Mr John Fothergill

John Fothergill, from the self-portrait hanging in The Three Swans, Market Harborough. By tradition it is never moved, even for redecoration.[1]
John Rowland Fothergill, 47, (1876-1957) “Oxford aesthete, friend of Evelyn Waugh”, was the owner of three inns in his career: The Spread Eagle at Thame, (1922-31); The Royal Ascot Hotel, (1932-33); and The Three Swans in Market Harborough (1934-54). At the time of the dinner he was trying to make a success of his new venture, the Royal Ascot Hotel, after having to sell up The Spread Eagle in 1931. It didn’t prove successful but he ought to have been buoyed by the success of the book which made his name, “An Innkeeper’s Diary”, published in 1931. He went on to run his third inn for 20 years and published three more books. Like Marcel Boulestin he supported his loss making hostelries through his pen.[2] [3] [4] He recounts in his memoirs, when getting the Royal Ascot set up, a story which may well have been straight from a conversation at the Rembrandt: Lady Rhondda, who gets sweeter and more efficient than ever asked me what was happening here – had I materials yet for a new Diary? I told her that I had nothing but little grouses and that in the first one I’d groused enough. I said I’d like to live up to my theory of hotelkeeper as lover, but how can you love with so much work to do? I told her how I was trying to save the faces of my colleagues who bought this old derelict place and that we ought to have closed and remade it first instead of trying to hide the skeleton, nay, the cemetery in the cupboard”.[5]


Given there is a link between the Fothergills and the Lysaghts I would sit John Fothergill at least with William Lysaght. It is very likely that John is the organiser of this table: we can see a link between him and all the others and it is logical on the tables that have guests that the person who is filling the place is the one who has been “assigned” a guest – as the host/convenor they hadn’t quite finished the task by the time the Guest List went to press. And they may not have filled it either. I wonder how he got on with Marcel Boulestin: he certainly recognised their different offerings as he noted in his 1931 memoir when considering how to meet client expectations: “Meals fail at times from beginning to end and sometimes the super-smart come from London expecting Boulestin”.[6] He recalls that anecdote in the chapter on 1926 in his published Diary, the year Marcel was moving from his first restaurant to the second – but Boulestin had established his reputation by then, and we don’t know how rigorous Fothergill was on dates when recounting his diary stories.


He may well have enjoyed getting away from his current venture, the Royal Ascot Hotel, for an evening and enjoy the company of fellow restaurateurs and have a chance to regale them with his innkeeper tales, and feel good about being a successful author in a room full of literati. Will he want to talk about the elephants visiting his new venture just before Christmas? He has been running an classified advertisement for the Royal Ascot in Lady Rhondda’s paper for most of the year, telling readers to mention Time and Tide to get a good deal. The advertisements stopped a fortnight before the dinner.


John was born on 27th February 1876 at Kennington Hall, East Ashford, Kent, to Isabel Eliza Crawshay, born in Pontypridd, 1845 – 1876 (she died less than a week after his birth, her eighth child) and George Fothergill, Iron master and JP, and strict with it, born in Caerleon, Monmouthshire, (George’s father Richard was also a country magistrate, in Westmoreland).[7]

Whilst the Fothergills were long-established Lake District gentry, claiming Norman descent, the more relevant Fothergill family was the South Wales branch of iron industrialists. John’s uncle, Richard Fothergill, his father’s eldest brother, managed an iron and steel business but which ultimately failed when the Bessemer steel process revolutionised the business. John Rowland Fothergill (the Rowland being his great-grandmother’s maiden name), was also a descendant of a major competitor’s business, that of the Crawshays related to his mother. Isabel Eliza’s father, Francis Crawshay, was the half-brother of Robert Thomson Crawshay, owner of the Cyfartha Iron business. But the Crawshay business in 1902 was finally absorbed by GKN – who as we will see below, also absorbed fellow table guest William Lysaght’s firm. And GKN at the time of the dinner still had Lady Rhondda on its board, as well as Thomas Callaghan. So our aesthetic chef, a minor scion of two iron businesses that ultimately failed, may have found something in common with the industrialist on the table, who’s own firm, like that of John’s mother’s family, was absorbed by GKN, part of the Rhondda industrial net. John Fothergilll devotes seven pages of his memoirs to the Crawshays, so was clearly very conscious of the “presence” in his background and it is likely to be strong factor in him and Lysaght being on the same table. He does also mention a Lysaght coming to the Spreadeagle in 1929.[8]

John’s father George remarried twice, producing seven further half siblings for John. George’s Grade 2 home, Kennington Hall, we might note with a little irony, is a now a wedding venue.

