The Foster Family of Brickhill House
by Linda Ayres
Brickhill House was the farmhouse to Brickhill Farm that once stood over the brow of Cemetery Hill. When John Foster and his family lived there in the early 1800s, there were beautiful groves, lawns and rose gardens surrounding the house.
John Foster’s early life and his third wife’s family
John Foster was born on the 21st June 1767. He was a wealthy sugar planter of the Bogue Estate, Jamaica. He brought his third wife (Amelia nee Morgan) to Brickhill. Amelia Morgan was born in 1782 at Elim, St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. She was the daughter of John Morgan, Esq., who was a Barrister-at-Law and the recorder of Maidstone Kent. Her eldest sister was Maria, Countess Dowager of Carhampton, who was the second wife of John Luttrell-Olmius. (He was the 3rd Earl of Carhampton in the peerage of Ireland, and the Commissioner of Excise from 1785 to 1826. He was also a naval officer and politician.)
John had four children from two previous marriages. He and Amelia had three sons, Algernon, born in 1811, Arthur Fitzjohn born in 1813, and Morgan Hugh born in 1815, and two daughters, Mary Emilia also known as Emily, born in 1804, and Flora, born in 1806. All the children’s christenings took place at the Moravian Church in St. Peter’s, Bedford. They appeared to be a happy, affectionate family.
Amelia’s stay in Dresden with her children
In August 1820, Amelia and her five children left Brickhill for Dresden at the invitation of King Frederick Augustus 1 of Saxony. John Foster’s family, the Von Zezschwitz, was well known in the Court of King Augustus. John’s sister Sarah was the wife of Baron Frederic Christlieb Von Zezschwitz. During their time in Dresden Amelia and the children stayed at the lavish Courland Palace. The planned visit of six months extended itself to three years.
The death of Algernon Foster
John and Amelia’s eldest son, Algernon, had always been in poor health. Sadly, on 4th September 1821, he died. A few months before his death his sister Emily had written in her diary, “Dear little Al so ill if he ever becomes a man, he will be a noble one, such penetration and wit, such generosity and warmth: his high spirit will be tempered by his kind feelings – he looks lovely – deep purple blue eyes, fair delicate skin, lovely nose.”
Emily’s description of her brother’s passing is very tender:-
“We were all sitting round him when his dear breathing ceased. How lovely he did look. Nobody knows papa said once how I loved Algernon. The dear little boys want to know if we shall know him again in heaven – Papa read that beautiful part in the Bible where David loses his child (11Samuel. Xii 15-23).”
Amelia and her daughters meet Washington Irving
As well as being charming and beautiful, Amelia and her daughters were fluent in German and Italian. In 1822 the American author Washington Irving arrived in Dresden He was known for his biographical works and such stories as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. From the moment Irving met 18 year-old Emily Foster he was attracted to her. Emily wrote in her diary that the 39 year- old Irving was “neither tall nor slight, but most interesting, dark, hair of a man of genius waving, silky, and black, grey eyes full of varying feeling, and an amiable smile”.
Irving wrote a description of Emily saying that she was “ever young, fair, bright, and beautiful, waked like a goddess at eighteen. And she possessed not only beauty, but also character and purpose. She loved gaiety but she was no butterfly’’. On Easter Monday 31st March 1823, Irving proposed to Emily. He returned home depressed at her refusal of his offer.
Irving had formed a closed friendship with Mrs. Foster and they often exchanged letters. Irving records on 9th May 1823 that he accompanied Amelia to the grave of her son Algernon in Friederichstadt, Germany, where there was a beautiful monument of a child with wings sleeping on a bed of flowers.
The family returns to Bedfordshire
In August 1823 Amelia and the children returned to England. Emily describes the homecoming. “We set off at two (by coach from London) and we whirled in breathless speed through the ‘pleasant fields of England’. At Coldecot (Codicote, 28 miles north of London – they had come through Barnet and Hatfield, and the journey to Bedford took six hours) as Mama looked out she began screaming and knocking about – Papa was there, she got out to join him in his gig – we got a peep and a kiss through the window – and were rolled on – At Bedford we alighted in a crowd – Met good old Mr. Turner and set off on foot over the hill. We raced the good old man unmercifully; every step seemed to tread on a spur.
When the family arrived home from Dresden, they erected a stone monument to Algernon’s memory in the “Cypress Grove” adjacent to the path leading to Brickhill House. It not known if the monument was a replica of the one erected in Friederichstadt, Germany.
In 1824 Washington Irving visited Brickhill House. In a letter to his brother on the 7th July 1824, he writes, “My dear brother, I arrived here from town last night on a visit to my kind Dresden friends, the Foster’s, who have welcomed me as to my own home. I shall stay here seven or eight days at least.”
