The house has never been the seat of a titled family, but each occupier seems to have had an abundance of enthusiasm and enterprise.
JOHN SPERLING was the son of Henry Sperling of Dynes Hall in Essex. When he was 26, in 1789, he married Harriet Rochfort, a relation of the extinct Earls of Belvedere. He must have been a man of foresight to commission Latrobe, who was a year younger than himself and who had never before had free rein to design a complete building. We can imagine Sperling and Latrobe finding this idyllic setting, featuring a simple iron-master's house, not far away from the Bower House which Sperling already owned. The remains of the former house have been uncovered in the recent restoration work and remain exposed in the West Wing bathroom. Together, Sperling and Latrobe created the property which you see today. The Water-Garden to the east of the house was constructed at this time, together with shrubberies which have long since been lost. It is sad that Sperling was unable to enjoy Hammerwood for very long, as he returned to Essex to look after his father when his mother died in 1795.
THE DORRIEN MAGENS family were descended from two banking families and by 1798 were supplying silver bullion to the Royal Mint for the production of shillings. At this time they lived at Hammerwood; Magens Dorrien Magens lived with his wife (n‚e Lady Henrietta Rhys, at Hammerwood Lodge (as it was then called) and it seems that his brother, General Dorrien Magens, occupied Thornhill, next door. Magens Dorrien Magens proved an interesting character, who, due to the threat of the Napoleonic invasion of 1803 was instrumental in the setting up of a volunteer force of over 1000 men to act as 'Home Guard'. He was a leading London banker and MP for Carmarthen. He died in 1848, leaving Hammerwood to his son, John Dorrien Magens, who is remembered for being the man responsible for the connexion of East Grinstead to the railway system at Three Bridges in 1855. He was chairman of the local railway company until 1865, when it was purchased by the Brighton Line and extended to Tunbridge Wells.
In the evening, soon after nine o'clock, the bonfires on the hills in the park were lighted, which, with some rockets thrown up, were seen for a considerable distance round the county. The company invited to the ball began to assemble soon after, the exterior of the house being brilliantly illuminated in red and white lamps, and surmounted by a grand flag. The eastern pavilion was converted into a tasteful ornamental tent, in which the hostess received her visitors; the staircase, hall, and dancing-room being beautifully decorated with wreaths of natural and artificial flowers, amidst a dazzling blaze of light. Mr. Listolff's band struck up soon after ten, when the Ball was opened with a Quadrille by Mr. J. Magens and Lady Harriet Neville, Lord Sheffield and Lady Mary Pelham, the Hon. Mr. Rice and Lady Anne Holroyd, Mr. Orde and Miss Anne Magens, etc., etc.. The dancing was continued with great animation till twelve o'clock, when a magnificent display of fireworks took place, conducted by Mr. Hengler; this part of the entertainment afforded much delight to upwards of a thousand of the country people assembled on the occasion, whose behaviour, though animated and joyous, was perfectly decorous and orderly. At half past one the folding doors of the great library were thrown open, and produced a most enchanting and cheerful effect; the room was splendidly illuminated by festoons of lamps and fitted up with orange and lemon trees, and various exotics and flowers as a conservatory. The supper was of the most elegant description, and consisted of soups, abundance of hot game and poultry, and every other delicacy the season would afford; the wines were in great profusion and of the choicest flavour. Covers were laid for over 200 persons, for all of whom ample room was provided in the library and dining- room. The health of Mr. J. Magens was drunk with enthusiasm, and after a few short but appropriate speeches, the party returned to the ball room, where waltzes and quadrilles were resumed, and kept up till a late hour, the rooms not being cleared till six o'clock in the morning. The whole entertainment was under the direction of Mr. Gunter, whose arrangements gave the highest satisfaction.
The Dorrien Magens coat of arms is noted in heraldic circles as it contains the only examples of the Cross Hamecon. Three generations of this enterprising family enjoyed living at Hammerwood and they finally sold the house in the mid-1860s to another banker.
The new owner was OSWALD AUGUSTUS SMITH of Smith's Bank, now incorporated into the National Westminster Bank. The Smiths are reputed to have been descended from the Carrington family and Oswald Augustus' sister, Frances, married Claude Bowes-Lyon and so became the grandmother of Her Majesty the Queen Mother. Oswald Augustus maintained not only his 1700 acres of woodland and farmland, but also provided a gas installation and roof insulation for Hammerwood. In addition, he took care of the surrounding community and provided a school for 100 children in the village as well as commissioning the building of St Stephen's Church, Hammerwood and the Church at Holtye. He was the mainspring and chief benefactor of the Victoria Memorial Hospital in East Grinstead.
In 1901 THE REV. GEORGE FERRIS WHIDBORNE, a clergyman, was so impressed with the unusual and abundant wildlife at Hammerwood that he moved his large family from Dorset to Sussex to observe and enjoy this children's paradise. The young were encouraged to sketch and make notes of all that they saw. When away at boarding-school, they wrote long letters home enquiring after the pheasants, tree-felling and the family mongoose! A cousin of the Whidbornes recently recalled some of her adventures when she visited Hammerwood as a child:
"I used to stay quite a bit at Hammerwood. It was a happy house. It had Nanny (Nurse Manners), a nursery maid and a lovely nursery full of delightful things - a large rocking-horse and musical box, for example. But we were out and about whenever we could ... many were our adventures; we fell in the lake, shallow with weeds; we talked to tramps - to Nana's horror. We all picked blackberries for Nana to make into jam over the nursery fire. There were greenhouses of oranges, grapes, peaches and nectarines - ruled over by one Whitlock who lived in a lovely addition to the Laundry, overlooking the garden. We visited the vine-house and saw the grapes, etc., but we didn't pick: only the Head Gardener had them picked and sent to the house. Another favourite haunt of ours was the Oast House and we would ride from the hop- garden on top of the bags of hops. The Oast House fire was a large brasier and we baked potatoes on it."