John was educated at Old College, Windermere, then Bath College (only founded in 1892), St. John’s, Oxford (for one term from 1895 having failed the preliminary examinations), and after a few years drifting in Oxford, went to Leipzig and the Slade School of Art (1905 -6). He was acquainted with Oscar Wilde, before and after the trial, and was torn between homosexual and heterosexual attachments, having an affair with a rich American heiress, and a short marriage to Elsie Doris Gillian Herring which ended in divorce in 1921. Elsie died in Rome in 1947.

His second and long lasting marriage was to Kate Headley Kirby, (1889 – 1961) daughter of a cornbroker and a Scottish mother. John and Kate married in Kensington in 1922 and had two sons, John Michael (1919–2009) – born before the divorce, and Rowland Anthony Crawshay (1923 – 1998).

Kate Headley Kirby, John’s second wife[9]
John Michael
John Michael Fothergill, John’s eldest son[10]

Rowland Anthony
Rowland Anthony Crawshay Fothergill, John’s second son[11]
John has been described as the first celebrity chef and his writings cemented his fame, in particular through his first book An Innkeeper’s Diary, published in 1931 by Chatto and Windus, the year after the dinner. The book was based on The Spread Eagle, (or his usage Spreadeagle) Thame (where his second son was born), and where he made his reputation, attracting the literati from Oxford. Though it was the place to dine as a business it didn’t work given the high standards he set, and he sold up in 1931. Just before Christmas, in between selling one inn and setting up at another, just before Christmas of 1932 he was seeking a little help from some rather large friends to create a “Stonehenge” feature for the tea garden at his Royal Ascot Hotel:

We have a rockery in our garden
mine host.png
Mine host I presume?

The elephant is not quite in the room[12]
So as he sat down to dine at the Rembrandt he may have been wondering if he had done the right thing.

John F.jpg
John Rowland Fothergill in 1939, by Howard Coster, © National Portrait Gallery, London[13]


Around October 1933 his Ascot flutter had failed him, or as he phrased it proved “financially unromantic”. The story got as far as the Yorkshire Post, albeit in the London Notes and Comment column:

Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 24th October 1933

London Notes and Comment

Breeches—A Bar to Business?

I see that John Fothergill the Innkeeper is minus an Inn. From time to time I have .motored out to Thame, near Oxford, there—at the Spread Eagle—to be received by slightly overwhelming figure in kneebreeches and loose tie. This was Mr. Fothergill, author of “An Innkeeper’s Diary “; and the courtesies that we exchanged were nearly as overwhelming as the knee-breeches one was made welcome, but, knowing that Mr. Fothergill sought Beauty in the conduct of his house, one had a vague fear that one was not nearly beautiful enough for Mr. Fothergill. It is, indeed, said that he charged “face-money” to those whose looks he disliked—an item which, by some curious chance, I never found upon my bill, however. Then he left Thame and went to the Royal Ascot Hotel, hoping again for all things bright and beautiful. But the Royal Ascot, like the Spread Eagle, proved in his own words, to be “financially unromantic,” and he has now disposed of the Royal Ascot, though remaining there a guest for few days while he looks round. Somehow I think it has been the knee-breeches. He is looking for hotel In Bournemouth or possibly London, and I am sure he will do much better in plain trousers.[14]

He didn’t go to Bournemouth – where incidentally the previous patron on the Royal Ascot had gone, but went north to Market Harborough which is where he remained for the next twenty years, 1934 to 1954, running The Three Swans.[15] He wrote three other books: Confessions of an Innkeeper, (1938); John Fothergill’s Cookery Book, (1943) and a memoir, The Three Inns, in 1949. In 1981 Robert Hardy played him in a BBC documentary on his life.[16] It would be good to get a clip!

