This is the Life! (1918 Edition)

The picturesque Herstmonceux Castle and its estate have featured in many a glossy magazine over the years. In 1918, just a few years into Colonel Claude Lowther’s restoration project, the castle and its grounds were featured in Country Life.

Country Life, which was established in 1897 by Edward Hudson, went on to become a household name. The magazine now has a circulation of c. 40,000 with an Instagram following of 250,000 and a Twitter following of more than 30,000. The Country Life Magazine archives for 1897-2005 are now held by the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, but here at Herstmonceux Castle we are lucky enough to have an original copy in our very own archive.

Country Life focuses on fine art and architecture, great country houses and their interiors, churches and historic buildings, landscapes, rural living and leisure pursuits such as antique collecting, farming, hunting, shooting, horse riding and gardening. The magazine also reports on national events, governmental policy relating to agricultural affairs as well as society affairs, particularly those relating to the rural gentry.[1]

The March 1918 edition of Country Life in which Herstmonceux Castle featured was edited by Peter Anderson Graham. As was customary at the time, the front cover showcased a portrait photograph of a young woman of society, in this instance Venetia Baring, the eldest daughter of Lord Ashburton who was appointed as a Maid of Honour to Queen Mary in 1911.[2]

The March 1918 Frontispiece for Country Life.

As a reminder of the times, the editorial note appealed to Country Life readers to ‘send their copies of recent issues of Country Life to the troops at the Front’, stating ‘this can be done by simply handing them over the counter at the Post Office. No label, wrapper or address is needed and no postage need be paid’.[3] Other reminders of the war raging in Europe can be seen in articles dealing with ‘Pig Breeding and Potatoes’, “Growing” in the Channel Islands as a Career for Wounded Officers’ and ‘The Nerves of an Army’.[4]

Herstmonceux Castle and its estate feature on a seven-page, picture-rich spread written by Martin Conway. The article begins with the castle’s origins when ‘Sir Roger de Fiennes obtained a licence to crenellate’ his manor house. The article then charts the castle’s medieval and early modern history before remarking that its ‘unworthy owner in 1777’ later ‘disroofed [sic] and despoiled’ the castle, which led to its present, rather dilapidated, state.[5]

Herstmonceux Castle c. 1918.

The article provides an overview of the castle’s sometimes colourful owners and inhabitants including ‘Lady Anne, the illegitimate daughter of Charles II and the Duchess of Cleveland’. However, it avoids all mention of the execution of Lord Dacre in 1541 for murder and robbery of the king’s deer after his poaching attempts on a neighbouring estate led to the death of a gamekeeper.[6]

To give the reader a sense of what the castle would have looked like in its heyday, the article features some of the architectural drawings made by James Lamber in 1776, which now reside at The Keep. There is also a written description by Horace Warpole who visited the castle in August 1752:

It is a square building with a porch and a cloister very like Eton College and the whole is much the same in taste. There are three little courts for offices but no magnificence of apartments […] The chapel is small and mean; the Virgin and seven long lean saints, ill done, remain in the windows […] The outside is a mixture of grey brick and stone that has a very venerable appearance. The drawbridges are romantic to a degree; and there is a dungeon that gives one a delightful idea of living in the day of soccage and under such godly tenures.

Horace Warpole (1752).

However, by 1918, as Conway remarks ‘no person living remembers it other than a very dilapidated ruin with its external walls and towers fairly preserved, but little more than foundations within’.[8]

Conway notes that:

‘One who now enters through the great gate comes into a large courtyard, it was very different in the old days. The area within the outer walls and the range of chambers backed against them, so far from being open, were choked with buildings lighted from four small courts’.[9] The feature of the open courtyard is something which Lowther decided to keep, mainly because it was more conducive for socialising at his various soirees and parties for which he became renowned.

The other famous aspect of castle life that Country Life shed light on was its many ghosts:

‘Over the great gateway was [a room] called The Drummer’s Hall. A recess in the wall contained a treasure over which a ghostly drummer watched. It was discovered and removed by a steward and thence forward the drum was silent’.[10]

During Lowther’s castellanship, the Drummer’s Hall referred to above was actually his bedroom.

The Drummer’s Hall, Herstmonceux Castle.

Frustratingly for the modern historian, Country Life chose to focus on the history of the estate rather than the extensive work being carried out under Colonel Claude Lowther. Despite this, contemporary photographs do give us the impression of the ivy-covered romantic ruin that the Colonel had purchased. Luckily for us, this was not the last time that Herstmonceux Castle would feature in Country Life Magazine. In 1935, the castle and its estate once more made the pages of this high society publication with fantastic images of the gardens and grounds which allow us to reconstruct what the castle looked like during the early 20th century.

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

[1] ‘Country Life Archive & Country Life Picture Archive’, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, [last accessed 09/02/22].  

[2] Country Life, 73: 1104 (2nd March 1918), p. 204.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, pp. 204, 209, 210-212.

[5] Ibid, p. 214.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, p. 218.

[8] Ibid, p. 217.

[9] Ibid, p. 218.

[10] Ibid, p. 220.

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