Flora Foster’s book
Flora Foster was author of the book “Princess Public Men, and Pretty Women”. It was published in two volumes, in 1864. In it she writes of a party of visitors who were determined to get a glimpse of Washington Irving’s visit to Brickhill House in July 1824.
“In our country house the wide windows of the morning room opened on the smooth green lawn, through which the carriage drive wound to the entrance door (this was the approach from the Kimbolton Roadside). Ivy, roses, and the climbing clematis ran their delicate tracery up the shafts of the Gothic-shaped windows. “Carriages could be seen coming through the groups of trees for a considerable time. Those who came on foot picked their way through a labyrinth of shrubberies, where every blossoming shrub scented the air and the wildflowers grew in rich profusion.”
Flora relates how Washington Irving, who detested morning visitors, attempted flight, but was cut off by the besieging party who had determined to see him, then in the noontide of his fame . He succumbed, with ill-concealed disgust, but afterwards his natural good feeling shone through.
John Foster’s later life
John Foster was Lord of the Manor of Marston and Magistrate for the County, as well as the Chairman of the Agriculture Meetings in London. In 1807, he wrote a booklet called “Observations on the Agriculture in North Bedfordshire.” On the 20th June 1828, the Bedfordshire Agricultural Association presented him with a large piece of silver plate at a dinner held at the Swan Hotel, Bedford. He subsequently received a second piece of silver plate from the agriculturalists of whole of England for his services to agriculture and his writings.
John’s eldest brother, Frederick William, was Bishop of the Moravian Church and lived in Kempston. John was also a Moravian Minister. On Sunday mornings, he would drive his gig along the coach road, past the Falcon Public House at Bletsoe, on his way to preach at the Moravian Chapel at Riseley.
On Tuesday 9th November 1830, John sold 270 of his well-bred sheep, cows, horses, grain, hay, and other effects of Brickhill House at auction. He returned to Jamaica and his family stayed in Bedford. Sadly, he died on 30th June 1831 age 66 years in the Bogue Estates, St. Elizabeth. His burial took place at St. James, Montego Bay.
After John Foster’s death
In his Will, he left Brickhill House and Farm to his wife Amelia and then to his eldest son Arthur Fitzjohn Foster, who was a Barrister-at-Law, as well as a member of the House of Assembly, Jamaica. Arthur died in 1842, whereupon his brother Morgan Hugh Foster succeeded him. Morgan was appointed Companion, Order of the Bath, and Commissioner of Land Tax and Principal Financial Commissioner in Turkey and in India (1861-66). He had a son, Arthur, born in 1843, who continued to take an interest in the estate and carried out repairs to it for about 40 years. There is no actual evidence that any of the Foster family made Brickhill a permanent residence after the 1830s. Usually the house was leased separately from the farm.
On the 7th June 1836, Flora married the Rev. William Alfred Dawson, at St. James Church, Biddenham, Bedford. Rev. Dawson was the third son of Squire John Dawson, of Woodlands, Clapham and Rector of Flitwick, Bedford. They had six children – born in different places such as Redruth, Great Yarmouth, Flitwick Vicarage, Clophill, and Adelaide Place, (subsequently renamed 50 Adelaide Square, Bedford, and called “Flora Cottage). Flora died in 1876 at London.
On the 18th September 1834, Mary Amelia (Emily) married Rev. Henry Fuller, at St. James Church, Biddenham, Bedford. Rev. Fuller was rector of Willington (afterwards rector of Thornhaugh with Wansford, Northamptonshire).
Their mother, Amelia, survived her husband by eighteen years and died aged 67 years on 30th January 1849 at her lodgings in Adelaide Place, Bedford. Her burial took place at the Moravian Churchyard, St. Peter’s Street, Bedford.
Emily’s correspondence with Washington Irving
Emily had not been in touch with Washington Irving for several years. On the 25th May 1856, she wrote the following letter to him, which may have been one of her last letters to him.
