Wimpole through the ages
Wimpole has been continuously occupied for at least 2,000 years with evidence from Roman, Anglo-Saxon and medieval times. It has been owned by a number of different families. The earliest maps show a four-gabled manor house surrounded by a moat.
Wimpole is part of an ancient landscape, a recent archaeological excavation revealing a late Iron Age to early Roman (c.100BC – AD150) rural settlement.
The remains were extremely dense, representing several phases of changing land use over a few hundred years; two roundhouses were revealed, one with its central hearth intact and livestock enclosures, farming plots and evidence of settlement reorganisation.
The Chicheley family (1428-1686)
The Chicheley family dominated Wimpole for 250 years from 1428. The gabled manor house was demolished and parts of the house you see today were built in the 1640s and 1650s by Thomas Chicheley, MP for Cambridgeshire and member of the Royalist army. Debts forced him to sell Wimpole in 1686.
The Cutler family (1686-1710)
Sir John Cutler
Sir John Cutler bought Wimpole from fellow grocer Thomas Chicheley in 1686 and owned it until his death in 1693.
Charles Robartes, 2nd Earl of Radnor
Radnor gained Wimpole through marriage to Elizabeth Cutler, who married without her father's consent, but was forgiven on his deathbed when he bequeathed Wimpole to her. Elizabeth herself died in 1697 and Radnor used her fortune to turn Wimpole into one of the great gardens and houses of the age. Financial strain forced him to eventually sell the estate in 1710.
John Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle (1710–11)
Newcastle enjoyed ownership of Wimpole for only a short while because he died in a riding accident, leaving his only child Lady Henrietta Cavendish-Holles as principal heiress.
The Harley years (1711–40)
Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford and Mortimer
Harley gained Wimpole through marriage to Lady Henrietta Cavendish-Holles and set about enlarging the house. An obsessive collector, Lord Harley wanted to make Wimpole one of the main centres of art and learning of the early Georgian age. He wanted it to be the main location for the books that the Harleys collected. By the end of his life he had collected 50,000 printed books, 41,000 prints and 350,000 pamphlets. Harley amassed huge debts and he, too, had to sell the estate. The manuscript collection was acquired for the nation in 1753 and formed the foundation of the British Library.
The Earls of Hardwicke (1740–1894)
Philip Yorke (1690–1764), the 1st Earl of Hardwicke and Lord Chancellor, bought Wimpole in 1739. He rebuilt the north and south fronts of the house in red brick with Portland Stone dressings. Harley's cabinet rooms were made into one ground-floor gallery for his prodigious picture collection.
As Attorney-General (1724–34), Yorke is remembered for issuing the 1729 ‘Yorke-Talbot Opinion’ with Charles Talbot (1685–1737), Solicitor General. It was prompted by debate about the status of enslaved people arriving in Britain from the West Indies and inconsistencies between English law and those of its colonies on their rights. The Yorke-Talbot legal opinion stated that enslaved people brought to Britain continued to be enslaved on British soil and that they could be forcibly returned to the colonies at the will of their owner. Furthermore, they could not become free through Christian baptism. Ruled in law in 1729, Yorke and Talbot oiled the wheels for bounty hunters capturing escapees, and it was later described as a ‘Bill of Rights’ for slavery in Britain. Their ruling was overturned in 1772 by the Somerset decision of Yorke’s mentee William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield in the Somerset v. Stewart case of 1772 that prevented the forcible removal of an enslaved person from England.
Charles Yorke (1722–70), the 1st Earl’s second son, maintained his father’s colonial interests and became legal counsel for the East India Company (EIC). He was promoted to Solicitor General, and later also to Attorney-General. In 1756 he put his name to another legal opinion, the Pratt-Yorke, which upheld the rights to ownership of land plundered or acquired by the EIC in India. It had major consequences for the colonisation of indigenous lands in North America.
The 2nd Earl of Hardwicke (1720–90) was more interested in books and manuscripts than political matters so Wimpole once again became the centre of a great book and manuscript collection. It was the 2nd Earl who, in the 1760s, commissioned 'Capability' Brown to landscape the North Park including the building of a gothic tower, still standing today, and shallow belts of trees and serpentine lakes crossed by a 'Chinese' bridge.
The 3rd Earl of Hardwicke (1757–1834) was a politician with an interest in architecture and agricultural improvement. Uniting these interests, in 1790 he commissioned Sir John Soane to make dramatic alterations to the interior of the house, including the Yellow Drawing Room, Bath House and the Book Room and to build a model farm.
Vice-Admiral Charles Yorke (1799–1873), also known as 'Old Blowhard', became the 4th Earl in 1834. With rigorous efficiency he regulated the estate finances. Changes to the house and gardens included the new servants' wing, giant conservatory and new stable block. He even founded an estate fire brigade. He entertained Queen Victoria and Price Albert for two days in 1843.
The 5th Earl of Hardwicke (1836–97) was an inveterate gambler in the circle of the Prince of Wales and was known as 'Champagne Charlie'. He amassed huge debts with the Agar-Robartes Bank, and Wimpole was put up for sale but failed to find a buyer. Lord Robartes took over the house and estate in his capacity of chairman of the bank.
The Viscounts Clifden (1894–1937)
Lord Robartes, the 6th Viscount Clifden, took over Wimpole from Charles Yorke and settled Wimpole on his son Gerald in 1906. The maintenance of the family's other house at Lanhydrock in Cornwall and Wimpole proved too expensive, and Gerald Agar Robartes, the 7th Viscount Clifton felt obliged to move to Lanhydrock. Wimpole was then occupied only occasionally, usually for game shooting, racing at Newmarket or cricket in front of the house.
Captain and Mrs Bambridge (1937–1976)
Captain and Mrs George Bambridge first rented Wimpole in 1937 and had bought it by 1942.
The house was largely empty of contents, so they set out buying pictures and furniture to fill the house. During the war the household moved into the basements. The house itself was not requisitioned by the War Office due to lack of mains electricity and the primitive drainage and water supply.
Captain Bambridge died in 1943 as a result of a chill caught whilst out shooting. Elsie Bambridge was the only surviving child of Rudyard Kipling. She was able to use the substantial royalties from his books to refurbish the house.
Mrs Bambridge bequeathed the house to the National Trust on her death aged 80 in 1976.