Joseph In England
Joseph Shipley was born in the family home, the youngest of 12, within sight of the family’s flour mills on the Brandywine River. Instead of joining his father’s milling business, at 21-years of age Joseph went to work in the big city, Philadelphia, and in counting house.
In 1819, Joseph joined a firm dealing in the import-export-business with England. Four years later he sailed to that country to run the firm’s Liverpool office. Eventually he became a partner after skillfully saving the company during the Panic of 1837.
It was then, at the height of his career, that Joseph rented Wyncote, a stylish suburban villa on the outskirts of Liverpool.
Joseph lived comfortably, and ate and drank well, as might be expected of a member of the wealthy merchant class in early Victorian England. This led to often debilitating gout. By the time he reached his early fifties, Joseph’s condition had worsened, and he realized that retirement was inevitable. He planned to return to America to be close to his family.
He visited Wilmington and toured through the Brandywine Hundred, seeking possible building sites. But for Joseph, nothing else compared to Levi Weldin’s farm with its picturesque cliffs, streams, chestnuts trees and a view of the Delaware River.
After he returned to England, Joseph enlisted his nephew to negotiate the purchase of a series of farms. With an eye on the Weldin land he instructed his nephew to make an offer, but Weldin saw an anxious buyer with a fat pocketbook and held out for more money. Sarah Shipley Bringhurst, Shipley’s niece, told her uncle that Weldin was expecting an outlandish amount. In the end, they compromised and the land was Joseph’s.
While still in England, Joseph spent much of his free time planning his new estate. He could hardly wait to begin and began ordering fruit trees.
Joseph had spent only five years at Wyncote before retiring to America, but he liked his English house so much that he felt he could not do without it in America. So he hired Wyncote’s architect, George Williams, to design a strikingly similar Rural Gothic Revival house for him in Delaware.
Construction of the Rockwood mansion, stables, coach house and kitchen garden began late in 1851 when Joseph returned to Wilmington. The twenty-room mansion contained sumptuous English Victorian interiors with rich fabrics, carpets and every manner of decorative accessory. Rather than the cacophony of patterns and colors typical of American interiors at the time, Joseph’s rooms displayed the more refined English taste. It was a bit of Victorian England on American soil. For instance, the drawing room had plain walls painted in a dusty sage-green rather than patterned wallpaper.
Everything about the property followed established English taste. Joseph brought his English furniture to America. He also brought his English servants . He packed up his favorite housekeeper, gardener (he built him his own cottage) and even his favorite dog and horse. Even his favorite plants were uprooted to America.
It was if the estate had been created in England and shipped complete to Wilmington (he even brought English chickens). Only the addition of the piazza stood out as an American touch, necessary to accommodate the hot summers in Delaware.
Joseph wanted a modern estate and insisted Williams include the latest technical devices in his home, including central heating, a bathroom, and boilers for the conservatory and hothouse.
Shipley enjoyed his new home and garden until his death in 1867. He left the bulk of his estate to his sisters Sarah and Hannah. They continued to live in the old family home in Wilmington and only used Rockwood as a summer retreat. They made few, if any, changes.
Salisbury, the gardener, and his family continued to work for the Shipleys as did Joseph’s coachman and housekeeper. The property remained the same as if Joseph was still alive but a visitor recorded in her 1871 diary that “the place had lost its charm, and its outside beauty no longer impressed you as it used to. It is not very well kept up.”
At the auction in 1892 that settled Hannah Shipley’s estate, Sarah Shipley Bringhurst, the niece who encouraged Joseph to buy the property forty years earlier, purchased Rockwood. She then gave the house and its contents to her son, Edward Bringhurst, Jr. The property remained with the Bringhursts until 1972 when it was donated as a public park and museum.
Joseph and several other family members have died at Rockwood over the years. Rockwood holds ghosts tours if you’d like to see for yourself. People claim to have seen a man having tea and Mary Bringhurst (who lived there until she was 100) is the most often sighted. Apparently she’s quite cranky.
I’ve only been on a regular house tour and while there were certainly no ghosts around I wish I had been allowed to take photos upstairs, it’s quite a strange mix of small rooms and narrow passageways and you can understand why someone might be a little spooked! You can see some of the inside in the first 15 minutes or so of this video, just pay attention to the tour guide if you wish.
Some historical photos:
Sources: This post was adapted from the article “Rockwood: Joseph Shipley’s English Estate in Brandywine Hundred” by Timothy J. Mullin from Delaware History, Volume 31-31, 2005-09.*, The Rockwood Archives
*Thank you to the Delaware Law School Law Library for allowing me use of their Special Collections local history materials.