‘’My dear Mr. Irving:-
I think I ought to begin by telling you who is writing to you – Emily Foster, now Emily Fuller; and I address you, after a long time, because I hope that my eldest boy Henry may have the happiness and advantage of meeting you and making your acquaintance personally, as he has long ago by hearsay. I have been renewing former days. I have lately been reading over my old Dresden Journal, where you are part of our daily life, and feel it all over again so completely, I cannot believe all the time since has really passed. Then, too, in the course of last winter, we were living with you in the “Alhambra.” We were reading it out loud in the evenings, and the sunshine, and moonlight, and fountains and Lindaraxa’s garden became almost more real than real fire and winter evenings. We also read the “Sketch Book” and “Bracebridge Hall,” and I really thought they came upon me more fresh and more delightful than even the first time I read them – the touching expressions, and the arch, pretty humour – I could see you, your own self, as we read, and your very smile. How I should like to hear from you Mr. Irving! I married soon after we met in London. Do you remember you used to come, and spend the evening with us in Seymore Street? And now I have four boys and one little girl. They are so good and promising as to add much to our happiness. Two of them are still at school. …… My eldest has a desire to settle in the States. With a friend who goes out with him – a very nice, gentlemanly young man. …… I wish you would give us your advice as to situation etc. Climate would be one of the first considerations; and they wish to go as far west as would be convenient. I must not exceed my space. It will be such a real happiness to hear from you. Do tell me about yourself, dear Mr. Irving. You do not know how much and often I think of you.”
Irving replied to Emily’s letter on 2nd July 1856 in which he mentions that he was surprised and delighted to have received her letter and that since 1846 he has been leading a quiet life in a little rural retreat on the banks of the Hudson. Washington Irving died at the age of 93 on the 28th April 1858 at home, ‘Sunnyside’ on the Hudson River, in Tarrytown, New York. Emily died in 1885 aged 77 years, at Lymington, Hampshire.
Foster’s Farm and the Building of Foster Hill Cemetery
In 1854, 18 acres of Foster’s Farm (also known as Foster’s or Forster Hill) was purchased for £603 by the Bedford Borough Treasurer, James Wyatt, who in 1845 had founded the Bedford Times newspaper. For years, Wyatt had campaigned to end burials in the unsanitary and overcrowded town churchyards. In the years 1854 and 1855 the chapels at the cemetery were being erected at a cost of £460. In June 1855, Bedford Cemetery opened. In 1886, a further 18 acres for the extension of the Cemetery was bought for £1,117, making the Cemetery’s area about thirty-six acres.
On Boxing Day 1946, a fire destroyed Brickhill House. Mr. Frank Brightman, who had lived there for many years said that he woke up just after 7 a.m. thinking he heard crackling noise. He was not at first suspicious, but later investigated and found the kitchen full of smoke. He went to warn the other occupants of the house – Mr. and Mrs. Skirton and their three week old daughter Jennifer.
The fire spread rapidly and by the time the Skirton family were dressed their room was cut off. They decided to drop from their first-floor room to the ground. They wrapped up the baby and Mrs. Skirton dropped the child into the arms of her husband. The mother and baby were taken to a friend’s house in Clapham. The baby was unharmed but most of her clothes were lost in the fire.
The Monument to Algernon Foster
Long after the Foster family had left Brickhill House people were curious to know about Algernon Foster and why the monument was erected in the grounds of Brickhill Farm. There was never a public path through the farm and anyone caught trespassing risked punishment. One farmer complained that people were trespassing on his land and damaging the hedges just to get a look at the monument. In 1916, one or two people did enter the farm, and carved the initials J. R and D. H on the front of the monument.
Between 1957 and 1961, Algernon Foster’s monument was moved into Foster Hill Road Cemetery, when the Brickhill housing estate was built on the land that had once occupied Brickhill House and Farm. Numbers 125 and 127 Brickhill Drive now stand on the site of where Brickhill House had once stood.
Algernon Foster’s monument stands adjacent to the border of Brickhill and is sheltered under a large canopy of trees.
The monument bears the inscription:
“Algernon Foster born at Brickhill, April 1st, 1811, died at Dresden, Sept. 4th, 1821.
A Father’s Hope, a Mother’s Pride.”
On one side there are two verses of four lines each, commencing with the words “Weep not for those …” The lettering is very difficult to make out as the stone has perished. However it is thought that these verses may be the first eight lines from the poem ‘On the Death of Colonel Bainbrigge’s Daughter, 1815’ By Thomas Moore (1779–1852)
‘Weep not for those whom the veil of the tomb,
In life’s happy morning, hath hid from our eyes,
Ere sin threw a blight o’er the spirit’s young bloom,
Or earth had profan’d what was born for the skies.
Death chill’d the fair fountain, ere sorrow had stain’d it;
’Twas frozen in all the pure light of its course,
And but sleeps till the sunshine of Heaven has unchain’d it,
To water that Eden where first was its source’.
Section H Plot 11
Huntingdon, Bedford & Peterborough Gazette 14th June 1828
The Northampton Mercury 6th November 1830
The Journals of Washington Irving
Living Age volume 80 Page 40 1864
Works of Washington Irving: Life and Letters
Bedfordshire Times &Standard 8th June 1945
Bedfordshire Times & Standard 27th December 1946
Bedfordshire Times & Standard 24th January 1947
Bedfordshire Times & Independent 17th October 1947
May 21, 2021