Elton Hall, home of the Proby family since 1660, lies in the Cambridgeshire countryside about 8 miles from Peterborough. It is regularly open to the public today.
In the 1870s, when John Tyndall came to know it, the house was owned by William Proby, 5th Earl of Carysfort. He was the youngest of eight children of the 3rd Earl, inheriting the title from his older brother in 1872 (when he died, in 1909, the title became extinct). One of his older sisters, Elizabeth, married Lord Claud Hamilton. It was their eldest daughter, Louisa, whom Tyndall married in 1876.
Elton Hall (Roland Jackson)
After Louisa’s death, in 1940, her massive collection of Tyndall’s papers was removed to Elton Hall. Some years later Tyndall’s letters and journals, and other miscellaneous papers, were given to the Royal Institution of Great Britain, where they are available in the archive for consultation by scholars.
Yet I had a sneaking suspicion that some papers might remain at Elton Hall. Not only can papers easily be missed in such a large collection, but weeding out of material that might have been considered sensitive decades ago could well have happened. I approached Sir William Proby, the current incumbent, and asked if he was aware of any Tyndall material remaining in the house.
He was, and as luck would have it, had recently put some effort into more systematic cataloguing of the archive. This sort of private activity is of immense value to researchers. Many important archives have been donated to public bodies, be they national or local. But so much of recorded British history is bound up with the great houses and estates that much remains in private ownership. Its custodianship varies enormously, and I was fortunate to find, through Sir William and his archivist Jenny Burt, an archive being brought to life and order.
In the event, I spent two days in the archive itself. Of particular interest to the Tyndall Correspondence Project were several dozen letters. They include the only known letters from Louisa to Tyndall, and specific information, from letters between Louisa, her mother, and sisters, about how John and Louisa first met and interacted. Such material, previously unknown, is like gold dust to the biographer, giving insights never seen by researchers before. It has, of course, appeared in the biography. Other highly personal and emotive items were there too, including Louisa’s notes in her own hand in preparation for the inquest into her husband’s death.
John and Louisa Tyndall are buried together in Haslemere. Louisa’s parents are buried in the churchyard at Elton. On my second visit I found their graves, close by the church, and stood to remember them all.