Notes of 9th May 2016 Meeting Main Topic – A History of the Severn Family – Mary Davies

Geraint opened the meeting welcoming everyone. He reminded members that the next meeting would be on 6th June when Dai Hawkins would be talking about the Welsh Language in Radnorshire. The meeting in July has had to be rescheduled from the 4th July to the 11th July when we will be visiting the Heronry at Penybont Hall, at the invitation of Richard Morgan, and then on to Cwmroches Reserve.

Derek confirmed the arrangements for the Walk on Penybont Common when we hope to find evidence of: the Settlement at Caertwch, Ridge and furrow land usage; a sheepfold; the Roman Road; and the Bronze Age Barrow.

Geraint welcomed Mary to talk on the Main Topic: The History of the Severn Family

  1. John Cheesment –        Sarah Grace

1731to 1783 (London)                      1765 to 1795 (Ireland)

We know from a previous talk concerning the Thomas Shop and the life of John Price that his daughter Mary Ann, albeit illegitimate, was just 6 years old when her father died in 1798 and inherited the bulk of his considerable fortune. While she was still under the guidance of her legal Guardians at the age of 18 years she met John Cheesment Severn, aged 30 years, and was greatly smitten to the extent that he saw off all other suitors and they were married in Worcester on 30th December 1811, during a terrible storm. As was the way of things pertaining to the family all was not straight forward. Having obtained permission to marry from the Guardians and subsequently moved to Penybont Hall, John found that one of the Guardians was resident at the Hall. A court case was to follow after John evicted the family and the wife of the Guardian died. That Julian Fellows crafted Downton Abbey on the goings on at and around Penybont Hall had its foundations from a very much earlier time. The parentage of John Cheesment Severn also has an air of intrigue. His father Captain John Cheesment of London was 47 when he met his wife to be. She, Sarah, was just 17 years old and from Graceville, Castle Dermot, Co. Kildare in Ireland. Capt John died just three years after his marriage. John Wesley, who was a friend of John Cheesment Severn, wrote about Capt. John’s death and referred to the lifestyle of his friend’s father. Capt. John had become a wealthy man who, having lost his fortune only to be rescued by his friends, went on to make another fortune, and John Wesley wrote:

“A few years ago he married one equally agreeable in person and temper. So what had he to do but enjoy himself?” Geraint seemed to agree!

Capt. John was described as a Commander of the Britannia East Indiaman, and Master Mariner of Mile End. Fortunes were made on the ‘silk road’ and Capt. John clearly did well from modest beginnings. His older brother Joseph remained in the North East and was said to be a cordwainer or shoemaker of Sunderland.

The Cheements/Cheesmans could not be described as gentry but within the historical records Edward Cheesman was a cofferer for Henry VII; that is he managed the King’s budget or coffers. A portrait of Edward is displayed in Penybont Hall.

Capt. John did not have a long time to enjoy his fortune and his new young wife. He died after only three years of marriage. Sarah, now only 20 years, and with the young John Cheesment to bring up, went on to marry a wealthy Scandinavian timber merchant, ship broker and banker, George Wolf. They lived in the Parish of St. George’s near Wapping Dock. (By coincidence Mary had her own connections with St George’s Parish and teaching classes of 45 pupils.) The area was in social decline at this time and the Wolf family moved to Baltham House in Surrey.

  1. John Cheesment Severn –        Mary Ann Price

1781 to 1875 (Londodn/Penybont)               1793 to 1876 (Penybont)

John lost his second parent, his mother Sarah, by the time he was 14 years old. Two surviving children were born to Sarah and George, Sarah Augusta and Inger Maria. Three other children died young. John’s step-father however continued with his education and John was elected to Eton in 1796, a year after his mother died, and he went on to study at Oxford. He was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in 1801 and called to the Bar in 1807 a year when he also became MP for Wootton Bassett. He was a founder member of the Carlton Club. The mystery and intrigue around John and the change in his name from John Cheesment to John Cheesment Severn is also associated with 1807, for it was in this year that he:

