The Estates and Buildings Group was recently invited to tour the New House and grounds; by way of briefing, we were given some notes on the history of the estate, prepared by the current owners-with whose permission they appear in our Newsletters.
Wadhurst Park stands on the Wealden Heights, 400 feet up, in East Sussex, close to the Sussex - Kent border. It was originally called High Town, probably until 1870 when the Spanish Murrieta family bought the property.
Wadhurst Park has been inhabited since the Middle Ages. It is first mentioned in a subsidy roll of 1295 (doubtless to raise money for Edward I's wars against the Scots). In 1483 it is recorded as the home of Sir Robert Maunser, a substantial landowner, whose descendants were great iron masters. They married into other important families in the neighbourhood; the Barhams, the Newingtons and the Bakers.
The Maunser family built several houses on the site. A map from 1652 shows an Elizabethan manor house, half timbered and gabled, with outbuildings and a church. The estate measured 303 acres and included a hammer pond, made by damming up the stream near the present Buttons Farm. This would have been used to work the adjacent iron forges. In the stream black stones, possibly slag, are still found.
A map from 1839 shows High Town with a house, garden outbuildings and cottages, but no church. The acreage is now slightly less, 261 acres.
In 1870 the estate was sold to Cristobal and Adriano de Murrieta, two bachelor brothers of a wealthy Spanish family. Their married brother José made his residence at Wadhurst Park. The Murrieta forebears came from Santurce, near Bilbao, in the north of Spain, from where they had emigrated to South America. In the course of two generations they had amassed a great fortune by trading, especially with Argentina. Eventually they returned to Europe and settled in England, where "C. de Murrieta and Co." developed into a firm of great importance. Don José was given the title of Marques de Santurce in October 1877 by King Alfonso XII in recognition of the many services he had rendered Spain. His wife was also Spanish, with her origins in Santurce. It was she who undoubtedly contributed a great deal towards achieving the high position the family held in English society. She was clever and fascinating as well as beautiful and a great favourite of the late King Edward VII.
Among the frequent guests at Wadhurst Park were Lord Randolph Churchill, Billy Oliphant, Lord Charles Beresford and Arthur Balfour, who often came to relax in the pleasant atmosphere at the Murrieta's new family seat. Edward VII, as Prince of Wales, rarely seemed happier and more at ease than at Wadhurst Park.
All this lavish entertaining called for a big, comfortable house. After having bought Wadhurst Park in 1870 the family immediately engaged the English architect Edward J Tarver to build a house on the site; incorporating an existing house to serve as domestic offices. The new house had high ceilings, a tower with an adjoining gallery and no less than five W.C.s. The Builder, May 19, 1877, shows an engraving of the central hall of the house and gives information about the house in general. The house was built by a Mr Shearburn from Dorking and had cost to date £12,000. In The Builder, April 12, 1884, Mr Tarver reported about new developments at Wadhurst Park. The house had been added to, a new bigger dining room had been created, the old one being too small for "such distinguished guests as The Prince of Wales", as Mr Tarver put it. Wadhurst Hall was claimed to have been the first country house in England with several dining tables in the dining room. A long range of stables for summering hunters, new farmsteads, one called "Flattenden", the other "Combe", had been built, a chapel lined with reproduction Spanish tiles had been erected and a conservatory built to make the approach to the chapel under cover.
No wonder that Wadhurst Park was called "The Princely Estate" when it was offered for sale in The Times ten years later. Advertised is the convenience of the South-Eastern Railway as well as the proximity to Tunbridge Wells and London. The acreage is now 1,500 and the new house is "a palatial residence". The land agents found it "impossible to convey even the most inadequate conception to the numerous beauties and advantages possessed by this charming property".
Life at Wadhurst Park was at its most splendid between the middle of the 1880's to the middle of the 1890's. A 33 acre lake was created by Irish workmen and a riding school, tennis courts, an ice rink, a tea house, a boat-house and kennels were added to all the other amenities.
Wadhurst Park became a famous shooting estate, especially known for its duck shoot. The subsequent owners kept up the duck and pheasant shoots until the Second World War. The Murrieta brothers also built what became Wadhurst College for Girls in Mayfield Lane, and Southover at Burwash Common. They also had a house in London at Carlton House Terrace where they stayed many months of the year. The brilliant entertainments given there were quite a feature of the season, and it was in that house that the weddings of José's two daughters were celebrated, with the Prince and Princess of Wales present.
The first wedding was the one of Luisa, who married Lord William Neville, the Marquess of Abergavenny's fourth son, in 1889. It took place in Brompton Oratory, both bride and groom being Catholic. The young lord had created a great flutter in society by becoming a Roman Catholic several years before he met Luisa, and his father cut him off without a penny. So he took to business, starting work in José's office . He promptly fell in love with his employer's elder daughter Luisa.
The wedding was a social event, but what was particularly commented upon was the fact that the Prince of Wales honoured the family with his presence in the Oratory. A great deal of criticism of the Prince was voiced at the time. It was said that he, as heir to the throne of a Protestant country and "Defender of the Faith", ought not to attend a Roman Catholic service in his country. But to him mere forms of religion were not very important. The anti-Roman Catholic Coronation oath which tradition forced him to take was a great source of distress to him, and he successfully worked for its abolition.
The Prince must have felt sympathy and friendship for the young couple, for when he learnt that they had arranged to leave for Paris the same night to spend their honeymoon there, he said to them: "I hear you are off for Paris and as I am also leaving to go there tonight, will you come and travel with me in my special train and boat?". The young couple accepted the gracious invitation, but the bride never forgot how shy she felt on arriving at Calais where a special supper had been prepared for the Prince by the mayor and to which she and the bridegroom were also invited.
One and a half years later, in 1891, the younger daughter Clara married the Spanish Duke de Santona, likewise in Brompton Oratory, and was also honoured by the presence of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Their first born child, a boy, died at birth and was buried in the crypt of the chapel in Wadhurst Hall.
The brilliant years at Wadhurst Park and Carlton House Terrace found a tragic end. In 1890 the financial house of Baring was thrown into crisis when Argentina defaulted on bond payments. The Murrietas were heavily involved with the Argentine Railways and lost their fortune in the aftermath of the crisis. Both Wadhurst Park and the house in Carlton House Terrace had to be sold.
[to be continued in later Newsletters]