Frances Stackhouse Acton

Frances Stackhouse Acton (née Knight; 7 July 1794 – 24 January 1881), known as Fanny, was a British botanist, archaeologist, writer and artist. Her father was noted botanist, Thomas Andrew Knight, who encouraged her education and included her in his experiments. She married an older land owner and, as they had no children, when he died she pursued her own interests, which included archaeology and architecture. She excavated a Roman villa, built a number of buildings and saved others in need of repair. She was keen on painting buildings and eventually went on to publish a charitable book The Castles & Old Mansions of Shropshire.

Early life[]

Acton Scott Hall, where Frances Stackhouse Acton spent the majority of her life

Stackhouse Acton was born Frances Knight, better known as Fanny,[1][2] on 7 July 1794 in Elton Hall near Elton, Herefordshire. Her parents were Thomas Andrew Knight, a noted botanist, and his wife Frances Knight, whose family owned the Elton estate. She was the eldest daughter of the family, with two sisters, Elizabeth and Charlotte Knight, along with a brother, Thomas. Around 1808, her family moved to Downton Castle in Herefordshire, which had been built by her great-grandfather, Richard and was owned by her uncle Richard Payne Knight.[3] Her father strongly encouraged her and her siblings' education, and she is quoted as remembering "the hours spent with him in his study, or in his garden, as amongst the happiest recollections".[4]

In January 1812 when she was 18, she married the 43-year-old Thomas Pendarves Stackhouse in Old Downton Church in Downton.[2][5] The couple moved into Acton Scott Hall, which was owned by Stackhouse's mother,[6] though it was in a poor condition.[7] Thomas Stackhouse inherited Acton Scott Hall from his mother when she died in 1834, and the couple became Mr. and Mrs. Stackhouse Acton. Her husband died the following year and as the couple had no children, Stackhouse Acton inherited his estate.[6]


Frances Stackhouse Acton's husband died when she was just 40 years old. She had no children, and was free to follow her interests.[8] These included diverse memberships in societies, such as archery[9] or anti-vivisection[10] or making donations of Silurian rocks to the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall.[11]


Stackhouse Acton was encouraged into botany by her father, who included her in his horticultural experiments in the grounds Downton Castle.[3] She illustrated two of her fathers publications including three illustrations in Pomona Herefordiensis[12] and, seventy years later, jointly contributed to apple drawings in Herefordshire Pomona.[13][14] She was regarded to be an "accomplished botanist and botanical artist", who influenced her cousins Emily and Charlotte to paint botanical subjects.[15]


A Roman villa was discovered in the grounds of Acton Scott Hall. In 1844, Stackhouse Acton excavated the villa, along with numerous other Roman remains, writing about the project in detail to the Dean of Hereford.[16] The building appeared to be a 31 metres long and 12.5 metres wide[17] aisled barn which was converted into a house, including rooms heated by a hypocaust, probably a bath house.[18] Stackhouse Acton drew up plans of the villa which included details of the hypocaust heating system.[19] Later, she went on to reconstruct part the villa's hypocaust system in a nearby quarry.[6] A 2009 investigation found evidence of the villa, but not in the precise location that Stackhouse Acton had described.[17]


Stackhouse Acton's primary interest lay in buildings. She would frequently paint historical buildings such as abbeys and stately homes, often leaving the people or animals in the image unfinished.[20] She repaired a significant number of cottages on her estate and built a school. She also created a secret garden in the quarry where she had built the hypocaust system.[21] Near to the secret garden, she built a Swiss-style chalet.[22] Stackhouse Acton also spent some time updating Acton Scott Hall, replacing and extending windows, as well as bringing in some 17th-century woodwork.[23]

She took a particular interest in Stokesay Castle, which had fallen into disrepair by the first half of the 19th century. In 1853 she convinced the owner, William Craven, to pay to restore it under her supervision.[24][25] The cost was over £100[26] (worth approximately £70,980 in 2015).[note 1] Although she managed to "clear out and secure" the castle, she did not succeed in countering the dilapidation and eventually the castle was sold.[25]


When her father died, his family had many requests to publish his complete works.[27] Stackhouse Acton compiled a collection of his papers and wrote a short biography in "Sketch of his life" in the introduction.[4] Stackhouse Acton also authored a reference work, The Castles & Old Mansions of Shropshire, with the proceeds being donated to the Royal Salop Infirmary and the Eye and Ear Dispensary.[28] The book went on to be regarded as "very valuable" to the Shropshire Archaeological and Natural History Society.[29]


Frances Stackhouse Acton died on 24 January 1881 in Acton Scott at the age of 86. Her obituary in The Gardeners' Chronicle noted that she had "wide knowledge of geological, botanical, horticultural and antiquarian lore"[4]


