Know your local history
Murray of Beauport
An illustrated talk by Brion Purdey at the East Street Museum 10th November 2016
The feature image. What has the (public domain) image of The Death of General Wolfe by Anglo-American artist Benjamin West (1770) to do with our topic?
At the time of the death in 1759 of British General James Wolfe at the Battle of Quebec — a pivotal event in the Seven Years War (French and Indian War) in Canada — James Murray was one of General Wolfe’s three brigadiers and after the British capture of Quebec he became its military governor; he later became the first civil Governor of Quebec after its formal cession to Britain in 1763. He declined to be in the painting on the grounds he had been busy commanding troops at the time the national hero was killed — a stance our speaker considers characteristic of the man and all the more notable since there is no evidence that any of the other figures depicted around Wolfe as he lay dying were actually present either! (This has been called ‘a figurative painting’.)
Our speaker, Brion Purdey, Hastings historian and retired librarian, has been a supporter of Rye Museum for over three decades and is currently a trustee. Members always welcome his return to give us insight into yet another aspect of our local history. This time we learned a good deal not only about his subject, James Murray, but about local, national and international events of the late 18th century, about key area of Hastings, about distinguished Sussex families and more besides. (Photo from a report on a similar talk by Brion Purdey to the Hastings Rotary Club. available here.)
General Sir James Murray of Beauport Park. Born in Scotland in 1721, a son of the 4th Lord Elibank, Murray had a varied career as a military man and colonial administrator. His term in Quebec is said to have been notably successful, and marked with excellent relationships with the conquered French-Canadians. who were reassured of their traditional rights and customs. It was his courtship and then marriage to Cordelia, daughter of John Collier, the most powerful Establishment figure of the time in Hastings that accounts for the fact he acquired and developed the area known as Beauport Park. General Sir James Murray built his Beauport house between 1763 and 1766 subsequently adding to the estate until it comprised about 5000 acres. He named the estate after Beauport in Canada — now a suburb of Quebec — where another famous battle of the Seven Years War was fought — and started a tradition of planting rare and unusual trees on his property. He died here in 1794 after his long years of service which included being Governor of Minorca from 1778 to 1782.
Since his day Beaufort Park has been the property of a secretary of state and a leading railway engineer, and housed an underground citadel with tunnels and chambers built by the Canadians as a hiding place for a secret resistance army should Britain be invaded by the Germans. It now includes the Bannatyne Spa Hotel and Health Club, a caravan park, a riding school, a golf course and 164 acres of surrounding woodland. A Roman bathhouse was discovered in 1967 and excavated in the early 1970’s. It proved to be part of a huge Roman ironworks complex of the 2nd and 3rd centuries – the third largest so far found in the Roman Empire. It was saved when the Golf Course was made in 1972. This site became an episode of the Time Team series in 1999 and is now a ‘scheduled monument at risk’.
Brion’s tale was laced with plenty of wry humour and supported by many portraits of Murray’s contemporaries as well as maps and Hastings buildings and pertinent bits of manuscript. Woven into the story were references to Bonny Prince Charlie, Jacobites vs Parliamentarians, Owlers, notorious pirates and privateers, and distinguished local families — Colliers, Pelhams, Ashburnhams, Frewens — giving a sense of the richness of a most interesting period of local history and clues to it which remain.
For those interested in learning more about General James Wolfe a visit to Westerham is recommended: Quebec House and Squerryes Court.