The Owners of the House
The Digges Family
Held the house 1612–1724
The Digges family held Chilham through four generations but after Sir Dudley built the house, the only achievement of his descendants was to lose it.
Sir Dudley Digges, the builder of the house, was its best-known owner. He was a pioneering entrepreneur pursuing merchant adventuring to the limits of the known world, a fearless politician, not afraid to challenge even the King himself, a senior member of the judiciary and an author of several serious tomes on subjects of the day.
Sir Dudley's branch of the family, based in the City of London had a famous record of scientific erudition at a time when scientists were gaining a new elevated status. Sir Dudley's grandfather, Leonard Digges, was said by a contemporary to be “the best architect of that age” as well as a mathematician and astronomer of national standing.
Thomas Digges, Sir Dudley's father, another prominent mathematician and astronomer, was more of a public figure, becoming a Parliamentarian and merchant adventurer. A follower of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (hence his son's first name), Thomas was appointed Muster-Master-General to Leicester's English forces in the Netherlands fighting King Philip of Spain. On the commercial side, with several other merchant adventurers, he commissioned expeditions to Cathay and even to Antarctica.
In 1605, as mentioned already at the end of the history of the mediaeval castle, Digges (aged 20) had married a neighbour with “expectations” - Mary, eldest of four daughters, co-heirs of Thomas Kempe. The Kempes had been in the Stour valley for some three centuries at Olantigh, near Wye, a few miles from Chilham and not far from Digges Place, the bridegroom's ancestral home, at Barham, near Canterbury.
In more than one sense, this was a good marriage. Dudley and Mary produced eight sons and three daughters, a feat which would surely tax any relationship and there are no grounds to suggest that, in Sir Dudley's eyes, Mary's main attraction was her status and wealth – her potential entitlement to a share of the Chilham estate.
In 1607 Dudley became a knight (he was aged 24 – the new King James was rather free with such honours) and in the same year, on the death of his father-in-law, he inherited, in his wife's name, a quarter share of the Chilham estate – the laws of England in those days did not allow women to hold property in their own right.
We may deduce that at some time, perhaps whilst out hunting, Sir Dudley realised that the prominent bluff overlooking the Stour valley, cleared of its ruins, could make a magnificent site for a new house; from the top of the keep, the valley can be overseen for miles in both directions. He set about securing the estate outright and by 1612, the acquisition of the Chilham estate from his three brothers-in-law was completed. Then, on the site of Chilham's old castle bailey, he built an opulent house in the latest Renaissance style, though he preserved the adjacent stone keep.
Celebrating the completion of four years' labour in 1616, Sir Dudley decorated the front entrance with the date, his coat of arms and that of his wife along with their names and the words “The Lord is my House of Defence and my Castle”. an adaptation of verses 2 & 3 of Psalm 31 from King James's brand new Authorised version of the Bible. Digges may also have had in mind the words of his contemporary Sir Edward Coke, the leading politician & judge, who gave us the oft misquoted phrase “a man's house is his castle”.
Such phraseology, taken from Coke's legal commentaries, may be an indication of Sir Dudley's growing interest in jurisprudence.
Young Dudley, having taken a BA at Oxford, had determined to go even further than his forebears with the written word. In 1604 he published “Four Paradoxes or Politique Discourses” of which his late father had been co-author. He then followed this with a publication of his own “The Worthiness of Warre and Warriors”. Other publications followed throughout his life but it must be said, that these learned publications made less impact on the literary scene than those of his brother Leonard who wrote a well-known eulogy in the first folio of Shakespeare's plays. The Digges family were closely involved with Shakespeare's estate – Sir Thomas Russell, the boys' step-father was an “overseer” of Shakespeare's will.
After his death in 1639, this remarkable man was commemorated by two posthumous publications. In 1642 (on the outbreak of the Civil War) “Rights and Privileges of the Subject” was published and in 1655, “The Compleat Ambassador”, a revealing account of the secret and not altogether honourable diplomacy behind the disingenuous eleven year courtship of Queen Elizabeth I by a French prince – perhaps it was with tongue in cheek that Sir Dudley dedicated this book to “Qu. Elizabeth of Glorious Memory”. This episode was not one of the most glorious in Elizabeth's reign.
The wider worlds of ‘Discovery’ and international commerce
In 1608 he was appointed to the London Council of the American Colony of Virginia. In 1610 he helped to finance the last expedition of Henry Hudson in the 55 ton ‘Discovery’ to Canada. In their main objective to find a north-west passage to Asia, Hudson's four explorations failed, but they did ‘discover’ and re-name such features as Hudson’s Bay and Hudson Strait, not forgetting Digges Sound, Cape Digges and Digges Island.
The end of this expedition was horrific – the crew mutinied and marooned Hudson, his young son and eight others, some of them sick, on the frozen shore. Leaving them to certain death, the ship was sailed back to England, under Robert Bylott as Master,
It tells us something of Sir Dudley's character that, after a short prison sentence, Bylott, the chief mutineer, resumed command of the ship with the full authority of Sir Dudley and his two co-directors. It sailed back to Canada, on the same quest, the pilot this time being Baffin whose name has been given to the huge island beside Hudson Strait.
In 1618, Sir Dudley himself went to sea. Changing the direction of his adventuring, he sailed eastwards, leading, at the instigation of the King, a trade mission “A Viag of Ambusad” to Moscow taking £20,000 in gold to loan to Tsar Michael Romanoff on behalf of the Muscovy Company and the East India Company. The hope was that, sweetened by this loan, the new young Tsar would permit free passage of merchandise from Britain across his lands to Persia and China. In the Digges party was England's greatest gardener of the day, John Tradescant the elder, (c1570-1638) who wrote an account of the trip and brought back seeds and seedlings of many plants and specimen trees, some of which were destined for the grounds of Chilham.
Soon after his return, it was claimed that Digges “sent his Secretary with £10,000 and returned with the balance to England” Accounts vary as to what happened next, but clearly Sir Dudley had some very difficult questions to answer. It is curious that, of all the incidents in his long career, this is the only one featured on his tomb.
