Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Whitfield Hall & Waterloo (NY777564)

Whitfield Hall is a private mansion on the banks of the River West Allen, set against the rugged backdrop of the Pennine Hills. The estate has been in the hands of the Blackett and Ord (and Blackett-Ord!) families since the 12th century, and sprawls over a not inconsiderable 18,000 acres or so. The current (and very difficult to see) house was erected in 1785.

The old place is these days best remembered, perhaps, as the location of a rather special historical find made in 1900 when a cache of documentation was found stashed away in its attic: namely, the papers of one Thomas Creevey. Among the large collection of almost indecipherable paperwork was found a pointed account of the Battle of Waterloo by none other than the Duke of Wellington himself…

Creevey (1768-1838) was a Whig politician, and though not a wealthy man, was able to maintain an extraordinary network of high-flying contacts through the sheer force of his personality. Crucially, he kept journals, diaries and all of his correspondence – all of which was written in an open and wittily honest style. Though not all seem to have survived his death, enough found their way into the upper reaches of Whitfield Hall (via his step-daughter, Elizabeth Ord) to give us a fascinating glimpse into the political and social life of the late Georgian era – and all in a most outspoken manner!

Quite apart from his use of offensive nicknames for the leading figures of the day, his greatest ‘scoop’ was being the very first civilian to interview the Duke of Wellington after his famous victory at Waterloo. Creevey, finding himself quite by accident to be living on the doorstep of hostilities in what is now a corner of Belgium in June 1815, mixed with the gathering throng following the Iron Duke’s finest moment. ‘I saw the Duke alone at his window,’ wrote Creevey, ‘Upon his recognizing me, he immediately beckoned me to come up’ – where the great commander poured his heart out to his acquaintance:

It has been a damned serious business... Blucher and I have lost 30,000 men. It has been a damned nice* thing – the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life. … By God! I don't think it would have been done if I had not been there.

(*use of the word ‘nice’ is in the older sense of the word, meaning “uncertain or delicately balanced”, and has sometimes been paraphrased as “a damn close-run thing.”)

It wasn’t the only thing he said to him, but it has become the most oft-quoted – and wouldn’t have made it into the light of day at all but for an accidental find at Whitfield Hall a little over a century ago. The Creevey Papers, as they became known, were part-published in 1903, and the original collection is now held by Northumberland Archives.