The Bents at home

The London homes

From the late 1870s until Mabel’s death in 1929, the Bents lived in Great Cumberland Place, London, a Regency/Georgian sweep of properties, a stone’s throw from Marble Arch, and for nearly twenty years they would leave their comfortable London residence together every winter for the hardships and inconveniences of travel in the Eastern Mediterranean, Southern Arabia and Africa – greater contrasts it is difficult to imagine.

Originally the Bents leased Number 43 Great Cumberland Place, with its adjacent mews entrance passing underneath their drawing rooms, until the early 1880s, following which they moved closer to Marble Arch, again leasing, at Number 13.

43 Great Cumberland Place
43 Great Cumberland Place

At Number 13 the Bents were in the habit of putting on small exhibitions of archaeological and ethnographic finds from their travels – including the famous and iconic soapstone birds taken from ‘Great Zimbabwe’, now back in Africa.

After Theodore’s death in 1897, Mabel continued to reside in rather lonely isolation  at Number 13 until her death in 1929.

Number 13, alas, has not survived, but Number 43 has! Its elegant and understated facade can be passed in a few paces, but a glance up at the doorway, windows and upper storeys may still reveal the figures of the Bents – in their famous Ulster coats – either preparing for, or returning from, very far away places: Great British travellers indeed.

Sutton Hall and the ‘country’ homes

‘We left England on January 19th Thursday, travelling from Sutton Hall to Marseilles, which we reached at 12.10 pm on Saturday morning and went to bed at the Station Hotel.’

A casual reference to a remote Cheshire hamlet begins Mabel’s 5th Chronicle in January 1888. It is written in Istanbul (or Constantinople as she prefers), about as far removed from the Norman-founded house of Sutton Hall as one can get, and all a long way from rural Cheshire. The modest grand house of Sutton Hall, a few miles from both Macclesfield and Chesterfield, has sturdy Norman roots and was leased for a period of time by Theodore and Mabel.

Wikipedia’s entry for the house informs us that:

‘The house is constructed partly in stone, and partly in timber framing, with a U-shaped plan. The arms of the “U” end in irregular gables. The left gable is in stone, and the right is timber-framed. The upper storey of the right gable is jettied, the jetty being supported on brackets carved with wooden figures, one a knight in chain mail. Between the two wings is the former great hall. A 16th century chapel at the rear of the house, which has served at different times as stables and as a convent, now serves as the restaurant kitchens. The house is recorded in the National Heritage List for England as a designated Grade II listed building.’

and that:

‘Once the property of the Sir Humphrey Davenport, Chief Baron of the Exchequer in 1631, the Manor of Sutton later passed by marriage to Sir Rowland Belasyse, an ancestor of the Earls of Fauconberg. In 1819 it was acquired by the Countess of Lucan and descended to her successors, the Lords Lucan, primarily used as a farmhouse. The countess had been born Elizabeth Belasyse, daughter of Henry Belasyse, 2nd Earl Fauconberg and in 1794 had married Richard Bingham, who became the 2nd Earl of Lucan in 1799. By 1804, after six children, they had separated.’

In its present incarnation, the erstwhile Bent residence is a pleasant, out-of-the-way gastro-pub and very worthy of a detour and lunch. [GPS= 53.240306854248,-2.1160869598389]. The pub’s website includes a potted history and photo gallery.

Local historian Alan Dinnis adds:

‘The Bents had been in the Sutton area for some time.  Back in 1838-39, when St James’ Church was planned, members of the family contributed a total of ten pounds to the building fund.  In the 1860s, when it was customary for church pews to be rented, “The Misses Bent” held eight seats with another four seats for their “domestics”.  Theodore owned The Elms in Byron’s Lane and had another house in London.  He also held the lease (from the Earl of Lucan) of Sutton Hall, which was occupied by his Aunt Maria.’ [personal communication, Oct 2011]

Sutton Hall, Cheshire
Sutton Hall, Cheshire

Sutton Hall was initially leased by Bent’s parents, James Bent and Margaret Eleanor (née Lambert, daughter of wealthy Baildon (near Bradford) locals, John and Ann Lambert of Baildon Hall), who married in April 1848. The Bent family could be traced back some generations in the north of England, related to the splendidly-named Hamlet Bent (1642-1728).

As well as their fine home in Baildon, and assorted properties in the area, Theodore’s father (presumably) also leased Sutton Hall, it seems as a home for his sister and those of his brothers, and which was to become the favourite English summer residence of his son Theodore and his wife Mabel.

In the summer of 1885, Theodore (now comfortably off) put up for sale five freehold cottages and premises (totalling about four hectares) at Brook Hill, Baildon (and a freehold close of land in Slaughter Lane) at auction. The young explorer was left with Baildon House and his property interests in Sutton. (Anglo-Irish Mabel had access to lands of some grandeur in Co. Wexford and Theydon Bois, Essex, where the couple rest together today in the Hall-Dare plot in St Mary’s church.)