In the first week of October, 1911, the local paper reported:During the past week there have been very pleasant festivities at Hammerwood, near East Grinstead, in celebration of the coming of age of Mr. George Whidborne, eldest son of the late Rev. G.F. Whidborne [who had died the previous year] and Mrs. Whidborne, and all sections of local residents have had an opportunity of joining in the proceedings. On Saturday tea was provided for all the women and children on the estate, and some 200 partook of a bountiful meal. Later on there were fireworks and illuminations. The terrace was very effectively bedexked with fairy lamps by Mr Whitlock, the head gardener, , while the display of lights in the park was also very good, and the fireworks on the lake were a source of great delight. There was a supper party at the mansion the same evening, when about 60 personal friends of the family were entertained. On Monday a dinner was given to the tenants and employ‚s of the Hammerwood Estate, when a party of 70 sat down ..."
The various speeches were reported and George replied in the hope that the day might come when he should be presiding over a similar gathering on the coming of age of his own son.
The First World War claimed the life of George, without whom family life at Hammerwood could never be the same. During the rest of the War, Thornhill (the dower house on the estate) became a home for disabled soldiers. George had been awarded the M.C. and this was also awarded to his two brothers, who were lucky enough to have returned. The older of his sisters worked with the Red Cross.
After the War, all the children, who had now grown up, went their differing ways, leaving Hammerwood behind. Their father's ambition to become a missionary was fulfilled by Elfrida, who went to the Sudan. Excitement came when, in 1919, the prep school in Tunbridge Wells, which the Whidborne children had attended, burned down and so St Andrews moved to Hammerwood whilst new premises were found in Forest Row. The old boys remember playing cricket against Ashdown House (Latrobe's other English building, still in use as a flourishing school) and walking through rhododendrons.
Due to Death Duties, 843 acres of the estate were sold in 1918. Three years later the it was necessary to the family to sell the remaining estate. A further 1300 acres of local farms were sold off, the house was sold and the contents auctioned. Hammerwood Lodge ceased to be the hub of local life. Left with 320 acres of adjoining park and woodland, the name was changed to Hammerwood Park.
The purchaser was LT. COL. STEPHEN HUNGERFORD POLLEN, C.M.G. who led a most distinguished military career, having been A.D.C. to the Viceroy of India and winning medals in India and South Africa. His family were the first residents to enjoy an electricity supply and water from the mains. It is an interesting coincidence that one of Col. Pollen's ancestors, Richard Pollen (brother of Sir John Pollen, Bart.) married the daughter of S.P. Cockerell, the architect under whom Latrobe studied.
In the 1930s, the TAYLOR family purchased and they were the owners when the Second World War broke out. As with all large houses, Hammerwood Park was requisitioned by the Army. It became home to 200 soldiers, including Denis Compton, the cricketer. They left their mark on the house as we have found army scarves, boots and Canadian cigarette packets under the floorboards. Tanks were hidden in the woods and later, aircraft: the R.A.F. used the house for S.O.E. operations to France flying Lysanders from a temporary runway to the north of the Park.
After the War, the CHATTELL family moved to Hammerwood. They recognized the problem of how such a large house could be usefully preserved. They eventually divided the house into eleven apartments, thinking that this would ensure its long-term preservation. The flats became vacant, however, as dry-rot mushrooms appeared on the walls. But when it was sold by auction in 1973, a pop group had another idea.
LED ZEPPELIN dreamed of a musical centre with a recording studio and living accommodation for the members of the group and their families. Plans were drawn but never executed due to their increasing commitments abroad and the worsening problem of the dry-rot. During this time, massive vandalism took place and three tons of lead were removed from the roof, allowing thousands of gallons of water to enter in fourteen different places, which then fed wet rot. The dry rot galloped throughout the structure. The house was boarded up in 1976 and offered for sale over the following years. Whilst the group were criticised at the time, at least their ownership removed the house from the property market and teh commercial developers, paving the way for a subsequent resurrection.
Eventually in June of 1982, Hammerwood Park was advertised for sale in Country Life. Its condition had deteriorated so much that only a sketch illustrated the full page advertisment with underneath the words 'In need of modernisation'!
It was bought by David PINNEGAR, who had just graduated from Imperial College, London, as a physicist, aged 21. Having come from a family of conservationists and also being fortunate enough to inherit his grandmother's house, it was possible to sell that to purchase Hammerwood Park.
How sad we felt to gaze on it
No windows, roof or doors
Battered hard by wind and rain
With hardly any floors.
The damp and cold was everywhere
It chilled you to the bone.
We felt this never more would be
A cheerful, happy home.
This pile was found by three good folk
Who couldn't bear to see
This ruined house in such a state
So they obtained the key.
We'll do our best to give it back
Its former looks and grace,
Then open to the public
This fine and noble place.
These three good folk have kept their vow,
It's really worth a visit:
The house has doors and windows now
And teas are served within it.
Now Eileen, John and David
With Alan, George and Pat,
Deserve a medal for the work
And a feather in their cap.
Do go along, don't miss this treat
It really does look good,
There's lots to see and hear about
At lovely Hammerwood.