Seascape looking south from the Isle of Wight
You never know where a thought might lead. This one started with a local myth. A young girl dies for love, scanning the skyline for her sweetheart who has gone to sea for three years. According to legend, each day she climbed to the cliff top there to sit and sew her trousseau as she waited for his return. Could there be any truth behind it?
Where might her lover have gone? These were dangerous times, France was ablaze with revolutionary zeal. Perhaps he was a young officer in the king’s navy, longing for adventure and hoping to grow rich from prize money. Equally, he might have been aboard a merchantman heading east in search of silks and spices.
The lover has no name, but the object of his affection was Miss Catherine Bull, second daughter of Richard Bull Esquire of Ongar in Essex and the Isle of Wight. He was a long serving MP for Newport in Cornwall and a gentleman of means.
Catherine, and her older sister Elizabeth were much loved by their widowed father who also raised two step chidren, Richard and Lavina Bennett. As a youth he briefly flirted with taking a degree in law but his father died a year after he entered Lincoln’s Inn, releasing him from any such oblication. He aspired instead to a classical education at Trinity College, Cambridge where his interest grew in the arts. Later he became a noted collector of books and prints, a lifelong interest that he instilled into his dauthers.
Richard Bull as a Young Man, c 1745.
Richard’s great grandfather, Samuel Bull, was deputy governor of the Isle of Wight. In 1657 he went on record as having issued a warrant for the removal of a young woman named Catherine Evans charged with preaching at a meeting of the Friends. Quakerism being anathema to the established order, she was kept for several nights a prisoner of the guard, then one evening she was dragged from her bed by a soldier carrying a naked sword and bundled aboard ship, returning her to the mainland. [350 Years in the Isle of Wight by A Knott].
In 1659 the year that Oliver Cromwell died, he became the victim of a political plot and left the Island.
View across the southern swathes of the Isle of Wight
Samuel hung on to his property and his son John Bull was later described as a London businessman from the Isle of Wight, while his son, Sir John Bull (Richard’s father), inherited the Ongar lands in Essex through marriage . Sir John was knighted in 1717 and the following year he served as Sheriff of London.
Sir John Bull
So what of Elizabeth and Catherine? Richard Bull, as a man of culture would have almost certainly employed governesses to ensure that his daughters had all the skills that a young woman would need in polite society. Music, singing, playing a musical instrument, dancing, sewing and embroidery, poetry, possibly French, plus an appreciation of the arts would have been instilled into them. All this expensive preperation was invested to secure for girls a suitable marriage. Richard, having no male heir would wish for a suitable husband for his daughters which brings us to their marriage prospects.
Elizabeth would have been expected to marry first but she didn’t. Perhaps she had already decided to devote herself to the care of her father and run his household. She might have possessed that fatal flaw so dreaded by upper class men and been too clever. Given Richard’s wealth, she must have been an attractive prospect but for whatever reason, she remained single.
And how about Catherine? Is it possible that in falling for the charms of a sea-going man she faced her father’s absolute refusal to countenance such a union? On the other hand, if he was a young man with genuine prospects, perhaps her father decided to test the strength of their affection and sanctioned a long voyage in the secret hope that Catherine would change her mind? Richard certainly had the means to arrange such a voyage, for his own father had grown rich through trading with the Levant and across the Ottoman Empire.
In 1783 Richard grew less inclined to spend so much time in Essex and began to visit the Isle of Wight. He took the lease on a large Jacobean house along the south coast of the Island in the village of Shorwell. At that time it was held in trust, along with the manors of Mottistone and Wolverton, for the five daughters of Sir John Leigh, the last in the line of an Island family of many generations.. The house was called Northcourt, commissioned by Sir John’s ancestor in 1612.
Wolverton and Mottistone Manors
In 1793 the Leigh estates were offered for sale, and Richard decided to purchase Northcourt, advertised in the Hampshire Chronicle for sale by auction at the Dolphin-Inn Southampton on March 11, 1793. It was described as follows:
THE MANSION-HOUSE OF NORTHCOURT and several parcels of land in possession of Richard Bull, Esq, tenant at will…with appurtenances, several Farms at rack-rent, and under leases near expiring. Wood grounds in hand, and several Tenaments near the Mansion out on leases for lives.
Between 1783 when Richard first took the lease and 1795 when he became the outright owner, the mystery of Catherine’s romance took place. Northcourt manor sits in a hollow, the estate lands bisected by the highway through Shorwell village. To avoid encountering the local peasants, a bridge spanned the road allowing the sisters to cross to the south side and there gain a view out to sea. Here, allegedy Catherine kept her vigil, awaiting her lover’s return.
We have no dates as to when he might have been expected, or how long she continued to watch. Legend says that she continued to sew her trousseau until the day that she died.
The memorial in St Peter’s Church at Shorwell records her departure on October 13, 1795. One might wonder why Richard decided to buy the house in the very year that such an unhappy event had taken place, but perhaps it was the need to stay near to Catherine’s mortal remains.
There were other dedications to Catherine. In the grounds of Northcourt, her grieving family erected a chapel to her memory. It is described as being of rough stone, gothic, thatched and with windows of painted glass. Beneath a very large ash tree, the light gave a dim and solemn tint to the sarcophagus within. Made of white marble, it was carved with a male and female figure reclining over an urn.
An 18th century depiction of the chapel.
The grief stricken father wrote the following lines: Oft in this one beloved retreat, A father and a sister meet; Here they reflect on bessings past On happiness too great to last; soothing the mutual pains they feel Adding to wounds they cannot heal… [From Jones’ view of Seats, mansion etc Vol2 1829-31]
Unfortunately nothing now remains of the chapel.
Old Postcard Image showing “Miss Bull’s Folly
Elizabeth is said to have commissioned this thimble cairn in memory of her sister. It indeed once stood on a high point where the sisters might have spent time practicing their embroidery. Alas, like the chapel, it no longer exists.
Richard died on December 12 1805. With Elizabeth he sought consolation in collecting engravings and prints. The estate passed to his stepson Richard Bennet but Elizabeth remained in residence improving the gardens until her own departure in March of 1809.