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Devon County

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Rockbeare Manor - Courtesy of Frank Knightley

Rockbeare Manor

Courtesy of Frank Knightley


William Hamilton Codrington Nation was born in Exeter in the September Quarter of 1843.  His father, William Nation, was a wealthy Magistrate and non-practising barrister who lived in a large house - known as the Double House - in Southernhay Place.


William's father was twice-married. He married Harriet Hamilton, mother of William Hamilton Codrington Nation,  in the September Quarter of 1840 and they had two children, Eliza and William. He married Mary Jane Collyns in the March Quarter of 1847 and they had a further four children - Frances, Helen, Jane and Charles.


In her autobiography, one of the daughters of Frances, William's half-sister, quotes her mother's description of the childhood she had shared with her older half-brother, William.


"They lived in a charming house in Exeter. My mother was devoted to her father who was a barrister. He was keenly interested in drama and was a friend of Edmond Kean (the actor) and of Mr. and Mrs. Kean. My mother, sitting on a stool at his feet, would listen for hours to her father's stories of the theatre. She was never on the stage herself but she loved it. She was a natural actress and was delighted with everything connected with it."


William Nation was educated at  Eton and later at Oxford but in 1861, his father died, leaving him a considerable fortune so that throughout his life, he was able to indulge any interest or whim that came his way without any thought of having to earn a living. From all descriptions of him, he seems to have been a charming and gentle man, full of simplicity and kindness and, inspired and influenced  by his father's lifelong interest, wholly entranced by the world of theatre.


In 1860, shortly before his father's death. William began his theatrical career by financing a production of a French farce called "Clic Clac" at Astley's as well as "spotting" William Schwenk Gilbert's talent and backing his very first play called "Hushabye". By the time William married Louisa Avery in London in 1866, he was putting on plays at Astley's Theatre in Lambeth - a curious place with a circus ring as well as a stage and a motley collection of side shows and other entertainments - Charles Dickens featured Astley's in "The Old Curiosity Shop"


William and Louisa had four children - Eliza, Lewis William, Gertrude (who died in her early twenties) and Bernard (who died as a baby).


As time went on, William added writing to his list of interests. He published two slender volumes of "Poems and Songs" - the first being "Prickly Pear Blossoms" This was followed in 1872 by another collection of poems  and songs called "Apple Blossoms gathered in my own and in French Orchards". He also wrote additional songs for several of his productions. In 1907, he gifted, through the National Trust, 21 acres of recreational land for the use of villagers on Rockbeare Hill to be called, after his book of poems,  as "Prickly Pear Blossom Park and Recreation Ground".


A detailed account of William's theatrical career can be found by clicking this link. Not included in this extract is the information that he still holds the record for the smallest audience ever recorded for his pantomime Little Red Riding Hood at Terry's Theatre in the early 1900s. The audience of two were offered seats in the stalls but decided (wisely) to remain where they were, in the gallery. Friends and acquaintances continually reminded William about the lack of success of his productions but he always replied that it didn't matter because he kept so many actors in work.


William died 16 March 1914 aged 71. His funeral took place in Dawlish 21 March 1914.


Dawlish Churchyard

Dawlish Churchyard

© Richard J. Brine



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