We looked at Sir Wolstan Dixie, 4th Baronet of Market Bosworth in an earlier blog, and we promised we’d return to him in due course, to take a closer look at the man and his family.
Sir Wolstan was a pugnacious and pig-headed bully, and legend suggests he committed an awful crime.
We mentioned in our previous blog that Samuel Johnson lived with the family at Bosworth Hall for a time, while he was employed by Dixie as an usher at the local grammar school, ‘but was treated with what he represented as intolerable harshness; and, after suffering for a few months such complicated misery, he relinquished a situation for which all his life afterwards he recollected with the strongest aversion, and even a degree of horror’. At times, it’s difficult to know what is true and what is a tall tale when it comes to Sir Wolstan: he’s reputed to have made his butler the headmaster of the grammar school, purely because he could do so and no-one could nay say him. But, we reckon we can debunk that last one as a myth; we’ll say why at the end of this blog.
Sir Wolstan Dixie also fell out with his neighbours, particularly with Wrightson Mundy of Osbaston Hall and Markeaton. Dixie attacked one of Mundy’s waggoners when he caught the man driving across his park so Mundy disguised himself as a waggoner and repeated the offence. When Dixie tried to pull the waggoner down he got the surprise of his life when the man revealed himself to by Mundy, who then proceeded to deliver one almighty beating to the bemused Sir Wolstan Dixie. Possibly Mundy was the same squire with whom Sir Wolstan came to blows after the latter had closed off a footpath which gave access across some of his land. Shortly afterwards, Sir Wolstan appeared at court and was presented to George II and the king, when he heard that Sir Wolstan’s estate was Bosworth Park, recalled the ancient battle fought in 1485 and asked, “Bosworth! Big battle at Bosworth, wasn’t it?” With the memory of his recent fight fresh in his mind, Sir Wolstan stupefied the king when he replied, “Yes, Sire. But, I thrashed him!”
In May 1735, at All Hallows by London Wall, he married Anna Frere, a young, beautiful and – most importantly for Sir Wolstan – an extremely wealthy heiress. Anna had been born on the island of Barbados in 1711, the daughter of John Frere who, just before his death in 1721, was the acting governor of Barbados. After his death, his widow, Elizabeth, and her young family (there were four daughters, of whom Anna was the eldest, and two sons) returned to London and took a house on Great Russell Street in Bloomsbury. Elizabeth Frere died in March 1735 and just two months later, Sir Wolstan snared his young bride… and her fortune which amounted to over 20,000l.
In our earlier blog we recounted how Sir Wolstan kept Anna a virtual prisoner at his Leicestershire estate, Bosworth Hall at Market Bosworth, while she was pregnant later that year, having given his coachmen instructions that Lady Dixie was not to be driven further than three or four miles distant from her home. He also had Anna’s old family servant arrested and thrown into Newgate on a trumped up charge of theft when she displeased him.
The couple’s first child, born in 1736, was a daughter who was named Rebecca. There followed a son, Wolstan in 1737 and another daughter, Anna born in July 1739. Lady Dixie died giving birth to Anna; she was buried at Market Bosworth on 5 July 1739.
After just over a year’s mourning, Sir Wolstan married again. His second bride was Theodosia, daughter of Henry Wright of Mobberly Cheshire, and the wedding took place on 26 December 1740, at the bride’s parish church. With Theodosia, Sir Wolstan had six more children, one son, Willoughby, born 1742 and then five daughters, Purefoy (born 1743), Theodosia (born 1744), Eleanor Frances (born 1746), Rosamond (born 1747) and Juliana (born 1749).
Theodosia died in 1751. The painting below, of Sir Wolstan Dixie and his family, is dated four years after her death, and shows Sir Wolstan’s nine children. From left to right, they are probably Juliana, Eleanor Frances, Willoughby, Rebecca, Purefoy, Theodosia, Anna, Wolstan and Rosamond, with Sir Wolstan Dixie seated far right.
At Scarborough, in September 1758, Sir Wolstan married for a third and final time, to another wealthy heiress, Margaret daughter of William Cross, a ‘young lady with a handsome fortune’. Two of his children had, however, died since that family portrait had been painted. Purefoy Dixie was buried on 22 July 1757 at Market Bosworth and her sister Theodosia is also said to have died the same year.
Anna Dixie, the younger of the two daughters from Sir Wolstan’s first marriage to Anna Frere also died, and was buried 13 February 1758, aged around 19-years. It is Anna’s death which has given rise to a terrible legend. We can find no corroboration of it in contemporary sources, so give it here merely as hearsay.
It came to Sir Wolstan’s attention that Anna was surreptitiously meeting a young man in Bosworth Park (some sources say he was the gardener). In a cruel plan, Dixie set man-traps, intending to catch his daughter’s beau in one, but it was Anna herself who stepped into the device. Her screams led to her rescue from the jaws of the trap and she was carried back to the hall, bleeding heavily. There she died, and it’s said that her ghost haunts the hall to this day.
We have absolutely no idea how much of that tale is true, if any at all. What we can say, however, is that the portrait below, merely labelled as Miss Dixie and by Henry Pickering, dated to c.1750-1755, must be either Rebecca or Anna Dixie. (We have seen it erroneously called a portrait of Eleanor Frances Dixie, but this is impossible as she is too young to be the lady in this portrait.)
Rebecca Dixie died, unmarried, in 1762 and was buried 19 April at Market Bosworth while Juliana, the youngest of the Dixie children died in the December of the same year. Only the two sons, Wolstan and Willoughby, and two of the girls, Eleanor Frances and Rosamond survived their father, who died in 1767.
Two years later, Sir Wolstan’s eldest son, also Wolstan and, since his father’s death, the 5th Baronet, was declared a lunatic. Willoughby Dixie, the second son, took over the management of the estate, and of the grammar school. It was Willoughby who appointed Joseph Moxon, a waiter at a local pub, to the position of headmaster. This is clearly the origin of the story that Willoughby’s father appointed his butler to the job. Unless, of course, it was a case of like father, like son?
N.B.: The chapel of the Fleet Prison in London was notorious for clandestine marriages. On 19 May 1734, one Wolstan Dixie married a woman named Mary Guest. It’s an unusual name; there certainly weren’t many Wolstan Dixies around of marriageable age in 1734. We’re just throwing it in there, as a possible first marriage to Sir Wolstan… and if it was him, then either Mary Guest died within a year of her marriage or Sir Wolstan added the charge of bigamy to his many offences.
Relevant parish registers
The Baronetage of England, Thomas Wotton, Richard A Johnson and Edward Kimber, 1771
Cases in Chancery: The Attorney-General v. Dixie. Bosworth School, ex parte. 1807
Samuel Johnson by Walter Jackson Bate, 1975
London Evening Post, 28-30 September 1758