Walking in the Footsteps of Hungerfords

Conservator William Bennett shares highlights from his August 2022 visit to the United Kingdom, where he visited four archival repositories, viewed and studied 54 different documents, and spoke with three local experts in his quest to better understand the Hungerford Deed and James Smithson’s milieu.

Readers of The Bigger Picture will be familiar with the Hungerford Deed, a 1787 property contract dividing a lucrative land inheritance between the mother and aunt of the Smithsonian’s founding donor, James Smithson. Over the last three years I have been able to take a deep dive into the content of the Deed and strengthen our understanding of Smithson’s choice to leave his wealth to the United States and form the Institution—and have shared many of those findings here and in the online exhibit A Tale of Two Sisters. But many questions still remain.

Last month, I had the opportunity to travel to the United Kingdom to try and begin answering some of these questions. I visited four archival repositories, viewed and studied 54 different documents, and spoke with three local experts in my quest to better understand the Deed and James Smithson’s milieu (logging 140,776 steps over 68.03 miles!). Highlights include seeing the following:

Smithson’s naturalization document. James Smithson was born in Paris and had to be naturalized a British citizen at the age of nine. At the time, this required a private act in the British Parliament, so I visited their archives to see this document, which places limitations on his citizenship despite claiming his rights and privileges would be the same as other citizens.

A modern glass atrium sits adjacent to a bulky concrete building, fronted by an expansive paved cour

Macie v Walker. The Hungerford Deed recounts Smithson’s mother, Elizabeth Macie, suing her sister, Henrietta Maria Walker, to enforce the partition of Hungerford lands. It was thrilling to see the paperwork from Macie’s lawsuit and read in her own words her accusations against her sister, as well as see her seal and signature.

A brick Georgian rowhouse with white sash windows looks onto a London garden square.

US President vs Charles Drummond. To secure Smithson’s bequest, American diplomat Richard Rush was dispatched to the United Kingdom, where he launched his own suit to obtain the funds. Drummond was Smithson’s executor and raised some questions about whether Smithson could bequeath money out of the country, and this battle is captured in the legal documents.

An L-shaped stacked stone and mortar house with a slate roof and white-painted sash windows sits ami

Studley House. This property was coveted by Walker and she obtained it in the partition. I was able to visit during my travels and see it firsthand. Studley is one of the properties we know the most about due to a well-documented history of ownership. The current house was built during Smithson’s lifetime but was not the original home Walker received in the partition.

A Georgian stone mansion of classical proportions contrasts with a vibrant blue sky. The left-hand w

Cadenham Manor. While this home was not included in the Hungerford Deed (it had already passed out of the family’s hands), the house was built by Macie and Walker’s great-grandfather, Sir George Hungerford. His conflict with his second son, Walter, is reminiscent of the family disagreements between Macie and Walker, and his aspirations to grandeur reflected in his home recall Macie and Walker’s pursuit of their Hungerford legacy.

Much remains to be done with my research before our questions will all be answered, and there are still gaps in our knowledge, but this was an important first step. For now, enjoy these additional images of some of the places Smithson and his family frequented, and stay tuned for more as I dive further into my notes.

A row of Georgian limestone townhouses with symmetrical details recede from the viewer along a paved     A red banner reading      A two-story white brick home with tile roof and twin dormers is slightly overgrown with climbing vin

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