Land known as Alemere on the southern bank of the river Derwent between Wheldrake and Thorganby is described as marshy land used as a fishery in the Doomsday book in 1086.
Records from the Cartulary of Fountains Abbey list the building of a Benedictine Priory of Thickhed or Thickeyed between the villages of Wheldrake and Thorganby on the banks of the River Derwent by Roger Fitz-Roger del Haye in 1180. He had bought the land from the Saltmarshe family who were prominent landowners in the area and who continued to play a prominent part in local history.
A Papal Bull from Pope Gregory IX dated May 1228 grants the right to lands and protection from harm to the Priory.
Entries from the Register of Archbishops of York list various gifts and acts involving the Priory through the 12th century including the confirmation of election of Elizabeth del Haye, descendant of founder Roger Fitz-Roger del Haye, as Prioress in 1335.
There is reference to an impressive building on site as works to repair the building were given by Archbishop Greenfield, listed in the Register of Archbishops of York. The same year, notes by the Reverend E Taylor, extracted from documents in the Archives of York Museum, mention there is a boarding school at the Priory.
In the will of John Croxton of York, dated 1393, several nine-foot torches are left to the ‘Nunnery of Thickhence’. Only a substantial building could have housed such torches.
Various findings in the walled garden at the south eastern corner of the site date back to the 14th century, including a large segment of four pillars and central column and part of a cross. These indicate that this is where the medieval monastery cemetery once stood.
14th century high status masonry has been found in the grounds including a large segment of four pillars and central column, the carved corbel probably from a stone vault of considerable size and an intricately carved Headstop. Also found is part of a cross from a gable end of a 14th Century building in the same stone clearly indicating these were part of an ecclesiastical building of the14th Century. The location of these finds was in the walled garden at the south eastern corner of the site. It is presumed to be the location of the medieval monastery cemetery given the date it is first mapped.
In the 1400s, the younger son of the Aske family marries an heiress of the del Hayes, beginning their eventful association with the property.
The Act of Suppression is passed in 1536 as a means for Henry VIII to obtain the wealth of the church.
In 1537 Robert Aske, lawyer of York, begins the Pilgrimage of Grace in York in opposition to the dissolution of the monasteries. His rebel army is defeated by the Duke of Norfolk and Aske is executed.
The monastery was finally dissolved in August 1539 and surrendered to Leonard Beckwith, the king’s Official Receiver. It may be coincidence that at that time the Prioress is listed as Agnes de Beckwith, a relative of the Receiver, and this may have resulted in the favourable treatment of the Priory and its assets. Despite this, a letter from Thomas Cromwell to Leonard Beckwith cedes the house and lands to William Wyetham and dismisses the nuns.
Nevertheless a letter from Thomas Cromwell to Leonard Beckwith cedes the house and lands to William Wyetham and dismisses the nuns.
A letter dated only ‘May’ in the Suppression Papers, Vol.2. refers to the giving over of Thicket Priory to ‘Berer Richard Rane’, a relative of Thomas Cromwell and servant of Gregory Cromwell and Lady Utredd who held land under convent seal of the Prioress of Thikede. This may have been a bribe which would explain why the dissolution of the Priory did not occur until 1539. It may also explain why it is unclear if all the buildings on the land were demolished as per the clear instructions of Cromwell ‘to pull down to the ground all the walls of the churches’ set out in the Suppression Act.
However, papers in the Dunnington-Jefferson Archives at Hull University also show that repairs were made to buildings on the land in 1541/2. The same records also show a reference to the ‘Prioress of Thickhead’ in 1624, indicating that in fact the Priory may have continued to operate after the dissolution.
Thicket Priory is sold to John Robinson, Merchant of London in 1596. It remains with the Robinson family until 1758.