In 1620 he bounced back to become Special Ambassador to the Netherlands and, as a Commissioner of the East India Company, he drew-up a treaty with the Dutch governing trade in the Far East.
In 1631, he was appointed to the Privy Council's Commission “to establish how the plantation of Virginia now standeth, and to consider what commodity may be raised in those parts”
As the most stormy phase in our Parliamentary history began to develop, Sir Dudley took a leading role. Several times MP for Tewkesbury and later for Kent, he was made a Member of the Privy Chamber under King Charles I. According to Reverend Joseph Mead, a contemporary, “Sir Dudley, they say, never lacks speech” - a trait which more than once got him into trouble or as John Chamberlain another contemporary courtier put it, “in the sand”. Because of his fearless opposition to the tendency of the monarch to overreach himself, Sir Dudley, “for unfitting words in the Council Chamber” served short spells in prison, including at least one in the notorious London Fleet, near the present-day Central Criminal Court at Old Bailey.
One of the best-known of these Parliamentary forays was when, with Sir John Eliot, he led the impeachment of the King's unpopular favourite George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. More imprisonment in the Tower of London ensued, but this time pressure was brought upon the monarch by the House of Commons refusing to resume business until Sir Dudley and Sir John were released. Sir Dudley's immediate dispatch thereafter to Ireland with 3 other “ill-tempered spirits” on a Royal Commission of Enquiry was said to be “a lighter punishment” - a judgment which might depend upon one's point of view.
In pursuance of his political beliefs, Sir Dudley in 1628 joined the group of prominent Parliamentarians who presented King Charles with the famous Petition of Right asserting four basic liberties: from arbitrary arrest, from non-parliamentary taxation, from the billeting of troops and from martial law. This courageous act cannot have helped the petitioners' standing with the King, but apparently in those days, repeated spells behind bars did not preclude high judicial appointment; and so we move to the final phase of this remarkable life.
Having been admitted to Gray's Inn in 1617 (at the advanced age of 34) Sir Dudley Digges finally aspired to become a senior judge.
His interest in the judiciary may have developed from association with the Phelips family at Montacute, whose oriel windows were likely models for similar features at Chilham (see The House) Robert Phelips, Digges's contemporary, was Speaker of the House of Commons and closely associated with Digges's campaign against the Duke of Buckingham. Robert's father Edward Phelips, who built Montacute, had been Master of the Rolls from 1611 until his death in 1614; perhaps the Phelips family opened Digges's eyes to the lucrative potential of that post.
Under the Stuart kings, high legal office was a passport to riches and, by now a man of great power, wealth and fame, Sir Dudley secured appointment to the office of “Master in Chancery”. Then, to crown his long and turbulent career, in 1636 he became Master of the Rolls one of the three most senior judges in the land – having paid £5,000 in advance and a similar sum when the previous incumbent died. One hopes that this investment paid off. It remains the achievement of which he was most proud and the one by which he is best known today.
the last phase of his life, Sir Dudley established in the south-east
corner of the church at Chilham a mausoleum in the classical style,
fashionable at the time, with Venetian “Serlian” windows
popularised by Inigo Jones. Measuring 15 feet square inside,
under a richly-ornamented coffered ceiling 18 feet high, it contained
an opulent memorial dedicated to Digges's wife, who in evidence of
her husband's affection, is described as “lovely, loveinge and
belovd”. With a central pillar, matching the style of the
building and emulating some of the royal tombs of France. it has, at
each corner, a cardinal virtue stands personified - justice,
fortitude, prudence and temperance. Another monument, only
slightly less ostentatious, dedicated to Digges's sister Lady Palmer,
stood beyond the communion table at the other corner of the chancel.
The detailed carving is thought to have been executed by the nationally-renowned sculptor Nicholas Stone, who worked sometimes with Inigo Jones. Two such magnificent monuments side by side in a simple parish church will have given the strongest impression of this family's wealth and status. Modesty and understatement were not Sir Dudley's most obvious characteristics. As recounted
later, these monuments, of a style & quality not often found in
England's country churches, were subjected to the architectural
whims of Sir Dudley's successors in the 18th and 19th centuries.Nearby, “within the Communion rail”, Sir Dudley's brother-in-law and mother were buried. She is described in warm words of filial respect but, so pleased was he with his new great status, that Sir Dudley could not resist adding that she was “Mother of the Master of the Rowles”.
He died on 18th March 1639 - an event which, according to his monument , “the wisest men doe reckon among the pvblique Calamities of these times”. Even glowing phrases such as these might not suffice to redeem his reputation in the eyes of
A further insight into Sir Dudley's character is provided by one of his bequests: in his will he expressed the wish that every year on 19th May, the anniversary of his birth, there should take place a race between a young man and a young woman from Chilham and another couple from Faversham. The will set aside the sum of £20 for prize money - £10 each for "the young man and also the young Maid that shall prevail". It was also Sir Dudley's wish that the church bells were rung on that same day to celebrate his birth.
So vast was the fortune that he amassed, it sustained four generations of his family through some of the most tempestuous times ever known in England before it was whittled away.
Sir Dudley’s descendants
None of his immediate heirs matched Sir Dudley's pre-eminence, though one son, Edward, seeking his fortune across the Atlantic, became Governor of Virginia, following his father’s involvement with that state.
In 1639 the Chilham Castle estate passed to Thomas Digges (Sir Dudley's eldest son) who married Mary, daughter of Sir Maurice Abbott. Of Sir Dudley's character we know plenty, but, of his son, we have only a contemporary description as “a melancholy cracked man”. In 1687 Thomas bequeathed the estate to his only surviving son, Leonard Digges, who married Elizabeth Mary, daughter of Sir John Osbourne of Chicksand, Bedfordshire.
