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Who were the Middeltons?

The Middelton family of Myddelton Lodge and Stockeld Park had become the dominant family in the parish of Ilkley, in Yorkshire, England, within a hundred years of the Norman conquest. Over the years they consolidated their power and their ownership of land until by 1750 the whole of the township of Middleton, most of Ilkley, Nesfield-with-Langbar, Stockeld, and further extensive estates in Wharfedale, Yorkshire and beyond were their exclusive freehold.

The Middeltons were strong supporters of Catholicism, and a local tradition says that they 'lost everything at gambling'. Old Squire Middelton, it is said, could stand on his front doorstep at Myddelton Lodge and from that wonderful viewpoint see no land which was not his own exclusive freehold. Collyer and Turner's Ilkley: Ancient and Modern, the only substantial history of the town, has eighteen pages devoted to the family. The reader will discover that they claimed descent from Hypolitus de Braham, who had established himself as a landowner in Middleton, in Ilkley parish, by the second half of the twelfth century. In subsequent years they came to own substantial property in Ilkley itself, though little mention is made of their extensive holdings elsewhere in Wharfedale, in North Duffield in the East Riding, Maunby and Great Habton in the North Riding and Ireby in Cumberland. The rank of the family at the forefront of the gentry is confirmed by the offices they held - including those of sheriff of the county, judge of oyer and terminer, coroner, and commissioner of array.

These public roles were to cease abruptly with the Reformation in the mid-sixteenth century. The Middeltons, like much of the northern gentry, refused to accept the religious changes and for more than a century the main outlet for their energies seems to have been their support for the ancient and illegal forms of worship. Dr Collyer ends his essay with the conclusion that the family 'has "worn the white lily of a blameless life" in Middelton and Stockeld these eight centuries'. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries occupy a single paragraph, a deficiency hardly remedied by Speight's hagiography of William Middelton (1760-1847).

The author's own interest in the family was sparked by spending some months amongst the surviving family papers at the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, which largely date from the seventeenth century or before. He began to wonder what had happened to the later papers of the family, which must have been very extensive. These would no doubt shed a great deal of light on the history of nineteenth century Ilkley. So he decided to find out what had become of the Middeltons, in the hope that he might trace their later papers.

Initial enquiries proved fruitless. He could find no one who knew what had happened to them. Was a branch still in existence somewhere? What happened to their money? Why did they leave Ilkley? What forced them to sell up? These and other important questions found no answers.

Little was added to his knowledge by the respectful obituaries contained in the Ilkley Gazette and other newspapers, nor by other notices of the family and its activities. He searched in vain for anything beyond straightforward genealogical facts. And these were available only to the earliest years of the twentieth century. No photographs or drawings of any member of the family had been published and none were known to exist, despite the wealth of Ilkley picture-books published this century and the last. It seemed strange that so much remained unknown. By degrees he became more intrigued as he realised how deeply the real story was buried. As his researches brought him no closer to them, he began to suspect that the family had deliberately withdrawn from public life - that a veil had been drawn over their affairs. An aura of mystery now surrounded them. His interest grew, and he determined to discover as much of their history as he could.

The search has taken much spare time over many years and led David to many different places in Britain and overseas. Once he had begun work in earnest, the answers started to come. In time, much of the hidden story was brought to light. And what a story it turned out to be. Many of its features - the squandering of immense wealth, sexual misconduct, family feuds, courtroom battles, hereditary madness, the killing of a maid by a younger son, selfless work amongst the poor, the rescue of a poor girl from the workhouse - would not seem out of place in a sensational and romantic novel.

The original Middelton line came to an end in 1763, with the death of William Middelton (b. 1707) when the estates passed through the female line to a great nephew, then in his infancy. Elaborate provisions were made so that the estates would not be merged with others, and to ensure that the name and arms of Middelton would continue. This fortunate second son inherited an estate worth at least 3,000 a year, as well as two mansions. The grander of these, Stockeld Park, a mile or two from Wetherby towards Spofforth, had recently been rebuilt by the fashionable architect James Paine. Myddelton Lodge, situated on the hillside of Middleton above Ilkley and dating from Tudor times, was a less imposing but nevertheless substantial house. At that time Father Watkinson, the family chaplain, was resident there, and attended to the needs of Catholic communities in both Ilkley and Spofforth parishes. By the second half of the eighteenth century the Middeltons' priests no longer went in daily fear of arrest and imprisonment. The substantial financial burdens imposed by the state on Catholic families were now a distant memory. The second house of Middelton could surely have looked forward to growing prosperity and strength, free at last not only from religious persecution but also from the huge debts which they had run up during and after the Civil War.

But it was not to be. The Middeltons' long and distinguished history came to a close after the Second World War when the last of the line was laid to rest. The decline had been dramatic. Marmaduke Middelton's burial, in a North London cemetery, was paid for by charity, his effects estimated at no more than 5. There was no estate to will to a relative in the female line, no change of name by a fortunate younger son, no spurious use of the Middelton arms. This time the Middeltons had gone for good.

A little of the real story behind the 'blameless life' has recently been brought to light with the retelling of the facts of the divorce of 1793-96 in print and on national television. The infatuation of William Middelton's wife Clara for a household servant scandalised society, and the resultant court case was so extraordinary it was used to illustrate a point in a parliamentary debate. This sorry episode was the first of many crises which were to engulf the family. Some years later came the near bankruptcy of William's son Peter and the desperate feud which developed between Peter and his eldest son, another William. William failed to learn from the experiences of his grandmother Clara: his later life was to be overshadowed by his own sexual indiscretions.

The last generation presents the weakest and saddest picture. None of them married, and we know of no descendants. In the background lurks a shadowy hereditary insanity. The eldest son Marmaduke was addicted to gambling and survived by the goodwill of his friends and wider family, before being laid to rest in his charity grave. His brother Reginald, a Jesuit, had died some years earlier tormented by his manic depression. Their sister Hilda too, suffered some serious mental affliction and disappears from the records after 1901. We do not know what became of her. And then there was Lionel, exiled in Australia after a tragic incident in his youth in which he shot and killed a maid. Each generation had shown a lack of financial caution and scant regard for the family's survival. Mortgages and land sales were the inevitable result: these had started early in the nineteenth century and continued steadily for over a century until there was nothing left to sell.

But there is another story besides that of decline and fall. The family's endowment of Catholic institutions 'after the fashion of our Norman ancestors' has left its mark: the 'Peter Middelton Trust' continues its work in Sicklinghall and mass is still said in the Catholic chapel built more than 170 years ago at Myddelton Lodge. And the Middeltons supported more than just Catholic institutions. Through each of the generations a concern for the poorer members of society is manifest, reaching its height in the examples of Major John Middelton and his sister Marianne, whose humanity shines brightly through the years. Frequently charitable benevolence and lack of concern for the family's future were two sides of the same coin. The nun Apollonia Middelton preferred to use her 10,000 inheritance to further the works of her order rather than help her father Peter who was in a parlous financial state. Whilst his brother Charles struggled with mortgages and was forced to put the ancestral mansions on the market, Major John Middelton was busy ensuring that Selina Yeadon, who he had rescued from Otley workhouse and adopted, was the main beneficiary of his substantial estate.

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