Georgian home and gardens
Fir Hill, Droxford, Hampshire, UK
1850 – 1899
Tom Smith, the man
Having rented the house in 1850, James Thomas (Tom) Smith purchased the copyhold on 19 March 1851 for £1,250 (£110,000/£1,570,000/£3,650,000) from Charles Hamilton and the executors of Lucretia Powell-Hamilton (HRO: 45M69/91 – document badly damaged).
Tom Smith (1790–1878) was a larger-than-life character. At a time when fox hunting was the preferred pastime of the leisured classes and wealthy people hunted several times a week, Tom Smith was a nationally famous rider and Master of Fox Hounds (MFH). He was the MFH of the Craven (Berkshire), Pytchley (Northamptonshire) and Hambledon (Hampshire) Hunts at various times and was invited to ride with many other hunts across the country.
Riding his famous horse, The General, he was renowned as a fearless and inexhaustible rider to hounds and was nicknamed ‘Hambledon Tom’. He wrote two highly popular books on the science of fox hunting, Extracts from the Diary of a Huntsman, published in 1839, and The Life of a Fox, published in 1843. He was the MFH of the Hambledon Hunt from 1824 to 1829 and again from 1850 to 1852.
Tom Smith’s life is well documented in his 1867 autobiography Sporting Incidents in the Life of Another Tom Smith. The title was intended to differentiate himself from another famous huntsman, Thomas Smith, MFH of the Brocklesby Hunt, who was painted with his father and a favourite hound by George Stubbs in 1766. The book describes Fir Hill Tom Smith’s extremely colourful life and is full of exciting incidents. Tom Smith is certainly not modest about his successes and somehow manages to be the hero of every exploit described.
In his autobiography, Tom Smith describes erecting a temporary kennel for the hounds at Fir Hill in 1850. This he did by moving two small lodging houses to Fir Hill along the roads from Hambledon ‘which was a source of much wonder and amusement on their journey’.
The period from 1825 to 1845 was the height of fashionable hunting and it cost staggering amounts to maintain that lifestyle. In 1825 it cost £1,825 (£125,000/£2,060,000,/£5,740,000) a year to hunt four days a week, which would require four horses, in an unfashionable hunt, and between £4,000 (£269,999/£4,500,000/ £12,600,000) and £6,000 (£404,000/£6,700,000/£18,800,000) a year in a fashionable hunt. An annual hunt subscription might easily cost £1,000 (£67,400/£1,130,000/£3,140,000) a year or more. A pack of fox hounds would cost at least £1,000 to maintain. By way of contrast, a skilled artisan in London earned £78 (£5,250/£87,800/£245,000) a year and the average national wage was only £20 (£1,350/£22,500/£62,800) a year.
Good works and good ideas
After retiring as MFH of the Hambledon Hunt in 1852, Tom Smith pursued other interests, including drawing, painting and gardening. He was appointed High Sheriff of Hampshire in 1858 and in 1859 was involved in the formation of a local volunteer militia, comprised of 50 men of the hunt who could shoot. They were a type of rifle cavalry, carrying both rifles and swords, and became the First Hants Light Horse, also known as the Droxford Troop. They were led by Colonel John Bower who lived at Studwell Lodge in Droxford but were disbanded in 1876.
Tom Smith set up a society for building larger and better cottages for the local labourers and their families. He also made a model of a large armoured gun that could be moved along roads, like a modern tank. He was complimented on the model by both Lord Palmerston and Queen Victoria, but the War Office decided that ‘circumstances did not call for its adoption at present’.
He advocated building a tramway to the pier at Ryde on the Isle of Wight and proposed a plan to rid the River Thames in London of sewage by building a drain along the Thames Embankment that would take the sewage several miles outside London where it could be used as guano on farm land.
He also suggested filling with earth the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, London to reduce its depth to only four feet so that skaters in cold winters would no longer be at risk of drowning if they fell through the ice.
He claimed to have been the first person in England to clip the coats of his horses and to control runaway horses he invented the ‘Iron Duke’ bit that fitted under rather than over the horse’s tongue.
Portrait of Thomas Smith in 1866 taken from his autobiography, Sporting Incidents in the Life of Another Tom Smith
The original Thomas Smiths: Thomas Smith Senior and Thomas Smith Junior of the Brocklesbury Hunt, with the hound Wonder by George Stubbs, about 1766.