It is unclear what happened to the lease at Sutton Hall up until Mabel’s death in 1929, but at Theodore’s death in 1887 it was incorporated into his trust estate:

‘. . . I bequeath to my Aunt Maria Bent her executors administrators and assigns absolutely All that my leasehold messuage called Sutton Hall Macclesfield wherein she now resides for all my term and interest therein she paying the rent and observing and performing all the covenants and conditions contained in the lease thereof. I devise all my freehold or copyhold estate at Sutton near Macclesfield aforesaid called “The Gurnett” unto my trustees . . . Upon trust to permit my said Aunt Maria Bent during her life to receive the rents and profits thereof and from and after her decease I declare that the said freehold or copyhold estate shall sink into and become part of the trust estate hereinafter mentioned…’ [‘Clause in Will of J T Bent, signed 21 Jan 1891’]

It seems that ‘The Gurnett’ was linked in some way with the property referred to (see above) as ‘The Elms’. This residence was perhaps in turn rented out, as in 1895 it was the residence of one ‘Alderman John Birchenough JP‘, a prominent local politician and silk manufacturer, and described as ‘a pretty mansion in Byrons’ Lane, Sutton’.

Sutton Hall pub’s own website has an interesting archaeological snippet:

‘In the grounds of Sutton Hall there is a somewhat dilapidated Bronze Age barrow (now the resting-place of a water trough).  In 1962 the barrow was again excavated, by James Forde-Johnston of Manchester University, who unearthed evidence of several further cremations. He discovered that the mound had originally been around 100 yards in diameter, but was substantially reduced, with many of the river cobbles having been removed to the nearby farmyard for use in paving, where they can still be seen.’

Theodore would most certainly have known of it (probably a cremation site, now much reduced in size), and in all likelihood taken a spade to it, although we have neither record nor proof: although the ‘somewhat dilapidated’ is perhaps one clue (!) and a search for Forde-Johnston’s notes might reveal others.

Sutton’s local church of St James’ contains a sweep of memorial windows to the Bents. Theodore installed one for his father, who died in December 1876, and his mother, who died in November 1873. And their son, in his turn – and nicely depicted as St James – has one donated by his widow. In the church guide we read:

‘This window is dated 1897 and depicts a pilgrim ending life’s journey at the gate of Heaven and being welcomed by an angel. The pilgrim is dressed as St James. There is a scallop shell in his pilgrim’s hat… The window is in memory of J. Theodore Bent, of Baildon House, Yorks, and Sutton Hall, who died on 5th May 1897 aged 45. It was given by his widow Mabel, of 13, Great Cumberland Place, Middlesex.’ [Alan Dinnis, St James’ Church, Sutton: 1840–1990, Macclesfield 1990, 136]

The Cheshire Observer of 27 November 1897 provides more information:

‘Mrs. Mabel V. A. Bent, residing at 13, Great Cumberland Place, London, applied for a faculty to place a stained-glass window at the east end of the church, as a memorial to the late James Theodore Bent, a former parishioner. The cost (£72) would be defrayed by Mrs. Bent. – The faculty was granted.’

The stained-glass window at St. James' Church dedicated to Theodore
The stained-glass window at St. James’ Church dedicated to Theodore

It is a fine, long window (dated 1896 curiously), depicting the pilgrim (Theodore) being welcomed by an angel at heaven’s gate. The caption reads: ‘To God’s glory and in remembrance of J. Theodore Bent. FRGS, FSA. Son of James and Margaret Eleanor Bent of Baildon House, Yorks, and Sutton Hall. Died May 5 1897, aged 45.’

Mabel specified two quotations: ‘The highways were unoccupied and the travellers walked through byways’ (Judges 5:6) and ‘They were strangers and pilgrims on the earth’ (Hebrews 11:13). Mabel and Theodore are reunited in these lines. (There are other memorials to the Bents and Hall-Dares in Baildon (St John’s), Theydon Bois (St Mary’s), and Bunclody (Co. Wexford, also St Mary’s.)

But Sutton Hall was to remain one of the Bents’ happiest homes and they spent time there as often as they could – their routine from the early 1880s until Theodore’s death in 1897 was to travel in English winters and return to England and Ireland for summers and autumns. As well as visiting family and friends, Theodore would spend these periods writing, lecturing, and preparing for the next season and the beeswaxed and grandfather-clock-ticking rooms of Sutton Hall would have been furnished with the desks and tables on which Theodore worked on many of his books (see the bibliography) as well as the hundreds of letters (his correspondents including Rider Haggard: did he have Bent in mind as Allan Quatermain?), as well as the articles and lectures he generated over the twenty or so years of travel.

As for Sutton’s later role in the lives of the Bents, future research, we hope, will uncover the story of Mabel’s holidays, as a widow, at Sutton Hall, but we may assume that Theodore last saw the house in the summer and autumn of 1896 before leaving for Sokotra and Aden – his final journey.

We must wait for a suitable Bent memorial at the gastro-pub that Sutton Hall now is (although at the upstairs windows one might glimpse faces still), but just along the lane, on the little hill that offers up St James’, Theodore, from his stained glass window, looks out south and south-east towards their remarkable routes and researches in the Mediterranean, Africa, and Arabia: thousands of land – and sea-miles, on hundreds of steamers, small boats, horses, mules, camels, and ox-carts to ‘Great Zimbabwe’. Today’s pub visitors have no idea – but, inside, the dark, Victorian rooms crackle with Empire.