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The fascinating story of the Beecham family and its connection with the village of Mursley

Thomas Beecham: Keep taking the tablets

Thomas Beecham, who began life in the 1830s as an Oxfordshire shepherd boy, became wealthy and famous for his Beecham's Pills -widely advertised by such slogans as 'Beecham's Pills save doctor's bills', and 'Beecham's Pills - worth a guinea a box'.

Tradition has it he was given the formula by an old shepherd on his deathbed, who asked for them to be patented and the money used to look after his wife.

Exploiting the opportunity, Tom gave up shepherding, and began to hawk his herbal remedies around the streets of a then thriving Lancashire.

In time, he and his first wife, Jane, settled in Wigan, where their first son, Joseph, was born. With the business continuing to prosper, the family moved in 1858 to St Helens.

After Jane's death, Tom married Mary Sawell, whom he had met on Banbury station in September 1879, and in deference to her dislike of the industrial north, plus the advice of his doctors on health grounds to seek a more agreeable climate, he decided to move south.

Having many relatives in the area, eventually he chose Mursley, and duly purchased a large acreage adjoining the churchyard where, in 1881, construction of the couple's new house began. Meanwhile they lived elsewhere in the village - although Tom would be at the site almost every day to motivate the workmen in his forceful fashion!

The Millennium Window at
St. Mary the Virgin, Mursley, shows Mursley Hall, bottom left

Built in the robust and solid manner of the period, at a cost of £10,000, the house was finally complete. Naming the mansion Mursley Hall, Tom crowned it with a weathervane enhanced with his own initials.

His initials would also grace Beechams Row, a terrace of cottages built at the northern end of the village to house the employees who were engaged in the gardens, on the farmlands, or on the small farm which Tom had established in the grounds of the Hall.

In addition to the outdoor workers, many domestics were also employed. In fact, Tom supposedly had such a reputation for his antics with the female staff that the windowsills of Mursley Hall were allegedly built higher than usual, to screen any untoward goings-on.

Nevertheless, he appears to have been well liked as a landlord, and took a genuine interest in the activities of the village. For the celebration of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887 he organised a sports event for the over-50s, followed by a sumptuous tea at Mursley Hall, where each of the female winners received dress lengths, and the men stockings and handkerchiefs. Widows and the very old were given new sovereigns.

Mursley Hall was, without doubt, among the most palatial of the local mansions, and children invited into the kitchen by the cook would stand in awe of all the numbered bells and the lovely spiral staircase.

Yet missing his involvement with the business, Tom began increasingly to spend weeks in the north, and Mary soon came to resent her spells of enforced loneliness - a situation frequently compounded by the absence of regular maids, as a consequence of Tom's amorous attentions.

Mary began to seek company elsewhere, and especially the friendship of a lady schoolteacher, whom she invited to share the Hall almost at will.

Whenever Tom returned, arguments would follow.

Returning from one of his jaunts, Tom announced that Mary looked unwell and, before leaving that night, gave her two pills. Falling violently ill shortly afterwards, she became convinced he had tried to poison her.

Now more than ever she sought the support of her schoolteacher friend, and whenever Tom returned the two women would sleep in the same bed, with the door of the bedroom firmly locked.

Predictably, the marriage came to a premature end and, following a separation, a settlement was made. For good reason, Mary demanded the payment in cash.

Despite having many relatives in the district, Tom felt increasingly lonely at Mursley Hall and, with drink as his primary solace, his thoughts turned again to life in the north.

In 1892 he had a house built at Southport, with all the stock and furniture at Mursley Hall sold Tom's acquaintance with the village carne to an end .

But this would not be the end of the Beechams' association with the village.

Back in St Helens, Thomas' son, Joseph, had married a local girl, Josephine Burnett, in 1873. Their son, Thomas, born on April 29 1879, inherited his mother's musical talents -and would grow up to become the famous conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. Even at the age of five, he displayed early promise.

As a young man, Thomas proposed to Utica Welles, daughter of Dr Welles, the staff doctor at the American Embassy, and she accepted.

Sadly, his happiness was marred by the deteriorating health of his mother. Due to her many pregnancies and advancing years, being in her late 40s, Josephine had developed a mild form of epilepsy and supposedly for her own safety, Joseph made secret arrangements to have her committed to an asylum.

So when Thomas and his elder sister, Emily, returned one day, they discovered their mother was missing. Joseph refused to say where she was and, in a dramatic scene, threw them both out.

Now disinherited, in the early 1900s they went to London to fight their father in the courts, and during this period would lodge for a while at the home of the Welles family. Here Thomas was allowed a room of his own and kept his mind occupied by composing operas and attending concerts, for until the whole unpleasant business was resolved he could not feel free to marry Utica.

Josephine was eventually traced to a Northampton home, where Thomas and Emily sent solicitors to visit her. Unsurprisingly, she then began to petition for divorce, and the case attracted widespread publicity.

Following a settlement of £4,500 a year, Josephine was taken into the care of Emily and the Welles family and, with the situation resolved, Thomas married Utica in July 1903. Joseph did not attend the wedding.

In fact, the rift between father and son had become so wide that Thomas could expect no form of paternal allowance. So it was fortunate that his grandfather, Tom, had given the couple Mursley Hall as a wedding present - to where Joseph one day without warning, sent a pony am as a belated gift.

In 1911 Mursley Hall also became home to Josephine and Dr Welles and his family, when they all moved to London. The relationship between Thomas and Utica was becoming less, harmonious but, despite her husband's infidelity, she had no wish to divorce him.

Apart from the gift of Mursley Hall, Thomas Beecham had also presented his grandson with an allowance of £300 a year but, even so, he would have been in dire financial straits had there not occurred a timely reconciliation with his father.

Joseph had developed an increasing admiration for his son's musical ability and, after a rift of nearly 10 years, suddenly announced: "You damn well annoyed me."

"And you annoyed me too," replied Thomas, at which they shook hands, and that was that.

After the death of Utica's parents, Josephine continued to live alone at Mursley Hall, except for her servants, although occasionally Utica would come to visit with her two sons, Adrian and Tommy.

With the outbreak of the First World War they all came for a more prolonged stay, having deemed Mursley to be safer than London, and Utica would soon become an everyday sight, taking her sons around the village in a buggy cart.

Also to be sometimes glimpsed was 'Charlie', supposedly a brother of Lady Beecham, who had to be escorted on local excursions by a keeper, 'a big burly man' to whom he was handcuffed. Children ran when they saw them coming.

Known by the locals as the Dowager Lady Beecham, in her old age Josephine became ever more reclusive, and on November 3 1934 she died at Mursley Hall, having not once received a visit from Joseph.

As for Sir Thomas Beecham, as he had now become, in October 1942 he filed a suit for divorce from Utica, and subsequently married Betty Thomas in New York. Through continuing neglect, Mursley Hall began to fall into ruin and, following a sale of the household goods and furniture, was eventually disposed of.

In more recent years a fire ravaged the building. The site was bought by developers and is now overlaid by the Beechams housing estate.

Two monkey puzzle trees still recall the former grounds which, according to new residents, continue to yield lumps of coal that were once stored in the old fuel bunkers.

Workers' Cottages: Beechams Row in Mursley carries the
initials of Thomas Beecham in the brickwork.
Today: The Beechams estate occupies the former site
of Mursley Hall. Monkey puzzle trees are visible in the background.