With its distinctive trefoil shape, Midford Castle is a distinctive mark on the South Stoke landscape – Catherine Pitt investigates its history and discovers personal, legal and financial dramas
Three miles from Bath in the Parish of South Stoke, Somerset, overlooking Midford Valley and surrounded by woodland, stands a castle. To some it looks like a fairy tale castle; to others, it’s “an anomaly in building, equally at war with taste and comfort,” (The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1801). The truth is that it’s a home with a chequered past.
Part of a Roman road has been discovered in the grounds, and the estate’s Priory Wood alludes to the past provision of wood to the monks of Bath. Although small settlements developed in the area, it wasn’t until the Turnpike Improvements of 1770–1775 that the area was made more accessible.
The very beginning
Recognising the potential, Henry Woolhouse Disney Roebuck (1733–1796) chose to construct Midford Castle here in 1774–1775. According to local legend, the building’s unusual trefoil shape is said to have been based upon the ace of clubs, the winning card that gave Roebuck his wealth.
The truth is less glamorous. Roebuck was indeed a man of some wealth, but this was because he had inherited land and property from his grandmother and maternal uncle (£2,000 per year, about £200,000 today). His surname was originally Disney (or D’Isney), but he assumed his uncle’s name as proof to his right to the will.
The castle design is unusual, but not unique. In Bristol, you’ll find Blaise Castle (1766), a circular design with cylindrical turrets, and near Dumfries in Scotland the 13th-century Caerlaverock Castle is also triangular. Midford Castle’s design is likely to have been inspired by John Carter’s plans in The Builder’s Magazine of 1774.
Midford Castle was erected on the slope of a hill and so a terrace was created on the lower side. Beneath the terrace lay the domestic servants’ quarters, and the stabling area. The 1788 sales listing explains that it comes with “107 acres of Meadow and Pastureland, about 7 acres Arable, and 15 of Woodland.”
Roebuck owned Midford for around 10 years. It was rumoured he sold Midford because his wife, Elizabeth, left him after an alleged affair with a footman. Roebuck did try to besmirch her name, taking out adverts requesting people not to offer her credit.
In November 1787 Elizabeth took Henry to court for libel, clearing her name and securing from him a comfortable annuity of £600 per year. Yet the couple never divorced. In Roebuck’s will of 1796, at the time of his death at Ingress Abbey, Kent, he had still made provision for “my wife, Elizabeth.”
Before Roebuck’s death, he sold Midford (in 1788) to Dr Benjamin Pugh (1715–1798). Dr Pugh was a famous gynaecologist and the inventor of the curved obstetric forceps which revolutionised childbirth. After Pugh’s death in 1798, a long legal wrangle over his will resulted in the castle lying empty for 10 years. In 1808 it was sold to eminent Irish barrister and supporter of Catholic emancipation, Charles Conolly (1760–1828).
Onto the next chapter
Under Conolly, the castle enjoyed its most stable period. In his will, he tied up the estate and lands not just for his son but his grandson as well. In 1810 Conolly added the porch which led to the building’s comparison to the ace of clubs since the porch created a stalk to the shape.
Conolly invested in local schemes like the Somerset Coal Canal. On his estate was Kingham Field, a working stone quarry, and around 1814 he was persuaded by his neighbour, William ‘Strata’ Smith (later regarded as the father of geology) to invest in a rail track to transport the stone from the quarry to Smith’s Mill for cutting, and then move it onto the canal.
Smith mortgaged his estate to fund the idea but hadn’t considered the poor quality of the stone at Kingham Field and the political effects of the Napoleonic Wars on British finances. Sales plummeted and in 1815 the business collapsed. As a gesture of goodwill Conolly delayed pursuing Smith for his debt, but after four years lost patience. Smith found himself in debtors’ gaol and his possessions and home at Tucking Mill, Midford, were sold.
