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The history of Lanhydrock

Black and white archive photograph of the Agar-Robartes children circa 1896, at Lanhydrock, Cornwall
The Agar-Robartes children pictured at Lanhydrock in 1896 | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

The Lanhydrock estate has a fascinating history that encompasses wars, political scandals and a fire that devastated large parts of the house.

Lanhydrock in the 17th century

The 'wealthiest in the west'

Following the dissolution of the monasteries, Lanhydrock fell into the hands of the Glynn, Littleton and Trenance families, before being acquired by Richard Robartes in 1621.

Richard was regarded as the ‘wealthiest in the west’, having inherited a fortune of £300,000 and 40,000 acres of land from his father John in 1614.

Love and marriage

After Richard’s death in 1634, the estate was inherited by his son John – a staunch Puritan. John was married twice; in 1630, he tied the knot with Lucy Rich, the youngest daughter of the Earl of Warwick, but he walked down the aisle again in 1647, this time marrying Lucy's cousin Letitia Isabella Smith.

The two ladies were very different. Lucy was considered ‘a precious comfort – one of whom the world was not worthy’, whilst it was said that Letitia was flirtatious and ‘shone at court with lustre’.

When John married for the second time, he was 42 and his bride was just 17. It was said that he loved her ‘to distraction’. In total, he fathered 19 children, 14 of which were Letitia's.

The English Civil War

At the beginning of the English Civil War, John Robartes fought for Parliament with his own regiment. In 1644, following a brief return to Lanhydrock, he was forced to flee from the advancing Royalists, narrowly escaping with the Earl of Essex from Fowey to Plymouth.

During the 1650s, he spent some time at Lanhydrock, where he opposed the execution of Charles I in 1649. Following the Restoration of the monarchy, he was elevated to the Privy Council, and in 1679 he became the Earl of Radnor.

John Robartes' legacy

John died in London in 1685, having carved out a successful career in politics. Lanhydrock’s library, which you can see in the gallery today, largely comprises his accumulated works on theology, history, politics and science.

John Robartes outlived his immediate heir, so was succeeded by his grandson Charles Bodville Robartes. Although Charles was a Cornish MP, Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall (twice), Lord Warden of the Stannaries and High Steward of the Duchy of Cornwall, he spent very little time at Lanhydrock, preferring his extravagant homes in St James Square, London, and Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire (he'd inherited the latter through his marriage to Elizabeth Cutler).

Lanhydrock in the 18th century

Years of neglect

Charles was succeeded as Earl by his nephew, Henry. In 1724, Henry ventured on a ‘Grand Tour’, finally settling in Venice with his mistress, ‘a singer lately on stage in Naples’. His only visits back to England were to refinance himself in order to support his mistress, who, it was reported, ‘does not care much what becomes of his person… but continues to touch his pence’.

Both Charles and Henry neglected Lanhydrock during their combined 56 years of ownership, leading John Loveday to observe the house as ‘extremely out of repair and utterly destitute of furniture’ following his visit in 1736.

Threat of demolition

Upon Henry's death in 1741, the estate passed to his sister, Mary Vere Robartes, great-granddaughter of John Robartes, the 1st Earl of Radnor. Mary rarely visited Lanhydrock, writing: ‘It’s impossible to have a more disagreeable estate to manage.’ In a 1754 letter, she revealed that she was considering demolishing the house and selling off its contents. She valued the whole estate at £110,000.


Mary died before she could carry out these plans, and her eldest son, George Hunt, inherited the estate in 1758. Like his predecessors, George rarely lived at Lanhydrock. However, he made efforts to modernise the house, demolishing the east wing, bringing in good-quality furniture, making alterations to the interior and painting the external walls red (to replicate the fashion for red brick). His most astute move came in 1792 when he hired a new estate warden, William Jenkin, a man who did much to overcome previous neglect.

George Hunt suffered from ill health, and often travelled around Britain and abroad seeking cures. Upon his death in 1798, the Lanhydrock estate was passed to his niece, Anna Maria Hunt.

