generations changed allegiance somewhat. Whereas most of the formerly royalist families gravitated to the newly forming Tory party, the 3rd Earl became one of the leading members of the Whig aristocracy, those descendants of moderate Parliamentarians who supported monarchy, but one with limits. John, 3rd Earl of Bridgewater, was active in the Whig government under William III as First Lord of the Admiralty, 1699-1701, and Speaker of the House of Lords in 1697 and 1701.
The Earl’s sister Elizabeth married into one of the premier Whig families, the Sydneys, earls of Leicester, while his brothers continued the family tradition of dividing their time between activity in the House of Commons and developing their country estates. One of these, Sir William, inherited the property of Worsley, in Lancashire; while another, Thomas, was given Tatton Park, across the Mersey in Cheshire. These two properties, to the west and south of the developing market town of Manchester, would bring the Egerton story much closer to the history of the great industrial city in the following centuries, much as their Grey-Egerton cousins were doing to the north of Manchester, at Heaton Park. As the Egertons of Heaton also owned estates in Denton, to the east, you might say Manchester was now ringed on all sides by this one family. The Egertons of course needed a London seat as well, so the 3rd Earl purchased the former Cleveland House (named for Charles II’s mistress, the Duchess of Cleveland), in 1700, to replace an earlier Bridgewater House which had burned down in 1687.
In 1673, the 3rd Earl married his second wife, Lady Jane Paulet, whose father, the Marquis of Winchester, would later become 1st Duke of Bolton. Her mother was the heiress Mary Scrope, and they named their third son after her: Scroop. Born in 1681, the Honourable Scroop Egerton became the heir after the 1687 fire at Bridgewater House in London, which tragically killed his older two brothers. He was then known as Viscount Brackley (the courtesy title used by the heir) until he succeeded his father, aged only 20, as 4th Earl of Bridgewater. He also inherited the post held by his father and grandfather, Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire, but was otherwise not very involved in politics. Instead, his younger brother, William, occupied the family seat in the Commons as MP for Brackley, while another younger brother, Henry, entered the church and became Bishop of Hereford in 1723. The 4th Earl did obtain prominent positions in the royal household: first as Gentleman of the Bedchamber and Master of the Horse to Prince George of Denmark (the husband of Queen Anne); Lord Chamberlain to Caroline, Princess of Wales, from the start of the new reign (1714); and finally Lord of the Bedchamber to King George II. He maintained the family’s position at the heart of the Whig aristocracy by marrying first Lady Elizabeth Churchill (daughter of the Duke of Marlborough) and then Lady Rachel Russell (daughter of the Duke of Bedford). It was therefore maybe inevitable that the Earl was raised another level in the peerage himself in 1720, as the 1st Duke of Bridgewater.
The first Duke spent the next two decades fairly quietly at court and at Ashridge. He and his second wife tended their estates and managed the education and marriages of their offspring. Only one child survived from the Duke’s first marriage, Anne, who married into her step-mother’s family to become Duchess of Bedford herself; and although there were several sons born of the second marriage, again the elder sons died fairly young. The first, Charles (who was called by the new courtesy title, Marquess of Brackley) lived only six years, and although his brother John survived long enough to succeed as 2nd Duke of Bridgewater, in 1745, he too died, only three years later, at 21.
The youngest son, Francis, thus became 3rd Duke of Bridgewater at age 12. He was raised by his widowed mother, the Dowager Duchess (who lived to the ripe old age of 70), but never seemed to fit in with London society. After breaking off a rumoured engagement with society beauty, Elizabeth Gunning (the widowed Duchess of Hamilton, later Duchess of Argyll), he retired to his estates in the north, and began to develop Worsley in particular. It is the 3rd Duke who would become the most famous member of the family, the celebrated ‘Canal Duke’, also known as ‘the Father of British inland navigation’.