He discussed the challenges of running hotels with another of our dinner guests: “I was telling Rebecca West how an Hotel bedroom, however unhotel-like, could never, as you entered it, look like a private house bedroom. Simply because it doesn’t smell of apples or have a dirty sponge in the wash-basin and an old tooth-brush. ‘I know,’ she answered. ‘It hasn’t that nice septic look’ And yet I don’t see why one shouldn’t have these things made of papier mâché and a sort of layette of old shoes and pyjamas to put around the room to create an atmosphere of home from home, or hell from hell as the case might be”.[17]

John 20s.jpg
John in the 1920s

By all reports he was a snob, and would refuse to serve those who he felt should not be in his restaurant. He cared passionately about food and the ingredients and was described by H.G. Wells as “A fantastic innkeeper… dressed in a suit of bottle-green cloth, with brass buttons and buckled shoes”. At the time someone of his background was not seen to be innkeeper material but with his wife’s help he made innkeeping smart. His views on snobbery he related in his memoirs in connection with his dinner host, Lady Rhondda, under the heading of “True Snobbery”. This would have been in 1931, after publishing An Innkeeper’s Diary, before he closed the Spreadeagle and before the dinner:

I thanked Lady Rhondda at luncheon for Time and Tide’s review of my Diary. She said she saw it after it was published and regretted it. I didn’t ask her why – it called me a snob and made me beautifully content with myself and everything about me, but it was well written and had no malice. Well, if a snob, what better job to be one in than here? What better than to shove people like Lady Rhondda and her friend Mrs Maudsley into one’s own room and give them sweets and know a little about the people one’s heard a lot of. This multiple company director with her soft dimpling face of infinite kindness – is it for their own worth that one likes such people and the juicy fun of being able to put real flesh and colour on to one’s picture of them or is it only as consolation from colds and nasty people?”.[18]

In an earlier passage he wasn’t complimentary about the Bloomsbury set, “What bad manners Bloomsbury have!… but for the sake of a few….. I forgive them”. All good stuff.[19] …P80. We leave the short anecdotes he tells of dinner guest St John Ervine for the latter’s pages.

John died at 81, when at 32 Lancaster Road, Rugby on 26th August 1957, his probate to his second son Rowland Anthony Crawshay Fothergill, research engineer, and a solicitor.


[1] Self-Portrait hanging in The Three Swans, Will Hales, The Three Swans, Market Harborough, a Brief History.

[2] Online Book Review of My Three Inns: The Spreadeagle, the Royal Hotel, the Three Swans, John Fothergill, Westholme Publishing,+-8 Sep 2013

[3] John Rowland Fothergill, Wikisource 

[4] John Burnett, England Eats Out: A Social History of Eating Out in England from 1830 to the Present, Routledge, 2016

[5] John Fothergill, My Three Inns, Chatto and Windus, 1949, page 100

[6] John Fothergill, An Innkeeper’s Diary, first published 1931, Folio Society edition chapter on 1926, page 52.

[7] The ODNB biography suggests John had one brother and two sisters, and that his father had just one son by a second marriage but my own research, so far, suggests John had at least one brother and three sisters and four half siblings and from a third marriage two half-brothers. An Ancestry family tree run by a Fothergill also shows John as the youngest of 7 siblings (5 sisters, 1 brother), with 3 half-brothers and 1 half-sister by his father’s second marriage, and 2 half-brothers by his father’s third marriage ; in total 13 siblings/half-sibling. Big lunch at the Inn perhaps?

[8] John Fothergill, An Innkeeper’s Diary, first published 1931, Folio Society edition chapter on 1929 page 240

[9] Source Ancestry, Piers Fothergill tree, the Fothergills of Lowbridge

[10] Source Ancestry, Piers Fothergill tree, the Fothergills of Lowbridge

[11] Source Ancestry, Piers Fothergill tree, the Fothergills of Lowbridge

[12] The Sketch, 21.12.1932 ©Illustrated London News Group/Mary Evans

[13] John Rowland Fothergill by Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1939, NPG x12392 © National Portrait Gallery, London

[14] Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 24.10.1933 page 8

[15] The Three Swans History website uploaded 4.2.2019 

[16] Fothergill, BBC 1981 

[17] John Fothergill, My Three Inns, Chatto and Windus, 1949 page 106

[18] John Fothergill, My Three Inns, Chatto and Windus, 1949 page 80. I’m not sure who Mrs Maudsley was- an invented name or real person? It appears in the final chapter about the Spreadeagle in The Three Inns, but not of course in An Innkeeper’s Diary being after its publication.
[19] John Fothergill, My Three Inns, Chatto and Windus, 1949 page 37

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