Sir Tatton Sykes (1826 – 1912)
Near Driffield in the East Ridings of Yorkshire (as was) is to be found a rather imposing Georgian house set in grounds designed by Capability Brown, Sledmere House. It was and is home to the Sykes family.
The fifth Baronet, Sir Tatton Sykes, by anyone’s standards was a bit of an eccentric cove. As another famous resident of the area, Philip Larkin, once said “they fuck you up, your mum and dad” and part of Sir Tatton’s problems could be laid at the door of his parents as he grew up even by the standards of the day “in an atmosphere devoid of love”. His mother used to hide herself away in the orangery and his father spent most of his time with his racehorses. As soon as he inherited the estates on his father’s death in 1863 Sir Tatton wrought his revenge, demolishing the orangery and selling the racehorses for £30,000. Revenge, after all, is a dish best served cold.
As a landlord Sir Tatton had some rather peculiar traits. He could not abide seeing women and children loitering about at the front of their rented cottages and so he ordered his tenants to bolt their front doors and only use the back entrances. He had a pathological dislike of flowers and if he ever saw one whilst out walking, he would flog it mercilessly with his walking stick. Inevitably, his tenants were banned from growing flowers – “nasty, untidy things” – in their gardens. “If they had to grow something”, he fulminated, “grow cauliflowers”.
As he grew older, Sir Tatton developed what might only be termed hypochondriac tendencies. He was obsessed with maintaining a constant body temperature and used to order his coats and trousers in varying sizes. He would put the smaller ones on first, the medium-sized ones next and finally the largest so that he resembled a matryoshka doll. As he got warmer through his exertions he would simply remove a layer of clothing, letting it fall to the ground to be picked up by one of local children who would receive a small reward for their troubles.
Perhaps he had got a taste for revenge because towards the end of his life he lived almost exclusively on cold rice pudding. When his house caught fire in 1911 – the house was pretty much destroyed and what we see today is the result of careful reconstruction – he would not be moved until he had finished his bowl of food. His poor servants and tenants were left to save what they could of the artefacts in the house.
Sir Tatton had a disastrous marriage, to Jessica Cavendish-Bentinck aka Lady satin Tights who was thirty years his junior. Although she bore him a son in 1879, by the 1890s the couple were estranged, Jessica running up enormous debts. In a spectacular court case Sir Tatton refused to honour her debts which caused a major scandal at the time and Jessica died prematurely in 1912, ironically the same year as her husband.
For all his eccentricities, Sir Tatton was a shrewd business man and the sale of his father’s horses enabled him to build up a stud of winning horses and increase his landholding. By 1892 he had 34,000 acres and his estate turned in a profit most years despite the prevailing agricultural depression. He built or restored 18 churches at a cost of £10,000 a time, employing some of the greatest architects of the day, monies which he funded from his own purse. I just hope the grateful church didn’t present him with a bunch of flowers.