Orwell Astronomical Society (Ipswich)

Home Events

Vernons at Orwell Park,

Early History

Orwell Park lies in the manor of St. Peter's in Ipswich. It has connections with St. Peter's Parish and for a time had connections with Cardinal Wolsey. (Cardinal Wolsey (1475-1530) was born in Ipswich and rose to become Lord Chancellor of England in the reign of Henry VIII.) The Vernons were the first family recorded as settling at Orwell Park. Figure 1 shows the family tree; asterisks denote owners of Orwell Park.

Vernon family Figure 1. The Vernon family.

Edward Vernon was the first recorded owner of Orwell Park, and the estate remained in the hands of the family for two subsequent generations. Table 1 lists possession of the estate.

Period Owner
c.1727 to 1757 Edward Vernon
1757 to 1783 Francis Vernon
1783 to c.1797 Ownership uncertain
c.1797 to 1818 John Vernon
1818 to 1848 Arethusa Vernon and Sir Robert Harland

Table 1. Ownership of Orwell Park by the Vernon family.

Edward Vernon (1684-1757)

Edward Vernon, second son of James Vernon, was born at Westminster on 12 November 1684. He began formal education at the age of seven when he attended Westminster School where he was taught Latin, Greek, Mathematics and Astronomy. From an early age he acquired the nickname of The Admiral due his ability to tell nautical stories.

On 10 May 1700, Vernon volunteered for the Navy, entering as a midshipman. His initial training lasted a little over two years, first on the Shrewsbury, followed by the Ipswich and then the Mary. On 16 September 1702, at the age of 17, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. His first appointment on promotion was to the Lennox. In March 1703, he transferred to the Barfleur, where he saw action in the Battle of Malaga. In December 1703, he was appointed to the Britannic, aboard which he was present at the capture of Barcelona in 1705.

Vernon must have made a favourable impression on his superiors, as less than three years after his promotion to lieutenant, on 22 January 1705, he was promoted to captain. His first command as captain was on the frigate Dolphin. This post was very short lived, as ten days later he was transferred to the Rye and, on 21 November 1707, took command of the Jersey. Vernon spent the following four years in the West Indies, where he was involved in the breaking up of a Spanish squadron off the coast of Cartagena, returning to England in 1712. From March 1715 he commanded the Assistance, a vessel of the Baltic Fleet. The following year he received orders to take command of the Grafton. Four years later he was appointed captain of the Mary, a ship in which he had served as a midshipman during his training. During the summers of 1719, 1720 and 1721 he spent time with the Baltic Fleet.

Vernon's time was not taken up completely with naval duties and, during periods when the navy did not require his services, he pursued a second career as a Member of Parliament. (During his time in Parliament, he remained on the naval list, available to be called up, for which he received naval pay at half rate.) In 1722, he was elected for two constituencies, Dunwich in Suffolk and Penryn in Cornwall. (His father had held the Penryn seat for 15 years from 1695.) Vernon dropped his Suffolk seat and concentrated on the Penryn constituency.

It was in this period that Vernon began looking for a suitable home. He finally decided to purchase a house in Nacton on the site of what is now Orwell Park. The earliest reference to Vernon living at Nacton dates from 1727. While living at Nacton, he married Sarah Best, a daughter of Thomas Best of Chatham. She was fifteen years his junior, but died a year before him. There is a plaque commissioned by Vernon in the church at Nacton to commemorate her. They had three sons, all of whom died young: James b. 29 November 1730, Thomas b. 29 April 1733 and Francis b. 04 June 1734.

What was to prove Vernon's finest hour had its origins in the West Indies in 1731. A British merchant captain, Robert Jenkins, who traded in the West Indies, claimed that a Spanish coastguard vessel had boarded his ship and, though the Spaniards had found no proof of smuggling, had tortured him and torn off his ear. Jenkins produced the supposedly severed ear to the House of Commons in 1738. This incident forced Sir Robert Walpole, then Prime Minister, into the so called War of Jenkins' Ear. Walpole had always opposed foreign wars and he was not to recover from his decision to declare one.

