Francis Yates (later Aglionby) (1777-1840)

Francis Yates (later Aglionby)

Written by Kevin Grice

Occupations: Judge and Landowner

The Aglionby Family

The Aglionby family were of ancient Cumberland stock and able to trace their origins with certainty back to about 1130 and perhaps to Walter de Aguilon (or Agullon) who came to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. The Aglionbys were leading citizens of Carlisle and landed gentry in the area from about 1520 when Henry VIII made Edward Aglionby (died 1553) Captain of the Scottish Borders. He was later MP for Carlisle (1529, 1547), Mayor of Carlisle (1533, 1537 and 1544) and High Sheriff of Cumberland (1544). They included amongst their number the Reverend John Aglionby (1566/7-1610) one of the translators of the Authorised Version of the Bible as well as Chaplain to Elizabeth I and James I, John Aglionby (1642-1718) Recorder of Carlisle from 1679 until 1718 and Henry Aglionby (1684-1759) who was MP for Carlisle 1721-1727, High Sheriff of Cumberland in 1732 and Mayor of Carlisle in 1744/5.


There was a small Benedictine convent at Ainstable in medieval times which was dissolved in 1537, after which it was converted into a private dwelling called Nunnery. The Aglionby family acquired the property in 1694 in a land exchange with Sir John Lowther, after which it was put into repair and made the main family seat by 1698. Henry Aglionby (1684-1759) extensively rebuilt and remodelled it from 1720-1725 and in the late-18th century ‘Nunnery Walks’ were laid out by Christopher Aglionby (1754-1785) as a landscaped promenade along the river Eden a little way from the house. The walks and the waterfalls were described in 1794 as “wild and picturesque – romantic and unrivalled beauties which attract the attention of all strangers, and the admiration of everyone who has taste to admire nature in those forms, where the grand, the sublime, the romantic and the beautiful are all united”. On Christopher’s death, the estate passed to his sister Elizabeth Bamber (1772-1822).

Early Life and the Yates Family

Francis Yates was born on 12 May 1777 at Skirwith Abbey near Penrith in Cumberland and was baptised there the same day. He was the eldest son of John Orfeur Yates (c1748-1818), whose family originated in Shropshire but who had settled in Cumberland in the late seventeenth century. John Yates’ grandfather (born 1699) and father (born 1726), both named Francis, followed careers in the church, his grandfather at St Nicholas, Whitehaven (later held in plurality with Moresby) and his father as a curate at Distington but afterwards as rector of Slaidburne and vicar of Gargrave, both in Yorkshire. John’s uncle was Lowther Yates (1729-1798) who became Master of St Catharine Hall, Cambridge and was twice Vice-Chancellor of that university. John Orfeur Yates was the youngest son (his second name, inherited from his mother, was the surname of the lords of the manor of Plumbland) and he did not attend university. Instead, after visiting the eastern seaboard of North America in 1758, he set sail the following year for India (along with a young John Aglionby who died in 1763) and made a fortune as a merchant on the sub-continent between 1760 and 1767. 

On his return to England, John Yates commissioned a Cumberland mason Thomas Addison to construct a grand country house for him. He bought the old Skirwith Abbey on the edge of the Pennines from the Adderton family, demolished it and had built the new Skirwith Abbey between 1768 and 1774; Pevsner’s suggestion that it is earlier seems unlikely in view of John Yates’ history. Indeed, the name is entirely fanciful too, as Lysons traces the owners of the estate back to Adam Fitz-Swein (1118-1159), founder of Monk Bretton Priory in Yorkshire, but discovered no evidence of an actual religious foundation at Skirwith. The house was designed along classical lines of two storeys above a full basement, seven by three bays. A circuit of eight rooms is found on the piano nobile accessed by a pair of broad spiral cantilever staircases. A pair of lower wings were also built but are found detached at a respectful distance on either side of the front lawn. On 1 December 1768 at his new home John Yates married Mary Aglionby (1750-1816), one of seven children and the youngest daughter from the marriage of Henry Aglionby (1715-1770), High Sheriff of Cumberland in 1763 and an alderman of Carlisle, and Anne Musgrave (c1720-1780). John and Mary Yates had four children besides Francis. Mary (1772-1843) of Hutton Hall moved to Bath in 1835 and died unmarried. Anne (1774-1802) died unmarried of consumption at the age of 27. John (1779-1851) emigrated to Virginia at age 13, was educated at Princeton and became a substantial landowner in the Shenandoah valley but died at Nunnery on a visit back home and is buried at Ainstable. Henry (1784-1801) also died of consumption at the age of 17. Francis was educated at Appleby and then Rugby School before going up to St Catharine’s College Cambridge (entered 1795, matriculated 1796, BA 1799). It was intended that he should pursue a career as a barrister and indeed he was accordingly called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn on 7 November 1799.