In 1718 on Leonard's death, Chilham passed to his eldest son, John Digges, Sir Dudley's great-grandson. On John’s death, childless, in 1720, the estate went to his brother Colonel Thomas Digges, who, perhaps hoping for monetary input, had married Elizabeth, daughter of John, Lord Delaware. Thomas was not good with money and, having accumulated overwhelming debts, soon found himself forced to sell Chilham to his principal creditor, James Colebrooke, a shrewd banker from the City of London. The process took place in two stages – in 1722, Digges sold all of the estate apart from the castle and its grounds. Then, having clung on for two more desperate years, he vacated the ancestral home, which passed into Mr Colebrooke's hands in 1724. This same year the Colonel's lifestyle underwent another big change; hopefully thereby, his unhappiness on parting with the ancestral home was alleviated rather than compounded - he got married.
Thus, after holding-on through England's century of revolutions, the Digges family had to let Chilham go. Though between them Dudley's descendants held the estate for almost 100 years after Sir Dudley's death, nothing remains of their time at Chilham except their names in legal documents and books. They have no monuments in the church – not even in the family mausoleum - nothing to show that they were ever here.
The Colebrooke Family – Father & Son
Held the house 1724–74
The canny banker's wealth was lost by his profligate son. In their half-century at Chilham, the Colebrookes may have made little or no change to the house, though the park was much enlarged and a brewery constructed in the keep.
James Colebrooke, son of a Mercer, was born in 1681 at Arundel in Sussex. Aged 17 he was apprenticed to Nathaniel Jackson, Mercer and Goldsmith in the City of London, becoming a Liveryman (Freeman) of the Company of Mercers seven years later. Jackson then made him a partner and in 1706 he married Mary Hudson in the chapel of the Mercers' Hall.
By accepting cash deposits for which they issued transferable receipts, the City goldsmiths at this time were developing the business of banking and James Colebrooke was soon in business as a banker on his own near the Royal Exchange. He later moved to Threadneedle Street, where, over the years he took in various partners, but only at the close of his life did he allow the business to fall into the hands of his younger sons. His business acumen served him well, especially during the disaster of the South Sea Bubble, soon after which Colebrooke acquired Chilham from the impoverished Col Thomas Digges, to whom he had made a series of substantial loans.
A man of great drive and wealth, Colebrooke became Master of the City of London Mercers Company in 1725 - the year after he acquired Chilham.
Buying and selling property featured substantially among his activities; dividing his time between Chilham and his homes in the City (New Broad Street) and Southgate (North of London) he accumulated freeholds in 28 parishes of Kent plus 3 large landholdings leased respectively from the Archbishop of Canterbury, from the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury and from the Oxford college of Corpus Christi. Other considerable holdings were acquired in Middlesex and Sussex, even in the final years of his life. He also acquired part of London's “New River Waterworks” which supplied fresh water to the growing metropolis.
In October 1722 (the month after Colebrooke acquired the manor) Chilham was visited by Dr William Stukely, one of England's leading antiquaries. From the ancient long barrow known as Juliberrie's grave, Stukely drew the earliest known engraving of the village, parish and park. In 1741 (the year when James Colebrooke began the process of gradual transfer to his son Robert, on the latter's marriage) Chilham received Samuel Buck (a protegé of Stukely) who, with his brother Nathaniel, produced a detailed engraving showing the castle garden and park as Colebrooke had laid it out. Surely the dates of those visitations were not by chance. Poor Col Digges is not likely to have commissioned a farewell engraving, but in those two particular years Colebrooke's excitement and pride of ownership would have been obvious and strong; how natural to wish to display his acquisition and his achievement.
When Colebrooke acquired Chilham, the house was over 100 years old and he may well have made changes, now hidden or swept away by later work. The long, careful history compiled by Thomas Heron, who bought the estate from James's son, says very little on the subject.
James Colebrooke's main preoccupation seems to have been the park which he extended by a factor of 10 to some 250 acres – four fifths of its present size. Perhaps to offset resentment at his enclosures, he built, at the bottom of The Street, Chilham's first almshouses, of which only the bakery remains, the remainder having been demolished in the 20th century.
Colebrooke provided a full peal of bells and a clock for the church tower. Thirty years later his son Robert had the clock raised twenty feet and, two decades after that, in 1790, a minute hand was added “by subscription of several of the inhabitants”.
In his last decade, James built Chilham's finest example of Georgian architecture – the former Vicarage.
He died in 1752 reputedly worth £800,000 - for James Colebrooke the number 8 featured even at the end of his life (see The Grounds)
Robert, his eldest son, exhibited
none of his father's financial skill. He was Member of Parliament for
the Essex constituency of Maldon between 1740 and 1761, a small constituency where corruption and bribery were rife - a suitable choice for the Colebrooke family, though their property interests lay elsewhere. Arthur Bolton, (son of Emily Wildman who lived at Chilham castle in the next century) quoting another writer, tells us that in 1762, “this spectacular young man” (by then well into his forties) sent on an Embassy to Switzerland, “exhibited to a frugal people an unprecedented mode of splendour and profusion”.
Probably aware of his
son's tendencies, Robert's father had taken steps to secure the estate.
Following Robert's marriage in July 1741 to Henrietta, elder daughter
of Lord Harry Powlett, later Duke of Bolton, James had placed all his
Kentish holdings in the hands of Trustees, granting life tenancies in
turn to himself, to Robert, to Robert's children (should he have any)
and to certain other members of the family. Sadly all these
provisions were fruitless.
Grandiose and profligate with his inheritance, one of Robert's extravagances was a grand mausoleum built in 1755 beside the chancel of the village church for his father and the entire family and their descendants. James's will had directed simply that he wanted to be buried in the chancel at Chilham church in a vault to be built there for the purpose, but, Robert Colebrooke engaged Sir Robert Taylor, one
the foremost architects of the day (and possibly the most expensive) to design an imposing structure in fashionable classical style, The exterior was plain brick, but internally it challenged the grandeur of the Digges family chapel on the opposite side of the chancel. Almost thirty feet high, with a domed roof, capped by a cupola, the internal diameter was nearly twenty-four feet. The dome and the stuccoed walls, divided by nine Ionic pilasters, “furnished a remarkable fine echo”. Arranged like the spokes of a wheel were forty-two repositories set on three levels in the thickness of the walls (resembling a Roman columbarium or dovecote) The building was lit by glass in the cupola “of a yellow colour which gives an agreeable gloom” Something
of its flavour can be savoured in the mausoleum attached to the
Dulwich Art Gallery. Access to the arched entrance was created by removing the monument to the sister of Dudley Digges.
