Sir Thomas Colyer-Fergusson

Sir Thomas Coyer-Fergusson stands in the grass-covered cobbled central courtyard at Ightham Mote.

The early 20th century history of Ightham Mote has been shaped by Sir Thomas Colyer-Fergusson who, despite a reputation for meanness, spent today’s equivalent of over a million pounds on vital repairs to the house.

Conservation begins

After 24-year old Thomas Colyer-Fergusson bought Ightham in 1889, he began the conservation work which the Trust has continued on a larger scale in recent years.  He also introduced some modernisation to make the house more comfortable, including installing central heating, electricity and bathrooms, and connecting to the mains water supply.

 

Life at the Mote

Sir Thomas ran the house with old-fashioned formality, employing a dozen indoor servants and eight gardeners.  He rarely entertained on a grand scale but despite the lack of guests, he and his wife still dressed for dinner, and the table was laid with the best porcelain and silver.  Apparently, Sir Thomas alternated his smoking jackets, wearing blue one evening and maroon the next. 

 

Visitors welcome

In the early 20th century, the Colyer-Fergussons opened the main rooms of the house to visitors one afternoon a week, charging two shillings. By this time, with appreciation of heritage growing, the survival of a house like Ightham would have been of great interest.  Visitors to the Mote included Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust – did she hope that one day the house would be in the Trust’s care?

 

Casualties of war

The devastation of two world wars had a profound effect on the Colyer-Fergusson family. Sir Thomas’s eldest son, Max, was killed in a bombing raid on an army driving school in 1940.  His second son, Billy, suffered from shell-shock in the Great War, and the youngest, Riversdale, was killed at Ypres, aged 21.  He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for capturing a German machine-gun post.  Following Riversdale’s death, Sir Thomas would not allow his gardeners to make any changes to the garden, asking them not to cut back any plants or remove dying trees.

 

A difficult decision

On Sir Thomas’s death in 1951, Ightham Mote was inherited by Max’s son James. He had no children and was aware of the vast expense of maintaining the house. Therefore, he decided to sell the house and contents, leaving Ightham with an uncertain future.