Person of the month: John Cheetham

Late 19th-century painting, English School at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

Every month, we’re stepping back in time to meet characters from Calke’s past. Join us on this journey as we discover the people who lived and worked on the estate, and then meet their modern-day equivalents who help to keep Calke alive today.

We’d like you to meet…

John Cheetham, Butler, Steward, Estate Manager, Bailiff

Born around 1700, very little is known about John Cheetham’s early life. Born to Sarah and Robert, John had three brothers, Sawney, James and Jonathan, and later had three nephews and a niece.

John married Ann Holland, from Smisby, in December 1747. Smisby was part of the Harpur Estate in those days, and in Cheetham’s will, he left his wife ‘the remainder of an unexpired lease granted unto me by the late Sir Henry Harpur of a tenement and some lands at Smisby and also the use of such part of my furniture and household goods as she shall think proper to make use of during her natural life.’ It is probable that the house is Smisby was the manor.

John appears at Calke

John Cheetham appears on the Calke list in 1730, when he was around 30 years old. He appears to have held a very important position at Calke, and eventually became involved in legal matters concerning the family. Starting as a butler, he worked several roles at Calke, including Estate Manager and Bailiff. Working for Sir John, 4th Baronet and later Sir Henry, 5th Baronet, John was well trusted, and was considered a confidante and friend to the family.

A portrait of Sir Henry Harpur, the 5th Baronet
Portait of Sir Henry Harpur, the 5th Baronet of Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
A portrait of Sir Henry Harpur, the 5th Baronet

John had his own room at Calke, called Mr Cheetham’s Room, which contained some furniture and paintings of the family, according to a copy of the inventory from the time. It’s likely his room was next to the Rev. Smith’s room, and the Matted Room, which is on the top floor of the house.

An extensive will

Thanks to an extensive and elaborate will left by John Cheetham, we know a little more about his life, family, and his time at Calke Abbey. Totalling five pages, it gives precise instructions and his bequests are many, showing his wealth, education and position within the family.

In his will, John asks to be very privately buried at Smisby. His headstone now reads: ‘Here lieth the body of Mr John Cheetham, several years gentleman to Sir John and Sir Henry Harpur Bart. As a servant he was faithful, as a master kind, as a friend sincere, in every capacity of life he lived esteemed and died lamented.’

John left his best violin to Sir Henry Harpur, 6th Baronet, which was given to him by Sir John Harpur. He also left a Chestnut Mare to his friend John Elgie, which was bred from Lord Charles Manners’ Grey Mare and Wormwood. The 5th Baronet was married to Lord Charles’ daughter, Caroline Manners.

Serving the family

After the death of the 5th Baronet in 1748, John Cheetham continued to serve the family, making many visits to London concerning the accounts of the widowed Lady Caroline as guardian of her three children: Henry, who would become the 6th Baronet and was nine years old when his father died, Charles and Lucy.

Lady Caroline married again in 1753, Sir Robert Burdett of Foremark Hall, but it is not known if John Cheetham left Calke at that time, as it was only two years before his death in 1755, aged 54.

A modern-day Bailiff?

Stewart Alcock, General Manager

So, who acts as the bailiff now? Meet Stewart, the General Manager at Calke Abbey.

‘I’m Stewart Alcock, General Manager, and I’ve worked at Calke for 14 years. My role today involved leading the large team of 130 staff and 450 volunteers in our work across the estate. Similar to John Cheetham, I’m involved in all corners of the estate, whether that’s developing relationships with our tenants on the wider estate, leading our conservation work, or managing the complexities of a busy visitor attraction.

Volunteers tour Calke Explore with General Manager Stewart Alcock
Volunteers at Calke Abbey with General Manager Stewart Alcock
Volunteers tour Calke Explore with General Manager Stewart Alcock

‘However, our roles are also quite different. John would have been acting on the instructions of the family and was no doubt in regular contact with Sir John and Sir Henry. Today the Harpur Crewes are part of Calke’s history, but their legacy and all the wonders of Calke live on though the charitable purpose of the National Trust.

" Every day I feel incredibly privileged and proud to be involved in our work, and thankfully, I’ve never been required to be the bailiff!"
- Stewart Alcock, General Manager