Your article: The amazing Mrs Stewart

Katharine and Percy Stewart outside Burnby Hall in 1914
Katharine and Percy Stewart outside Burnby Hall in 1914

The contribution to Pocklington made by Katharine Stewart, wife of Major Percy Marlborough Stewart, can often by overshadowed by her illustrious husband.

But, if it had it not been for her support, both personally and financially, Burnby Hall, its Gardens and Museum would never have existed as we know them today.

Born in 1872, Katharine Priestman was a member of a prominent Durham Quaker family who derived their substantial wealth from being colliery owners in that county. In 1894 she married the Reverend James Albert Bridges, a curate at Ryton, and they moved to the East Riding of Yorkshire two years later, residing at Goodmanham. Their marriage was short-lived however, with the Reverend Bridges dying, aged just 34, in 1898.

Through their joint equestrian interests, Katharine met Percy Marlborough Stewart, then a tutor at Pocklington School, and they married at Shotley Bridge in 1901.

Using the financial security that Katharine’s background brought to the marriage, they leased Ivy Hall in Pocklington and in 1904, for the benefit of her health, decided to remain in the town purchasing the house and renaming it Burnby Hall.

The Stewarts became actively involved in the local community with Katharine displaying her interest in horticulture by taking part in competitions as both an exhibitor and as a judge. She was also a keen amateur painter.

Mrs Stewart was also very supportive of her husband’s travelling activities and took an active role in his adventures, travelling with him on six of the eight world tours that he undertook between 1906 and 1926.

In August 1906, she narrowly avoided serious injury when she was the passenger in Percy’s steam-powered Chelmsford car which crashed on Sutton Bank, spending three weeks in hospital. She initially vowed never to drive in a car again, but quickly changed her mind and continued to accompany him on his many motoring journeys.

It is Katharine whom we are to thank for first introducing Hardy Water Lilies into the lakes at Burnby Hall. In 1935, she engaged Amos Perry, a prominent horticulturalist, to plant 50 varieties of Nymphaea (Hardy Water Lilies) in the lakes. The National Collection at Burnby Hall Gardens owes its origins to Katharine’s idea to plant these flowers in them, as they had originally been designed for Percy to fish in.

From very early in their marriage, both she and Percy decided that they would leave the Burnby Hall estate in trust to the people of Pocklington on their deaths. This, I think, is evidence of her strong Quaker upbringing and a desire by both her and Percy to leave something to others in return for the good life that they had enjoyed together.

In her later years, Katharine’s ill health meant that she became increasingly reclusive. Never someone to enjoy being photographed, there are very few pictures of her in existence. I’ve included one of these rare photographs in this article. It was taken by her brother-in-law Herbert Stewart in 1914, and she doesn’t look all that happy to be featured in it!

Katharine died of a stroke in April 1939 and is buried with Percy Stewart at Hayton.

In a letter from Percy, only to be opened in the event of his pre-deceasing her, he wrote: “I want to tell you once more how happy I have been with you and what a great wife and good comrade you have been to me…”

It took both Katharine and Percy to create Burnby Hall and its fantastic Gardens. Without their generosity and foresight there would have been no Burnby Hall, no Burnby Hall Gardens, and no National Collection of Hardy Water Lilies, and each had a special role in their creation.