Relegated to the far end of the north aisle, where it still
stands, this heavily-carved masterpiece, with its panels of
Bethersden marble, has long outlasted the swanky show-piece for which
it made way; the Colebrooke mausoleum, after barely a century of
existence, fell victim to the vagaries of fashion, swept away by the Victorian rebuilding of the church's east end. (see below)In 1756, nearly three years after his first wife's death, Robert married Elizabeth, 19 year old daughter of John and Ellen Thresher of Bradford-on-Avon.
Six years later, off to Switzerland and “desirous to make some Provision for Payment of his debts” Robert placed his entire estate including Chilham in the hands of new trustees with instructions to pay his scheduled debts by instalments and set aside “Two Hundred Pounds a Year....in the Nature of Pin Money” for his young wife.
As the years passed, the Colebrooke estate was made subject to successive trusteeships devoted to settlement of the ever-mounting debts. In his latter years Robert Colebrooke described the castle as “a very old and spacious building......and the supporting and maintaining of the same, and the Out-offices, Buildings, Gardens, and Pleasure Grounds, ..........are necessarily attended with a great and constant Expense, which is a great Diminution of the yearly Income”
None of Chilham's owners before or since are likely to argue with that.
Finally, having moved to France (perhaps to escape his creditors) and parted from his wife (to whom £150 was to be granted for annual maintenance) Robert Colebrooke was more or less forced to sell. His brother George had, perforce, acquired an interest in the estate, but, during a general financial crash, the Colebrookes' bank, in which George was heavily involved, had stopped payments and closed its doors; soon afterwards George was declared bankrupt. To empower the trustees to sell, an Act of Parliament was passed – a most expensive way to ensure that the buyer was vested with an unencumbered title.
Still in France, ten years later, Robert Colebrooke died.
This bleak end to the second phase of the house's life was followed by one of its shortest.
Held the house 1774–94
successful wealthy lawyer in his fifties Thomas Heron came from
Newark-upon-Trent, where, like his father and elder brother, he had
been Recorder. The family claimed descent from the Herons of
Ford Castle, Northumberland. In 1760 he had married Anne,
daughter of Sir Edward Wilmot (1693–1786) physician to the new King
George III (and before that to his grandfather George II) Anne
had died in 1767.Acquiring Chilham in later life,
Heron made several changes during his two decades of ownership; (it
must have amused him to acquire an estate with a centuries-old
Once ensconced, he wasted no time in transforming the house and park, using his plentiful wealth to good effect. In 1775–76, the Jacobean house was refitted almost throughout in the Georgian style.
Heron enlarged the park and, with guidance from Lancelot “Capability” Brown, redesigned some of the grounds (see The Grounds). Our primary source for Brown's involvement at Chilham is the correspondence (now in the County archives at Lincoln) between Thomas and his brother Richard (Chief Secretary for Ireland - in effect virtually Prime Minister of that land)
Like Sir Dudley, Heron was a comparative late-comer to the legal profession, called to the Bar (at Lincoln's Inn) at the age of 31. Heron also copied Sir Dudley by marrying a neighbour from Olantigh, Catherine, daughter of Jacob Sawbridge, whose father, also called Jacob, had bought Olantigh from the Kempes. The marriage took place in 1779 by special licence in the Long Room at Godmersham, family home of the bride's mother. The groom was a widower and the bride a spinster, both in their middle years. One wonders what Jane Austen would have made of the occasion: she became familiar with Godmersham when her brother Edward inherited that estate not long afterwards.
Recording what he owned and what he achieved, Heron arranged for a full estate plan to be prepared and, with his agent Christopher Greaves, he compiled a large book entitled “Antiquities of Chilham”, which is still, over two centuries later, a prime source for Chilham's history. This serves as his memorial – he has none in the church.
In 1794 he sold the estate. He died soon afterwards, back home in the district of Newark.
The Wildman Family
Held the house 1794–1861
Little remains of the family's seven decades at Chilham Castle but to the village their legacy is incalculable – the by-pass built by J B Wildman has helped to secure the survival of the village centre in its ancient form.
1794, the estate at Chilham was bought by James Wildman, a Lancastrian from Barking Geat, near Ormskirk,
who had prospered in Jamaica as agent for the fabulously wealthy William
Beckford of Fonthill. His brother Henry was the London agent. Another brother Thomas founded
a firm of lawyers still thriving at Lincoln's Inn, but not under the
Wildman name. The brothers were blamed by Beckford for the ruin of his fortune.
Whether or not this accusation was fair and accurate (Beckford,
regarded by many of his contemporaries as self-indulgent, extravagant and
degenerate, could hardly be regarded as a reliable source) it is said
that, towards the end of the relationship, in 1802, six years after Thomas had died,
the two surviving Wildman brothers presented Beckford with a bill for £86,000.
Having taken up his post as agent in
1782, James Wildman was soon established in the local community; he
married a Kingston girl - one Joanna Harper. He acquired from
his master some land (which he described as “waste”) upon which, using money borrowed from his employer, he built a sugar factory and within twelve years had become wealthy
enough to buy Chilham.
Apart from undocumented changes to the
fenestration, he seems to have done little or nothing to the building –
perhaps Heron's expenditure made further expense unnecessary.
James Wildman's main mark on the place is posthumous – the fine monument commissioned in his memory by his grieving family – all featured in Sir Francis Chantrey's white marble masterpiece in the church. Chantrey (suitably-named for a monument in a church) was the leading British sculptor of his time, responsible for several great statues in the capital, and it is a measure of the Wildman wealth and aspirations that they felt able to employ him.
In 1816 James's son, James Beckford Wildman inherited Chilham from his father with an annual spending income of £20,000 (20% of it from Chilham).
