I: William Paxton?
When William Paxton returned home from India in the second half of 1785 and set foot on British soil after wandering the globe for thirty years, it was difficult to say which part of Britain Paxton regarded as "home". Was it Scotland, the land of his ancestors and where he too had been born some forty years earlier, or was it England, the land he remembered from his childhood years, playing with his brothers in the large house on Buckingham Street in London? It most certainly was not Wales, a country he had probably never yet visited and of which he would have been quite ignorant had it not been for his good friend Captain David Williams of the East India Company's military service, whom he had met in Bengal and who had been such pleasant company during the last six months’ voyage from India to Europe.
Whichever part of Britain he felt most attached to, it was certain that the station in life and society to which William Paxton now aspired bore little resemblance to the circumstances in which he had left the country. His father had been chief clerk to the influential Scotsman Archibald Stewart, at one time MP and Lord Provost of Edinburgh. Years of service having proven him a clever, trustworthy and able right-hand man for the rich wine-merchant, Stewart had regarded his clerk with a benevolent eye. The Stewarts' connections had obtained the youngest of the clerk's three sons a position as a captain's boy and it was in that capacity that William had left Britain, then only twelve years old. After eight years in the navy he had set out for India, from where he now returned in possession of a sizeable fortune.
§ 1: His roots
John Paxton, William's father, had entered Archibald Stewart's Edinburgh wine-merchant business as a young man during the early 1720's. It was not until 1734 that John married Helen Adams, the daughter of William Adams, an Edinburgh printer of modest means who died two years later leaving few earthly possessions for his family to inherit. The couple had at least two daughters, Janet and Grizel, and three sons, Archibald, John and William. Meanwhile, Archibald Stewart's business thrived and was increasingly left to the care of his trusted servant John Paxton whilst his employer pursued a career in public life. In 1741, Archibald Stewart entered Parliament and in 1745 became Lord Provost of the city of Edinburgh.
Unfortunately for him, 1745 was the year in which Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, marched down from the Caledonian heights with his army of Highlanders to make his bid for the throne. Soon his troops approached Edinburgh and the Lord Provost found himself in an awkward position. Defending the city against the hordes of Highlanders with only a militia of citizens would inevitably cause heavy losses and could provoke the bloody revenge of the attackers causing even more bloodshed in case of defeat. However, a government army was reported to be nearby which could change the situation in a matter of hours. Archibald tried to gain time by sending a deputation to treat with the Prince. But Charles Edward was aware of his position and had an army of nine hundred men enter the city at night. The city guard was easily overcome and when Edinburgh awoke on the morning of 17 September 1745, it belonged to Charles Edward.
The stealth with which the city was taken made many suspect a plot and the Lord Provost was the principal target of their suspicion. It was rumoured that he favoured the Stuart cause and that his lukewarm attempt at arming a militia to withstand the Prince was part of a plan to admit him into the city. Archibald Stewart was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower from where, after six weeks, he was released on a bail of £15,000.1 Finally, two years later, he was found "not guilty" but Stewart found his name sullied in the eyes of the Edinburgh public and decided to transfer home and business to London.
The firm was housed at 11 Buckingham Street2, off the Strand. This was the house of William Paxton's youth. The toddler William was about three years old when his father followed the Stewarts to London. His eldest brother, Archibald, who was about five years his senior, received a mercantile education and as the years passed took over more and more of his ageing father's tasks in Stewart's wine business. From the 1760's onwards, Archibald Stewart spent ever longer periods at his country villa in Mitcham leaving the responsibilities of business to his son John Stewart. This John Stewart was a remarkable man who "combined business acumen with a flair for intrigue and a talent for writing political articles". He was active in East India Company politics where he had thrown in his lot with Lord Robert Clive's party.3 As early as 1766 he was the man of business of Sir George Colebrooke, a Director and later Chairman of the Company, managing his multifarious affairs. With Colebrooke's help, John Stewart entered Parliament in 1771. Having so many weighty affairs on his hands, John Stewart left the wine-merchant business to his father's old clerk and his eldest son. The Paxtons became so much the faces of the firm that by 1768 they were listed in a London directory as "Paxton and elder, wine-merchants at Stewarts & Co.". After the deaths of Archibald and John Stewart respectively in 1780 and 1781, Archibald Paxton took over the firm and became a wealthy and respected merchant in his own right.
The second of the three brothers, John, had artistic talents and ambitions and was sent to Foulis' art academy in Glasgow. After leaving Glasgow, John continued his studies for some time in Rome. The fact that John received such expensive training may indicate that the elder John Paxton had either done very well for himself in the wine-business of his employer or had proven himself of such worth to his employer that the latter had agreed to take care of the education of his sons. In 1766, John became one of the original members of the Incorporated Society of Artists of which he was director in 1775. He had some success as a portrait painter, exhibited works at the Royal Academy in 1769 and 1770 and was said to be never short of work.
The youngest of the three sons, William, still had to be provided for. His elder brother Archibald had already followed in his father's footsteps and the young William did not have the artistic talents of his brother John. He was a fairly quiet boy but had a surprisingly quick understanding. He had been given a good schooling and showed a predilection for arithmetic. In those days, the navy provided a risky but honest means for young men from families with the wherewithal to procure their offspring a commission to make an honourable career. The navy it was for young William, and he joined H.M.S. St. Albans as Captain William Gordon's personal servant in November 1755, then barely twelve years old.
§ 2: In the navy
During his first five years in the navy, William saw service on the east coast of North America where his ship took part in the bombardment and capture of Louisburg (French Canada) in July 1757. Back in England in the early months of 1760, William changed captains and joined H.M.S. Thunderer under Captain Charles Proby. He was now no longer a captain's boy but had obtained a commission as Midshipman, the lowest officer rank. As a Midshipman young William Paxton was, amongst other things, responsible for keeping the ship's logs. Next to the official logs he also kept a personal log which is still in the possession of his descendants. From its pages we can obtain a glimpse of Paxton's adventures on board this large man-of-war. This is how seventeen-year-old William describes the events of Friday the 17th July 1761:
"At two p.m. saw three sails to the north-west. Made sail and gave chase. ... Find we come up with them very fast. At midnight the largest ship hoisted French colours. Twelve minutes past one she began to fire very briskly at us which we immediately returned, she being within a pistol shot of us. ... During the engagement one of our quarter deck guns burst. We had 16 men killed and 115 wounded". After a short but severe action the French ship was captured after which Paxton was "employed shifting the prisoners". The Thunderer had suffered considerable damage and after mooring at Gibraltar a month was needed to patch her up.
There is hardly any doubt that the eight years of naval service between his twelfth and twentieth years of age made a lifelong impression on Paxton's character. His habit in later life to keep small diaries in which he carefully noted the daily weather conditions is a relatively unimportant but indicative trait of his personality. Among the European society in Calcutta, renowned for its grand entertainments and luxurious living, Paxton never struck a particular figure despite his having become, in economic terms, one of its most successful members by the early 1780's. His disciplined character was not given to excesses and this, coupled with his quiet nature, made him an inconspicuous guest at the balls and much "spirited" dinners so popular among his contemporaries in India. His later admiration for Horatio Nelson, to whom he dedicated the monumental tower still overlooking the Tywi valley near Llanarthne, was certainly not accidental and must have been inspired by the affinity he felt towards this great naval hero resulting from the years he spent at sea.
In 1763 the Seven Years War ended and with it Paxton's naval career. Whether it was because in times of peace career opportunities within the navy became slimmer or because of the rising star of John Stewart in East India Company politics that Paxton changed his navy costume for an officer's position on one of the private British merchant ships plying Indian waters is uncertain. A combination of both was probably at the basis of the new direction William's career now took.
§ 3: To India
On 1st June 1764, a young man in his early-twenties made his way from Buckingham Street to Berkeley Square. He halted before the stately residence of Lord Robert Clive and presented himself at the door. In his pocket he carried a letter of recommendation written by John Stewart. On the door opening, the young man declared his business and asked for his letter to be handed to the noble lord.
Clive was acquainted with the qualities of the young Stewart, the author of the letter, who had shown a willingness to put his talents at the service of Clive's party. He was therefore inclined to oblige Stewart if the service he demanded was not excessive. Clive broke the seal and read: "My Lord, The bearer, William Paxton, is son to a man who has been my father's chief clerk for forty years. Having been in a manner born into our family, we have taken charge of his education. He was at sea all the last war and gave great satisfaction to the captains he served under". Stewart wrote that he believed the young Paxton "to be extremely well qualified" to become an officer on one of the private ships employed in the so-called country trade. This country trade was the trade carried on between different ports on the coasts east of the Cape of Good Hope by Europeans living on the English East India Company's (E.I.C.) establishments in Asia. In the second half of the seventeenth century, the servants of the Company had obtained the right to participate in this country trade in their private capacity after the Company had failed to make this trade profitable for itself. By the time Paxton set out for India, private trade was long since the principal source of income for most of the Company's servants there.
The vessels used in this trade were often built in the East according to European designs. Their crews were recruited locally but the officers were European. They received salaries that were generally twice as high as in Europe and it was customary to reward them with a "privilege", consisting either of a proportion of the profits of each voyage or of cargo space in which they were allowed to carry goods on their private account. In such a capacity William would thus be able to put his sailor's experience at the service of the Calcutta country traders while obtaining the possibility of providing for himself by putting his privilege to good use. It was certainly a dangerous way of making a living but Paxton had by now grown accustomed to such risks and there was a fair chance of making good money. However, all Europeans wishing to try their luck in India, even if not in the service of the Company, needed to obtain the Company's permission to reside in its settlements and to trade under the protection of its flag. Such men would go to India as free-merchants, or, in Paxton's case, as free-mariners. William now called on Lord Clive as one of the most influential men in Company politics. He was the most likely patron to obtain him such a licence.
After reading John Stewart's letter, Clive weighed the matter carefully and decided that the request was reasonable. The young man that had delivered the letter at his door appeared a competent mariner and was described as "industrious and possessive of a good understanding". Such men were necessary to bear the responsibilities of a potentially lucrative but lately rather fickle trade. Good sailors reduced the risk of ships foundering at sea while a clever officer was more likely to bring complicated mercantile transactions and decision-making to a successful conclusion. Clive decided to act in favour of the young Paxton and it was thus that William left Britain to provide for himself in India as a free-mariner.
On this first visit, Paxton remained in India for nearly seven years. During this period it became clear that he possessed the same mercantile instinct that had made his father such a valuable servant to the Stewarts. The trading adventures he was involved in as an officer on a Calcutta country ship allowed him to obtain an excellent knowledge of the circumstances, customs and manners of trade in India. His quick understanding and keen business sense made him realise that the best way to make an honest fortune was no longer the sea-borne country trade but the inland trade of Bengal. The best starting point for being successful in this trade was to gain admittance to the select corps of the civil service in the Company's Bengal establishment.
Paxton's chance came in 1772. John Stewart had encountered serious financial difficulties in London when the speculations he had carried on for Sir George Colebrooke came to an unhappy end with a sudden fall in the price of India stock. Colebrooke crashed taking Stewart with him in his fall. To mend his fortune the latter had sought an appointment in Bengal where Warren Hastings had recently been appointed Governor. Stewart's stature and influence in Company politics obtained him the post of Secretary of the Council and in Calcutta he soon became an intimate friend of Hastings. Over the previous two decades, the Company's position in India had changed from that of an organisation carrying on trade from a few small fortified settlements on its coastal extremities into that of possibly the greatest territorial power in India. This transformation in political terms of the Company's position, achieved in a short space of time, had outpaced and overstretched its administrative structure. The Company's government in Bengal was faced with a spectacular increase in the weight of its governmental responsibilities and it was Hastings' principal task to devise the necessary reforms to enable it to deal with them properly. One of the matters over which the Company sought to establish control was the monetary situation in Bengal. To do this, they needed a professionally trained assayer4 with a thorough knowledge of the Indian monetary situation. It was undoubtedly through John Stewart's influence that Paxton's name was put forward in Calcutta governmental circles as the proper man for the job.