There is a reference to structural evidence of a house as early as 1656 including a reference in 1672 to a house with ten hearths. This is most probably Thicket Priory. A later illustration from Samuel Buck’s Sketchbook shows a sketch of a large square manor house at ‘Thicket the seat of Humphrey Robinson Esq.’ in the style of the late 17th century being present in 1720 which could not have been the earlier property referred to in 1656. Other structures are loosely shown around the main house but it is impossible to tell if the 14th century stone building is still present on the site.
In 1752 Nicholas Robinson, a naval officer and Captain of the HMS Essex, marries his ‘natural’ daughter, Sarah, to Henry Waite, believed to be the result of a union with his housekeeper. Six years later documents show that Henry, now known as Henry Waite Robinson, is mortgaging his wife’s land and property for the next several years. This implies that an arrangement was made for Sarah to find legitimate status by marrying and that Henry Waite was in need of finances and therefore agreed to the marriage.
By 1760 much of the land and properties have been mortgaged to Samuel Jefferson although this probably excluded the current priory site. A settlement document in the Dunnington-Jefferson Archives related to this refers to “Thicket Priory, Paddock, Thicket Hall”, which suggests that there are two houses present at this time.
In 1803 Nicholas Waite Robinson, eldest son of Henry, sells Thicket Priory to the Dunnington family. The 1854 Ordnance Survey map (figure 7) shows a complex of buildings on the probable site of the medieval monastery, yet the 1680 Thicket Hall appears to be roofless and in ruins. It may be that Henry Waite Robinson’s financial circumstances were such that he was unable to maintain the property and the Dunnington-Jeffersons had retained all of the buildings whilst developing their own new house.
In 1884, Edward Blore, whose works include Buckingham Palace, Lambeth Palace, St James Palace, Westminster Abbey and Windsor Castle, demolishes the original building and constructs a neo-Elizabethan manor house that remains on site today. Built for the Reverend Joseph Dunnington Jefferson it comprises a courtyard of buildings including the coach house, stables, gardener’s house, chauffeur’s house, brewery and a lodge house. An icehouse within the grounds is almost certainly built at the same time. Commissioned to make the singular three faced clock for the front elevation is Benjamin Vulliamy. One of the most prestigious clock makers of the 19th century, his designs include The Quadrangle clock at Windsor Castle and the Royal Mews clock at Buckingham Palace. (Vulliamy also produced designs for Big Ben, however after a dispute over his fees, Edward Dent was commissioned instead).
Showing that no expense is being spared, in 1885 the Leeds Mercury reports that a novel ‘system of electric lighting’ has been installed at Thicket Priory and that it ‘is among the best systems known for independent house lighting’.
The buildings thought to form the remains of the original priory are no longer present on the 1893 Ordnance Survey map (Figure 8) but a Garden Cottage has been erected near the ponds. The ponds have also been enlarged and a third pond added as well as a boat house and three bridges on or around the ponds.
Formal and informal landscaping is undertaken over the next few decades with terraced rose gardens and the incorporation of many rare and imported trees from as far away as Asia Minor, Iran and California. It seems clear that many of the species were obtained by extensive travel by someone of great discernment. A large amount of those collected had medicinal properties and some are rarely found in Great Britain except in specialist gardens.
In 1955, John Alexander Dunnington-Jefferson, by then a baronet, sells Thicket Priory to Carmelite Nuns formerly of Exmouth, Devon. By this time the Priory is said to be in poor repair with many rooms and the chapel boarded up. There is reference in the Dunnington-Jefferson Archives to the Ings, previously a responsibility of the family in the local area, falling into disrepair and rents failing to be collected. In 1950 a committee is called to discuss ways for the ‘betterment of the Ings’.
In an entry in the Dunnington-Jefferson Archives dated 1699, Thomas Dunnington is described as a ‘yeoman’. The first records of the Dunningtons owning land in the area are from 1685 when Thomas Dunnington bought low lying land at Thorganby as described in Ward, East Yorkshire Landed Estates, p.43; Allison, History of Yorkshire East Riding, iii. This land had allegedly been in the ownership of the Saltmarshe family for generations, but little is known of their history. The Dunningtons continued to acquire land through the early 18th century becoming major landowners. By 1733 Thomas Dunnington is described as a ‘gentleman’ and by 1773 John Dunnington is referred to as the ‘squire’ of Thorganby.
