Lord Southampton’s Ferme Ornée: dairy cows, haymaking… and poets

Barbara Deason, LPGT Brown Research Group

The spring 2015 issue of London Landscapes introduced Fitzroy Farm, Highgate, outlining research into Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s possible connections with the site. (See Barbara Deason's article.) Here we look further at Fitzroy Farm – as a ferme ornée, its prominence alongside the adjacent Kenwood estate, and some of the literary figures that visited in the early part of the nineteenth century, as well as raising a further as yet unanswered question concerning Brown’s involvement.

Fitzroy Farm was a 100-acre estate situated immediately to the east of Kenwood, the road known today as Fitzroy Park being the main carriage-drive through the estate. The principal seat of Hon. Charles Fitzroy, 1st Baron Southampton, the house, ‘a handsome square red-brick’ Palladian villa, was built around 1774 on the site of the original Sherrick’s Hole Farm that had covered the southern slope of the ridge between the villages of Highgate and Kenwood. Writing in 1842, Frederick Prickett offered the following description of the Farm: ‘The grounds were tastefully laid out with gravel walks and carriage-drives, shaded by finely timbered trees, and borders and clumps planted with a choice collection of flowering shrubs, emitting a most agreeable and delightful fragrance.’

What was a ferme ornée?

The French term ferme ornée – ornamental farm – came into usage in the early eighteenth century and, as described by Michael Symes in his 2006 A Glossary of Garden History, was used to define

‘a garden in which an operational farm is included in the overall design and where the farm both contributes to the effect and is itself planted up with ornamental trees and hedgerows’.

There are several contemporary descriptions referring to Fitzroy Farm as a ferme ornée, most notably by Anna Lætitia Barbauld, a poet and writer on social and political issues, writing to her brother during a stay in Hampstead in 1785: ‘Hampstead and Highgate are mutually objects to each other, the road between them is delightfully pleasant, lying along Lord Mansfield’s fine woods, and the Earl of Southampton’s ferme ornée.’

Mrs Barbauld’s 1785 letter also tells us that Lady Southampton, along with her neighbour Lady Louisa Mansfield at Kenwood, were actively engaged in dairy farming:

‘Lady Mansfield and Lady Southampton, I am told, are both admirable dairywomen, and so jealous of each other’s fame that they have had many heartburnings, and have once or twice been very near a serious falling out on the dispute which of them could make the greatest quantity of butter from such a number of cows. On observing the beautiful smoothness of the turf in some of the fields about this place, I was told the gentlemen to whom they belong had them rolled like a garden plot.’

Ashlee Whitaker of Brigham Young University Department of Visual Arts, in her thesis ‘Dairy Culture: Industry, Nature and Liminality In The Eighteenth Century English Ornamental Dairy’ provides us with a fitting analysis of the eighteenth-century dairy as found at Fitzroy Farm and Kenwood:

‘The vogue for installing dairies, often termed “fancy” or “polite” dairies, within the gardens of wealthy English estates arose during the latter half of the eighteenth century. These polite dairies were functional spaces in which aristocratic women engaged, to varying degrees, in bucolic tasks of skimming milk, churning and molding butter, and preparing crèmes. As dairy work became a mode of genteel activity, dairies were constructed and renovated in the stylish architectural modes of the day and expanded to serve as spaces of leisure and recreation. Dairies were often lavishly outfitted to create a delicate and clean atmosphere, a fancy yet functional space pleasing to élite tastes. Ornamental dairies were distinctive structures incorporated into the ideologically-laden landscape gardens of the élite.’

The contemporary view that Fitzroy Farm was a ferme ornée was echoed in The Ambulator published in 1776, which, in referring to Fitzroy Farm, states ‘the grounds are kept in the highest cultivation of the ferme ornée’.

We know that the Fitzroy Farm was a working farm when some of the effects of the estate were put up for sale in 1811 following Lady Southampton’s death. The auctioneer’s description in the Morning Chronicle of 12 November gives us some idea of the extent of farm activities:

‘The LIVE and DEAD FARMING STOCK and other EFFECTS of Lord Southampton, deceased; consisting of 160 loads of prime meadow hay, three capital draught horses, seven hay and tumbrel carts, ploughs, harrows, rollers, a hay scaffold, a market cart, errand cart, water cart, and sundry farming and garden implements.’

A truly interesting coup d’oeil

A subsequent newspaper report of a fête champêtre held at Fitzroy Farm on 26 June 1813 by the then tenant, the Earl of Buckinghamshire, provides clear evidence of both ornamental gardens and a working farm:

‘The north front is approached by a spacious lawn, filled with flowering shrubs and trees… The south front gives to the eye all that imagination, with respect to rural scenery, can require. The lawn before it is an extensive regular sloping green. On the right and left are alleys of laurel, thickets of roses, bowers of honeysuckle, and a delicious profusion of all the bloom and perfumes of summer… A few furlongs beyond the lawn there are several hay-fields, and men and women were seen getting in the harvest… on the left a dairy and barn forming on the whole a truly interesting coup d’oeil.’

