March 25th is ‘Lady Day’, the traditional name of the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin. It is also a day of festivities in Tichborne, Hampshire, when donations of flour, which have been blessed by the local parish priest, are handed out from the front of Tichborne House — and, a time when, once more, the villagers serve to abate the terror of an age-old curse!
This is the introduction from “FreakyFolkTales”, on wordpress.com, who are one of many re-tellers of the story. The origins are said to be from around 1180, when Lady Mabella was married to Sir Roger Tichborne: in the 12th Century, Lady Day was the official first day of the next year. Sir Roger was not known for his benevolence. Lady Mabella lay on her deathbed: she was concerned that after her death the poor of the Tichborne village would no longer receive her donations. So she suggested to Sir Roger that he would honour her bequest, that the poor and needy would receive a gallon of flour, annually in the future, after she had died. He was not so sure, so he took a burning firebrand from the fire, and said “The flour from all the land Lady Marbella can crawl round before this brand dies out will be the source of this bequest!”
The fields around Tichborne House are fairly undulating, and have changed a little. It is difficult to identify the exact area that was the subject of this bequest: but the fields in question are well known to Alresford residents for the annual Agricultural Show in September, when several are now used as huge carparks, quite apart from the showgrounds. Lady Mabella could not walk unaided, so instead of walking she had to crawl. In all, Mabella managed to crawl around a reported 23 acres, returning to the house before the firebrand died away. The field to the North of Tichborne House, beside the road to Alresford, is still referred to as “The Crawls” – this is used as the Alresford gate Car Park on the Show Day. It would seem logical that Lady Mabella would have started her route Eastwards from the house, up the current avenue to the Alresford road initially.
The Tichborne Family in the 1600s
The legend was handed down over the centuries, and was certainly reported and acted upon in the Seventeenth Century. The Tichborne family were staunch Catholics, and at the same time Royalists. There is a private (Catholic) chapel at Tichborne House: in the Church of St Andrew at Tichborne, the North aisle is virtually unique in that it is used as a Catholic chapel within an Anglican Church, and it was a mark of the favour endowed upon Sir Benjamin Tichborne (High Sheriff of Hampshire) around 1600, that this was allowed by King James, who visited Tichborne several times. Previously, in Elizabeth the First’s reign, Chidiock Tichborne had been executed for his part in the Babington plot against Elizabeth.
Little is known specifically about the Tichborne Dole event in 1644, when the Royalist army was bedded down in Alresford on 27 March, having come from Winchester and forestalled the advance of the Parliamentary cavalry from the East. But the Dole would probably have been distributed as usual, we assume, on 25 March. After a few days in Alresford, Lord Hopton and the Royalists fought William Waller at the battle of Cheriton in the fields South of Alresford, on 29 March. Sir Henry Tichborne was the owner of Tichborne House at this point, and fought with the Royalists at the battle of Cheriton, alongside two of his Uncles. Waller and the Parliamentarians won the battle and the Royalists retreated to Old Basing, and presumably to The Vyne, north of Basingstoke: in the battle the Cavalier Henry Sandys, grandson of William, Fourth Lord Sandys, of The Vyne estate, had been killed. As for Sir Henry, by tradition, he hid in “The Tichborne Oak” to escape capture by the Parliamentarians.
Anti-Catholic (and Jesuit) feeling grew strong in the latter parts of the 17th Century, and was probably stirred up to avoid a separate revolt from the poor, after the plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666. This culminated in the fictitious Popish plot of 1678-81, where many Catholics, including Sir Henry Tichborne, were imprisoned, in his case till 1685.
The Flemish painting
Prior to this imprisonment, Sir Henry Tichborne, who was well travelled across Europe, commissioned a painting by the Flemish artist Giles Tilburg. This showed himself and his family generously distributing the dole to the poor, but mainly to the residents of Tichborne, in 1670. In these times the dole was distributed as loaves of bread. The picture shows the house as it was then, mainly a Tudor mansion, but the massive tower was older, and probably as old as the 13th century. This house survived until 1803, but more of that later.
The picture in the painting shows in the centre Sir Henry Tichborne, then 44 yrs old, leading his sister-in-law Miss Francis Arundel by the hand: behind them is Lady Mary (his wife). The gentleman in black is the family chaplain, the Rev Father Robert Hill, a Jesuit. Next to him stands the family nurse Constancia Atkins, and the two women behind her are Lady Tichborne’s maid (Mrs Chitty) and their housekeeper (Mrs Robinson). The little boy pointing to the basket of loaves is another Henry, the Baronet’s eldest son. The little girl carrying loaves in her apron is Mary Tichborne, who became a Benedictine Nun at Pontoise, near Paris. The house servants are mainly on the left, and the people on the right are the villagers, many of whom can be identified from the key that goes with the picture. The general poor are not shown as present….
