At the age of fifty-nine, after forty years of unremitting activity, Scott suddenly found that there was a limit to his physical powers. While inspecting the cathedral at Chester on 19 October 1870, he was struck down with a massive heart attack. He was carried across the Abbey Square to the Deanery where he was attended by Dr Dobie of Chester. Caroline soon arrived to nurse him and nine days later Frater, the Clerk of Works, wrote to Irvine saying that ‘Mr. Scott is getting on very nicely’, and that ‘Mr. John is here with him’. But on 11 November, three weeks after the attack, John Oldrid wrote to Irvine saying that his father was ‘extremely weak and totally unfit for any business’. From then on Scott seems to have made good progress, as on 16 November Caroline discussed Scott’s travelling clothes with Irvine, and on 25 November he returned home by train. He was seen off from Chester Station by the Marquis of Westminster, who was so shocked at Scott’s appearance that he ‘scarcely expected to see him again’. Caroline and Dr Dobie accompanied him all the way back to the Scotts’ new home in Surrey. It reflects Scott’s position in society that William Dobie (1828-1915), a leading physician in Chester, should desert his own patients and accompany him home. The fact that a few days before the journey Scott arranged a loan of £1,500 from his bankers Cocks Biddulph suggests that he wanted to be assured that Dobie would be well rewarded for his efforts.
The Scott’s new home was Rooks Nest, near Godstone, to where they had moved the year before. Writing in March 1872 Scott said that:
After 1869 we fancied that Ham did not suit our Younger boys & tried long to get a nice furnished house else-where: failing vexatiously, at length however we took a gaunt place called Parkhurst high up in Leith Hill While we lingered at home My dear Wife & Dukinfield were simultaneously affected by Scarlet Fever & our stay (when we could so) at Parkhurst was a melancholy & solitary time though in the midst of noble scenery …
Parkhurst is an isolated spot, some six miles south-west of Dorking on the fringe of Abinger Common. It is on the west side of Leith Hill and is hemmed-in by woodland, which in Scott’s day was even more extensive than it is today and, no doubt, contributed to the ‘melancholy’ atmosphere.
The Scotts did not return to Ham, but following a visit to Worthing and Brighton, they decided to rent ‘a charming place’ called Rooks Nest for three years. This is a huge mansion on the lower slopes of the North Downs, on the Pilgrims Way and in the parish of Tandridge. Although he says that it was ‘a Elysium to my dearest wife’, Scott would have liked its association with the medieval trackway, and in 1874 he contributed an article entitled ‘The Pilgrims Way, as it passes through the parishes of Godstone and Tandridge’ to the Surrey Archaeological Society’s Collection. More important is Rooks Nest’s proximity to the railway stations at Godstone and Redhill with good services to central London fourteen miles away. But, as a piece of architecture, it was another strange choice for Scott.
Rooks Nest is a fine Regency house designed around 1818 by John Shaw senior, the father of the architect of Wellington College. It has stuccoed elevations with a low slate roof behind a parapet. The main front is seven bays long and two storeys high, with a central portico. It has none of the simple dignity of the Manor House at Ham but it obviously appealed to Caroline’s taste for grandeur. Scott was now a person of considerable importance and it was appropriate that he should live in a setting that reflected his status. Although it occupied ‘a good and commanding position’, with excellent views to the south, Rooks Nest falls woefully short of the other criteria that Scott says in the Remarks would provide a ‘dignity proportioned to the position of its owner’. Its materials are condemned and it particularly lacks height. However, it is set in 170 acres of parkland with a lake and boathouse. Close to the house were several outbuildings including a gasworks and an icehouse, and attached to the house was the stable block and a big conservatory. Particularly useful to both ailing Scotts would have been the wide south-facing terrace across the front of the house which enabled carriages to be driven up to the front door. Inside there is a magnificent entrance hall, seven reception rooms, thirteen bedrooms and nine staff rooms.
On census night, 2 April 1871, Scott, Caroline, Dukinfield and Alwyne, who was on vacation from Oxford, were in residence, along with ten servants, most of who were locals and probably came with the house. But the senior servant, the thirty-seven year old butler, John Pavings, was a native of Bedford and part of the Scott entourage, as probably was the coachman Charles Barnett, from Kingston, who lived with his wife in the coach house. Among the indoor staff was a forty-two year old nurse. She may have been appointed to nurse Scott, but it is just as likely that she was already looking after Caroline before Scott’s heart attack. Caroline, who ‘had repeatedly been threatened with heart disease’, had another ‘very alarming attack’ in the spring of 1871, at the same time Scott said that he was ‘sufficiently restored to resume my usual engagements’. His preliminary work at Rochester had been progressing for some time before his collapse at Chester and, at his resumption of work he received his formal commission to restore the cathedral. By April he was able to submit his proposals to the Dean and Chapter but he was never the same man again. On 24 February 1872 Caroline died, ‘snatched away from us during sleep!!!’ Scott was distraught.
Caroline was buried on 29 February 1872 in the churchyard of the parish church, St. Peter’s at Tandridge, about one mile from Rooks Nest but visible from the house. The three-year lease on Rooks Nest expired in October 1872 and the sadly depleted Scott family moved back to Ham.