Thomas Wright 1711 -1786
How could you not be fascinated by such a man – born in Byers Green on September 22 1711.Many of his manuscripts, and background material(1) are held in Durham University Library. Though no modern biography of him has been written, various articles and papers exist (2) showing a wide range of interest in both his scientific work, and his architectural and garden designs. An exhibition of his life and work was held in1993 in Durham (3), though plans for a more permanent memorial to him at Byers Green were never realised. A plaque marking the position of his house, Byers Green Lodge, and a stained glass window in St Peter’s Church do serve as reminders of this great man, who seems in many ways a forgotten soul.
George Allen(4) writes eloquently of his late friend in The Gentleman’s Magazine in January 1793,. Here we can trace his development, and his early disappointments at being unable to publish his work, before he finds patronage first from Rev Newcombe of Sunderland, and then the Earl of Scarborough.
‘Mr .Wright’s better stars were now rising upon him’
Wright was encouraged to move London and published ‘Pannauticon the Universal Mariners Magazine in 1734.
Allan tells us ‘the work.. ‘was received with much applause, and gained him the attention of several personages of the first rank.’
And later ‘Mr Wright having obtained an introduction to many great families where a very honourable attention was paid him for his scienticfic knowledge, we find several of his succeeding years filled with a rotation of visiting, and journeys to the houses of illustrious personages ,yet even then we see him pursuing his studies with unremitting ardour and teaching the sciences to persons of the first distinction.’
So well known did Wright become that In 1742 he was invited to become Chief Professor of Navigation in St Petersburgh, but declined Allan tells us ‘so acceptable had Mr Wright rendered himself to people of fashion and so much was science at that period thought an object of attention with those of high rank, and both sexes’
He continued his scientific work publishing widely, including in1750 ‘An Original Theory of New Hypothesis of the Universe’ in which he famously gave an explanation for the appearance of the Milky Way as an optical effect due to the position of the solar system in a layer of stars.
In 1755 Wright purchased Pegg‘s Poole house where he was born, and with additional land began to build his house, and it’s garden in Byers Green , though Allan states he continued ‘his rambling life till 1762, when he retired into the country’.
Wright was to spend the remaining years of his life here, supported in his retirement by an annuity from Lord Bottetourt though still engaged in scientific studies, and architectural design. The Deer House at Auckland Castle and the gateway to the North Park on the Durham road were designed for Bishop Trevor, and later he advised on improvements to the castle for Bishop Egerton and his wife Lady Anne Sophie (nee Grey) whom he had taught in earlier years.
Allan tells us ‘there was something flighty and eccentric in his notions and a wildness of fancy followed even his ordinary projects, so that his house was not built or fitted up ,upon the model ,or in the order of other men’s building.
The garden land became terraced houses in the early 1900’s,but the house remained until 1967 when it was unceremonously bulldozed into adjacent claypits – ‘I can remember my Mother standing by and weeping’ I have been told and no wonder when we read Wright’s words ‘The staircase is ornamented with my own works , particularly a large scheme of the universe , the visible creations, the sun, the moon, and systems of planets and comets’
His words come from a wonderful description of Byers Green and his house, in a piece also submitted by Allan (4)to a later edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine 1793 ‘Mr Wright’s Description of his Villa at Byers Green’, a piece written in the form of a letter to a friend.
‘You say you should be very glad to read a description of a place that renders all the charms of London so insipid’.
‘My place is distant from the metropolis by nearly 260 miles;… you must turn off at the two mile stone from Castle Auckland ,and two miles more of irregular road will bring you to my gates…..I cannot well call it a villa from its miniature ,situated as it is in a vast amphitheatre, bounded by high hills on every side, through which a beautiful river winds at about 20 miles to the sea.’
‘The house stands in the centre of a plantation of my own rearing, mostly of forest trees and flowering shrubs of every kind both foreign and domestic… rich with various evergreens and flowers.’
‘Here I have perfect tranquillity though in a village, having no house nearer than a hundred yards. In almost every part of my garden I have a retreat from bad weather, and shelter from every wind ,and at the same time commanding most pleasant views.’
‘In the village front is an open view…the town extending a full half mile long and near a furlong wide, all of green turf..There is a bowling green before the house, and in the centre of town; the whole being nearly in the proportion of a Roman circus, and here frequently are both horse and foot races.’
‘Near to this village is also a manifest(unmistakable)RomanCircus , all good ground and two miles in compass. This I procured to be restored in 1778 by subscription of the neighbouring gentlemen, and it is judged to be the finest piece of race ground in the North of England.’
‘When I indulge myself with poetic ideas I can naturally conceive myself with an Olympus before me,a mount Heamus on one side and Panassus on the other.’
‘…but those who are attached to the pleasures of the town I fear can have no just idea of the calm and serene sensations of such a life.’
His pieces ends with Besides all this I have an agitation to erect a Gothic tower on one of the highest hills in the country and have been several years preparing materials for this. He is writing of Westerton Tower, that stands on a high ridge near Byers Green, affording wide views across the county in all directions. This is a building at risk, currently closed to the public, that one hopes does not suffer the same fate as his house.
Thomas Wright was buried in St Andrew’s Auckland churchyard on 25th Feb 1786. His daughter Elizabeth August 23 1788, aged 24, lies with him.
(1)Thomas Wright manuscripts ref.GB-0033-WRM , and Wrightiana Durham University Library ,Archives and Special Collections.
(2)Bibliography from M.J.Tooley 1993
(3) M.J. Tooley 1993 Thomas Wright of Durham 1711-1786. An exhibition of his life & work held in University of Durham Library, Palace Green, Durham
(4) George Allan (1736 -1800) lawyer in Darlington and local antiquarian who acquired manuscripts belonging to Wright.