Thomas Dunnington had at least three children. His daughter, Eleanor, married Emanuel Jefferson, a landowner on 11th May 1749 in Bishopthorpe, York. Emanuel Jefferson then extended his holdings through the mid-18th century into the local area. Their son, Robert Jefferson (1755-1811), expanded their holdings even further and began to take a more philanthropic role in the local community by educating his tenants’ children and distributing coal to the poor. His cousin, Thomas Dunnington, was the local curate and schoolmaster while his older brother, John Dunnington, had rebuilt the schoolhouse. By 1759 more than half the children in the area were being educated at no cost to their parents.
When Robert Jefferson died in 1811 his land passed to John Dunnington Junior, adding to his considerable holdings. In May 1841, John applied for the Queen’s permission to join the names of Dunnington and Jefferson. It is thought the formal application was to allow the use of the double coat of arms that is now visible in the chapel windows of the 1847 Thicket Priory. John Dunnington Jefferson continued to buy land and in 1822 built Thorganby Hall where he lived until his death in 1840. His nephew, Joseph Dunnington, inherited his estate and from 1841 also adopted the name ‘Dunnington-Jefferson’.
Joseph Dunnington-Jefferson went to St John’s Cambridge in 1825 and returned to the post of vicar of Thorganby in 1832. He was considered to be a wealthy man. He became prebend of York in 1852 and employed an assistant curate for Thorganby at that time. In 1840, soon after his uncle’s death, the vicarage was sold as a private dwelling and Thicket Priory was built as his future residence 1844-7. Joseph applied for and received the Archbishop’s permission to live on his land at Thicket Priory. It is believed he lived in Thicket Hall, built for him in 1822, until the completion of his new home. By 1873 he controlled almost 8,000 acres of land with a combined rental of nearly £12,000 both locally and as far away as the West Riding. In 1839 Joseph was clearly of such prominence that he was able to secure a marriage to Anna Mervynia Vavasour, daughter of the 2nd baronet. They had three sons, the eldest of which was Joseph John Dunnington-Jefferson (1845-1928), who was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. He became a barrister and justice of the peace and Major of the Yorkshire Hussars. Captain Mervyn Dunnington-Jefferson, the second son, rented Middlethorpe Hall. The youngest brother, Thomas Trafford Dunnington-Jefferson was also a barrister of the Inner Temple but died in 1881. Joseph John Dunnington-Jefferson’s estate was inherited by Mervyn Dunnington-Jefferson’s son, John Alexander Dunnington-Jefferson. He was educated at Eton and Sandhurst and was in the Royal Fusiliers in 1904. He served during the First World War and retired a lieutenant-colonel in 1919. In 1938 he married Isobel Cape. Their son, Mervyn Stewart Dunnington-Jefferson, was born in 1943. John Alexander Dunnington-Jefferson (known to his family as Jack) was knighted in 1944 and created a baronet in 1958. In 1955 he sold Thicket Priory to the Carmelite Nuns and moved to Thorganby Hall.
The Benedictine Priory was founded by Roger Fitz-Roger del Haye, in approximately 1180. Although he was a man of some local importance, he was not particularly wealthy or aristocratic. It may well be that this was an act of philanthropy fuelled by close association with a female relative in need of sanctuary or expressing a desire to retire to a contemplative life. Indeed his descendant was the Prioress at the time of the Dissolution which may indicate a history of family religious leanings. Only a man of deep Christian beliefs would have endowed valuable land to such a cause.
Such places were rare and generally poorly funded at a time when many orders of monks were both large and extremely profitable and powerful. References throughout its history in the Register of Archbishops of York and Shepherd’s Fountains Abbey Cartulary show repeated appeals for aid for the Priory. as well as some interesting cases of discipline meted out to its incumbents.
