Behind its beautiful architecture and the impressive landscaped gardens by Capability Brown, Bowood House holds tales of tragedy and heartbreak. Catherine Pitt explores the history behind the estate

Less than 20 miles from the centre of Bath is an estate and stately home that holds fond memories for many locals – a place of many family picnics by the lake and pirate ship adventures, the site of annual dog shows and outdoor concerts. But what is not so widely known is that Bowood also holds much history and some tragic tales.

Bowood House and Estate is the residence of the Marquis and Marchioness of Lansdowne and is open for half the year to the public. It boasts beautiful Capability Brown landscaped gardens, grottos and a sparkling lake, plus a children’s adventure playground and farm on site. There’s also a hotel, spa, as well as an 18-hole championship golf course.


Bowood was once part of the Royal Forest of Chippenham and the original great house began to be built in 1725 on the site of a hunting lodge. In 1754 the estate was bought by John Petty, 1st Earl of Shelburne (1705–61), whose son William (1737–1805) was Prime Minister for a short time from 1782–83. In 1784 William became the 1st Marquis of Lansdowne following his part in negotiating peace between England and America after the War of Independence.Major Lord Charles, the son of the 5th Marquis, who died near Ypres in 1914

The family’s impressive links to politics continue from the 1st Marquis right up to the present day nobleman – the 9th Lord Lansdowne. His ancestors have been MPs, home secretaries, chancellors of the exchequer, presidents of the council, ministers of state for colonial affairs, and the 5th Marquis, Henry Charles Keith Petty-Fitzmaurice (1845–1927) was Viceroy of India and Governor General of Canada.

It is interesting to note that the Lansdownes use the French ‘Marquis’ instead of ‘Marquess’ as their title. This links to their French ancestry through the 4th Marquis, Henry Thomas (1816–66), who married Emily de Flahaut, daughter of the Comte de Flahaut, Napoleon’s aide-de-camp. It also explains the Napoleonic collection that is on view to the public in the house, which includes Napoleon’s death mask, handkerchief and a lock of hair.


The 1st Marquis was an avid collector of fine art and sculpture and built up a vast collection, sadly squandered by the 2nd Marquis, John Henry Petty (1765–1809), who sold it to pay his debts. However, the collection on display today mainly comes from the 3rd Marquis, Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice (1780–1863), who was an avid patron of the arts and a philanthropist. Some of the fixtures, fittings and artwork on display are from the original main house, though there is little but black and white photographs now to bear witness to what was once an even more impressive estate.

The house that we see today is only half of the story. Bowood is, in fact, a survivor of post-war Britain, but only just. By 1955 crippling death duties, taxation and restoration costs had caused at least one stately home to be demolished every five days. There was no heritage building protection policy at this time and Bowood very nearly joined a long list of lost houses.Bowood is known for its impeccable gardens

The 8th Marquis, George John Charles Mercer Nairne (1912–99) deliberated long and hard over the need to demolish the main house (known as the Big House), but in the end, to prevent the loss of the whole estate, he reluctantly did so. The interior and exterior were sold off at auction and in 1956 the south portico, the final relic the Big House to remain, was torn down and the area was levelled.

The family reside in part of what is known as the Little House, overlooking the lawn where once the Big House stood. If you position yourself at the end of this expanse of lawn you can just make out the faded remains of the original drive, wending its ghostly way through the grass, and then vanishing.

In what was once stables, an orangery, and in the 18th century a zoo is the part of the Little House that is open to visitors. There is also the family chapel, a restaurant and shop as well as exhibition space.

The library is where you will find homely touches, such as family photographs and comfy sofas. In the winter the family regain public areas and you can imagine them sitting by a roaring fire set in the Robert Adam fireplace rescued from the drawing room of the Big House.


Next door to the library is a small, unassuming room, but one of historic importance. It was here, in what was a small laboratory in 1774, that a scientist, and tutor to the 1st Marquis’ sons, Joseph Priestley, discovered oxygen. One historic discovery it seems was not enough however, and only a few years later, in 1779, Dr Jan Ingenhousz was invited by the 1st Marquis to use Priestley’s lab. It was here that Ingenhousz discovered photosynthesis. These important scientific discoveries are celebrated by a number of plaques on the door to the laboratory.

In what is now regarded as the sculpture gallery you can find 16th and 17th-century Flemish tapestries along with Greco-Roman statues. This room’s original use in the 18th century was apparently as a menagerie, and it is recorded that both a leopard and an orangutan were kept here, though hopefully not in the same vicinity.


Despite their privileged position, the Lansdowne family have not been without tragedy. The 6th Marquis (1872–1936) had five children, three of whom were boys. His first son died young, and both the second son, Charles (who inherited his father’s title in 1936), and the third son, Edward, died within a few days of each other fighting in the Second World War. The title passed to their cousin George (the 8th Marquis) whose father had met an equally tragic end in the First World War.

In the current exhibition in the orangery, visitors can discover how the impact of the death of the 5th Marquis’ beloved younger son Charles (1874–1914), inspired a bereft father to go against the popular and political opinion of the day and cause the family to be initially shunned by society.

At the start of the First World War, and as a member of parliament, the 5th Marquis and the Lansdowne family supported the war effort. In fact the very orangery where the exhibition is displayed was once a military hospital for wounded soldiers, and there is a bronze plaque above the door and photographs attesting to the role of Bowood during this period.The ward when Bowood ran as a military hospital, c1918

As with most men in 1914, Lord Charles wanted to do his duty and head to the Front. He had fought previously in the Boer War as part of the King’s Royal Dragoons and joined them again, this time as Major in the 6th Cavalry Brigade.

Leaving behind his young wife and two infant children (including the future 8th Marquis, George), he died fighting near Ypres in October 1914. “Our sorrow…will last as long as we last ourselves,” Henry, 5th Marquis, wrote to his wife following his son’s death.

The poignant letters between the parents, siblings and between Charles’ wife and his parents are heart-wrenching to read. The simplicity of a cross marked in his brother’s diary on the day of his death is a moving tribute.

As the war progressed and there was no sign of peace, the 5th Marquis grew despondent at the continued unnecessary loss of life due to the government’s insistence on fighting regardless of the cost. The 5th Marquis used his position to write a 2,000 word letter in 1917 arguing for a negotiated settlement with Germany, fearing continued bloodshed, deadlock and financial ruin. It was published in The Daily Telegraph on 29 November 1917, stating: “If (a knock-out blow) is made in vain…the war with its nameless horrors will have been needlessly prolonged.”

“If (a knock-out blow) is made in vain…the war with its nameless horrors will have been needlessly prolonged”
– Lansdowne Letter, November 1917 –

In the exhibition you can see what is known as the Lansdowne Letter in full, as well as the subsequent responses. At a time when patriotism and military support were highly regarded, the 5th Marquis was a lone public voice against continued fighting. Privately he received many letters of support. Publicly, however, he was shunned from society. Even his heir, Henry, Lord Kerry, disassociated himself from his father, although later on in the 1930s, after some time of reflection, he later retracted this.

Vilified and outcast, the 5th Marquis’ actions during the First World War have largely been forgotten. Although notably American President Woodrow Wilson cited his letter as inspiration for the Paris Peace Treaty with Germany in 1918 that finally ended the war. It is hoped that this exhibition will help restore his reputation.

If peace had been negotiated earlier, inspired by the Marquis’ words, there is no doubt that many young men’s lives would have been saved.

Bowood House and Gardens are open daily until November;

Featured image: Bowood in the 1920s by Charles Reid