Bryan Waites: Earl of Moira left a long-lasting imprint

Photo by John Horner

Photo by John Horner

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One man can have such an impact on an area that his imprint lasts forever.

The 2nd Earl of Moira who lived at Donington Hall, near Kegworth, was such a man, but his accomplishments have been forgotten and, indeed, few would know he ever existed.

Yet much of north-west Leicestershire reveals his imprint for those who know where to look.

The village of Moira took its name from the earl; through his enterprise the famous Moira Blast Furnace was built about 1804; the Ashby Canal and the coalmines nearby were completed with his support in 1805; miners’ cottages were erected; medicinal springs were developed first at Moira Spa (1815-16) later at Ashby-de-la-Zouch.

The Earl spent a fortune on the development of Ashby.

He established sand and rough stone quarries in the district.

Indeed, he was one of the first industrialists and turned this corner of the county into a power house with coal mines, canals, tramways, brick making, steam engines, blast furnaces, railways and the like.

Francis, Lord Rawdon, was the eldest son of Lady Elizabeth Hastings and John, Baron Rawdon, the 1st earl of Moira.

Francis’ childhood was spent in Ireland with many visits in summer to his uncle, the 10th earl of Huntingdon, at Donington Park.

He was educated at Harrow and Oxford, though never completing a degree.

Aged 19 he was appointed to the 5th Foot and set sail for North America where he featured in battles at Bunker Hill, Brooklyn, White Plains and the attacks on Forts Washington and Clinton.

He was at the capture of Charlestown.

He acquired a reputation for fearless leadership and initiative.

On the death of his uncle in 1789, Francis learned that he had become Francis Rawdon Hastings, 2nd Earl of Moira and 1st Marquess of Hastings and inherited Donington Park.

Immediately he decided to demolish the old Tudor mansion (in 1791) and build a more magnificent house in keeping with his own social position.

He employed the famous Humphrey Repton to redesign the landscape and the little-known architect, William Wilkins, to design the house.

Soon he settled on the Strawberry Hill Gothic style made popular by Horace Walpole with his house in Twickenham-‘his little Gothic castle’.

This involved ‘decorative niches, pinnacles and punctured quatrefoils’ giving the effect of an abbey from a distance.

Amongst the first occupants was the Bourbon family, fleeing France due to the Revolution. The earl’s hospitality to the family was legendary.

He also supported literature and scholarship, the Irish poet, Tom Moore, being one of his protégés.

He was ‘the best and dearest friend’ of the Prince of Wales, later King George IV.

Many spoke of him as a future Prime Minister.

But despite his fine house, the earl had his military commitments.

He was fighting with the Duke of York in Holland in 1794 and was C-in-C Scotland where in 1803 he met and fell in love with his future wife, Lady Flora Muir, countess of Loudoun (commemorated by a statue in Ashby).

He found love late in life at the age of 50.

Unfortunately, like so many aristocrats, the earl was full of ideas but short of money – very short.

Marrying Lady Flora did not help, in fact he acquired many of her debts, owing a total of £300,000 by the early 1800s.

One of the reasons for his industrial initiatives was to make money and pay off his debts but most of his enterprises took too much time to show a profit.

The Earl was a tall, athletic man with a stately figure and an impressive manner.

His later life was to some extent an escape from his liabilities.

He became a soldier/administrator as the Governor General of Bengal in 1813 and C-in-C India.

He had several military successes including ‘brilliant direction of military operations in Nepal’ resulting in winning the allegiance of the Gurkhas – ever afterwards the most loyal supporters of the British.

He secured Britain’s supremacy in the region.

Moreover, he encouraged education, the freedom of the Press, reformed the Civil Service and the legal system as well as purchasing Singapore in 1819.

For these services he was created Viscount Loudoun, the Earl of Rawdon and Marquis of Hastings.

His return to Donington in 1823 resulted in a lavish banquet put on by his many local supporters as a tribute to his contributions to the area.

However, despite this loyalty, the earl accepted the Governorship of Malta in 1824 and died in nearby Naples in 1826 aged 72 years.

To-day you can walk around the industrial graveyard between Moira, Donisthorpe and Oakthorpe partly along the disused railway and canal to discover the remnants of a once great and widespread industry, mostly sponsored by the earl of Moira.

You can stand in front of the blast furnace at Moira which only operated for about ten years, follow the Ashby Canal, see former wharves, pass by the miners’ cottages, walk over the old spoil heaps of the collieries and stroll beside the ‘flashes’ (lakes formed by subsidence of the land due to underground mining).

There are many trails to follow and attempts to turn the derelict landscape into a restored landscape.

The new National Forest is one hope for the future, described as ‘England’s most ambitious environmental project of the new millennium’ it will restore woodland to an area of 200 square miles.

Now this former industrial area is becoming a playground for the public with a National Forest Visitor Centre and Conkers only three miles away from Moira.

Here you can find a unique mix of indoor and outdoor activities – a woodland time machine, an assault course or canopy walk, follow a sculpture trail or take a train ride.

All this supported by shops, a plant centre, craft workshops and licensed restaurants.

Donington Park became the famous motor racing circuit in 1931 which continues to-day with the Grand Prix Collection.

By 1982 British Midland Airways had acquired the property and restored the dilapidated hall into its new headquarters, conveniently located near the East Midlands Airport.

Now BMI occupy the hall.

So, the forgotten Earl has made his mark onto a forgotten landscape but you have the chance to rediscover the legacy of 200 years if you want to walk into Leicestershire’s industrial heritage.