Paxton returned to London and apprenticed himself to Francis Spilsbury, assayer in Westminster. After an apprenticeship of seven months, he presented himself at the Tower to be examined in the art of assaying. He passed the exam to the examiner's satisfaction and four days later he wrote a petition to the Directors of the E.I.C. asking them to appoint him as assay master in the Bengal Presidency. He informed them that he had "for some time past made the art of assaying gold, silver and other metals his particular study and attention". He claimed to have had in Bengal “frequent opportunities to make observations upon the coinage of that country as well as to form a judgement of the absolute necessity of strictly keeping up the coins to the standard weight, for the preservation and circulation of commerce". Paxton's petition was supported by recommendations from Sir James Cockburn, John Stewart's cousin, who had himself been a Director and William Brightwell Sumner, formerly a member of the Bengal Council.
The Directors were satisfied with Paxton's attestations of proficiency and he thus entered the service of the Company. Paxton's entry into the service at the age of thirty-one was exceptional. It was customary for young men to enter the service as Writers at around half his age and make their way through the ranks by seniority while serving in the East. Exceptionally, as in William Paxton's case, the Company would appoint older and more experienced men when they thought such experience or particular proficiency was lacking among their servants in India. Because the seniority principle was particularly adhered to in the Company’s service, the rank of those appointees was fixed and they could only rise in rank if this bar was removed by the Directors. The Directors’ decision to appoint Paxton assay-master at Calcutta was taken on 4 March 1774. A few days later he boarded the East Indiaman that would take him to Bengal for the second time in his life. He arrived in Calcutta at the end of November that same year.
§ 4: Paxton and the Calcutta Mint
Under the great Mughals the privilege of producing coins was strictly guarded. Though there were a number of Mints in the provinces of their Empire, imperial authority over them seems to have been effective and the weight and fineness of the coins were remarkably uniform. However, the practice adopted in the early eighteenth century of farming out the Mints to individuals, coupled with a marked decline of imperial authority, caused many of the Mints to debase their coins or change their value repeatedly as suited the interest of those under whose authority the Mint fell. One of the obvious results was that after some time a multiplicity of coins were in circulation, all differing in both weight and fineness. Those coins had no fixed purchasing power and to establish their intrinsic value they had to be weighed and assayed. This situation was obviously bad for trade as it seriously hampered mercantile transactions. Another pernicious result was that, after the rise of the Company to power, some of its servants discovered that they could make farming the Mints very profitable to themselves. In more than one case their practices were prejudicial even to the Company's own finances.
In this confused situation it was Paxton's task to try to create order. During the first three years after his return to Calcutta he served as assay master until in January 1778 he succeeded Charles Lloyd as master of the Mint. In those capacities he was a much valued servant and his opinion on matters of monetary policy was frequently asked. As early as 1776, Paxton was sounded by Philip Francis on a plan of currency reform. The Bengal government was at that time confronted with a shortage of specie and Francis had given his thoughts to a plan to counter this problem by imposing a fixed value to a new coin to be minted at Calcutta. He submitted the plan to Paxton with the request to communicate to him, freely and sincerely, his sentiments on the project. In his answer Paxton shows a profound understanding of the monetary situation and highlights on virtually all the consequences the measures Francis proposed could have. He insisted on the fact that the Bengal economy was far from a closed system and that, in the end, "gold and silver will find their natural value, in spite of all the denominations that can be given them".
Next to putting his talents and commercial insight at the service of the Company, Paxton did not forget to put his position as Mint Master also to his private advantage. His colleagues in the service who had managed to make a profit out of their private trade eventually all called on Paxton to have their profits, collected in a multitude of coins of different weights and value, re-minted at the Calcutta Mint into so-called Sicca Rupees. As most of his colleagues' principal motive for coming to India was to acquire a fortune sizeable enough to enable them to live comfortably in Britain, they were anxious to have those profits remitted to Europe. Paxton saw that this was a good business opportunity and proposed his services to facilitate this transfer of funds.
§ 5: The agency business
Private fortunes could be remitted to Britain through the E.I.C. by means of bills of exchange drawn on the Directors in London. However, at the time of Paxton's presence in India the total sum of private fortunes waiting to be remitted to Britain far exceeded the amount the Company was prepared to allow their treasurer to receive in Calcutta in exchange for such bills on London. Next to this limit imposed by the Directors, many servants had reason to be secretive as to the exact amount of their private gains in order to evade an inquest into the nature of the origins of their wealth. Other means to remit this money to Britain were therefore sought and William Paxton was particularly successful in procuring them.
Foreign East India companies with settlements in Bengal like the Dutch at Chinsura, the French at Chandernagore or the Danish at Serampore, were keen to receive Paxton's Sicca Rupees in exchange for bills on Europe. They used this money to purchase goods to make up cargoes for their ships. In procuring money in Bengal, these companies could decrease or even stop altogether their bullion imports from Europe. This reduced the risk of their trade by eliminating the possibility of loss through shipwreck or piracy of money on its way to Bengal. To promote this business Paxton kept up good relations in particular with the Dutch. In 1777 Paxton had begun depositing considerable sums of money in the Dutch treasury at Chinsura in exchange for bills on Amsterdam. For 1781 he even agreed to supply the Dutch with one million Sicca Rupees, representing no less than half of the Dutch company's Bengal investment for that trading season. The fact that Paxton could promise such a large sum indicated that many of his colleagues in the service had confidence in his abilities as their agent and had entrusted him with large portions of their personal fortunes.
With the extension of the Company's authority over Bengal, many servants were now posted far from Calcutta. The power and prestige of the Company allowed those servants to engage successfully in several branches of the inland trade. Calcutta had meanwhile developed into Bengal's central marketplace and most of the goods the servants traded in were brought there to be sold. A servant trading in opium stationed at Benares could not easily travel the 400 miles that separated him from Calcutta to sell his goods. In addition to taking care of the proceeds of sales, Paxton therefore now proposed to take care of the sales themselves. His presence in Calcutta allowed him to determine the best time for selling as prices could vary according to the season and the arrival, or absence, of ships or could be influenced by the news those ships carried.
Sometimes Paxton sold the merchandise directly to one of the foreign companies. In that case, instead of supplying them with the money to buy their goods, he delivered them the goods directly, receiving their bills on Europe in payment. The Danish company, for example, turned to Paxton whenever they needed a large quantity of saltpetre. Even the E.I.C. itself bought cotton cloth as well as saltpetre through Paxton, who received those commodities from his clients stationed in remote regions such as Awadh. Not all the proceeds of such sales were immediately remitted to Europe. Paxton kept current accounts for all his clients and so started to act as their banker. Paxton's activities as agent grew into a considerable business involving very large amounts of money. His enterprise was called an Agency House, an area of business that was to expand considerably over the next few decades and in which Paxton pioneered.
On all transactions he undertook for others he charged a commission varying between one and five per cent. It was through his agency business that Paxton generated his own private fortune. The fact that his fortune was so considerable meant that many of his colleagues in the service had a good opinion of his mercantile capacities, his judgement of the market and of his personal character and credit. Trading in India required an excellent knowledge of the local circumstances as much of it was carried on along established Indian trade patterns and customs. Paxton's extensive trading experience reduced the risk for his clients while his character inspired confidence in his integrity. Paxton became one of the most trusted and respected agents of Calcutta and his business flourished.
Some factors, however, were beyond his control and when in 1780 the Dutch joined Britain's enemies in war, leading to the capture of their settlement in Chinsura by the British, Paxton found himself in great difficulties. When news of the war with the Dutch republic reached Bengal in 1781, the Governor General, Warren Hastings, not without feelings of regret because of his friendly connections with the Dutch director of Chinsura, ordered that settlement to be taken. We have described how Paxton had made an agreement with the Dutch to supply them with one million Sicca Rupees in exchange for bills on Amsterdam. Clearly he had not counted on an Anglo-Dutch war and by the time Chinsura was taken over by British troops, Paxton had already paid in 629,391 Sicca Rupees. This was a severe blow to his business. He found himself in a very awkward position, particularly as the money represented the private fortunes of many of his clients who had trusted him to take care of its safe remittance to Europe. Paxton had to act quickly and vigorously to save his reputation as a dependable agent, to recover the trust of his clients and to preserve as much as possible of the 629,391 Sicca Rupees.
His task was a delicate one as the Directors in London had repeatedly forbidden their servants to assist foreign companies in their investments. Paxton's agreement with the Dutch was evidently a blatant infringement of those orders and any direct concession to Paxton on the Governor and Council's part would therefore imply their acceptance of the fact that their subjects openly disobeyed orders from London. However, the tone of the letter he wrote to the Bengal government suggests that Paxton was not without means and arguments to underline his demands and it is even likely that some of the Council members themselves had an interest in the Dutch remittances. Expressing himself in no uncertain terms he told the Council that he expected that the money would either be returned to him in Calcutta or that he would be supplied with bills on the Directors in London now that the British had taken over the Dutch possessions in Bengal. Hastings and his Council, though sympathetic to Paxton's cause and willing enough to save him and his clients from their predicament, were hardly in a position to honour Paxton's request. All they could do was to advise the Court of Directors to pay Paxton his demands out of the produce of the captured Dutch investment which would be sold in London a year later.
Far from complying with the Bengal Government's advice, the Directors ordered the Council to dismiss all their commercial servants who assisted foreign companies in a like manner in the future. They specifically referred to Paxton, whose claims they had resolved to resist, threatening to make an example of him to underline that their order should be taken seriously. Paxton's position in the service had suddenly become delicate and it was time for him to take precautions in case he had to leave Bengal. To ensure the continuity of his Calcutta enterprise he formed a partnership with Charles Cockerell. The Agency House founded by Paxton now operated under the name Paxton and Cockerell. By no means intending to give up the India business should he have to return to Europe, Paxton had found in Cockerell an able and ambitious man who would be able to exploit the established credit and name of Paxton's enterprise to his own and to the firm's advantage. William Paxton and Charles Cockerell would remain business partners, first in Bengal and later in Britain, for life.
On 27 January 1785, William Paxton asked the Calcutta Council's permission to resign from his office as Mint Master and to proceed to Europe. That same day an advertisement appeared in the Calcutta Gazette in which Paxton announced his impending departure for Europe where he intended to represent the Calcutta firm in the future. Up until then, it had been his brother Archibald who had taken care of business in London, but Paxton’s agency business had by now become so extensive that he felt that a proper firm should represent its interests in the metropolis. Paxton paid his friends and clients in Calcutta a last visit, went through the details of the business with Charles Cockerell, organised the sale of his property in Bengal and prepared himself for the long voyage home.
In India it was in the interest of a businessman to show his wealth to the outside world. Thrift may have been a virtue in Britain, but in Bengal it was the surest way to lose one’s credit in the eyes of the indigenous merchants and bankers upon whom success in private trade still largely depended. In some measure, Paxton's success in business can therefore be gauged from the state in which he lived in Bengal at the time of his departure. Horses were a luxury in Bengal and Paxton possessed no less than eight of those animals, of which two are described as very valuable. Next to his house in Calcutta Paxton had two so-called “garden houses”, as the retreats of the rich, situated outside busy and unhealthy Calcutta, were described at the time. All of this, together with the furniture, plate, other household goods and an excellent European chariot was offered for sale in the Calcutta Gazette three weeks later.
Early in February 1785, a large European merchant vessel slowly made its way down the Hughli towards the Bay of Bengal. Paxton had made the journey before but this time he knew that as the contours of Fort William disappeared from view, this was the last he would ever see of Calcutta. Whether sad or glad to leave, seventeen years in Bengal had enabled him to make his fortune and an ample one it was. On board the ship he found David Williams, who had served as a Captain in the Company's Bengal military service. Williams was one of his clients and it had been Paxton in person who had arranged his passage on board this ship. On board as well was Elizabeth, his little daughter, whose mother would not come to Britain. A little over forty and in the possession of a good fortune, Paxton could hope to make a good and acceptable marriage in Britain. Whether he had loved Elizabeth's mother or not, by tacit agreement they had known that their relationship would remain limited to India.
