The Turvey Abbey Scrap Books (1830 -1846)
They have never been published, they have 465 pages of beautiful writing and drawings, are an invaluable resource to historians and are now available, in full, on the Turvey History Society (THS) website.
The Longuet-Higgins Collection
The current (2019) Lord of the Manor of Turvey, the Revd. John Longuet-Higgins, on hearing that Turvey History Society had been awarded a grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund to produce a website that celebrated the history of the village, offered to bring to Turvey some material that might be of interest. He arrived on Friday 21st December 2018 and, to an astonished group of individuals, unloaded a car full of books, documents and paintings that covered a large table within Turvey Abbey. Centre stage were the unique Turvey Abbey Scrap Books, produced by John Higgins, together with 522 watercolour paintings and lithographs, the family bible from the 17th century, various documents and four locked diaries.
The Revd. John kindly gave permission for all the material to be either scanned or photographed and included on the website as the Longuet-Higgins Collection. Whilst it was common practice for previous Lords of the Manor to deposit material at the Bedfordshire County Archive Service, the family had obviously kept the prized possessions. The Revd. John felt strongly that this material should be made easily available to as wide an audience as possible and, as most was related to Turvey, the THS website was a natural home.
Since that visit in December, the History Society, with support of the Abbey based Priory of Our Lady of Peace created a mini studio with appropriate lighting facilities to begin the process of digitising the collection. However, it was apparent that the Scrap Books, given their age and importance needed to be digitally archived by a professional company. Such a process had obviously not been budgeted in the original bid. Learning of our plight, an anonymous donor came forward with funds to not only enable the book to be digitised and be presented online in a book format but also for display panels to be made of selected watercolours and pages from the scrap books that could be used for exhibition purposes, particularly at local schools and residential homes.
The Turvey Abbey Commonplace Books
In the nineteenth century it was not unusual for people to have a book in which they wrote their reflections and observations, copied poems or prose and made drawings. Friends, family and visitors were often invited to contribute to such books, which were known as Commonplace Books
Visitors to Turvey Abbey between 1830 and 1846 would find such a book, filled with the beautiful handwriting and skilful drawings of John Higgins and so were probably reluctant to “spoil” the book. Hence, this unique book remains the work of John Higgins, although the Revd. Munby made a sketch of John Higgins in the introduction and his son, Charles, made just a few additions following his father’s death.
The book (and copyright) remains in the possession of the Longuet-Higgins family, although an ancestor made a photocopy of the books which is deposited in the Bedfordshire Archives. A second photocopy was made by Professor Christopher Longuet-Higgins and presented to Dom Edmund Jones as a welcome gift when the Monastery of Christ our Saviour moved to Turvey in 1980. Whilst both these copies are in black and white the original is in colour, enhanced by a number of watercolours.
John Higgins (1768 – 1846)
John Higgins was born at Weston Underwood, Buckinghamshire, in 1768 into a family of well-established yeomen farmers. The Higgins line would spread to encompass the Higgins Brewery in Bedford, the Higgins of the Turvey House Estate and the Higgins of the Turvey Abbey Estate.
John Higgins first saw Turvey Abbey in 1781, then owned by the 5th Earl of Peterborough, and was immediately attracted to its design. At that time the Abbey would have been in a very poor state, described as “a hall now used as a farmhouse”. In 1786 his uncle, Charles Higgins, a rich London grocer and at that time Sheriff of London purchased the Turvey Abbey Estate. Charles died unmarried in 1792 and left the part of the estate that included Turvey Abbey to his favourite nephew, John Higgins. At the age of 24 John found himself a rich man, Lord of the Manor of Turvey, with a large estate. He immediately set about improving the Abbey, its gardens and the properties and farms he had inherited.
In 1830, at the age 62, he decided to create a commonplace book, a book in which he would write and draw until his death in 1846 at the age of 78. In fact, there are two books, the first consists of 428 pages covering the period 1830 to 1840, whilst the second contains 47 pages of his writing covering the years 1840 until five months before his death in 1846. Later generations of Longuet-Higgins made some attempt to continue the commonplace book but entries are occasional and after 1857 the second book consists of documents placed between the pages, somewhat like a scrap book.
Contents of the Scrap Books
A brief introduction cannot do justice to the contents of these unique and magnificent books. John Higgins had the foresight to leave a number of blank pages at the front of the book in which he created a contents list.
The book is obviously a unique source for those interested in the history of Turvey, but it is much more than that, covering a whole variety of observations of life in the early 19th century. The book provides an insight into the man himself, religious and with an obvious love of his family, and for the people who work on the estate and, of course, his love of the Abbey, landscape gardening and the village. He is clearly fascinated by trees. At the time of the Turvey enclosure practically every tree in the parish was cut down for fencing and John Higgins set about planting trees in such density that the entrance to Turvey from Bedford was described as “a mile of night”. A particular favourite was an oak in Newton Lane, the circumference of which was measured each Good Friday, recorded in the scrap book and followed by a good dinner with friends and family.
The books are in the archive ready for you to explore.