Sir John Palmer Bruce Chichester

An engraving of Sir John Palmer Bruce

John Palmer Bruce Chichester was born in 1794, the son of Colonel John Chichester and Agnes Hamilton. He led an active life as a sailor, MP and local landowner, but perhaps the greatest legacy he left at Arlington Court is his substantial remodelling of the gardens and estate.

A naval career

Inheriting upon his father’s death in 1823, John was the first of the Chichesters to live at the new Arlington Court, his father having not lived to see it completed.  Despite this it seems that the new master did not move in straight away; he had been in the Royal Navy since the age of sixteen and seen action in America, Spain and Ireland, suffering wounds and reaching the rank of Lieutenant before leaving the service on half-pay in 1822.

Travel and politics

Still a young man, John’s whereabouts for the next few years are something of a mystery but he is thought to have spent some time with relatives in Malta and then at his mother’s family estate in Wales, before coming home to Arlington in the early 1830s. He was elected as Whig MP for Barnstaple in 1831 and became an active campaigner for reform of the Corn Laws, an unpopular piece of legislation which kept food prices artificially high for common people.  He was made a Baronet in September 1840 in part as a reward for his support for the cause and the Corn Laws were finally repealed in 1849 after rioting in the streets and civil unrest across the country.

Great changes

In 1838 he married Caroline Thistlethwayte and we believe that it was then that he had the house finished and decorated for the arrival of his new wife.  Records exist of correspondence regarding the decoration of the Morning Room, and the Ante Room and Boudoir are thought to date from the same period.  But it is in the estate that he was to really make his mark: the two bridge pillars at the lake, a long-overgrown carriage road from Woolley Lodge and considerable redesigning of the pleasure grounds are among the remnants of Sir John’s plans to transform Arlington Court into a much grander estate.  It seems that he considered extending the house as plans were drawn up which, although never followed through, may be seen displayed in the Staircase Hall today.  One distinctive architectural legacy is the wing in which the offices and tearoom are today located: built for Sir John just prior to his death to accommodate new kitchens and services from local stone and designed by Barnstaple architect Richard Gould, who would later design the stables, too.

A family legacy

Sir John died in 1851, leaving a widow and two children, Alexander Palmer Bruce, who inherited his father’s title and became the second Baronet at the age of nine, and Caroline, later Lady Clay.  Although largely overlooked nowadays, he was well-regarded at the time and a popular local landowner, unusual in the troubled mid-nineteenth century.  Known to his tenants as either ‘Arlington Jack’ or, a little confusingly, ‘Sir Bruce’, his passing was noted in a magazine of the time.
" He has left behind him the character of a kind landlord, a promoter of trade and employment, and the uncompromising friend of the poor."
- The Gentleman's Magazine