Saturday, 13 February 2016

Family history goes under the hammer

MUSEUMS, historians, archivists and collectors are set to contest close to 600 lots from a 400-year-old estate, with a combined value of somewhere between £140,000 and £200,000.

The sale, at the Tennants Auction Centre in Leyburn, North Yorkshire, on May 8, follows the death in January last year of Major John Wilfred Barratt Hext MBE at the age of 92.

Contents from his estate at Holywath, Coniston – the home of the Barratt and Hext families since 1830 – are being sold on behalf of the major’s seven children.

It has taken several months to sort, move, describe and value items as diverse as a tiger skin, tribal artefacts, a skull from the Anglo-Burmese War, clocks, furniture, ceramics and possibly the ultimate in big boy’s train sets.

Auctioneer Rodney Tennant said: “It is a one-off collection. We have cleared the house but things have still been turning up in drawers and boxes after the catalogue was drawn up.

“Where else could you find an exotic tiger skin still hanging on the wall of the staircase?

“The sale presents a unique opportunity to bid for a piece of old Lake District history – this fabulous, almost certainly unique, family time capsule is now open.”

Major Hext served with the Royal Artillery in France, was evacuated from Dunkirk and later served in Burma during the Second World War.

His MBE was awarded in 1996 for his services for half-a-century as a volunteer meteorological observer for the area. His interest in the military led him to develop an important collection of medals, valued at around £30,000.

Some of the medals include gallantry medal groups and two silver medals awarded to men who fought at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

There are a number of unique Coniston items in the sale, including the copper hot water urn used to brew up in the dormitory – now the Bluebird Cafe – by drivers and staff on the Furness Railway steam yacht Gondola around 1870. The estimate is £400 to £600.

Also on sale at £200 to £400 is the Cost Book No 2 of the Coniston Copper Mine from 1838 to 1843, which is offered with other mining records, including early 20th Century photographs of Millom’s Hodbarrow mines.

Another major rarity is a Furness Railway signalling lamp from the Coniston Park Road crossing, which carries an estimated £200 to £300 price tag but could make much more.

Local longcase clocks include one by Bellman of Broughton, dating to around 1815, which should make £1,200 to £1,500, and one of around 1750 by Jonas Barber of Winster with a price tag of £5,000 to £7,000.

There is a short story written and illustrated by Kate Greenaway (1846-1901) especially for Violet Severn, John Ruskin’s cousin and heir who lived at Brantwood, Coniston.

Ruskin corresponded extensively with Greenaway, and at one point she anticipated a marriage proposal from him.

The children’s story is expected to realise £3,000 to £5,000.

Major Hext was a railway enthusiast and, for more than 50 years, developed and operated a miniature steam railway system in the grounds of his house.

He also liked models in the much smaller O-Gauge and several vintage electric-powered locomotives are offered in the sale, many with price tags approaching £1,000 each.

The family association with Holywath started with John Barratt (1793-1866), a mining engineer from Devon, who moved north to manage the Coniston Copper Mines.

He also established the Hodbarrow iron ore mines – which became one of the richest in Europe.

A relative of Barratt married Cornishman Charles Wilfred Hext, who fought the Boers, took part in a punitive expedition to the Bor Abor region of India, and eventually died in Alexandria, Egypt.

With great foresight, he collected tribal artefacts from the Abor tribespeople.

He photographed the jewellery, weapons and traditional costume being worn, prior to labelling it all up and shipping it home.

Much of this was discovered in the attics at Holywath.

There are strong family associations with some of Coniston’s famous inhabitants, including
Beatrix Potter, who owned the nearby Yew Tree Farm.

The famous children’s author used to visit Holywath for occasional haircuts.

As a friend of Mrs Hext, Beatrix Potter (by then Mrs Heelis) also called regularly for May Moore (the housekeeper at Holywath) to perform such tasks as taking up the hem of her skirt or darning a jumper.

All the items can be viewed on the three days before the sale or you can check out the website:

Have your say

over 40 years ago as a young man I got a lift from a family in a Land Rover as it was tipping it down they suggested that I popped into the Majors house and introduce myself as being interested in trains(which I wasn't, this was somewhere to get out of the rain.I was 17.I remember walking round the back of the house,the door was answered by a maid.I told her that I was from Suffolk and had heard of the Majors collection. A couple of minutes later the Major came to the door and was amazed that I had heard of his collection all the way from Suffolk.He took me in from the rain saying he was busy but he would spare me some time.I made up my interest not telling him that I had only just heard of him less than half a mile away in the back of a Land Rover.But still I was dry. He led me through into a very large room I seem to think it was two large rooms with an opened divider.The Major was scratch building a replica I think of Paddington Station,making his own sleepers and seemingly doing all the modeling himself.It was no where near being finished and he said that he had been working on it for years.After 5 mins or so I was hooked on his skills and enthusiasm.He then took me into the garden (the rain had eased off) and showed me a narrow gauge set up that ran through his garden.The Major said that he would give rides to the public during a summer fete. I remember that he had bought and installed a full scale signal box and various old railway signs.As I remember he had an engine shed with 2 or 3 Loco's in there. The Major took-his time and explained where these had been made and filled in all the little details. I think this was around 1966.
This year I was in Coniston with my Wife and we walked down the lane and found the house.I looked over the wall and I think it's the same engine shed that is still there.We went up to the Sun Hotel for lunch and chatting with the local barman was astounded to find out that the Major had only passed away this year being in his 90's.I had often told my little story to my wife and felt a bit guilty at having fibbed to the Major.Sorry Major and thank you so much for humoring a young lad and giving me a magical hour or so, You must have impressed me as it stayed with me for all these years.

Posted by Ray Scott on 29 September 2010 at 21:35

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