On a “Grand Tour” of Europe, he encountered the captive Emperor Napoleon and his captivating sister Pauline.
Life must have seemed very full and, compared with such excitement, James's courtship of Fanny Knight, a neighbour at Godmersham, might have seemed quite tame. It features prominently in Fanny's correspondence with her aunt Jane Austen, who became familiar with Chilham, attending a ball and taking dinner there from time to time.
Aunt Jane wrote:
"My Dearest Fanny,You are inimitable, irresistible. You are the delight of my life. Such letters, such entertaining letters as you have lately sent! Such a description of your dear little heart! Such a lovely display of what Imagination does. You are worth your weight in Gold or even in the new Silver Coinage. .................. Oh! what a loss it will be when you are married. You are too agreeable in your single state, too agreeable as a Niece. I shall hate you when your delicious play of Mind is all settled down into conjugal and maternal affections. Mr J.W. frightens me. He will have you: I see you at the Altar.....He must be wishing to attach you. It would be too stupid and too shameful in him to be otherwise; and all the Family are seeking your acquaintance. Do not imagine that I have any real objection. I have rather taken a fancy to him than not, and I like Chilham Castle for you; I only do not like you should marry anybody. And yet I do wish you to marry very much, because I know you will never be happy till you are; but the loss of a Fanny Knight will be never made up to me; My 'Affectionate Niece F. G. Wildman' will be but a poor Substitute."
Aunt Jane's famous line “A single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (the opening words of “Pride and Prejudice” written at Godmersham) could hardly be more apposite. Perhaps this was among the manuscripts of Aunt Jane's novels, which Fanny loaned her friend James – without revealing their authorship.
“I am very much obliged to you my dearest Fanny for sending me Mr Wildman's conversation. I had great amusement in reading it, and I hope I am not affronted and do not think the worse of him for having a Brain so very different from mine; but my strongest sensation of all is astonishment at your being able to press him on the subject so perseveringly — and I agree with your Papa, that it was not fair. When he knows the truth he will be uncomfortable. You are the oddest Creature! Nervous enough in some respects, but in others perfectly without nerves! Quite unrepulsible, hardened and impudent. Do not oblige him to read any more. Have mercy on him, tell him the truth and make him an apology. He and I should not in the least agree of course, in our ideas of Novels and Heroines; pictures of perfection as you know make me sick and wicked - but there is some very good sense in what he says, and I particularly respect him for wishing to think well of all young ladies; it shews an amiable and a delicate Mind. And he deserves better treatment than to be obliged to read any more of my Works.”
However, the romance did not prosper and Jane advises “I have pretty well done with Mr. Wildman. By your description he cannot be in love with you however he may try at it; and I could not wish the match unless there was a great deal of Love on his side.”
Not long afterwards Jane Austen died and James later married Mary Anne, daughter of Stephen Rumbold Lushington of Norton Court, near Faversham (Governor of Madras and MP for Canterbury).
The wedding, in Canterbury Cathedral was conducted by candlelight - the bride had arrived very late because her carriage had broken down - emotions on that day must have reached a fairly high level.
In 1817 he engaged John Shaw, (1776 -1832) a famous architect, already employed by a Wildman cousin at Newstead Abbey, former home of Lord Byron. Shaw (who gave to the City of London one of its finest landmarks, the lantern of St Dunstan's-in-the-West), has left no mark at Chilham, except his ambitious plans for house and grounds and the castle's sweeping carriage drive. It is interesting to speculate on the result had this early exponent of the Gothic revival been let loose here.
In 1818 Wildman was elected as one of two Members of Parliament for Colchester as the Corporation candidate. Noting in his acceptance speech, that his majority was 110, he declared that if he had 110 tongues, he could not thank the electorate enough for the honour that they had done him. Re-elected in 1820, he did not offer himself at the next election in 1826 - he had other, more pressing preoccupations.
The Wildman fortune, based upon the sugar plantations with 400 slaves as labour, began to suffer as the European market for sugar-beet gradually overtook that for cane-sugar. Wildman supported the anti-slavery campaign of his friend Wilberforce and the Wildman slaves were set free. Expensive machinery was no substitute and cash began to run short.
The major legacy to Chilham from this time, however, is the by-pass, built in the early 19th century as part of a privately-funded turnpike road from Stocker's Head at the top of Charing Hill to Bagham's Cross on the Ashford road at Chilham, costing £662 18s 8d plus fencing. Such foresight, 100 years before most by-passes were thought of, must surely have been a major factor in the preservation of the village streets and the square in their ancient form.
This was the age of privately-funded turnpikes, another of which was built along the Stour valley through Godmersham; the Canterbury to Ashford traffic, which historically had skirted the park walls along Mountain Street, was thus diverted to a more direct route beyond the river.
The family's concern for the village is also evident from their interest in the village school. Inspired it seems by Robert Raikes, generally regarded as father of English local schooling, the Wildmans took pioneering steps in the education of their neighbours. The school was transferred to the building behind Belke House, a former oast, now the school canteen, beside the present school site. Until then, lessons had been given to generations of village children in the room above the church porch with an overflow in the Sprackling Chantry – the north transept. The old school table is thought originally to have been a communion table, an early predecessor of what some people call the altar. Carved with the initials of generations of children, it is once again downstairs in the body of the church.
The new school (60 girls and 60 boys) was inspected regularly under the eye of Mr Wildman, who provided the funds for the teachers, He also diverted to the school the prize money from Sir Dudley Digges's Maytime race. Evidently this annual frolicking was unwelcome to the more serious-minded in the village. The records tell us that Mr Heron had tried without success to quell the event many years before, but this time, learning won the day.
In one of the castle's gate lodges, Mr Wildman also provided facilities (books, light and heat) for what might be termed a “winter evening institute” for adult learning – male only it seems.
