Queen Mary visits Flatford in 1938 - Thomas Parkington is on her left hand side

The photo above appeared in The Times on Thursday June 16 1938 under the heading QUEEN’S VISIT TO CONSTABLE COUNTRY with the caption: “QUEEN MARY, who is staying at Thorpe-le-Soken  as the guest of Lady Byng, made a tour of the Constable Country yesterday. She is seen in this picture, taken by a staff photographer, near Willy Lott’s Cottage, which was made famous by the painter in The Hay Wain and The Valley Farm. The cottage and Flatford Mill nearby were restored and given to the nation some years ago by Mr T.R. Parkington. Mr and Mrs Parkington are seen with Queen Mary.”

Thomas Parkington at work around 1915

Thomas Parkington was an Ipswich builder and local philanthropist. We owe an enormous debt to him for purchasing a near-derelict Flatford Mill and Willy Lotts house when the Society for Ancient Buildings had advised the National Trust not to take it on because of the cost of the repairs needed. 

Without his generosity, the inspiration for most famous painting in the world – The Haywain – may not have survived for us to enjoy today.

Early Life

Thomas Robert Pearl Parkington was one of nine children born to builder Thomas Blake Pearl Parkington (1833-1919)and his wife Frances Sophia née Bradlaugh (1840-1909). 

  • He was born in Ipswich on 22 November 1866
  • After an apprenticeship Thomas went to South Africa at the summons of an Ipswich man Sir Gordon Sprigg, Prime Minister of Cape Colony. He spent several years in Swaziland and Transvaal advising on gold mining and milling installations and constructed the first plant in South Africa for treating mill ‘tailings’ with cyanide of potassium
  • In 1896 he married Florence Ellen Barratt in Leicester
  • By 1911 Thomas is described as a 44 year old building contractor (TR Parkington Ltd), living at 1 Bolton Lane, Ipswich with his 40 year old wife Florence
  • In 1939 Thomas is described a building contractor living at Pykenham House, 7 Northgate Street, Ipswich with his wife Florence

Public Life

As a Town Councillor and Alderman of Ipswich, Thomas Parkington was a well-respected and long serving politician, motivated to public action.

After the end of the First World War he was quick to realise the need for national responsibility for public facilities – and this concern included housing.

After the First World War Thomas Parkington’s company built 50 houses for occupation by ex-service men and their families, developed housing estates and constructed public buildings such as halls of public assembly and educational institutions in East Anglia.

In Ipswich Thomas Parkington was also responsible for:

  • Restoring buildings of public interest, most notably Oak Hill in Ipswich  a grand house built in the Victorian Gothic style and Listed Grade II. Parkington was honoured for this work in 1929 with a portrait unveiled by the Prince of Wales – see picture opposite
  • Building Fore Street Swimming Pool in Ipswich (purported to be the oldest operational swimming pool in the country) which opened in 1894
  • Building Ipswich Hippodrome which opened as a variety theatre in 1905 (demolished in 1985).
Portrait of Parkington at Oak Hill

Flatford Decaying

In 1924 it was suggested by the Conservative MP Sir Arthur Churchman that the Flatford buildings should be purchased in partnership with the Royal Academy of Arts to establish an outdoor landscape painting school. Nothing came of this idea.

In his 1925 report for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB, Mr A.R. Powys (Secretary for SPAB) had said of Willy Lott’s House“At first sight it might be held that the house is beyond repair” and then “But if it is to be saved action must be taken very soon, for decay is now very rapid.”

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was asked if it would accept the gift of Willy Lott’s House, without conditions, except that it should bear the cost of putting it in order.  But the Society could accept and manage property, and in this case it did not see its way to raising the large sum of money that was needed for repair.

Having read SPAB’s report, the National Trust the National Trust could not accept custody of it unless it were put in proper order, and its maintenance guaranteed.

By late 1926 Flatford Mill was derelict and demolition was a real possibility for Willy Lott’s House.

Black and white photo of a derelict Willy Lott's House pre 1926
Willy Lott's House 1926 - almost derelict

Saving Flatford

Thomas Parkington was just finishing the restoration of Oak Hill in Ipswich when he heard about the plight of the buildings at Flatford. He and his wife Florence Partington promptly went to Flatford and after just a few days announced that they had bought the Estate of Flatford Mill and Willy Lott’s. He carried out many of the repairs suggested by the SPAB and the restoration of Willy Lott’s House was completed by 1928.

