Over four centuries, ten families have lived here in succession. They have all made alterations; some more than others, for example, the dining room has been located in all three main wings of the house.
However, the original style and form of the building survives, along with several Jacobean features, notably the grand staircase leading to the great chamber above the hall.
The Digges Family
Held the house 1607–1724
The Digges family held Chilham through four generations from 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, 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 the Earl of Leicester, Sir Robert Dudley (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 Antarctica.
In 1605, 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.
At some time, perhaps out hunting, Sir Dudley realised that if cleared of its ruins, the prominent bluff overlooking the Stour Valley 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, preserving 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’. This may be an echo of one of Digges’s great contemporaries, the leading politician and judge Sir Edward Coke, who gave us the often misquoted phrase ‘a man’s house is his castle’.
Young Dudley, having taken a BA at Oxford, had determined to go even further than his forebears. In 1604 he published Four Paradoxes or Politique Discourses of which his late father had been co-author. He followed this with a publication of his own, The Worthiness of Warre and Warriors. Other publications followed throughout his life, but they 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’ stepfather, 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 courting 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’.
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 the Tsar Michael Romanoff on behalf of the Muscovy Company and the East India Company. With him he took England’s greatest gardener of the day, John Tradescant the Elder, who 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. 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. It is hard to imagine such a gesture by the House of Commons today.
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.
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.
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 high office of ‘Master in Chancery’. Then, to crown his long and turbulent career, in 1636 he became Master of the Rolls, the senior judge in the High Court of Chancery after the Lord Chancellor – 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.
In the last phase of his life, Sir Dudley built on to 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. It contained an opulent memorial to his wife, in classical style to match the building. Another, dedicated to his sister Lady Palmer, stood in the chancel. Both of local stone – finest quality Bethersden marble – they were executed by the nationally-renowned sculptor Nicholas Stone. In evidence of her husband’s affection, Lady Digges is described as ‘lovely, loveinge and belovd’. 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.
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 18 March 1639 – an event which, according to his monument, ‘the wisest men doe reckon among the pvblique Calamities of these times’.
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 19 May, the anniversary of his birth, there should take place a race between the young men and women of Chilham and the neighbouring hamlet of Old Wives Lees. The will set aside the sum of £20 for prize money. To celebrate the day, it was also the custom to ring the church bells.
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. 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 wealthy and powerful banker from the City of London.
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 – nothing to show that they were ever here.
The Colebrooke Family
Held the house 1724 – 1774
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.
Buying and selling property featured substantially. Considerable holdings were acquired in Middlesex and Sussex, even in the final years of his life.
A man of great drive and wealth, Colebrooke became Master of the City of London Mercers’ Company in 1725 and was at one time Chairman of the East India Company, a powerful organisation, instrumental in the formation of the British Empire, in which Sir Dudley Digges had played a prominent part.
When he acquired Chilham, the house was over 100 years old and Colebrooke 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, almost 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.
Colebrooke provided a full peal of bells and a clock for the church tower. Thirty years later his son Robert had the clock raised 20 feet and two decades after that, in 1790, a minute hand was added.
In his last decade, James built Chilham’s finest example of Georgian architecture – the former Vicarage.
In 1752 on James’s death, (when he was reputedly worth £800,000) the estate passed to his son Robert Colebrooke, Member of Parliament for Malden between 1740 and 1761. 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’ sent on an Embassy to Switzerland, ‘exhibited to a frugal people an unprecedented mode of splendour and profusion’.
Certainly Robert exhibited none of his father’s financial skill. Grandiose and profligate with his inheritance, Robert married firstly Henrietta, elder daughter of Lord Harry Powlett, later Duke of Bolton and after her death, Elizabeth Thresher of Bradford-on-Avon. His downfall might be attributed somewhat to his involvement with Warren Hastings, Governor of Bengal 1772 and Governor-General of India in 1774–85, who was impeached for corruption and cruelty but acquitted after long trials.
Robert Colebrooke’s main extravagance was a mausoleum for his family in the village church where his father’s will had directed that a vault be built. To design it, the Colebrookes chose Sir Robert Taylor, the most successful architect of his time (and possibly the most expensive). The exterior was plain brick, but internally it challenged the grandeur of the Digges family chapel on the opposite side of the chancel. Under a domed roof with a cupola, the interior diameter was nearly 24 feet. The dome and stuccoed walls, divided by nine Ionic pilasters, ‘furnished a fine echo’. There were 42 repositories (like a Roman columbarium or dovecote) lit by glass in the cupola ‘of a yellow colour which gives an agreeable gloom’. Like the Digges mausoleum, it was swept away by the Victorian rebuilding of the church’s east end.
Having parted from his second wife and moved to France (perhaps to escape his creditors), Robert Colebrooke decided to sell. By agreement with his banking brother George, who had acquired an interest in the estate, a Parliamentary Act was passed – a most expensive way to ensure that the buyer was vested with an unencumbered title.
This bleak end to the second phase of the house’s life was followed by one of its shortest.
Held the house 1774–94
Acquiring Chilham in later life, Heron made several changes during his two decades of ownership.