The voyage between Bengal and Europe took about six months. Those six months, spent within the limited confinements of a ship under circumstances that could be very uncomfortable, often caused lifelong friendships or lifelong enmities to be forged between passengers. A relationship of the first type was created between William Paxton and the Welshman David Williams. Paxton had organised the remittance of Williams' modest fortune to Europe by providing him with diamonds and bills of exchange. In London, Archibald Paxton had taken care of the sale of Williams' diamonds and had cashed his bills. Williams had requested Archibald to give his father a part of the proceeds to enable him to buy and enlarge an estate in his native Wales. During the passage to Europe Williams must have told Paxton about Henllys, the estate his father had acquired for him near Llandovery and about his plans for its embellishment. Williams was proud of his native country and his long separation from it, whilst risking his life under the tropical sun, must have greatly enhanced its charms in his mind's eye. He told his friend that once he had settled himself properly in his newly-acquired seat, Paxton should come and see for himself the beauty and charms of Wales. On their arrival, the friends parted under the solemn promise to meet again soon.
But business took Paxton first to Amsterdam. In his pocket he had bills of exchange to the value of 470,241 Sicca Rupees, given him by the Dutch treasurer at Chinsura in exchange for cash in that fateful year of 1781. Paxton had apparently already managed to recover 159,150 out of the total sum of 629,391 Sicca Rupees deposited by him that year before Chinsura was invested by British troops. He now sold the rest of the contested bills, at a considerable discount, to the Amsterdam bankers Hope & Co. This business done, he returned to London to settle accounts with his clients.
II: BUSINESS IN LONDON, AN ESTATE IN WALES
The Benjamin of the family who had gone out into the world to provide for himself now returned home with a fortune that could vie with that of many a Lord of the Kingdom. Paxton's fortune had not been thrown into his lap by some lucky coincidence for the risks he had taken were considerable. The risk of a naval career at wartime is obvious, but the risk of going out to India was perhaps even greater. Mortality among the Company's servants in India was very high. Two thirds of the Writers that went out to Bengal between 1707 and 1756 never returned. The chances of survival somewhat improved after that period but still about 60 per cent of them would never see Britain again. Though opportunities for personal enrichment were fair in the Bengal of Paxton's time, still about a third of those who survived and returned to Britain were in poor circumstances. Among the survivors that had done a little better, some had made just enough to enable them to enjoy a quiet rural life on a few acres of their own, others had been so fortunate as to be able to buy great manor houses with more extensive lands. The number of servants returning with fortunes the size of William Paxton's was small indeed.
We have seen how Paxton's fortune was made. Whilst it is true that Bengal offered better circumstances for making a fortune than Britain, still it was due to Paxton's own business acumen and commercial skill that he had managed to put those circumstances to his advantage. Unlike other conspicuous Indian fortunes such as Clive's, resulting principally from the presents of indigenous princes and notables, or John Johnstone's, largely gained from dubious practices in the collection of land rents, Paxton's fortune was made in trade. A trade which he was not ready to abandon now that he had returned to Britain.
§1: Paxton & Co.
The few personal effects Paxton had brought with him from India were brought to 11, Buckingham Street, the house of his childhood. Old Archibald Stewart and his son John had both died in the early 1780's. The Paxtons had taken over their wine-merchant business which was carried on by William's brother Archibald. Their old father, now far into his eighties, was still alive but their mother had died two years earlier. Archibald had married a year earlier, in 1784, but the house still offered enough space to make some rooms available for William.
It was at this address that William, in partnership with his brother, established a new firm under the name Paxton & Co. This firm became the London branch of the Agency House Paxton had founded in Calcutta. Soon after Paxton's departure from Bengal, Charles Cockerell had associated himself with Philip Delisle and the agency business there was now carried on under the name of Paxton, Cockerell & Delisle. An advertisement in the Calcutta Gazette informed their Bengal clientele of Paxton's safe arrival in London and assured them that William Paxton would spare himself no trouble in providing them with the earliest information on the arrival of their consignments in London, or in "furnishing them with such advice as may be essential to their interest".
William Paxton's presence in London was seen as a great advantage by clients in India. William had made a good name for himself in Calcutta and it was an advantage to have a man with such commercial expertise and intimate knowledge of the circumstances and nature of their affairs in Bengal to represent their interests in London. Paxton & Co. was a firm of what were called East India agents. Initially their principal activity was to secure the payment of the bills of exchange of their clients or to take care of the sale of their consignments of India goods. The money thus realised was sometimes invested in stocks and bonds or was paid out according to their clients' instructions to third persons. Some clients simply ordered the Paxtons to invest the money in the most advantageous manner, leaving the business to their discretion in the hope of profiting by their financial expertise and presence in the metropolis. It is not difficult to see how Paxton & Co. became the depositories of considerable sums of money and how the development of banking services became nothing less than logical. It was probably within a few years following the establishment of Paxton & Co. that the firm began to act as a merchant bank.
§ 2: An estate
In Bengal, Charles Cockerell proved a capable successor. The agency business flourished and in the 1790's Henry Trail and John Palmer successively entered the Bengal partnership. Paxton & Co.'s London enterprise grew in importance consequently and in 1794, whilst Cockerell was on leave in Britain, a new and enlarged partnership was formed in London including William and Archibald Paxton, Charles Cockerell and Henry Trail. This new firm, acting under the name Paxton, Cockerell, Trail & Co., provided its clients extra security by a broadened partnership. Banking progressively became the main business of the firm and it was of the utmost importance for the creditworthiness of a banking firm that its chief partners owned land. In the eighteenth century, the possession of land was the most generally acceptable sign of prestige and wealth. Contemporaries therefore measured a banker's business stature first by referring to his land. Paxton's new status as a banker thus formed a strong professional impetus for him to become a landed proprietor. But it was not only his professional status that gave him the incentive to invest in land.
In 1786, barely a year after his return from Bengal, Paxton married Ann Dawney. Ann was the daughter of Thomas Dawney, a local magistrate from Aylesbury who died when she was only six years old. She was a young woman slightly more than twenty years her new husband's junior. Their first child was born in August 1787 and Paxton now found himself a husband and father after remaining a bachelor until his forties. William cared for his family and his marriage to Ann was a happy one. It is likely that his marriage and his fresh status as the head of a family enhanced his personal wish to express his newly gained wealth in land. An estate would give his fortune more prestige and could make his family socially acceptable in the upper circles of British society.
It was perhaps soon after marrying Ann that Paxton first accepted an invitation of his old friend David Williams to come and visit him in Wales. A change from busy London would do his young wife some good and the alluring descriptions Williams had given of his native country as well as a personal wish to see his old companion probably did the rest. On arriving in Carmarthenshire, Paxton saw that his friend had not exaggerated and he sincerely admired the beauty of the countryside. At Henllys, Williams' seat a few miles up the road leading from Llandovery to Cilycwm, Paxton was introduced to a few of the local notables whom his host had caught up with since his return. It is difficult to guess the impression Paxton must have made on them. This blue-eyed middle-aged man with his round features and his young wife, who had sailed the world as mariner and who had made a fortune in this mysterious country called India must have made quite a spectacle. He spoke about strange places with unheard-of names with his host and some traits in his speech and manners must have betrayed a background out of the ordinary. Williams, however, had given them to understand that this man was very well-to-to and his acquaintance could therefore be worthwhile cultivating.
It was in all probability his Welsh friend David Williams who informed Paxton about an estate near Llanarthne which was to be put up for sale. Paxton, despite the considerable distance from his business in London, was much taken with what he had seen of Wales and inquired about the sales particulars. When Paxton first saw the green hills of the Tywi valley on visiting Middleton Hall, he was delighted by what he saw. The gentle slopes of the hills, from the highest point of which one had a wonderful view of the ruins of medieval Dryslwyn, appealed to his imagination and he rejoiced at finding the estate did not lack water. Middleton Hall itself may have been a handsome building but Paxton did not think it situated to best advantage and he imagined something more modern for himself, a mansion he could design according to his own ideas and wishes. The lands of the estate, however, were all he wished for and Paxton wanted neither means nor connections to help him build a new mansion according to his own tastes.
§ 3: Middleton Hall
Old Middleton Hall, the mansion Paxton found when he first visited the estate, was possibly situated on or near the site of the farm Gorswen near the road from Nantgaredig to Porthyrhyd.5 Little is known about this old mansion as no drawings or plans of it seem to have survived. We know that it was a fairly large building, as befitted the family that inhabited it, because in 1670 it was listed as containing 17 hearths. It had been built in the first half of the seventeenth century by Henry Middleton, High Sheriff of Carmarthenshire in 1644. Henry appears to have been the first of the Carmarthenshire line of Middletons who were to become important local notables. Both Henry's son Christopher and his grandson Richard were High Sheriffs of the county in 1668 and 1701 respectively. But the public role of the Middletons in Carmarthenshire went beyond the furnishing of High Sheriffs and we find Christopher Middleton involved in restoring or partially rebuilding the Llanarthne parish church in 1682.
Richard Middleton's only son, Henry, died childless and Middleton Hall passed to his sister Elizabeth. Elizabeth married Thomas Gwyn of Gwempa and their eldest son, Richard Gwyn, inherited the estate on the death of his parents in the 1750's. At that moment Middleton Hall fetched an annual rental of £592 and was therefore a respectable but not a grand estate. Richard Gwyn settled at Middleton Hall and, like his grandfather and great-grandfather before him, was High Sheriff of Carmarthenshire in 1761. But Richard lived far beyond his means. Though the Middleton and Gwempa estates together fetched him an annual income from rentals of £1375, enough to support a gentleman of some means, Richard found himself a guest of His Royal Highness in the King's Bench prison by 1767, owing £10,000 on personal debts and mortgages. He was not released until May 1771, under the Insolvent Debtors Act of 1769.
The estates were passed on to his eldest son Francis Edward Gwyn. Francis Edward was not a man to try to redeem his father's debts by living the life of a country gentleman quietly managing his estates. Even before his father's disgraceful sojourn in the King's Bench prison, Francis had borrowed £2,000 from his brother-in-law to make up the sum of £3,000 he needed to buy an officer's commission in the army. He started as captain and had an illustrious military career, serving as a major in North America under Generals Howe, Clinton and Cornwallis. Made Colonel of the 25th Light Dragoons in 1794, he became Governor of Sheerness and was subsequently promoted Major General and finally Lieutenant General in 1799. He died in 1821, in London, at the age of 72 "of exhaustion from age". Francis Edward Gwyn thus lived in a blaze of glory, consuming most of what his father had left of his ancestral estates. By 1776, the Middleton Hall estate was charged with mortgages and debts to the amount of £36,900. To pay off his debts, Francis Edward ordered Messrs. Froggat and Smith to sell Middleton Hall.
Middleton Hall thus passed into William Paxton's hands in the course of 1789, most probably for a sum close to £40,000.6 With this change of ownership a period began during which the estate changed greatly in appearance as it was enlarged and enriched with a beautifully landscaped 500 acre park with a magnificent new mansion at its centre.
III: THE DEVELOPMENT OF MIDDLETON HALL
In the previous chapter we have discussed how Paxton had both personal and professional motives for buying an estate. Middleton Hall represented an investment in land that enhanced his stature in business as a banker. It was in his interests to make his estate produce an acceptable annual revenue so as make it a worthwhile investment. But Middleton Hall was more to William Paxton than just a convenient placement of part of his money. Making the estate produce a maximum annual revenue was definitely not amongst the first and foremost of his ideas and plans for the estate. He intended to develop the estate into a seat that would do credit both to his taste and his fortune. The fact that he laid aside a very considerable part of it to convert into lakes and scenic but virtually unproductive parkland bears convincing testimony to the nature of Paxton's plans. An explanation for such "frivolous" use of good land is not difficult to find. Unlike most aristocratic landowners, Paxton's income did not depend on the revenue of his estate. Middleton Hall, even with the new mansion and after all the improvements and additions made to it during his lifetime, never represented more than about 20 per cent of his fortune. Most of his capital remained employed in banking and other trades from which he derived the most significant part of his income. Other properties Paxton possessed in Pembrokeshire at the time of his death were, all together, more valuable than Middleton Hall. Most of those properties were speculative investments and served as securities for his banking business. Middleton Hall was different. Over the years, William Paxton would grow much attached to it and the development of the estate became his personal amusement and source of pride.
