The National Trust’s Mottisfont Abbey is today best known for its late 20th century rose gardens, created by the late Graham Stuart Thomas within the walls of the former kitchen gardens. Back in the 1890s the garden buildings included an extensive aviary, home to what was then said to be England’s largest collection of eagles and other raptors. The birds belonged to Daniel and Richard Meinertzhagen, the eldest sons of the family then in residence at the Abbey.
The boys’ father, also called Daniel, was the senior partner in the Anglo-German merchant bank, Frederick Huth and Co. His wife, Georgina, was one of ten sisters, including the academic and socialist, Beatrice Webb. In 1885 the couple leased the estate from its eccentric owner, Mrs Vaudrey Barker Mill. By 1900 they were gone, but the large family of 6 girls and 4 boys spent their formative years there and Richard, in particular, felt a lifelong connection with the house.
Daniel and Richard’s interest in all things ornithological was fostered by their uncle Frederick, who encouraged them to hunt wild birds and taught them the art of taxidermy. The boys started their own collection of specimens, their father’s gamekeeper keeping up a ready supply of wild birds upon which they could practice. Their interest eventually progressed to living birds, and an aviary was built to house a growing collection of raptors, including 16 eagles. Daniel’s favourite bird was a female white-tailed eagle with a nine foot wingspan. A full time keeper called Adams was employed to look after the birds.
It was said that local people feared for the safety of their pets, their livestock and even their children when the eagles were on the wing. The trout-rich waters of the River Test were a fertile hunting ground for the birds, and one lone fisherman is said to have had the shock of his life when his hooked fish, his line and much of his rod was seized, ‘in a fearful explosion of feathers and talons’(Lord, 1971).
After Oxford, the younger Daniel Meinertzhagen was sent to Germany to improve his German and learn the tricks of the banking trade. Whilst there, he fell ill with acute appendicitis. He died at Bremen on 13 February 1898, aged just 22. Daniel was brought home and buried in the small churchyard at Mottisfont. His death was a severe blow to his parents. For his mother, Georgina, the estate was ever after tainted by the loss of her son. The lease was surrendered within a couple of years and the family moved away.
As a lasting memorial to Daniel a fine stained glass window was commissioned for Mottisfont parish church from James Powell and Sons of Whitefriars. The window occupies a prominent position on the south side of the nave.
The left side contains Daniel’s biblical namesake with a noble but rather benign looking lion. The other figure, St John, is shown with an eagle, as is traditional, an image which also had great personal significance for the Meinertzhagen family. The cusps of both panels contain yet more eagles and owls: Daniel’s birds preserved in perpetuity.
Hampshire Archives and Local Studies holds many records relating to the Mottisfont estate and its inhabitants, from the medieval period to the 20th century (principally Barker Mill, ref 23M58, and Mottisfont Priory and Estate, ref 13M63). For further information on the Meinertzhagen family at Mottisfont see Diary of a Black Sheep, by Richard Meinertzhagen (London, 1964), Duty, Honour, Empire, by John Lord (London, 1971) and The Meinertzhagen Mystery, by Brian Garfield (Washington DC, 2007). All three books are available in the search room at Hampshire Record Office.