Pit-folk and Peers – Volume I

Pit-folk and Peers – Volume I

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The Remarkable History of the People of Fryston: Volume I –  Echoes of Fryston Hall (1809-1908)

The West Riding pit village of Fryston was once famously referred to as ‘a mining Shangri-la’. Nestling on one side against the mighty River Aire and hemmed in by colliery buildings on the other, this small, isolated community of twelve terraced streets was only accessible via a narrow railway bridge. No village was more emblematic of the nature of mining tradition and community, and of a once-fabled but now endangered way of life.

The name of the village pub, the ‘Milnes Arms’, alluded to Fryston’s fascinating past, for the local mine and associated village were established in the grounds of the vast Fryston Hall estate, owned by the wealthy cloth-trading Milnes dynasty of Wakefield. Most prominent in this narrative is the name of Richard Monckton Milnes, subsequently Lord Houghton (1809-1885). Best known as the earliest biographer of John Keats and long-time suitor of Florence Nightingale, Milnes was also a poet of great distinction, and an enlightened, charismatic, reformist politician who championed the great humanitarian issues of the day. During his lifetime, Fryston Hall became the most important hub of Victorian society outside of London, attracting the most eminent poets, writers, politicians, adventurers and other celebrities of the era.

He nonetheless cut an extremely controversial figure. Milnes’s Fryston Hall library reputedly contained the largest collection of erotic literature and artefacts in Europe, and he is said to have frequented London flagellation brothels as part of a famously libertine lifestyle. Such details cannot detract from the fact that Milnes engaged in countless acts of practical and financial support towards struggling or needy individuals and institutions, thus making him perhaps the foremost philanthropist and patron of the arts of the entire nineteenth century.

This family tradition was continued by two of Milnes’s three children. His only son, Robert Offley Ashburton Milnes, became a renowned career politician and close friend and confidant of Edward VII (who visited Fryston in 1896). The younger of Milnes’s two daughters, Florence, was a novelist and animal rights activist. She is best remembered as the woman who rejected the amorous advances of Thomas Hardy, but provided the muse for several instances of his work, most notably for the character of Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure.

The transitional period of the early twentieth century saw a severing of ties between the Milnes family and Fryston Hall estate which triggered its rapid physical deterioration. This was in stark contrast to the ongoing consolidation and development of Fryston village. In this, the first of two volumes tracing the ‘remarkable history of the people of Fryston’, David Waddington outlines the immense cultural, political, social and humanitarian contributions made to British society by Richard Monckton Milnes and his immediate descendants by focusing our attention on the echoes of Fryston Hall.


Peter Jones

Question: what do Thomas Hardy, Ulysses S Grant, Lillie (‘Jersey Lily’) Langtry, Benjamin Disraeli, Robert Browning and Florence (‘the lady with the lamp’) Nightingale have in common? Answer: they were all close acquaintances of Richard Monckton Milnes, aka Lord Houghton, and dinner party guests at his 19th century country seat, Fryston Hall, in the tiny West Riding mining village of Fryston. And in fact the list of glitterati extends to all the main players and influencers in Victorian political, cultural, intellectual and literary life in the UK and beyond. In this remarkable new book, David Waddington shows how all roads – quite literally – led to Fryston, where he hails from, and how this dazzling hub of contemporary British life grew up at the same time as the mines and the miners’ organizations fighting tooth and nail to secure decent wages and conditions in the face of the violence and brutality of the mine owners and the state. As the title of this first volume suggests, this is a tale told of two Frystons, a vivid portrait of the men and women on both sides of the tracks and their very different, though intertwined, fates. Written in beautiful, accessible prose and based on huge amounts of research (though wearing this erudition very lightly), Waddington’s vivid and fascinating account is local history taken to a whole new level and will appeal to the general reader, particularly those familiar with Fryston and the West Riding, as well as to those with a keen or scholarly interest in British cultural history, literature and literary history, the politics of the 19th century, industrial and trade union history and the development of British society overall. A signal achievement and an engrossing and enjoyable read. Can’t wait for Volume 2!

Catherine Bailey, author of Black Diamonds

Meticulously researched, David Waddington vividly resuscitates the nineteenth-century lives of the inhabitants of long-lost Fryston Hall.

Richard Monckton Milnes and Florence Nightingale

In this extract from Pit-folk and Peers, David Waddington looks at the earyl courtship of Florence Nightingale and Richard Monckton Milnes.