Vernon was an MP at this time, acting as an independent member specialising in naval matters. He expressed concern for the safe passage of British merchant ships sailing home from the West Indies through areas patrolled by the Spanish fleet. He persuaded Parliament that the Spanish colony at Porto Bello could be easily destroyed with just six ships. On 09 July 1739, the navy recalled him to active duty, promoted him to Vice-Admiral of the Blue, and placed him in command of a force of six ships. Britain declared war on Spain on 19 October 1739. Four days later, Vernon set sail with eight ships of the line and one frigate. Three ships left the squadron en route to patrol off Portugal. The five remaining ships of the line carried on to the West Indies, being joined by the Hampton Court before arrival off Porto Bello on 20 November. Just one day later, Vernon captured the colony and destroyed the military installations there.

When news of Vernon's victory reached London, it was the cause of great jubilation! Both Houses of Parliament passed a vote of thanks and he was granted the freedom of the city of London. Numerous medals were struck in his honour; the British Museum has a collection of over 100 variations. Villages were named after the victory, including Portobello, then a small settlement on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth. Many public houses were named for the victory, including the following three in Ipswich:

The Admiral’s Head public house in Bealings may also take its name from the victory.

In Vernon's era, life at sea was extremely harsh, and one of the few solaces available to the ordinary sailor was the daily rum ration: as a result drunkenness was rife throughout the navy. On 04 August 1740, Vernon addressed the problem of drunkenness at sea with a general order to captains and naval surgeons in his fleet ito dilute the rum ration to one part rum to three parts water. The order was soon adopted throughout the Navy. At the time, Vernon's nickname was Old Grog, a reference to the Grogram cloth (a mix of silk, wool and mohair) from which his cloaks were spun. The sailors christened the diluted rum ration grog; this is the origin of the words grog and groggy. (The naval rum ration remained a tradition of the service until it was abolished in 1970.)

On 04 March 1741, a large British invasion force led by Vernon, supported by a contingent of American colonists, arrived off the coast of Cartagena and attempted to storm the city. The campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, and the British and Americans had to withdraw after suffering heavy casualties. Among the Americans, serving as Captain of Marines, was Laurence Washington, half-brother of George Washington, who became America's first President. Laurence much admired Vernon, and after inheriting the estate of Little Hunting Creek Plantation on the banks of the Potomac River, renamed it Mount Vernon in honour of the admiral. When George Washington later inherited the estate, he retained the name.

In 1743, Vernon again entered Parliament, representing Penryn and Ipswich, preferring Ipswich, but his parliamentary career this time lasted for only about one year.

By 1744, Vernon was one of the most experienced serving naval officers. The Admiralty asked him to write a report on how best to run the navy. He was not known for his finesse in report writing and would state his mind openly. On 23 June he received a letter on naval promotions. The letter was addressed to Vernon, Vice-Admiral of the Red, a rank higher than Vice-Admiral of the Blue. However, his name had been left off the promotion list. Some members of the Admiralty had evidently changed their mind, perhaps as a result of his report! Vernon replied with a strongly worded letter, complaining that his name had been removed from the naval list.

In the following year, membership of the Admiralty board changed. The Duke of Bedford became First Sea Lord and he immediately reinstated Vernon, promoting him to Admiral of the White in April 1745. Vernon thus jumped a rank higher than Admiral of the Red. His new command was in the North Sea.

However, Vernon's naval career was soon to end. He wrote two pamphlets which were not well received by the Admiralty. The first was entitled A Specimen of Naked Truth from a British Sailor and the second Some Seasonal Advice from an Honest Sailor. On 04 April 1746, he was called before the Admiralty Board to explain the publications. A week later the Admiralty requested the opinion of King George II on the matter. The King advised the Admiralty to sack Vernon, and shortly thereafter his name was removed from the navy list.