“… being desirous out of affectionate regard to the memory of William Severn late of Pall Mall, Esq., diseased to take and use the surname of Severn in lieu of his present surname of Cheesment was authorised by Royal Liceince dated August 1807 to do so.” (Squires of Penybont Hall –R.C.B. Oliver). Who William Severn was, and why he played such an important part in the life of John Cheesment, is largely unknown. A William Severn married a Sarah Hyde in the Parish of St. George’s in 1803. Sarah’s family residence was Hopley Court, Worcestershire. It is probably not a coincidence that John Cheesment (now) Severn married Mary Ann Price in St Nicholas Church, Worcester. Despite the fact that John had probably paid handsomely for the privilege of becoming an MP for the ‘Rotten’ constituency, he had applied successfully to be a ‘Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds’, a euphemism for being allowed to resign his seat in Parliament. Corruption associated with the constituency of Wootton Bassett seems to have been associated with this seat, but whether it applied to John Cheesment Severn is not known. The use of the word ‘rotten’ might suggest something untoward but in this case a rotten constituency referred to a constituency that had insufficient population to support an MP. The MP who succeeded John to this constituency was a Benjamin Walsh who was declared bankrupt having spent £4000 in securing his seat in Parliament.

In marrying Mary Ann Price, John Cheesment Severn was able to substantially increase his estate and within three years of his marriage he had risen in Radnorshire society to the office of High Sheriff, 1811 and following in the footsteps of his father-in-law John Price, 1787. In the same year he also became Deputy Lord Lieutenant of the County. In addition to his property John also became involved in Banking and was associated with the Bank at Kington which his father-in-law also had dealings.

Prior to his marriage John did have connections, and did acquire some land, within Radnorshire as his step-sister, Sarah Augusta Wolf, had married Edward Rogers who had a property near Knighton – Stanage. It is not known whether it was through this link that the couple met, other theories include possible meetings in Worcester or London. John’s other step-sister, Inger Maria Wolf married Rev. G.D. Whitehead whose grandson, in a twist of fate, came to Penybont Hall some years later.


John and Mary Ann’s marriage was fruitful and Mary Ann gave birth to four children, Sarah (1812), Percy (1814), Emily (1815), and Julia (1817). None of these four children were to marry. John had Penybont Hall largely rebuilt by 1818 into what was described as a fine Classical Georgian or Regency House. As a Country Gentleman John took on duties to do with the management of the Turnpike Road and became a Magistrate. In addition to his duties John also found himself on the receiving end of the Justices. In 1822 he was found guilty of causing damage and injury to crops and vegetables of a Septimus Minton; and in 1849 he was fined for three separate encroachments on Rhos Swydd Common.

In 1830 John, notwithstanding having only completed 1 year in Parliament in 1807/8, entered Parliament again for the Constituency of Fowey in Cornwall. This was another ‘rotten’ Borough and the constituency was dissolved in 1832.

In 1833 there is reference to a visit to Penybont Hall by Capt. Sir John B. Walsh. Capt.  Walsh describes Mrs Severn as a ‘quiet, ladylike woman’, but he refers to Mr Severn as ‘not very popular’, ‘rather near’, and ‘ostentatious’. This however was qualified by Capt. Walsh as he went on to say he was ‘obliging’ and ‘gentleman like in manners’. He was clearly a man who looked after his own interests, in pursuit of which he is best remembered for moving the Golden Fleece Inn, established by John Price in 1755 as the New Inn, from being adjacent to the Hall on the other side of the River Ithon, and to its present site as the Severn Arms Hotel (1840). This new facility gave rise to the Annual Card and Dancing Assembly, otherwise known as Penybont Ball, in 1841.

The movement of the Inn gave some added privacy to Penybont Hall. As a Trustee of the Turnpike, John had also been involved in the realignment of the road past the Hall in the 1830s, this again giving more privacy to the Hall.

As Magistrates, John, and his son Percy, were called into action to in 1843 to discuss with the Rebecca Riots in the Severn Arms Hotel. The Rioters entered Rhayader and pull down 4 gates and a toll house. The ring leaders were sentenced to 20 years transportation, but the ensuing Royal Commission made significant concessions to the grievances of the rioters.

Mary mentioned that John’s father had a close connection with John Wesley but John’s affiliations were not to the Methodist Church but to the Anglican tradition. There is evidence of his presence in the Churches at Llanbadarn Fawr, Llandegley, and Cefn Llys. Mary Ann was a considerable contributor to Charity and in supporting the local Churches she was also a known to have been generous in her contributions to Rock Chapel.

