The Massingberd Family

Charles Langton Massingberd with his children and grandchildren on the front steps of Gunby

Gunby Hall was the home of the Massingberd family for more than 250 years from 1700 to the 1960's. Find out more about the Massingberds - from the builder of the house, to its most recent owners.

Early History

The Massingberd family is long established in Lincolnshire, tracing its descent to Lambert Massingberd of Sutterton on the Wash who was convicted of grievous bodily harm in Boston in 1288. Through the marriage of Sir Thomas Massingberd to Joan de Bratoft in 1495 the lands of Bratoft and Gunby and the moated manor house at Bratoft came into the family, surrounded by fish ponds and an extensive park. An Elizabethan garden seems to have adorned Bratoft Manor, of which archaeological remains can be seen in the landscape today. 

The moat is all that remains of Bratoft Manor, the former home of the Massingberd family
Aerial view of the remains of Bratoft Manor

During the Civil War the Massingberd brothers, Henry and Drayner, fought on the Parliamentary side. Both brothers prospered under the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell.  Drayner went on to found the branch of the family seated at South Ormsby in Lincolnshire. Henry served as High Sheriff of the county and was rewarded with a baronetcy by Cromwell. This was probably because of Henry's generosity to the State in maintaining thirty foot soldiers in Ireland for three years keeping the peace after the bloody campaigns of 1649-51. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Sir Henry managed the unusual feat of having his Cromwellian baronetcy re-conferred by Charles II in 1660.

It was Sir Henry’s son, Sir William, the second baronet, who decided to move the family home across the fields from Bratoft to Gunby.

Sir William Massingberd, the builder

Sir William Massingberd 1649-1719
Sir William Massingberd

From sources of the time it seems likely that Sir William was building on the site of an existing manor house, but nothing of it remains today. Some of the bricks used to build the house were quarried from the old manor house at Bratoft, which Sir William dismantled. The result is a four-square, no-nonsense brick house relieved by sparing use of stone for quoins and window surrounds and subtle raised brick panels in the parapet.

" ..the Hall is…robust, unostentatious, dignified and a trifle prim.."
- James Lees-Milne, ‘People and Places’ 1992

Sir William served as High Sheriff for Bedfordshire in 1694 and seems to have maintained his family’s eminence in Lincolnshire too. His namesake bachelor son, who succeeded him briefly from 1719-23, was MP for Lincolnshire. After that the family tradition of female succession began with Elizabeth, daughter of the builder and wife of Mr Meux, inheriting and joining her maiden name to that of her husband. Her son, William Meux Massingberd, held Gunby for a lengthy period (1738-1781) and built the stable yard to the north of the house. He married twice and had many children by his second marriage, but only one son, who predeceased him, by his first. His grandson Henry succeeded him, but lived away from Gunby which was let to a succession of tenants.  

William Meux Massingberd 1703-1781
William Meux Massingberd

On Henry’s death, which occurred in France in 1784, his baby daughter, Elizabeth Mary Anne, succeeded. Gunby continued to be let whilst she was brought up by various aunts and great aunts in and around Lincolnshire.  

Peregrine Langton Massingberd, the planter

Peregrine Langton Massingberd 1780-1856
Peregrine Langton Massingberd

In 1802 Elizabeth Mary Anne Massingberd married Peregrine Langton, second son of Bennet Langton of Langton in Lincolnshire. Peregrine left lots of of letters, journals and, uniquely, a book in which he recorded all tree planting on the estate. The Gunby Tree Book, together with his journals and letters, give a glimpse of life at Gunby and abroad as Peregrine struggled with a tempestuous marriage (which eventually broke down) his children (all of whom either died or otherwise disappointed him) money (the lack of which forced him out of Gunby) and religion (which overtook him forcefully during a storm in the South Atlantic). 

Elizabeth Langton Massingberd 1783-1835
Elizabeth Langton Massingberd

Peregrine’s chief joy was in creating new plantations. In this he was greatly assisted by William Pontey.  Pontey was a nurseryman who had an eye for landscape design. He published his theories in a series of books, culminating in ‘The Rural Improver’ of 1822. Expanding on the theories of ‘Capability’ Brown, Pontey advised Peregrine to plant belts of trees with breaks in them to focus views on distant features such as church towers. In a flat landscape such as Gunby’s this gives the impression of an extensive and generously wooded landscape, far greater than actually exists.