The painting itself is the subject of a current study by Prof John Walter of the University of Essex, who gave a lecture early in 2016 to the Winchester Historical + Archaeological Society on the subject. The picture was possibly a political message, to counter the common distrust and promote a better image of the Catholic land-owning aristocracy. At this time the Catholics, after the persecution in England, had closed in on themselves, and there was a lot of intermarriage, eg between Tichborne and Arundel etc. He was the fourth Baron, so a good target for the gossiping London papers: but they never mentioned about the Dole. The painting was suggesting the Catholic landed classes were generous, and helped the poor, whereas other land-owners had given up such good works. Indeed the painting is the first real record of the existence of the Dole. However it is fair to say that other landowners, and even some Churches, had similar dole ceremonies for the poor throughout the 16th,17th and 18th Centuries.
There is no previous written record relating to the Dole legend or the annual distribution events known, even in the Winchester archives recorded over those years: nothing has been found. Within the family no early records survived, but this was possibly because many of Sir Henry’s own records were burned by his friends when he was imprisoned in the Tower, presumably to avoid them being used in evidence against him. Within the family, it is known that when Sir Henry was travelling in Europe, in a letter home to his son from Italy he told them the legend of Lady Mabella. Possibly this triggered the idea for the painting, and also made him resurrect the Dole more strongly, if it had lapsed – in the 1660s the Government introduced the Hearth tax to raise yet more money in taxation, but most people were very poor, and a third of Tichborne villagers were too poor to pay any tax. The later issue of a gallon of flour would keep an adult supplied with bread, the staple of the diet, for maybe four months.
Prof Walter also discussed the possibility that Giles Tilburg never actually visited Tichborne. The painting was similar to other Flemish paintings of events where alms were distributed to the Poor. The picture is also reminiscent of a Church service, in the open air, and this could also have been a hidden message.
The “Curse” of the Legend
Lady Mabella did not trust her husband, or his successors, to carry out his promise, so the legend records that she added a curse onto any of her successors who failed to distribute her charitable dole. The penalty quoted in 1180 was that the family would have a generation of seven sons born to the house followed by a generation of seven daughters, and the family name would die out. In addition the family house would fall down.
Over 100 years after the painting of the picture, the new Sir Henry then owning and living in the house in 1790 had seven sons: they were Henry, Benjamin, Edward, James, John, George and Roger. Apparently the Dole Day had become a very rowdy affair, attracting the dissolute and dishonest from far and wide. The people attending included gypsies, and a travelling fair. House accounts suggested that in 1791 there were 1700 loaves distributed: if the loaves ran out, the tradition was that the late-comers were given two pence each, and one year these payments amounted to £8 (ie they paid out cash to 1920 people). The local landowners and magistrates were not amused, and demanded that the Dole be stopped, which happened in 1794 or 1796, and ceased totally from 1800 through to the 1830s.
However, Prof John Walter comments that there is no actual record of any Magistrate’s order to stop the Dole. The Tichborne Vestry records report on the rising costs of ‘Poor Relief’, and there were two years of very poor harvests in the 1790s. Possibly the Dole was too popular because of the poor harvests, and too expensive for the landowner, Sir Henry. He was undoubtedly hard up, as reports from travellers record that the house looked to be in decay, and indeed in 1803 parts of it fell down.
A new smaller house was built to replace the old house. In 1821, the younger Sir Henry ascended to the Baronetcy, and had seven daughters. This meant that the Baronetcy, and house, should pass to the first nephew, who was known as Roger Tichborne. Of the six brothers of Henry, George died aged 13, and John died unmarried in 1806 in India. Benjamin died in 1810 in China, unmarried. Roger married, but died without children. Edward had one son, Henry, who died in 1835, aged 6: Edward, who had changed his name to Doughty, then re-instituted the ceremony of the Dole. However this was under new conditions, the dole would be given to restricted claimants, ie residents of the Parishes of Tichborne, Cheriton, and Lane End, and would be in the form of 1lb or 10 oz loaves. It was later amended to be in the form of flour, but the date for this change is unknown.
The remaining son, James, had married in 1827, and had one son, Roger Charles, born before the Dole was re-instated: he was lost at sea off South America in 1845. James had a second son, Alfred Joseph, who was born after the restoration of the Dole. Maybe because of this he survived, and inherited the ownership of the Estate and Baronetcy. He is the great-grandfather of the late Sir Anthony Doughty Tichborne, who was the fourteenth Baronet.
But wait, all was not easy. Enter someone claiming to be Roger Charles, in 1854, no longer lost at sea, but returning home as The Tichborne Claimant.
The Tichborne Claimant
Roger Charles had been lost at sea in 1854, but his mother, the Dowager Lady Tichborne, believed he was still alive, and placed adverts in newspapers offering a reward for the discovery of her missing son. Eventually in around 1866, news came from Australia that he had been found. The man who turned up was no longer the slim youthful Roger but an enormously fat man in middle age. Nevertheless the mother accepted this man as her ‘missing son’, who claimed the family fortune. He was backed by some villagers, notably Mr Helsby of Tichborne Villa. The residents of Tichborne did have some benefit, as while the Claimant was acting the role of Roger Charles he also distributed dole, in a separate ceremony to that at Tichborne House. The press had a field day, as the rest of the family gathered together to fight the claim: it was said that 40,000 extra copies were printed of London papers reporting these events.
