Bicknor Court by Robin Johnston


Bicknor Court with Robin Johnston

Meeting of 9th December 2010

Robin, the current owner of Bicknor Court, revealed to us the fruits of his research on how ‘The Big House’ (as Eric called it in his introduction) was built and changed over the centuries, and the people who lived there.

The earliest part of the house looks to be around 1300, and this is when we get the first record as the land is separated from the inheritance of Cecilia (whose effigy is in the church). It seems to be an early medieval hall house, with living accommodation on the first floor and workshops, storage and animals on the ground floor. At this time, castle and cathedral building was coming to an end and there were many good masons looking for work, so a wealthy landowner could get one of the new stone halls built. Less than half of this structure remains as a c.1550s tower hall with a fabulous lancet window (five windows one on top of the other) was built over the top of it – probably after the earlier building was badly burnt.

The mid 1600s saw a lot of construction, although some may be lost since Robin found evidence of another fire dated by a c.1600 jetton (a coin-like piece used for counting and gambling).

Around this time the family were related to Robert Kyrle, a Civil War soldier renowned for being a double turncoat. As a roundhead he took part in the capture of Hereford, then swapped to the King’s army and was sent to organise defences at Monmouth. Out foraging, he was captured by roundheads, and to avoid death as a turncoat he led them back to Monmouth – where the gates were opened for him so Monmouth was captured and he became governor. After the war he swapped again to the Royalist side.

George Davies built the current Georgian front (which is very square and has 14 windows) in the 1700s and planted the now huge Cedar of Lebanon in front. In 1826 the house passed to the Machen family. The renowned archaeologist and historian Sir John MacLean occupied the house in the 1880s. A later occupier was Major Henry Bate (in the house 1898-1901) whose daughter Dorothy was the first woman professional researcher at the Natural History Museum. She excavated caves at Little Doward – and any of you who have visited there will find it very difficult to imagine getting into those caves in Victorian dress.

Robin brought in a lot of finds to show us (“Can’t put a spade in without digging something up” he said), including medieval pottery, pig iron and slag (showing iron had been worked on the site) and clay pipes. CS