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5 - Stillington People 

A village is not just a place, it is a community, and over the years, there have been a number of well known residents.  Lawrence (or Laurence - his name appears in official records in both forms) Sterne, one of the great names in literature, and the Croft family, famous in commerce are two examples.  George Russell is famous in quite a different way - although he would probably be quite embarrassed by the attention.  He was a jobbing gardener, and that is really all he wanted to be.


George Russell, MBE 1857 - 1951

At the start of summer the lupin stands like a multicoloured sentinel above the green of the average English garden.  The perennial English lupin, as we know it today, is a comparatively new phenomenon.  It was created by George Russell - The Lupin Man. 

George Russell was born in Stillington in 1857.  Throughout his life he remembered being taken, at the age of ten, to the annual flower show in the City of York.  It was there that he noticed, for the first time, the plain but traditional blues and whites of the standard English lupin.  He considered that something more noble should be possible from such an upright bloom. 

Forty years later Russell began to experiment with his childhood vision when he first started to cross-breed the standard English perennial with the pollen from a more colourful German annual.  He was not a professional horticulturist but throughout his working life had been engaged as a jobbing gardener - tending the lawns and hedgerows of those more fortunate than himself.  All experiments with the lupin took place in his own time on his own allotment. 

The experiments took some time.  For fifteen years he patiently crossed and re-crossed his lupin cross-breeds, scrapping inferior seedlings until, at last, he successfully created a perennial English lupin which bore the bi-coloured splendour he had first imagined possible as a ten-year old. 

By 1925 word of George Russell's phenomenal success with the English lupin began to circulate.  He had created an allotment which blazed with lupins such as the world had never seen.  It proved impossible to confine the fame of his private flower show.  Nursery seedsmen from throughout the UK began to visit offering up to £50 for a plant, more than £1300 at today's prices. 

Financial gain had never been George Russell's incentive and he steadfastly refused all offers.  The seedsmen attempted to reason with him.  He was no longer young!  What would happen to the Russell lupin if Russell died?  The final persuasive element came from the necessity to constantly guard his lupins against plant-pickers, and allotment-lifters! 

Russell eventually succumbed.  In 1927 he sold the rights to all his plants to Bakers (now Bells), the Midland based seed specialists.  At the age of sixty-eight he finally left Yorkshire and became resident consultant with the firm in Codsal, near Wolverhampton. 

The amateur botanist became honoured by the Royal Horticultural Society at the age of eighty and received national recognition with an MBE in the Birthday Honours List at the age of ninety-four.  He remained modest throughout his life and once confessed that all interior work on the creation of the bi-coloured, perennial English lupin had taken place in his allotment shed but that all the work which had been undertaken outside, in the garden, could be attributed to the humble bumble bee. 


Lawrence Sterne 1713 - 1768

Those who venture into the contemporary English novel are frequently surprised by the creative devices used by the writer, and by the subject matter.  It is, in fact, unlikely that the reader will discover anything new!  The man who is deemed by literary historians to be 'the Father of the contemporary English novel' is Lawrence Sterne, vicar of Saint Nicholas Church, Stillington, from 1745 to 1768.  The literary masterpiece which provided him with the accolade of critics was 'The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman'. 

Although Lawrence Sterne came to be revered in London literary circles and idolised by Parisian society it seems he never became popular in Stillington.  The reason for the villagers' displeasure in their vicar may well have been that he did not choose to live among his parishioners, but chose, instead, to reside in Sutton-on-the-Forest, just two miles distant. 

At the beginning of his clerical career Sterne conducted the Sunday morning service at the church of All Hallows, in Sutton, before walking across the meadows to conduct the afternoon service at Saint Nicholas.  It has been reported that on one occasion he failed to arrive, his pointer having discovered a covey of partridges on the way.  The vicar returned to Sutton for his gun. 

Tradition also has it that Lawrence Sterne's unpopularity in Stillington was proven by a winter incident.  Despite the advice of residents he persisted in skating on a village pond.  The ice broke under him.  All the parishioners turned their backs.  None would go to his aid.  Much to their disappointment the vicar managed to save himself. 

Despite his unpopularity among the majority of his parishioners Sterne was not without friends.  On one occasion Stephen, a member of the Croft family, invited Sterne to join his guests at Stillington Hall to provide an after-dinner reading from the manuscript of his work-in-hand, 'Tristram Shandy'.  It seems the reading was not a huge success.  Sterne considered that neither he or his masterpiece were receiving the attention they deserved.  He let his temper rip and flung the manuscript on the fire.  Thankfully Stephen Croft leapt to his feet, patted out the flames and saved the first volume of what has come to be recognised as the greatest shaggy dog story in the English language. 