Historically few of the Yorkshire nunneries were wealthy or famous and whilst Thicket Priory has a rich history, it evidently falls into this category. However, they often played a hugely important role in the daily life of rural locations. They were safe havens for women in distress and many, including girls from prominent families, took up orders for this reason. They provided medical and moral help together with guidance and education.
The Benedictine monasticism changed in the early 1100s evolving into a new institutionalised order. Of this the earliest example is of a new Cistercian Order, established at Waverley in Surrey in 1128. Rievaulx in Yorkshire followed closely after. The Order then spread across England and Wales and the establishment of Thicket Priory would inevitably have been fuelled to some extent by this fervour. It is unclear whether Thicket followed the purer Benedictine path or the Cistercian path. It certainly had a Cistercian period under the guidance of Pope Gregory IX in 1228 when he writes to the ‘Prioress of the convent of Thicket of the Cistercian Order’. However, they never claimed the tax exemptions open to Cistercians so this was obviously a temporary state and at the time of Dissolution, the nunnery was described as ‘Benedictine’.
At its inception, the Priory was said to be a chapel with cloister on one side with dormitories above and other domestic buildings present. It survived on goods received from tithes from tenant farmers and rents from the same. The land tied to Thicket Priory at Dissolution included land at West Cottingworth, Thorganby, Sutton on Derwent, Escreik, Whildrik, Norton, Sant Hutton, Drax near Cliffe, York and Osgodby. Yet their revenue was said to be just £20 18s 10d per annum.
The Prioress was responsible for religious order in her house but also all lay matters relating to their land and holdings. She was often therefore distanced from her sisters by the onerousness of these daily intrusions. The Dunnington-Jefferson Archives contain references to writs against Prioresses of Thickets as well as cases where she was the Plaintiff. In 1432 there is even reference to a serious charge of cattle worrying as the Prioress was held responsible for the actions of a servant
It would have been a daily struggle for the Prioress and the sisters to manage the house’s extensive assets, feed themselves and dispense all the services the local community relied on. They also had to maintain the property they lived in. Often lay brothers were associated with a monastery and the sisters would have relied heavily on them. A Papal Bull dated May 1228 bestows the protection of the Church and God on the sisters to protect them and their property. Nevertheless in 1308, Archbishop Greenfield required essential repairs to be carried out to the Priory. This caused some difficulty as ten years later the order was repeated by Archbishop Melton who also commented on the house being heavily in debt. It may have been that this resulted in some impressive investment as 14th century debris has been found on the site indicating the presence at some time of an impressive stone building. The intricate carving and size of the corbel, plinth base or top and headstop would usually only be present in a building with stone vault and large raised ceilings. There is also reference in the Dunnington-Jefferson Archives to the will of John Croxton who leaves torches nine feet in length ‘to the nunry of Thickence’. Only a substantial church could have housed such large torches. No trace is left of this building and there is no clear reference to it at the time of Dissolution so it is presumed it fell into disrepair or was demolished and robbed some time prior to 1539.
In the early 14th century, there are several entries in the Register of Archbishops of York indicating a serious fall in moral standards at Thicket Priory. Archbishop Zouch wrote to the Prioress in 1352 addressing the excesses of Joan de Crackenholme and setting out a schedule of severe punishments hitherto unheard of in the York registers. Much of her conduct is left unsaid but he describes ‘the laying aside of her habit’ and ‘frequently leaving the house’ as two examples.
It was behaviour such as this that enabled Henry VIII to question the existence of such houses and raise sufficient doubt among the general public to push through the Act of Suppression. In 1539 the Priory was dissolved and passed into lay hands. Unusually it had received a small reprieve of three years since Dissolution and this may have something to do with the fact that the Official Receiver acting for Henry VIII had the same name as the Prioress at this time - Beckwith. The Suppression papers also show the land subsequently passing to relatives of agents of the crown so it was clearly a case of money and nepotism affecting the outcome.
