Burnby Hall Gardens - special feature

Katharine Stewart.
Katharine Stewart.

In October 2016, an intrepid team of Garden Heritage Volunteers started working on various research projects connected with our three year Heritage Lottery Project at Burnby Hall Gardens. Geoff Sidwell has been busy researching the family of Katharine Stewart nee Priestman the wife of Major Percy Stewart and has found out some fascinating stories about her ancestors. Geoff shares his experiences and research with you below:

My family and I have been visiting Burnby Hall Gardens and Museum for over 40 years and have enjoyed strolling by the lakes and exploring the winding pathways.

Heritage volunteer Geoff Sidwell.

Heritage volunteer Geoff Sidwell.

Last year my wife and I joined a team of volunteers as part of the Heritage Lottery Project at Burnby Hall Gardens, which is funded in thanks to National Lottery Players.

As a group we were given a variety of different subjects, and I was asked to research the family background of the mistress of the Hall, Katharine Stewart née Priestman, as little was known of this private and enigmatic lady.

Much has been written about her husband, Percy Stewart and his noble ancestry, but little was known about Katharine and her family other than she was the daughter of a wealthy colliery owner from the North East and it was this wealth that funded the purchase of Burnby Hall, then Ivy Hall, in 1904.

Katharine was born in Benfieldside, County Durham in 1872. She was the youngest of six children born to Jonathan Priestman (1825-1888) and Lucy Ann Richardson (1829-1900), a devout Quaker family.

The women in wealthy Quaker families did not generally compete in the labour market but were well educated and often involved in the religious, philanthropic and social reform activities of the Quaker beliefs. Katharine was a good horsewoman and must have ridden with the Brae of Derwent Hunt where her brother Lewis Priestman was the Master Huntsman.

Percy and Katharine must have met while out riding as Percy recorded in his diaries how she had coached him in riding and tackling difficult fences.

In 1894 Katharine married James Albert Bridges at Lanchester where he was a curate at nearby Ryton-on-Tyne.

I could find no details of their courtship and it remains a question as to why she married outside of the Quaker religion. In days gone by this would have been unthinkable.

However, there appears to have been no family rift and Katharine still benefitted from the family fortune.

In 1896 Katharine and James moved to Goodmanham in the East Riding of Yorkshire, where he was rector of the parish. Unfortunately he died aged 34 on 14th August 1898. By this time Percy was a schoolmaster at Pocklington School, so I must assume they kept in contact and three years later, at the age of 29, Katharine married Percy at her family home in Shotley Bridge, near Durham on 29th April 1901.

The Priestmans did not originate from Durham. Their family can be traced through parish records to the late 1500s in Thornton-le-Dale near Pickering, North Yorkshire.

It was Katharine’s ancestor, John Priestman 1647-1712 who first became convinced of the Quaker principles and this has shaped the lives of the members of this influential family ever since.

A central theme of social reform and help for the less fortunate runs through the story of the Priestman family.

The Priestman’s trades were predominantly tanning leather and later corn milling.

The move from Yorkshire to Durham was made by Katharine’s grandfather, Jonathan Priestman (1787-1863), joining his cousin in Newcastle as a tanner.

Later he opened his own tannery and glue factory.

This was the age of the industrial revolution when industries would have needed leather for machinery belts, boots, aprons and saddlery so clearly an opportunity to make your fortune.

Katharine’s grandfather made a modest amount of money leaving his family something under £3,000 according to probate records.

It must have provided a stepping stone for his son, Katharine’s father, as he became a share holder in the Northumberland and Durham Bank.

Now we have a familiar story, a banking crisis. The bank closed its doors in 1857 with £2 million of debt with the largest debtor being the Derwent Iron Company.

The company, also consisting of several coal mines, was taken over and Katharine’s father became the Managing Director. He rescued the company becoming a colliery owner in the process and made his fortune. He left money in trust to provide Katharine with a substantial income however it was dependant on the continued success of the Priestman Collieries.

Percy and Katharine Stewart incurred heavy borrowing when purchasing land in Burnby and Hayton.

The mortgage placed a considerable strain on Katharine’s income from the Priestman Trust. The coal industry suffered from the strikes in 1920 and 1921 and then the General Strike in May 1926 reducing dividend payments.

It was followed by a prolonged global economic crisis from 1929 onwards. This hit the heavy industry of the North East causing high levels of unemployment and by 1931 coal production fell by 15%.

Faced with this financial situation, Katharine and Percy put their estate up for sale with the likely intention of moving to their properties in Florida.

Their properties were however hit by a severe hurricane in 1926 and their estate in Pocklington did not reach an acceptable asking price.

The sale of the whole estate was abandoned.

However parcels of land were sold piecemeal leaving the hall, lakes and woodland.

Percy and Katharine had agreed to bequeath the Hall and Gardens in trust to the people of Pocklington.

Katharine passed away in 1939, and on Percy’s death in 1962, according to their mutual agreement, the estate passed in trust to the town.

In the summer of 2018 we will be producing an in-depth history into the fascinating story of Katharine’s ancestors entitled “Burnby Hall and Gardens: Built on Coal and the Priestman Family Fortune”

This article was written as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded Project at Burnby Hall Gardens.