Vernon then resumed his parliamentary career, representing Ipswich until his death. He died at Nacton on 30 October 1757 and his estate passed to his nephew Francis Vernon.

Francis Vernon (1715–83)

Francis Vernon was born 1715, probably at the family home at Great Thurlow in West Suffolk. He held various government posts, including Clerk to the Privy Council 1738-57 and Lord of Trade 1762-65. On 14 January 1747, he married Alice Ibbetson. They had three sons, all of whom died young. From 1762 to 1768 he held the parliamentary seat for Ipswich (previously held by his uncle, Edward Vernon). After his uncle died in 1757, Francis inherited the estate at Nacton.

During this period it was fashionable for the wealthy to purchase titles, and Irish titles in particular were readily available. Francis purchased three Irish titles, listed in table 2; all lapsed on his death.

Title Purchased
Baron Orwell of Newry, County Down 07 April 1762
Viscount Orwell 21 July 1776
Earl of Shipbrook, County Down 08 February 1777

Table 2. Irish titles purchased by Francis Vernon.

In the mid 1770's, Francis rebuilt the house at Nacton and enclosed it within grounds that he called Orwell Park. He died there on 15 October 1783 and was buried at Nacton. His wife moved to Brighton, remaining there until her death in 1808 at the age of 78.

John Vernon (1776-1818)

Little information has been found to date about John Vernon. He was born on 08 June 1776 at Lille in Flanders and was educated at Eton before pursuing a military career. He reached the rank of Lieutenant of the 1st Regiment of East Suffolk Militia. He remained single throughout his life. He held the post of High Sheriff of Suffolk in 1808.

Under normal circumstances, John's elder brother, Henry, would have inherited Orwell Park from his uncle, Francis, but he died in 1787 aged 12. As a result, John inherited the estate. In 1818, he exchanged the property with Sir Robert Harland, Bart for Wherstead Lodge.

John died on 25 May 1818 at Brighton.

Sir Robert Harland (1767-1848)

Again, little information has been found to date about Sir Robert Harland. He was born on 16 October 1765 and lived initially at Boss Hall, Sproughton. His wife, Arethusa (born 01 July 1777), was daughter of Henry Vernon. Robert and Arethusa married on 26 May 1801 and lived initially at Wherstead Lodge, which Sir Robert built in 1792, and then, after exchanging properties with John Vernon, at Orwell Park.

In 1812 Sir Robert was appointed Sheriff of Suffolk.

He died on 18 August 1848, after which George Tomline purchased Orwell Park Estate. Arethusa died on 30 March 1860, and is buried at Wherstead.

Vernon Admiral Vernon by Sir Thomas Gainsborough.

Bust of Vernon Bust of Admiral Vernon at the National Maritime Museum, London.

Porto_Bello Ruined fort at Porto Bello. (Tina Hammond, 2007.)

Mansion Orwell Park Mansion, rebuilt by Francis vernon.

Sources of Information


Admiral Vernon And The Navy: A Memoir And Vindication, Douglas Ford, publisher T. Fisher Unwin, Adelphi Terrace, London, 1907.


Compact Edition of the Dictionary of National Biography, vol. II.


Whites Directory, Suffolk, 1874.


The Suffolk Traveller.


History of the County of Suffolk by Augustine Page, 1847, first published as supplement to the Suffolk Traveller, 1844.


Suffolk Record Office papers S1/10/1.6(1), Edward Vernon - Evidence of titles and papers.


Suffolk Record Office papers HA34 50/21/3.3, Office copy of Will & Probate of Edward Vernon, Nacton, 1757.


Nacton Parish Records.


Kelly’s Directory, 1879.


Everyman's Encyclopaedia.


Manors of Suffolk by Copinger, vol. III.

Roy Gooding, Tina Hammond