§ 1: The designers
That Paxton had elaborate plans for Middleton Hall almost from the day he had acquired the property appears from his choice of the man he was make his estate manager. In the eighteenth century, the owners of sizeable estates were often away from their seats for at least a part of the year. The members of fashionable society spent much of their time in the capital only to return to their country seats when rising temperatures made the stench of London unbearable to their fine noses. Others preferred Bath or Brighton while some had more particular reasons to be absent such as a seat in Parliament or, as in Paxton's case, a business to run. All these estate owners needed someone to manage their estates when they themselves were absent or occupied by other affairs. Estate managers were common figures on eighteenth century estates. As the century wore on, agricultural improvements made the running of large estates an ever more complicated and delicate affair requiring careful planning and book-keeping. Estate managers were therefore often men with strong professional qualifications and bore in this respect little resemblance to the stewards and bailiffs of the previous century. James Grier, the man who was to be Paxton's estate manager, had qualifications that were out of the ordinary even for contemporary standards. He was an engineer.
Aged thirty-six when he became Paxton's agent, Grier managed the Middleton Hall estate until his death in 1814. Little is known about Grier's social and geographical origins. He was not recruited locally and may have been, like Paxton, of Scottish origin.7 What we do know is that Grier played a constructive role in the realisation of Paxton's plans for the estate. The new estate manager was presumably housed in the old mansion which was transformed into a home farm and re-named Gorsddu.8 James Grier was described in his obituary as known for his "peculiarly ingenious application of the theodolite".9 This certainly assisted Paxton when deciding on the best spot in the prospective park upon which he would build his new mansion. Grier's talents must have been of even greater worth in the creation of the artificial lakes and the design of the intricate pattern of water management that was so much to distinguish Paxton's park in its heyday.
A second man of great talents whom Paxton invited to contribute to his plans for Middleton Hall was a reputed architect by the name of Samuel Pepys Cockerell. It was Cockerell who designed the new mansion for Paxton that was to form the magnificent centrepiece of the park. Paxton's choice of architect was almost self-evident. Not only was Samuel Pepys Cockerell one of the most famous architects of his day, he was also the elder brother of Paxton's business partner Charles Cockerell. As if this was not yet recommendation enough, Cockerell, at the time Paxton asked him to design a new Middleton Hall, was employed building Daylesford House for Warren Hastings, the man who had been Governor of Bengal at the time Paxton had been the Company's Mint Master at Calcutta. Paxton was also well acquainted with another of the Cockerell brothers, Colonel John Cockerell, an officer in the Company's Bengal military service. John Cockerell had been a client of Paxton's agency house in Calcutta and continued to use the services of Paxton & Co. after his return to Britain. He had even invested part of his fortune in the London partnership. Samuel Pepys Cockerell accepted Paxton's commission and created a mansion of classic beauty. Grier must have been involved at some point in the design by adding the more technical details of the most modern supply system of running water to date. Cockerell may also have contributed to the laying out of the park. Samuel Pepys Cockerell was recognised by Humphry Repton, one of the most notable garden architects of the day, as being perfectly capable of taking on the task of designing a garden himself.10
A third man of reputation who made a contribution to Paxton's Middleton Hall was Samuel Lapidge. Lapidge had been one of Lancelot 'Capability' Brown's surveyors from 1765 until the latter's death in 1783. In his will Brown directed that all his uncompleted tasks were to be continued by Samuel Lapidge. In some ways, therefore, Lapidge inherited Brown's practice and he continued to use the same men Brown had used for the execution of his designs. He also succeeded him as Surveyor of the royal gardens at Hampton Court. No drawings have yet been discovered of Lapidge's designs for Middleton Hall and it is not certain which features of the garden were his ideas. Taking the professional qualities of Cockerell and Grier into account, it seems reasonable to suggest that the planting of trees and the arrangement of the flowerbeds were the work of Lapidge. The idea of a double-walled garden may also have been Lapidge’s as he was definitely the most professional gardener of the four men (including Paxton himself) that shaped Paxton's park.
§ 2: The building of the park
Middleton Hall park was designed around the new mansion that was to be the centre of it. Once the site for the house had been determined upon, the first driveways could be constructed and the works could begin on the creation of the string of artificial lakes around the hill upon which the new house was to be constructed. Water was to play an important role in Paxton's scheme. It may be that Paxton had been inspired by the important part water played in the Mughal gardens he had seen in India. However, neither Paxton's garden nor the exterior of his new mansion would display any of the oriental motifs which appeared in Samuel Pepys' later additions to Sezincote, his brother's estate in the Cotswolds. If Paxton had taken his inspiration from India, he had adapted his ideas well to the landscape and climate of South Wales where water was plentiful and could be better used to create scenic lakes stocked with fish than to feed fountains and form sheets of water in shallow basins to cool the air. Paxton conformed to the main ideas of his age about landscaping. Men like Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight had grouped those conceptions under the term "Picturesque".11 The idea behind the "Picturesque" movement was that the beauty a landscape inherently possessed was to be drawn out and improved upon by art and planning. Much effort and ink was lost in trying to define the essence of the "Picturesque" and in deciding which landscaped gardens were truest to its principles. Paxton, though showing a lively interest in landscaping, never slavishly followed the creeds of the day and was happy to ignore their conventions in order to suit his comfort or his own personal sense of beauty.
Paxton's interest in gardening did not date from his acquisition of Middleton Hall. Gardening was a popular occupation among the Europeans in Bengal and many of the wealthier members of the community owned “garden houses” outside busy and suffocating Calcutta. Some of the servants of the Company took great pride in their gardens and invited their colleagues and friends over to admire them. It was not uncommon for these enthusiasts to be discovered importing seeds and seedlings from different parts of Asia, the east coast of Africa and, of course, Europe in order to test the possibilities for growing different plant species on Bengal soil. Paxton was not only engaged in procuring such seeds for his clients through his agency house, he himself possessed two garden houses and had already been an enthusiastic gardener when still in India.
Like many of his contemporaries, Paxton had a keen interest in technical innovation and a particular zest for up-to-date water management. Together with James Grier, Paxton set out to create the many water features that marked his park. Dams were erected, bridges and sluices were built and even two cascades formed part of the elaborate system of lakes, ponds and streams ornamenting the estate. Water at Middleton Hall was not to be limited to aesthetic purposes. The new mansion Cockerell designed for his client was fitted with a lead cistern on its rooftop. This cistern was fed by two reservoirs built in the hillsides rising above the house which received their water from natural sources. Pipes were fitted to supply the various rooms and water-closets of the house with running water. Water-closets were a very recent innovation at the time the mansion was built and thirty years later they were still proudly mentioned in the sale catalogue. It seems that Paxton's years at sea and under the tropical sun of India had made him sensible to the comforts of cool, fresh running water. He was not going to deprive himself of that luxury in the mansion he now constructed according to his own tastes with the fruits of his many years of toil and discomfort abroad.
Grier and Paxton also explored other possibilities with piped water. Recent excavations in the walled garden have unearthed a pattern of clay pipes that appear to have been used to heat the hothouse. Whilst it is certain that Paxton grew oranges, melons and grapes in his garden, it is possible that he also tried to grow more delicate species he had discovered in India and for which he would have needed this elaborate heating system.
The eighteenth century was the century of the Spa and the watering place. Sea bathing and "taking the waters" were the fashionable cures for a whole range of complaints varying from debility, epilepsy or heart disorders to gout, rheumatism and scrophile scurvy. Bath had become a centre of genteel society and so had Brighton. Places like Scarborough, Harrogate and Aberystwyth had the same function for middle-class families. William Paxton was a regular visitor at both Bath and Brighton and had great confidence in the medicinal powers of water. While at Brighton he wrote to his friend David Williams that he had chosen to go there in the hope "that it would be of service to some of the children ... that had had the fever and .. in expectation of the ease of a warm sea bath drawing away a rheumatic strain" in his shoulder. A year later, when again at Brighton, he wrote to his friend that his "greatest pleasure is in observing the color gradually return to my dear Maria's cheeks (Anna Maria; the eldest of his children with his wife) and that the sea air agrees well with the rest of the family". When Paxton discovered chalybeate springs in his park he was delighted and immediately built a bath-house on the site, complete with a furnace room to provide hot baths. The whole was provided with dressing rooms and set in a flower garden. Willing to let the common people benefit by the healing powers of the water as well, Paxton had ordered pipes to be laid to conduct water from the spring to the outside of the wall surrounding the park for the use of the public. Another bath house was built much nearer to the mansion. It contained a plunging bath and was, like the bath house near the chalybeate spring, equipped with a furnace room to heat water for a hot bath. It stood, secluded by a grove, near the borders of Llyn Mawr close to the sluice and bridge separating Llyn Mawr from Llyn Canol.
Having described how Grier and Paxton transformed the Middleton Hall estate into an feat of water-management engineering we shall now turn our attention to that other remarkable feature of the estate, the new Middleton Hall itself.
§ 3: Paxton's Middleton Hall
The centrepiece of Paxton's park was the new mansion. It was a large quadrangular house with strong Neo-classical features. Built in stuccoed brick, the simple geometric lines and grand ionic portico on the east front made it an impressive landmark in the middle of the gentle slopes of the surrounding hills and the romantic tinge of the picturesque park. The numerous walks and driveways laid out in the park offered wandering visitors, or indeed the owner himself, a variety of different views and prospects of the house. Contemporary visitors were often much impressed and described it in glowing terms. Richard Fenton, who toured Carmarthenshire in 1809, climbed the newly built tower in the Company of two of Paxton's sons to have a "bird's eye view of the House and grounds of Middleton Hall". He esteemed it had "the most truly parkish and elegant appearance of any place in the country" and said that the more he saw of the estate the more he admired it. Another commentator described it as "one of the most splendid mansions in South Wales". The mansion was certainly unique in Carmarthenshire and yielded to few others in West Wales in elegance and modernity.
Its architect, Samuel Pepys Cockerell, had begun his architectural career as the pupil of Sir Robert Taylor. The Neo-Palladianism of his master influenced his work but Cockerell was also inspired by the ideas of the French Neo-classicist Laugier, who pointed at the mathematical simplicity of classic buildings and preached a restrained use of exterior decoration. Cockerell was an able architect and his work is often interesting for its originality. The best known example of his ability to innovate is Sezincote, a mansion built by his master but on which he grafted oriental details for the benefit of his brother, Charles Cockerell, William Paxton's partner in trade. The "Indian" connections of his brothers Charles and John gained him a number of clients from amongst former servants of the Company in Bengal. The first "Nabob" commissioning him was William Byam Martin12 for whom he designed a bridge and the entrance gates to his estate White Knights near Reading. The second of his clients who had spent time in Bengal was the former Governor Warren Hastings himself, who asked Cockerell to re-build the old Hastings family seat, Daylesford House, near Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire. While still working on Daylesford House, he accepted a commission from Gabriel Harper, formerly an officer in the Company's Bengal army, for building Gore Court in Kent.
Work had started on this last building a year before the foundations were laid for Middleton Hall and the two mansions show some similarities in design and inspiration.13 The new Middleton Hall was built between 1793 and 1795. In the absence of records we do not know precisely which craftsmen worked on the hall. It is, however, very likely that Paxton had no compunction about spending money to allow Cockerell to hire the best artisans he could lay his hands on to build his new family seat. Taking this into account we may safely infer that the result of their combined efforts was in every way a masterpiece.
