The Dukes of Buckingham and their Finmere Estates: Part 3

Newsletter 15: February 1999

The Fall of a Dukedom

Henry Edwards Huntington was a successful, self-made American entrepreneur. Born in New York in 1850, his success in developing rail roads took him to Los Angeles. There he established the street railways, which were often known as "Mr Huntington's lines." He made a considerable fortune and invested his wealth in an estate in San Marino, west of Los Angeles. With his second wife, Arabella, he built a remarkable collection of art, rare books and manuscripts. This remains intact today, set in beautiful botanical gardens and preserved by an educational trust created by the Huntingtons in 1919.

Richard Grenville's wealth was inherited. His elevation to Duke of Buckingham and Chandos in 1822 was largely due to careful preparation by his ancestors. Buckingham (as we shall call him for convenience) was also a determined scholar and he built an impressive library and collection of rare artefacts at Stowe. Unfortunately, his skills did not extend to finance. The Stowe estate collapsed into bankruptcy two years before Huntington was born. The estate was sold and the collection dispersed.

This newsletter completes our trilogy on the rise and fall of the Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos. It tells of the miserable end of a dynasty generations in the making and how a man who built rail roads came to the rescue of Finmere's history.

Buckingham and Chandos

In 1827, Buckingham was sailing the Mediterranean in his yacht, the Anna Eliza. He was still spending, still collecting and still flirting with women. Meanwhile, Anna Eliza, his wife, was trying to stabilise the family's finances aided by trustees, accountants and their son.

The son was Richard Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville. (We will call him Chandos). He was born in 1797 and was Buckingham's only son.

There were many similarities between father and son, including a love of good living. Both were scholars and both were obsessed with class and status. But Chandos also enjoyed low company, ale and women. To keep him from harm, and the family from embarrassment, he was sent to tour Europe. As he travelled, he added to the Stowe collections of antiquities and art, as well as to his family through an illegitimate daughter.

On his return to England in 1818, Chandos was initially less wildly behaved. He was elected as an MP for Buckinghamshire and married Mary Campbell, daughter of the Marquess of Breadablane.

Debt upon Debt

Happiness for Chandos was short-lived and was soon strained by the dire state of his family's finances. Buckingham had been living beyond his means, consistently duping his wife and son about the true scale of his debts. Under pressure to raise money to repay loans, he finally admitted in 1828 that he owed about £350,000. This was not in itself a crisis. Aristocrats of the period were regularly in debt and at least a third of this liability could be covered by land sales. The crisis was that Chandos had inherited his father's love of spending. He too was heavily in debt.

Chandos had begun borrowing soon after his marriage. He spent lavishly on the family home at Wotton (near Aylesbury), on entertainment and on his beloved Buckinghamshire militia. In all he probably owed the best part of £100,000.

The financial problems began to worsen rapidly. Trustees were appointed to protect the interests of family and creditors, and to settle disputes between father and son. Buckingham and Chandos spent the 1830's renegotiating their mounting debts. It was Chandos that engineered the strategy that might have saved the family's finances. Remote estates in Ireland, Somerset and elsewhere were to be sold to repay the main debts. The core Buckinghamshire estate was to be consolidated and Stowe would be the hub that generated money to support the family and repay remaining debts. As part of this strategy, further land in Finmere was purchased in the 1820s and 1830s. The family then owned most of the parish.

The Second Dukedom

The first Duke of Buckingham and Chandos died in 1839, aged 63, He was buried at Wotton Underwood. Chandos was 42 when he inherited the Dukedom and the unresolved financial crisis. For a short while he remained politically active. He strongly supported the farmers and retention of the Corn Laws which maintained artificially high prices as a defence against imports. In 1841, Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, appointed him Lord Privy Seal. But a year later he resigned when the cabinet voted for more moderate corn laws.

To his credit, Chandos had pursued his policy of consolidation around the Stowe estate throughout his political and financial difficulties. He made further purchases in Buckinghamshire including land in Radclive, Preston Bissett, Tingewick and Buckingham. But while he raised about £160,000 through land sales, he amassed £100,000 of new debts through purchases. He also had an expensive estate, several houses and an extravagant lifestyle to maintain. And having gained the Dukedom, the influence and status of the family was best further promoted through association with Royalty.

