An incorrect account of the Abney family

21/06/2021

‘Beyond them speckled white cattle dipped their heads into the grass. A wood pigeon cooed drowsily. It was all looking so perfect, yet what a lot of work it all was to maintain.’

Beacon-like in its guidance, the role of Measham Hall does as much as any living individual to set Alethea on a path of transformation. Assured and impressive in status, it wields a power that our protagonist must master if she is to live by her newfound values of liberty.

Author Anna Abney is among the last descendants of the Abney family line, residents of the real Measham Hall, a lost house of Derbyshire from 1730. ‘The Measham Hall’ series is a fictionalised account of her ancestors’ lives, the richness of which she writes of here.

I heard about our ancestral home, Measham Hall, from my grandmother and great uncle. Unfortunately, it was blown up by the coal board in 1959 because the mine activity underground had made it unsafe, so I never got to stay there. It had been sold to the Measham Colliery in the 1920s and was turned into flats after the Second World War. Still, I have a rather charming watercolour of it, painted by Sir William de Wiveleslie Abney (1843-1920), a former director of the Science Museum and President of the Royal Photographic Society. W de W Abney invented the Abney level. He and his brother Charles were also founder members of the Derby Photographic Society.

The Abneys of Measham were originally Norman interlopers; Barons of Aubigny, from the Port of Carteret, who came to England with William the Conqueror in 1066 (one of them was William I’s cousin and cupbearer), settling (or taking land) in Derbyshire. A sir Niel, Baron d’Aubigny married Lady Helena, daughter of Richard II. In the thirteenth century Nicholas D’Albini (spelling was flexible back then) married Cecelia, daughter of William de Meysham.

According to an American Abney descendant, the Abney family can boast of no less than 106 kings, 50 queens, 42 dukes and 10 monks among our forebears. I’m not sure how all this royalty can be accounted for (or why there might be twice as many kings as queens), but there are certainly a few interesting characters and one (quite famous) royal I can account for.

Two Abney brothers, Paul and Dannet, emigrated to Virginia at the end of the seventeenth century. In 1679 Lieutenant Paul Abney was taken prisoner, with his sloop and passengers, by a Spanish man-of-war. Abney produced a pass, which the Vice-Admiral contemptuously wiped his breeches with, before commandeering the vessel.  Paul lived to tell the tale and this branch of the Abneys was granted land in Virginia and later, Carolina. This raises disturbing questions about whether they were slave owners; an area I intend to address in a later sequel to The Master of Measham Hall.

The William Abney who built Measham Hall was born in 1713. He died in 1800 and his obituary in The Gentleman’s Magazine partly inspired the idea of ‘the master’ in The Master of Measham Hall. Apparently, he was ‘the last of that old-fashioned race of English proprietors who now only survive amongst the writers of romance.’ He spent all his time in his country estate, always putting the needs of his poorer neighbours before his own. His coachman had worked for the family for over fifty years and his servants treated him more like a brother than a master. ‘His domestics had grown grey in his service and it was curious to see him waited upon by four or five tottering servants of nearly his own age’. Although, unlike the Hawthornes in Book Two of The Master of Measham Hall, he was an ardent supporter of William of Orange and later, the House of Hanover. He wrote a family history entitled ‘An incorrect account of the Abney family’, a title I have borrowed here, since, as you might have noticed from the dates, my ‘Measham Hall’ was built a century earlier.

Like the Hawthorne family, it was said that in ‘the confusion of the Civil wars … the family suffered considerably’. James Abney, (b. 1599) participated in the Royalist defence of Ashby Castle in 1645, where he was taken prisoner by Oliver Cromwell, although later released. Unlike Alethea’s father, James Abney kept his estates throughout the Commonwealth and was appointed Sheriff for Derby in 1656. It probably helped that the Abneys were distantly related through marriage to the Cromwell family.

Sir Thomas Abney (1640- 1722) became Lord Mayor of London in 1700, despite being a Dissenter – a person who refused to join the Established Church of England, which caused some controversy. Daniel Defoe, a fellow Dissenter, denounced Abney for taking communion in an Anglican church in order to become mayor. Alethea in The Master of Measham Hall is equally pragmatic when it comes to occasional conformity – taking Anglican communion to avoid being fined or imprisoned. Thomas was also one of the founding Directors of the Bank of England and a governor of St. Thomas Hospital.

His second wife, Mary Abney (thirty-six years younger than Thomas!) inherited her brother’s estate in Stoke Newington, moving in there after her husband died. She carried out much of the landscaping of what is now Abney Park Cemetery.

Dr. Isaac Watts, known as the father of English hymnody and famous for hymns such as, ‘Our God, Our Help in Ages Past’, ‘came to stay with the Abneys for a week and remained a guest of Mary and her daughters for the rest of his life – another 36 years. Hopefully he didn’t outstay his welcome.

The Abneys’ last surviving child, Elizabeth, apparently something of a Miss Havisham, died unmarried, directing that the estate should be sold off and the proceeds left to various nonconformist charities. Fittingly, in 1839 several Protestant businessmen set up the Abney Park Cemetery Company and in 1840 the Abney manor became one of the only cemeteries in England open to all dissenters regardless of denomination.

Most of my family history has been passed onto me by my great uncle, another William Abney. Bill was an RAF pilot in the Second World War, flying over 30 different kinds of aircraft. His dare-devil activities earned him the nickname, ‘Ace Abney’ and he often ‘flew blind’ over cover of night. Bill was also an actor, working in stage, film and television. He was the last male in the Abney line.

I promised you more royalty, well, my great-grandmother, Janet Abney, neé Littlejohn of Aberdeen, was first cousin to Ruth, Lady Fermoy, grandmother of Princess Diana. Fans of The Crown might recall a rather unsympathetic Lady Fermoy in the last series. Because of this family connection, in 2012 my father was approached by Dr Jim Wilson, a geneticist from Edinburgh university. It turned out Dad’s mtDNA contains a genetic marker indigenous to India. It is rare even there, only being found in about 1% of Indians, but it proved he and Diana had a shared Indian motherline passed down from a great, great grandmother. A result which led to the Daily Mail headline, ‘DNA tests reveal Wills is actually part-Indian!’ Or what The Times called a ‘Doomed Indian love story’. But that’s the subject for another book.