On arriving at Middleton Hall, the visitor would have faced two flights of steps leading up to a front door built in a slight recess and flanked by two bronze statues. The main entrance of the hall was, thanks to Cockerell, original in its design while, as was customary at the time, far less impressive than the façade on the other side of the mansion facing the lawn and looking out over the park. On entering the house the visitor would find himself in a large stone-paved entrance hall with grey stuccoed walls ornamented with pilasters and recesses. The servant who opened the door would then invite the guest to wait in the library while he went to inform his master of the visitor's arrival. Through a door to his right he would be shown into an elegant library where, besides a monumental marble chimneypiece, he would find a valuable collection of books on the open bookcases. Whilst waiting, the visitor could consult the Encyclopaedia Britannica, leaf through numerous travel books and biographies or update himself on Westminster politics by opening the latest Parliamentary journals. Should the visitor share Paxton's interest in the virtues of water, he could choose one of the numerous treatises on that subject his host had collected. Perhaps the visitor was new to Wales and in that case he might have opted for the histories of its different counties or may have chosen an easier approach by opening Rees's The beauties of England and Wales. Eventually the host would appear to greet his guest and invite him into the drawing room. Here the visitor could feast his eyes by looking through the venetian window out over the lawn, the lakes and the wooded hills of the park. The room was ornamented with another statuary marble chimneypiece and its walls were hung with costly India-paper featuring birds and trees. Here the host may have treated his guest to tea and, should his guest have come on business, the two would have discussed the matter that had led to the visit. Important visitors would stay over for dinner and enter, through a door on their left, into the impressive dining parlour of 36 by 24 feet. In this room the guest would discover the most costly of the marble chimney pieces that enriched the interior of the mansion. The entablatures above the ornamental pilasters featured "druidical and historical paintings entwined with vine ornaments". This choice of subjects suggests that his host had an interest in the local history of what he called his "adopted country" and it is very unfortunate that no further details about these paintings are available. Double doors opened upon a terrace overhung with an imposing four-columned Ionic portico and overlooking a lawn stretching downwards to a lake bordered by woods. The whole was encompassed by the surrounding hills and formed a view which was greatly admired. After dinner the men retired next door to the common parlour where they would smoke and might play a game of whist. If the guest was staying the night he would climb a handsome oak staircase which, during the day, was lighted by a dome high above him on the roof. A servant would take him two floors up where he would be shown into a spacious guest room complete with water closet. The interior design and decoration of Middleton Hall struck its visitors as particularly elegant and as well as the above described splendour, William Paxton’s guests would have found several grand pianos and would have had the opportunity to inspect their reflections in a number of large mirrors. They may also have admired the mahogany furniture and the beautiful nine-tier rice pagoda while their taste-buds were stimulated by the choice wines with which Paxton's cellars were stocked.14
In addition to the prestigious rooms our visitor has just been able to admire, the second floor housed six spacious bedrooms with attached dressing rooms amongst which was a very handsome circular boudoir of 19 feet in diameter. On the upper floor there were, next to our guest's spacious bedroom, eight other sleeping rooms for housemaids and other servants. In the basement were excellent wine cellars, the housekeeper's room and the servants’ hall. North of the house, communicating with it through a corridor, was another building which still exists, housing the kitchen, the housekeeper's store room and four further rooms for the servants of Paxton's guests. Beyond the enclosed yard at the northern end of this building was another and much larger building featuring an archway and a clock tower. This building also still stands and now contains the offices of the National Botanic Garden of Wales. In Paxton's time it contained stables for 22 horses, two large coach houses, a harness room, lofts and four rooms to lodge coachmen and stableboys.
Samuel Lapidge had taken care by the careful positioning of trees or fir plantations to screen utilitarian provisions such as the bakery, the coal and wood houses, the slaughter house and the dog kennels from view. He had adorned the front of the house with a flower garden laid out within an oval gravelled walk roughly on the site where the Great Glasshouse now stands. The cascade was also adorned with flower gardens as were both bath-houses and several other scenic spots within the park. The topographer and water-colour artist Thomas Hornor, who painted views of the estate for William Paxton in 1815, much admired these additions to the landscape and defended them with some vigour against what the principal proponents of the Picturesque must have thought of such intrusions into their strive for authenticity. Other commentators equally admired Lapidge's work and said that it added "greatly to the beauty and interest of the surrounding scenery". Lapidge's work was much appreciated by Paxton who praised his skill and taste. Some of Hornor's missing views of the estate might have filled in the detail of Lapidge's work on Middleton Hall. Today, however, we shall have to satisfy ourselves with the comments of contemporary eye-witnesses and Hornor's bird's-eye view of the estate which is still in the possession of one of William Paxton's descendants.
IV: PAXTON IN PUBLIC
Men with fortunes like Paxton's, especially when those fortunes were recently acquired, often aspired to a public career. A seat in Parliament or even a role in local politics as Mayor, Magistrate or High Sheriff would add to their respectability. William Paxton's public ambition was in measure with his ample fortune and we find him engaged in an attempt to gain a parliamentary seat at Newark-upon-Trent as early as 1790. Paxton expressed moderate views and a wish to enlist under the Duke of Portland's banner in Parliament. Paxton is reported to have spent prodigiously on his campaign before obtaining a majority of 74 votes. His opponents contested the election and as the commission enquiring into the merits of the contestants' cause found that Paxton had been somewhat too liberal with his money, he saw his right of election overturned and lost his seat.
Six years later the undaunted Paxton tried again to enter Parliament for Newark-upon-Trent. In his small diary for that year he wrote how he arrived at Newark ten days before the poll where he engaged in a sharp electioneering contest against Thomas Manners Sutton and Colonel Mark Wood. Despite his efforts and renewed expenses, Paxton "declined giving further trouble" after hearing the results of the first day of the poll and withdrew. Paxton's bids to enter Parliament for Newark ended with that attempt and he decided to turn his full attention to his political chances in Carmarthenshire.
§ 1: The 1802 election
Paxton applied to be admitted a burgess of the Carmarthen borough in September 1793. The condition for being admitted as burgess was having been in the possession, for a period of three years at least, of an estate producing at least four pounds per annum situated within the borough of Carmarthen. Paxton's application at this date confirms the approximate date of his acquisition of the estate, often given as 1789. On 30 September 1793, the Mayor and burgesses of Carmarthen, assembled at the Guildhall, decided that William Paxton would be admitted a burgess of the borough. This new and ample-pursed burgess decided to take his "chance of what may turn up in the political way" during the 1802 elections for the Carmarthen county seat by proposing his candidature for the Blue (Whig) interest. The 1802 Carmarthen county elections would be the most bitterly contested in the history of Carmarthenshire.
Paxton's opponent defending the Red (Tory) cause was James Hamlyn Williams, son of the sitting member for the county Sir James Hamlyn Williams. Williams had a relative advantage over Paxton being a native Welshman with an established faction of supporters. Paxton, however, had something to offset Williams' local influence: money. Elections in those days were rarely fought over social or economic issues and were even less marked by the scrupulous behaviour of the candidates. Allegiance among the electorate was encouraged with treats and entertainment and those with ample purses could thus enhance their chances. Outright bribery was forbidden but treating the electorate royally before conducting them to the polling booths was common practice. Since countering Williams' local influence was not to be taken lightly, Paxton decided to spare himself neither trouble nor cost. Paxton treated the voters very liberally, obliging Williams to do the same. Polling started at Llandeilo on Saturday 17th July. Despite his prodigious spending, Paxton was outdistanced by 139 votes after the close of the first day polling. He decided to double his efforts and during the following fourteen days polling, Paxton mobilised every carriage and horse in county he could muster to bring his voters to Llandeilo. Those were golden days for the ale-house and innkeepers of Llandeilo as Paxton’s liberality knew no bounds while Williams had to follow suit gnashing his teeth and privately cursing Paxton's "Indian" purse.
The bill Paxton was presented with after the election was enormous. Among the items were 11,070 breakfasts, 36,901 dinners, 25,275 gallons of ale, 11,068 bottles of spirits and the remarkable amount of £768 spent on blue ribbons. Paxton paid without flinching though it is said that upon finding the bill of one of the ale-house keepers to be grossly exaggerated he had had the man’s cellars measured and paid for as much as they would hold. The total bill amounted to £15,690, an enormous sum that would have allowed many a modestly successful shopkeeper to live the rest of his life in happy retirement. The bills submitted to James Hamlyn Williams were lower, but must have represented a far greater drain on his personal wealth. His 1802 "Llandeilo bills" amounted to £9,340. The highest bills were presented by John Jones of the King's Head and Mrs Unwin of the George who charged him for £1,548 and £1,883 respectively. Williams, however, opposed all the bills and made a point of looking into their individual merits. In the end he paid £6,235, thus allowing about two thirds of what he had initially been charged. Williams, being of local origin, must have had a fairly good idea of the extent to which a bill was justified. We can therefore obtain some insight into the extent to which some of the ale-housekeepers sought to profiteer from such bitterly contested elections by comparing the original bills with the amounts Williams finally paid. John Jones of the King's Head was eventually paid £1,000 out of the £1,548 he had asked for while out of the £896 a certain M. Anthony of the 6 Bells had charged Williams, only £330 was judged by the latter to be justified.
The polling booths closed on Tuesday 3rd August, after the fifteenth day of the poll. Sheriff Thomas Owen announced the results; William Paxton, 1221 votes, against James Hamlyn Williams, 1267 votes. Williams had won by a majority of 46 votes. As was often the case in such hard-fought elections, the outcome was contested by the losing party. Paxton claimed that sheriff Thomas Owen had shown great partiality in Williams' favour. He particularly complained about the 123 votes that had been laid aside after their validity had been queried by Williams and which had been completely ignored by the sheriff in his calculation of the final outcome. Paxton immediately announced that he would address a petition to Parliament trying to overturn Williams' right of election on those grounds. An enthusiastic supporter of the Blue interest wrote a letter about the events of the day to The Times:
"After the sheriff had declared the numbers, Mr. Williams' chair was brought to the hustings15. It looked like a cradle set upright, with a few red ribbons sparingly put about it. ... Soon after, Mr. Paxton's chair was seen, a very elegant thing covered with sky-blue satin and decorated with oak leaves, gilt at the tops, and blue streamers very tastefully displayed. ... Scarcely had Mr. Paxton finished what he had to say to the electors 'ere he was seated in it and borne triumphantly through the town. ... After riding through the town, he was lodged ... in a house of his own ['Belle-Vue', a house still standing on Bank Buildings]. .. He had not distributed all the silver usually thrown among the people upon these occasions but had left about ten pounds worth in a bag in the chair, the honest Welshmen brought it safe into the house after him, which [silver] he then threw from the windows among them. Above an hour elapsed before Mr. Williams ventured into his chair ... and stole off across the churchyard to the house of an agent ... and then, with his father and a few friends, beat the retreat through a back-door. .. The men who carried him, as soon as he was housed, broke the chair to pieces .. a piece of it hit a Blue who stood near ...; immediately a violent conflict ensued, broken heads became the order of the day and the red colour was seen streaming for a time".
Our Blue spectator continues by describing a dinner at The Bear that night given by Paxton's friends for 150 of the principal gentlemen and freeholders of the county. Its participants appeared not in the least down-cast by the defeat, so confident were they that the election was void and that their candidate would ultimately be seated. Paxton himself was convinced of the tricks Williams and the sheriff had played on him but was aware that his liberality during the election contest could influence matters to his disadvantage. His plan was to submit a petition and await the opinion of the committee of MP's that would be appointed to judge the merits of it. He trusted that if the committee was on his side, Williams would not enter upon a defence of his election for the sheer cost he would thereby incur. Should it turn out "as clear as the day that the election must be void", he asked his friend David Williams, "must he not be a madman to injure his family so materially as a defence must do"? Paxton thus hoped that his fortune, or rather James Hamlyn Williams' lack of it, would in the end decide in his favour.
