John Saunders Sebright: an “uncouth paradox of a man”

Portrait of Sir John Saunders Sebright (1767-1846)

Portrait of Sir John Saunders Sebright (1767-1846)
Picture: Dacorum Heritage Trust

Without doubt the most colourful of the long line of Sebrights of Beechwood (stretching back over 250 years) was the seventh baronet. An eccentric, larger-than-life, irascible, uncouth paradox of a man whose eyebrows were prodigious natural curiosities in colour and projection. He was described as clumsy and uncouth, yet he took it upon himself to teach his eight ugly daughters dance and deportment, a sight which, from the ungainly gestures of both teacher and pupils, few could witness with solemnity. He was said to treat his dogs like children and his children like dogs and to have seduced all his wife‘s maids and the children’s governesses. In his long political career as MP for Hertfordshire from 1807 to 1834 he was described as an unpredictable man who might vote in either lobby, though basically he was a Whig. Amongst his numerous petitions to Parliament was one in May 1823 for the abolition of slavery, three more of the same in 1826 and another, this time from Berkhamsted, in 1830. He also presented a petition from Flamstead for the imposition of a duty on the importation of Leghorn hats in July 1823. This obviously arose from their fears that their straw plaiting business was at risk from cheap imports. He was a literary man with a number of titles concerning farming and nature subjects to his credit. He bred bantams and his Sebright strain of the species survives to this day.

John Saunders Sebright was born at Sackville Street, Westminster on 23 May 1767, the eldest son of General Sir John Saunders Sebright 6th Bart; from whom, on his death in 1794, he inherited his title, fortune and estates including the family mansion, Beechwood.

It was during his time, on 30 November 1838, that the Flamstead Tithe Grant was signed and in that it is stated that Sir John was entitled to the tithes from 2,698 acres of Flamstead’s total of 5,801 acres of which he owned the land as well as the tithes,

He was a friend of Thomas Coke of Holkham, later Earl of Leicester (1754-1842); both were prominent parliamentary rebels, both were agricultural reformers and both enjoyed a good wager. Sir John would often stay for short periods at Holkham and usually travelled with a favourite dog. On one occasion, he was boasting to fellow guests after dinner about how clever his dog was, when Lord Erskine took him up on it with the comment, “I wouldn’t mind betting my dog is cleverer than yours’”. There was no way he could be allowed to get away with that and so a wager was struck as to which dog could be taught the cleverest trick in a year. At the appointed time they met again and with fellow guests in eager anticipation and acting as judges, both animals were ordered to execute their party tricks. Lord Erskine’s dog retrieved a roasted oyster from the fire without damaging either itself or the oyster, while Sir John’s dog took a glass of wine to a guest pointed out to it without spilling a drop. We are not told who won on this occasion, nor indeed the amount of the wager.

Beechwood Park in the early 1800's

Beechwood Park in the early 1800’s
Picture: Dacorum Heritage Trust

Sir John and his friend Coke had been in a similarly competitive frame of mind on an earlier occasion in 1801 when they were both guests of the Duke of Bedford at Woburn. “I’ll stake you a wager of 200 guineas that a Norfolk plough and two horses cannot plough an acre of heavy Hertford land in ten hours”. It all had to be very properly arranged, which the Duke undertook himself, but the terms were altered in the event and the wager was reduced to fifty guineas. Sir John chose the worst, most stoney ground imaginable.

A large crowd assembled and there was heavy betting, said to be fifty guineas to ten in favour of the Norfolk plough, which duly completed the task to an acceptable standard in the appointed time and Sir John paid up in good grace.

A boxing match for the title of Champion of England had been arranged for 18 May 1808. The pursewas to be £250 a side. Rumour had it that the fight was to be held at Woburn and the contestants were John Gully from Bristol and a Lancashire steamboat captain called Bob Gregson, but the Marquess of Buckingham got wind of it and took out an injunction against it. Nevertheless, the preparations for the contest continued and a considerable crowd in every sort of conveyance made its way out of London in the general direction of Woburn on the day decided upon. Having ventured well past Dunstable, rumours about the site were rife and there was much confusion. Eventually they were diverted with much secrecy to Beechwood Park, where Gully knocked out Gregson in the 24th round after 58 minutes. John Gulley never fought in a ring again and in course of time became a member of Parliament. There is a dell within Beechwood Park that is still known as ‘Gully’s Bottom’.

Cheere House, the early West Herts Hospital in Hemel Hempstead

Cheere House, the early West Herts. Hospital in Hemel Hempstead
Dacorum Heritage Trust

There are many examples of Sir John’s philanthropy, amongst them and arguably the most important being the founding of the West Herts. Infirmary in Hemel Hempstead, which he built and endowed in 1831 at his own expense for the then massive sum of £13,000. The property, now called Cheere House, is still there at the bottom of Hillfield Road. He also paid for the plait school in London Road, Flamstead, now a private house and the New Almshouses in Singlets Lane, Flamstead, built in 1842 and demolished in 1965.

The Reformer reported on 8 January 1842:

‘Sir John distributed his usual donations of bread and meat to all the poor of the Parish of Flamstead on Christmas Day. It is not generally known that the worthy Baronet has endowed the Parish of Flamstead with £30 a year for ever, to be distributed amongst the poor of the parish in blankets and warm clothing every winter season and that he also gives soup every winter to 30 poor families and 25 widows and widowers‘ .

Sir John died at Turnham Green a little over four years after that piece was written and the Hertford Mercury reported on 25 April 1846:

‘The funeral took place on Wednesday at Flamstead, such was the respect paid to the deceased baronet’s memory that on the arrival of the funeral cavalcade at Hemel Hempstead every house and shop was closed and the whole population lined the town and road for a considerable distance’.

By the Dacorum Heritage Trust Ltd
9th March 2011

The Dacorum Heritage Trust Ltd.

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