THE GOLDEN DAYS OF HURSLEY
Those forebodings of Mr. Keble's mercifully never were realised; many more years were granted in which Hursley saw the Church and the secular power working together in an almost ideal way.
To speak of what Sir William Heathcote was as a county gentleman would be difficult. He was for many years Chairman of the Quarter Sessions, and it is worth recording that when King Frederick William IV. of Prussia wished for information on the practical working of the English system of government, and sent over two jurists to enquire into the working of the unpaid magistracy, they were advised to attend the Winchester Quarter Sessions, as one of the best regulated to be found. They were guests at Hursley Park, and, as a domestic matter, their interest in English dishes, and likewise their surprise at the status of an English clergyman, were long remembered.
Considerable county undertakings originated in these days--a new and well-managed lunatic asylum at Fareham, a renewed jail on the then approved principles, and the inauguration of county police. In all these undertakings Sir William Heathcote and Mr. Yonge were active movers, and gave constant superintendence while they were carried out. Ill health obliged Sir William to retire from the representation of North Hants in the Conservative interest in 1847, but in 1854, on the recommendation of Sir Robert Harry Inglis, he was elected member for the University of Oxford, and so remained till his final retirement in 1868. What he was in both public and private capacities has nowhere been better expressed than by the late Earl of Carnarvon in a letter to the editor of the Times.
Long time a county member, and intimately acquainted with the subjects and interests which formed the heritage of English county gentlemen, he was, as a chairman of Quarter Sessions, recognised and often appealed to as the very representative and pattern of the class; and when afterwards he accepted the blue riband of Parliamentary representation as member for the University of Oxford, from first to last, through all the waves and weathers of political and personal bitterness, he retained the trust of friend and opponent. So long as he cared to keep that seat, all men desired to keep him. For this was his special characteristic, that in every period and pursuit of life, in the public business of his county, in the House of Commons, in the University, he not only enjoyed respect and affection, but he conciliated the confidence of all.
It was the unconscious tribute to a whole life and character. For to a remarkable clearness and vigour of intellect, he added a fairness of mind, a persuasiveness and courtesy of manner, with an inflexible uprightness of purpose, which won to him friend and stranger alike. I have never known any one who was not bettered by his converse, but I think none outside his own county and society can fully appreciate the remarkable influence which his name and character--in the later years it might be truly said "clarum et venerabile nomen"--exercised on all with whom he was connected. If indeed he had a fault, it was that his standard of action was so high, his nature so absolutely above the littleness of ordinary life, that he attributed to inferior men far purer and more unselfish objects than those that really moved them. "Vixit enim tanquam in Platonis politeia, non tanquam in Romuli faece."
It is the common fault of biographers to over-colour the character of a favourite hero, but those who knew Sir William Heathcote will admit that there is no exaggeration in what I have said. He was the highest product of a class and school of thought which is fast disappearing, and which will perhaps find few representatives in the next generation. With change of time comes also change of men; and the statesmen and politicians of the new world, whatever their merits or demerits, will probably be of a very different order from him of whom I am writing. The old university culture, the fastidious taste, the independence of thought, the union of political life with county associations--bound up as they are in this case by a rare intelligence and a moderation of mind which trimmed, with an almost judicial impartiality, the balance of thought on all matters submitted to him--are not a combination to be easily found in any age or society; but it may be safely predicted that they will be even less common in the coming age than they were in the generation of which Sir William Heathcote was a representative and ornament. Be this, however, as it may, I desire, by your favour, to record here the loss of one who deserved, if ever man did, the name of an English worthy.
This warm-hearted tribute is the exact truth, as all could testify who ever had occasion to ask Sir William's advice or assistance. Another such testimony must be added, from a speech of Lord Chief Justice Coleridge at Nobody's Club.
I looked at him from another point of view, and I can tell you only how he struck me, a man much younger, of different surroundings, differing from him in many opinions, political and religious. Yet it is my pride and sorrowful delight to recollect that Sir William Heathcote gave me his friendship for nearly forty years; and it is not presumptuous to say that his friendship deepened into affection. I could not say if I would, and I would not if I could, all that he was to me, how much of what is best (if there is any) in my life I owe to him, how much affection and reverence has gone with him to his grave. His house was open like another home; in joy, and still more in sorrow, his sympathy was always warm and ready, in trouble and in difficulty his advice was always at hand. What advice it always was! What comfort and strength there was in his company! For the time at least he lifted one up and made one better. Inflexible integrity, stern sense of duty, stainless honour, these qualities a very slight acquaintance with Sir William Heathcote at once revealed. But he had other great qualities too. He was one of the closest and keenest reasoners I ever knew. He was a man of the soundest and strongest judgment; and yet full of the most perfect candour and full of forbearance and indulgence for other men. And for a man of his intellect, and, indeed, for a man, he was wonderfully modest and shy, and of a humility which was, as I saw it, profoundly touching. Yet there was no weakness in him. Not unbecomingly, not one whit more than was just, he believed in himself, in his position, in his family; he had dignity true and inborn without the need of self- assertion, and love and respect towards him went hand in hand.
