The Extravagant Earl

The Earl of Sheffield at Prince of Wales at Sheffield Park 1896

Henry North Holroyd was born in 1832. He served in the military and then became a member of parliament before he succeeded his father in the earldom in 1876. This Victorian gentleman lived a life of luxury, mixing with royalty and the top echelons of society. Benevolent and kind, but also quick tempered and impulsive, his excessive spending on entertaining, travel and his beloved cricket led to the end of the fortunes of the Holroyd family.

Why the ‘extravagant’ Earl?

Lord Sheffield was well known for his love of entertaining, hosting local flower and vegetable shows as well as annual picnics for up to 2000 children.  At these picnics, children would be treated to games, music, pony rides, diving displays and fireworks, all at his own expense.

As an ex-military man, he also offered his land to the Volunteer movement who would stage mock battles, test explosives and have overnight camps.

However, the Earl’s first love and biggest extravagance was cricket.  The cricket pitch was built for him by his father in the mid-1800s, but on inheriting the earldom, Lord Sheffield set about creating a world class cricket pitch, suitable to host international matches.  Three elaborate wrought iron pavilions were built on the pitch, each with their own roof terrace and flower garden.  His personal cricket team included some of the best players of the day, such as W G Grace, and the Earl famously hosted the Australian cricket team in 1896, along with 25,000 spectators and the Prince of Wales.

Lord Sheffield XI including WG Grace outside the pavilion at Sheffield Park, 1884
Lord Sheffield eleven including WG Grace
Lord Sheffield XI including WG Grace outside the pavilion at Sheffield Park, 1884

As well as his expenditure on entertaining and cricket, the Earl had many other hobbies and interests that proved expensive.  He was integral in developing the railway line that ran through Sheffield Park between Lewes and East Grinstead, supplying the principal funding for the Bill to get through parliament, and donating land to the cause.  He also loved to travel, and as well as shorter trips on his own yacht, ‘Heloise’, he would take long winter holidays to places such as Pompeii and Egypt.  On one of these trips, he brought back two ancient mummies, one of which he ceremoniously unwrapped on the cricket pitch in front of friends and family.

His changes to the garden would also have been a costly exercise, with much planting taking place under the Earl’s ownership as well as the building of the Pulham Falls and expansion of the top two lakes and storage pond. 

By 1907 the Earl had begun to sell off some of the art and library collections, suggesting financial problems.  The Earl died in 1909, unmarried and in debt.  Sheffield Park was bought by one of his creditors who had long admired the estate, Arthur Soames.

Mabel and Moore

Although the Earl never married, in 1895 at the age of 63 he adopted Miss Mabel Attenborough, the 24 year old daughter of the local Vicar.  She lived at the house as hostess and companion until the Earl’s death.

Despite the inevitable ‘tongues wagging’ about this unusual relationship, Mabel was a very independent young woman, and unusual for her time.  She enjoyed shooting, fishing and cricket and always accompanied the Earl on his travels abroad.   When she moved into the house it was along with a female chaperone and the foreign trips also included her father, suggesting there was nothing untoward about their friendship.

William Moore was the head groundsman at Sheffield Park for most of his working life.  His diary of 1896 still survives, and gives us an insight into life on the estate, especially during this auspicious year when preparing for the visit of the Prince of Wales.

This summer’s celebrations

Join one of our free garden tours every Tuesday and Thursday at 11am to learn more about the garden design and the influence of the 3rd Earl.

Every Wednesday from 14 June to 19 July, come and meet ‘Mabel and Moore’ as they wander the garden and fill you in on the latest goings on and gossip in the Earl’s household.

Hear stories from Mabel Attenborough and William Moore
Costumed character dressed as Mabel Attenborough at Sheffield Park
Hear stories from Mabel Attenborough and William Moore

During the summer holidays (15 July to 10 September) families can join our Summer Party Trail, where you’ll find out what it was like to be one of the children invited to the Earl’s grand summer picnics.

See our What’s On page for a full list of this summer’s events.