The History of Dilston

The Derwentwater Estates and Greenwich Hospital

•	Pathway through the river glen at Dilston in the early 1830s when John Grey held the position of Agent for the Derwentwater Estates.When John Radcliffe, Titular 4th Earl of Derwentwater, died in 1731, at the age of nineteen, the Derwentwater Estates were confiscated by the Government and, in 1735, bestowed upon Greenwich Hospital – a charitable institution for seafaring men.  In 1833 John Grey, a Northumbrian landowner and progressive agriculturalist, was appointed as Receiver and Agent for the Northern Estates of Greenwich Hospital, and a new house was built for him at Dilston. (This house is now Dilston College, belonging to MENCAP.) John GreyJohn Grey occupied his post with great distinction, becoming known as ‘a leading name in English agriculture.’ During the forty years that John Grey and his family spent at Dilston, ‘not only visitors but the public generally were allowed to roam at pleasure over the charming grounds’, which had been beautifully laid out with new walks, lawns and shrubs.

In 1865 the Greenwich Hospital Estates were transferred to the Lords of the Admiralty, who, some years later, started selling them off to private owners. On 12 October 1874, the Dilston property was purchased by Mr W. B. Beaumont (afterwards 1st Lord Allendale). At the time of the sale, a number of coffins were removed from Dilston Chapel. The coffin bearing the remains of James Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, was taken to Thorndon Hall in Essex and re-interred in the Mortuary Chapel of Lord Petre – a direct descendant of the Earl through his daughter Anne. The other Radcliffe Family coffins, including those of the 1st and 2nd Earls of Derwentwater, were re-interred at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Hexham. Dilston Chapel subsequently ceased to be used for worship and fell into disrepair. It was restored and rededicated for worship in 1949, when the house belonging to the Allendale Family was in use as a Maternity Home. The Dilston property was taken over by MENCAP, the present owners, in 1970.

•	Josephine pictured in 1828 shortly before her marriage to George Butler“The Rose of Dilston” was how George Butler described his beautiful bride Josephine Butler (1828-1906)

Josephine Butler, who is celebrated as one of the passionate social reformers of the Victorian era, grew up at Dilston in the new house built for her father John Grey.  In her biography John Grey of Dilston she describes her father’s work as Agent for the Derwentwater Estates and recalls numerous happy childhood memories of life at Dilston. The house, which overlooked the castle, was always full of family, friends and many foreign visitors interested in the agricultural reforms of John Grey. “It was,” wrote Josephine, “a house the door of which stood wide open, as if to welcome all comers, throughout the livelong summer day”. Josephine especially loved “the wild informal beauty round its doors”. It was a place where “one could glide out of a lower window and be hidden for a moment, plunging straight among wild wood paths and beds of ferns, or find oneself quickly in some cool concealment, beneath slender birch trees or by the bed of a mountain stream”.

‘Countess’ Amelia – the Derwentwater Claimant

The Countess AmeliaIn 1857, a woman calling herself Amelia Tudor Radcliffe laid claim to the Derwentwater Estates, professing to be the grand-daughter of John Radcliffe, only son of the executed 3rd Earl. The fact that John Radcliffe had died in 1731, at the age of nineteen, did not deter this determined and eccentric lady who appeared from nowhere, telling her incredible story to the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle.

Amelia, the self-styled Countess declared that John Radcliffe had not died, merely staged his own death, fleeing to the Continent, where he married, produced a family and lived to a ripe old age – she being his sole heir. To back-up her remarkable claim she produced several so-called family documents, as well as items of furniture and relics, all of which had supposedly come from the demolished Derwentwater mansion, Dilston Hall.

Amelia’s roadside campsiteOn 28 September 1866, accompanied by two retainers or henchmen, Amelia left her house in Blaydon and made her way to Dilston, where she famously took up residence in the ruined tower house – Dilston Castle. Here, a tarpaulin was erected as a makeshift roof, pictures were hung on the bare stone walls, and the ruin filled with furniture and other so-called ‘Derwentwater heirlooms’. Barricading the door, Amelia stubbornly remained in place for several days, guarded by her loyal henchmen. When officials tried to persuade her to leave she refused to go, lashing out with a sword and eventually having to be forcibly ejected – carried out of Dilston Castle still seated resolutely on her chair. Undeterred, she camped outside the grounds, for a further thirty-five days, before finally being removed by the Hexham Highways Board.

Following a series of mad-cap escapades, including attempts to intimidate the tenants of the Derwentwater Estates and persuade them to pay their rents to herself, the public support that she had initially received began to wane and local people turned against her.  In 1871, she was served with a debtor’s summons and declared bankrupt. An auction of her various possessions and ‘Derwentwater heirlooms’ failed to raise enough money to pay her numerous creditors, and her refusal to co-operate with bankruptcy examinations led to her imprisonment in Newcastle Gaol. After her release she lived in poor circumstances, dying on 26 February 1880.