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Newton Surmaville House in 1886 from an old print in a Harbin family album. Repoduced by kind permission of the purchaser of the albums (Dr T Harbin) at the recent auction of the house contents, described in this edition of Chronicle.



This article came from the Chronicle published November 2007. Pages 67-73 & 88


Authors: Brian and Moira Gittos




The death of Sophie Rawlins in August 2006 (see her obituary at the foot of this article) precipitated a chain of events which lead inexorably to the sale of the contents of Newton Surmaville house in October 2007. The fact that this important Jacobean residence had survived largely intact, including its furniture and fittings, throughout the 20th century, was largely due to her determination to resist the pressures to which so many of our great houses have succumbed. What follows is a summary of the history of Newton Surmaville up to the time of the recent auction.

The Early History

The principal source for the history of Newton Surmaville down to c. 1700 is a paper by Preb. Bates Harbin published in SANHS Proceedings for 1910. The earliest reference to ‘Newton’ which he quotes is from a document dated 28th Jan 1208. Like many other local examples the appellation `Surmaville’ is the family name of the Norman lords who held the manor. This is confirmed by an Inquisition Post Mortem of 1221, which states that Emma de Waie held land in Newton of the King and that Philip de Surmaville was her son and heir. Emma’s husband was apparently a member of the family who took their name from a small village just north-east of Rouen and who held lands elsewhere in Dorset (Langton Herring was formerly Langton Surmaville). By the end of the 13th century the manor was split with Johanna de Surmaville or Cricket and William de Surmaville holding one half and William de Gout’s holding the other.

The Fourteenth Century

Johanna de Surmaville’s Inquisition Post Mortem was taken at Somerton in 1307, when William de Crucket (i.e. Cricket) was described as her son and heir. It was recorded that she held in Newton Surmaville one messuage with a garden, 66 acres of land, one acre of wood and another of pasture and two acres of alder grove. This fits well with the current topography of Newton Surmaville, with the garden indicating the presence of a residence and the alder grove suggesting the proximity of the river Yeo which flows near to the present house. Early in the 14th century the manor appears to have passed to the Muskets with whom it remained until the death of Alianora Musket in 1385. Newton was subsequently in the hands of the Warmwell family of whom Roger Warmwell had been one of the leaders of the riot in St. John’s churchyard in 1349.

The Fifteenth Century

In 1411 the register of Bishop Nicholas Bubwith recorded a licence for Robert Langbroke and Christina his wife to have masses and other divine services in a chapel or simple oratory within the Manor of John Warmwell at Newton Surmaville. The latter’s Inquisition Post Mortem in 1436 mentions a messuage with a garden, one toft, half a carucate of land and 48 acres of pasture in Newton Surmaville. His heirs were his daughters Alice and Agnes. When Agnes died in 1478 her inquisition, taken at Ilchester, found that she held three messuages, eleven tofts, one dovecot, one garden, one curtilage with a garden annexed, 160 acre of land, four acres of meadow and 254 acres of pasture. Some of this she held by the service of rendering annually to her overlord a towel and a tablecloth of the value of 13s 4d. By Agnes’s time it would appear that the whole manor was in the possession of a single family. It was inherited by her son Henry Burnell whose will of 1490 stipulated that he was to be buried under the high altar of Sherborne Abbey.

The Sixteenth Century

John Burnell was the next heir and in 1510 he sold part of his large inheritance to John Compton for 300 marks (equivalent to £44,760 today). It comprised four messuages, eight tofts, a columbarie called a dovehouse, a mill, 231 acres of land, four acres of meadow and 88 acres of pasture in Newton Surmaville and elsewhere. John Burnell retained use of the manor while he and his wife Dorothy still lived and he survived John Compton by some 34 years. Hence the first of the Comptons to take possession of Newton Surmaville was John’s son and heir, Thomas, whose son Joseph purchased part of the manor of Kingston in Yeovil in 1587 (see also Chronicle Vol 9 No. 1, page 26). However, Joseph evidently over- reached himself and ran up large debts both with the crown and with private individuals. As a result, he was obliged to sell Newton Surmaville to Robert Harbin of Wyke in the parish of Gillingham, Dorset. The conveyance is dated 18th November 1608, covering the manor of Newton Sumiaville and all that capital messuage, mansion house and demesne lands belonging to it. There is also reference to a debt of £600 (equivalent to £81,000) owed to Sir Walter Raleigh.

