Sunday 26 August 2018

The Victorian and Edwardian country house in Sussex


Between 1835 and 1889 at least five hundred country houses were built or re-modelled in England, many transferring wealth earned in towns to rural areas. The houses needed large numbers of staff, 

Possingworth (in Waldron, now privately owned) a big house built in the  late 1860s had a staff of thirty according to the later nineteenth century census, fifteen in the house and the same number in the grounds. A large wage bill to meet, in addition to the owners keeping staff in a town house in London or wherever their business was based. It was their running costs which eventually contributed to the demolition of many country houses.  Possingworth survived to become a country hotel and then, the centre piece of an estate of homes with nursing care if required known now as Holy Cross.   

The design for Possingworth published in The Builder in 1869 

Whilst a considerable number of the new houses in Sussex were built between the 1840s and 1870, country house building and redevelopment peaked here and nationally in the 1870s.  A building slump then stretched from 1879 to 1894 when the economy was not doing so well.  By the end of the century, new houses were smaller, Standen near East Grinstead is an example.  Research suggests that rising costs encouraged owners to look for labour saving innovations.

The earlier new houses often had quite complex plans with large service areas as seen at Bayham Abbey (now in Kent) and Normanhurst (near Hastings, demolished). Several had their own gas works and hydro-electric stations.

Normanhurst near Hastings from The Builder 1867 

The construction and alteration of houses for these demanding clients was challenging due to the ever-increasing range of innovations. This resulted in the development of sophisticated building contracts with specialist sub-contractors installing central heating, gas, electric lighting, fireproofing, toilets, running water and other innovations which became expectations. These tastes influenced the preferences of the middling classes who heard about them because of features in magazines, of which one of the most influential became Country Life (established in 1897).

The plan of Normanhurst as published in The Builder. Note the big service wing on the left of the main house 

Many of the owners of new or revamped houses were town based, they were not seeking large estates on which to establish themselves as country landowners nor where they from a landowning background. The exceptions included the Marquis of Camden at Bayham Abbey and Lady Thynnne at Muntham Court (this house was demolished).  Most new owners in Sussex came from London. This was not typical of the Midlands and North where many buyers of old houses and builders of new houses made their money in local businesses. Lord Armstrong at Cragside is a good example. 

Horsted Place not long after the house was built. 

Some owners didn’t want a big house because they did not intend to use it a lot.  Normanhurst at Catsfield built in 1867 for Thomas Brassey II and his wife Annie was a big house. Thomas was the son of the railway contractor and he and his wife chose a grand Gothic style.  But Francis Barchard who inherited a business and other assets chose a more compact and less formal house  when in 1850-51 he employed Samuel Daukes to design Horsted Place near Uckfield (now a hotel).

Some owners were not British or were the offspring of immigrants such as the Huths of Possingworth and Wykehurst who came from Germany and the James of West Dean. These wealthy Americans employed Ernest George and Harold Peto to wrap a much-altered old house with a Gothic style using the local flint as the building stone.  Now a well-known art college, it still has the large and ornate walled gardens such houses needed to provide fruit, vegetables and flowers and a superb view over a long-established park. Edward VII was amongst the appreciative visitors to this luxurious house.  
The Huth brothers commissioned new homes. Possingworth in Waldron is Gothic in style but Wykehurst in Bolney is strongly reminiscent of a French Chateau. 

Wykehurst, Bolney, early 1870s design by E M Barry 
Although many Victorian and Edwardian houses have been demolished it is still possible to see a few easily. Ashdown Park is now the Ashdown Park Hotel (near Forest Row) and Horsted Place (near Uckfield)  noted above and, Standen (East Grinstead) an 'Arts and Crafts' house with a rich interior owned by the National Trust.  Over on the boundary with Hampshire there is the rebuilt Stansted which is privately owned and open to the public (details on Standen's website)

Great Dixter (at Northiam, below) is now one of several houses of this period which are famous for its gardens but the house is special too. 

Great Dixter being enlarged by adding another old timber framed section in 1911. 
It's an example of an old house which was enlarged by adding a section from a demolished one of about the same age. The old photo, dated 1911 is in the collection of the Sussex Archaeological Society which show the work in progress.  This was one of many smaller country houses built between about 1890 and 1914.