The committee of MP's appointed to try the merits of the petition comprised Paxton's business partner Charles Cockerell, who had just entered Parliament for Tregony, among its fifteen members. But circumstances would make Paxton and his counsellors decide to decline prosecuting their petition shortly afterwards. They had based their plea on the supposed partiality or even venality of the sheriff and upon an eventual reassessment of the votes, this time taking those that had been laid aside into account. However, their complaint against the sheriff proved unsuccessful and the reassessment of the votes in the manner they proposed was disapproved of. Paxton and his counsellors now judged that the grounds upon which they were to continue their cause against Williams would inevitably lead to "a length of discussion of which it was impossible to form any calculation". Under such circumstances, they said, even "the best cause might be defeated". Therefore, on 5 April 1803, Paxton declared that he was giving up the prosecution of his petition against his opponent. Two days later the committee declared the election valid and James Hamlyn Williams as duly elected.
§ 2: A seat and a knighthood
Those who had thought, or wished, that Paxton's public ambitions would have cooled off somewhat after his expensive defeat in the 1802 Carmarthenshire elections, were very much mistaken. Only two months after the polling booths had been taken down at Llandeilo, William Paxton had submitted his candidature for the office of Mayor of Carmarthen and was duly elected by its burgesses on 4 October 1802. Soon after his election Paxton returned to London and it was deputy Mayor John Morgan Junior who presided over the town council meetings. Some of Paxton's old friends and clients from Bengal had meanwhile entered Parliament and some of the clients of his London bank were men of considerable political influence. Paxton, therefore, even without himself occupying a seat in the Commons, had some influence to wield in the higher circles at Westminster. He decided to show himself to be of some use to Carmarthen in a political way by lobbying for two Acts of Parliament: One for watering the town of Carmarthen and the other to raise a Carmarthen volunteer corps. He also made sure of putting his connections to his own private advantage and was knighted at St. James’ Palace in March 1803.
In July William Paxton returned to Carmarthen as Sir William Paxton and, presiding over the town council as Mayor on 5 July 1803, proposed a plan for watering the town. The technical details had been worked out by James Grier and it consisted of the fitting of iron pipes to convey water to different points and houses in the town, no doubt according to ideas and techniques already in use at Middleton Hall.16 His plan was adopted by the burgesses who raised money for the realisation of the plan by mortgaging the Corporation's lands. There is little doubt that Paxton, in his private capacity or as a banker, was of at least some help in financing the project.
A month later we find Sir William Paxton presiding over a meeting at the Carmarthen Guildhall deciding the particulars regarding the formation a Volunteer Corps to be called the "Loyal Carmarthen Volunteers". This body of volunteers was to provide, according to an Act of Parliament passed that year, an additional force for the defence of the country during the wars against Napoleon. The fear of a French invasion was not wholly unfounded and in addressing the newly formed corps of volunteers, Paxton expressed his view that, "without pretending to discover the designs and plans of the present ruler of France", he thought it highly probable that the latter still harboured an intention to invade the country. Paxton himself was appointed commanding officer with the rank of Colonel. A list of officers to be appointed represented all the noteworthy families in the shire whilst David Williams, Paxton's Welsh friend from Bengal, was to be quarter-master. The company would eventually be named the Third Battalion of Carmarthenshire Volunteers. Lady Ann Paxton herself made the battalion's colours, embroidering them with their valiant motto: "Liberty or Death".17
In watering the town of Carmarthen and in working for the formation of a Carmarthenshire volunteer corps, Paxton proved that his London connections could be of some worth to his Carmarthenshire friends. At the same time he shew an interest in the welfare of the Carmarthen populace and indulged Welsh nationalist feelings. No doubt his efforts served to make him an acceptable political candidate. What Paxton needed most of all to succeed in gaining entry to Parliament was friends among the influential local gentry. He found such a friend in John George Philipps of Cwmgwili, the sitting MP for the borough of Carmarthen, who had supported Paxton during the 1802 elections against Hamlyn Williams. In December that same year, William Paxton made use of his connections in naval circles by obtaining a letter of introduction to Horatio Nelson for Philipps' son, written by an intimate friend of the Admiral. Paxton's intervention had its effect and the young Philipps would later take pride in describing Nelson as "my illustrious commander".
All Paxton's troubles were finally rewarded when in December 1803 the heads of the Blue party met in Carmarthen. John George Philipps had informed his borough constituency that he intended to resign his seat in Parliament in favour of Sir William Paxton. The Blue party meeting endorsed Philipps' wishes and William Paxton thus entered Parliament representing the borough of Carmarthen.
§ 3: Paxton in Parliament
Bearing the 1802 Carmarthen county elections in mind, it is hardly surprising that in Paxton's time Parliament did not represent the majority of the people but just the influential and above all wealthy upper crust of British society. This restricted basis meant that there was not yet a clear division of Parliament on political grounds. Members of Parliament were grouped in unstable 'factions', 'connections' and 'interests', bound together by the web of patronage. Factions and connections were built up around prominent politicians who could offer favours to their 'friends' in exchange for their support in Parliament. Interests like the landed interest, the East India interest or the City interest cut across connections and factions and created other alignments. John George Philipps was kept well informed by Paxton about his manoeuvres in parliamentary circles. One of Paxton’s letters to Philipps has survived and is kept in the Carmarthen Record Office. It provides us with an insider’s view of the workings of eighteenth-century politics and informs us about the stance Paxton took in the web of interests, factions and connections at Westminster. Paxton writes: "I shall take care to have good information of what is going on in the councils of the different parties. My own line of conduct is this - I show myself everywhere but make no advances or seem at all anxious for introductions to the heads of any of them. ... I suppose I am considered a friend to the present administration and in point of fact it is seldom that I vote against it".
This conduct suited Paxton's character perfectly. He was not much given to strong ideas and had expressed moderate political views even when contesting the Newark seat. The experienced commercial agent from Bengal, now a banker in London, had learned that strong opinions could be bad for business. Extreme views could alienate or frighten clients or even worse, could be held against him under changed circumstances. As early as 1784, his Calcutta client Joseph Fowke had noticed this trait in Paxton's character. He wrote to his son how Paxton always gave him to understand that "things were in train and that there would be no difficulty" but that he suspected Paxton to have "some slyness in his nature". Fowke even described him as cunning and capable of roguery. Though Paxton preferred dealing with problems through negotiation, he was not a man to refrain from taking decisive action to defend his own and his clients' interests when no other solution was available.18 In Parliament, however, Paxton made no particular mark apart from his sponsorship of bills of local importance in Carmarthenshire. Given his non-committal conduct described in his letter to Philipps, this is hardly surprising.
In 1806, Paxton transferred himself unopposed to the county seat as James Hamlyn Williams had decided to refrain from yet another ruinous contest against his 'Indian' pursed opponent. But the new ministry under Grenville was dismissed only a year later and new elections followed. Paxton's opponents now joined forces and launched a fully-fledged smear campaign against him. Pamphlets were published in Carmarthen laying heavy emphasis on Paxton being a stranger to the land, and a Scotsman at that, accusing him of Catholic sympathies which, at that time of war against France, was virtually equivalent to being called an enemy of the nation.19 At the same time, they convinced the rich owner of Taliaris, Lord Robert Seymour, to take up the contest in their interest against Paxton. On his own part, Paxton may not have been active enough in canvassing for support among the electors perhaps tired of electioneering again after so short an interval or, as Lord Cawdor expressed it, "from too great confidence" in his chances. Polling started at Llandeilo on 12 May 1807. Two days later, Sir John Stepney, a man commanding an important number of votes and on whose support Paxton had counted, declared himself on Lord Seymour's side. Knowing that his chances of winning had thus been spoiled, Paxton withdrew from the context the following day complaining of the smear campaign against him and of being betrayed by false friends. Justified as Paxton's complaints may have been, his losing the 1807 county elections ended his parliamentary career. Fourteen years later, the seventy-seven-year-old Paxton agreed to stand for the borough of Carmarthen again but failed to obtain a majority for the Whig interest.
Paxton had lost his heart to Carmarthenshire but had not been able to win enough Carmarthenshire hearts to secure him a stable political career. His Scottish birth remained a handicap while his 'Indian' purse aroused the envy of his gentry neighbours. This envy was further increased by his constant readiness to spend lavishly on schemes of public improvement.
V: PAXTON THE IMPROVER
"Wherever the genius of public improvement showed herself, Sir William Paxton was one of her readiest and most efficient supporters: blessed with pecuniary resources the most ample, he employed them in a manner equally beneficial to the country and creditable to his humane and liberal disposition".
Paxton was involved with or had his money invested in a great many improvement schemes in the South Wales area. His wealth was well-known in the region and those planning to undertake building roads, canals, bridges or theatres would always have called on Paxton to request his support. He rarely refused his aid or declined to open his purse and while he owned Middleton Hall, there hardly was a project in Carmarthenshire in which he was not somehow involved. It may seem strange today, at a time when such matters are often taken in hand by an 'impersonal' institution referred to as the 'State', to see a man bestow his money so freely on schemes of public improvement. But two centuries ago, society expected great landowners to “care” for the community of which they formed the apex both in terms of wealth and political power. This “care” attested to a landowner's moral worth and expressed itself in the financing of schemes for the public good. Evidently they also fortified a man's political interest and it is certainly not surprising to find Paxton busily engaged in such projects around the time he represented the borough and the county of Carmarthen in Parliament.
It should be noted here to Paxton's credit that his political defeat in 1807 did not spell the end of his readiness to give his support to many more public development projects. Some of these schemes were not made entirely without hope of making a profit out of his investment. This was notably the case at Tenby where he was at the origin of a great number of improvements discussed below. However, he subscribed to other schemes knowing that the chance of retrieving the investment was minimal, and some donations were of a purely charitable nature such as the establishment of a charity school at Llanarthne for the education of the children of the poor.
§ 1: Roads, bridges and canals
It was three years after he had bought the Middleton Hall estate and even before work had begun on S.P. Cockerell's new mansion that Paxton's career as public improver started as main sponsor of the Three Commotts Trust. This turnpike trust undertook to build a main stretch of road running from Llandeilo to Carmarthen south of the river Tywi, passing Lord Cawdor's Golden Grove and Paxton's own Middleton Hall.20 Landowners often invested in turnpike trusts partly for the public good and partly because the proximity of good roads enhanced the value of their estates. They were seldom good investments in their own right and in 1844 we find the Three Commotts Trust in arrears of interest amounting to £15,349.
In promoting this, the very first of his projects of local improvement, Paxton also made his first enemies among the Carmarthenshire gentry. An angry Richard Thomas wrote to John George Philipps: "I understand the road is to please Paxton, if so, Paxton don't please me". The original scheme included the building of two bridges, one at Dryslwyn and another near Golden Grove. Once those bridges would have been built, at least a part of the new road planned by the Three Commotts Trust would compete with the existing road north of the Tywi.21 This was bad news for the gentlemen who had invested money in the trust which operated the north road and it was their influence which made the local magistrates prevent Paxton from building the planned bridge near Dryslwyn. But it was surely not just the fear of a reduced revenue from their investment in turnpike trusts that provoked some of the local gentry's opposition. Paxton's public spending aroused the resentment of his less wealthy neighbours who feared being eclipsed from local politics by the sheer strength of Paxton's purse.
In 1809, two engineers proposed a plan to improve Kidwelly harbour and lay-out a canal system the length of the Gwendraeth valley and through Pembrey to Llanelli. Coal was mined in the Gwendreath valley and a good transport system of canals and railways was necessary to bring this heavy commodity down to Kidwelly and Llanelli. The engineers brought the plan to the knowledge of Sir William Paxton and Lord Cawdor who were both enthusiastic and promised their support. The Act of Parliament necessary for executing the plan was obtained in 1812 and created the "Kidwelly and Llanelly Canal and Tramroad Company". Paxton was among the principal subscribers. He had also subscribed to a plan improving the Llanelli docks but this design was abandoned and in the administration of William Paxton's estate this debt, together with the money owed him by the Three Commotts Trust, was listed as doubtful.
