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Arthur Macnamara: Wikis


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The Manor House. built by Arthur Macnamara at Billington

Arthur Macnamara (1831 – 11 February 1906) was squire of Billington near Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire, where he turned a ruinous village into a model Victorian Estate. Today Billington is a small village with no facilities straddling a busy main road. As the heavy traffic rumbles through the village today, motorists notice the 'AM' cipher but are often unaware that the initials stand for Arthur Macnamara.

Macnamara was born in his parents' London home in Grosvenor Street in 1831. The family were very affluent: in addition to the London house, they had a castle at Llangoed in Wales and a country house, Caddington Hall, in Hertfordshire, and another estate at Eaton Bray in Bedfordshire. Macnamara's grandfather had won Llangoed Castle in a card game. However his father died when he was young, and Llangoed Castle was sold in 1847. Members of the family lie in the isolated graveyard in the castle grounds. Macnamara seems to have been brought up from this point onwards by his rather domineering mother. Caddington Hall was now the family's principal seat, but the family fortune was dwindling rapidly.

On 28 September 1854 Macnamara made a brilliant marriage (probably to save the ancestral finances) to Lady Sophia Hare, daughter of the local MP for St Albans, the 2nd Earl of Listowel. The couple were married on the bride's family estate at Ballyhooly, Cork, Ireland; afterwards the couple set up home at Caddington Hall.

It is about this time that the first signs of eccentric behaviour began to manifest themselves in the young Squire Macnamara. In spite of owning a large mansion in the area he developed a passion for building, embarking on the project of re-creating the lost castle of Eaton Bray on some land bequeathed him by his mother. After building grandiose lodges, and clearing and preparing the moated site, he seem to have abandoned the idea, probably through lack of funds. All was not well in his marriage either. Sophia's father as a Lord-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria was able to secure his daughter a position as a Lady-in-Waiting to the Queen's daughter Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, thus Lady Sophia was able to spend long periods at court away from her husband. In this era divorce was not an option.

Arthur MacNamara's family history, and the history of some others of the British MacNamara line was written in 1908 by Robert Twigge,an eminent historian of the times, who was married to one of the Irish MacNamaras, of the Ennistymon House branch, from Co. Clare. This book has been republished in a limited edition by Martin Breen. See for details.

In the early 1880s Macnamara now embarked on his most ambitious project yet, no doubt inspired by the building of Mentmore by Baron Mayer de Rothschild five miles away. He began to acquire land and build cottages at Billington and estate cottages and farm houses all adorned with the Macnamara cypher 'AM' sprang up around the village. The cypher began to become more and more adorned in many guises. Humble cottages would sometimes have two manifestations of it, coronets (that strictly speaking Macnamara was not entitled to use) began to appear, clenched fists waving daggers would embellish them, and always the 'AM' close alongside.

As Billington became the estate village, the manor house itself began to be built; a large multi-gabled Victorian mansion, of no architectural merit, began to arise whose style could be loosely called Elizabethan. On two floors the house sprawled, juxtaposing wings linked by conservatories. Each wing, gable or bay bore the now legendary cypher of 'AM'. However the greatest surprise to the approaching visitor were the Latin mottos engraved over each gable of the entrance front. The motto over the front door translated as 'I hate common people'.

The new manor house had stable yards and lodges and new farmhouses each bearing the 'AM' cypher. So numerous were these plaques that it now began to seem like graffiti. At Little Billington a mile away a lodge was built for a new principal approach to the house. The money exhausted, the drive was never built, but the lodge complete with multiple cyphers remains.

It was the planning of this drive that caused one of Arthur Macnamara's most often related acts of callousness: a row of cottages existed within sight of the new drive. The occupants were turned out, and homeless, they requested permission to use the timbers of the old houses to build new homes. Macnamara denied them this, and for two weeks a bonfire burned doors, window frames, and all which could have been salvaged. The elderly occupants were put into the workhouse.

He became chairman of the magistrates at Leighton Buzzard where his sentencing knew no bounds in its severity. If the squire encountered any of his tenants on the road with sheep or cattle, his coachman had orders not to stop or slow down; if people did not hurry out of his path they were mown down. As chairman of the magistrates and the largest land owner in the district he was beyond the law. The slightest affront imagined by the squire could lead to the eviction of the perpetrator from their home.

However, Squire Macnamara had one huge fear: he was frightened of thunder. An underground suite of rooms were furnished at Billington Manor, where he would retreat for long periods at the slightest threat of thunder.

On 11 February 1906 Arthur Macnamara died, alone in the great house except for his house-keeper. The cause of his death, perhaps giving a clue to his behaviour, was cirrhosis of the liver.

Following his death, he was found to be bankrupt. Lady Sophia sold the estate and in her old age lived at Heath and Reach, Leighton Buzzard, where members of the royal family would come to visit her, free of her tyrannical husband.

Arthur Macnamara was buried in Billington churchyard, his monumental tombstone surrounded by iron railings. There is a legend that when the blacksmith came to erect them, it was tradition for the spikes on top of the railings to curve outwards (to keep the devil out). On Arthur Macnamara's grave the spikes were turned in - to prevent him escaping his grave. These railings were removed during World War II when iron work was melted down to help the war effort.

Lady Sophia Macnamara died in 1912, and she chose to be buried in Ireland. Her husband is interred alone.



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