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Mistley Hall and Village, Essex, for the Rt. Hon. Richard Rigby, c1774-82 (34)

In 1543 the Mistley estate was forfeited by William and Elizabeth Ford to the Crown, remaining Crown property until Edward VI made a gift of the lands to Sir John Rainsford in 1552. In 1680 Edward Rigby, a London linen draper, purchased an interest in the estate of Aubery de Vere, the 20th and last Earl of Oxford. Upon the Earl’s death in 1703, his complex affairs were settled under an Act of Parliament in which Edward Rigby received the Mistley estate. He was succeeded by his son, Richard Rigby the elder (d.1730), a successful financier, who had made his fortune in the South Sea Company. Richard Rigby the elder was responsible for the early developments of Mistley Thorne. Alongside his construction of Mistley Hall he is recorded by Morant as building 'a village of about 50 brick houses, convenient for tradesmen and well inhabited. He also built several granaries, warehouses, a large malting-office; and made good quays and coal yards.'

Richard Rigby the elder died in 1730, leaving his estate to his eight-year-old son Richard. In 1738, Richard Rigby the younger took up a place at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge from which he passed to Middle Temple, but left with no qualifications, subsequently setting off on a Grand Tour. Following his return, in 1744 he joined White’s Club alongside his friend Horace Walpole. Shortly afterwards Walpole’s brother, Robert Walpole 2nd Earl of Orford introduced Rigby to politics, encouraging him to stand for Castle Rising in October 1745. During the early stages of his career Rigby became associated with Frederick Prince of Wales and his Leicester House circle. Horace Walpole records that the Prince promised Rigby £1,000 to stand in his interest at Sudbury in the elections of 1747, in which Rigby succeeded ‘though so populous a town, and in which he did not know one man’. Subsequently a petition was made against him, in which Rigby was accused of intimidating the electors, after he brought a group of prize fighters to the polling. The petition was rejected and £900 of the £1,000 offered to Rigby was paid by the Prince; however, the post of Groom of the Bedchamber, which had been promised with it, instead passed to William Trevanian. As a result Rigby and Walpole broke away from the Leicester House circle, and on 29 April 1749 they were struck off the Prince of Wales’ list of persons intended to receive office.

Rigby subsequently aligned his interests with John Russell, 4th Duke of Bedford, sitting for his pocket borough Tavistock in 1754, a seat which he held until his death in 1788. When Bedford was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in January 1757, he named Rigby as his secretary. Upon the Duke’s death in 1771, his will absolved Rigby of all debts owed to him, a sum of £5,000.

Initially a supporter of the Whig party, Rigby was seen to quarrel with Henry Fox, and eventually became a keen supporter of the North administration. In June 1768 Rigby was rewarded with the post of Paymaster of the Forces, a lucrative role which he held for twelve years. With the half-a-million pounds of public money entrusted to the post Rigby was seen to spend liberally, and Mistley Hall became the centre of lavish entertainments held for his society friends.

In October 1777 the Countess Spencer wrote to David Garrick, ‘I need not say how much we were charmed with Mistley, the place and reception we met with there were such as you have so often and so enchantingly described.’

Following the fall of the North administration, Rigby lost his position as Paymaster in March 1782. He was replaced by Edmund Burke, who subsequently demanded the repayment of a large sum of public money. Threatened with disaster and suffering from ill health, Rigby gave up his London residence in St James’s Place and retired to Bath in 1785, where he died on 28 April 1788. He was buried in the family vault at Mistley, and a monument to him was set up in Adam’s church, now preserved in the Church of St Mary and St Michael, Mistley.

Rigby was unmarried, but left legacies to his natural daughter Sarah Lucas and her mother, with a further £100 a year set aside for his mistress, Jenny Pickard. The remainder of his estate, including the house and grounds at Mistley, was inherited by his nephew, Lt Col. Francis Hale. Three years after Rigby’s death, a debt of £150,000 in public money still remained unpaid.

Following the death of Francis Hale in 1827, what remained of the Mistley estate passed to his daughter Frances, the wife of Horace Beckford, 3rd Baron Rivers. In 1844 the estate was sold off in lots, and Mistley Hall was subsequently demolished. Only parts of the late eighteenth-century stable block survive.

Adam’s earliest commission for Rigby, in 1774, was for an extensive bathing pavilion. Possibly intended to be positioned at the centre of Mistley Thorne, Adam’s fine bath house would have presented an impressive façade overlooking the river Stour. A number of spas and baths were established in Essex during the eighteenth century, yet Adam’s scheme for Mistley was never executed. It is likely that the site intended for this impressive building was latterly used for the group of houses known as Fountain Cottages, along with the swan pond, both of which Adam designed some five years later, in 1779 (SM Adam volume 41/60-63).

As Mistley Hall was demolished c1844, it is impossible to establish whether Adam’s scheme for the house and its interiors was ever executed. Bolton suggests that the alterations to the exterior may have remained unexecuted. However, a contemporary account records that under Rigby an additional wing was constructed at Mistley Hall, containing a drawing room and eating room, but no date for this is given. It is perhaps significant that the surviving drawings for Adam’s interiors are also for a drawing room and eating room. Further to this, King notes that the nature of the interior designs would suggest their execution, with the design for the drawing room carpet (SM Adam 5/43 and 17/198) complementing that of the ceiling designed some six months earlier (SM Adam volume 14/27-28). King also highlights the number of surviving Adam estate buildings, which besides the cottages include the northern lodge house which formed part of an entrance screen (SM Adam volume 51/67); a bridge for the road leading from Mistley to Manningtree (SM Adam volume 51/34); and the towers of Adam’s church. As a result the extensive work undertaken by Adam for the Mistley estate would suggest the execution of the scheme for the hall and its interiors.

See also: Mistley Church, Essex

P. Morant, The History and antiquities of the County of Essex, 1768, pp. 460-63; ‘Strawberry-Hill Aug. 2, 1750’, Letters of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford, to Sir Horace Mann, British Envoy at the Court of Tuscany, Volume II, 1833; A.T. Bolton, The Architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume II, 146-155, Index pp. 23, 85; ‘Pocket Histories of Essex Parishes No. 29 Mistley’, Suffolk Chronicle and Mercury, Jan 26th, 1934, pp. 1-4; E. Harris, The Furniture of Robert Adam, 1963, p. 50; A. Rowan, Robert Adam catalogue of architectural drawings in the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1988, pp. 99 (cat. 143); D. King, The complete works of Robert and James Adam & unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume I, pp. 29, 249, 344-46, 351, pls. 356-7, 493, Volume II pp. 106, 183, 210, 222-23, 229, 239, 245; R Cowell & A Cowell, Essex Spas and Mineral Waters, 2001, p. 71; J. Bettley & N. Pevsner, The buildings of England: Essex, 2007, pp. 50, 52, 598-600; ‘Mistley Old Hall’, www.historicengland.org.uk; R. Thorne, ‘Rigby, Richard (1722-1788)’ 3 Jan 2008, www.oxforddnb.com; ‘Rigby, Richard (1722-88) of Mistley Hall, Essex’ www.historyofparliamentonline.org (accessed April 2019)

With thanks to Peter Cross for information regarding the surviving Adam buildings in Mistley.

Anna McAlaney, 2019
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