The strange tale of Mrs Beckwith

Silksworth Colliery approx 1930s old ref number 49-8994
Silksworth Colliery approx 1930s old ref number 49-8994
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Today we focus on a Wearside woman of mystery who features in a new book paying tribute to the great and the good of the North East.

MYSTERY still surrounds the will of Wearside benefactress Priscilla Maria Beckwith more than 130 years after her death.

Indeed, the instructions she left to destroy three specially marked boxes of unknown contents continue to intrigue historians.

“Her executors were told to make holes in them, ‘for the purposes of inserting tar and other combustibles,’” reveals Douglas Smith in new book Durham Biographies Volume Seven. “The boxes were then to be set alight, but on no account opened, in a field fronting her mansion Silksworth House – now known as Doxford House.”

Historians believe the burning of the boxes duly took place in June 1877, perhaps to preserve Priscilla’s sense of Victorian propriety or personal modesty.

But the destruction of the documents is still mourned today by Douglas, president of Sunderland Antiquarian Society, as a “sad loss.”

“They might have revealed something of her private and domestic life, her conversion to Catholicism or her letters to Cardinal Newman,” he said. “It is an intriguing thought that the letters of Newman, who was beatified in 2010, probably went up in flames in Silksworth that day in 1877.”

Priscilla Maria Hopper, the daughter of Thomas Hopper of Silksworth House, was born in 1806 and enjoyed a life of luxury.

“Thomas came from an old Durham family, several of whom had suffered fines for recusancy – refusing to attend Anglican services – but conformed at the Restoration,” said Douglas. “One of the most notable members of his family was Hendry Hopper, a lawyer, who lies buried in the Nine Altars at Durham Cathedral.

“Thomas died in 1830, leaving Priscilla his estate of £25,546. (More than £1million today). The following year, at Bishopwearmouth Church, she married William Beckwith.”

Beckwith, then a Major in the 14th Dragoons, came from a Yorkshire military family who had inherited the Woodifield estate of Trimdon in County Durham.

The family eventually moved to Herrington Hall when William Beckwith – father of Major Beckwith – married Caroline Neasham, a daughter of a Houghton colliery owner.

“Young Beckwith, who was born in 1795, entered the army at a young age as Cornet of the 16th Light Dragoons,” said Douglas. “Serving in the Peninsular War at the battles of Nivelle and the Nive, he was awarded the Waterloo medal for having witnessed action there.

“His military service subsequently took place with the 14th Light Dragoons in Dundalk and the Dublin barracks. In 1829 he was made a Knight of the Order of Hanover.”

Beckwith was called into action on home turf too, when the Bristol Riots broke out in 1831 and angry mobs ransacked the Bishop’s Palace and local civic buildings.

“Beckwith, being sent for, took control of the situation by giving orders to the troops to charge with sabres drawn,” said Douglas.

“During the inquest into the affray, magistrates commended him for his successful undertaking of a situation that had got completely out of control.”

Beckwith went on to be promoted to full General in 1839 and, when not in action, lived at Silksworth House with Priscilla. His coat of arms can still be seen above the entrance. But his attempts at a political career after the military failed in 1847 and, instead, he contented himself with hunting and sports – as well as being made High Sheriff in 1858.

“At Silksworth the General lived the life of a landed gentleman, with an estate of 792 acres and a complement of between nine and 13 indoor servants” said Douglas. “The couple wintered in Paris, where they met with other English visitors, and Mrs Beckwith made particular friends with the recusant Charlton family from Northumberland.

“It was probably due to the influence of Mrs Charlton that Mrs Beckwith was introduced to “Madame” Davidoff, a militant evangelising nun of a French and Russian aristocratic background. Davidoff inspired many former Protestants to convert to Catholicism, and Mrs Beckwith started corresponding with the great 19th century pivotal figure Cardinal Newman at this time too.”

Originally an Oxford academic and Anglican priest, Newman became a leader in the Oxford Movement in the 1830s – campaigning to return the Church of England to many Catholic beliefs.

He went on to leave the Church of England in 1845 for the Roman Catholic Church, where he was granted the rank of cardinal by Pope Leo XIII and eventually beatified.

“From his published letters, we know Mrs Beckwith was troubled by the problem of eternal punishment. In his reply, Newman urged her to remain calm and make an act of faith in the church,” said Douglas.

Mrs Beckwith did just that. While General Beckwith is believed to have started making plans to build an Anglican church at New Silksworth, his wife decided to build a Catholic one at Silksworth.

William died, however, several months before the foundation stone was laid for St Matthew’s Church in 1871 – leaving his widow to devote her full attention to St Leonard’s.

“It would have been a unique case of a husband and wife each building a church,” said Douglas. “In the event, only Mrs Beckwith was alive to see her plans come to fruition.”

Her church, dedicated to St Leonard and named after a medieval chantry chapel which once existed on the Hopper estate, was completed by 1873 – together with a presbytery, school and altar.

Towards 1874, however, Mrs Beckwith suffered from an illness that left her with heart trouble. She was later sent to Bournemouth to recuperate, but died there in June 1877.

A funeral procession of 12 carriages, headed by the Bishop himself, marked her death. She was laid to rest at Houghton Cemetery, next to her husband, much mourned by many people.

“Mrs Beckwith paid for everything to do with St Leonard’s, yet remains somewhat in the shadows – a generous and beloved Victorian lady leaving behind a memorial to her faith,” said Douglas.

l Durham Biographies Volume Seven costs £10 plus £1.50 postage. Cheques should be made payable to the History of Education Project and sent to the project at: Miners Hall, Red Hill, Durham, DH1 4BB. Further details available on: 0191 370 9941. Look out for another biography on Saturday.