The Bagehot family were key players in the development of Langport as a prosperous trading hub. In these endeavours, they were allied with the important Stuckey family, both in business and by marriage.
The Bagehot family can be traced back to the sixteenth century, when, named Baghott, they were flourishing in Prestbury, Gloucestershire, and later in Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, where they followed careers as solicitors and surgeons. Walter’s great-grandfather, Thomas (1719-1780), moved to Langport in 1747 and changed his name to Bagehot. He established himself as a maltster in premises in ‘Up Street’ (now The Hill), and went into partnership with George Stuckey (1697-1775), father of Samuel Stuckey, the founder of Stuckey’s Bank.
George Stuckey’s grandson, Vincent, became the first Chairman of Stuckey’s Banking Co, and was regarded as a prominent and successful businessman. Vincent’s sister, Edith, George’s youngest granddaughter, married Thomas Watson Bagehot (Walter’s father) in 1823, thereby joining the two great Langport families together. Walter, their only surviving child, was born in 1826.
Studio portraits of Thomas Watson (who was known as ‘Watson’) and Edith show them in typical Victorian poses:
Edith, who was born in about 1786, was ten years older than Thomas Watson, and had been married before. Her first husband, Joseph Prior Estlin of Bristol, whom she married in 1806, died after only five years of marriage, leaving her with three young sons. The eldest, Vincent (1807-1869), was simple-minded from birth, and the other two, George Stuckey (1809-1829) and Joseph Prior (1811-1821), died young. Edith and Thomas Watson’s first child, also called Watson, died in 1827 aged 3.
These tragedies affected Edith badly, and she suffered from periods of insanity for the rest of her life. Her ill-health was the major cause of Walter giving up his proposed law career in London and returning to Langport in 1852 to work at Stuckey’s bank. As Walter’s sister-in-law, and biographer, Emilie Barrington, commented: “This was the tragedy of his life, the iron that entered into the soul.” She died on 21 February 1870 (contrary to the inscription on the gravestone), and was buried in the family grave at All Saints’ Langport on 26 February, after a funeral procession from Herd’s Hill through Langport, where all the shops were closed, and the blinds drawn in the private houses.
Thomas Watson (often called just Watson by his family) was born in 1795, the son of Robert (‘Codrington’) and Mary (née Watson) Bagehot. He inherited Herd’s Hill by his father’s will in 1836, and moved his family from Bank House, Cheapside. Thomas was a Unitarian (whereas Edith was Anglican), and he held Sunday services at home in the morning. Walter attended these, then went with his mother to Church later in the day. He married Edith Stuckey on 9 August 1823, took a great interest in developing the grounds of Herd’s Hill, was a keen amateur painter, and was active in civic affairs, being five times Portreeve in the town (1818, 1829, 1844, 1853, 1864). He held various senior positions in Stuckey’s Bank in Langport, both in relation to the local branch and in its HQ there for the ever-expanding banking group.
A local story has it that he was so punctual and regular in his daily journey from home to the Bank that people set their watches as he passed their windows. His career was recognised by the Bank, such that on his retirement, they established a welfare fund for their clerks in his name, the Bagehot Testimonial Trust. He died on 6 November 1881 (thereby outliving Walter by several years), and was buried in the family grave at All Saints’ Langport on 12 November. Langport Corporation attended Sunday services the next day in recognition of his civic activities.
Eliza (actually Elizabeth), Walter’s wife, was the daughter of James and Elizabeth (Preston) Wilson, born in Southwark on 16 December 1832, one of six sisters. James Wilson was a Liberal MP and Minister, who also founded The Economist in 1843. This latter attribute was the catalyst for Eliza and Walter meeting in January 1857 when the young banker visited Wilson at his home, Claverton Manor, near Bath, hoping to be commissioned to write for the publication. Eliza and Walter wrote love letters to each other, which were later published by her sister, Emilie Barrington; became engaged in November 1857, and married the following April at Claverton. She kept a diary for 70 years from 1851 until her death, which, although not full of sparkling prose or great insight, shone an invaluable light not only on Walter’s life and career, but on many aspects of late Victorian and early 20th century middle-class life in London and Langport.
Following Walter’s early death in 1877, she devoted much of her time perpetuating his memory and legacy, such as commissioning the magnificent West Window in his honour at Langport Church in 1879. She maintained a close interest in the family’s financial and business affairs (including Stuckey’s Bank and The Economist), especially after 1877, in which, had she been a man, she would most likely been more professionally involved. Her sister, Emilie, lived with her in London and at Herd’s Hill, and encouraged her to improve her properties with William Morris furnishings and the like. Eliza died on 11 October 1921 at Herd’s Hill – the final entry in her diary was by her maid: “Dear Mrs Bagehot passed away at 5:45 in the morning” – and is buried in the Bagehot family grave in All Saints’ Langport churchyard.