Towards the end of the Wildmans' time at Chilham, a new school building was constructed – that now occupied by the infants. Given the financial circumstances of the Wildman family, it seems that they could not fund the building scheme on their own although they provided inspiration and leadership - the daughters ran what they
called a 6d fund to gather financial contributions from willing
donors. The family's impending departure, enforced by failing
finances, gave their philanthropy a special poignancy.
Finally thanks are due to Emily Wildman for her simple and evocative watercolours showing the village and the castle in her family's latter days at Chilham.
In 1861 the family moved to rented accommodation at Yotes Court a (slightly) smaller house in West Peckham, near Maidstone. Such was their feeling for the place, that when J B Wildman died 6 years after they had left, his family brought his body back for burial.
In the same year occurred the death of Charles Hardy, Wildman's successor.
her latter years, according to the late Judge Michael Birks
(Wildman's great-great-grandson) Mrs Wildman lived with her daughter
Leila &”Blackwell” her maid at 10 Cumberland Terrace, one of
John Nash's palatial buildings overlooking Regents Park in London.
Poverty is always relative - as the Wildman slaves were well aware.
Mrs Wildman, like her spouse, was a pious woman; while she was still able, she would drop to her knees and pray at all hours of the day. She died in 1890 &
lies buried with her husband at Chilham,
The Hardy FamilyThe iron masters from Yorkshire bring improvement and consolidation. In 1861, the estate was bought by Charles Hardy, of Low Moor, Yorkshire, a Bradford iron-founder, whose father Sir John Hardy owned Dunstall Hall, Staffordshire. The family had done well in a short time – a recent ancestor had been a gardener. Their fortune was made, it was said, by the manufacture of cannon balls for the wars against Napoleon and in the Crimea.
Held the house 1861–1918
A wealthy man, wishing to make the house suitable for the needs of a large Victorian family, he engaged David Brandon, (1813-97) a well-known architect, already building Hemsted House at Benenden, (now Benenden School) for Gathorne Hardy (Charles's brother, a leading politician, who became Earl of Cranbrook). Doubtless rubbing his hands at the prospect of another major scheme for a magnate with plenty of “brass”, Brandon suggested demolishing the castle, but sentimentality - or financial caution - prevailed. Nevertheless, the approved scheme was comprehensive and Emily Wildman's son, Arthur Bolton, a Chartered Architect and Director of Sir John Soane's Museum in London, writing about the changes to the old family home 50 years after the event, used such phrases as “drastic alterations”, “extraordinary liberties”, “delusive restoration” and “for some inconceivable reason instead of following the old pattern, he substituted a design of his own”. Summing up he said “It was an evil time for such work” and then, lest anyone remained unconvinced, he added, “It is impossible to condemn too strongly the restorationists of the Gothic revival who tampered with historic buildings after such a fashion”.
Hardy and Brandon would have defended themselves vigorously against such attacks. To emphasise their adherence to the original, below the escutcheon with the Hardy monogram and the date when their remodelling was completed, they “embellished” the Jacobean porch with a second religious motto carved into their replacement oriel “The Lord is my light and my salvation” (Psalm 27 verse 1) and, under the coats of arms of Sir Dudley Digges and his wife, Charles Hardy added his own coat of arms and the family arms of his wife Catherine née Orr.
Brandon's work at Chilham is often criticised. In 1924 even Charles Hardy's grandson wrote “I hold no brief for Mr Brandon”; but Christopher Hussey was wide of the mark when he wrote that Wildman's terrace walling was “adorned by Mr Brandon with a curious parapet formed of bisected drain pipes piled one on the other”. The hollow tilework in classical Italian style, which so offended Mr Hussey was introduced by James Beckford Wildman long before Brandon was here.
New stables and workshops were built, and a second building was provided for the village school, together with a new house for the schoolmaster. There was much improvement in the village housing; the Hardy family were benevolent landlords. Touring the village today, an educated eye can perceive features from the 19th century on buildings far more ancient than the mansion itself.
However change, no matter how well intended, is often unpopular and what Charles Hardy did to the church still causes dismay. The year after his arrival Mr Hardy, now patron of the living at Chilham, appointed a new Vicar, Rev. Charles Henry Ramsden.
two men agreed that the east end of the church should be demolished
and replaced by something suiting their own taste – fake mediaeval
- a classic case of Victorian ecclesiastical vandalism. At the
castle Brandon's drastic approach to “renovation” had been, to
some extent at least, held in check, but in the church it seems he
had his own way.
The magnificent mausoleum of the Colebrookes was still in use. James Colebrooke's great-granddaughter had been laid there just a year before but, when the wind was in a certain direction, the building was said to be a hazard to health. With sanction from the Queen and her Privy Council, the entire structure was demolished and the coffins reburied outside (each with its own circular slate door from the mausoleum, lettered in gold) all under a plain slab bearing only the words “The Colebrooke Vault”. In Country Life nearly 40 years later, in 1899, it was written “good taste has removed this disfigurement, and the chancel has been restored to correspond with the rest of the edifice”. Few people nowadays would endorse that comment. How tastes change.
Countering this obliteration, a member of the Colebrooke family provided a new wall tablet in Gothic style, toning with Mr Brandon's new chancel, where the floor space once reserved for the Colebrookes had been allocated to the repositioned Wildman memorial.
In the north transept, there is another, larger tablet commemorating the Colebrookes (five panels rather than three) in a simpler style, with rather more names recorded. The wording suggests that this larger one came from the mausoleum itself. In any case it is hidden from public view since the north transept became the vestry; maybe the church authorities suggested something smaller in the chancel.
treatment was given to the Digges mausoleum, though the monumental
pillar was reinstated in situ. The ledger stones reverently
provided for Sir Dudley's brother-in-law and his mother (the latter
cracked right through by builders' clumsiness) are now hidden away on
the floor behind the huge monument.
wooden reredos - another 18th century classical feature - fared no
better. Giving way to the Hardy's Gothic-style stone
replacement, it hangs hidden away up in the church tower, just inside
the west entrance.