John was 94 when he died; Mary Ann survived him by 1 year and was herself 83 years. This meant that their 4 children were middle aged by the time of their parents death.

  1. John Percy Severn

1814 – 1900

Percy, like his father, was a graduate of Eton and Oxford where he achieved an MA. He travelled widely in his youth and was described as courteous, cultured, and intelligent. Unlike his father he was popular in the community. Percy also practiced as a Barrister at Lincoln’s Inn; and travelled across South Wales as a Revising Barrister sitting in Cardigan, Pembroke, and Brecon.

Percy followed in his father’s footsteps on other regards. He was a member of the Carlton Club; he became High Sheriff of Radnorshire (1873) and was also a Deputy Lieutenant. As mentioned earlier he was also a Magistrate. He was very much the Country Gentleman and Squire. He hunted, liked shooting and kept dogs, he bred Welsh Cobs and was a staunch supporter and founder member of the Radnorshire Agricultural Society.  His father had planted a number of trees and shrubs around the Hall and Percy added to the collection. He took a keen interest in the heronry that had established itself within the grounds. After his father died Percy extended the Hall to add a third floor and ‘Victorianised’ it by building the gables into the roof. He also added the 2 ‘folly towers’ that were detached from the main building.  One tower was round and the other square. It is said that Percy would sometimes retreat to the round tower. This tower was taken down more recently whereas the square Tower is still a feature of the property today but the round tower has been taken down.

When John Cheesement Severn died he left his children well endowed for the future. He had probably hoped that his daughters would marry but this was not to be. It was the churches in the locality that benefitted hugely from the patronage of the sisters and Percy.

The church at Llanbadarn Fawr was completely rebuilt in 1878/79 due entirely to the generousity of the sisters. This was a few after the church at Llandegley was similarly rebuilt by the Severn family in 1874/76.  Percy supported the rebuilding of Llanddewi and and Cefn Llys. The interest in Rock Chapel continued from their mother and Percy supported the development of the Calvinistic Methodist Chapel in Penybont. There was a schoolroom within the Penybont Chapel and a school did run here for a short period. Percy was actively involved in the support and development of school facilities in the area. He was Chair of the new Llanbadarn Fawr Board School 1878 and was still Chair when he died in 1900. An annual ‘Scholars Tea’ was given by Percy to all of the scholars at the school and this merited a day’s holiday. Holidays were fairly frequent as, despite the introduction of compulsory education, labour was needed on the land. As a magistrate Percy would meet some of the families in Court but he would be very reluctant to act against them.

In researching Rhos Common another story reflecting Percy’s humanity came to light in that he was reluctant to take action against people who were found to be encroaching onto the Common. It was said that this was because he did not want to appear unpopular but equally he was probably also concerned about the second and third sons of local farmers who could not find land to work on and to stay living in the locality. These young men would be very important to the overall management of his 4000 acres and therefore he had a vested interest in their ability to find land of their own.

While Percy as a person, landlord, and public figure was widely respected, the decision he made with respect to the railway, in the period 1862 to 1866, was to have on the future of the village as an important centre in Radnorshire. He was concerned that the railway, of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, might pass close to the Hall so he gave a part of Cwmtrallwm Farm as a free site for Penybont Station. This meant that the station was built about 1 mile from the village; this single decision probably heralded the slow decline of the village in favour of Llandrindod Wells, and the gradual loss of amenity within the village.

Very little appears in the literature about the three sisters other than their good works associated with the local churches. Julia was said to be something of a recluse. They all lived long lives: Sarah was 79 years when she died; Percy 86 years; Emily 91 years; and Julia 90 years. Geraint who has also researched the family feels very frustrated as there are no dairies or journals from the three sisters and he feels that they must have written them. Emily succeeded her brother and inherited the estate, living on a further 6 years. She followed in the footsteps of her older brother in some respects. She was Chair of the Board of Llanbadarn Fawr School and President of the Radnorshire Agricultural Show. Her country roots were similar to those of her brother and she was a supporter of the Sheep Dog Trials.

