18 December 2022

The janitor and drinking
earl who gave his name to
two streets in Stony Stratford

Augustus Road and Egmont Avenue in Stony Stratford are reminders of the story of Augustus Perceval, Earl of Egmont (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Two neighbouring streets in Stony Stratford – Augustus Road off Calverton Road, and Egmont Avenue, which leads off Augustus Road – take their names from Augustus Arthur Perceval (1856-1910), 8th Earl of Egmont, whose family once owned the land on which the houses on both streets are built.

Lord Egmont was a colourful if enigmatic figure. He had run away in his teens to become a sailor, married a waitress, was later a fireman and a town hall janitor or caretaker and worked in salt mines and cement factories before inheriting the family titles and estates in Wolverton and Stony Stratford following a series of coincidental deaths of successive family members.

But, in anticipation of inheriting the Perceval family titles and estates, Augustus had borrowed heavily against the family estates in Ireland that were already heavily indebted and being sold off because of the debauched lifestyle who had died half a century earlier.

By the early 20th century, Augustus had effectively lost any grip on his finances and had squandered all he might have inherited before ever getting his hands on it. He was forced to sell off the last estates he had mortgaged or borrowed against. When he sold off the lands between Calverton and Stony Stratford for housing, the developers kindly acknowledged his name when it came to developing Egmont Avenue and Augustus Road.

The Egmont estate in Stony Calverton and Wolverton dated back to 1806, when it was bought by Augustus Perceval’s great-grandfather, Charles George Perceval (1756-1840), 2nd Baron Arden, a half-brother of John James Perceval (1738-1822), 3rd Earl of Egmont.

Calverton Manor … Charles Perceval, Lord Arden, bought large portions of the Calverton estate in 1806 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

For centuries, from the Middle Ages until the Tudor era, Calverton Manor belonged to the de Vere family, Earls of Oxford, and then the Nevil family, who held the title of Lord Latimer, remembered in the name of Latimer estate. From them, the Calverton estate descended to the Percy family, Earls of Northumberland. It was sold to Sir Thomas Bennet, a former Lord Mayor of London, in 1616, and then descended to the Cecil family, Earls of Salisbury.

When James Cecil (1748-1823), Marquess of Salisbury, sold the manors of Calverton and Beachampton, they were bought at an auction in the Cock Hotel in Stony Startford on 18 October 1806 by William Selby Lowndes of Whaddon, while other interests in Calverton bought by Charles Perceval, Lord Arden. Perceval was a half-brother of Spencer Perceval (1762-1812), who would become Prime Minister in 1809 and who was assassinated in the House of Commons in 1812 – the only British prime minister to have been assassinated. They were half-brothers of John James Perceval, 3rd Earl of Egmont.

The Perceval family were extensive and titled landowners in Ireland. They were descended from Sir Richard Percivale or Perceval (1550-1620), who acquired hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Ireland at the beginning of the 17th century, making him one of the largest landowners in Co Cork.

Sir John Perceval (1629-1665), who amassed over 100,000 acres in Co Cork, including Kanturk Castle and Liscarroll Castle, received the title of baronet at the Caroline restoration in 1661. There is a family connection, for this Sir John Perceval was the recipient of extensive correspondence in 1650s from his cousin William Dobbyns about the living conditions and life circumstances of the mapmaker Nicholas Comerford or Comberford in Stepney in the East End of London.

Sir John Perceval’s grandson, also Sir John Perceval (1683-1748), was MP for Cork (1703-1715) until he received a string of Irish peerage titles, becoming the 1st Earl of Egmont. His son, John Perceval (1711-1770), was MP for Dingle, Co Kerry, in the Irish Parliament, and was the father of two half-brothers who bought out the Cecil family’s interest in the estates in the Calverton and Stony Stratford area.

The third earl’s grandson, Henry Perceval (1796-1841), 5th Earl of Egmont, began the process of selling off the family silver to sustain a life of debauchery, marked by his alcoholism and loose living. In his mad scramble for ready cash, this Lord Egmont appointed Sir Edward Tierney from Rathkeale, Co Limerick, as his agent at his Irish estates in 1823, including Liscarroll Castle and thousands of acres around Churchtown, Kanturk and Buttevant in north Cork.

After living a dissolute lifestyle, this Lord Egmont left all his estates in England and Ireland to Tierney, while the family titles passed to his distant cousin, George Perceval (1794-1874), 3rd Lord Arden, who became the sixth earl.

All Saints’ Church, Calverton, rebuilt in 1818-1824 by Charles Perceval (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

His father Charles Perceval, as the 2nd Lord Arden, had bought a portion of Calverton Manor, including the advowson or the right to present or nominate the Rector of Calverton. He exercised this right in 1814 when he presented Dr Butler as a temporary Rector of Calverton, to hold the parish until his son was ‘of a proper age.’ The patronage of the living later descended in the Perceval family to the Earls of Egmont.

Lord Arden commissioned the architect William Pilkington to rebuild All Saints’ Church between 1818 and 1824, on the foundations of the earlier All Hallows’ Church, and the church opened or reopened in October 1818.

Lord Arden was assisted in this work by Dr Butler. Arden also built a new rectory at his own expense, and the foundations of the house were laid in July 1819.

