Lydiard’s Last Lord and English Naturalist

2024 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Vernon Henry St.John, 6th Viscount Bolingbroke (1896-1974).

In  May 1974, Vernon St.John, 7th Viscount St.John, Baron St.John of Lydiard Tregoze, Wiltshire and Baron St.John of Battersea, Surrey, and 10th Baronet, died at his home in the New Forest aged 78 years. His ashes were buried in St. Mary’s Lydiard Tregoze churchyard beside those of his two elder brothers. He was the last Lord to have lived in the St.John’s ancestral home at Lydiard Park, prior to the breaking up of the Lydiard estate and the sale of the house and grounds to Swindon Corporation.

Henry 5th Viscount Bolingbroke and Viscountess Lady Mary (Howard) with Vernon, 1899

Vernon was the fourth child of Henry St.John 5th Viscount Bolingbroke and Lydiard Housekeeper Mary Emily (Howard). The couple kept their relationship a secret and on the death of the old viscount in 1899 the St.John family  were shocked to discover he had a legitimate heir in Vernon. The story made the national papers and even took the villagers of Lydiard Tregoze by surprise.  Unusually for a young aristocrat, Vernon was not sent away to boarding school. His early life was divided between Bath where he was born and Lydiard Park. Educated at home, he soon developed a love of nature, encouraged by the local vicar Revd. Percy Harrison. His other great passion was music at which he excelled, playing the piano, violin and organ.

Private Vernon Henry St.John, Dorsetshire Regiment, 1917

World War I came as a devastating interruption. Vernon received his joining up papers immediately he turned twenty-one years in March1917. He was the only Lord to serve as a private, fighting at Passchendaele and the Somme before being invalided out with shell shock and receiving an Honourable Discharge. Like countless young men who survived the war, it took a heavy toll on his mental and physical health. Apart from a brief spell running a music store in Tetbury, he lived in virtual retirement, pursuing his hobbies and associating with his own tenants and local life rather than mixing with his peers.

Vernon St.John, 6th Viscount Bolingbroke, crowning the Lydiard Tregoze Carnival Queen in 1927

The death of his mother in 1940 was a heavy blow shortly followed by his departure from Lydiard Park overtaken by financial ruin that had been set in train by his forebears. Despite these setbacks, and a failed marriage to the cellist Valezina Frohawk, Vernon retained his dignity and his enthusiasm for the natural world. In his new home near Ringwood in the New Forest he became a well-regarded Lepidopterist, contributing to natural history journals and giving talks to interested groups. Today his collection of butterflies and moths is housed in The National Museum of Wales.

Vernon never lost his affection for Lydiard Park.  In  the 1960s he loaned his family portraits back to Lydiard House before selling them to Swindon Corporation at an affordable price so they could be permanently displayed in the State Rooms. And on his death he bequeathed a large collection of personal family belongings to Swindon, many of which will made pubic for the first time in The Lydiard Archives this year.

We hope you enjoy exploring The Lydiard Archives and join our special programme of events  as we attempt to draw together the story of this retiring and reflective man, whose life and quiet achievements have so often been eclipsed by the scandal of his birth.

Gravestone for Vernon St.John 6th Viscount Bolingbroke, The churchyard, St. Mary’s Lydiard Tregoze


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