§ 2: Tenby
It would be all too easy to imagine nowadays that Paxton was bound to be charmed by the old walled town of Tenby, situated as it is on a cliff looking out over two splendid beaches. This lively and bustling seaside resort has a mild climate and offers all the facilities necessary for the comfort and pleasure of passing tourists. However, things were somewhat different when Paxton first saw the town. Once a thriving sea port, Tenby had been on the decline ever since seven years of civil war between 1642 and 1649, followed by a plague epidemic a year later, had killed half its population and seriously impaired its trade. Sieges and the plague had severed Tenby's sea-borne trading links. Bereft of this trade, the town was abandoned by many of the merchants and it slid inexorably into further decay and ruin. By the end of the eighteenth century the visiting John Wesley noted how two-thirds of the old town was in ruins or had entirely vanished. Pigs roamed among the abandoned houses and Tenby presented a dismal spectacle.
With the dawn of a new century things were looking up for Tenby. Napoleon prevented fashionable society from touring the continent and obliged them to look to destinations closer to home for diversion. Spas and sea-bathing being all of the rage, Tenby suddenly attracted the interest of the wealthier members of society. William Paxton with his taste for sea-bathing and despite the ruinous outlook of the town was quick to realise that it had possibilities. In 1802 Paxton bought his first property in Tenby and started preparing his plans to develop the town. He wrote to his friend David Williams: "I am glad to find I have been so lucky in my purchases. ... The Tenby lot pleases me most and if, on view, it answers my expectations I may probably lay out some thousands in building lodging houses etc. which being much wanted, may be of some benefit to the place". Tenby needed proper lodgings and conveniences to attract visitors with finer tastes and Paxton did not hesitate to begin providing them. In 1805 he informed the Town Council of his plans for building a bath-house and was granted "a lease of two cellars and gardens lying in a street called Laston" for that purpose. The Town Council was greatly pleased with the plans of this rich entrepreneur and presented him with the freedom of Tenby.
Having been greatly satisfied by the results of their co-operation in the building of Middleton Hall, Paxton commissioned his engineer James Grier and Samuel Pepys Cockerell to design and build a fashionable bathing establishment suitable for the highest society. The work on the building began in the first week of July 1806. The Cambrian reported how the works, carried on "at the sole expense of Sir William Paxton", were advancing rapidly employing a great number of workmen. The following January, the Town Council allowed Paxton "to dig clay to make bricks for his own use in erecting buildings in Tenby". Evidently Paxton had great plans and indeed the bath house was not the only building he was erecting in Tenby. He had also acquired the Globe Inn and was transforming it into "a most lofty, elegant and convenient style" to lodge the more elegant visitors to his baths. Cottages were erected adjoining the baths and on several other locations in the town to receive more visitors, while conveniences such as livery stables and a coach house were constructed to make Tenby comfortable even for the most exacting company. A road built on arches overlooking the Tenby harbour was built at Paxton's expense in 1814. Apart from providing a good approach to his bath house, it allowed the clientele of that establishment to observe the activity in the harbour without having to mix with the workmen and the public.
The supply of fresh water had long since been a problem in Tenby. Knowing that a good supply of fresh water was an absolute necessity if the town was to become acceptable as a fashionable sea resort, Paxton undertook to water Tenby by the same means that he had used in Carmarthen. Iron pipes would bring the water from a reservoir to the centre of town and it was no doubt Grier who was commissioned for the implementation of the scheme. The bath house was finished early in 1809 as was the street leading to it, which was widened and improved to allow for the passage of coaches and carriages. All was ready for start of the bathing season that year. The establishment was truly intended for fine company. It was equipped with a handsome assembly room commanding a view of the sea and harbour and a spacious vestibule "for servants and attendants on the bathers to wait in without mixing with the company". Its front entrance was adorned with a quotation from Euripides' "Iphigenia in Tauris" which, translated, still reads; "All man's pollution does the sea cleanse". But Tenby and Paxton experienced a serious setback when in July the baths were considerably damaged by fire. The day after the fire an advertisement announced that repairs would be undertaken forthwith and that the disappointment of the public would not be of long duration. Paxton kept his promise and before the start of the bathing season the following year the baths were rebuilt and ready to receive guests.
The bath house was in fact not only a fancy establishment built by a much respected architect to receive the best company, it was also a remarkable feat of engineering. The top floor was on street level and contained the elegant assembly room, a bar, the vestibule mentioned above and two bedrooms for those who were too infirm to be lodged in the town of Tenby. One floor down were three hot baths with attached dressing rooms, a pump room, a vapour bath and a shower bath. The hot baths were fed by a water-tank placed under the vestibule where the water was heated by a furnace. The bottom floor was fitted out with two cold plunging baths, one for the ladies and the other for gentlemen. Four private baths with attached heated dressing rooms were available for those wishing to bathe in the most exclusive privacy. This floor was below the level of high tide and the baths were fed by sea water from a large reservoir that was refilled with every new high tide. The waste water from the baths was piped into two large basins on either side of the reservoir which were emptied at low tide. The whole system had been thought out by Paxton's engineer James Grier who once again proved himself to possess impressive technical ability.
William Paxton well understood that providing lodgings, stables and baths was not enough to make Tenby attractive to the rich and famous he hoped to receive there. The company had to be amused and diverted and it was for this reason that Paxton proposed building a theatre. In September 1809 permission was granted by the Town Council for the execution of the scheme and the first stone was laid five months later by Tenby's mayor John Griffiths. Three former members of the Bath theatre were employed to direct the scheme. The theatre opened in the first week of August with a comedy named "The Wonder" and a farce titled "The Poor Soldier". But theatre in Tenby did not take off and in 1818 the Town Council was forced to conclude that the theatre had proved to be unproductive to its subscribers "and of no real benefit to the town" (in Paxton's time, theatres were often associated with pleasures other than just the enjoyment of a good play. Its presence in Tenby had probably called forth resistance from amongst the local population). Paxton gallantly reimbursed the other subscribers and agreed to convert the theatre "into an unobjectionable building".
The eighteenth-century wealthy visitor enjoyed touring and Paxton had to think of other attractions in the vicinity of Tenby that could provide outings for Tenby’s visitors. It was in this context that Paxton made sure that the discovery of chalybeate springs in his own park at Middleton Hall was well publicised. He had the waters analysed and invited two well known doctors to look at the results and comment on the water's medicinal virtues. Paxton took care that the results of the analysis and the opinions of the respected physicians were published as widely as possible and it is no coincidence that we find them commented upon in various local newspapers, guides and travel accounts. The two bath houses built in the park were not just intended for the comfort of the family but also to provide every convenience for passing tourists hoping to find diversion or benefit in visiting Paxton's Llanarthne spa. The tower now known as Paxton's tower was erected around this time. One of the reasons for its construction was to add yet another attraction to his estate to charm his travelling guests.
The Cold Blow Inn, situated near Narberth on the road from Carmarthen to Haverfordwest, was another of Paxton's establishments fitted out to accommodate travellers and his readiness to subscribe to a scheme "for creating rooms in Swansea for the general resort of those who may frequent that place in the summer season" also fits in with his ideas for the region. It is highly likely that Paxton also sponsored the very first guide to Tenby appearing in 1810 under the title: "The Tenby guide; Comprehending such information relative to that town and its vicinity as could be comprehended from ancient and modern authorities". Paxton's efforts to make Tenby and its vicinity an eligible destination for the travelling rich were successful. Initially helped by the Napoleonic wars, he succeeded in creating a reputation for Tenby that survived Waterloo. He had given the development of Tenby such momentum that it had become unstoppable. It can therefore truly be said that Tenby owes its regained prosperity of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries primarily to the initial vision and exertions of William Paxton.
VI: PAXTON'S TOWER
Paxton’s Tower is undoubtedly the most conspicuous landmark of the Tywi valley near Llanarthne. It has looked down upon the inhabitants of the parish of Llantharne from its commanding position for almost two centuries and it is hardly surprising that it features prominently in local folklore. The visiting tourist who has an interest in the tower will need to use very little persuasion to prompt those living in its shadow to tell several stories about the tower and its builder. Most prominent amongst these stories is that Paxton had promised the inhabitants of the valley that he would build a bridge across the Tywi if they voted for him in the 1802 elections. When the voters, despite this promise, preferred his opponent, it is said that Paxton built the tower with the money and material he had laid aside for the bridge. It is for this reason that the tower is sometimes called the 'tower of spite'. Some add that it was said after the elections that Paxton had been ruined by the expense and that to silence such rumours he erected the tower as a prominent sign of his enduring wealth. Another story has it that Paxton had the tower built only to see his favourite horses race from Tenby to Middleton Hall. A claim that five counties can be seen from its roof is, even allowing for an exceptionally clear day, an exaggeration. However, the view the tower offers over the surrounding countryside does not need the slightest exaggeration for it is breathtaking enough as it is.
As the reader of the preceding pages will have noticed, most of the stories about the tower contain some elements linked to reality, even if in a distorted manner. Paxton indeed lost the 1802 elections after spending a considerable sum but had not yet given up hope of gaining his seat by contesting the validity of the outcome of the poll. Paxton's political ambitions were still very much alive and to slight the Carmarthen electors would be political suicide. Paxton's proposal to build a bridge across the Tywi near Dryslwyn also rests on truth but it was not just an election promise. The Dryslwyn bridge was part of a much larger scheme involving the building of a new stretch of road between Llandeilo and Carmarthen, undertaken by the Three Commotts turnpike trust of which Paxton was the main sponsor. Paxton was prevented from building his bridge by hostile feelings among the local gentry and he had neither reason nor intention to build his tower to snub the Carmarthen electorate.
Two questions thus remain open: why did Paxton build his tower, and exactly when? There are several answers to the first question and only an approximate one to the second. Paxton's tower was not unique at the time it was built. Similar buildings had been erected for example near Coventry and near Doddiscombsleigh some years earlier.22 Such monumental 'follies', as they are called, were built to embellish an estate and their function was exclusively or mainly decorative. Such motives also lay at the root of Paxton's decision to build his tower. The battlemented parapets of the tower enhanced the 'picturesque' effect of the view stretching out from the east side of his mansion while the tower itself offered a magnificent view over the Tywi valley on one side and over his own estate on the other.
The immediate inspiration for building the tower was probably provided by Nelson's heroic death at Trafalgar.23 Paxton had spent the most formative years of his youth in the navy and he greatly admired the Admiral. There is evidence that Paxton still kept in contact with high naval officers and it is possible that he had personally met Nelson during the latter's tour through South Wales in the summer of 1802. Paxton dedicated the tower to the Admiral and originally the tower was named Nelson's tower. One of the windows in the banqueting room which occupied the first storey displayed three panels of painted glass, the middle one a portrait of Nelson. These panels are now kept in the Carmarthen Museum. A marble tablet was fixed over each of the three entrances displaying the following text in Welsh, Latin and in English:
"To the invincible commander ,Viscount Nelson, in commemoration of deeds most brilliantly achieved at the mouth of the Nile, before the walls of Copenhagen and on the shores of Spain; of the empire everywhere maintained by him over the sea; and of the death while in the fullness of his own glory, though untimely for his own country and Europe, conquering he died; this tower was erected by William Paxton".
But yet another consideration must have played a role in determining the actual design of the tower's interior. We have seen how Paxton's ideas for the development of Tenby as a fashionable seaside resort were complemented by his plans for Middleton Hall. The bath houses built on the estate were equipped with all facilities to make them proper for the use of gentlemen and their families touring in South Wales. The tower, offering a delightful vantage point, provided them with an additional attraction and the fact that it originally contained a banqueting room on the first storey and a prospect room on the second enhances the impression that this consideration influenced the plan.