In 1828 the house, known variously over the years as Fitzroy Farm, Fitzroy House and Lord Southampton’s Lodge, was pulled down and following the leasing of three substantial plots of land in 1838–9, on which ‘elegant new villas’ – including The Elms and Beechwood, both still standing – were built, the remainder of the estate was put up for auction in 1840 and was bought by Lord Mansfield, some land being added to his Kenwood estate and the residue subsequently preserved as open space as part of the Hampstead Heath.

The announcement of the auction in the Leeds Times on 4 July 1840 contains the following description:

‘THIS MAGNIFICENTLY TIMBERED PARK is within two miles of the Metropolis; and yet throughout Mr Robins’ (the auctioneer) great experience, he has never yet come in contact (even at a remote distance) with a park so full of natural beauty. There is so much of hill and dale, with majestic timber and beautiful waters, everywhere contending for the preference; and it must be remembered, by those who desire to get rich by this adventure, that the timber, dispersedly placed, gives a character, a sort of warranty of success, that builders in any other situation cannot by possibility claim. Nature (always kind) has been bountiful here, inasmuch as Caen Wood, Lord Mansfield’s Park, adjoining Fitzroy Farm, adds to the splendour of the scene.’

This auctioneer’s description of 1840 provides the first mention of a key feature of Brown’s landscapes: the existence of ‘beautiful waters’ at Fitzroy Farm. A current English Heritage map clearly shows ‘serpentine waters’ that appear entirely compatible with those created elsewhere by Brown and yet they do not appear on any map so far identified until after 1947. Would such a water feature have been created in the mid-twentieth century? It seems unlikely, although not, of course, impossible. This 1840 reference to ‘beautiful waters’ needs further research: were they part of Brown’s design; or maybe introduced by Humphry Repton, who is known to have made changes to the estate in 1790; or are they a later introduction?

Following Lady Southampton’s death in 1810, the house was let to various tenants, most notably Robert Hobart, 4th Earl of Buckinghamshire, who was famous for his lavish entertaining, and latterly, banker Henry Robarts of Robarts, Curtis & Co, during whose tenure Lord Byron, Samuel Rogers, Keats, and Coleridge were frequent visitors. It is claimed that Keats penned his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ after hearing the nightingales that nested along Millfield Lane which formed the southern boundary to Fitzroy Farm; it was in Millfield Lane too that in 1819 Keats and Coleridge first met as they walked: Keats towards Highgate and Coleridge towards Hampstead along the lane.

The haunt of poets

In the early-nineteenth century, Millfield Lane became known locally as Poets’ Lane. Leigh Hunt, writing on Keats in Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries in 1828, states:

‘It was in the beautiful lane, running from the road between Hampstead and Highgate to the foot of Highgate Hill, that, meeting me one day, he [Keats] first gave me the volume [of his poetry]… It has been also paced by Mr. Lamb and Mr. Hazlitt, and frequented, like the rest of the beautiful neighbourhood, by Mr. Coleridge; so that instead of Millfield Lane… it has sometimes been called Poets' Lane, which is an appellation it richly deserves. It divides the grounds of Lords Mansfield and Southampton, running through trees and sloping meadows, and being rich in the botany for which this part of the neighbourhood of London has always been celebrated.’

As can be seen from various contemporary writings, the two estates of Kenwood and Fitzroy Farm were often viewed in tandem; both featuring prominently in John Cary’s 1790 route maps. Late eighteenth-century travellers making their way north out of London on the road to Hendon or St Albans may well have carried with them a copy of Cary’s map. At this time highways had few, if any, signposts other than mileposts measuring the distance from their point of origin, so Cary’s maps provided sightlines from various points along the route to some of the principal seats that could be viewed from the highway. The elevated position of both Lord Southampton’s Fitzroy Farm and his neighbour Lord Mansfield’s Kenwood on the heights of Hampstead and Highgate ensured they were visible from a distance and thus helped travellers track their progress along the route.

Whilst Kenwood remains a thriving and much-visited estate where much of the original eighteenth-century layout is readily recognisable today, especially the recently restored dairy, little remains of Fitzroy Farm other than its former carriage-drive: Fitzroy Park; and the grounds of two of the ‘elegant villas’ built in the late 1830s - both Grade II Listed Buildings – in private ownership and now screened from sight by their high surrounding walls.

Three Long-Horned Cattle at Kenwood
Three Long-Horned Cattle at Kenwood
by Julius Caesar Ibbetson, painted 1797
© English Heritage / Historic England archive

Farm workers
The farm-workers shown in the foreground of an etching by Daniel Lerpinière, after George Robertson, published in 1780, are purported to be working in the fields of Charles Fitzroy at Fitzroy Farm.
© The trustees of the British Museum

This 1850s map of Fitzroy Park shows ‘serpentine waters’ to the left of the map crossed at intervals by four separate footbridges (marked FB on the map), as well as two areas designated as Ponds. The two ‘elegant villas’ built in the 1840s can be seen to the right.
© Reproduced with permission of the National Library of Scotland

Millfield Lane, Highgate
Millfield Lane, Highgate by John H. McIntyre, 1900
© City of London, Keats House, Hampstead

Cary's maps