Private Collection. Source: Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Photo © Tate Britain, London 2006
Tom Smith hunting with the Craven hunt, Sporting Life of Another Tom Smith
Tom Smith’s cottages for working families, Sporting Life of Another Tom Smith
Tom Smith’s plan for the Embankment, Sporting Life of Another Tom Smith
Tom Smith’s moveable gun, Sporting Life of Another Tom Smith
Family and life at Fir Hill
His first wife was from a notable Hambledon family. She is not named in his autobiography, nor does he note the date of their marriage. He does tell us that he met his future wife a couple of years after the premature death of his father in 1811 and that she was the widow of a Master of Foxhounds and was living in East Meon. He moved in with her after they married and they lived in East Meon for several years. They then moved to Hill Place in Hambledon. Shortly after 1823 Tom and his wife moved to Swanmore House where he lived
‘most happily for some time, until he was so unfortunate as to lose his beloved wife. Her death was sudden and the supposed cause is one too mournful to be dwelt on. Her funeral took place in Hambledon, in which church there are monuments for several of her family. This sad event made Swanmore distasteful to him and he therefore removed to Exton House.’
After two years at Exton House he gave up the mastership of the Hambledon Hounds and joined the Craven hunt in 1828.
The only entry for burials in Hambledon in the 1820s that fits the dates and likely age of Tom Smith’s first wife is the burial of Mary Smith on 13 June 1825 aged 39. The only entry of a baptism of a Mary in Hambledon 39 years earlier is for Mary Page, daughter of James and Charlotte Page, baptised on 4 December 1785. There are many tombstones for members of the Page family in Hambledon churchyard, which accords with Tom Smith’s comments in his autobiography. Sadly there is no record of their marriage in either the East Meon and Hambledon records.
Tom Smith remarried in 1833, to Anna Matilda Denison (1792-1867). The Denison family had large landed estates at Ossington in Northamptonshire. Anna Matilda was one of sixteen children. One of her half-brothers was an MP in Northamptonshire, another half-brother the Speaker of the House of Commons (the presiding officer in the lower house of the UK Parliament), a third the Bishop of Salisbury and a fourth the Archdeacon of Taunton. It seems that she did not have children.
In 1851, Thomas and Anna Matilda were living together at Fir Hill, when Tom Smith is described in the census of that year as ‘Possessor of Fir Hill and hounds’. In addition, there were three servants (Anne Budford, Thomas Wild, Thomas Poulder) and a lady’s maid (Elizabeth Forks).
Anna Matilda died at Fir Hill on 30 January 1867. Her will of 6 June 1844 received probate on 6 July 1867 and her estate was valued at £8,000 (£581,000/£4,450,000/£13,300,000). She left Tom Smith a life interest in £7,503 of 3% stock.
By 1870, he had married a third time: to Penelope, from County Tyrone, Ireland. The 1871 census describes Tom Smith as ‘Independent Gent’. As well as Penelope Smith, there are Ellen Blakeley, a visitor, Robert Wells, a footman, Jane Bunday, a cook, and Hannah Tuckland, a housemaid. Tom Smith does not seem to have had any children from any of his three marriages.
In the 1871 census, the two previous lines refer to a groom and a stableman: John Harrodine and George Thomas. As these two are shown by the two sets of double oblique lines to have been sharing accommodation that is separate from both Fir Hill and Halfway House, the earlier detailed dwelling, they are likely to have been living on the first floor of the stable block. The 1861 census, however, shows that there was a groom living as a boarder at Halfway House. The 1851 census shows an uninhabited house next to Fir Hill, which might be the stable block.
OS Old Series Hampshire 1810s, showing East Meon, Hambledon, Swanmore, Exton and Droxford. Hill Place, Hambledon is also known as Hill House and is different from Hill Place, Swanmore. Old Hampshire mapped, Portsmouth University from Map Collection of Hampshire County Council Museums Service, items HMCMS:FA2003.1.8 & FA2003.1.9 & FA1998.91 & FA2003.1.11 & HMCMS:FA2003.1.12 & FA2003.1.14 & FA2003.1.15 & FA2003.1.16 & FA2003.8
Exton House, Exton, Hampshire
Extract from 1851 census for Fir Hill