top of page

The families of Thornham: from the fourteenth century to the present day

De Briseworth, Wiseman, Bokenham and Killigrew

In the 1300s the Thornham Estate was vested in William de Briseworth and at some point later that century Nicholas Wiseman married de Briseworth's granddaughter and the estate became the property of the Wiseman family. By the sixteenth century, the Wiseman family was moving in prestigious circles - Sir John Wiseman married Elizabeth, the daughter of Sir James Hobart, Attorney General to Henry VII. During this this time the Wisemans built the first Thornham Hall, a pinnacled, E-shaped grand country house typical of the period. It is rumoured that Queen Elizabeth I stayed there during one of her visits to the region.

Thornham became the property of the Bokenhams during the 1500s when Barbara Wiseman married Edmund Bokenham (the precise date of the marriage is unknown). Edmund Bokenham was the High Sheriff of Suffolk in 1605. Edmund and Barbara, who died in 1616 and 1618 respectively, are recorded on one of the stone ledgers in Thornham Magna church.

In 1687 the Killigrews took over ownership of the estate when Jemima Bokenham married Charles Killigrew, a key figure in royal circles. Charles became a gentleman of the Privy Chamber to Charles II in 1670, Master of Revels in 1680 and patentee of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in 1682. By the late seventeenth century, Thornham Hall had been architecturally transformed, the pinnacles and weathervanes had been removed and the protruding central section of the house had been flattened. Tall windows were evenly aligned and in the centre of the roof was a bell tower and clock.

Charles Killigrew was succeeded by his son, Charles, who died without an heir in 1756. He left Thornham to his godson, the Reverend Charles Tyrell of Gipping, who promptly sold the estate to Sir John Major.

Major, Henniker and Chandos

Sir John Major was born in 1698 in Bridlington, Yorkshire but he was no stranger to Suffolk - he already owned Worlingworth Hall when he bought Thornham and in 1754 had been High Sheriff of the county. He was a merchant of the Muscovy company, importers of naval supplies from the Baltic. In 1765 he was created a Baronet. During this time Thornham Hall, which stood in approximately 34 hectares of parkland, was often referred to as Major House.

When the Worlingworth estates were added to those already belonging to Thornham, a very large area came under the ownership of one family. A 1765 survey of Sir John's land at Thornham shows that some of the old field boundaries still remain today. Sir John Major died in 1781 with no sons and his estate passed to his two daughters, Ann and Elizabeth.

In 1747 Sir John's eldest daughter, Ann, married John Henniker of Newton Hall, Essex. The Henniker family came from Rochester in Kent. John Henniker was MP for Sudbury from 1761 to 1768 and Dover from 1774 to 1784. He was made Baron Henniker of Stratford-upon-Slaney, County Wicklow in the Peerage of Ireland in 1800. He died in 1803.

Both the Major and Henniker families knew James Brydges, the first Duke of Chandos. The Duke began his career as Paymaster General and it is likely that he first had dealings with them in their capacity as merchants of the Muscovy company. Chandos died in 1744 and the family suffered significant financial decline under his heir. In 1767 Henry, the second Duke of Chandos, married Elizabeth Major, the second daughter of Sir John, in an attempt to restore the Chandos fortune. However, Henry died shortly after the union in 1771 and Elizabeth spent much of her widowhood at Thornham Hall. She brought Chandos pictures and other possessions to Thornham and shared the estate with John Henniker. Lord and Lady Henniker and the Dowager Duchess of Chandos were among the patrons of the Eye Theatre. Elizabeth died at Thornham in 1813. Today Chandos is remembered in the names of the Henniker-Major family and the names of some of the properties at Thornham, such as Duchess Wood and Chandos Farm.