Lawrence Sterne was born on November 24, 1713, in Clonmel, Ireland, the son of a junior officer in the British Army.  From the age of ten until his father's death, just eight years later, young Lawrence was sent to school in Halifax, Yorkshire.  He was already familiar with the county, his uncle, Jacques, was precentor and canon at York Minster. 

At the age of twenty Lawrence entered Jesus College, Cambridge, as a sizer - a student paying reduced fees.  He graduated four years later and took Holy Orders in 1738, becoming vicar at Sutton-on-the-Forest, a living which he held for the rest of his life.  The vicarage of the Stillington church followed in 1745.  In 1760 he added the benefice of the village of Coxwold.  Sterne died from tuberculosis in London on March 18, 1768 at the age of fifty-five.  In a bizarre and rather gruesome twist of fate, his body was said to have been 'resurrected' two days later by body-snatchers.  His remains finding their way back to the dissecting room of the Anatomy School of his own former University.


The Croft Family since 1605

It is widely accepted that Stephen Croft was the man who saved a literary masterpiece when he leapt to his feet at Stillington Hall to rescue the manuscript of Lawrence Sterne's 'Tristram Shandy' from the fire.  The history of  Sterne is well recorded.  But who was Stephen Croft? Who were the Croft family? 

The first member of the Croft family to be recorded in Stillington was Sir Christopher Croft, buried in the chancel of the village church in 1605.  Little is known about Sir Christopher except that his family originated from Castle Croft, in the county of Bedford. 

Sir Christopher was the first recorded representative of the Yorkshire branch of the Croft family but it is unlikely Stillington was his only home.  During the 17th century land-owning families were unlikely to occupy a single home.  They frequently owned six or seven manor houses in various parts of the country.  Those homes were occupied during their travels from place to place or their children were introduced to the different manors as they grew and vacated the childhood home. 

The first member of the Croft family to be recorded in any position of authority in Stillington was a second Christopher, perhaps the son of the first Sir Christopher, who purchased a short-term lease of the estate in 1625 and became 'Lord of the Manor of Stillington'. 

The second Christopher, Sheriff of the City of York in 1618, and Lord Mayor in 1629 achieved a personal knighthood in 1641 after entertaining Charles I at his house in York.  Sir Christopher was evidently well-satisfied with the management of the Stillington estate.  In 1649 he purchased the manor and obtained a second agreement which lasted a good deal longer than the first, short-term specification of just 'three lives'.  Almost three hundred years were to pass before the final member of the Croft family to occupy Stillington Hall vacated the house and sold the estate. 

Between the first Croft and the last came generation upon generation of soldiers and seafarers, Churchmen and merchant adventurers whose life-time achievements are now confined to the history books.  There were triumphs.  There were tragedies, as one memorial shows:

 'Harry Croft, Crimean War, drowned off Balaclava in the disastrous storm of 14 November 1854 when four steam, ten sailing transports and four frigates were sunk.  Age 29'. 

Sadly the Croft family have left behind few physical landmarks.  The splendid Admiral's House, in High Street, was originally the home of William Croft, the 19th century Admiral of the Fleet who is reputed to have built the house after a seafarer versus soldier feud with his elder brother, Colonel Harry. 

Today not all the family landmarks provide evidence of the family's wealth and fortune.  Stillington Hall, built in 1734, was finally demolished in 1966 in order to make way for those houses which now form the Parkfield Estate.  The walkway into Parkfield passes through the twin pillars, once a gateway into the grounds of Stillington Hall.  The family crest, which once adorned the front of the hall is now cemented in, at ground level, at No 1 Mossy Terrace, Main Street.  The crest can also be found in St Nicholas church it is reproduced beside the memorial plaque commemorating the lives of those many members of the Croft family who are buried in the graveyard at Stillington. 

Surely the most enduring testimonial left behind to mark the ingenuity and invention of the Croft family must be found in the legacy of one who broke away from the convention of the wealthy land-owning family, left home and established himself as merchant adventurer.  After completing his schooling John Croft, great-grandson of the second Sir Christopher, set sail for Portugal and enlisted in the wine trade. 

The wine shipping partnership which young John Croft was to join, and eventually take over, was established in 1678.  Although John remained a bachelor until his death in 1762 the company which he helped to found passed to his brother, Stephen.  All of Stephen’s five sons entered the wine trade and so the firm which originated from John Croft's 17th century enterprise continues to bear the family name through to the year 2000.  Croft Original and Croft Particular are two fine sherries which remain in production from the present day House of Croft.