1929: The End of an Era


On 16th June 1929, just a few short months before the infamous Wall Street Crash, Colonel Claude Lowther died. Throughout the ‘roaring 20s’ his health had been steadily declining and in the end his drinking and smoking caught up with him. While he was unable to finish the restoration of Herstmonceux Castle before his death, he had made a great impact on the southern side of the castle which stood fully restored and luxuriously decorated.  

On Tuesday 5th and Wednesday 6th November 1929 an auction was held at the Castle under the direction of Christie, Mason and Woods (now known simply as Christie’s). A copy of the sale catalogue which advertises ‘Old English, French and Italian furniture, Old Brussels and Flemish tapestries, velvets, brocades and Old English glass’ survives in the Castle’s Archive and provides us with a unique insight into what the castle may have looked like during Lowther’s time. The listed contents reveal a fascinating juxtaposition of old and new, medieval and modern, a harking back to aristocratic tradition while also looking forward to the dawn of a new age.  We can also gain a clearer understanding of how the castle functioned during Lowther’s castellanship. So how exactly did Lowther use the various rooms in his half-finished country castle and what treasures were to be found within?

The sale catalogue opens with the Gatehouse where there were two ‘gilt cannon, on gilt stands’, ‘an iron man trap’ and ‘a suit of chain mail’, all of which point to Lowther’s fascination with re-creating a ‘real’ medieval castle to bolster his reputation as a landed aristocrat.[1] Lowther’s Dining Hall situated just off the Gatehouse in what is now the Headless Drummer Pub, was filled with original sixteenth-century pieces including five Italian walnut chairs with leather seats and back panels boarded with brass horses and several sixteenth-century arm chairs, one of which is described as having a leather back and seat stamped with fleur-de-lys. A fifteenth-century oak trestle-table and a fourteenth-century oak coffer with a hinged top were displayed alongside early seventeenth-century rock-crystal candlesticks, copper-gilt reliquies and flowered crimson damask curtains.[2] Dining chez Lowther appears to have been a sumptuous affair!

The Dining Hall, now the Headless Drummer pub.

The ‘Staircase Hall’, or Elizabethan Room as it is now known, contained further treasures. A seventeenth-century panel of a Flemish tapestry depicting a Roman battle scene hung on the wall while a contemporaneous twelve-inch iron bell was on display. An early sixteenth-century ‘Tudor Oak Arm Chair’ was nestled beside ‘A James II walnut winged armchair and a ‘Charles I oak arm chair’. Interestingly too, Lowther had acquired from Charles Butler Esq. two university degrees granted to John Michael Moggio by the University of Padua which he had on display. The first was granted on 29th March 1658 and the second on 29th December 1674.[3]

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The ‘Gothic Room’, now the conference anteroom, contained three seventeenth-century Venetian arm chairs decorated with gold thread and a fifteenth-century French stone figure of a Bishop ‘with his hand upheld in blessing’.[4] The eagle-eyed viewer will also note the medieval wooden screen mounted on the wall above the ‘wide’ 15th century ‘French Oak seat’ which now lives above the Dacre Room (also known as Seminar 3)!

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In Lowther’s time the Conference Room was actually the The Ladies’ Bower, part of a private suite of rooms for upper-class women. In 1929 Herstmonceux’s Ladies’ Bower contained five Louis XV console tables, a pair of Louis XIV mirrors, a Louis XVI commode and a Louis XIV clock by Le Chopie, Paris, which was set in a white marble case. The room also contained a French harp, a day bed of ‘Georgian design’ and an eighteenth-century panel of ‘Brussels Tapestry’.[5]

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As part of Lowther’s restoration work, he built two great bedrooms along with refurbishing another five. The first of his great bedrooms was in the Drummer’s Room. While local legend puts the Drummer’s Room as Lowther’s bedroom, no evidence has ever been found to confirm this. Indeed, the 1929 Sale Catalogue actually lists ‘Col. Claude Lowther’s Bedroom’ as separate from the Drummer’s Room. It seems much more likely that the Green Room was Lowther’s bedroom. Photographs from the late 1920s show a four-poster bed situated in the room on the dais which faces a piece of original gothic stone carving in the window nook.[6]

While showcasing the vast array of antiques collected by Lowther, the Sale Catalogue also reveals Lowther’s drive towards modernisation. Five of the seven bedrooms in Lowther’s Castle had an accompanying bathroom, a very modern feat! In stark contrast to the luxury displayed in the main Castle bedrooms, the two servants’ bedrooms seem especially bare. In each of the bedrooms are two iron bedsteads showing that the servants were expected to share their quarters. Rather than a ‘hair’ mattress, the servants received wool mattresses and a simple suite of painted furniture which included washstands and ‘toilet ware’, chests of drawers (one per servant), a chair each and a towel horse.[7]

While all of the contents of Herstmonceux Castle were for sale at the auction, we do not have the details of who bought them and how much for. This will form the next stage of our research as we try to map the dispersed contents of Lowther’s estate.

Dr Claire Kennan, Research Coordinator and Lecturer in History at the BISC.


[1] The Valuable Contents of Hurstmonceux Castle, (Christie, Mason and Woods, 1929), p. 2.

[2] Ibid, pp. 6-8.

[3] Ibid, pp. 8-9.

[4] Ibid, pp. 12-13.

[5] Ibid, pp. 14-19.

[6] Many thanks to Professor Steven Bednarksi for his invaluable research into this.

[7] The Valuable Contents of Hurstmonceux Castle, pp. 33.