Portrait painting of Thomas James Agar-Robartes
Thomas James Agar-Robartes died shortly after the fire that devastated Lanhydrock | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Lanhydrock in the 19th century

In 1804, Anna Maria married Charles Bagenal Agar, the youngest son of John Agar, 1st Viscount Clifden. Although she didn’t use Lanhydrock as her main home (she lived next door to her mother in Mayfair), Anna Maria took a keen interest in her Cornish estates. She gradually improved Lanhydrock house, installing blinds to protect the pictures from sunlight, along with stoves to combat the damp.

Over the years, she was regarded as a ‘conscientious and charitable landlord’. She was generous towards local miners during periodic slumps in the tin industry, as well as being benevolent towards her own tenants and staff.

Personal tragedy

The years following Anna Maria's marriage were tinged with personal tragedy. Her eldest son Charles died in 1810, Charles Agar died of typhoid in 1811 and her youngest son Edward died in 1818.

A widow until her death in 1861, Anna Maria devoted the rest of her life to making Lanhydrock a suitable home and providing an income for her sole surviving son, Thomas James.

‘The poor man’s friend’

Thomas James Agar took the Robartes name by deed and warrant in 1822. When he came of age in 1829, he began to take some responsibility for the estate.

In 1839, he married Juliana Pole-Carew of Antony House, thus uniting two great Cornish families. The couple had one child, Thomas Charles Agar-Robartes.

Following in his mother's footsteps, Thomas James did a lot for charity, building and maintaining the Miners’ Infirmary in Redruth and endowing several buildings to Cornish boarding schools. He was the Liberal MP for Bodmin between 1847 and 1868, and was considered in Cornwall to be ‘the poor man’s friend’.

Destruction and death

Continuing his mother’s estate improvements, Thomas James commissioned the celebrated architect George Gilbert Scott to repair the decaying Lanhydrock house.

Sadly, disaster struck in 1881 when a fire destroyed the newly refurbished interiors of the south and west wings. Although both Thomas James and Juliana escaped the fire, Juliana died a few days later from smoke inhalation and shock, and Thomas James (then Lord Robartes) died the following year, reputedly from a broken heart.

Rebuilding Lanhydrock

Following Julia and Thomas James's deaths, their son Thomas Charles inherited the Lanhydrock estate, becoming the 6th Lord Robartes.

Before his death, Thomas James had expressed his wish that the house be rebuilt as it was prior to the fire. It was a wish that Thomas Charles duly carried out. However, determined that the house should never burn again, he installed the very latest Victorian fire-fighting systems, as well as modern style and conveniences.

Christmas sorrow

By the time he inherited Lanhydrock, Thomas Charles was married to Mary Dickinson of Kingsweston in Somerset. They had 10 children and all but one reached adulthood. Sadly, their third son, John Radnor, died of bronchitis on Christmas Eve 1884. He was just six months old.

VIP visitors

The large family lived at Lanhydrock during a time of late-Victorian and Edwardian opulence. Visitors to the house included Mr and Mrs Gladstone in 1889, the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1903, Lord Roseberry and Winston Churchill.

Thomas Charles also gained another title, becoming the 6th Viscount Clifden following the death of his second cousin, Leopold Agar Ellis.

Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, which had been sold in 1733 by the 2nd Earl of Radnor, came back into the family during this period, becoming the home of Gerald, the family’s second son.

The travelling case used by Captain Tommy Agar-Robartes during the First World War, displayed alongside other items in his bedroom at Lanhyrdock, Cornwall.
Capt. Tommy Agar-Robartes' travelling case can be found at Lanhydrock | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Lanhydrock in the 20th century

Political scandal

Thomas Charles and Mary's eldest son and heir, Thomas Charles Reginald Agar-Robartes (known as Tommy), was elected MP for South East Cornwall in 1906. Just one month after the election, the man who'd been touted as ‘the farmers’ and miners’ friend’ became embroiled in a high-profile scandal where he was charged with 108 counts of bribery and excessive expenses. However, despite having to forfeit his seat, Tommy was elected unopposed for the mid-Cornwall constituency.

The First World War

In 1914, Tommy took an appointment as Second Lieutenant in the Royal Bucks Hussars. Being stationed in England, he couldn't bear the thought that others were taking risks when he wasn't. So, he joined the Coldstream Guards and left for France in February 1915.

Tragically, Tommy was shot at the Battle of Loos in September 1915 while rescuing a wounded comrade from no man’s land. He later died of his wounds, and the family fell into a decline from which they never recovered.

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