Tribute to Commander Michael Saunders Watson, the sailor turned farmer who inherited Rockingham Castle

He inherited the estate in 1971
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Commander Michael Saunders Watson, the long-time owner of Rockingham Castle, has died a month after his 88th birthday.

Having spent his childhood at Rockingham Castle during the Second World War, along with numerous siblings, cousins and family friends, he pursued a career in the Royal Navy.

And for someone who lived in one of the counties furthest from the sea, he remained passionate about all things nautical.

Commander Saunders WatsonCommander Saunders Watson
Commander Saunders Watson

Son James Saunders Watson, paying tribute to his father, said: “An obvious leader with a very sharp mind, he was highly effective at getting to the root of the issue and finding a way forward.

"He had a very keen sense of humour and was a wonderful raconteur and storyteller. Only a few years ago, when suffering from late-stage Parkinson’s, he delighted his grandchildren in re-enacting the ‘Death of Nelson’, playing the roles of Captain Hardy and the Admiral on his deathbed.

"In his retirement he enjoyed painting watercolours and fishing, but it was his love of the sea that meant so much to him and he was never happier than when sailing on the west coast of Scotland.”

His career took him all over the world including commanding HMS Messina at the nuclear test on Christmas Island in the 1950s, service at the Suez Canal in 1956, at Britannia Royal Naval College and two years in the Bermuda as Senior Staff Officer to Commodore in charge of the West Indies.

Commander Michael Saunders WatsonCommander Michael Saunders Watson
Commander Michael Saunders Watson

In 1971 he inherited Rockingham Castle from his uncle, Sir Michael Culme-Seymour, and moved there with wife Georgina and their three children.

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Tributes paid to Georgina Saunders Watson who helped transform Rockingham Castle

The couple immediately devoted themselves to turning the castle into a successful visitor attraction and reinvigorating and expanding the farming operation.

Taxation threats to historic houses in private ownership led to the Commander lobbying against Dennis Healey’s wealth taxes in 1974. He managed to change public perception of the importance of preserving heritage and the need for public access.

Mrs Georgina Saunders Watson and Commander Saunders Watson in Stoke AlbanyMrs Georgina Saunders Watson and Commander Saunders Watson in Stoke Albany
Mrs Georgina Saunders Watson and Commander Saunders Watson in Stoke Albany

The fight led to him becoming a founder member of the Historic Houses Association and served as their president for six years between 1982 and 1988.

Passionate about heritage, he was chair of the National Curriculum History Working Group in 1988. In 1990 he became chairman of the British Library, overseeing the move into the new building at St Pancras. He was also involved in other national organisations including being a trustee of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Kew Gardens.

Commander Saunders Watson, who died on November 8, had a long association with Northamptonshire.

James Saunders Watson said: “He was always passionately attached to Northamptonshire and became involved with a wide variety of local organisations.

Commander Saunders Watson when chairman of The British LibraryCommander Saunders Watson when chairman of The British Library
Commander Saunders Watson when chairman of The British Library

"He had a long involvement with the Northamptonshire Association of Youth Clubs, serving as both chairman and subsequently president for over 30 years. "When Corby Steel Works closed in 1979 he was invited to chair the Community Action Group that brought all interested parties together to seek ways to alleviate the impending crisis for the town. Between 1993 and 1999 he was the chairman of Kettering Hospital NHS Trust.”

His funeral service will take place on Friday, December 9, at St Leonard's, Rockingham at 2pm. No flowers but donations if desired to NAYC and Parkinson's UK. Enquiries to J Stamp & Sons on 01858 462524.

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