Britain’s lost shoots: Hewell Estate
David S D Jones charts the rise of a 6,000-acre Midlands estate where the 6th Earl of Plymouth became an early pioneer of driven shooting
Those walking through the leafy streets of Barnt Green, one of the most prestigious residential areas in the West Midlands, probably have no idea that about a century ago the land over which they are travelling formed a part of the 6,000-acre Hewell Estate.
Stretching from Redditch in the south to the western boundary of Birmingham in the north, the property was considered to be one of the top shoots in Worcestershire during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, where prominent members of the aristocracy and the landed gentry regularly shot daily bags of 500 to 1,000 pheasants.
Seat of the Windsor family, Barons Windsor and the Earls of Plymouth, from the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries until 1946, the Hewell Estate formed part of the lands belonging to Bordesley Abbey. It was given to Andrew, 1st Baron Windsor, in 1542 by Henry VIII in return for surrendering the manor of Stanwell in Middlesex to the crown.
Game preservation started to take place in the early 18th century when the then owner, Other Windsor, 2nd Earl of Plymouth, not only employed a gamekeeper to look after a herd of deer in the park and carry out poaching-prevention duties, but also built a grand country house in 1712 to replace the existing residence. Game shooting was carried out on a relatively low-key basis until the time of Other Archer, 6th Earl of Plymouth, who succeeded to the estate as a minor in 1799 and took control on reaching his majority in 1810.
A great-great-grandson of the 2nd Earl, he was the son of the 5th Earl of Plymouth and the Honourable Sarah Archer, who became the 1st Countess of Amherst and gave her name to the Lady Amherst’s pheasant that she introduced to England in 1828.
Essentially a country gentleman rather than a politician, the 6th Earl was a keen foxhunting man, keeping studs of hunters at Hewell and his hunting box at Melton Mowbray, as well as being a yachting aficionado and, above all, an enthusiastic Shot.
He introduced the continental practice of battue, or driven shooting, then very much a minority sport, on the property more than two decades before it was popularised by Prince Albert in the early 1840s. Indeed, contemporary accounts record that, by the 1820s, his gamekeepers were artificially rearing large numbers of pheasants using broody hens in order to satisfy the demands of the shoot.
Some outstanding bags were taken by the 6th Earl and his guests at Hewell during the 1820s, especially given the firearms of the period and the relative scarcity of pheasants. In December 1820, a total of 569 pheasants, 551 hares, 1,462 rabbits, six woodcock and six ducks were killed in woods and plantations during the Christmas period alone.
Sadly, after creating one of the earliest driven shoots in Britain and hosting the Duchess of Kent and her daughter, Princess Victoria, heir to the throne, in 1832, the 6th Earl died aboard his yacht at Deptford on the River Thames at the age of 44. He bequeathed the estate to his sister, Lady Harriet Windsor-Clive, later 13th Baroness Windsor, and her husband, the Honourable Robert Henry Clive, a younger son of the 1st Earl of Powys and MP for Ludlow.
Robert Henry Clive was, like his brother-in-law, a keen shooting man. He not only carried on the tradition of holding large pheasant shooting parties on the estate, but also regularly hosted meets of the Worcestershire Foxhounds, hare coursing meetings and archery tournaments. In 1848, one of his guest Guns accidentally peppered three beaters with shot, causing one of them to need urgent medical attention after being hit in the neck.
Robert Henry Clive died in 1854 and Hewell became the sole property of his widow, who succeeded to the original family title as 13th Baroness Windsor in 1855. Though apparently not a Shot, she was something of a philanthropist who built or restored churches, but had a reputation for closing public houses on her estates.
She ran the shoot for the benefit of her son, Robert Windsor-Clive, MP for Shropshire South, until his death in 1859 and then for her guests until she died in 1869. Hewell was inherited by Baroness Windsor’s 12-year-old grandson, Robert, 14th Baron Windsor, but was managed by trustees until he came of age in 1878.
He was a keen Shot and became a prominent Conservative politician, serving as Paymaster General and First Commissioner of Works. He commissioned Bodley & Garner to build a Jacobean-style mansion, Hewell Grange, to entertain guests and host lavish shooting parties.
Baron Windsor spent vast sums improving the shoot in the 1880s and 1890s, employing a large team of gamekeepers to rear pheasants to provide 500- to 1,000-bird days for his family, friends and fellow aristocrats. He had flightponds constructed for duck shooting and introduced Canada geese to the 30-acre lake in the park to add diversity to the quarry species available.
However, he did not neglect the hunting fraternity, instructing his keepers to ensure that there was always a plentiful supply of foxes in the woods and coverts for the benefit of the Worcestershire Hunt.
Sporting guests at Hewell from the 1880s until the outbreak of World War I in 1914 ranged from political figures such as the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury and Viscount Peel, Speaker of the House of Commons, to foreign royalty, including Prince de Wagram and Prince Henry of Battenberg.
In November 1904, Baron Windsor was honoured by a royal visit when the Duke of Connaught, the third son of Queen Victoria, stayed at Hewell Grange for a two-day shooting party.
Adverse weather conditions caused the pheasant shoot to be cancelled on the first day. The following day, the Duke, Baron Windsor and six other Guns brought down 820 pheasants, one woodcock, 50 ducks, 20 hares and 20 various.
The Hewell shoot was scaled down during World War I. After the war, Baron Windsor, for whom the Earl of Plymouth title was revived in 1905, sold off a 2,000-acre northern portion of the estate on a piecemeal basis for £85,000. Shooting continued in one form and another until 1946, when his grandson disposed of the remainder of the property to pay off death duties.
The mansion and the surrounding parkland now serve as HM Prison Hewell, while the Lickey Hills section of the estate is managed as a country park by Birmingham City Council.