Sir John Hobart on his life and how the family came to the Island.
There aren’t many of us who can trace our families back to the Norman invasion but Sir John Hobart is one such man. The family seat in Norfolk, Blickling Hall, once home to the Boleyn family, was purchased by Sir Henry Hobart when he was Attorney General to Queen Elizabeth I.
“It was the first property to be given as an entire estate to the National Trust,” said Sir John who now lives in Cowes. “The Marquis of Lothian had inherited it and as Chairman of the National Trust, decided to bequeath the property to them upon his death. Blickling is where most of our family portraits still hang.”
The first connection the Hobart family had with the Island was when Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Henry Hobart, now Lord Chief Justice, married John Lisle, of Wootton in 1630. Just a few years later Mary, wife of Colonel Robert Hammond, who was the governor of the Isle of Wight during King Charles’s imprisonment at Carisbrooke, was to marry Sir John Hobart on her husband’s death.
But it wasn’t until 1906 that the family really began their history here. “My Grandfather (Sir Vere Hobart) was posted here to command the Isle of Wight rifles. He was a lieutenant colonel in the Hampshires and the family were living in the New Forest where his father was official verderer. He was also the Liberal member of parliament for Southampton and the parliamentary private secretary to the Duke of Devonshire,” explained Sir John. “I think my grandfather was determined to come to the Isle of Wight as he had joined the Island Sailing Club in 1892 at the age of 21. He must have been sailing his dinghy over from Hythe where he then lived, and over some 14 years had grown to love the Island.”
When Sir Vere moved to the Island he was based at Albany barracks and lived at Standen Elms House on the Blackwater Road. “Lady Hobart was very tough and very tiny – barely five feet tall and she used to breed Shetland ponies there,” said Sir John. “She had over 400 of them and people used to see them in the distance and say, “What breed of sheep are those?” She used to race them in little scurry carts.”
Unusually for a woman, of that period, she was the master of the Taunton Vale Hunt, where she was tragically killed in a hunting accident in 1935, possibly due to the fact that she rode side saddle and strapped herself to the horse so as not to be thrown. After her death Sir Vere bought Gatcombe House, remarried and lived there with his new wife and his only son, Robert. It was here that John grew up with his brothers Robert and Anthony and his sister Penelope.
“My father was a director of the Harrods group and used to sit in the chairman’s office which overlooked the Brompton Road,” said Sir John. “As a boy I remember him coming back from London laden with green bags from Harrods Food Hall at the weekends. Everything we had was from Harrods as he could buy it for cost plus 5 per cent. He was also a director of Red Funnel and as such did a deal with British Rail to obtain a free first class rail pass so it cost him nothing to come and go. We looked as if we were millionaires but it was all because father was good at doing a deal!”
Packed off to school to Milton Abbey near Blandford Forum, John was part of quite a spartan regime. “Early morning runs and cold showers were part of the daily routine – you’d run out into the quad, all year round, in just shorts, no T-shirt and you couldn’t run fast enough. You felt you had earned your breakfast, after you had had a cold shower, of course,” recalled Sir John. “It was a school modelled on Gordonstoun but it wasn’t very academic. Many of the lads went to Cirencester (Royal Agricultural College) or into the forces.” John went to the former.
Sadly Sir John’s mother died when he was only 18. “My brother Robbie was 16, Anthony was 8 and Penelope ten and my father was in London, Glasgow and even Denmark on House of Fraser business,” he explained. “There wasn’t a lot of parental control and we had a 2,000 acre estate. We used to get into trouble with no supervision, pinching the estate Land Rovers and driving them around in the fields sometimes damaging the crops. Brighstone forest was part of the estate and it was here that my youngest brother Anthony would train his point to pointers. We did used to get into some mischief – I’m surprised we survived. My father had a terrible struggle keeping an eye on us.”