The Royal Visits

The Dowager Queen Adelaide visited Chandos in 1840. On route, she travelled through Finmere where parish bell ringers were paid 5 shillings to ring out a welcome. Her reception at Stowe was less restrained and the Duke turned out his beloved, and expensively maintained, 2nd Mid Bucks Yeomanry.

Adelaide's visit was an important reward for Chandos but he desired more. As his debts mounted and bankruptcy became inevitable, he succeeded in his greatest ambition.

On 15 June 1845, Queen Victoria alighted from the Royal Train at Wolverton to be escorted to Stowe by Buckinghamshire militia and yeomanry. Her visit to Stowe was an occasion of considerable splendour and extraordinary cost. Part of Stowe House was refurbished at expense, including installing the State Bed Chamber. Five hundred tenants greeted the Royal party on horseback, bands were brought from London and an orchestra from Manchester. Prince Albert was given opportunity to exhibit his sporting skills and potted 180 hares, 80 pheasants and a couple of rabbits during the two day visit.

For Chandos, the Royal visit was the crowning of his ambitions. The family had risen from minor gentry to become one of the greatest aristocracies. Lord Cobham's vision two centuries earlier when he founded the Grenville dynasty (Newsletter 13) was surely fulfilled.

But the visit added greatly to the family's financial woes. For Chandos, the misery now seemed endless. His political career was over. He was separated from his wife and estranged from his children. And, finally, he was bankrupt.

The Fall

The family's financial woes could no longer be hidden. At 6am on 30 August, 1847, bailiffs smashed through the North Door and broke into Stowe House. They were acting on behalf of creditors determined to recover at least some of their funds.

Just how indebted Chandos was finally became apparent. On 29 April 1848, Chandos and a group of trustees met at the residence of the Marquis of Breadablane in London. Also present was his son, Richard Plantagenet Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville (who we will call Richard). The minutes of the meeting are in the Huntington Library. One devastating statistic stands out amongst the lengthy arguments over what land should be sold and for how much:

List of main debts, total = £1,094,000.

This extraordinary debt could not be sustained. The pace of sales had to be increased. On 10 May 1848, Finmere was offered for sale at Garroway's coffee house in London. The asking price was £30,000 but the highest bid was just £27,700. To disguise the failure to sell, Finmere was 'brought in' by the auctioneers at £31,300. The land was later privately sold to Merton College and other purchasers.
The collapse of the Estate incurred considerable comment. On 15 August, 1848, the Times thundered its contempt of Chandos:

In the midst of fertile lands, and an industrious people, in the heart of a country where it is thought virtuous to work, to save and to thrive, a man of the highest rank … has flung away all by extravagance and folly, and reduced his honours to the tinsel of a pauper and the bauble of a fool.

During August and September 1848, the contents of Stowe House were sold. The books and manuscripts from the magnificent library were sold in 1849.

The greatness of the family had gone and the estate broken up. When Richard succeeded Chandos as third Duke in 1862, there was little to inherit. He had no sons and the Dukedom of Buckingham and Chandos was extinguished with his death in 1889. Stowe House was sold in 1921 and became a school in 1923.

The Huntington Inheritance

This story would have been difficult to tell if it were not for Henry and Arabella Huntington. The Buckingham dynasty generated a huge number of family, political and estate papers. But few British institutions were interesting in purchasing them and most were destined to be burnt. Fortunately the Huntington Library purchased the unsold papers in 1925. Approximately 350,000 Buckingham papers are now carefully preserved in San Marino, California. Through the forethought and generosity of Americans who made their wealth, we can tell the story of a family that squandered its inheritance.


Our story of the Duke of Buckingham is based on research by Professor John Beckett, University of Nottingham and by Andy Boddington at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California. Our thanks to John and the staff at the Huntington for their generous help. We will be featuring further stories from the Huntington in later newsletters.