Naughty Algernon

Algernon Massingberd 1828-1855
Algernon Massingberd

The Reverend Algernon Langton-Massingberd, eldest son of Peregrine and Elizabeth Mary Anne who inherited Gunby in 1835, had only one child, also named Algernon (and called ‘Naughty’ in the family annals for reasons that will become apparent). The little boy grew up mostly untutored and untamed and was given some boundaries when his parents bought him a commission as a midshipman in the Royal Navy. He served his teenage years on the China seas maintaining supplies, cleanliness and discipline on board. Unsurprisingly he took the opportunity offered by his father’s untimely death in 1844 to quit the Navy and take to travel (with his mother) witnessing the overthrow of Louis Philippe in France. By 1848 he had resumed a military career, this time as a junior officer in the Dragoons followed, at his twenty-first birthday in 1849 - and amidst ox roasts and a massive dinner for all his Gunby tenants - by a move to the Royal Regiment of Horse Guards. In this role he began to enjoy life to the full, taking a house in fashionable Eaton Square and becoming involved in gambling rings and murky horse dealing. He also began to take an interest in radical politics.

Plaque in St Peter's Church commemorating Algernon's death
Plaque in St Peter's Church commemorating Algernon's death

Algernon wrote ecstatically of his meeting with Louis Kossuth, the Hungarian revolutionary. They had met in Turkey after the failure of the short-lived Hungarian republic. So it was natural that Algernon should put his house in London at Kossuth’s disposal when the revolutionary visited England late in 1851. Kossuth travelled the country making speeches. The government remained quiet but, after Kossuth’s departure for America, took revenge on those who had helped him. Algernon was required to resign his commission and, with no position and hounded by creditors, he too departed for America early in 1852, never to return. His travels took him to Havana, Australia, New York and Lima in Peru where his last contact is recorded in 1854.

" My Byron, Bible, and old scrap book I shall require at your hands.."
- the last surviving message written by Algernon Massingberd before he disappeared without trace in 1854

During this time Gunby was tenanted once more by a solicitor and his family, the Hollways.  Algernon’s career from 1852 until his death in 1855 is charted by the investigations of his formidable uncle Charles and a precious collection of three letters that survive in his hand.

Charles Langton Massingberd, the consolidator

Charles Langton Massingberd 1815-1887
Charles Langton Massingberd

Charles was the youngest son of Peregrine and Elizabeth Mary Anne Massingberd. Having served a spell in the Austrian army he married and settled to life as a gentleman, unconscious of the danger into which the irrepressible vigour of his nephew Algernon’s enthusiasm for adventure had placed the family’s fortunes.

Watercolour drawing of a cedar tree at Gunby by Charles Langton Massingberd
Watercolour drawing by Charles Langton Massingberd

Charles was an acute businessman and had invested well, amongst other things in the development of the South American railway network. Having paid off all his nephew’s debts and confirmed his right to inherit Gunby, Charles was in a position to make the first major alterations to the hall since it was built. In 1873 he added a two storey wing to the north of the house, providing better service accommodation, secondary bedrooms and a new dining room. He installed plumbing bringing the luxury of running water and plumbed toilets to the house.

Photo of Charles Langton Massingberd
Photo of Charles Langton Massingberd

Genial, musical and an accomplished artist, Charles was much in demand at parties for his fine tenor singing voice. To the end of his life he retained the engaging habit of slipping into German, sometimes in the middle of sentences; a relic of his youth spent on the continent. His poor health led him to spend much of his later life in the beneficial climate of Bournemouth where his daughter Emily built a house.

Emily Langton Massingberd, the campaigner   

Emily Langton Massingberd 1847-1897
Emily Langton Massingberd

Charles Langton-Massingberd's elder daughter, Emily Caroline, grew up to become one of the most distinctive characters in the Massingberd line.

Emily was a tee-total political activist who campaigned for women’s rights. She was a keen amateur actor (preferring to take male parts) and played the violin. She had a passionate (if unconsummated) love affair with one cousin whilst she was married to another, Edmund. She had four children: Stephen, Mildred, Mary and Diana.

Emily Langton Massingberd with her family
Group portrait photograph of Emily Langton Massingberd with her young adult children

Her ethical and political beliefs were united in the Pioneer Club, a pro-suffrage members’ club for the advancement and education of women, which she founded in 1892. Whilst the story of her lecturing her tenants on the evils of drink from a boat moored in ice house pond may be a myth, her lifelong hatred of alcohol had effects on Gunby that survive to this day. The Massingberd Arms farm started life as a pub, which Emily converted into a temperance house, whereupon it went bankrupt and became a farmhouse.  

The 1888 Local Government Reform Act left it vague who had the right stand for election and who did not. So in the elections of January 1889 Emily stood for the ward of Partney, in her right as a landowner, and lost by only twenty votes. She was one of the first women in the country to stand for public office.  