The Henniker-Majors and their changing fortunes

The First Lord Henniker was succeeded by his eldest son, John, who took the name Henniker-Major (a condition of his grandfather's will). John was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a founder of the Royal Institution and he worked for the Muscovy Company. During the Napoleonic Wars he raised a regiment of volunteers at Worlingworth. Like his father before him he was a Conservative Member of Parliament - as an Irish peer he was able to stand for the House of Commons. He married Emily Jones in 1791 and died in 1821 without an heir. He was succeeded by his nephew, John Henniker, who became the third Lord Henniker. A lawyer, he married Mary Chafy, daughter of a Canon of Canterbury, who planted a number of woods at Thornham, including Lady Henniker Wood, which still exists today. He took the additional name of Major by deed poll. His son, John (the fourth Lord Henniker), was MP for East Suffolk (1832-47 and 1858-1866), High Sheriff for Suffolk (1853) and was active in the county, in Parliament and in the industrial development of the country. In 1837 he married Anne Kerrison, a daughter of General Sir Edward Kerrison of Brome Hall and Oakley Park, an important neighbour. In 1866 John was created Lord Hartismere in the UK Peerage and his eldest son took over his parliamentary seat. With the help of Sydney Smirke, he renovated Thornham Hall and made the house much grander, remodelling it along the lines of a French chateau, which included a Louis XIV style salon with gold and white panelling. Towers and turrets were also added. In the halls hung portraits of prominent men painted by important artists as well as portraits of the Henniker and Major families by Sir Joshua Reynolds and a painting Sir John Henniker by Landseer. There was a significant pottery collection and Chippendale furniture was found in many of the rooms

Henniker-Major coat of arms
The Henniker-Major Coat of Arms

The 1851 census shows that there were 20 staff resident at Thornham Hall. John Perkins, who joined in 1848 and would become Head Gardener at the age of 24, was responsible for creating The Lady Henniker Apple, which was awarded a Certificate of Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society in 1873. During John's time as head gardener, Thornham Hall had 25 acres of garden. John was well-known for his table decorations, on which he published 'Floral Designs for the Table'. He died in 1907. The stone folly, the ice-house, the walled garden and the model farm at the Red House as well as the water tower, the pets' graveyard and the yew walks date from this period. Many people were employed at the Red House workshops, including cowmen, dairymaids, horsemen, carpenters, joiners, woodmen, sawyers, a wheelwright and gamekeepers.

John Henniker-Major (born in 1842), the son of the fourth Lord Henniker, was at Cambridge with the future King Edward VII and became a Lord in Waiting to him when he was Prince of Wales. The Prince visited Thornham many times and John's witty sister, Helen, became a firm favourite. In 1868, John became the MP for East Suffolk. He was also a Junior Minister in the House of Lords and the first Chairman of the East Suffolk County Council. By the time John succeeded his father in 1870 and became the fifth Lord Henniker, Thornham was in its heyday. There were 30,000 acres in Suffolk and more in Essex, Kent and Sussex.

The fifth Lord Henniker and his wife, Lady Alice Cuffe, the only daughter of the 3rd Earl of Desart, raised a large family of 12 children. Thornham Hall was always full of guests and there were often relatives from Lady Henniker's family visiting.

However, the good times were not to last. According to Lady Henniker's diaries the end of the nineteenth century was an unhappy time for the family. Her health was rapidly deteriorating (she died in 1892) and her husband was battling with serious money problems. English agriculture was suffering due to the influx of produce from overseas and achieving a good price for rents farm rents became almost impossible. After Lady Henniker's death, Lord Henniker's financial situation left him with no choice but to seek paid employment. He was appointed Governor of the Isle of Man and he remained there with his large family until his death in 1902. On his departure Thornham Hall was let.
















Before Lord Henniker's death, his eldest son Bertie (who would have become the sixth Lord) sadly died of pneumonia at the age of 35 - the event is marked by a window in Thornham Magna church. In 1902 at the time of Lord Henniker's death, his second son and now his heir, Charles, was overseas in India with his regiment. His remaining ten children were alone and rather adrift so Lord Henniker's younger brother, General Arthur Henniker-Major, and his wife Florence, daughter of Lord Houghton and a close friend of Thomas Hardy, stepped in to keep an eye on Thornham and the family.