At about the age of 18 John was invited to go rabbit shooting with friends at Puckaster. “We didn’t realise at the time that our host was having a dispute with his neighbours who claimed that we were deliberately shooting at them. Upon arrival back at the house we were confronted by the local policeman, who duly demanded a written statement, which we provided in all innocence, not even advised that we could call a solicitor. We weren’t convicted but it’s amazing how many people still remember it, partly because it was reported prominently in the Portsmouth daily newspaper and the Isle of Wight County Press,” said Sir John. “I think journalists on the Island particularly, need to show great responsibility in their reporting where young people are concerned and bear in mind the consequences of sensationalist journalism. People can be reminded of things they did at 18 when they’re 60. In such an intimate society as the Island, today’s news might wrap tomorrows fish and chips, but memories last much longer,”
After graduating from Cirencester Sir John went to work in South Africa, which was his mother’s native country. “I worked on a eucalyptus plantation on the Swaziland border – that was a wonderful time,” he remembered. “We had hundreds of acres of the stuff – the chap I worked for had smuggled the seed in from Australia. We exported the oil for medical use and it was used in Consulate cigarettes. The scenery was just like the highlands of Scotland but hot.”
After returning from Africa five years later Sir John worked in Cheltenham as a farm manager, and visited the Island in 1979 for his sister’s wedding. “It was the start of the ill-fated Fastnet race and my then fiancé Kate and I followed the boats to the Needles and then drove along the Military Road. It was here that a young man lost control of his car and ploughed into us head on,” said Sir John. “I’m told it took them nine hours to put me back together. I woke up in Southampton General several days later only to hear about all the people who’d lost their lives in the Fastnet race.”
It took a long time for Sir John to recover from his injuries. “I had to have an operation to repin my ankle last year,” he said to illustrate. “Many of the bones in my legs were broken, as were my ribs, my heart was displaced, my liver torn and my lungs punctured. I thought I was indomitable but I was brought right down to earth. But the worst thing was the shock afterwards – about a year later. The psychological effect was much worse and it took me a long time to recover from that, as it changed everything I had planned for my future.”
“I spent some time at Fairlee Hospice and then Osborne House to convalesce surrounded by the most delightful Generals and Colonels,” he remembered. “Surgeon Captain Ronald Macdonald was in charge – it was like an hotel. The Queen’s health was drunk when the port was passed and I had an original Landseer outside my door.”
“After my convalescence Kate said “You’ve got to do something to get yourself going again” and she and her father asked me to come and help in their hotel, The Holmwood in Cowes. So I was a farmer out of his depth for a bit. Then later we bought Murray’s restaurant in Cowes.” The hotel was sold about 20 years ago.
Sir John and Kate married and have two sons, George 26 and Jamie 22. “Two naughty boys,” said Sir John. “George was a chorister at St Georges Chapel Windsor and attended school there,” he said somewhat wistfully. “Jamie was at Ryde School and then at Cowes High.”
Sir John has always kept a keen interest in the countryside and about fifteen years ago he learnt the art of hedgelaying from Paul and Reuben Abbott of the Lavender Farm who are renowned experts. “There are many different styles – Paul and Reuben are specialists in the Midlands style,” said Sir John who works with the Countryside Section of the IW College one day a week, particularly encouraging the young people in their endeavours at hedgelaying and other country crafts.
“One of The highlights of the Countryside Students year is the Annual IW Hedgelaying Competition arranged by Tony Ridd of Landscape Therapy – he’s been the main instigator in keeping it going,” he said of the event. “Youngsters from the college love it. Every year about 15 or 20 young people learn the skills needed and then they all end up in the competition at the end. We start with the coppicing in the autumn and then we take the bi-products and use them in the hedgelaying in the winter.”
In 2005 Sir John took up local politics and was voted in as the Conservative councillor for Gurnard. “It’s a real learning curve being a councillor – many of the 36 conservative councillors were new to the job and at first found the Council language almost incomprehensible gobbledegook. I’m very glad that people are starting to take issue with this – I’m a campaigner for plain English. I don’t mind the odd Latin phrase but don’t give me this Harvard Business School speak liberally peppered with acronyms,” said Sir John in his totally down to earth manner.