  1. Emily Augusta Severn

1815 -1906

When Emily Augusta died in 1906 the praise for her life and charitable work was written up by Dr Jordon as a delivered by the Rector of the time. Famously he quoted Proverbs xxxi. 29 – “Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all.” He describes her “pre-eminently stands out as one who could and should inspire us with emulation to go and do likewise….gracious presence……infinite sweetness…nowhere else but in lovely Wales…..At what cost Miss Severn and her two sisters restored Llanbadarn Church is neither fitting to the time to say here, but it is right to say that it was a labour of love, a lasting monument to a beautiful life, that was spent within her tenantry of late years as the “Lady of Shunem”……Her great heart is built into these sculptured stones, into the beautiful new organ, and the new vestry! Generations which will follow our own will see these offerings made to God. How beautiful it all is!”

  1. Julia Severn

1817 – 1907

The youngest of the sisters Julia lived in Llandrindod for the last 25 years of her life. She lived in Tremont House as a virtual recluse. She left a considerable sum to the Cottage Hospital in Llandrindod.

These various philanthropic acts have continued through Charitable Trusts that still goes on today. Geraint has been involved over the years in administering one of these Trusts in Penybont for the ‘poor of the Parish’, a task that he remembers with some affection. He and Lord Ormathwaite (who became Squire of Penybont Hall) would meet around Christmas time in the Snug at the Hall. There would be a roaring fire, sherry, 50 £1 notes, and envelopes all prepared to distribute to the needy in the Parish.

Talk of these deaths led to a discussion about the Severn Vault in the Churchyard at Llanbadarn Church. Neil was most interested to know if Geraint had been into it. He had and he ventured in with Neil’s father. An eerie place shrouded in yew trees.

  1. Major General R.C. Whitehead –        Sarah Ann Jones

1833 – 1910 (Cumberland/Penybont) 1858 to 1926 (London/Penybont)

The Severn Family came to an end with the death of Julia but Emily had passed on the inheritance to Major General Whitehead who was the youngest grandson of Capt. John Cheesments wife Sarah and her second husband George Wolf, who Mary had referred to earlier. John Cheesment Severn had two step sisters Sarah Augusta and Inger Maria. All of Sarah Augusta’s children died before their father Edward Rogers. Inger Maria married Rev. G.D. Whitehead and had three children. The eldest Col. George never married, but was said to have ‘gone native’ in India and had 4 children. Her second son died without having any heirs, and so by force of circumstance the Major General inherited with his wife Sarah Ann (Jones). The Major, who had lost a leg battle, was seen as respectable, albeit he had married a barmaid.

  1. Downton Abbey

To complete the picture Mary returned to the fictional characters associated with Downton Abbey and Julian Fellows interpretation of life at Penybont Hall. The Daily Mail article ‘I?’ – “And Downton Abbey is modelled on the aristocratic pile Penybont Hall, where Lord Fellowes’ ancestors were not masters – servants.”

If one goes back 150 years you would find Julian’s great grandfather Pat McIntosh as a working class man from Scotland working his way up to becoming the manager under Percy of the 4000 acre Penybont estate. Pat and his wife had 4 children who probably all worked at the Hall from time to time. One of the children, Emily, told Julian of life at the Hall and inspired the stories that were to make Downton Abbey such a success. The Earl of Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville, in the series was said to have been based upon the character and activity of Percy. (According to Rev. Geraint Hughes, a local historian, life at Penybont Hall was similar to Downton Abbey!)

Marion referred to an ancestor of hers who had, at the time when Capt. John Cheesment was engaged in the silk trade, been also been involved with the East India Company and had possible connections with John Cheesment. Marion has an Anglo-Indian background and her family returned to the UK due to complications with a snake bite.

In thanking Mary for her excellent talk Geriant told a story about the Bishop who often dined at the Hall. Children would be invited to come to the table for the dessert course. He would entertain the children with a mechanical toy which would be concealed under the tablecloth.

Geraint also told members of a change to the Programme in July. The walk to the Heronry will now be on the 11th July as Richard Morgan from the Hall has kindly agreed to guide the walk in the Hall grounds. We will then go on to the Reserve at Cwmroches.

The next Meeting will be at the Thomas Shop on 6th June at 10.30 a.m. when Dai Hawkins will talk about the decline of the Welsh Language in Radnorshire.