Mr. Keble once said, coming away from a long talk with him, that it was like holding intercourse with some old Christian knight. And so it was . . .
I am not one of those who believe in the degeneracy of the race, and I look forward to the future with hope rather than with dismay. I believe upon the whole the world improves. It is useless to be always looking back to be a laudator temporis acti se puero is placed by the wise and genial Horace to the discredit and not to the credit of old age. But I do think that each age has its own virtues, and its own type of excellence, and these do not return. We may have good things, but we shall not have the same good things. We shall have, I hope, good men, and great men, and noble men, in time to come, but I do not think we shall see again a Sir William Heathcote. That most charming mixture of dignified self respect, with unfailing gracious courtesy to others, those manners in which frankness and refinement mingled with and set off each other, that perfect purity of thought and utterance, and yet that thorough enjoyment of all that was good and racy in wit or humour--this has passed away with him. So beautiful and consistent a life in that kind of living we shall hardly see again.
He was preserved to our time to show us of a later age a perfect specimen of the old-fashioned, high-bred, highly cultivated county gentleman; and a finer type of Englishman it is hardly possible to conceive.
These two portraits, they are too true to be called eulogies, thoroughly describe Sir William as he was in friendship, as he was not only to his original contemporaries but to their sons, so that he came to be a generally looked up to father, as it were, to the magistracy of the county as well as the neighbourhood. A portrait of him by G. Richmond, Esq., R.A., was subscribed for by the magistracy and placed in the County Hall, which began to be newly restored under his auspices, so as worthily to show the work of Henry III. in the beautiful old banqueting hall.
Already, however, a great loss had been suffered in William Crawley Yonge, who had worked by his side in all his public undertakings, carrying out all that was done in a spirit of thoroughness that never rested till perfection had been attained as far as possible. His own parish of Otterbourne had felt his influence, and was noted for good order and improvement. Both Otterbourne and Hursley had land in allotments from at least 1830, long before the arrangement was taken up by Government. Mr. Yonge's strong churchmanship and deep religious feeling told on all around, and there was a strong sense of his upright justice, as much as his essential kindness. The end came suddenly; apoplexy brought on by the hurry and confusion of sending off his only son, Julian Bargus Yonge, in the Rifle Brigade to the Crimean War. He died on the 26th of February 1854. "What shall we do without him?" were the first words of Sir William Heathcote's letter to Mr. Keble on receiving the tidings.
It should be mentioned here that six young men from Otterbourne were concerned in the Crimean War--Captain Denzil Chamberlayne and Julian B. Yonge, though health obliged the latter to return from Varna, while the former took part in the famous Balaklava charge, and was unhurt, though his horse was killed. And four of the privates, John Hawkins, James and William Mason, and Joseph Knight, of whom only James Mason lived to return. An inscription built into the wall of the churchyard records their names, with the inscription, suggested by Mr. Keble, "It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth."
And here William Yonge's daughter must record Sir William's never- failing kindness to her mother and herself, both in matters of business and in personal criticism, and assistance in those matters in her works in which the counsel of a man acquainted with the law is needful to prevent mistakes. Indeed, in the discussions on character and adventures, nothing was ever more evident to her than that she was talking (as Mr. Keble said) to a true specimen of the most pure- minded chivalry.
On 16th September 1868 Sir William retired from Parliament, and, on the 9th of August 1870, was sworn of the Privy Council. This appointment gave him the greater satisfaction as a testimony to his consistent integrity through his whole parliamentary career, as it came from the Gladstonian ministry, and he had been forced by his deep Church and State convictions to separate from Mr. Gladstone, the friend and fellow-worker of his younger days.
His last great public achievement was the rebuilding and improvement of the County Hospital. Winchester had been the first provincial city to possess a County Hospital, and the arrangements had grown antiquated and by no means accordant with more advanced medical practice. A subscription was raised, and with the warm co-operation of Warden Robert S. Barter of Winchester College, the present building was erected, on Mr. Butterfield's plans, in a more healthy and airy situation, in the year 1868, with a beautiful chapel for the nurses and patients, and with the modern system of nursing carried out. As was said, when in 1878 Sir William resigned the post of Chairman of the Committee, he was the father and the founder of the institution.
Few men have earned by a lifetime so much honour, gratitude, and affection as he by one consistent, upright course of life, or have left a nobler memory.
A few words we must give to the festivals. There was the yearly distribution of Christmas beef to all the labourers and artisans employed on the estate, and widows. There was occasionally a grand "beating of the bounds" of the Manor of Merdon, followed by a dinner in a tent to the tenants, at which the "Lord of the Manor" made a speech, hoping that in times to come the days of "the Old Sir William" might be kindly remembered; and somewhat later there were private theatricals, performed chiefly by the family, which were a great pleasure to friends and tenants.
What a centre of hospitality, cheerfulness, and kindness Hursley Park was in those days can hardly be described, though remembered by many as a sort of golden age of Hursley.