Julian Fellowes’ great-grandfather and the real Downton

This week’s off-topic blog is about as far removed from cerebral palsy, twinless twins, traumatic death and bereavement as it’s possible to get. It’s a short homage to an enterprising Victorian who founded the Downton Agricultural College, the second such institution in Britain after the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester.

The Victorian professor who put Downton, Wiltshire on the map

Downton – that place name’s probably familiar to you through the TV drama Downton Abbey, a series set in a fictional Yorkshire estate but filmed at Highclere Castle in Berkshire. You may know that Fellowes drew inspiration from a real family – his ancestors were the Hultons, aristocratic family from Bolton. But what inspired Downton? The real Downton was well known in the late 19th century for its agricultural college, founded by Professor John Wrightson. Julian Fellowes is Professor Wrightson’s great-grandson, so that’s he cheekily pinched the place name.

Professor John Wrightson (1840-1916)

Professor John Wrightson (1840-1916)

John Wrightson opened his college at Charford Manor, Downton in 1880, under the formal name of the ‘Wilts and Hants Agricultural College, Downton of Agriculture’ which became known simply as the Downton Agricultural College.

The College consisted of 512 acres of farm land and over 20 acres belonging to the house and its grounds, as well as various farm buildings. It was to be home to some eminent scientists, responsible for the introduction of several innovative techniques in British agriculture. Some of these new discoveries occurred at Downton. Not least, Wrightson was to introduce grass silage (sour hay made in pits) to the attention of British farmers.

During the 25 years of the College’s existence, Professor Wrightson would encounter disasters worthy of a TV mini-series. In June 1884, a derailment of railway carriages on a nearby embankment killed four people and injured 41. Wrightson, staff and students from the College were quickly on the scene and later awarded a silver cup for their life-saving efforts. Then, in January 1891, a disaster closer to home – fire swept through the college buildings and the Wrighston’s home, destroying much of the College and the lifetime collection of botanical, zoological and geological specimens belonging to another member of the academic staff, Professor Clarke.

The Warren, High Street, Downton

The Warren, High Street, Downton, where the Wrightsons lived following the fire at the Agricultural College

Wrightson was no high-brow academic Victorian stuck in an ivory tower. He played an active part in village life, teaching school children at the local state school. Among these kids was my maternal grandfather who remembered him fondly, recalling that the village cricket team had never performed as well as under Wrighton’s captaincy.

The Boer War (1899-1901) had a massive detrimental impact on the Downton College. It led to fewer student enrolments and this combined with a revised system of government grants resulted in the closure or restructuring of private educational establishments. In 1906 Professor Wrightson decided to close the College and concentrate instead on his own writing and research activities. He left Downton in 1911 and died five years later aged 76.

The Wrightson/Fellowes connection

Fellowes is descended from Professor Wrightson via his eighth child, Georgina Maria Hulton ‘Goergie’. Born in 1884, Georgie married Harry Fellowes, a student at the Agricultural College who was awarded his college diploma in August 1906, the year the College closed. Harry became an artist and the Secretary of the National Lifeboat Institution. He died of meningitis in 1916.

If Fellowes is seeking further inspiration for another period drama, he should perhaps look no further than to the exploits of his great uncles:

  • Lieutenant Archibald (‘Archie’) Ingram Wrightson (1882-1953) was awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry in November 1915. He had emigrated to Canada some time before the First World War and served as a Lieutenant in the 7th Canadian Infantry Battalion (a British Columbia regiment). His father, Professor Wrightson, was present at the investiture by King George V in December 1915. Lieutenant Wrightson was wounded during the following year.
  • Lieutenant Commander Edmund (‘Eddie’) Gilchrist Wrightson (1879-1953) had begun his career in the Merchant Navy, where he traded along the China coast. During the First World War he commanded the ‘Q’ Ship Ilma (formerly the Merops), which hunted and sank two German U-boats off the coast of France near Bell Isle Bay on 21st and 22nd November 1917. For this feat he was awarded the DSO.
  • John Frederick Hulton Wrightson (1875-1944) was on the staff of Downton College from 1901-5. During the Boer War he served with the Cape Mounted Rifles. An interesting series of 32 letters written by Wrightson during his time in South Africa were discovered at Charford Manor in the 1990s.

About Ed Green

Writer and editor, Yorkshire bred, now living and working in Central London. This blog charts the writing of my memoir 'Twinned' - life with and without my disabled sister. It features disability issues, cerebral palsy, traumatic death, bereavement, twinless twins, guest posts, and throws in the occasional 'off topic' post.
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