Wight Life

The Seely Family

and their Island Homes

by Walter Roberts with drawings by R Norton

Drawing of Brook House

FIRST LINKS of the Seely family with the Isle of Wight were forged some hundred and twenty years ago. Mr Charles Seely, a wealthy Nottinghamshire coal mine owner, purchased Brook House in 1859 and with it most of the village of Brook. In the next twenty years, his Island properties were so greatly increased that he owned Mottistone, many farms in Brighstone and, by 1874, the desirable property of Gatcombe.

Brook House was a very attractive residence only half a mile from the sea standing within well timbered grounds a hundred feet above sea level. This Georgian residence was built upon the site of the old manor house where the first Tudor king was entertained in 1499 by Dame Joanna Bowerman whose family were the Lords of the Manor here until the 18th century. Henry VII gave his hostess his silver drinking horn as well as a promise of a buck each year from the royal forest at Carisbrooke.

The Seely family, as the ears of corn in their crest indicate, had been corn millers from Lincolnshire and had then invested their money in coal mines, yet Charles Seely was a radical in politics and from his seat in the House of Commons he had defended the Chartists. Later, he gave much displeasure to Queen Victoria by inviting Garibaldi to England and entertaining him at Brook House in 1864. The popular Italian hero not only planted a 'Tree of Liberty' at Farringford, but also one still to be seen in the gardens of Brook House.

Charles Seely made considerable improvements to Brook House with its tiled roof guarded by ornamental parapets and walls partially covered with Virginia creeper. He was small of stature, but physically very strong. Not only was he, at 81, the oldest member of the House of Commons, but here in the Island he was still riding daily on his pony for several hours at a stretch round his fast-growing estates, or making frequent visits to his club in Newport. Though austere, he was benevolent and much respected, while his charming wife was full of good works and always radiating affection and sympathy.

Their son, later Sir Charles Seely, had spent the best years of his life at the family home, Sherwood Lodge, in Nottinghamshire managing the Seely coalmines. He was a fine man and a keen sportsman, whilst holding his seat as a member of Parliament from 1869 to 1895. Like his father, he was a good landlord and maintained the family interest in the lifeboat movement. His mother had christened the first lifeboat on the IsIand, and his son Jack was a member of the crew at the age of 17. Sir Charles will always be remembered for his contribution to the free library service in the Isle of Wight. The first step had been to supply books to village reading rooms and then he took the initiative by his offer of £500 for the building of the Seely Library in Nodehill, Newport. The family coat of arms is to be seen above the porch, and Miss Florence Seely, the eldest of Sir Charles' seven children, laid the foundation stone on a July afternoon in 1902. As a similar ceremony was performed on that day for the technical institute which was part of the same block of buildings, Sir Charles spoke appropriately of 'the marriage between school and library, hoping they would spend a very long time together'. Seventy-two years later the close relationship is still maintained.

Drawing of General J E B Seely

The first baronet wished to see his three sons, Charles who was heir to the title, Frank and Jack settled in Island homes. On his father's death, Charles therefore continued to reside at Gatcombe House until it was sold to the Hobarts. We are reminded of this link between the Seely family and this Georgian mansion when we see, in the church near by, the fine monument to Charles Grant Seely who was killed fighting against the Turks before Gaza. He was the second baronet's eldest son.

For Frank, a new house was built, the imposing edifice standing high up on Brook Hill which is so easily recognised by travellers along the south coast of the Wight and named Brook Hill House. This fine house was eventually leased to distinguished people such as J B Priestly who lived there for a number of years.

The youngest son, by then well known as General Jack Seely, was given the old family home at Brook where he lived until he decided to make his home at Mottistone Manor. When Gatcombe was sold in 1926, Sir Hugh Michael Seely, brother of the young soldier killed before Gaza, became the last owner of Brook House. After a distinguished political career, this third baronet was created Lord Sherwood from the Nottinghamshire connections of the family. On his recent death, the whole estate was sold. The best known member of the family was undoubtedly General Jack Seely who was to have closer ties with the Isle of Wight than any of the elder branch of the family. He had come to love the Island when as a schoolboy he spent many of his holidays riding and sailing and getting to know the people of the West Wight. He faced danger, not for the first or last time in his life, in the Brook lifeboat on the stormy seas at the back of the Island, and this love of adventure remained with him through his long life of seventy-nine years. While at Cambridge, he joined the Hampshire Yeomanry, training with his regiment during vacations and fighting with them in command of the Isle of Wight troop in the 2nd Boer War (1899 — 1902). He won the D S 0 and gained a knowledge of the art of war which was to be of value to him both as a polititian and later as a cavalry leader on the western front in the first world war.

