History Reaches a Turning Point
It is "now or never" with Rushden Hall. The old house must be saved from further decay, but the restoration depends upon the use to which it can be put. A public meeting next Tuesday will discuss the problem and in the meantime this article by Mr. Groome supplies the historical background.
Rushden tradition has always connected the Hall with the name of John of Gaunt and with the hunting lodge at Higham Park.
Cole in his history of Rushden writes of a house older than the present Elizabethan building; an old hall, one of the finest in the county, since incorporated into other apartments.
Fragments of an older building can certainly be seen, and it seems possible that the whole of the East wing will be found to have been a great barn-like hall, open to the timbered roof, and having double arches at the North end leading to the kitchens.
There are two such arches of the earliest date on the right of the door leading from the Eastern terrace. The vaulted ceiling of the bedrooms of this wing may conceal a timbered roof, and when all the imposing panelling is dismantled, the true character of the old building may stand out more clearly.
It is worth investigation because the laying open of an old hall of this type would provide a room of some size. The absence of such a room is one of the main obstacles against the use of the present building.
The history of this old building is not known, but the general history of Rushden fills a little of the background.
The whole of Rushden fell into the hands of the Peverel family soon after the Norman Conquest. A very small holding was possessed by the Church, but there was no other holding capable of supporting the type of freeholder-squire who would be likely to build such a hall.
We must, therefore, look to the officers of the Lords of the Manor for a man likely to require a dwelling of this kind. Such a one was Warren Falconer who appeared in Rushden about the year 1200. He would be the gentleman in charge of the hawks connected with Higham Castle and the Deer Park and Hunting Lodge.
There was little room for him in the unfinished castle at Higham, and the Lodge at the Park was occupied by the keeper and probably used to house guests on hunting parties.
Falconer would be a man in a privileged position and may well have obtained a small estate and erected a timber hall of the open type then used. If labour over at the castle was readily available, it may be that it was even at this early stage built in stone.
Falconer was not a poor man. He made gifts to Rushden Church and to the Leper Hospital on Higham Hill. The rent which he paid for this small estate may well have been the pair of fur gloves which are mentioned later in the town's history. It was just the kind of token rent which would be taken in such a case.
The Falconer holding can be traced to his daughter and her husband and their heirs, but the tradition then breaks off. A similar holding, rather reduced in size, was in existence half a century later when it was described as "of little value."
If Falconer had given away some of the property and his successor moved over to the castle, its usefulness would probably decline. By 1300 Richard the Smith was in possession, and he was probably the official smith at the Park, and was allowed the use of the property as part of his wages for shoeing the hunters.
Then came the period of history when John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster was Lord of the Manor.
It may well be that he rebuilt and used the Hall. Possibly, as legend has it, Gaunt himself really did sleep in the little private room curtained off at the South end of the Hall after a hunting day at the Park.
He was often at Higham, and we need no formal proofs to imagine the haunches of venison being borne from under those arches screening the kitchens from the distinguished visitors at the high table one evening when he preferred not to return to the castle. It is possible, and legend boldly states it to be true.
Soon after Gaunt's death, John Basset, a receiver of the Duchy, was in possession, and shortly after 1460 Robert Pemberton, a yeoman of the Crown, keeper of the Park, constable of the Castle, and official of the Duchy, first comes into our records.
By this time the house must have been one of some pretensions to attract a gentleman of this type, and it is such a house with which the Pemberton family begins its connection with the town which still associates them so closely with its history.
In the reign of Queen Elizabeth, another Robert Pemberton the eldest son of Robert Pemberton, of Pemberton in the County of Lancaster, was one of the gentleman ushers of the wardrobe at the Court of the Queen.
This gentleman held the Hall and Park as tenant of the Duchy of Lancaster. He and his son, Sir Lewis Pemberton, re-built the old primitive hall as an elegant country house in the Dutch style very much as we see it to-day.
They probably planted the elm avenue and the belt of trees surrounding the little park. They built a park wall, the stones of which were ordered to be so nicely fitted that even a bee could not creep between the interstices.
Robert died in 1609 and he and his wife were buried beneath the fine tomb in the Parish Church.
The house and park descended in the Pemberton family for several more generations. They tended the trees, finished the park wall, and inside the hall added panelling and pictures of their kings and queens or of their friends at Court.
Members of the family were prominent in affairs. A Goddard Pemberton was a Member of Parliament for Higham in 1603; it may have been he who was nicknamed "Galloping Goddard."
Another Sir Goddard Pemberton was buried in the Parish Church, and his effigy reclines in a rather uncomfortable posture above his tomb. This monument was erected by Sir Lewis, who had succeeded his father at the hall. He took the name "Luring" Lewis, presumably from his fondness for hawking.
After the Civil Wars the Pembertons, a great Royalist family, closely associated with the person of the Sovereign for many years, disappeared from Rushden's story and first Ekins and then Fletchers became our Squires. Their tombs can be traced under many slabs of plain stone in the floor of the Church, and there are many stories of them.
When Cole wrote in 1838, John Fletcher was living at the entrance, the wych-elms screening house and grounds on all sides, and the avenue with its magnificent vista fronting the Church on the far side of the wooded hollow concealing the brook. He notices the periwinkles which still grow on the terrace.
There are interesting notes of the old pictures which formerly hung within, and stories of the hiding of the family plate under the floorboards at the time of the Scottish Rebellion, of the bell in the roof which was a time-keeper for the people of the town, and of the strange accident to Mr. Fletcher, whose powder-horn exploded in his pocket as he stood before the fire in the room where now the pensioners pass a pleasant hour.
This same Mr. Fletcher was said to have refused a hundred guineas for the great walnut tree in the grounds for use as gunstocks and the yew tree nearby was even then venerable.
In the middle of the last century, the Sartoris family came to Rushden and within living memory Mr. A. H. Sartoris occupied the Hall as a private House. Many of the farm gates in the vicinity bear his initials. Many people remember the old house as it was in his time and can recall some of its stories.
In 1929 Mr. Sartoris left the district and the estate was put up for sale by public auction. It was in 1930 that Rushden Urban Council privately purchased the property for a public park.
Now the old house stands, almost deserted, at the end of an avenue of trees which have died, fallen and decayed. Rain drips through the roof into the panelled rooms forbiddingly dark and deserted. Only the South wing is habitable, and here the pensioners daily gather for cards and a quiet pipe. The house, which has seen so many generations of squires and their children, seems, like the fine trees, to have lost much of its character in decay.
It is for us to restore for our grandchildren an avenue of trees beneath which the daffodils will again greet the Spring. The house surely deserves at our hands the careful treatment proper to a beautiful piece of craftsmanship.
If we can give it a new and useful life, our grandchildren will have cause to remember us with pride, and our generation will not lack a fine memorial.