Sir Simon Towneley, musicologist, bibliophile and popular landowner from a Lancashire Catholic recusant family – obituary

Sir Simon Towneley with the late Queen
Sir Simon Towneley with the late Queen

Sir Simon Towneley, who has died aged 100, was a Lancashire landowner of recusant Catholic descent and a long-serving lord lieutenant of the county. He was also a distinguished musicologist – and the elder brother of the journalist Sir Peregrine Worsthorne.

The Towneley family has held estates near Burnley since the early 13th century – and as recusants who gave shelter to Catholic priests were condemned as a family of “unusual perversity” by Lord Burleigh in the reign of Elizabeth I. Seated in the part-medieval stronghold of Towneley Hall, they were also Royalists and supporters of the Jacobite cause.

Simon Towneley was a gentleman-scholar of great charm, intellectual energy and cultural breadth, devoted to the best interests of his land, tenants, county and church. He was also, as it happened, more Belgian than English by birth. His father was Col Alexander “Lexie” Koch de Gooreynd, a banker of Belgian origins who had served in the Irish Guards in the first world war, and his maternal grandfather was Col Robert Reyntiens, ADC to King Leopold II.

The last male Towneley heir having expired in 1877, it was through Simon’s maternal grandmother – born Lady Alice Bertie, daughter of the 7th Earl of Abingdon and grand-daughter of Col Charles Towneley (1803-1876) – that the Towneley inheritance descended to Simon by a winding path worthy of a Victorian novel.

Sir Simon Townley in his garden
Sir Simon Townley in his garden

These complexities were reflected in his changing surname. He was born Simon Peter Edmund Cosmo William Koch de Gooreynd on December 14 1921 at his parents’ house in Belgrave Square, where the Polish maestro Paderewski was giving a piano recital at the time and Simon’s mother Priscilla was asked to give birth as quietly as she could.

In 1923, his father changed the family name to Worsthorne (after the Towneley estate village) when he stood unsuccessfully for parliament. Simon’s younger brother Peregrine, the future editor of The Sunday Telegraph, was born in that year and remained Worsthorne all his life (he died in 2020), though their father in due course reverted to Koch de Gooreynd.

After her marriage to Lexie ended in divorce, Priscilla – later a London county councillor and mental health activist – was remarried in 1933 to the formidable Montagu Norman, governor of the Bank of England throughout the interwar period, who took little interest in his stepsons. The boys spent many school holidays with their grandmother Lady Alice at Dyneley, a Victorian mansion which became the main house of the Lancashire estate after Towneley Hall was sold to Burnley corporation.

When it was certain that Simon would in due course inherit, he hyphenated himself as Towneley-Worsthorne – finally simplified by royal licence in 1955, the year of his marriage, to Towneley.

Simon was educated at Stowe, where he flourished as a choral scholar and cellist, and went up to Worcester College, Oxford, to read Music before being commissioned in 1942 as a second lieutenant in the KRRC.

Captured in early 1944 after crossing the swollen Garigliano river in central Italy and finding himself stranded on the wrong side – he could hear a bugler calling his platoon back, to no avail – he served out the war in a PoW camp.

Released and demobbed, he returned to Worcester College and in 1949 he was appointed a lecturer in the history of music. In 1954 he published Venetian Opera in the Seventeenth Century, a pioneering work that is still consulted by today’s musicologists – and has been cited as an inspiration for a project to restore Venice’s Teatro San Cassiano, the world’s first public opera theatre dating from 1637.

By 1954 Towneley had also come into his landed inheritance and the following year he resigned from Oxford to take up his life’s work as steward of an estate consisting largely of poor hill farms overlooking industrial Burnley – a view he liked to compare romantically to the Bay of Naples.

He and his wife Mary made Dyneley a lively family home, adding an oratory where Mass was said on Sundays by a Jesuit priest from Stonyhurst in pre-Reformation vestments.

Sir Simon Towneley in his library
Sir Simon Towneley in his library

Driven by duty, Towneley was successively a Lancashire county councillor, deputy lieutenant and high sheriff before serving as lord lieutenant from 1976 to 1996. He was also honorary colonel of the Duke of Lancaster’s Own Yeomanry and a council member of the Duchy of Lancaster. He was appointed KCVO in 1994.

Reflecting his wide-ranging cultural enthusiasms, he was a trustee of the British Museum and the Historic Churches Preservation Trust, chairman of Northern Ballet Theatre and a director of Granada Television. He was a member of the council of Manchester University and a governor and Companion of the Royal Northern College of Music.

It was at the RNCM in his mid-nineties that he fainted during a lengthy degree ceremony and was dramatically carried out of the hall. Fears were allayed later in the day by a report from Dyneley that he was “in bed with a whisky and a history of the Papacy”.

Good wine and rich food counted among Towneley’s pleasures but he was happiest playing his cello, reading in his library or weeding the rose beds of the lovely garden he created at Dyneley. Another passion was dendrology, both at home and in support of tree-planting projects across the county. He was also an energetic traveller, preferably by train, with a nose for excellent little restaurants in Paris and Venice.

As a member of the Roxburghe Club – the elite gathering of bibliophiles who produce beautiful books for presentation to each other – he published a facsimile of the 16th Century Towneley Lectionary, illuminated for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese by Giulio Clovio and once owned by a Towneley ancestor. He also gave a copy to the Vatican library.

Sprightly and undimmed in old age, Towneley habitually deflected compliments on his longevity – declaring himself lucky to have survived the war – and disliked being asked about his health: “Why do people always say ‘How are you?’ he complained. “What’s wrong with ‘How d’you do?’ ”

He married, in 1955, his second cousin Mary – a daughter of Cuthbert Fitzherbert, vice chairman of Barclays Bank, and a noted equestrian who is commemorated by a 40-mile Pennine bridleway named (at the suggestion of the Princess Royal) the Mary Towneley Loop.

Mary died in 2001; Sir Simon is survived by their six daughters and a son. The third daughter is the author K M Grant and the fifth, Cosima, is the current mayor of Burnley.

His son Peregrine’s eulogy for the funeral Mass ended: “He died fortified by the rites of the Holy Church, and a partridge and a bottle of champagne.”

Sir Simon Towneley, born December 14 1921, died November 11 2022