John William Fortescue

The Hon. John Fortescue, later to become Sir John, was born in Madeira in 1859.  He was the fifth son of Hugh, third Earl Fortescue, by his wife, Georgiana.  John was brought up at Castle Hill, the family seat at Filleigh.  The family estate included properties throughout the West Country, including much on Exmoor, and during John's lifetime the estate was greatly extended on Exmoor.  He developed a great love of country life and was a keen walker, naturalist and stag hunter.  He was educated at Harrow under H. M. Butler, to whose love of English literature he owed much.  Short sight prevented him from a preferred military career and he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1878, to read law.  Not taking to the legal profession, in 1880 he became private secretary to Sir William Robinson, governor of the Windward Islands.  Two years in the West Indies aroused his interest in their history and connection with the army.

He returned to complete his degree at Cambridge, and then spent four years in New Zealand (1886-1890) as private secretary to the governor, Sir William Jervois, during which he began writing and had several articles accepted byMacmillan's Magazine.  Many of his articles were on military history and Macmillans commissioned him to write a history of the British army.  He was best known for this mammoth lifetime work published in thirteen volumes between 1899 and 1930.  He was also known for a biography of Wellington, published in 1925.  He would not have earned enough to complete his history had not King Edward VII in 1905 appointed him librarian at Windsor Castle.  This post, which he held until 1926, involved the rearrangement and care of the books, pictures and other collections.  As King's librarian he accompanied the King and Queen to India in 1911 for the coronation durbar, of which he wrote the official account.

John lived in London and was married in 1914 to Winifred Beech, of Barlavington, West Sussex, but they did not have children.  John always loved Exmoor and often stayed at Simonsbath Lodge (now Simonsbath House Hotel).  He publishedRecords of Stag Hunting on Exmoor.  This was followed by a children's book, The Story of a Red-Deer, written for a nine-year-old nephew and published in 1897. He also wrote My Native Devon, published in 1925, and the introduction to Henry Williamson's Tarka the Otter

He was appointed C.V.0. in 1917 and K.C.V.0. in 1926.  He was elected an honorary fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1920, received honorary degrees from the universities of Oxford and Edinburgh, and was a popular lecturer. John died in 1933 at Cannes. Winifred was also something of a writer and her Perfume from Provence containing sketches of Provencal life was published in 1935.  She encouraged the posthumous publication of some of John's books.  At her suggestion a memorial cairn was built by John's family above Drybridge Combe on the Simonsbath to South Molton road and his ashes were scattered on nearby Five Barrows.  The cairn and surrounding land are now property of the Exmoor National Park Authority, who restored the cairn in 2001.  The core of the cairn had been washed out over the years and the stones were starting to become unstable and were being prised apart by roots.