Around 1774 Sir Edward Blackett, 4th Bt., came to live for part of the year at Thorpe Lea House, near Egham in Surrey, having purchased land at Thorpe Lea some three years earlier. Although he had acquired the considerable estate at Matfen, Northumberland through his marriage to Anne Douglas, he seems to have preferred to spend most of his time in Surrey, and in 1802 he sold Thorpe Lea House and built an even larger villa, also called Thorpe Lea (or Lee) House, nearby. The original Thorpe Lea House remained a private house until World War II when it was requisitioned by the War Office. After the War it reverted to private ownership, but never recovered its former glory. A fire subsequently destroyed much of the property but it was rebuilt in its old style. It is now a business headquarters and is known as Thorpe Lea Manor.
The new villa that Sir Edward built was a grand affair, and he spent most of his time there until his death in 1804. His only surviving son, Sir William Blackett, 5th Bt., carried on the tradition, and at least three of his six children were born at Thorpe Lea. Following Sir William’s death in 1816 his heir, Sir Edward Blackett, 6th Bt., devoted most of his time to his northern estates, including the rebuilding of Matfen Hall, and Sir William’s youngest son, John Charles Blackett, a naval officer, eventually came to occupy Thorpe Lea House when not away at sea. As with his father, most of his children were born there. Although some sources maintain that the house was sold after his death in 1896, his widow continued to live there until her death in 1899, and it seems to have remained in the family until at least 1911, as portraits of his great-niece, Vera Katerina Blackett and her husband, Baron Octave George Lecca, who married in 1911, at one time hung in the house. (They are now held by Egham Museum.) The Blacketts were not, however, occupying the house at the time of the 1911 census.
By the 1930s, however, it had become a hotel and during the Second World War it too was requisitioned by the War Office. Its decline continued after the War, and in the late 1970s it was demolished to make way for the M25 motorway. All that remains of the house is a section of one of the pillars from the front entrance which was rescued from the demolition site and is now in the garden of a cottage formerly belonging to the estate.
The death of John Charles Blackett did not bring to an end the family connection with Thorpe. In 1785 Anne Blackett, only surviving daughter of Sir Edward Blackett, had eloped with her 2nd cousin, Major (later General) William Scott, the son of Julia Blackett and Benjamin Scott, and great-grandson of Sir Edward Blackett, 2nd Bt. They were married at Gretna Green, Scotland, but went through a further ceremony in Stamfordham, Northumberland.
Possibly due to Anne’s children being the only grandchildren of Sir Edward for seventeen years, or perhaps merely due to his well-known generous nature, he seems to have forgiven his daughter and her husband, and in 1789 he bought for their occupation Thorpe House, a short distance from his own property. The house was bought by Sir Edward in the name of his grandson (and godson) Edward Scott, guardianship resting with the child’s father, William. Edward died in December 1794, before attaining his majority, and the house was transferred to his brother, William Henry Scott. Alethea Rianette Anne Scott, the second daughter of Major-General Sir William Henry Scott, spent most of her childhood at Thorpe House. In 1880 she married the elderly Sir Edward Blackett, 6th Bt., thus cementing the links between the Scott and Blackett families. The discovery of a manuscript written by her and containing many photographs and drawings of the Blackett houses formed the inspiration for Bill Purdue’s book, “The Ship That Came Home”.
Alethea’s marriage to Sir Edward may have caused some tensions within the family as she had some years before been jilted by his son, Major-General Sir Edward William Blackett, 7th Bt. A distinguished soldier, he lost a leg in the Crimean War during the siege of Sevastopol 1854-55, and was treated by Florence Nightingale. His wooden leg remained in the attic at Matfen for many years.
The grounds of Thorpe House were increased over the years by the purchase of adjoining properties, and it remained in the occupation of members of the Scott family until 1942, when it was used by the War Office for specialist military training. It passed out of the ownership of the family in 1950 and has been part of The American School in England since 1976. It has featured in at least two films: “The Creeping Flesh”, (1972) starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and “Craze”, (1974) starring Jack Palance.
The excellent book, “The Heart of Thorpe”, by James Lander, contains a wealth of detail on the history of Thorpe House. Also recommended is “Thorpe House and the Scott Estate” by Desmond Mills, published by Egham by Runnymede Historical Society and available from Egham Museum.
[With thanks to Piers Blackett, Barry Wintour on behalf of the trustees of the Oliver Collection, Richard and Jill Williams of Egham Museum, and Jim Lander and Eddie Cross of the American School in England.]