Milnes and Florence Nightingale had first met in 1842 when both were the guests (Nightingale along with the rest of her family) of Lord and Lady Palmerston. Nightingale’s biographers agree that, as the relationship between Nightingale and Milnes grew warmer, Nightingale’s mother was increasingly hopeful that it would develop into marriage:

A wedding between her younger daughter and the eminent and eligible Mr Richard Monckton Milnes of Fryston Hall in Yorkshire was exactly the sort of match of which Fanny Nightingale had dreamed. He was a man of fortune, although of course she wanted more than money for her daughter. She had read Milnes’s speeches to Parliament and his volumes of poetry, and was certain that he was a poet with a following and a politician with a future […] So what if he outraged opinion from time to time? The Nightingales were sufficiently worldly to bear a little scandal, and Fanny Nightingale could see that marriage to Milnes would put her Florence right at the centre of British political and artistic life.

Though their attraction was clearly mutual, Nightingale and Milnes each harboured reservations about the prospect of getting married. Nightingale, for her part, had unreserved admiration for Milnes’s consistently humanitarian attitude: ‘He treated all his fellow mortals as if they were his brothers and sisters,’ she once remarked.417 She delighted in the fact that Milnes was such a staunch proponent of education for factory workers, penny savings banks for the working-class, and the abolition of capital punishment. She took great satisfaction from his sympathy for the famine-stricken Irish (whom he had controversially taken time to visit in order to help organise relief measures), for the pressure he was exerting for factory reform, and for his introduction of a Bill for establishing juvenile reformatories. All of these issues were extremely close to her heart. Thus, as Sattin explains:

Her issue was not with the man. She admired his mind, enjoyed his company, and later would refer to him as ‘the man I adored’. Her objection, as ever, was to the role of women in the institution of marriage. Being married would give her no more freedom than she had at the present time, for she would merely swap one set of constraints and obligations for another. If she married, the legal and financial responsibility for her care would pass from her parents to her husband.

Nightingale knew full well that a life spent hosting breakfast parties and gatherings at Fryston Hall would constitute a serious obstacle to her calling to work in the service of God. ‘And yet, if there were to be a husband, Milnes would do very well indeed.’ Thus, ‘She continued to play for time while she weighed up the possibilities.’

Milnes, in turn, was slightly ambivalent about his possible liaison with Florence Nightingale. In a letter to his sister, Harriette, written in 1846, he was clearly wary of his father’s preference for aristocratic ‘breeding’ rather than accumulated wealth. ‘I fancy Papa looks on the Nightingales as rather vulgar people,’ he wrote, and might therefore look upon their marriage ‘as rather a descent in society’. His portrayal of Nightingale was not unequivocally positive:

F.N. is certainly a very remarkable person, with a gravity of deportment which I can conceive many people disliking and a clear observant critical way of looking at things, which many might dislike, but which I find analogous to my own. She is a companion worthy of any man of intellect.

By this time, Nightingale had already rejected Henry Nicholson’s proposal of marriage in 1845, which caused a permanent rift between their families. This was something she revealed to Milnes, though it did nothing to deter him. He accompanied the Nightingale family on various public outings, such as meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Southampton in 1846, and in Oxford one year later. During the latter visit, Milnes joined Nightingale and her father at a luncheon engagement with a famous naturalist who kept a three-month-old tame bear in his rooms. Nightingale subsequently recalled that the bear had ‘climbed like a squirrel for the butter on the table’. Eventually, however, the animal ‘became obstreperous’ and had to be shoo-d out into the garden, where it continued to rear up and bellow. ‘Let alone, I’m going to mesmerise it,’ Nightingale protested in defiance of her father’s attempt to restrain her. But it was Milnes who stepped forward and, in Nightingale’s words, ‘followed [my] suggestion and in ½ minute the little bear began to yawn, in less than 3 min. was stretched fast asleep on the gravel’.

Sattin speculates that it was during this visit that Milnes made the first of a series of marriage proposals to Nightingale, who was, therefore, forced to consider whether or not to go down the conventional path of marriage or fulfil her calling to care for others. Sensing the anguish Nightingale was experiencing, some family friends, the Bracebridges, obtained her parents’ permission to have their daughter join them on a three-month tour of Italy in the autumn of 1847. While in Rome she visited the Vatican and Sistine Chapel; even more lasting in its impact was the time Nightingale spent visiting local orphanages and convents. On one such occasion, just as she was leaving, ‘her madre warned her that God “calls you to a very high degree of perfection. Take care, if you resist you will be very guilty.”’

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David P. Waddington

David P. Waddington was Professor of Communications at Sheffield Hallam University, where he was employed from 1983-2021. Fryston-born David has written extensively on the sociology of mining communities, industrial relations in the British coal industry, the regeneration of former coal-mining areas, and the policing of political and industrial protest.

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Pit-folk and Peers: Volume I –  Echoes of Fryston Hall (1809-1908)

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