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16 November 2016, 10:04
Thomas Rumbold (1736–91) rose from humble beginnings; his father, William, was a purser on the Eastindiaman King George. Thomas started out as a writer in Madras in 1752 but entered the army and fought at Trichinopoly (1754)43 and Plassey (1757). With two partners he administered the Company revenue at Chittagong and made enough money to own several ships and his own shipyard at Barkarganj. Other profitable ventures ensued and he returned home with a fortune of £200,000–300,000. He returned to India in 1778 to become Governor of Madras (until 1781) but was recalled in disgrace, his assets frozen for ‘certain breaches of Public Trust and High Crimes and Misdemeanours, committed by them [he had a partner in crime] while they respectively held the offices of Governor and President … of Fort St George [Madras] on the coast of Coromandel in the East Indies’ He was sued by the Company for £1,000,000. He subsequently escaped punishment but it was suggested that the action had been ‘compromised, doubtless for a satisfactory consideration’ and it was well known that he was ‘one of the most notorious nabobs of his time’.
Rumbold bought Woodhall Park at Watton-at-Stone in 1774 by a convoluted process from one of his erstwhile partners at Chittagong, Henry Verelst, now Governor of Bengal, with a mortgage provided by Verelst and Lord Clive of India. Formerly the property of the Boteler family, this ‘fine estate’ contained a complex of formal gardens around the house, with avenues to the south-east and south-west. It was situated on a rise above the River Beane, which flowed round the park. Rumbold commissioned Thomas Leverton in 1777 to build a new mansion further north in the park, while he disappeared back to India again, which caused considerable problems both for Leverton and for Rumbold’s attorneys. By the time of Rumbold’s death in 1791, the garden was said to boast ‘a greater profusion of hot walls and forcing-fruit houses than perhaps any garden in the kingdom’.
Although Rumbold left his estate to his family, by a complicated will which pleased no one, Woodhall Park was acquired in 1797 by Paul Benfield (1741–1810), whose financial dealings were on a par with Rumbold’s. He and Rumbold had corresponded over East India affairs and Benfield had even been appointed in Rumbold’s place while the alleged misdemeanours of Madras were being investigated. Edmund Burke had waged a long campaign over the corruption in the Company and his speech regarding the debts of the Nawab of the Carnatic included an attack on Benfield in which he denounced him as ‘a criminal who long since ought to have fattened the region’s kites with his offal’.
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