A civil law suit eventually followed in 1871, which lasted 103 days, and cost the wider family around £90,000. The Tichborne Claimant lost the civil case, and was then subjected to a subsequent criminal trial for perjury in 1874. This criminal trial lasted 10 months, the longest in legal history. The Claimant was named as Arthur Orton, son of a Wapping butcher, who more recently had worked as a butcher in Wagga Wagga, Australia. He was found guilty and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
The consequence was that the Tichborne Dole became a tourist attraction from 1874 on, making problems for the Estate and the village because of all the extra visitors. By the end of the Century the family are in the Bankruptcy Court, as a result of the civil case costs and disruption. But fortune smiles, and a wealthy relative in the Doughty family dies with no other heirs. To claim the estates they have to change their name to Doughty-Tichborne.
In 1911 the Doughty land in Lincolnshire is sold. In 1920 the Doughty Estate covering large parts of London is split into four lots and sold – this comprised maybe 500 houses and several large Hotels in Central London. The West Tisted estate is also sold. With this enormous wealth the family are the paparazzi celebrities of the era, they spend money on a yacht in the Med, rent a villa in the South of France, buy a share in a gambling club etc. Relations are particularly good with the Daily Mirror.
In the 1920s the magazine Autocar organized a run down to Tichborne, and in the 1930s cycling clubs made it their objective. In 1940 there was the largest attendance ever for the Dole ceremony: the Dole had continued all through WW1. In WW2, the Government decided that the Dole typified what the US thought of as ancient English tradition, and reflected the image of the “countryside” of “Lovable England”. So it had to be continued for the morale of the troops and to win US public opinion over, and bring US Forces onto our side to help. The Canadian Black Watch were billeted in the house at the time, and as far as is known they helped the Dole continue.
After the war there was bread rationing, and in 1947, the MAFF said “No” to the dole distribution! Through his contacts with the Daily Mirror Sir Anthony appealed for unwanted bread ration coupons to be sent in, which were supplied in large numbers, and the distribution went ahead.
In 1965 Sir Anthony died, and with three daughters – shown in the photo – the Baronetcy ceased, and the name did die out. The remaining family still owned about 1000 acres.
The Dole from the 1970s on
The dole continued and was distributed to the parishioners of Tichborne and Cheriton throughout the 1970s. This was at the time when many new houses were being built around Alresford, in Sun Hill and along Tichborne Down, before the Alresford bypass was built. Presumably in the planning stages for the bypass and road system, the Parish boundaries were reconsidered. Prior to the 1970s, the Tichborne Parish extended to include parts of the village of Itchen Stoke, and also the road known as Tichborne Down. This meant that the houses on Tichborne Down, including the new houses built on Bennet’s Farm were all part of Tichborne Parish. Clive and Jacky Earthy in Corfe Close, and Joan and Roy Wimbleton, in Carisbrooke Close, and their families, all qualified, as they were among the first new residents here. While they were able to attend the Dole distributions in the 1972-74 period. Mary Kier, now a Cheriton resident, lived in Itchen Stoke at that time, and therefore qualified: I am grateful to Mary for a view of the sheet distributed in those earlier times explaining the Blessing of the Flour and the ‘official’ family version of the Dole legend about Lady Mabella.
Sometime after the early 1970s the boundaries changed. Surprisingly, these changes did not follow the exact route of the bypass, so to many it may come as a surprise that the houses to the South of Spring Way in Alresford are still in Tichborne Parish. I assume that this means that the new residents in the houses in Bakewell Gardens in 2016 all qualified for the Tichborne Dole, and obviously they are expected to bake their flour well!
In 1985-6, as reported in the story about George Watson on AlresfordMemories, the painting of the Tichborne Dole of 1670 was cleaned and spruced up to be sent to Washington as a part of the English Country Treasure House Exhibition, in the US National Gallery of Art.
The 2016 Dole
In 2016 the Dole ceremony took place on 25 March, which was also Good Friday. So it seemed the local priest doing the Blessing had a very busy day, and rushed off. Presumably it was the current owners of Tichborne House, Anthony Louden and his family, who distributed the Dole from the big wooden trough, with most of the work done very efficiently by their three children. The names of those eligible were read out from an official register, to summon them to come up with their plastic bags, or other containers, but there were others available for those who forgot. Only a few of the reserve sacks of flour had to be added to the trough, as the attendance was not as high as maybe was expected, on a Bank Holiday day. When all official residents had collected their flour, the remainder in the trough was distributed to anyone present who wished to take a memento home. A photo story of these proceedings is given in the associated FlickR web album, on the website http://www.tinyurl.com/Dole2016
A History of Tichborne by E Roberts and E Crockford
Tichborne, A Village History, by G Timmins
Prof John Walter, University of Essex
The Tichborne Dole explanation sheet, from the 1950s
Wikipedia and other websites.