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History of Dunham Massey

Oil painting on canvas, Dunham Massey: Bird's-eye View from the South, by Adriaen Van Diest
Oil painting of Dunham Massey: Bird's-eye View from the South, by Adriaen Van Diest | © National Trust Images

Over 400 years of history have unfolded at Dunham Massey. It’s been home to two ancient families – the Booths and the Greys – and their stories of international fortune and friendship can still be felt across the estate today.

A medieval park

Seat of the Massey barons, the park at Dunham Massey was first mentioned in 1362, but wild deer and boar were hunted there many years before.

Deer parks were a prominent feature of the British landscape after the Norman Conquest and were a symbol of elite power and privilege. Today only a handful remain, most broken up or converted for agriculture or landscaped parkland.

The Booth family

Dunham Massey estate passed through the female line in marriage to the first Booth, Robert Bothe of Barton in 1453.

Two centuries later, in August 1659, the final year of the Commonwealth, ‘Young’ Sir George Booth (1622–84) led a royalist uprising in the North, taking Chester on 19 August. Marching towards York, Booth was intercepted by the Protectorate spymaster, John Thurloe, and eventually defeated. He escaped, allegedly disguised as a woman, but was later imprisoned in the Tower. After the Restoration, Booth was freed and rewarded with the Barony of Delamer and £20,000.

In the 1680s, George's staunchly Protestant son Henry, 1st Earl of Warrington (1652–94), was sent to the Tower – three times – for sedition against James II.

Portrait of George Booth, 2nd Earl of Warrington, and his daughter, Lady Mary Booth by Michael Dahl, at Dunham Massey, Cheshire
Portrait of George Booth, 2nd Earl of Warrington, and his daughter, Lady Mary Booth by Michael Dahl, at Dunham Massey, Cheshire | © National Trust Images/Angelo Hornak

Timeline of Dunham's history from the late 17th century


An opportune inheritance

In 1694, George Booth, 2nd Earl of Warrington (1675–1758), inherits the Dunham Estate, alongside his father's debts of £50,000. With few resources to settle them, the threat to the financial ruin of the estate was real. George tightens control of his finances and bows out of political involvement in an effort to save the estate for future descendants, insisting his tenants honour their commitments and pay their dues. 

George's problems were finally eased when, on 9 April 1702, he marries Mary Oldbury (d. 1740). Mary was the daughter of John Oldbury, a London merchant. Recent research has revealed that John successfully amassed a great fortune toward the end of his life as a result of astute business deals, trading currants, fish and citrus fruits. Mary and her sister Dorothy both received an equal and sizeable inheritance on his death, reputed to be £40,000, Unfortunately, after their marriage George found this figure was actually £24,000 (still about £2.5 million in today’s money). It helped secure the estate finances, enabling George to resolve some significant financial obligations. He decided to plants hundreds of trees across the park as a timber resource.

Dunham Massey’s colonial history

Dunham Massey’s past connects with empire in specific but wide-ranging ways – an imperial fortune, an African emperor, and a story of racial prejudice that leads directly to the seat of government. These stories offer insight into how empire permeated society, reaching into the heart of the British establishment.

Addressing the past

A sundial borne by a life-size, kneeling figure of an African man was sited outside the front of the house for nearly 300 years until 2020. Research is continuing into the history of the sundial but it is known that figures like this exist within the range of ‘exotica’ manufactured in support of colonial representations of the people and places of the British Empire.

Racial prejudice and the fight for an earldom

One of the most intriguing stories of empire associated with Dunham Massey is that of John Grey, the mixed-race son and heir of the eccentric Harry Grey, 8th Earl of Samford (1812–1890).

Harry, son of a parish vicar, took Holy Orders in 1836, though he was clearly not naturally disposed to a life in the Church of England. His first marriage was brief and considered unsuitable by his family. He developed a serious alcohol and gambling problem and was packed off by his parents to Cape Colony, South Africa.

An unexpected inheritance

Working as a miner and later a farmhand, it came as a shock to him when he inherited Dunham Massey on the death of his third cousin, George Grey, 7th Earl of Stamford, in 1883.

By this time, Harry had married for the third time. His wife was Martha Solomon, the black daughter of an emancipated enslaved person. She and Harry had three children, the eldest two of which were born outside of marriage. Harry never returned to the UK.

A challenge to the peerage

On Harry’s death in 1890, his first son and heir John – born illegitimately – stood to inherit his father’s title, along with Dunham Massey. While this was possible under Dutch law (Cape Colony, a self-governing province, used a mix of English and Dutch legislation), it was challenged in the courts of England.

A counter claim to the earldom and the estate was made by the nephew of the 8th Earl. The Stamford Peerage Case, as reported by The Times on 4th May 1892, illustrates the racial prejudices prevalent at the highest level of British society at that time:

Family ties

William Grey, a white Canadian teacher who had taught in Barbados, won the case. He became 9th Earl of Stamford in May 1892. Letters in the family archive confirm that the new earl maintained a warm relationship with his South African relatives.

After Harry’s death, Martha Solomon, now Dowager Countess of Stamford, was left financially secure. She founded Battswood School in Wynberg, Cape Town. This became a training college, which still educates young South Africans.

Harry and Martha’s third child, a daughter born within marriage, was able to style herself Lady Mary Grey throughout her life.

A lasting legacy

Roger Grey (1896–1976), the 9th Earl’s son, was just 13 when he inherited Dunham Massey on the death of his father. Roger spent much of his time bringing back to the house some of the family’s principal treasures, including the family portraits and Huguenot silver.

Never marrying, he left Dunham Massey to the National Trust in 1976 – one of the biggest gifts received by the organisation.

Peterloo Massacre

On 16 August 1819, thousands of pro-democracy and anti-poverty protesters gathered in St Peter’s Field in Manchester. A cavalry charge to disperse the crowd left an estimated 18 people dead and nearly 700 injured.

The massacre was a turning point in our democracy, leading directly to the founding of the Manchester Guardian newspaper and becoming a catalyst for Chartism and other workers' rights movements.

Dunham Massey's connection

George Harry Grey, 6th Earl of Stamford and Warrington became the owner of Dunham Massey after his father’s death in 1819, and served as Lord Lieutenant of Cheshire at the time of the massacre. One of the Lord Lieutenant’s most important responsibilities was keeping the peace and good order within the county, by order of the King.

On the day of Peterloo George Harry was not present, but he was within the chain of command that instructed the Cheshire militia to attend the meeting. We know from sources at the time that George Harry believed that those in charge of the protest incited the working classes to believe they had a chance of personal liberty, and in doing so endangered their lives. Although he couldn’t have known the extent of the casualties on the day, evidence suggests that he did support the suppression of the protest.

Remembering Peterloo

In 2019 we marked the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre with artwork inspired by conversations with people about rights and responsibilities, freedoms and the power to create change. Under the artistic direction of Turner Prize-winner Jeremy Deller, we worked with artist family Grace Surman and Gary Winters and their two young children Hope and Merrick on two artworks – one at Dunham Massey and one at Quarry Bank.

Deer resting on the lawn at Dunham Massey, Cheshire

Discover more at Dunham Massey

Find out when Dunham Massey is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.