On 19th April 1999 the death occurred of Sir Richard John Sherlock Gooch, the 12th baronet, of Benacre Hall.

benhall2_red.jpgIt was the sale of the contents of the Hall, an eclectic collection of furniture, paintings and works of art reflecting the history of 12 generations of the Gooch family, that triggered the emergence of the family from relative seclusion onto an international media arena. The three day sale on the premises in May 2001 was organised by Sotheby's and raised a total of £8.3 million, a record for any country house sale in the UK. The highlight was an important 13th century painting by the Italian master Cimabue, discovered during the preparation of the sale inventory. The painting, on a wooden panel measuring a mere ten by eight inches, had been hanging unnoticed on a landing for a century. The picture was acquired for the National Gallery under the Acceptance-in-Lieu scheme. The sum agreed for the computation of capital tax was £6.5 million, with an additional £700,000 paid by the National Gallery, thanks to the generosity of Sir Paul Getty.

_645263_painting150.jpgThe panel, 10 X 8in, probably originally formed the upper left hand part of a tabernacle depicting scenes from the life of Christ which had been dismantled at some point in its history. It seems likely that the picture was originally acquired in Florence in the early 19th century by Sir Edward Sherlock Gooch, 6th Bt (died 1856). The painting is one of only seven or eight independent panel paintings by Cimabue that survive and the only one known in private hands. It was validated by experts in New York as being by Cenni di Pepo, called Cimabue (circa 1240-1302). Cimabue was the most important figure in the development of Italian painting in the late 13th Century and is a seminal figure in the history of Western art.

Cimabue's work drew inspiration from contemporary Byzantine painting as well as from classical and contemporary sculpture, introducing a new style of painting into his native Tuscany which had a profound influence on younger Tuscan artists, most notably Giotto and Duccio.

The sale by Sir Richard’s heir, Major Timothy Gooch, was followed by plans for a £3million conversion of the Grade II Listed Benacre Hall, its Service Wing and Stable Block, into 12 self contained luxury apartments and garaging, which was completed in May 2003. So ended the command of a substantial Suffolk estate by a family that appeared as yeoman farmers in the parish records of Ilketshall St Margaret during the 16th century.

benhall_red.jpgThe Benacre Estate was originally purchased by the Right Reverend Sir Thomas Gooch, 2nd Baronet, Bishop of Norwich and Ely (died 1754). Matthew Brettingham probably designed House between 1763-64. The fortunes of the family had been founded by Thomas’ father, William Gooch. He was born 1681 in Yarmouth, and died in London having served as Governor of Virginia from 1727 through 1749. Technically, Gooch only had the title Royal Lieutenant Governor, but the nominal governor, Willem Anne van Keppel, 2nd Earl of Albemarle, was in England and did not exercise much authority. Gooch's tenure as governor was characterized by his unusual political effectiveness. One of his greatest successes was the passage of the Tobacco Inspection Act of 1730. The Act called for the inspection and regulation of Virginia's tobacco, the most important crop of the colony. Tobacco planters were required to transport their crop to public warehouses where it was inspected and stored. The Act raised the quality of Virginia's tobacco and reduced fraud; this greatly increased the demand for Virginia tobacco in Europe.

Gooch's military policy focused on protecting the western territory from Native Americans and French encroachment. He promoted the settlement of the Shenandoah Valley in order to buffer the rest of the colony from Indian attacks, and to prevent the French from settling the land.

He had many military credentials including fighting under John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough in his campaigns in the Low Countries and with Admiral Edward Vernon in his expedition against Cartagena, New Grenada (now in Colombia) as part of the ‘War of Jenkins' Ear’. During King George's War, Gooch received an appointment as brigadier-general in charge of the army raised to invade Canada, but declined. He was made a baronet in 1746 and a major general in 1747. Also in 1747, he made a speech condemning all religious groups aside from the established Church. However, in 1738, Gooch had given a group of Presbyterians the right to settle new territory under the conditions of the English Act of Toleration. In 1749, he left Virginia and returned to England, no doubt with a considerable fortune.

Gooch married Rebecca Staunton (for whom Staunton, Virginia is named), the daughter of a squire in Middlesex, England. The two had a son named William who grew up in Williamsburg. William became a naval officer, but died of the "bloody flux" at the age of 26, shortly before his parents returned to England. Gooch honoured himself with the naming of Goochland County, Virginia in 1727.

birmingham_manor_red.jpgThe next step up for the Gooches was the marriage of his brother and heir, Thomas into the family of Sherlock. He married Mary Sherlock, the sister and heiress of Thomas Sherlock, Bishop of London. The bishop had purchased the Holme Park estate, part of the manor of Birmingham, which subsequently passed to the Gooch family. It was Sir Thomas Gooch, the third baronet, who started to develop this area of Birmingham, which by then was ripe for development as the small village rapidly grew into a significant manufacturing town. He built leashold properties, naming many streets after his family or parts of the country that were of significance to them- hence Gooch St, Sherlock St and Suffolk Street. Although the family extended their Suffolk property portfolio into neighbouring Wrentham, it was the income from their Birmingham properties that enabled the Gooches to dominate the landscape of Benacre. To put the relatively small Benacre estate into a Victorian economic context, figures from the 1874 return of rental incomes indicate that English country landowners received on average about £1 per acre. At the upper end were aristocrats like the Earl of Ilchester, who owned 15,000 acres of Dorset downland from which he gained an annual income of about £18,000.

Benacre’s significant asset was an abundance of game. Benacre Broad was also important for native wildlfowl and game cover was augmented by the planting of large areas of trees. In 1880 Sir Francis Gooch had a Decoy pipe constructed on the Broad; but soon after it was made the shooting was let, and the Decoy in consequence was never used ; nor has it been worked since, the subsequent baronets preferring to shoot the wildfowl which resort there. The relatively small park was more valuable in providing seclusion from the main road to Lowestoft, the traffic being diverted away from the house by the creation of a turnpike.