However all was not well with John Yates’ matrimonial and financial affairs. He had, it seemed, chosen a propitious time to arrive in India, where the victories of Robert Clive (1725-1774) and Eyre Coote (1726-1783) had led to the sub-continent being increasingly under the control of the East India Company. John had £625 with him when he landed and an influential supporter in his uncle Lowther; during stays in Bombay, Calcutta and Benares he took full advantage of the opportunities for enrichment which were on offer. On his return to England however he left large sums of money in the hands of agents and lived off remittances of the interest. Mary’s diary further reveals that she became increasingly bored, lonely and unhappy, finding the new house cold and uncomfortable and in 1795 she spent some weeks in Blackpool where sea bathing improved her health to a degree.

Disaster came around the beginning of September 1790, although its origins went back several years. John Yates had not only been unable to have transferred to England the large sums left in India but had effectively lost them all. £2,000 entrusted to a French merchant to bring back to Europe was taken when the bearer went bankrupt; much larger amounts went missing when John’s agent in Calcutta died insolvent. John Yates could  neither bring himself to tell his wife nor his children about these losses and they were unaware that he had even mortgaged Skirwith Abbey to his brother Charles to try to maintain his opulent lifestyle. In his daughter Mary’s words in 1790 ‘the veil was torn off and with difficulty a statement was obtained’ (Summerson). John Yates’ income was found to be only £464 per annum and half of that was going on preparing Francis for his career at the Bar. The deaths of two of their children shortly thereafter, particularly their beloved son Henry in 1801, simply added to John and Mary’s woes.

Accordingly whilst his mother belatedly took charge of the family finances by renting out the detested Skirwith Abbey from 1800-1817 and using her Aglionby family money to pay the bills at her more modest home at Hutton Hall in Penrith, Francis had to earn a living and quickly. He therefore became a soldier after the Peace of Amiens in 1802 and by the summer of 1803 was a Captain in the Royal Cumberland Militia, before being promoted to Major in 1805. His mother Mary Yates died on 8 September 1816 and is buried in Carlisle Cathedral. She was soon followed to the grave by her husband who suffered a bad fall at the end of 1817 and died on 7 September 1818.

Public and Political Life

Francis Yates’ career as a soldier took him away to many parts of the British Isles as well as to Ireland. He was ‘a credit to his regiment’ according to his colonel (Summerson) and he continued to serve in the army until late 1813. His marriage soon followed in 1814 and he then devoted himself to family life and  the occupations of a country landowner. He inherited Drawdykes Castle at Bowness-on-Solway from his mother in 1816 (which he rented out) and then Skirwith Abbey from his father in 1818. However his affairs were radically altered when on 5 January 1822 his wealthy aunt Elizabeth Bamber died. As well as Nunnery, she had inherited further substantial estates at Crossfield and Aglionby on the death of her sister Julia in 1798 and in her will she entailed all her estates including Nunnery upon her nephew Francis Yates, with succession to his sons, and with successive remainders to her other nephews Henry and John and their sons. She prescribed that every inheritor was to take the surname Aglionby and to live at Nunnery.

Francis and his family were very reluctant to leave Skirwith Abbey but he dutifully accepted his inheritance, changed his name and moved. Skirwith Abbey was sold in 1822 and the family took up residence at Nunnery. Francis Aglionby (as he was now known) mortgaged the estate to fund improvements there as well as buying nearby Staffield Hall and the rectory and advowson of neighbouring Ainstable. He was both liked and respected in the area, being described by The Citizen, a Carlisle paper, in 1829 as ‘that pattern of what a country gentleman ought to be’.. He became a JP in 1814 and was Chairman of Cumberland Quarter Sessions from 1818 until his death. In both an 1833 by-election and the 1835 general election he stood unsuccessfully as the Whig candidate for West Cumberland, losing on each occasion to the Lonsdale-backed Conservative. At the June 1837 general election however he became Member of Parliament for East Cumberland, beating the Tory Sir James Graham by 691 votes after a bitterly-fought contest. He does not seem to have troubled Hansard in his time as an MP but this does not appear to have been held against him, as he was regarded as attending very closely to the business of the House of Commons in the interests of his constituents. He was a liberal in politics and a sincere advocate of Reform.