Such widespread & extreme changes are unlikely to-day, but, writing over 70 years after the event, when Victorian taste was thoroughly out of fashion, it is startling that Arthur Mee, renowned for celebrating the architectural glory of England's ancient churches, suggested that Hardy and Brandon had not done enough. He considered the Digges memorial “four white figures sitting round a black column.........a very unhappy group (which should be removed)”.
In contrast to their ruthless treatment of other families’ memorials, the Hardys proceeded, over a couple of generations, to commemorate their own family with a series of new windows – six in their new east end and three more in the ancient north transept. In some cases, the names of lost loved-ones are mentioned twice over.
These days the Hardy memorial which attracts most attention is the group of small white marble figures near the Wildman monument. Carved by Alexander Munro, the statue commemorates two young sons who died in 1858, before the family left Yorkshire. When the Hardys lived at the castle they had it on display in the main corridor at the foot of the stairs. For the grieving family, it seems that a picture was not enough.
In 1867, not long after completion of the rebuilding of church and castle, Charles Hardy himself died aged 54. Emphasising adherence to tradition, a funeral hatchment of his coat of arms was produced and hung over the main door of the castle. Afterwards it was transferred to the entrance space under the church tower, where it has hung ever since, beside the huge west window, in which he is commemorated - & above the old wooden reredos bearing the Ten Commandments which he put away.
Charles Hardy is also commemorated by a simple brass plate beside his new chancel steps. His wife Catherine (daughter of James Orr of County Down, Northern Ireland) has her own plaque beneath and one of the windows in the north transept.
The estate passed to the eldest son, Charles Stewart Hardy, (sometimes known as Stewart) who was aged 28. In 1865 he had married Fanny Alice Bell of Bourne Park, near Canterbury; they produced a large family. He held a commission in the 37th regiment and later became Honorary Colonel of the Royal East Kent Mounted Rifles - the East Kent Yeomanry.
Charles Stewart Hardy was responsible for much repair and rebuilding in the village and estate; the best example is Hambrook House which he built in 1871 for the Steward of the Estate.
Charles Stewart Hardy was most at home in the country and enjoyed tending his estate, hunting his hounds and playing cricket. He was also a Justice of the Peace, High Sheriff in 1874, and a deputy Lieutenant for the County.
After a long life of public service, Charles Stewart Hardy died, on 4th March 1914. His obituary in the Kentish Gazette describes him as “a typical example of the old school of country Squire. Geniality literally radiated from him and his ever ready kindness with all with whom he came in contact, and his benevolence to those in need, earned him a measure of popularity and affection which it is few men’s pleasure to enjoy”
Young Charles Hardy, his son, became owner of the estate, which at the time comprised 3270 acres with 14 farms, 420 acres in hand, 650 acres of woodland; over 60 dwellings – most of the village – were rented out or occupied by workers on the estate.
Hardy put it on the market almost straight away but there was no ready buyer. The First World War had begun and big estates were not much in demand. The bulk of the estate was not sold until the war was over, by which time more than half had been disposed of piecemeal. His great-granddaughter remembers being told by her grandmother that Charles treated his mother rather harshly, allowing her to remove only the contents of her own bedroom when she left Chilham in 1919, to live with her younger son Edward at Boughton Court, Boughton Aluph. The family still owns a book in which, beside a pressed rose, she has written “taken from the Banksia the day I left Chilham”
In 1916 (third centenary of the house) Charles had published a short history of Chilham, based largely on the work of Messrs Greaves and Heron, which he had circulated privately in his family ten years before. Perhaps, as he bid a fond farewell to the old family home, he needed to salve his conscience or comfort his feelings. Maybe he was stung by Bolton's criticism of his grandfather's changes to the castle or wished to simply to pay tribute to his late father. In 1935, year of the Royal Silver Jubilee, he produced a second edition. Generations later, these remain the most accessible and complete histories of the castle and its estate – a worthy reminder of his family's six decades there.
Sir Edmund Davis
Held the house 1918–39
A cosmopolitan benefactor who, during two decades, spent huge sums of money transforming and beautifying Chilham.
In 1918 Edmund Gabriel Davis bought what was left of the estate.
Born in 1862 at Toorak near Melbourne, Australia, Davis had trained as an artist in Paris, but was sent for his health to take up trading with his uncle in Africa. Later on, his business interests spread beyond Africa back into Australia and over to China. By 1906 he was on the board of 40 companies. Davis did business in a host of commodities including guano, seals, ostrich-feathers and later tin, asbestos, coal, copper, tungsten and predominantly chrome, in which he achieved a near world-wide monopoly. The power and wealth derived from his chrome mines in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) earned him the informal title “Napoleon of Northern Rhodesia”.
In 1888 he married his first cousin, Mary Zillah Halford Bensusan (1866–1941); both accomplished artists and connoisseurs, they became great patrons of the arts, amassing a great collection including some of the finest artists, among them Rembrandt and Gainsborough. In 1927 a knighthood followed many years of widespread benefaction.
Almost throughout, Sir Edmund and Lady Davis were advised by the artists and aesthetes Charles Shannon and Charles Ricketts. In his biography of Ricketts, J.G.P. Delaney tells us that “Edmund Davis had purchased Chilham Castle with the money (£70,000) from the sale of three paintings – a Van Dyck, a Reynolds, and a Gainsborough – that Ricketts and Shannon had advised him to buy. As ‘backshish’ (as Ricketts put it), Davis offered them a cottage for life on the estate. Instead they opted for the ancient Keep, adjacent to the main house, which was to have been loaned to them as a studio.”
Ricketts & Shannon were members of the Symbolist movement, once described by Burne-Jones (a fellow-member) as: “a beautiful romantic dream .......in a light better than any light that ever shone”. With its walls adorned by art of high quality (and Rodin statuary beside a new swimming pool), such words might have described Chilham during the Davis years. No wonder Ricketts and Shannon were so happy in this setting, living rent-free in the castle keep, now, thanks to Sir Edmund's generosity, made into a comfortable dwelling after centuries as an outhouse and brewery.
