Lacock Abbey's Great Hall Commemoration

on Thursday, 07 May 2015. 1

We have found some documents in the Lacock archive concerning the 200th anniversary of the commemoration of the Great Hall in Lacock, which was rebuilt in the 1750s by John Ivory Talbot, the estate's owner at the time. The bundle of documents has the following reference: 2664/3/4B/24.

Talbot and the architect Sanderson Miller designed the Great Hall in a Gothic style and anyone who has visited Lacock will remember the prowess of the room, with its great high ceilings, coats of arms decorating the ceiling, and breathtaking sculptures adorning the walls. Outside, Talbot built some grand Gothic steps. 

Lacock Great Hall

The work was finished by 1755, and in that year Talbot invited the friends whose coats of arms he had had put on the new ceiling to a commemoration event at Lacock Abbey to celebrate the completion of the work: around 40 of his friends and neighbours. An article in the Wiltshire Times 200 years later said that the emblazoning of the coats of arms "was most original, and a graceful compliment to his neighbours". The party brought together the whole noblity and must have been a very grand event - if it happened.

Unfortunately, in the 20th century only a letter suggesting the possibility of an event was found, not any documents confirming that it had taken place.

200 years after the supposed event, Matilda Talbot decided to host an anniversary event to commemorate the commemoration. Her intention was to recreate the event of 200 years earlier, by inviting representatives of those friends and neighbours of John Ivory Talbot to the party. Her family and some friends did a lot of research to find those representatives. Peter Summers of the Kingswood School in bath did most of the research, which involved firstly trying to work out who some of the coats of arms on the ceiling belonged to, and then painstakingly tracing their descendants down to the family member who appeared to be their most ideal representative. These representatives were then invited to the 1955 commemoration event: a party that we know actually happened!

The article in the Wiltshire Times describes the event as follows:

"The guests sat down to a 'cold collation' at 7.30, and were offered such viands as might have been served at the party in 1755, namely cold meats with salmagundy salad, followed by syllabubs, trifles in the form of hedgehogs, manchet biscuits and gooseberry fool, all of which were popular at the earlier date."

The bundle of documents in the Lacock archive tell the story of the 1955 event and offer lovely little insights into the way the research was done, and also how successful the event was. For example, there are some letters addressed to Matilda Talbot from attendees of the party thanking her for her hospitality. Some comments included a letter from Norah Methuen of Corsham Court, who said the party "made the tradition of friendship 1955 a living thing 1955". William Bathurst wrote "What was remarkable was that we all seemed to be friends at once, although many of us can never have met before. But then it isn't every day that one gets introduced to people by a ceiling".

The bundle contains many letters either accepting or declining invitations, or thanking Matilda for the event. However, there are also some fascinating related documents to do with the research carried out, for example letters from Peter Summers updating Matilda with new information and links he had found. This includes a note on a Mrs Walker, who "tells me that she is the last of the Millers, and therefore the last descendant in the male line of Sanderson Miller, the architect". Miller therefore was invited to the event, and so, therefore, was his descendant. There are letters from people who had been contacted to ask if they were the right family; lists of the probably 1755 guests; notes on the conception of the 1955 event; notes on the guests invited to the 1955 event and whether or not they had accepted; a lovely seating plan for the 1955 event; lists of food items and a menu, which had been researched thoroughly by Matilda herself; and some pedigrees and other items. It's a fascinating bundle and I would highly recommend anyone interested should look at the documents and see the story for themselves.

Seating plan

Ally McConnell, Archivist