By Jim Bell. This article first appeared in ‘The Wokingham Paper’, 24th April 2015
A young man sits holding the reins of a horse drawn fire engine. He is the chief of Wokingham’s voluntary fire service and also just happens to be a member of one of Britain’s wealthiest families. Arthur Wills John Wellington Trumbull Hill at the age of just three years old became the 6th Marquess of Downshire, whose family owned 5,000 acres in Berkshire (Easthampstead) and 115,000 acres in Ireland (Hillsborough, County Down). By 1883, the Hills family had the eighth highest landed income in the United Kingdom. For all this wealth however, he lived his life as the 6th Marquis of Downshire and as Arthur Hill, a lover of the more simple qualities of rural life. A local inhabitant of the area once observed:
“In those days everything was driven to the market. There was no transport. They used to drive cattle, sheep and cows and all from the Downshire estate to the market to be sold. The Marquess used to follow on as if he was one of the workmen, dressed in a smock. You’d think he was a normal shepherd.”
His love of the countryside was obvious, but the Marquess also possessed a love of powered vehicles. Although he had his own chauffeur, he would often swap seats, the driver sitting in the back whilst the Marquess took over the driving. The chauffeur would also join in on the masquerade by taking on the persona of gentry and waving at the locals as the vehicle passed them by.
One of the Marquess’s favourite pastimes was to drive his steam roller round the roads of his estate. He was doing this one day when a tramp came up the drive. Not knowing to whom he was speaking, the tramp asked the Marquess the chances of begging a meal at the big house. The Marquess responded that his chances were good. As soon as the tramp was out of sight, he got down from his steam roller, hurried into the house, summoned the butler and gave him a whole sovereign to give to the man and instructed him to see the cook give him a good meal. He then returned to his roller and continued on his drive around. Eventually the tramp emerged from the big house and the Marquess asked him how he had fared. The tramp was ecstatic.
He said that he had received an enormous meal, two pints of beer and to top it all, the butler had given him a half-sovereign. On learning this, the Marquess went straight back to the house and sacked the butler for dishonesty.
To know the man, is to know why Wokingham’s fire brigade was led by one of the nation’s wealthiest men. He was as much at ease with ordinary folk as was with royalty; who loved both modern technology and a simple rural life. He was both the grand 6th Marquess of Downshire and the ordinary Arthur Hill; some might say eccentric, but one of our true characters and taken away at the relatively early age of just 46 years old. He died at Easthampstead on the 29th of May 1918 after a short illness following a chill. In his will he gave one year’s wages to those who had been in his employment for three years before his death.
Jim’s books can be purchased at the Information Centre in Wokingham’s Town Hall. They make great presents at a price of around £3.