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5 - Stillington
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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,
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
Lawrence Sterne 1713 - 1768
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'.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.