In 1878 the Discalced Carmelite nuns of Paris established a monastery in Notting Hill, London. In turn Notting Hill Carmel founded many monasteries across Britain at a time of numerous religious foundations and new vocations, including a community founded at Exmouth, Devon, in 1926. This property became increasingly unsuitable due to the increased noise of traffic and they began to search for an alternative property, which eventually led them to Thicket Priory which they subsequently bought.
In 1955 the nuns applied for permission to move to the Middlesborough Diocese and Rome granted their request.
It is clear from correspondence with the sisters that John Alexander Dunnington- Jefferson was determined to sell the property to them and even personally facilitated a small mortgage to enable them to buy it. The nuns were delighted as Yorkshire had been a preferred location for them, it having been a Carmelite stronghold since Medieval times. They were also soon aware that the property had a history of religious use dating back to the 1100s, albeit as a Benedictine monastery. Of even greater resonance is the fact that the first Prioress of the new Carmelite monastery in Thicket Priory was a Vavasour related to the Dunnington-Jeffersons by marriage. The location in beautiful countryside was a boon in comparison to their increasingly encroached-upon former home.
The Carmelite philosophy: “Through the rhythm of praise and prayer, work, recreation and rest, which flows through her day, the Carmelite strives to make of each moment of her own life a humble echo of Our Lady’s words: ‘Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.’”.
The community was solemnly enclosed in August 1962 by His Lordship, Bishop Brunner of Middlesborough.
The Order is dedicated to Our Lady and of particular inspiration to them is the Song of the Virgin Mary (Magnificat) in the new form of Evening Prayer for Easter Sunday.
“A flame burns within our hearts,
Jesus Christ abides with us, His mystery dwells in us,
Death opens out into glory, alleluia.”
The 11 sisters who formed this community dedicated their lives to Christ and spent much of their day in silence to contemplate this. The order expressly required each nun to also spend a good proportion of her time in productive labour. The nuns have made their own shoes and even undertaken repairs to the grounds and house they lived in. They made altar breads and vestments and did printing to make money for the same purpose. Silence was maintained as much as possible with two periods of recreation during the day, which is in a spirit of joyous family reunion.
In 2007 the nuns sold the property to Bruce Corrie, of Huntington, York and used the funds to build a new priory to the south east of the property. They moved into the new monastery two years later.
Edward Blore, who may never have received any formal training, began his career in the early 19th century apprenticed to an engraver. He augmented his income by undertaking historical drawings, mostly of ecclesiastical buildings and monuments. However, he then met and befriended architect Thomas Rickman who inspired him. When Blore’s father died he fell on hard times and as a result of his connection with Rickman, and out of financial necessity, sought work as an architectural illustrator.
One of Blore’s first commissions was for Earl Spencer, ancestor of Lady Diana Spencer. He was commissioned to refurbish the family tomb at Great Brington church and during the process befriended Lord Althorp, son of Lord Spencer. Spencer was so impressed he began to champion Blore to all his friends and peers. Blore soon became a favourite of the aristocracy and the wealthy and eventually received the commission to design the front façade of Buckingham Palace when Royal Architect Nash was dismissed.
The Buckingham Palace commission did become a double-edged sword. It firmly established Blore’s standing as an architect, but it was also a project that was so emotive that his designs received mixed responses. An extremely disciplined man, Blore controlled all his developments with such discipline that he became renowned for always completing within budget and on time and this has led to some critics accusing him and his designs of being more about control and less about creative flair. His response to the criticism over the royal commission was such that he was said to have been offered - and refused a knighthood - shortly afterwards.
Nevertheless his success was established. At the height of his fame Blore was asked to design a manor house for the wealthy and successful Dunnington-Jeffersons in Thorganby. It was a commission to make a statement that the family were now bona-fide aristocracy and Blore did not disappoint.
Thicket Priory was built over the period from 1844-1847. At that time Blore would have been the natural choice for anyone of ample means and his selection by the Dunnington-Jeffersons indicated that no expense would be spared. A special commission for the clock tower was given to Vulliamy who was as much de-rigeur for clock design as Blore was for high architecture.