Own Family and Later Life

On 8 February 1814 Francis Yates married his cousin Mary Matthews (1778-1854), the daughter of John Matthews (c1741-1799) and Jane Yates. It was observed by Francis’ sister Mary that ‘the disproportion between them is great in size, for he is very tall, while she is remarkably small’ but she allowed that ‘what she wants in size, she makes up in agreeableness, as I know few pleasanter people’ (Terrill). Francis and Mary initially lived at Wigton Hall which came to them through the bride’s family but then moved back to Skirwith Abbey in June 1817. Unlike that of his parents, their marriage proved a great success and the couple had four children, a son and three daughters. Sadly the son Henry died from consumption in 1834 at the age of 19 but the three daughters all prospered in their own way. 

The oldest was Elizabeth Anne (1814-1878). She inherited Wigton Hall when her uncle the Reverend Henry Matthews died, before living successively at The Hollens in Grasmere, Esthwaite Lodge near Hawkshead and finally Belmont again near Hawkshead where she died. She was a substantial landowner, employing her own land bailiff and became a well-known and successful breeder of dogs (particularly mastiffs and St Bernards), cattle and poultry. She never married, converted to Roman Catholicism in later life and embraced philanthropy with enthusiasm, her obituary noting that she ‘would be universally sorrowed after and especially by the many pensioners in her bounty’. Her religious conversion and failure to marry however seem to have alienated her from her family, as might her somewhat waspish tongue; she once described her niece’s husband as ‘an adventurer and a fortune hunter’ (Summerson). 

Elizabeth’s younger sisters however both made good marriages. In 1845 Mary (1816-1882) married the Reverend Beilby Porteous (1808-1896), who was probably related to Bishop Beilby Porteous of London (1731-1809), and moved to his vicarage in nearby Edenhall where she bore him four daughters. In 1847 Jane (1820-1874) married Charles Fetherstonhaugh (1813-1885), the younger son of Charles Smallwood Fetherstonhaugh (1762-1839) of The College, Kirkoswald. Her mother (by then widowed) conveyed Staffield Hall to the couple as a wedding gift, whereupon they used Charles’s family money to rebuild a new house there for themselves. Their daughter Elizabeth Aglionby Fetherstonhaugh (1848-1885) married the Irish career soldier Colonel Arthur Sisson Cooper (1831-1912), the recipient of the barb by his wife’s aunt referred to above, and they had a son Captain Arthur Charles Aglionby Cooper (1872-1938) who himself purchased the Nunnery estate in 1892.

On 1 July 1840 Francis Aglionby attended Carlisle Quarter Sessions in his capacity as Chairman. As he made his way up the steps into the court room itself, he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and died instantly. His body was laid out in the Grand Jury Room where an inquest was swiftly held, recording a verdict of natural death and he was buried in Ainstable Church, near Nunnery. A life size statue was commissioned by the local magistracy in his memory from Musgrave Lewthwaite Watson (1804-1847), a talented local sculptor; and paid for by them in 1843, the cost being £376. It shows the subject wearing the dress of an English country gentleman but with a toga (or perhaps an ordinary cloak) tied across his chest. He holds a copy of Richard Burn’s Justice of the Peace and Parish Officer (1755). The statue was erected in June 1844 in the large room originally intended as the grand entrance hall to the Criminal Court in the Citadel, within a few yards from its subject’s place of death. In 1992 it was moved to a new pedestal outside the main entrance to the new court building in Earl St. where it still stands today, wearing an impermeable coat of paint to restrict deterioration of the Caen stone original. It was listed as a Grade II monument in 2014 and underwent some repair in 2015. 

Francis Aglionby made a will in 1838 which left his entire estate to his wife and she accordingly inherited the properties at Staffield, Ainstable and Skirwith, although his inheritance from his aunt Elizabeth was entailed, so beyond his reach, being  taken up by his cousin Henry Aglionby Aglionby (1790-1854) (See separate DCB entry). Francis Aglionby’s probate was granted on 1 January 1841. His widow Mary continued to live at Nunnery and on the 1851 census was described as a landowner and farmer of 150 acres. She had ten servants living in and died in 1854. 

Francis Aglionby was a tall, strongly built man, widely liked and respected. In 1829 the Carlisle Patriot had paid tribute to his ‘noble figure and countenance and unassuming mien’. There was a unanimous chorus of regret at his passing, the same newspaper commenting that he was ‘the idol of every circle – the beloved of all who came into contact with him’. The city of Carlisle seemed ‘to look upon the loss as a private bereavement’ as he was regarded as ‘kind, courteous and affable’. His niece Mary said simply that he was ‘so highly estimated, it seemed a reflected credit to belong to him’ (Summerson). 


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