Emily Langton-Massingberd (1847-1897)
Photo of Emily Langton Massingberd

Emily, who had been widowed in 1875, succeeded her father at Gunby in 1887. She enjoyed the life of a country squire up to a point, but found the isolation of Lincolnshire trying and, after a couple of years, let Gunby once again, retiring to live in Bournemouth (where she produced amateur theatricals with her friend Agnes Mangles) and London. Here she preferred to live at the Pioneer Club in Bruton Street rather than with her teenaged children in the house she rented for them in Kensington Square. Emily died after an operation in1897 aged only 49.

Stephen Massingberd and the Lushingtons  

Major Stephen Massingberd 1869-1925
Major Stephen Massingberd

Stephen moved to Gunby in 1898 shortly after his mother’s death, starting a golden era that was to survive both World Wars and the transfer of Gunby to the National Trust in 1944.  Stephen was newly married to a beautiful, artistic young wife. Together they were to transform the local musical scene introducing singing competitions throughout the county, training choirs and orchestras, performing concerts and operettas and bringing first class music to this remote corner of Lincolnshire.  

Stephen and Margaret in the Gunby gardens (circa 1900)
Stephen and Margaret in the Gunby gardens

Margaret, Stephen’s wife, was one of three daughters of Vernon and Jane Lushington. After their mother’s early death, the three, Katherine (known as Kitty) Margaret and Susan looked after their father in 36 Kensington Square whilst the young Massingberds kept house at no. 42. A close friendship developed between the three Lushington girls and Stephen Massingberd's three sisters (Mildred, Mary and Diana), very largely centring on music - although Mildred could never see the point of it. It was a mutual love of the cello that drew Stephen and Margaret together.

Portrait of Margaret Lushington by Arthur Hughes
Portrait of Margaret Lushington by Arthur Hughes

Margaret died of peritonitis in 1906. Whilst the musical traditions that had been laid down by her drive and energy were taken up and continued by her sister Susan with Stephen’s younger sister, Diana. Stephen never re-married and, although he survived the First World War on active service, he died, childless, at the relatively young age of 56 in 1925.

Field Marshal Sir Archibald and Lady Montgomery Massingberd, the benefactors 

Diana Montgomery Massingberd 1872-1963
Diana Montgomery Massingberd


Stephen’s elder sister, Mildred, did not enjoy being a country landowner, preferring to live privately in the house she had built with her husband (and second cousin) Leonard Darwin in the New Forest. So, as her next sister Mary had married the heir to an estate in Northern Ireland, Gunby came to the youngest, Diana. She had married the younger brother of her sister Mary’s husband, Archibald Montgomery, known in the family as Archie. Obligingly he followed tradition and took his wife’s name when she inherited Gunby.

Field Marshal Sir Archibald Montgomery Massingberd 1871-1947
Field Marshal Sir Archibald Montgomery Massingberd

Archie was a successful career soldier. He had served in the Boer War, making friends with Rudyard Kipling. He started the First World War as a Major, rising to the rank of Major General by the Armistice. He was recognised as a brilliant strategist and wrote the history of the campaign ‘the Hundred Days’ that brought the war to a close. He was appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1933 and became Field Marshal in 1935.

Diana was a strict tee-totaller and, like her mother, she was a fine musician. She had a clear, sweet soprano singing voice, and was a conductor as well as an accomplished violin and viola player.

Diana Montgomery Massingberd in the Gunby gardens (circa 1950)
Diana Montgomery Massingberd in the Gunby gardens

In 1943 Diana and Archie faced their greatest challenge. When the Field Marshal found men marking up trees for felling he was told that the Air Ministry had ordered it – and the demolition of the house – to facilitate heavily-laden bombers on the neighbouring airfield. Archie lobbied everyone (including the King) to prevent this ‘act of vandalism’. When criticised for being unpatriotic he pointed out that Hitler was destroying enough beautiful buildings already without needlessly adding more. Eventually the point was won and the house saved. In thanksgiving Archie and Diana decided to offer the entire estate to the National Trust. This act of great generosity was finally achieved in the following year.

" They are such dear people…I would walk to the ends of the earth to help them.."
- James Lees-Milne, Diary entry for Thursday 25 March 1943

Archie died in 1947 but Diana lived on into extreme old age, a tall, erect figure still graceful enough to attract wolf-whistles from soldiers (to the officer of men in the park after the war she remarked; ‘… will you kindly inform your men that I may look 18 from the back, but I am 80 at the front!’).

Gunby was tenanted from 1967 until 2012 when National Trust took on full management of the property.