Local history by Bryan Waites
History is punctuated with important families of which royal dynasties may be the chief. Additionally, there are copious examples of quite ordinary families becoming extraordinary: in literature, the Brontes; in industry the Darbys of Coalbrookdale; in politics, the Kennedy clan – to name but a few.
In the ancient but obscure village of North Luffenham, Rutland, there was such a family with a national importance out of all proportion to the size of the village. The impact of this family lasted for 150 years between 1650 and 1800 – they were the Wings of North Luffenham.
Vincent Wing (1619-68) was ‘the founder of a remarkable dynasty of mathematical practitioners’. He was also an astronomer, publishing three important books on this topic: ‘Practical Astronomie’ (1649), ‘Harmonicon Coelesti’ (1651) – ‘the first significant English treatise on planetary astronomy since the Copernican Revolution’ – and posthumously, ‘Astronomia Britannica’ (1669), the most important of all.
From 1641 he produced an annual astrological Almanac which was so popular that it sold 50,000 copies each year. This lapsed for a short period when he died but then was continued by his relatives until 1805. Although such almanacs contained forecasts they were to a large degree politically orientated.
Vincent was even more versatile. He was very clever at land surveying, in 1660 making a map survey of the fields of North Luffenham. He published ‘The Art of Surveying’ in 1664 in which he reviewed the problems faced by the surveyor ‘a thorough exposition of the principles and practices of quantity surveying’. There are further examples of his mapping in the Lincoln Record Office. This must have been a family talent for his nephew, John Wing, and his great nephew, Tycho Wing, also produced excellent coloured map surveys of Exton Park (1709) and Normanton Lordship (1726) which are also in the Record Office. No doubt there were many more maps which have not survived.
Vincent resided permanently in North Luffenham occasionally seeking the ‘society of the learned in London’ One wonders if he went up the Great North Road to visit Isaac Newton at Woolsthorpe, only 18 miles away! Whilst ‘riding early and late in all kinds of weather’ in his role as surveyor, he contracted consumption and died at the early age of 49. He is buried in the village churchyard.
John and Tycho (1680-1750) carried on where Vincent left off continuing the teaching of mathematics, surveying and navigation with public duty as coroner of Rutland. It was John who also continued the Almanac. In his own right he published ‘Heptarchia Mathematica’ in 1693 and an enlarged version of Vincent’s ‘Art of Surveying’ in 1699.Tycho is described as a philosopher and astronomer teaching arts and ‘sciences mathematical’ at nearby Pickworth, now a very shrunken village. From 1727 to 1742 he was coroner for Rutland. He was prominent enough to have his portrait hung in the Hall of the Stationer’s Company, London.
What is most astonishing is that the Wings were really amateurs who successfully combined astronomy, astrology, mathematics and surveying reaching a high level in each. Vincent in particular was entirely self-taught in Latin, Greek and Mathematics and ‘was able to hold his own with the best men of the day in mathematical and astronomical subjects’
Whilst John and Tycho Wing were flourishing another branch of the family began to prosper. This was another John Wing (1698-1752) and his son, confusingly, also John (1728-94). However, their contribution was not in Mathematics, Science or Astronomy but in Architecture. Though they have left a legacy of buildings which can still be seen and appreciated, their work has generally been overlooked. They have been submerged beneath the greater fame of Vincent and his family.
In an area rich in building stones it is not surprising to find at least one family of masons. It seems that this branch of the Wing family had been in this business for generations. The first documentary evidence is in the church register for 1740 which states ‘The Dove Chamber over the porch in the barn was made by John Wing Senior assisted by J Wing Junior’. This building, though altered, is still standing and has been variously called Home Farm and Bassett’s Manor. It is very grand in style for a humble village.
Little is known about the activities of the father and son though there are two diaries giving some detail. Unlike many 18th century craftsmen, the Wings were reluctant to ‘sign’ their work.. However, it is clear that both made outstanding contributions to buildings in Leicestershire and Rutland.
The most outstanding contributions lie within a mile of each other. St. John Baptist, King’s Norton, completed in 1775, has been described as ‘one of the most remarkable churches of the early Gothic Revival in England’ by Nikolaus Pevsner. Only a few miles away in Gaulby, St. Peter’s is an equally ‘striking and idiosyncratic a work as its grander neighbour across the fields’. The first was built by the son between 1760 -1761 (the spire was added in 1775) and the second by the father, earlier in 1741. The mystery is how such architectural quality and vision could be attributed to two ‘village craftsmen’ and why is such grandeur found in an obscure place?
Both churches were rebuilt at the expense of William Fortrey, the local squire, but it is not known if the buildings reflect his tastes and interests.
From the outside St. John’s has the look of a small cathedral. It had a spire which was destroyed by a thunderstorm in 1850. Inside there is an absence of stained glass which, together with the aisleless interior produces wonderful clarity of light. There is a three-decker pulpit and box-pews which in the east face each other like a college chapel. At the west end is a gallery. All is gloriously complete as it was in the beginning.
St.Peter, Gaulby, has a tower with ‘the craziest pinnacles; four small obelisks and four octagonal, encrusted pagoda-like objects’. It was the tower and most of the nave which was rebuilt by John Wing Senior. One can see that this church has architectural links to the later building of St. John’s by the son.
There is some evidence that John Wing Senior did rebuilding at St. John Baptist in the grounds of Rolleston Hall but it is his son who begins to emerge more clearly after his father’s death in 1752. Instead of staying in North Luffenham as his father had done, he established himself in Hallaton in Leicestershire where he was married in 1755.
He was a man of great energy and was willing to travel far afield in search of work. The diaries show that his clients included Lord Harborough, Sir Charles Halford, Sir John Palmer and several aristocratic families. His work ranged from simple monuments to bridges, dwelling houses, churches and stately homes. For a time he was a citizen of Leicester and did work on St. Martin’s in the city.
Other churches which show the work of John Wing Junior include Carlton Curlieu, Great Glen and Great Bowden but there may be others where his handiwork has not been evident. Indeed, father and son have been rightly named as an ‘elusive pair’.
Despite this, when John Wing Junior died on 24th June, 1794, aged 65, ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’ contained a notice of his death. His son, also John Wing, brought further distinction to the family as a mason and architect. Also he was three times mayor of Bedford.
To-day, there are famous celebrities living in the villages of Rutland – war correspondents, cricketers and footballers, academics, authors, etc. It is doubtful if their impact is as great or long-lasting as the Wings of North Luffenham, who were celebrities in their own day.
There were eminent people living in surrounding villages at the same time as the Wings. Thomas Barker (1722-1809) of Lyndon Hall, only two miles away, was a naturalist, scientist and meteorologist. His grandfather, William Whiston (1667-1752), eminent divine and mathematician, retired to Lyndon, Isaac Newton was at Woolsthorpe Manor from time to time. Lady Elizabeth Noel of Exton Park was a botanist of distinction and the Spalding Gentleman’s Society with Sir Joseph Banks was twenty miles east. Whether or not there were links between these personalities is a topic for further research. It is tempting to see a scientific network emerging.
The Wing dynasty is important in the history of science and architecture but it is also worth remembering that they represent part of the great Age of Enlightenment which was manifest throughout Europe in the 18th century.