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date: 21 October 2019

Isham, Sir Charles Edmund, tenth baronetfree

(1819–1903)
  • Bruce A. Bailey

Isham, Sir Charles Edmund, tenth baronet (1819–1903), rural improver and gardener, was born on 16 December 1819, the second son of Sir Justinian Isham, eighth baronet (1773–1845), and his wife, Mary Close (d. 1878). He was educated at Rugby School and at Brasenose College, Oxford, and succeeded to the baronetcy in 1846, following the unexpected death of his elder brother. The following year, on 26 October, he married Emily (d. 1898), daughter of Sir John Vaughan, justice of the common pleas. His only experience of public office was as sheriff for Northamptonshire in 1851, which he did not enjoy. On the family estate of Lamport, Northamptonshire (held since 1560), Isham carried out a number of improvements; he rebuilt cottages in the village in a decorative style and concentrated much of his energy on the garden around the house.

In 1847 Isham embarked on his most ambitious project: the building of a large rockery alongside the house, which he maintained was inspired by the writings of the landscape gardener and horticulturalist John Claudius Loudon. Isham constructed with his own hands a high craggy wall of local ironstone, which looks from the lawns as though it might be a ruined remnant of a previous mansion—and indeed is often taken for that. Behind this wall, facing north, is the cascade of the rockery, falling into a deep dell. It was planted with a variety of alpines and miniature trees, many of some rarity, exciting considerable interest when it was described in the Cottage Gardener for September 1859. Several of these trees survive, now a little over-size, although the dell has now been largely filled in. Colour was not a major factor in the planting of the rockery, Isham preferring a green appearance throughout the year.

Among Isham's other interests were vegetarianism and spiritualism. The latter aroused a more than passing interest in fairies and gnomes, not least in the idea that mines were inhabited by races of tiny beings who by their lights and knockings led miners to the best seams of the various minerals to be found—ideas that he expressed in an article in Medium and Daybreak (1889). In an extraordinary way this interest manifested itself in the acquisition of hand-modelled tiny gnomes while on a visit to Nuremburg. He placed these little beings, wielding spades and pick-axes and pushing wheelbarrows, in the rockery, as though they were mining it, and for some he made banners protesting that they were 'On Strike'. Some of these figures he adorned with entertaining doggerel verses for occasions when the Ishams held fetes at Lamport for local orphanages. They seem to have been well established by the 1860s, and so may well be the first appearance of such figures as garden decoration. Photographs of Isham's work survive, and he himself produced small booklets printed on a spirit duplicator at Lamport, celebrating his passion. Various mottoes in plaster and stone that decorate the house at Lamport are further examples of his talent.

It was during Isham's tenure at Lamport that, in 1867, the hall became the scene of what has been described as the most important literary find of the nineteenth century. In a back lumber room a trunk was found that had not been opened for perhaps 200 years and that contained a small pile of books of great interest and value. A London bookseller offered Isham a paltry sum for these but he declined to sell. Some years later, when the library at Lamport was being catalogued, their identification caused a sensation, for among them were first-edition folios of Shakespeare and other treasures, which aroused the interests of experts at the British Museum and collectors elsewhere. Isham eventually made a deal, and today they are highly prized as part of the collection of the Huntington Library in California.

On the death of his wife in 1898 Isham made over Lamport to his cousin and abandoned his beloved garden, retiring to Horsham, Sussex, where he died at his home, The Bungalow, on 7 April 1903. His two surviving daughters disliked the gnome population, and the elder, Louisa, who had married Edward Corbett of Longnor, Staffordshire, ordered their removal. In the 1950s Sir Gyles Isham, twelfth baronet (1903–1976), set about restoring the hall and its garden. In excavating and recovering the structure of the rockery, in a crevice one tiny figure was found to have eluded Mrs Corbett's clearance. He now resides in the house, in the care of the Lamport Hall Preservation Trust, set up by Sir Gyles, and claims to be the earliest garden gnome in England.

Sources

  • private information (2004) [Sir Ian Isham, bt]
  • R. Fish, ‘Lamport Hall’, Cottage Gardener, 23 (1859–60), 84–6
  • Gardeners' Chronicle, 3rd ser., 22 (1897), 209–10
  • C. Isham, ‘Visions of fairy blacksmiths at work’, Medium and Daybreak (22 Nov 1889)
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Wealth at Death

£11,179 8s. 8d.: probate, 8 June 1903, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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