Thornham Hall Early 20th century - Suffolk Archives.jpeg

Thornham Hall in the early 20th century (Suffolk Archives)

The pets' cemetery at Thornham features a number of graves and memorials to the horses of Arthur Henniker-Major: 'Bob', a charger in the 1882 Egyptian Campaign; 'Mahuta'; 'Joll'; 'Punch', a charger from 1891 to 1902; and 'Toto', killed at Pretoria in 1900. Arthur and Florence's dogs are also buried in the cemetery.

Charles, the sixth Lord Henniker, eventually returned from India to look after his siblings. At the outbreak of the First World War he took his battalion to France where they suffered terrible losses at Ypres, which weighed heavily on Charles for the rest of his life. By this time, Thornham's debts were enormous and death duties were owed. The Hall was leased to Colonel Hughes but the financial problems continued and in 1919 Charles sold 21,000 acres. A further 7,000 acres were sold after the Second World War, leaving just 3,000 acres of the original estate.

In the mid 1930s Colonel Hughes decided to vacate Thornham Hall and after a brief spell, during which the Hall was rented by Lady Marr, no tenant could be found so nearly all the Hall's contents were sold (except pictures specifically involving the family) and a large part of the house, which had around 95 rooms, was pulled down. The remainder of the house was converted and modernised and Charles Henniker-Major moved in. Shortly afterwards the house was requisitioned by the Army as accommodation for German and Italian prisoners of war. After the war ended Charles decided that he would not to move back. Once again the house was let, this time to the Kerrison School for problem children. In 1954 the house burnt down in a fire that started in a bedroom on the second floor. A new house was built two years later. The Victorian stables and water tower survived the fire and are still evident today.

In 1956 Charles died and was succeeded by his youngest brother, John, who became the seventh Lord Henniker. At this time, John, who had trained at Cirencester as a land agent, was living at the Red House with his family and was closely involved in managing the estate. John was the grandfather of the current Lord Henniker, Mark. He died in 1980 at the age of 97.

His son, John Henniker-Major, served in the army in the Second World War and was awarded the Military Cross in 1945. After the war, John worked for the diplomatic service and was Ernest Bevin's Assistant Private Secretary between 1946 and 1948. He was also Ambassador to Jordan (1960-1962) and Ambassador to Denmark (1962-1966). He took the post of Director General of the British Council from 1968 to 1972. After a finishing his career in public service, John became involved in charity and voluntary work in London. He was made a CMG in 1956, a CVO in 1960 and a KCMG in 1965. There is a memorial window to John's first wife, Osla, in Thornham Parva church. John married his second wife, Julia, in 1976 and they moved to the Red House at Thornham in 1978. After thoroughly renovating Thornham Hall, in 1981 John's eldest son Mark and his wife, Lesley, moved in to the Hall with their young family.

Following his father's death in 1980, John, the eighth Lord Henniker, sat as a Liberal Democrat peer in the House of Lords. It was John Henniker-Major who opened Thornham Walks to the public because he strongly believed that the estate should be accessible to the local community. By this time, agriculture was moving into another period of decline and local employment was shrinking. To help ease this problem, some of the unused buildings in the Red House farmyard were converted to provide workspaces for small businesses. In 1985 a Field Centre was opened to encourage school children to learn about conservation and ecology on the estate. In 2000 the Walled Garden was reopened to the public after a period of restoration funded by the Henniker-Major family, the National Lottery and charitable donations.

John Henniker-Major died in 2004 and was succeeded by Mark, the ninth and current Lord Henniker.

Henniker family tree
The Henniker-Major Family Tree

The information above comes from Henniker-Major family records; Henniker, J. (2002) Painful extractions: Looking back at a personal journey, Thornham Books: Thornham; and Fairclough, J. and Hardy, M. (2004) Thornham and the Waveney Valley: An historic landscape explored, Heritage Marketing and Publications Ltd: King's Lynn. Further information on the Henniker-Major family and the Thornham Estate is available at the Suffolk Record Office, (reference HA116).

bottom of page