Who was Charles Wade?

Photograph of Charles Wade

Charles was the son of Paget and Amy Wade – the owners of several inherited sugar estates in the British West Indies.

But what more do we know about this unconventional figure who created this magical and eclectic house and garden nestled near the Costwold village of Broadway in the Gloucestershire countryside?

St Kitts, sugar and slavery

Until the 1860s the Wade family lived on the island of St Kitts, then a British colony in the West Indies. Charles’s grandfather, Solomon Abraham Wade (1806–81), was born on the island and built a career as a dry-goods merchant. On the abolition of slavery he received compensation through the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. In 1844 his first child was born with his unmarried partner Mary Jones (1817–1914), a black woman thought to be his housekeeper, but recorded as a huckster. They married in 1855, having purchased the first of several sugar plantations in 1850, but moved to Kent, England by 1861. In 1879 Solomon gifted his son Paget Augustus (1849–1911) money to purchase sugar estates in St Kitts, and further established his own business as a ‘West India Merchant’. 

Black and white postcard of Frigate Bay, St Kitts
Black and white postcard of Frigate Bay St Kitts from Snowshill collection
Black and white postcard of Frigate Bay, St Kitts

In 1882 Paget Wade married Amy Blanche Spencer (1858-1943), and the following year their only son Charles was born in Kent. At the age of seven Charles went to live with his grandmother, known as Grannie Spencer, in Great Yarmouth.
 

‘Grannie’s cabinet’

Grannie Spencer lived a spartan existence, and was strict with Charles, but she also owned many interesting artefacts and curiosities kept in an exquisite 18th-century lacquered cabinet. Every Sunday she would allow Charles to open the cabinet with its ‘magic key’ and to marvel at its collections, hidden within drawers and recesses. The cabinet contained old ‘family treasures’, like a little wax angel with golden wings, musical boxes, shells, compasses, butterflies and silver spoons. 

‘Grannie’s Cabinet’ was of great sentimental value to Charles and was the inspiration for his own collecting. His first acquisitions, bought with 18 weeks’ worth of pocket money, were three small bone-carved shrines of St Michael and two of the Virgin and Child. 
 

This 18th-century black lacquer cabinet, known as Grannie’s cabinet, inspired Charles Wade to start collecting
A Chinese cabinet at Snowshill Manor in the Cotswolds
This 18th-century black lacquer cabinet, known as Grannie’s cabinet, inspired Charles Wade to start collecting

Architect and artist

Charles found his formative education unfulfilling, boarding at several schools around the country which he called ‘Graveyards of Imagination’ and ‘Factories of Boredom’. 

He went on to qualify as an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects, working on various projects in London. Alongside his flair for architectural design and illustration, he loved to draw and paint for pleasure.

When his father died in St Kitts in 1911, Charles inherited a share of the sugar business, and had enough income to stop architectural practice and to devote himself to artistic pursuits and building his collection. He remained an active book illustrator, exhibiting periodically at the Whitechapel Art Gallery and Cotswold Arts and Crafts Exhibition. 

Charles was enlisted into the Royal Engineers during the First World War. While in France he spotted a sales advertisement for Snowshill Manor in Country Life magazine.
 

A home for his collection

After the First World War Charles purchased Snowshill, a Tudor manor house with an adjacent cottage and 14 acres of land. He discovered it in a terrible state of repair and immediately set to work remodelling and restoring the house, turning the farmyard into an Arts and Crafts garden with the help of architect M. H. Baillie Scott (1865–1945). While his collection took pride of place in the manor house, Charles set up home in the small Priest’s House opposite.

Word of his collection soon spread among writers and artists, and he welcomed several famous figures to Snowshill in the early 20th century, including J.B. Priestly, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene and even Queen Mary.

Charles created his own coat of arms which bore the motto ‘Let nothing perish’, an overt statement on his passion for collecting and craftsmanship. 
 

Marriage and death

Charles was in his 60s when he met his future wife, vicar’s daughter Mary Graham (1902–99). They married in 1946 and lived at Snowshill Manor before spending increasing amounts of time in St Kitts from the early 1950s. After the death of his mother and the close of the Second World War, Charles assumed the full management of the family plantation business.

A painting of the view of Nevis from St Kitts by Charles Wade
View of Nevis from St Kitts painting by Charles Wade
A painting of the view of Nevis from St Kitts by Charles Wade

During a visit to England in 1956 Charles was suddenly taken ill; he died at Evesham Hospital on 28 June. Mary survived him by many years, ending her days in the nearby village of Broadway.

Several years before he died, Charles had approached the National Trust offering Snowshill as a gift to safeguard the future of his creation and its collection – an offer which was accepted.

Charles Wade was an avid collector of the ordinary and extraordinary; he was an artist, poet and craftsman who created a magical and fantastical world at Snowshill Manor. Charles’s Snowshill was more than a collection, it was arranged with the eye of an artist, and acted as a stage for his inventive imagination. Charles was at his happiest during evenings spent entertaining close friends, telling improvised stories acted out by candlelight in the haze of wood smoke.