Capability Brown at Wakefield

The view across Mr Brown’s ‘New Piece of Water’.

It’s the 300th anniversary of the birth of Britain’s most celebrated gardener, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Rod Conlon, a distinguished local historian with an expertise in Potterspury and the Wakefield Estate, as well as a keen interest in historic gardens, has been contributing to research for the Northamptonshire Gardens Trust as there are four Brown landscapes in the county: Aynhoe Park, Castle Ashby, Fawsley and Wakefield Lodge.

In the 18th century Wakefield was owned by the Dukes of Grafton. Rod has unearthed a great deal of new material from the Grafton estate records in Northamptonshire County Council Record Office relating to Capability Brown’s work. He has extracted information from 90 monthly ‘Labourers accounts’ from 1749 to 1756, which list all the work carried out in the landscape, the gardens and the new house. These accounts are essentially work sheets drawn up by the head gardener and contain a list of up to 60 named labourers, how they were employed, their rates of pay, and the total amount paid each month.  From these worksheets a detailed picture can be built up of what Brown actually achieved at Wakefield and the timing of the various phases of the work. Lists of the labourers can be seen here. Many lived in Potterspury and some of the names – Bason, Tapp, Holloway, Henson and Meakins – are still familiar today.

In 1747 the 2nd Duke replaced the medieval hunting lodge with a new house designed by William Kent, the celebrated architect and landscape designer. The new lodge was completed by 1754 but Kent died in 1748 and never saw his creation finished. Back in the 1740s, Kent worked on the landscape at Stowe just 6 miles to the south-west of Wakefield. Lancelot Brown joined him in1741 and regarded him as something of a mentor. He became head gardener a year later and eventually left in 1751 to set up in business on his own.

Earliest commission

A 1608 map showing the old Wakefield Lodge and fish pond.

Sometime in 1749 Brown must have visited Wakefield and made the 2nd Duke of Grafton aware of the ‘capabilities’ of the landscape that he could create for the setting of the duke’s new hunting Lodge.  One of Brown’s sales pitches was to convince his customers that their land had great ‘capabilities’ and that he would be able realise them.  Wakefield was in fact one of Brown’s earliest and most important commissions before starting his own business. The main seat of the dukes of Grafton was at Euston Hall, in Suffolk, while Wakefield was their second home. For that reason the duke accepted relatively modest changes to the landscape, mostly carried out by his own labourers with minimal involvement by Brown or his assistants.  By 1755 Brown’s payment totalled £707 10s (roughly £70,000 today) for what was described as ‘working on the water at Wakefield’.

graft rentsWe know that in August 1749 work commenced on enlarging the medieval fish pond seen on the c.1608 forest map when a surveyor together with other labourers started staking out the new pond on the Lawn.  This was no ordinary surveyor, but Mr Robert Greening, surveyor and head gardener to the Princess of Wales, who was working on his design for landscaping Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire. One would have expected Brown himself to be at Wakefield at the beginning of his new commission, rather than employing someone known to be rival. Perhaps Brown was out on the road busy scouting for more future work!

In September 1749 the labourers, those paid by the day, and the contractors, paid for each bargain, began the mammoth task of digging out and wheel-barrowing away earth and mud to widen and deepen the pond. By the end of the year the contractors had removed 2,000 cubic yards of material and the labourers probably much more.  During December, Mr Horstman, another surveyor and presumably Brown’s foreman spent 30 days, and his assistant spent 20 days supervising the ongoing work on enlarging the pond.  There was much tree planting and transplanting: 200 Scotch Firs were supplied by Richard Foster, a nurseryman from Coventry for £5, and ten bundles of Beech trees were sent by Mr Brown from Buckingham ‘for his Grace’s use’.  And no doubt initiated by Brown, two waggon loads of Laurels were sent from Lord Cobham at Stowe. In June 1750 Brown sent a further 1,000 young Beech trees to Wakefield from Missenden at a cost of 17s.

Wakefield Lodge by Paul Sandby, 17667 (from
Wakefield Lodge by Paul Sandby, 17667 (from

By April 1750, Henry Sanders and his son Bembrook, both carpenters from Potterspury, were cutting and painting poles and stakes for further setting out of what was referred to as ‘the new intended Pond’, and on the lawn.  From June, large amounts of stone were carried to the new pond to reinforce the banks and the dam at the pond head.  Through September to December and well into 1751,work continued on the water, and the track from the house through Steer Coppice to Browns Wood Green was being made into a road – the labourers were cutting a wash and faggoting the wood where  Mr Brown wanted the new road.

There was much planting of trees on the lawn and in the paddocks between the house and the pond, singly and in clumps, mostly elm. New planted trees were regularly mounded, fenced, pruned and watered, weeds on the Lawn and the paddocks were mowed or hoed, gravel walks were made, seats were put on the pond head, drains were dug and general maintenance continued. In March 1752 a storm blew down fences in the garden and trees in the parkland.  The agricultural records for 1752 record a blizzard with 27 inches of snow in January and very stormy in February and March.

Mr Brown’s New Piece of Water

In August 1754 construction began on a ‘New Piece of Water’ to the east of the Great Pond.  But fewer details of this work are given in the accounts, which simply state ‘Labourers working at the New Piece of Water’. Once again, carting of earth by contractors was underway to create a smaller narrower pond than the Great Pond along what was previously the course of a stream taking the overflow from the Great Pond.  This new pond was completed by January 1756 when eels and tench were put into both pieces of water, and in February a new way was made from the Great Pond head to the New Piece of Water; the drop between the two is about 20 feet.  Firs, ash and larch were planted around the new pond, the larch being sent by Mr Brown and supplied by Mrs Foster of Coventry.

Two boats for the Great Pond bought in September 1752 were repaired in August 1755 by their supplier, a Mr Phillips of Bedford.  Paul Sandby prints of Wakefield Lodge show up to three boats on the Great Pond.  Also during 1755 Mr Brown and his servant spent three days at Wakefield.

The last major work carried out by Brown was in 1756 when a new wider road was made that crossed the dam between the two ponds and extended northwards into a meadow area called Hay Mead continuing as a carriageway through the Lawn.

Wakefield in 1848 showing Brown's plans in maturity.
Wakefield in 1848 showing Brown’s plans in maturity.

© Rod Conlon 2016