Robert Harbin and the Building of the House

Robert Harbin was born in 1526 and was a merchant of Blandford in Dorset, where he had married Margaret Maunsell. His second wife was also named Margaret and she died in 1597. When Robert purchased Newton Surmaville he was already 82 years of age but apparently still possessed the energy to make sweeping changes. The old mansion of the Comptons was pulled down and the present house built in its place. This seems to have been accomplished by 1612 from the evidence on the heads of the rain water pipes to either side of the main entrance. That on the left bears ‘1612’ and that on the right, has Robert’s initials. The house was built with two wings projecting south but, probably in response to the topography of the river valley in which it is situated, the main entrance was to the north rather than the south. The building was designed to be seen from the north and the east, with the western face relatively plain. The north frontage is 85′ and the east side (56′) has three projecting chimney stacks which divide the face into four panels, each with windows and surmounted by a balustrade. All the dressings are of finely worked Ham stone, with the rest of the walling left roughly tooled. The outer walls are three feet thick (at ground level). Preb. Bates Harbin described the house thus,

Entering by the front door, on the left is the oak panelled hall, 32 feet by 19, and 11 feet high, with a bay window at the further end corresponding to the porch. Beyond this is the drawing-room, 22 feet by 18, which is lined with Brussels tapestry representing scenes from the Old Testament. Opposite to the bay window is a door leading to the dining-room, 31 feet by 17. It is panelled in an eighteenth century design, and contains a number of family portraits. The principal staircase, built around a solid pillar of Hamstone, formerly came down opposite to the dining-room door. Originally the hall occupied the whole width of the building, and formed a passage from either side of the house, but in 1837 Mr. George Harbin added a lobby on both floors and altered the staircase to fit in with this great improvement, which was the first alteration made in the house. The fine oriel window at the south-east corner lights the library, a room added in 1875. The first floor contains a considerable number of bedrooms; one of them is lined with tapestry, which is probably Flemish of the latter part of the seventeenth century. The rooms still contain a quantity of furniture and needlework of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There is no trace of any enclosed court before the house, and the old stables which stood between the house and the river were demolished in 1870, and rebuilt beyond the garden.

The Harbin arms are carved as a full achievement over both north and east doors, although impaled with Pert over former. The grant of the Harbin arms was made in May 1612 by William Camden, Clarenceaux King of Arms and they are ‘Azure a saltier voided between four spear-heads erect or; and for a crest a cubit arm in armour holding a spur’. Robert Harbin died on Christmas Eve 1621 at the great age of 95 and was buried in Yeovil St John’s. In his will he described himself as ‘sicke of body but of perfect remembrance (praysed be God)’. Not only had he built a fine house but Robert had also greatly strengthened the family land holding in both Somerset and Dorset.

The Civil War and its Aftermath

Robert was succeeded by his son John who, like his father, featured in one of the family portraits. John was a lawyer of the Middle Temple in London, High Sheriff of Dorset in 1623 and an active Justice of the Peace. His eldest son Robert was his heir and, also like his father, had legal training. However, he became embroiled in the troubled times of the mid-seventeenth century, being a strong opponent of the King’s policy. When hostilities began he was a Deputy Lieutenant of militia and Colonel in the Parliamentary forces, being present at the siege of Wells and the sack of Sherborne in 1643. It was claimed that ‘a Lewd fellow’ had been sent to Yeovil to ‘stab Colonel Harbin and the rest of the Commanders.’ However, Robert Harbin subsequently made peace with the King and was pardoned in 1644. This changed situation is reflected in the fact that the Royalist commander Lord Goring subsequently sent a letter from Newton, concerning an action near Dorchester.

Following the Parliamentary triumphs at Langport and Naseby, Robert Harbin was threatened with sequestration of his goods. Fortunately, this did not happen and he retired to Mudford, handing over Newton Surmaville to his eldest son John. Robert died in 1659 and willed to be buried at Yeovil ‘in the Newton aisle’, giving his coach, horses and furniture to his executors. John Harbin had to cope with reduced family circumstances, dying in 1672 and being succeeded by his second son, William who became head of the family when he was only 18. William’s first action in that capacity (as he recorded) is a fascinating insight into a Herald’s Visitation seen from the viewpoint of the interviewee. [From time to time the Heralds from the College of Arms toured the country, visiting families entitled to bear arms, making records of genealogies. These enquiries were known as Visitations.] William was obliged to travel to Ilchester to meet Sir Edward Bish (Clarenceaux King of Arms), and carried with him ‘my parchment in which my coat of arms were granted to my family many years ago’. He was questioned about the number of brothers his father had had, who he had married etc. Having paid 39s/6d (some £250 at today’s equivalent) for a confirmation by the Herald of the family’s right to the arms, he returned home. William was subsequently of the opinion that had he not been a very young man at the time, he need not have been there ‘and parted with my money for nothing’.

William also recorded news of his ‘uncle’ Edward Harbin,

`A seaman came to me at Trent in January, 1674-5, and told me that he came from Barbados and that there is one Mr. Edward Harbin lives in Bridgtown, he tables at one Col. Bates his house, as he told me he be Clarke to his majesty’s navy storehouse for vittling ships in Bridgtown; whether it be my uncle I cannot tell, and believe not because he was gone out of England twenty years before, and never heard of, and his possessions were distributed between the bretheren that were alive.’

William married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Francis Wyndham of Trent but when he (Sir Francis) died in 1676, there were insufficient funds to pay his daughter’s portion of the estate, so all the moveable goods at Trent were made over to her instead. Preb. Bates Harbin was unsure whether any of the furniture or tapestries at Newton Surmaville in his time had originally been at Trent but he says ‘there is no doubt that’ the pewter chargers in the cross passage must have come from there, since they bore the arms of Wyndham impaling Gerard. The remarkable relics of King Charles II’s clandestine stay at Trent during his flight after the battle of Worcester may well have moved at this time. They comprise a night cap and a small knife in a wooden sheath.

William Harbin died in 1705 and was buried in the family vault in Yeovil church. Preb. Bates Harbin concluded his account here, with the following prophetic remarks,

One may be allowed to express a hope that the ownership of Newton, which has hitherto been a pleasure and a pride, may not in the future be made a penalty too grievous to be borne.

The Eighteenth Century

The story of Newton Surmaville is continued by Sophie Rawlins herself in volume 109 of the Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society (1965). William was succeeded by his second son, Wyndham, who married Abigail Swayne of Tarrant Gunville in Dorset. Wyndham erected a monument in St John’s (on the east wall of the north transept) recording members of the Harbin family back to John, son of the builder of the house, who were all buried ‘in a vault beneath this place’. Wyndham and Abigail’s only son, Swayne, became High Sheriff of Dorset in 1747. His wife, Barbara Abington (of Nether Compton), retained in her possession the manor of Sutton Bingham. They had five sons and a daughter. After Swayne’s death in 1780, Barbara continued to live at Newton Surmaville as a widow for nearly thirty years. Subsequently the estate was managed by the second son, William, who married Rhoda Phelips of Montacute. It was William’s elder son, George, who succeeded his uncle Wyndham in 1837 (who had moved away from Newton to live in Hampshire).

George Harbin and Nineteenth Century Developments

Unlike his absentee uncle, George Harbin took considerable interest in the house and embarked on the first significant alterations since its construction 250 years earlier. His principal addition was a corridor built out into the courtyard on the south side of the hall. He removed the staircase into the new passage and made some changes to doors and windows, installing a number of new stone fireplaces. In 1875, he built a large room onto the east wing but on a level intermediate between the ground and first floors. It has a projecting bay window, copied from the gatehouse of Montacute Priory. He also attached a range of conservatories on the south side of the house, (see Plate 29).

As Captain Harbin he commanded the Mudford Independent Yeomanry and was involved in successfully quelling the Yeovil Riots of 1831, which were concerned with lack of progress in reforming the Parliamentary voting system. Following his death in 1880 his widow survived until 1898 when the estate passed to Col. Henry Harbin, George’s nephew.

Henry followed a military career, serving with both the Somerset Rifle Volunteers and the Somerset Light Infantry. He died in 1909 without issue and Newton again passed to a nephew, the Rev. Edward Harbin Bates, Rector of Puckington in Somerset.

Prebendary Bates Harbin and the Twentieth Century

Rev. Bates gave up the Rectorship of Puckington to take up residence at Newton, adopting the name and arms of Harbin. He had married Hilda Geraldine Fry and they had both a son (who died in infancy) and a daughter, Sophia. Bates Harbin was an established historian, having been educated at Eton and Jesus College Cambridge. In 1915, he was installed in the Chapter of Wells Cathedral as Prebendary of Wanstrow. From 1905, until his death in 1918, he was one of the Hon. Secretaries of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, organising some of the excursions. He was elected President of the Society for the year 1910, which was also the occasion of the Society’s visit to Newton Surmaville. He made important contributions to the Proceedings and was a founder member of the Somerset Records Society, in 1886. From 1898 until his death he was its Secretary, editing several volumes including Gerard ‘s Particular Description of Somerset. He was responsible for the first volume of the Victoria County History for Somerset and, in conjunction with the Rev. F.W. Weaver, produced a valuable index to Collinson’s History of Somerset.

Given his scholarly endeavours, it is unsurprising that his main contribution to the house was the conversion of George Harbin’s new room of 1875 into a Library (see Plate 30). This was to house his considerable collection of books on Somerset and Dorset and those already in the house, which included a collection which had once been the property of the Rev. John Phelips, Vicar of Yeovil 1756-66

Plate 29 Newton Surmaville house about 1860. This is is one of the earliest photographs surviving from the Yeovil area. Taken before the 19th century alterations: note the absence of the library block at the rear of the house. (Courtesy Dr T. Harbin)

Plate 31 Prebandary E. H. Bates Harbin, photographed in his Library at Newton Surmaville in 1912. (Courtesy Dr T. Harbin)
Plate 30 The library at Newton Surmaville as it now appears. It was converted into a library by E.H. Harbin Bates but was originally built as a south wing extension of 1875. (Photo. B&M Gittos)


Preb. Bates Harbin’s widow lived at Newton until she died in 1962 and the following year the only surviving child, Sophie, moved in with her husband, Cosmo Rawlins. She proved a worthy successor to her illustrious father, as is reported elsewhere in this issue. In 1965, she echoed her father’s concerns about the future, stating that it was becoming ‘increasingly difficult to find an answer’ to the problem of ownership of Newton Surmaville. Forty-two years later, the house has been sold and its contents auctioned. The inevitable had only been delayed.


After Sophie Rawlins death, the house was put up for sale and much of the contents consigned to auction. Significant papers have been deposited at the Somerset Record Office and items from the important collection of militaria have gone to the Somerset Military Museum. It is understood that certain if the most valuable items will be auctioned by Sotheby’s at appropriate specialist sales. The house is in need of extensive and careful conservation and it is believed to have been sold to a private buyer. The bulk of the contents was committed to auction by Lawrence’s of Crewkerne. Viewing (by catalogue holders only) was held at the house on 5th and 6th October 2007, with the sale of the Library books on Monday 8th and the remaining contents on Tuesday 9th. A marquee was erected to the south of the house for the auction itself. Viewing took place within the house and this afforded a special opportunity to see the objects in their context.

Newton is a Grade 1 listed building and (Somerset Historic Environment Record 50371) which covers some of the fittings, including seventeenth-century tapestries which completely cover two walls of drawing room and of one bedroom, plaster ceilings and original wooden panelling. Other integral fittings which are not part if the listing include four poster beds, tiled fireplaces and heraldic stained glass. The library was a particularly evocative room, with the desk still present at which Preb. Bates Harbin was photographed early last century (Plate 31). A significant number of lots were purchased by Dr Harbin from Atlanta, Georgia, USA who is descended from Robert Harbin, the builder of the house. These included a set of family photograph albums which he kindly lent for copies to be made of the most significant pictures. Another item which was sold as part of a large collection of journals was a foolscap notebook in which Preb. Bates Harbin had written a calendar of the deeds and muniments belonging to Woburn’s Almshouse, in Yeovil. The purchaser has kindly made a photocopy available to the YALHS. Some of the individual books contained additional material and the following are transcripts of two interesting examples. The first , a letter, was pasted onto the flyleaf of Time and Chance: The Story of Arthur Evans and his Forebears by Joan Evans. (She was one of the leading art historians and antiquarians of the 20th century. Her father, Arthur Evans, was the curator of the Ashmolean Museum at the turn of the 20th century but is best known as the excavator of Knossos, on Crete, and the discoverer of the Minoan civilisation.) The book was inscribed,

Cosmo W. H. Rawlins
August 14th 1943

The letter was addressed to C.W.H. Rawlins Esq, 97, Albany Road, Stratford-on-Avon and it was written by Joan Evans herself.

Thousand Acres,
Tel 3224   July 24
Dear Mr Rawlins,
It is a great pleasure that an unknown kinsman should have enjoyed the book. Of course Lord Dickinson was much interested in the Brussac (& allied) pedigrees, but as you may have seen died this summer. I am sending your letter to another cousin who has been working at the Huguenot site – Miss Minet, whose editing of the Huguenot Registers you are probably familiar with. I think, however, that she has been concentrating on the French end of the Brussacs. I am afraid I have never done any work myself on these pedigrees & as the youngest & least Dickinson of the family I have not any documents of my own. Though I have Frances de Brussac’s garnets & six of her teaspoons.
Yours sincerely,
Joan Evans

The second letter was addressed to Sophie Rawlins’ mother, from the same correspondent and was loose in a copy of Cluniac Art of the Romanesque Period by Joan Evans.

Thousand Acres,
Tel 3224   July 24
Dear Mrs Bates-Harbin,
Your kindness in admitting us to your house and your graciousness in showing it yourself remain one of the happiest memories of our Summer Meeting. I hope you will accept this book to remind you of our gratitude.
Yours sincerely,
Joan Evans

The 1950 Summer Meeting of the Royal Archaeological Institute took place at Taunton and one of the excursions included a visit to Newton Surmaville. Joan Evans was President of the RAI at the time of the visit.

Other items at the auction included several firearms, three of which were made by Stocker of Yeovil. They comprised a pair of flintlock holster pistols (c.1830) and a brass barrelled blunderbuss, complete with bayonet. There were six military helmets, three of them for the Mudford Independent Yeomanry Cavalry. Lot 476 was one of the Yeovil Riot Jugs, awarded by the grateful inhabitants of Yeovil to members of the Yeomanry who put down the riot in 1831. The earliest picture in the sale was small, half-length, portrait of Elizabeth Woodville, queen of Edward IV. It was painted on wood in the same manner as the well-known royal portraits at Montacute House. Despite its damaged condition it went for about 18 times the maximum guide price at £7,400. Interestingly, this portrait was one of the exhibits shown by George Harbin at the fifth AGM of SANHS which was held in Yeovil Town Hall on Tuesday September 13th 1853, when it was described as, ‘A Portrait of Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV, Date 1461’. The picture had a carrying or transit case of wood which bore a pasted on label,

Portrait on oak Panel of Elizabeth Woodville – wife of Edward IV. Heirloom of present owner (Mrs Bates Harbin) inherited possibly through the Phelips & [Sarges] family – or through the Wyndhams of Kemsford & Trent Somerset

Brian Gittos and Steve Bartlett attended both days of the auction, which was a remarkable experience despite the torrential rain on the second day. The lasting impression was that a major opportunity had been lost to preserve an outstanding example of a gentry home and its contents. It took only a short time to throughly disperse a collection which had been brought together over four centuries.

The main sources for this article have been:
Harbin, Rev. E.H. Bates ‘History of the Manor of Newton Surmaville’, Proceedings of the S.A.N.H.S, LVI Pt II, (1910), pp 1-30.
Rawlins, S.W. ‘Newton Surmaville’, Proceedings of the S.A.N.H.S, 109, (1965), pp 30-35.

Sophia Wyndham Rawlins was 97 when she died at her home, Newton Surmaville, on 31th August 2006. She was the last of the line of the Harbin family who had lived at Newton since the house was built by Robert Harbin in 1612. Her father was Prebendary E.H. Bates Harbin, an accomplished historian who was very active, particularly with matters concerning the county of Somerset, until his premature death in 1918, when his daughter was not yet ten years old. Sophie Rawlins mother’s maiden name was Hilda Fry and she was a widow at Newton until her death in 1962. Her mother maintained an involvement with historical matters, welcoming a visit of the Royal Archaeological Institute to the house in 1950. She also continued to host the annual meetings of the Editorial Committee of Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries at Newton Surmaville. Sophie obtained a first class degree from Bedford College, London, and followed the family involvement with history.

In 1940 Sophie married Cosmo Rawlins, a member of the staff of the Bank of England and a distant cousin, who shared her historical interests. Following her mother’s death, Sophie and her husband moved into the family home. She carried on the tradition of hosting the Annual meetings of S&DN&Q, having replaced her mother on the Committee long before her death. In 1968, she became the Committee’s first Chairman, a post she held until replaced by N.R. Peers in 1992. From 1996 until her death, she was its Patron.

Sophie was an active members of SANHS, serving on the Council, and as a Trustee. She was President in 1964 and her record of membership spanning some 80 years must rarely have been equalled. Sophie also served on the Council of the Somerset Records Society (of which her father was a founder member) and was involved in editing two of the volumes. Amongst her many publications were papers on Dr George Harbin, and Newton Surmaville, and important works on both the Members of Parliament for Somerset and the High Sheriffs of the county, all of which appeared in the volumes of the Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society. As early as 1950, Sophie’s endeavours earned her election as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. Her many talents extended to the publication of just one historical novel, Kay of the Hills, under her second name, Wyndham Rawlins.

A rather different role was Sophie’s hereditary position as Patron of the Living of St John’s church in Yeovil, which in the fifteenth-century had been vested with Syon Abbey in the fifteenth century and with the Lords of Hendford before that. The death of this remarkable lady has brought to an end a long chapter in local history at Newton Surmaville, stretching back to the early 17th century.