The village of Worsley in Lancashire was owned for many centuries by the family of the same name, then by their successors the Breretons, at one stage the most prominent family in Cheshire. The estate had fallen to the Egertons in the 1630s, but never really developed. The Old Hall, a classic Tudor era timber-framed house, was relegated to the side in the 1760s when the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater turned his attentions to his northern estates, and he built a new residence in neoclassical style (known later as the ‘Brick Hall’).
It is what was underneath, however, that became more important. The Duke soon discovered that the hills on his Worsley estate were full of black gold: coal. The question soon became how to transport it effectively and economically to the newly emergent boom town of Manchester, about 7 miles away.
In 1761, the Duke and some of his associates invited the engineer James Brindley to Worsley Old Hall, and here they developed plans for the Bridgewater Canal, the first major project of its kind in Britain. Swiftly completed between Worsley and Manchester, extensions were soon made to take the canal all the way to Runcorn in the Mersey Estuary, which allowed products being manufactured in Manchester (mostly woolen and cotton textiles) to be transferred to oceangoing vessels in the port of Liverpool.
The Bridgewater Canal made the Duke an enormous fortune, and by the time of his death in 1803, he was the richest nobleman in England, with a fortune estimated at about two million pounds (well over one-hundred million today). He acquired a large collections of old masters (notably two famous Titians still in the Egerton collection), participated in the purchase and resale of the enormous Orléans Collection in France in 1789, and began to upgrade Ashridge House in Hertfordshire, projecting a new grand-scale country seat for his dynasty.
But he didn’t create a dynasty. Having never married, he spent his final years devising legal means for the estates to stay together, entailing most of it to his long-deceased sister’s second grandson, Lord Francis Leveson-Gower, son of the Marquess of Stafford, who in 1833 changed his name to Egerton, and in 1846, was created Earl of Ellesmere. The dukedom of Bridgewater became extinct in 1803, but the earldom of Bridgewater and the Hertfordshire estates passed to a cousin, a distant male heir (see below). The new Lancashire dynasty created by the last Duke’s will, continued to live at Worsley. The Earl of Ellesmere was nominally head of the Bridgewater Trust, which sold the Canal to the newly formed Bridgewater Navigation Company, 1872, then to the Manchester Ship Canal Company in 1887 (who built a much larger waterway to replace the now far too small Bridgewater Canal).
In the 1840s, the Ellesmere earls rebuilt Bridgewater House in London, and at the same time built a vast new country house outside Manchester, known as Worsley New Hall, in a neo-Elizabethan style, designed by Edward Blore. They also laid out extensive terraced gardens, designed by the well-known landscape architect, William Andrews Nesfield. Queen Victoria and the Duke of Wellington visited, in a specially designed barge, shortly after the completion of house and gardens in 1851.
But the New Hall didn’t survive very long: the trials of the First World War and crippling death duties in the 1920s forced the Egertons of Ellesmere to consolidate, and they sold off the Worsley estate, with both Old and New Halls (Brick Hall had been demolished in the 1840s), and New Hall was demolished in the aftermath of the Second World War. Only Old Hall remains, now a pub restaurant. The grounds of the New Hall were recently excavated by a team from Salford University—who shared fascinating images of the remains they discovered, notably of an electric lift, one of the earliest of its kind!—and the grounds and surviving garden landscapes are being developed for a grand re-opening by the Royal Horticultural Society.
The earldom of Ellesmere continues to the present, but since 1963 it has been subsumed within the greater title of Duke of Sutherland, and the Egerton name changed back to Leveson-Gower.
Meanwhile, the earldom of Bridgewater passed to a junior line. Henry Egerton, Bishop of Hereford, married (as Anglican bishops can do) and his son continued in the same pathway, rising from bishop of Bangor to Lichfield, then to Durham in 1771. His eldest son, John, succeeded as 7th Earl of Bridgewater in 1803. Unlike his Whig cousins, he had been a long-serving Tory MP in the years of the Pitt administration, and rose through the ranks of the military during the Napoleonic wars, ending as a full general in 1812. He completed his cousin’s desire to rebuilt Ashridge Hall, an early example of Gothic Revival style designed by James Wyatt (today it houses a business school). On a hill above the house was built a monument to the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, a great Doric column crowned by a giant copper urn, today managed by the National Trust.