The approximate time of its construction adds credibility to the idea that Paxton also intended his tower to be an attraction for passing visitors. The tower itself bears no date of construction and we have to go by an eye-witness account to date the building. We know that Richard Fenton climbed it in the company of "two young Mr. Paxtons" in 1809. This puts the time of its construction, allowing for some time to elapse between Nelson's death and the construction of the tower, at between 1806 and 1809. We also know that the tower was built to the design of Samuel Pepys Cockerell, the architect of Middleton Hall, who was at that very moment building Paxton's bath house at Tenby. It is very likely that the tower and the bath house were ordered and constructed at the same time, enabling Cockerell to make the most of his time in Wales co-ordinating the supervision of the construction of both buildings.
In the design of the tower Cockerell was undoubtedly influenced by his friends and prophets of the "Picturesque" Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight. The Picturesque movement gave impetus to the Romantic influence within Neo-classicism which led to a style of building with battlements often called "Gothic". It was under this term that the tower was described in the Middleton Hall sale catalogue made up shortly after William Paxton's death in 1824. The catalogue describes how the three arches on the ground floor were "for the admission of carriages". The first floor contained the banqueting room "with gothic ceiling" as well as a closet and a boudoir. The latter two rooms were built into two of the three towers at the corners of the triangular structure, the third tower containing the stairs. Over the banqueting room, contained in a hexagonal tower rising above the three corner towers, was the prospect room, the windows of which are of now mortared up. The leaded roof of the hexagonal middle tower was also accessible, allowing an unobstructed view of the surrounding countryside.
The tower was sadly neglected after Paxton's death. In 1965 it was struck by lightning which virtually destroyed one of its corner-towers. That same year the tower was given to the National Trust who undertook its repair four years later. The tower is now open again to visitors who wish to enjoy the magnificent view it still offers over the Carmarthenshire of which Paxton had grown so fond. Without any doubt he would have been delighted to know that two centuries after its construction his tower would still receive the admirers of an incomparable view for whose benefit it was built.
VII: MIDDLETON HALL AFTER PAXTON
On Tuesday night 10 February 1824, the eighty-year-old Sir William Paxton died after a few days’ illness at his London residence on Piccadilly. The Cambrian newspaper inserted a rather lengthy notice stating "that no loss has ever been more extensively and severely felt than will be that of this benevolent and public spirited individual. Wherever the genius of public improvement showed herself, Sir W. Paxton was one of her readiest and most efficient supporters: blessed with pecuniary resources the most ample, he employed them in a manner equally beneficial to the country and creditable to his humane and liberal disposition. ... Indeed, we may truly say, "take him for all in all, we shall not look upon his like again". A week later he was buried in the catacombs of St. Martin in the Fields where a plaque on the wall still records the event. Another plaque to his memory can be seen in the Llanarthne parish church, where it was erected after the death of his wife in December 1846 by their surviving children.
Blessed with five daughters and six sons, Paxton provided for every one of them in an equal manner after his death. All his effects and landed property were to be sold by his executors and the produce to be divided among his legal offspring. His wife and natural daughter Eliza were well provided for in a different manner and donations were made to several other members of the family and to a number of charitable institutions. Middleton Hall was thus put up for sale and sold to Edward Hamlin Adams for £54,700. Adams was a Jamaican-born West India merchant of considerable fortune who, at the time of the purchase, had returned to Britain and lived in Bath. With the change of proprietors, the glory days of particularly Middleton Hall park were over. Adams did not experience the same pleasure in developing the estate as Paxton and cared little for the optic beauty of the park. The bath houses soon fell into disrepair and even the sturdy tower suffered. Only the gardens in the immediate proximity of the mansion were kept up.
Adams, however, made some additions to the mansion and added several other buildings on the estate. In 1842 the estate passed into the hands of his son Edward who had changed his name from Adams into a more Welsh form of his name, Abadam. Edward Abadam was an eccentric who knew little or nothing of the business of running an estate, hated farming and according to his estate manager Thomas Cooke was nothing short of a social nightmare. Middleton Hall park suffered even more under his ownership which ended at his death in 1875. Edward's sons had predeceased him and the estate was inherited by his daughter Adah who married into the Hughes family. In 1919 the estate changed hands once more when Major William J. H. Hughes sold it to Colonel William N. Jones.
In 1931, the mansion was gutted by a disastrous fire. Harold Davies, a layman of the Llanarthne parish church who assisted at the fire as a youth, remembers how the blaze melted the lead on the roof causing it to trickle down along the walls. Twenty years later the unroofed walls were pulled down thus erasing the last vestiges of S.P. Cockerell's proud mansion for William Paxton.
For some years this was the end of the story of Middleton Hall. The site of William Paxton's once splendid park was acquired by the Carmarthen County Council and parts of it were leased to young farmers hoping to make their way into an agricultural career. The artificial lakes disappeared with the ruin of the dams and sluices which had ensured their existence and only a part of what was once the largest lake survived. The site of the chalybeate spring and the ruins of what had once been one of Paxton's bath houses were quite forgotten except by some locals with a taste for a good walk in the woods. It needed a truly experienced eye to discern still the underlying structure of Paxton's park and to imagine its bygone charm and beauty.
By 1978 interest in the Middleton Hall estate and its history had renewed and a scheme was set up to restore some parts of the park and make them accessible to the general public. The funds available for the project were limited but it led to the rediscovery of a number of historical features of the park and garden revealing a glimpse of its forgotten splendour. But it was not until the early nineties that the real 'renaissance' of Middleton Hall slowly took shape. It was the artist William Wilkins who, caught like his namesake William Paxton by the beauty of the spot, first appreciated its full potential and conceived the idea of constructing a botanic garden on the site of Paxton's park. Over the years his idea took an increasingly definite shape and sponsors were sought to provide the funds. The grant of the Millennium Commission finally made the realisation of the National Botanic Garden of Wales possible on a scale of which even William Paxton would have been proud.
Virtually on the site of Cockerell's mansion, the Great Glasshouse now forms the centrepiece of the National Botanic Garden of Wales in the same way Paxton's Middleton Hall once formed the gem of his park. The spirit of Paxton's zest for up to date water management has been revived by the re-creation of the lakes and by the cascades ornamenting the western approach to the Glasshouse. The extraordinary view the east side of the mansion offered to its inhabitants and their guests has been restored and can be admired again by the visitors to the garden. This view, with Paxton's tower in the distance, is of great interest to all who wish to see and understand something of what the great landscape architects of the end of the eighteenth century understood by the word “Picturesque”. By taking a walk through the restored park, along Llyn Mawr through the Middleton woods to Llyn Felin-gat, visitors can imagine themselves to be the guests of Sir William as they enjoy the same beautiful views.
But the National Botanic Garden of Wales is much more than the reconstruction of Paxton's creation. It is to become a field leader in conservation and reproductive biology and uses the most innovative techniques in presenting knowledge about biological sciences to a public varying from school children to postgraduates. The National Botanic Garden of Wales will take Middleton Hall into the twenty-first century as one of the most magnificent gardens Europe has to offer and as a centre for biological research. Had Sir William Paxton known that his creation would finally become an attraction even beyond his own imagination, he would have been very well-pleased.
1 This sum represented a small fortune at the time.
2 The house can still be admired
3 East India Company politics in the 1760's were marked by a struggle for control of the Company between two factions, one headed by Laurence Sulivan the other by Lord Robert Clive.
4 An assayer establishes the intrinsic value of coins. Through a number of methods he measures the amount of precious metals different coins contain.
5 The sources are quite vague about the actual location of the old Middleton Hall. Thomas Rees stated in 1815 that the old Middleton Hall had been converted into a farmhouse. Other sources tell us that the old Hall stood within the confines of the park Paxton was to build on the estate. The only other substantial contemporary building within the park was Gorsddu, the estate's home farm occupied by Paxton's estate manager James Grier, which stood on the site of modern Gorswen. Another possible location is at some distance to the south east of Paxton's mansion. This would mean that Paxton had had the old mansion taken down, possibly using the stone for various other buildings he would later erect on his estate.
6 The exact sum Paxton paid for the estate is unknown. We do know, however, that the mortgages on the estate amounted to almost £37,000. The Paxton family sold the estate, enlarged and endowed with a new mansion, for £54,700 in 1824. This makes a sum of just over £40,000 an acceptable estimate.
7 His non-Welsh origins may explain a peculiar phrase in the obituary published in the Cambrian shortly after his death: It said that "He was, without appearing to be so, a poor man's friend". If Grier was of Scottish origin, he would have had difficulties communicating with the Welsh farmers and and other personnel working on the estate. This circumstance could easily have caused a mutual distrust between him and the people he managed.
8 See Chapter II, §3 (n) p. 18
9 A theodolite is a surveying instrument for measuring angles.
10 Repton made this remark while thinking of Sezincote, the seat of Samuel Pepys' brother Charles, where Samuel Pepys was responsible for both the very peculiar Indian-style mansion and much of the garden.
11 In 1794 Richard Payne Knight published "The landscape, a didactic poem". Uvedale Price published his "Essay on the Picturesque". It is interesting to note here that Samuel Pepys Cockerell was well acquainted with both Price and Payne Knight.
12 At one time the Company's resident at the court of the Nawab of Bengal
13 Gore Court, though much smaller than Middleton Hall, was also built of stuccoed brick along Neo-classical lines and adorned with an Ionic portico.
14 It should be remembered that William Paxton's brother Archibald was a much respected London wine-merchant. When after his death the contents of his cellars at Middleton Hall were sold, they contained more than 2400 bottles of old port, sherry, madeira and other wines.
15 Platform from which the candidates addressed the electors
16 Prior to Paxton's plan and innovations, water had been brought to town through wooden pipes. As late as 1788, we find the town council commissioning a certain William Phillips, pumpmaker, to take care of "the management of the water pipes of the Corporation for one whole year". Phillips would receive £12.12 for his trouble and undertook to find sufficient timber for carrying out his commission.
17 The colours were presented to the battalion on Monday 22nd April 1804 during what was described as an "impressive ceremony". Lady Ann Paxton presented the colours to her husband, Colonel of the 3rd battalion. Sir William made a speech and Colonel Stewart of His Majesty's troops inspected the volunteers. At night, the Paxtons gave an elegant ball lasting until five o'clock the following morning.
18 Evidence of this can be found in Paxton's letters to the Calcutta Council after the capture of the Dutch settlement at Chinsura by the British. Another example is Paxton taking a stance against the Directors of the Company over the question of allowing India built ships to come to Britain.
19 Candidate William Mansell published a pamphlet a week before polling started stating that his "principles were not of a popish tinge". Mansell even suggested that Paxton attended Catholic services every Sunday. An anonymous pamphlet published the same day described Paxton as a "Scotch herring, ... highly scented ... to those who have no objection to a popish flavor". Yet another pamphlet supposed that not even Paxton himself could "for a moment suppose that in a country, attached beyond measure to its ancient families and inhabitants, there can be the smallest real esteem for a stranger". If this was not enough, a fourth pamphlet announced: "He is a native of Scotland, he is a stranger in our country, he has always pursued his own aggrandizement, he has proved himself careless of the liberties and heedless of the interests of our native land. Our duty to our country demands that we should reject such a candidate". The writer concludes in bold: "Let no such man be trusted".
20 The present-day B4300
21 The present-day A40
22 Broadway tower near Coventry and the Haldon Belvedere (Lawrence Castle) near Doddiscombsleigh in Devvonshire. This last 'folly' had been erected in 1788 by another 'Nabob' Sir Robert Palk, former Governor of the Company's settlement at Madras, in honour of his friend Major Stringer Lawrence. Paxton's agency house in Bengal had taken care of the remittance to Europe of the fortune of Robert Palk's son, Robert Palk the younger, after the latter had died on his way home. William Paxton handled the payment of such remittances on the London side. It is possible that he visited the elder Palk at Haldon in the course of this business and saw the Haldon Belvedere on that occasion.
23 21 October 1805