I’ve always loved country house murder mysteries. The screams in the night. The ingenue with a secret history. The vicar falling dead in his soup. And then, at last, the gathering in the drawing room, where the detective solves the murder with exquisite precision. It’s a deeply satisfying reading experience.
So I was excited by the idea of writing my own version, and of setting it as far back as the 1720s. It’s a fascinating, rather louche age – the time of Moll Flanders and Captain Mackheath, and Hogarth’s ill-fated rake. But these characters all headed to London to commit crime and indulge in vice. Crime in the country often took a different form.
My new novel, A Death at Fountains Abbey, is set in Yorkshire, on the grand estate of Studley Royal. Its owner, John Aislabie, was the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time of the South Sea Bubble of 1720 – the first great financial crash of the modern age. Eight years later, he is living in splendid exile, loathed by many, but still extremely wealthy. When he starts receiving threatening letters he pulls in a favour – and Tom Hawkins finds himself travelling up north to help one of the most hated men in England.
I began my research at the West Yorkshire Archives (@wyorksarchives), reading bundles of estate papers and ledgers. While Aislabie obsessed over his magnificent water gardens, spending the equivalent of tens of millions on their construction, another story emerged of poverty and desperation, and even violent protest.
Much of the crime centred around poaching – and poaching was often linked to the loss of common land. Aislabie was keen to increase his estate at every opportunity. ‘If there be any more land to be purchased about Studley, I wou’d buy it’,’ he instructs his steward. Land that had been free for time out of mind was suddenly off limits. I found legal papers in which men were charged with trespass for hunting rabbits on Hutton moor, which had been open land until Aislabie snapped it up.
Naturally, this caused resentment – to put it mildly. Families who had survived on the land for generations were suddenly labelled criminals for grazing sheep or snaring a brace of rabbits. Punishment for those caught could be severe. No wonder, then, that there were clashes between Aislabie’s men and locals.
Sometimes the violence took a darker turn. On Christmas day, 1716, part of Studley Hall was set ablaze. Shortly after, several deer were slaughtered in the night. Things became so bad that Aislabie considered getting rid of his deer park altogether.
He was convinced the crimes had been commited by the Gills, a local family. ‘I wou’d give any money to fix it upon Gill or any of his companions,’ he writes. Most of all, he blamed Gill’s wife Anne. ‘[she] is so devilish a woman that there is no mischief she cou’d invent, that she wou’d not execute … Let the reward for the discovery be never so great, I will pay it.’
It’s striking how often Aislabie talks of rewards and bribes. This was a man who watched every penny, who haggled over the price of garden seeds and would leave poorer men out of pocket for months while he disputed their bills. And yet he writes to his steward, ‘those rogues that kill’d the Deer, I fancy money and pardon may tempt them’.
And this gets to the heart of the matter, I think. Aislabie was one of the richest and most influential men in the county. He had been mayor of Ripon, and an MP for the area. He’d studied law at Cambridge. What chance did a poor family have against him – and, while not condoning the violence – is it any surprise that, in desperation and frustration, a small handful resorted to threats and even to arson?
But before we paint Aislabie as the uncaring villain, there is another part of his story that should be told. In 1701, also at Christmas, a fire broke out at his London home on Red Lion Square. His wife Anne and their youngest daughter died in the blaze. It was believed the fire was started by a servant, to cover a theft.
For all his flaws, Aislabie’s letters show him to be a loving father and husband. Perhaps his stubborness and greed prompted the arson attack at Studley. But it was also a cruel echo of an old tragedy. Intriguingly, the ‘devilish’ Anne Gill had worked as a servant at Studley for a time. Aislabie must have feared that history was repeating itself.
I found many more fascinating stories in the estate papers at the West Yorkshire archives. Of course I did. Every family has its share of drama, feuding, tragedy. And that’s the great appeal of the country house murder mystery. Behind the door of every Palladian mansion there are secrets and lies, power struggles, reversals of fortune, simmering resentments, threats of violence… To be honest, I think Tom Hawkins was safer in London.
NB: all quotes from the estate papers come from the Vyner collection, ref: WYL150, housed at the West Yorkshire Archives, Leeds. My thanks to archivist Vicky Grindrod and her team.