Artists' retreat

Thomas Parkington decided that Flatford Mill would make a very good venue for artists to visit and to paint.

As soon as he purchased Flatford Mill, he converted the building to provide an indoor space for visiting artists to paint and shelter in.

The photograph above was published in The Sphere Magazine dated 22 September 1928 and shows part of Flatford Mill (where the mill stones would have been sited) converted to an art studio. Look at the picture on the easal and you you can see the reflection of the large window he installed to provide a good light for the art students.

To create space within the mill itself he embarked upon major dismantling project, removing all the mill machinery the iron water wheel.  He sold the mill machinery to a scrap dealer in Ipswich called Sacker who took 6 months to remove it all. The brickwork was damaged in the process and which afterwards had to be repaired.  

During the restoration of Willy Lott’s House the restorers carved a poem into the panel below the staircase. 

The Flatford Estate

In 1928 Westername East published a booklet titled ‘The Saving of Flatford’ which acknowledges the contribution made by Thomas Parkington. The booklet contains rare drawings of the Mill and Willy Lott’s House by Leonard R Squirrel.

In 1932 Thomas became a founder member of the Flatford Mill Estate Trust. He agreed to maintain the estate during his lifetime but on his death to present it to the Nation as a tribute to the memory of John Constable.

In additon to securing the future of two of England’s most famous buildings, Thomas Parkington also enlarged the area of permanent protection at Flatford by acquiring:

  • the field to the west side of the last descending slope of Flatford Lane and
  • a 17th Century timber framed thatched house known as Haybarn Cottage .This cottage is  at the head of the slope, on the eastern side, with its home meadow and outbuildings together with a broad strip of land extending to the eastern side of the lane for the rest of its length

Left to the Nation - National Trust

  • Thomas Parkington died on 22 June 1942, leaving an estate of £27,000. He and his wife had no children 
  • As he had intended from the very beginning he left Flatford Mill, Willy Lotts House, Haybarn Cottage and surrounding land to the nation via a gift to the National Trust but a problem arose:
    • At his death Thomas was nominally insolvent. This meant that the National Trust had to purchase Flatford Mill Estate from the Receiver at a cost of £3,700
    • To help the National Trust out Eric Ennion (who was to become the first warden of the Field Studies Council to whom the National Trust later leased Flatford Mill and Will Lott’s House) bought Haybarn Cottage for £600 from the NT to offset the cost of them buying the rest of the estate from Parkington’s widow
  • When Thomas Parkington’s financial affairs were finally resolved, there was more than enough to reimburse the National Trust which Thomas’ widow did in 1948 minus £600 already paid to them by Eric Ennion for Haybarn Cottage

The National Trust leased the Mill and Willy Lott’s House to the Field Studies Council (7 August 1946). It was the first Field Studies Centre in the UK. Queen Mary presided at the official  opening by Queen Mary on 27 July 1948

Click on Flatford Buildings for more information about the buildings mentioned on this page.

Memorial Stone - Constable & Parkington

1937 marked 100 years since Constable’s death. In addition to a special Constable exhibition at the Tate Gallery (May 1937), a memorial stone was unveiled at Flatford by Mrs Parkington, Thomas Parkington’s wife.

The article below recorded the event and appeared in the Essex Chronicle on 26 November 1937 and in the Essex Newsman on 27 November of that same year.

Memorial stone recognising the work of both John Constable and Mr and Mrs Parkington
Newspaper article - describing the unveiling of the stone at Flatford

The writing on the memorial stone is hard to read but it says 

Flatford Mill Estate

Acquired Restored and Given in Trust by Thomas R Parkington FRSA of Ipswich, As a national possession in memory of John Constable RA 1776-1837, For the encouragement of outdoor landscape painting and to preserve the beauties of the English countryside. This centenary stone was unveiled by Mrs T R Parkington November 23rd 1937 . 

Sources

  • Suffolk Artists
  • The Constable Country, Herbert Cornish, 1932 – Heath Cranton Ltd
  • Field Studies Council Archive
  • Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings
  • Essex Chronicle and Newsman
  • Clive Ball whose grandfather wasThomas Parkington’s brother.

Categories: