Legend of the ‘Russian Princess’

Frances Billinge 2020

Many times I have been asked about the ‘Russian Princess’ who lived at Hummersknott  Lowerdown in the first part of the twentieth century. I have now managed to find out about Hugh and Amy  Watkin who had the house  built on 1927 and lived there with Hugh dying in 1937 and his wife in 1951.

Hugh Robert Watkin was born in Leamington Spa in 1867. His father John Watkin was a seed crusher and had previously been a coal and timber merchant. Both John and John’s father William were prominent men in their locality. William was a coal and timber merchant as well as a builder of many prestigious Leamington Spa properties, and also he was a member of the Board of Improvement Commission. This was important civic work in the early part of the 1800s. John sat on the local Board of Health and was appointed as a returning officer for the Borough Council elections when the Leamington Town Charter came in to force in 1875. This means that Hugh was born into a family of successful merchants who also were prominent in civic duties (Dudley, T.B, 1901 From chaos to the charter: a complete history of Royal Leamington Spa, from the earliest times to the charter of incorporation, with chronology of all the principal public events down to date’ p.154, Leamington,  P, and W E Linaker).  In 1871 the Watkins lived in at Warneford House Radford Road Leamington with four servants, this was a prestigious area.

Education Hugh was educated at the Royal Masonic School in Tottenham. When he left that school in 1884 he received the prize for good conduct. (The Freemason June 28 p.317.) Both his father and grandfather were also freemasons. (United Grand Lodge of England Freemason Membership Registers 1751-1921, www.ancestry.co.uk accessed 20 January 2020)

Marriage to Amy Howard The next we hear of Hugh is when he married Amy Howard in the English Church at St Petersburg in Russia. Amy was the daughter of an English merchant called Henry Howard. Henry and his daughter both lived in St Petersburg. (Banbury Guardian 28 April p.8). Amy was born in St Petersburg but she was of British Nationality through her English parentage as later recorded on the1911 Census (The national Archives). It is Hugh’s obituary in the Devonshire Association Transactions which tells us more about his life as a merchant in Russia where he was allowed to trade anything with the permission of the Russian Government and under the aegis of the British Council. He was described as a member of the First Guild of Russian Merchants (Transactions of the Devonshire Association 1938, www.devonshireassociation.org)

Life in Torquay from 1905

We are not exactly sure when Hugh and his wife Amy returned to England. They were not on the 1901 Census but by 1905 he had retired from business and they were living at Chelston Hall Torquay (Fig.1). This was a turbulent time in Russian history which perhaps explains their return to England.

Figure 1. Chelston Hall Torquay. Frances Billinge 2020.

Both Hugh and Amy were active locally. They attended the Annual Conversatione in Torquay and were members of the Torquay Natural History Society (The Torquay Times 10 November 1905, p.6 conversatione; ibid., 2 November 1906, p. 2 TNHS). Amy was involved in fundraising for Torquay hospitals and Hugh gave lectures on life in Russia and then commenced research on medieval documents (1908 Hugh lectured locally on Russia as seen by the Russians, Torquay Times  27 November p5; ) He published many articles on local history and became president of the Devonshire Association in 1918 which published many of his works including A Short Description of Torre Abbey (1909), Stuart and the Cary Family (1920), Historical Souvenir of Torquay (1920), The Priory and Nuns of St. Mary, Cornworthy (with Mr. E. Windeatt, 1920), The Manor of Tormohun (1922-26), Notes on Haccombe (1923), The Early History of Bradley Manor (1926), Berry Pomeroy Castle (1927), Compton Castle (1927), The Lost Chapel of St. Clare, Dartmouth (1929), Teignbridge (1930-31), and Torre Abbey (1936)

They were a couple in the public eye. When WWI commenced they offered Chelston Hall to the Russian Ambassador and to act as interpreters if any Russian casualties were treated at the local hospital. This was publicised in the local newspaper which referenced their previous life in Petrograd/St Petersberg (Torquay Times 24 September 1914, p.3). Amy attended the annual meeting of Rosehill Children’s Hospital and was involved in various local charity fund raising events (as an example Torquay Times 26 February 1909, p. 3). By 1911 they had moved to nearby Hummersknott in Chelston (Census 1911, Fig. 2). They were not the first owners of Hummersknott. It was a house built soon after 1901 and the first occupants were John Dowson Todd and his second wife Elizabeth (The Western Times 19 June 1903). John Todd was from Stockton on Tees and Elizabeth was from Darlington. The only other Hummersknott was a prestigious house in Darlington built in 1864 for Arthur Pease M.P (The Northern Echo, 22 July 2017). It is possible that John and Elizabeth Todd had a connection with the Darlington house and this is why they named their Chelston home Hummersknott. Hugh Watkin only lived at Hummersknott until 1918 by which time he had moved back to and Chelston Hall and was still there in Kelly’s directory of 1923 (Kelly’s Directory of Devonshire 1923 , London, Kelly and Co.,  p 756).

Figure 2. Hummersknott Chelston. Frances Billinge 2020.

Amy’s parents Henry and Elizabeth Howard also lived at Chelston Hall (1911 Census op.cit.). Henry was a retired cotton manufacturer, and perhaps Hugh ran a similar business in St Petersburg. Elizabeth Howard had also been born in St Petersburg and like Amy she had British parents.

Life in Bovey Tracey from 1927

Hugh and Amy had another house called Hummersknott built in beautiful surroundings on Lowerdown  in Bovey Tracey in 1927, and they lived there from then on (Fig. 3). Presumably they used the same name as it reminded them of their Torquay house. They are not known to have had any connection with the Darlington house of the same name,

Figure 3. Hummersknott, Lowerdown. Frances Billinge 2020.

Periodically Amy advertised for servants giving ‘Mrs Watkin’ as the named contact so she was not living in a secret location (as an example Western Morning News 21 February 1941, p.4, advertisement for staff). Hummersknott does have an unusual downstairs room with no side windows (Fig. 4)

Figure 4. Unusual ‘Windowless’ Room at Hummersknott. Frances Billinge 2020.

The Devonshire Association obituary records the reason for this as it was built as a fireproof room to protect the medieval manuscripts and antiquarian books on which Hugh was working. (TDA 1938 op. cit.). These were part of the Hole of Parke collection which are now lodged at the Devon Heritage Centre in Exeter (312M/0/TY Hole of Parke) They were irreplaceable items which Hugh had borrowed from Parke and it is no wonder that he wished to store them in a safe place.

The Legend of the ‘Russian Princess’.

I have heard of this legend since 2010. By 2016 it was written in Chamberlain Estate Agent’s advertisement when the property was being sold, ‘Whilst in Russia he married a Russian Princess, Amy, (an anglicised version of her Russian name) bearing in mind the turbulence of the recent Russian Revolution and downfall of the Russian aristocracy. The house was built for Amy to make her feel safe and secure, this is particularly noticeable in the unusual panelled octagonal drawing room which has no windows and is lit by an octagonal lantern roof light.’ (www.onthemarket.com accessed 20 January 2020). One can only assume that the then owners gave this information to the agents. It is an interesting legend but the only part of it which is true is that Amy was the wife and she was born in Russia. There was no anglicised Russian name, no princess, no place of safety built for her protection, and she and her husband lived in the public eye. The ‘Russian princess’ makes a good story but it is another one of those Bovey Tracey legends.


I would like to thank the owners of Hummersknott in Chelston and Hummersknott in Lowerdown for their interest and support with this research.