A successful lawyer and wealthy widower in his 50s from Newark-upon-Trent, Thomas Heron claimed descent from the Herons of Ford Castle, Northumberland. He bought Chilham in 1774 (it must have amused him to acquire an estate with a centuries-old heronry). 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.
He enlarged the park and redesigned the grounds with guidance from Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.
Like Sir Dudley, Heron was a comparative latecomer 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 John 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 Records 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 these seven decades at Chilham Castle but to the village their legacy is incalculable – the by-pass they built has helped to secure the survival of the village centre in its ancient form.
In 1794, James Wildman, a Lancastrian from Barking Geat, near Ormskirk, prospered in Jamaica as agent for the fabulously wealthy William Beckford of Fonthill. Having bought from his master some land which he described as ‘waste’ upon which he built a sugar factory, Wildman had within 12 years become wealthy enough to buy Chilham. Apart from undocumented changes to the fenestration, he seems to have done little or nothing to the place – 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 depicted in Sir Francis Chantrey’s white marble masterpiece in the church. Chantrey 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. His courtship of Fanny Knight, his neighbour at Godmersham, features prominently in Fanny’s correspondence with her aunt Jane Austen. Clearly the romance did not prosper and James later married Mary Anne, daughter of Stephen Rumbold Lushington of Norton Court, near Faversham (Governor of Madras and MP for Canterbury).
He engaged John Shaw, 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. It is interesting to speculate on the result had this early exponent of the Gothic revival been let loose here.
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 1830 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, was 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. The old school table is thought originally to have been a communion table, an early predecessor of the present altar. Carved with the initials of generations of children, it is now back downstairs in the body of the church.
The new school was inspected regularly under the eye of Mr Wildman, who diverted to it 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.
Mr Wildman also provided facilities (books, light and heat) in one of the castle’s gate lodges for what might be termed a ‘winter evening institute’ for adult learning – male only, it seems.
On 25 October 1861, the year when the Wildmans left Chilham, Emily Wildman laid the foundation stone of a new school building, now used by the infants. Given the financial circumstances of the Wildman family, it seems they could not fund the building scheme on their own although they provided inspiration and leadership. Their 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 castle in the family’s latter days at Chilham.
Such was their feeling for the place, that when J B Wildman died six years after they had left, they brought his body back home to Chilham for burial.
The Hardy Family
Held the house 1861–1918
The 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.
A wealthy man, wishing to make the house suitable for the needs of a large Victorian family, he engaged David Brandon, 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, 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’.
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 tile-work 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. The two men agreed that the east end of the church should be demolished and replaced by something suiting their own taste – 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 Privy Council, the entire structure was demolished and the bodies reburied outside under a plain slab bearing only the words ‘the Colebrooke vault’. In Country Life nearly forty 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 family provided a new wall tablet in Gothic style, toning with Mr Brandon’s new chancel. Mysteriously, in the north transept, there is another, rather larger tablet (five panels rather than three) in a simpler style with rather more names recorded. The space previously reserved for the Colebrookes was allocated to the repositioned Widman memorial.
Similar treatment was given to the Digges mausoleum, though its monuments were preserved. The monument to Lady Palmer (Digges’s sister) was banished to the opposite corner of the building, where it stands in awkward isolation at the far end of the north aisle. The ledger stones reverently provided for her husband and mother (the latter cracked right through by builders’ clumsiness) are now hidden away on the floor behind the huge monument to Lady Palmer’s brother and his wife. In contrast to this 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 under the church tower, where it has hung ever since.
Contrasting with the flamboyance of the memorials to his descendants, Charles Hardy is 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, (known as Stewart). Aged 28, a qualified lawyer, he became in due course Member of Parliament for Bradford, in the family’s former home county. He held a commission in the 37th regiment and later became Honorary Colonel of the Royal East Kent Mounted Rifles. In 1865 he had married Fanny Alice Bell of Bourne Park, near Canterbury. They produced a large family.
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.
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, Stewart Hardy died on 4 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 3,270 acres with 14 farms, 420 acres in hand and 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 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 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 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 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. Perhaps he intended the book as a tribute to his late father or maybe he was just paying a fond farewell to the old family home. 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. He 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 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 and 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, 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 schoolroom at the top of the hill for use as a school refectory and converting the ancient castle barn to a village hall, still serving the community today.
The crowning event of Sir Edmund and Lady Davis’s time here was the village celebration of their Golden Wedding Anniversary in 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.
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 first sighted 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 (on 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. For many years large numbers of visitors were attracted by tournaments with jousting knights and falconry displays in the park, mostly organised by the entrepreneur Max Diamond. ‘Medieval/Tudor’ banquets took place in the Keep and the ‘baronial hall’ (the disused swimming pool having been floored over), and for a while the hall was used for a museum commemorating the Battle of Britain.
At Lord Massereene’s death, the property passed to his son and in 1997 the mansion and park were sold to Giorgiou Petrou, who five years later sold it to the Wheeler family.
The Wheeler Family
2003 - Present day
The Wheelers’ comprehensive renovation has ensured Chilham Castle, one of Kent’s most handsome houses, can approach its fourth centenary with pride.
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.’