Blore continued to favour ecclesiastical design throughout his career in spite of the many private house commissions he undertook. It is clear when looking at the classic “neo Elizabethan” style of Thicket Priory that even when building for lay clients, he could not resist the detailing more usually found in churches and monuments. From the beautifully wrought yet spare lines of the individual stone pediments to upper floor windows to the delicate stone balustrades defining the roof and the stone cupolas to the clock tower it must have seemed like coming home for the sisters in 1955.
A contemporary description of classic Blore style could have been written about Thicket Priory: “… rising from a low stable block to higher offices to a yet higher main block over-topped by a tower; and crowned by chimney-stacks and spiky ornamental chimneys…including bays….of two storeys their windows mullioned and transomed..”. It is a large Tudor-style house of red brick with grey slate roof. The main block is two storeys with attics with three storey wings. Extensive basements extend throughout the building. A magnificent Oriel window adorns the western front elevation and a four-storey tower defines the eastern front. An arched front porch was present on the western elevation when built but was subsequently demolished when a 20th century extension was built by the Carmelite nuns.
The outbuildings are built in similar style with most being centred around a cobbled courtyard to the north of the main house. These include an impressive brewery with vast suspended slate fermenting tank. Ale would have been used as a form of payment for both permanent staff and seasonal labour.
The Lodge on Wheldrake Road is of brick and slate roof in cruciform plan with pediment to each gable.
Allegedly a half-timbered station was built for the Dunnington-Jefferson family owing to their interest in the Derwent Valley Light Railway, approximately one mile south west of the Priory.
Blore was also known for employing every modern refinement such as gas lighting and steam heating. Thicket Priory has evidence of both with an extremely complex and thorough ventilation system complete with detailed drawings. In his lifetime he received commissions for work to Hampton Court, Lambeth Palace and many impressive stately homes. A personal friend of Sir Walter Scott, which resulted in many of his Scottish commissions, Blore was a founder of the Royal Archeological Institute and the Institute of British Architects. He was Special Architect to King William IV and Queen Victoria during the early part of her reign and surveyor to Westminster Abbey from 1827 to 1849.
Blore designed Thicket Priory at the peak of his powers, completing it just two years before retiring.
Bemjamin Lewis Vulliamy followed his reasonably successful father as head of the family firm and clockmaker to the king. Little is known of his education but this is hardly surprising as he would have received an excellent training assisting his father in his business. He became a partner in this business at just 21.
The reign of George IV was notable for an unprecedented expansion of government and the rebuilding of central London. This meant a greater number of commissions for public institutions and the Vulliamy company responded to this by moving away from decorative objects for private individuals to public works. This led to a successful period of more austere designs at variance from the objet d’art status of their much earlier works. Benjamin Lewis soon became an acknowledged expert and responsible for many innovative developments in turret clock design which he tended to specialise in. He was made superintendent of the royal clocks at Buckingham Palace.
In 1844 Benjamin drew up the original specification for the great clock to the new houses of parliament at the recommendation of his friend Sir Charles Barry. He was unsuccessful for political reasons but almost immediately obtained the commission for the clock tower at Thicket Priory. An unusual three faced design, the clock nevertheless is held to be a classic and extremely valuable example of mid-19th century Vulliamy. It was practice for the clock to be known by the retailer who obtained the commission but the clock would actually have been made by contracted craftsmen. In this case probably George and Frederick Vale. However, Vulliamy was an excellent craftsman and was able to supervise his outworkers to ensure the work was carried out to his exacting standards.
Benjamin made several publications on the subject of public clocks and played a major role in the Clockmakers’ Company, of which he was made free in 1809 and served as master there five times. He was a quiet pioneer in the developing industry and built up his own company’s museum and library. He had wide tastes and was a fellow of the Royal Astronomical, Geographical and Zoological Institutes as well as being an associate of the Institute of Civil Engineers. He died in 1854 and his firm came to an end with his death.