Between 1922 and 1924, Sir Edmund employed Sir Herbert Baker, (1862-1946) one of the most eminent architects of his day, to remodel the castle. Though much changed at one end, the bulk of the service wing survived but the Victorian refenestration and interior were largely removed. As Christopher Hussey, Editor of Country Life wrote in 1924, “the Digges building is now not very different from what it was before the alterations of 1861”.
Though little remains from Sir Dudley's time, apart from such basic features as foundations and walls, the Jacobean style of the building is to the credit of Sir Edmund Davis who had the good sense and taste – and wealth – to employ one of the most successful masters of the English vernacular.
In the eight decades since then, little in the way of substantial change has occurred.
The face of the village that we see today is largely the product of the Davis years; some excellent local craftsmen, under the eye of Sir Herbert Baker, restored and, in some cases transformed, the fronts of many of the ancient houses and made many interiors more comfortable. Here and there, new dwellings were erected in local vernacular style.
Many people retain happy memories of Chilham between the wars. Sir Edmund is remembered as a good landlord. His generosity was widespread, for example, donating the old school-room at the top of the hill for use as a school refectory and converting the ancient castle barn to a village hall, which purpose it still serves today.
The crowning event of Sir Edmund and Lady Davis’s time here was the village celebration of their Golden Wedding Anniversary in January 1939, attended it seems by almost every inhabitant. Shortly afterwards Sir Edmund died.
Much of the Davis collection of art had been given to public galleries and, there being no heirs, the remainder was sold by Lady Davis and then, after her death in 1941, by the executors for disappointing prices during the Second World War.
Until the war ended, the estate was held by trustees and, for the first time in several centuries, the castle and its grounds were occupied by the army. The outline of their huts (hidden from enemy aircraft in the south avenue) can still be descried in dry summers.
Somerset De Chair
Held the house 1944–49
One of its most colourful owners who held Chilham for only a short while.
Somerset de Chair, politician, writer and collector of art and antiques was drawn to Chilham by events, though ambition also played a part while he was here. Already at the age of 24, an acknowledged author with several books to his name, de Chair was elected in 1935 to the Parliamentary seat of South-West Norfolk. Five years later, while the Marquess of Lothian served as Britain's Ambassador to Washington, de Chair was invited to occupy and look after Blickling (the Marquess's Norfolk mansion). The arrangement came to nought because the Marquess returned to Britain and died the following year, bequeathing Blickling to the National Trust.
Two years’ service followed with the Royal Horse Guards in Syria and Iraq where, as one of the first British officers in Baghdad, he helped to draft the Armistice. Invalided out of the army, de Chair returned to Parliament, but in the 1945 election he lost his seat by 53 votes.
Meanwhile Chilham Castle became available after its vacation by the army. Terms were agreed with the Davis Trustees and, shortly afterwards, the de Chair family moved in. Apparently the military had done little damage to the building except on the attic floors. In 1946, the year of victory celebrations, de Chair marked his arrival by mounting an ambitious historical pageant on the terraces below the mansion setting the history of Chilham within that of England at large.
When the Parliamentary seat of Ashford fell vacant, de Chair felt that, as a former MP and owner of Chilham Castle, he was well-placed to apply for the Conservative candidacy. However, a certain William Deedes, whose roots in the district were very deep, put himself forward and de Chair had to look elsewhere. Later, he became MP for Paddington South where he served for one short year. By then he had left Chilham.
Post-war austerity and sky-high taxation made the cost of running Chilham burdensome and de Chair's marriage was breaking up. Now, by a remarkable turn of the wheel of fortune, Blickling came available once again - the National Trust were looking for a tenant. In 1949 de Chair left Chilham and moved there with his new wife. After marrying twice more, De Chair died in 1995 at Bourne Park, near Canterbury – once the family home of Fanny Bell, Mrs Charles Stewart Hardy.
Viscount Massereene & Ferrard
Held the house 1949–97
The Hon. John Clotworthy Talbot Foster Whyte-Melville Skeffington had long nurtured a dream of owning Chilham, which he saw for the first time whilst motoring along the Ashford road.
In 1949 Chilham was offered for sale by auction with its remaining 400 acres and bought by “Jock“ Skeffington for £94,000. With his wife Annabelle McNamara née Lewis, he lived there until his death in 1992. In 1956 on the death of his father, Skeffington became 13th Viscount Massereene and Baron of Loughneagh, 6th Viscount Ferrard and Baron Oriel of Collon in Ireland and Baron Oriel of Ferrard in the United Kingdom.
Active in the House of Lords (about which he wrote a book, published in 1973), he was responsible for introducing several Acts of Parliament. He was keenly involved in Boys' Clubs and animal welfare, was at one time Master of Fox Hounds and wrote on many subjects, particularly wildlife. A keen racing driver, he drove the leading British car in the Le Mans Grand Prix in 1937. As a lieutenant in the Black Watch, Jock Skeffington, as he then was, saw service during the Second World War.
The Massereene half-century at Chilham is remembered chiefly for its public events. Large crowds were attracted by falconry displays and tournaments with jousting knights in the park. “Medieval/Tudor” banquets took place in the keep and in later years (after that building was sold) in the “Gothick Hall” (the disused swimming pool having been floored over) For some years before that, the hall had been a museum commemorating the Battle of Britain.
After Lord Massereene's death his widow remained in occupation until 1997 when the mansion and park were sold to George Petrou, who, five years later, sold it to the present owner.
One of Kent's most handsome houses, approaching its fourth centenary, has embarked upon a new phase in its history, following yet another comprehensive renovation.
The words of Somerset de Chair make a suitable coda:
“from the downs across the valley, you may see an English village in all its stages of historical growth, spread before you in a pleasing panorama: the Norman keep, the church, the Jacobean mansion, the Georgian vicarage and, clustered around them, the russet roofs of the old houses around the Square. You will travel the length and breadth of England before you stumble, on a summer's day, upon a more representative example of an English village”.
A decade earlier, in 1936, describing Chilham in the Kent volume of his evocative series "The King's England", Arthur Mee put it rather more succinctly "Old England at her very best"Just so.
© Michael H Peters 2008