  1. ^ Comparing average earnings on a project between 1853 and 2015, £100 is valued at approximately £70,980 by


  1. ^ "Garden History". Garden History Society. 32–33: 306. 2004. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  2. ^ a b Ionides, Julia L.; Howell, Peter G. (2006). The old houses of Shropshire in the 19th century : the watercolour albums of Frances Stackhouse Acton. Ludlow: Dog Rose. p. 19. ISBN 978-0952836742.
  3. ^ a b "Knight, Thomas Andrew (1759–1838), horticulturist and plant physiologist". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/15737. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ a b c Geography and Enlightenment (Illustrated ed.). University of Chicago Press. 1999. pp. 359–360. ISBN 9780226487212.
  5. ^ Burke, Bernard (1871). A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain & Ireland (5 ed.). Harrison. p. 741.
  6. ^ a b c Baggs, A. P.; Baugh, G. C.; Cox, D. C.; McFall, Jessie; Stamper, P. A. (1998). "Acton Scott". A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 10. London: Victoria County History. pp. 9–22. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  7. ^ "The small paned leaded windows with no shutters let in wind and rain so that the candles blew out unless protected by a screen. The drawing room carpet was often soaked with the rain that beat in during the night. In winter the only habitable room was the Smoking Room" - Frances Stackhouse Acton describing the Acton Scott Hall. "Acton Scott Hall: An architectural history". Discover Shropshire. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  8. ^ Davies, Diane (February 2011). "EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY" (PDF). Friends Nation Museum Wales (Friends Newsletter & Magazine): 17. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  9. ^ "The Worcestershire Archery Society". Berrow's Worcester Journal. 22 August 1857. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  10. ^ "London Anti-vivisection society". The Times. 11 October 1880. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  11. ^ "Royal Geological Society of Cornwall". The Cornwall Royal Gazette, Falmouth Packet and Plymouth Journal. 20 October 1837. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  12. ^ "Pomona Herefordiensis". Hertfordshire Council. 10 January 2011. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  13. ^ "Herefordshire Pomona: Register of Plates" (PDF). Journal of Horticulture. 1876. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  14. ^ Elliot, Brent, ed. (October 2010). "Occasional Papers: Robert Hogg's Fruit Manual: 150th anniversary issue". The RHS Lindley Library. 4: 41–43.
  15. ^ Evans, Clifford (2008). "A botanist who painted: Emily Stackhouse (1811–1870)". A Passion for Nature: 19th-century Naturalism in the Circle of Charles Alexander Johns. Hypatia Publications. p. 175. ISBN 9781872229584.
  16. ^ Acton, Frances Stackhouse (2012). "Description of a Roman Villa discovered at Acton Scott, near Church Stretton, in Shropshire, in 1817; with an account of further researches made in July, 1844: Communicated in a Letter from Mrs. Frances Stackhouse Acton to the Very Reverend the Dean of Hereford". Archaeologia. 31: 339–345. doi:10.1017/S0261340900012480.
  17. ^ a b Hannaford, H. R. (December 2010). Second interim report on investigations at the Acton Scott Roman Villa, Acton Scott, Shropshire (PDF). Acton Scott Heritage Project. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  18. ^ Historic England. "Monument No. 108871". PastScape. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  19. ^ "Acton Scott Roman Villa plan (image)". Shropshire Council. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  20. ^ "Frances Stackhouse Acton". Discover Shropshire. Shropshire Council. Retrieved 1 May 2014.
  21. ^ "Parish History". Acton Scott. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  22. ^ "Acton Scott Hall, Acton Scott, Shropshire, England". Parks & Gardens. 11 July 2008. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  23. ^ Newman, John (2006). "Acton Scott". Pevsner Architectural Guides: The Buildings of England Pevsner architectural guides The buildings of England (Illustrated ed.). Yale University Press. pp. 93–96. ISBN 9780300120837.
  24. ^ Summerson, Henry (2012), Stokesay Castle (Revised ed.), London, UK: English Heritage, p. 38, ISBN 978-1-84802-016-0
  25. ^ a b "Stokesay Castle". Historic England. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  26. ^ "History of Stokesay Castle". English Heritage.
  27. ^ Stackhouse Acton, Frances (1841). A selection from the physiological and horticultural papers. Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans.
  28. ^ Stackhouse Acton, Frances (1868). The Castles & Old Mansions of Shropshire. Leake & Evans. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  29. ^ "Archaeology in Shropshire". The Morning Post. London, England. 2 September 1880. p. 6. Retrieved 2 January 2016.

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