Looking and Seeing
Turning the pages of Highclere Castle’s leather bound and engraved visitors’ books is always riveting. They tell their own stories about who was staying here and, as I sit by the fire in the Saloon where the guests must have gathered, I wonder what their conversations were, who told the jokes and anecdotes or what amused them during a weekend visit. Of course their weekends were somewhat more extended than ours are today: most guests left on a Monday not a Sunday and clearly some stayed for a week.
I have been looking through these books for years, long recognising names such as Robert Browning, Salisbury, Peel, Howard Carter, Voisin, Harold Macmillan, TE Lawrence, Charles Rolls, (as collected together above) or members of the Royal family and yet each time I look again, I see new names.
Sir John A Macdonald and the 4th Earl of Carnarvon
My latest book is about entertaining at Highclere and is based around four real weekends which took place at Highclere during the 19th century and early part of the 20th. The first one, which makes up the first story in the book, was one of those histories which became ever more interesting the deeper my research led me and forms part of the history Canada’s celebrations of independence this year.
I had chosen that weekend because of its gathering of great Victorian statesmen but at the end of that particular visitors’ page in 1866 are three further names: J A Macdonald, George Etienne Cartier and Galt. The names at the end of the page were far from footnotes: these names were in fact the prologue to an extraordinary story as they were the men who were to become the founding fathers of Canada. They had arrived in London in time for the conference led by their host, the 4th Earl of Carnarvon who, as Secretary of State for the Colonies, helped draft the British North America Act.
There are many letters and diary notes charting their progress, as Lord Carnarvon and the leader of the Canadian delegates, John A Macdonald, steered the discussions and clauses through to the creation of a constitution. John A seems to have been a charming man, a dapper dresser, intelligent and determined, above all he was able to mediate and lead. Both he and Lord Carnarvon had much respect and developed a lifetime friendship for each other.
Just before Christmas 1866, “John A” returned from Highclere to the Westminster Hotel near Buckingham Palace in London. One night he inadvertently set fire to his bedclothes and only just escaped very serious injury. He was however confined to bed and could not immediately return to Highclere. Meanwhile Charles Francis Adams (the US ambassador in London) had been asked to stay for Christmas. The son and grandson of two USA presidents, Mr Adams was renowned for a formidable intelligence. Perhaps the idea had been to sit around a fire in the Library, or at the dinner table, to discuss relationships and hopefully find a way forwards. The British Provinces of North America were concerned about US intentions and John A Macdonald and the British cabinet thought that they needed to act swiftly if they were to unite the provinces and create an independent union.
Lord Carnarvon’s diaries show the concern for the balance of authority between the provinces and central government (there are lists of which powers and rights he thought belonged where) and he was keen to protect minority religious rights in the different provinces, (Section 93), as well as promote education.
The bill was duly drafted and Lord Carnarvon took this to Parliament in February 1867. In March it received the Royal Assent and on July 1st 1867 Canada became a Dominion. Thus a whole new and amazing story developed from a few signatures in an old book.It was fascinating research and I hope, as the years roll on, I shall find other, equally interesting histories.