Drawing of Mottistone Manor

Meanwhile, his political career had already begun; in his absence in South Africa he had been elected as Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight to support the Unionist government. His wife, who had been his colonel's daughter, campaigned successfully for him, but on his return from the war it was not long before he was criticising in Parliament the government's military policies. By 1904, he had crossed the floor of the House of Commons along with Winston Churchill, and, in the dramatic struggle of 1906, he fought and won a seat in Liverpool as a Liberal. Mr Asquith and other Liberals soon gained a high opinion of his capabilities which earned him office in their government in 1908. By 1912, he was Secretary of State for War. In this important position, he played a great part in the preparations for the coming conflict with Germany.

Unfortunately, however, he was forced to resign in the spring of 1914, his career, like that of so many other politicians, being adversely affected by an Irish crisis, the so-called Curragh Mutiny. He took upon himself the responsibility for the mistakes of some of the generals.

It was not the end of his political career but Westminster saw little of him for the next four years. With his famous horse 'Warrior', he became closely involved in the fighting in Flanders, organising and leading the Canadian Cavalry Brigade with courage and skill. There is a large painting of him as General Seely on his famous horse, hanging in the west wing of Mottistone Manor, a replica of one painted byGilbertHalliday which isnow in the War Museum in Ottowa. The artist had been commissioned to do the work by a grateful Canadian government.

Seely was both wounded and gassed in the conflict, but was mentioned in despatches five times and promoted to major-general. After the war, he settled down, first at Brook, then at Mottistone. His interest in politics was maintained and, in 1923, he won the Isle of Wight for the Liberals, their last success here until 1974. By that time, he was Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire and the Wight and was soon to become the chairman of the Savings Movement. He also helped to establish the British Legion, and was a county alderman. In these years too, aided by his daughter, the Hon Mrs Kindersley, he wrote a number of books which reflect his outlook on life, his love for simple things, and his intense admiration for the fine qualities of ordinary country folk like the Bucketts of Brighstone whom he came to know so well and who had for him love and respect. He joined in their activities, played with them at cricket, and continued to work with them in the lifeboat movement about which he wrote in one of his books 'Launch'. His other books have significant titles: 'Adventure', largely auto- biographical; 'Paths of Happiness'; 'My Horse Warrior' and 'Fear and be Slain'.

It is in 'Fear and be Slain' that we are told how he came to restore the old manor house of Mottistone and make it his home. Created a Baron in 1933 he took the title of Lord Mottistone which has now, since his death in 1947, been held in turn by three of his sons. He says that it was John Seely, his architect son and the second Lord Mottistone who inspired him and his wife to dig out the back part of the house, submerged by an 18th century landslide and so discover the old Tudor walls and windows in a fine state of preservation. Today, this lovely Island manor house, restored externally and internally over a number of years, is much as it was when possibly Sir John Choke came here with his brother-in-law, William Cecil way back in the Tudor period. We are reminded of this link between the past and the present by the Latin inscription in the porch left by the late Lord Birkenhead who, like Winston Churchill, often visited Mottistone. Birkenhead reminded us that the Chokes built the house and that John Choke was a wise tutor to his Sovereign, a member of his Privy Council and Secretary of State. He concluded: 'after incredible vicissitudes, in the reign of George V, John Seely, Architect, restored it to its pristine beauty under the direction of his father John Seely, Soldier, Privy Councillor and Secretary of State'. And so history repeated itself.

Mottistone Manor has now been given to the National Trust but with members of the family still in occupation of the property. Until recently, the Dowager Lady Mottistone has been the gracious hostess here, and now her son, Jack Seely's stepson Sir John Nicholson, the vice Lord Lieutenant of the Island lives here with Lady Nicholson and their family. The house is a fitting reminder of what the Seely's have contributed to the social and cultural life of the Island. Their motto is in Deo Spero.