The 7th earl died childless in 1823 and the earldom passed to his brother, the 8th and last earl, named Francis like the last duke. One of the great noble eccentrics (in an era curiously full of very odd aristocrats), he lived in Paris, where he reportedly dressed up his dogs and cats as ladies and gentlemen and drove them around in an open carriage. A more considerable legacy however, was his intellectual and financial support of natural science and antiquarianism—at his death he bequeathed a collection, the Egerton Manuscripts, to the British Museum, with funds for further acquisition, and today the collection (now housed at the British Library) includes over 3,000 manuscripts (most famously the ‘Egerton Gospel’, a set of papyrus fragments from Egypt acquired in the 1930s). With the 8th Earl’s death in 1829, the earldom of Bridgewater ceased to exist, and the estates and properties in Northamptonshire passed to his sister’s grandson, John Cust, Viscount Alford (who of course took the name Egerton), then to his son, John Egerton-Cust, 2nd Earl Brownlow.
Which finally brings us back to the topic of the ever changing Egerton surname. There is a final Egerton branch to be mentioned, descended from Thomas Egerton, of Tatton Park in Cheshire, noted above. These were successively known as Egerton of Tatton, then Tatton of Tatton, then Egerton again. They finally achieved an earldom named Egerton itself, though it was short-lived. At the start of the 18th century, John Egerton built a new Tatton Hall, a short distance from the old hall, a brick Tudor house. There were plans to redesign the new house again, along more rococo lines, by John’s brother Samuel, in the 1770s, this time by Samuel Wyatt, brother of James Wyatt. Neither lived to see the building works completed, but they were carried out by Samuel Egerton’s sister’s son, William Tatton, of Wythenshaw Hall. In 1780 he changed his name to Egerton, and completed the envisioned works at Tatton Park.
His grandson, William Tatton Egerton, was created 1st Baron Egerton of Tatton in 1859, a long-term MP for Cheshire (and later Lord Lieutenant), and a developer of one of the new suburbs of Manchester, Chorlton (where I live!). His son Wilbraham (great name) was also a long-term Conservative MP, and a chairman of the Manchester Ship Canal Company. He was elevated to the rank of Earl Egerton (and Viscount Salford) in 1897, and died in 1909 with no male heir, so the earldom became extinct. The barony passed to his brother, Alan, whose son, Maurice, was the 4th and last Baron Egerton of Tatton.
Maurice Egerton was one of those Edwardian imperialist, collector, philanthropist, ‘confirmed bachelor’ types. He opened Tatton Park to the local public on occasion, and specially built a grand exhibition hall to display his vast collection of trophy heads and horns and other artefacts he had collected on his many shooting trips in East Africa, where he built a regal residence for himself in Kenya (‘Lord Egerton Castle’), as well as an agricultural college (now Egerton University). An endlessly fascinating individual, he was also a fervent early supporter of aviation (and friend of the Wright brothers) and early motor cars. He died unmarried in 1958, and Tatton Park was given to the National Trust; it remains one of the most popular destinations for Mancunians on a day out.
The Egerton name may finally be gone, but Manchester is still known in part for the Bridgwater Canal, which runs right into the heart of the city, which in 1996 opened a new state-of-the-art performance venue, Bridgewater Hall. There is also an Egerton Park high school in Denton and an Egerton Football Club in Knutsford.
(images my own photos or from Wikimedia Commons)
UPDATE (19 May 2020): Yesterday, I spotted this barge on the Bridgewater Canal, so some elements of the old Company still exist!