The Burnby Hall ornamental gardens in Pocklington and the Stewart Museum, packed with artefacts and trophies from around the world, are the creation of remarkable explorer, collector and big game hunter, Major Percy Marlborough Stewart (1871-1962).
PM Stewart was the fifth son of Reverend James Stewart, Rector of Little Stukely in Huntingdonshire. His family was descended from the Earls of Galloway, and through them the Spencer-Churchills - his godfather was the Duke of Marlborough and he was a second cousin of Winston Churchill. He was educated at Ely School and Cambridge University where he gained a first in Semitic languages in 1893 and a second in Theology in 1895, then came to teach at Pocklington School for the first time before back to Cambridge as a lecturer at Trinity College.
In 1901 he married Katherine Bridges (nee Priestman) who was the daughter of an influential and wealthy North East coal-mine owner, and returned to Pocklington School, which at the time specialised in teaching Hebrew.
He and his wife bought Burnby Hall (then called Ivy Hall) in 1904 and subsequently developed an extensive estate of lands in and around Pocklington, Burnby and Hayton (he became Lord of the Manor at Burnby and Hayton). From this time on the Major devoted his life to creating gardens of outstanding beauty at Burnby Hall; interspersed with eight world tours between 1906 and 1922, when, often accompanied by his wife, he travelled the globe and visited every continent.
He explored some of the world’s most remote regions, had several hair raising experiences along the way, and collected a remarkable range of hunting trophies and cultural and religious exhibits which are now housed in the Stewart Museum. He kept detailed diaries on his expeditions that provided the material for three books which illustrate his keen observation of people and places.
His expeditions overseas and his idyllic life in Pocklington were interrupted by the Great War. During WWI he served with the Royal Fusiliers, where he received his rank and title of major.
In 1926 Percy and Katherine settled down to a less strenuous life at Pocklington. He spent his time writing, managing their affairs and developing the nine acres of gardens. It was with the encouragement of his wife that the two lakes were planted with water lilies; today the Burnby Hall garden collection of hardy water lilies is the largest in Europe. They lived in some style and Burnby Hall, and the Major would tour his estate regularly in his chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce.
Major Stewart and his wife were long term Pocklington benefactors. Soon after settling in Pocklington they began hosting a series of annual Christmas lunches for all the children, working men and poor of the town, and he was also a major supporter of many Pocklington organisations, including being president (and a prize winning exhibitor) of the annual Flower Show in the early 1900s.
He was also enthusiastic about all sports, and had been a notable rugby, tennis and cricket player in his youth. This interest continued at Pocklington and he was President of Pocklington rugby club from 1904-22, while the current Pocklington cricket club, Stewart Bowling Club and the town’s swimming pool and sports centre are all based on part of his former estate. He taught fly-fishing to generations of Pocklington boys and was an ardent follower of local fox-hounds.
Katherine Stewart died in 1939, and Major Stewart remained in Pocklington for the rest of his life. He continued to be much involved in the life of the town right up to the time of his death as a benefactor to numerous local clubs and organisations, and there are also many examples of his impromptu generosity to individuals, particularly children. He was also the town’s chief air-raid warden during the Second World War.
On his death, in 1962, Major Stewart willed that the gardens and the collection should be left in trust for the benefit of the people of Pocklington. The Stewarts had no children and had both agreed to do this early in their marriage. It is this Trust that now manages the estate as a charity.
A more detailed biography of Major Stewart is being published by the Stewart Trust in 2008 and will be available from Burnby Hall Gardens and local outlets.
n.b. Some information and the photograph of Major Stewart was kindly given by the Pocklington and District U3A visit their website here