In 1828 Charles Conolly died and his son Charles Thomas (1791–1850) and his second wife Jane Lawless took over the running of Midford. They loved to entertain at the castle, organising dances and local shoots. According to one local paper, on Queen Victoria’s wedding day in February 1840 Charles Thomas “kept up a discharge of his guns at intervals throughout the day.”
Unfortunately, Conolly enjoyed being a gentleman of leisure so much that on his death Jane was left with a debt of over £10,000, and was forced to borrow money.
During his lifetime Charles Thomas undertook improvements to the estate, adding new stables and cottages, and in 1837 opened the Catholic Chapel of St Maria Immaculata for worship.
As an Irish Catholic family, the spiritual needs of the Conolly’s had been seen to by visiting monks from Downside Abbey in Somerset, but Charles Thomas chose to purpose-build a Catholic chapel (also known as The Priory) on site, for which a priest from Prior Park College was appointed. The Reverend Charles Parfitt (1816-1886) became the first, and only, resident priest.
After Conolly’s death, Jane continued to live at both Midford and at a property in Laura Place. Her son, Charles John Thomas Conolly (1818–1871) inherited the castle with his wife Louisa.
In 1840 Charles John Thomas married Louisa Brancaccio (1823–1899) in Naples, Italy. She was the daughter of the late Prince de Ruffiano, chamberlain and grandmaster of the horse to King Fernando II of Naples and Sicily. Conolly was in possession of a castle fit for a princess, and they both settled comfortably at Midford, with Louisa affectionately known as Countess Conolly.
The couple were childless, so in 1871 when Conolly died the estate reverted back to his step-mother Jane. She died a mere eight days after her step-son, and, following her wishes, the estate, now worth £63,000 (£4 million today) was gifted to the resident priest, Reverend Parfitt.
Jane’s family were incensed and disputed the will in court. Jane’s nephew, Philip Lawless argued his aunt had been influenced by Parfitt, but the priest revealed that he was not the sole confessor at Midford and that a Reverend Ralph Cooper was also offered the estate, but refused. Parfitt claimed he too rejected the offer until Jane allegedly exclaimed, “but whom else have I to trust?”
The jury found in Parfitt’s favour. Louisa was permitted to remain at Midford and oversee the running of the estate with Parfitt and her servants as company. After Parfitt’s death in 1886, Louisa spent more time at Cottles House, a property purchased in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire.
On Louisa’s death in 1899, as per Parfitt’s will, Midford Castle and Estate went to the Catholic Church, who put it up for sale. An idea of the opulence that the Conolly family enjoyed can be gathered from the sale lists and room descriptions, published in lavish detail in local and national papers.
Journalists fawned over the carved fireplaces, plaster moulded ceilings, fine furniture, paintings – including a Vandyke – and diamond jewellery for sale. Seven days were put aside for the auctions. A few of these items can be seen today at The Victoria Art Gallery including Flemish paintings and a grandfather clock.
The 1900s, onwards
In 1902 the estate was bought by Captain Ottley. Ottley, however, was almost immediately recalled to his post as naval attaché in St Petersburg, Russia, so it was quickly bought by Major Edwin Wilson Gresham Williams Hepworth. After his death in 1937, Midford was purchased by retired solicitor Henry Whatley in 1939.
Whatley opened the grounds to the public to raise money for various local charities during and after the Second World War. He died at Midford in 1957 at the age of 102 and following on from his death a number of short-term incumbents occupied the castle.
In 1961 the Castle was sold for £15,000 (around £325,000 today) to the Briggs family. Michael Briggs (1926–2017), was the chair of the Bath Preservation Society, and his wife Isabel Colegate (b.1931), is an author whose book The Shooting Party (1980) is thought to have been inspired by Midford, and which later influenced Julian Fellowes creation of Downton Abbey.
By the 1960s most of the grounds had been sold, but when planning permission was refused, the Briggs bought it all back and restored the estate to its former glory.
In 2007 the Hollywood actor Nicholas Cage purchased Midford Castle, only to be forced to resell it two years later to pay for tax arrears. Today it is again a family home, one with an intriguing and marked history.