Butler was succeeded in 1821 by Lord Arden’s third son, the Revd the Hon Charles George Perceval (1796-1858), who came to live at Calverton as Rector on 26 March 1821, at the relatively young age of 24.

Charles Perceval was a devout High Churchman and a supporter of the Tractarians. Much of the decoration in the church, the stained glass windows and other embellishments, owes its origins to Perceval.

Many of the Tractarian leaders met in the Rectory at this time, including Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882), John Henry Newman and Edward Manning, and some of the Tracts for the Times were planned if not written at Calverton.

The Revd Charles Perceval of Calverton, was a younger brother of George Perceval (1794-1874), who became the 6th Earl of Egmont in 1841. However, the new earl received not a penny from his ancestral estates.

Sir Edward Tierney had died in 1856 at the age of 76, and his title and his interest in the vast Perceval title had passed to his son, Sir Matthew Edward Tierney (1818-1860), but he left his estates acquired from the Egmonts to his son-in-law, the Revd Sir Lionel Darell (1817-1883).

The sixth earl went to court against Darell to recover the estates in a remarkable case before the Summer Assizes at Cork in 1863. After four days, the case was settled. Egmont recovered Liscarroll Castle and his ancestral estates, but Darell was awarded £125,000 and costs.

Kanturk Castle, Co Cork … given to the National Trust before Augustus Perceval could inherit it, is now in ruins (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Egmont died on 2 August 1874 and – for want of a male heir – was succeeded by his first cousin’s son, Charles George Perceval (1845-1897), 7th Earl of Egmont, who was born in Calverton Rectory. In 1889, this earl sold the Perceval estates in Co Cork, including Liscarroll Castle, near Buttevant, and 62,500 acres of land, to his tenants under the Ashbourne Land Act in 1895. After the seventh earl died in 1897, his widowed countess donated the majestic ruins of Kanturk Castle to the National Trust in 1900.

The seventh earl, like so many of his immediate predecessors, had no immediate male heir, and so his Irish peerage titles passed to his first cousin’s son Augustus Arthur Perceval (1856-1910), who became 8th Earl of Egmont in the Irish peerage, but without the once grand Irish castles at Kanturk and Liscarroll.

Augustus Perceval was born at Papanui, Canterbury, in New Zealand, in 1856. He ran away from his Royal Navy training ship to become a common sailor. He married Kate Howell, daughter of Warwick Howell of South Carolina, in 1881. The New York Times in a report described as a waitress.

A year after Kate and Augustus married, he joined the fire brigade of Southwark, and by 1887 he was working as a janitor or caretaker at Chelsea Town Hall. He later worked in salt mines in Cheshire, and then in South Africa in a cement factory.

He eventually succeeded to the family titles on 5 September 1897. Those titles were daunting and an impressive if not overpowering list: 8th Earl of Egmont, Co Cork, 8th Viscount Perceval of Kanturk, Co Cork, 8th Baron Perceval of Burton, Co Cork, 7th Lord Lovel and Holland, Baron Lovel and Holland of Enmore, Co Somerset, 4th Baron Arden, of Arden, Co Warwick, and 9th baronet. The runaway sailor and former janitor now had a list of titles that would have suited any Gilbert and Sullivan stage production.

Known among his drinking companions as Gussie, he scandalised his fellow peers regularly. He was arrested for being inordinately intoxicated in Piccadilly while accompanied by a young prostitute. The young woman attempted suicide in her cell and Gussie caused a sensation when he refused to remove his hat when arraigned in court the next morning.

In a risk that never paid off, the new earl borrowed heavily, gambling that he would inherit the vast Perceval estates totalling 120,00 acres. Instead, there was little for him to inherit, and he sold off what was left in a piecemeal manner in the hopes of acquiring a lifestyle commensurate with his new status. Finally, he sold Cowdray Park in Sussex in 1910, shortly before he died. Perhaps the only legacy in property that he could leave was giving his names to Augustus Road and Egmont Avenue, which were developed in the early 1900s.

Egmont Avenue in Stony Stratford is a distant reminder of Augustus Perceval, 8th of Egmont (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Gussie and Kate had no children: he died at The Hollies, Thames Ditton, Surrey, in 1910 at the age of 54; Kate, the former waitress who survived as the Dowager Countess of Egmont, died in 1926.

The titles continued to struggle to find heirs among members of the Perceval family who were living in suburban Birmingham. Three claimants to the titles came forward in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Two of the claims, by a baker and a derelict, were dismissed by the Master of the Court of Chancery, who instead accepted of a rancher living in Canada, who at first wanted nothing more than to remain a simple farmer, living in a sparsely-furnished, two-room log house in the Rockies.

The Perceval titles eventually died out in 2011 with the death of the 12th Earl of Egmont. Both Liscarroll Castle and Kanturk Castle in Co Cork are elegant but in ruins. All Saints’ Church in Calverton remains a beautiful historical and architectural legacy of the Perceval family. But the only properies left in Stony Stratford as reminders of this family in name are two suburban streets in Stony Startford: Augustus Road and Egmont Avenue, off Calverton Road.

Augustus Road in Stony Stratford is a distant reminder of Augustus Perceval, 8th of Egmont (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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