Loading

History

In 2011, our splendid and historic Jacobean mansion, Somerhill, celebrated its 400th Anniversary.

Over this time it has seen growth, decline and restoration; it has seen great families come and go and is now home to our vibrant set of schools, looked after under the umbrella of the Somerhill Charitable Trust and English Heritage.

It was also the 401st year of the King James I Bible and 201 years since the painting of Somerhill by JMW Turner, now housed in the National Gallery of Scotland.

On Thursday 26 May 2011 pupils at The Schools at Somerhill enjoyed a variety of activities to enhance their understanding of the historical periods that the mansion has witnessed over the last 400 years. The Mayor of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council was in attendance at a tree planting ceremony to commemorate this historic occasion. This was in fact Councillor Mrs Thomas’ first public engagement after being sworn into office on Wednesday 25 May.

The boys and girls enjoyed a special assembly as well as a 400th birthday cake and released balloons to mark the occasion.

Principal of The Schools at Somerhill, John Coakley, said: “It is wonderful to be working in such a magnificent building and grounds, which enhance the pupils’ learning no end. You would be hard pressed to find a more glorious setting for a school.”

  • The Beginnings: Clanricarde


    Sir Francis Walsingham

     


    Frances Walshingham

     


    Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex

     

    The land on which Somerhill stands was originally part of the Manor of South Frith. By the mid 16th century this had reverted to the Crown, and the monarch at this time was Elizabeth I (born 7th Sept 1533, came to the throne on 17th November 1558 and died on 24th March 1603). Although Elizabeth never married she had her favourites among the men at her court. She gave this land to Frances, only daughter of her Secretary of State and Spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, who died in 1590. (Sir Francis uncovered the famous Babbington Plot in 1587, which implicated Mary, Queen of Scots.) Interestingly, the house of another favourite Sir Robert Cecil, Hatfield House, celebrates its 400th year this year too!

    Frances Walsingham was married three times: first, to Sir Philip Sidney, of nearby Penshurst Place, the famous soldier, poet and courtier, who died young in 1586. After Philip’s untimely death Frances married Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex but he was eventually sent to his death by Elizabeth, executed on Tower Hill in 1601, after an unsuccessful military expedition in Ireland. Frances was left poverty stricken: “Not £40 a year is left for the maintenance of my three poor children!” All Essex’ money had gone to pay his debts, so it was probably at this time that Elizabeth granted the land of Somerhill to Frances, as both Sidney and Essex had been favourites of the Queen, as had Frances’ father, Walsingham.

    Frances’ third marriage (circa 1601) was to Richard Burke, Earl Clanricarde (1572-1635). Richard was a royalist and fought for King James I. He was honoured on the battlefield and had both Irish and English Peerages. This was a unique achievement for an Irish Peer and confirmed his standing with the English Establishment.

    There could well have been a small house on or near the site of the present mansion. Richard and Frances chose a site to build their new house with commanding vistas and natural dignity. Tunbridge Wells, of course, did not then exist (the Chalybeate Spring was first seen by Lord North in 1606). Tonbridge was a huge parish (the largest in Kent) stretching from the foot of the Greensand (Sevenoaks) Ridge to the Sussex border.

    In 1611, early in the reign of King James I, work began on the present building using local sandstone. A first draft of a plan in the Sir John Soane Museum suggests that John Thorpe was the architect. Thorpe designed houses for a number of families in England around that time.

    Although Somerhill is clearly Jacobean in style – like the huge house of the Sackvilles at nearby Knole, Sevenoaks – the design of Somerhill follows architectural rules fashionably derived from Andrea di Pietro, alias Palladio, in his famous classical renaissance villa at Vicenza, near Venice. Until this time large houses had been built with the central “hall” going across the building, but Somerhill reflects a new style to have the Hall running the length of the house. Thus, for its time, the house was one of the most innovative in the country. One of the most remarkable survivals at Somerhill is the complete set of original ornamented lead rainwater heads and rain pipes. The rainwater heads are at their most elaborate on the front of the mansion, some dating from 1611 or 1613 and many include the initials of Robert and Francis Clanrickard (RCF)

  • Civil War and Muskerry


    John Bradshaw


    Ulick Burke (de Burgh), 1st
    Marquis of Clanricarde


    The Pantiles

    The Clanricarde’s son Ulick took up arms during the English Civil War forCharles I. After the Royalist defeat at the Battle of Naseby in 1645, Somerhill was sequestered by Parliament and Ulick forced into exile. The house went first to Robert Earl of Essex who died in 1646. Parliament then voted the Estate to John Bradshaw who had presided over the Court which condemned Charles I to death in 1649 (his is the first signature on the famous death warrant). Bradshaw died in 1659, and the house passed to his son. Initially Bradshaw was given a huge funeral at St Peter’s church Westminster, but a year later his body was dug up and hanged on the gallows at Tyburn.

    Ulick sought to reclaim the house in a deal with Cromwell in 1653 in exchange for estates forfeited as part of the infamous Cromwellian Settlement in Ireland. Ulick died in 1659 and is buried in Tonbridge church. Eventually, with the Restoration of Charles II, the Estate was returned to its rightful owner, Ulick’s only daughter, Margaret, the eccentric wife of Lord Muskerry.

    Soon after that, the new Tunbridge Wells became fashionable with London nobility. Before adequate lodgings were developed around the Pantiles, Somerhill, like certain other nearby big houses, hosted many gentry visiting the Wells to socialise and to take the waters. In 1664 the Queen visited Tunbridge Wells and the Queen’s Ladies stayed at Somerhill and “they went every day to Court or the Court came to them.”

    At this time Lady Muskerry’s appearance was unflatteringly described thus: “… whose husband most assuredly never married her for her beauty; she was made like the generality of rich heiresses to whom nature seems just sparing of her gifts in proportion as they are loaded with those of fortune; she had the shape of a woman big with child without being so, but had a very good reason for limping; for of two legs uncommonly short one was much shorter than the other; a face suitable to this description gave the finishing touch to this disagreeable figure.” Lady Muskerry, a notable hostess, often it seems, took to wearing a cushion under her dress to make believe that she was pregnant. It is her ghost, “The Lady in White” that now walks the Julian Staircase in the Victorian wing of the mansion, but she only reveals herself to men!

    Lady Muskerry’s second marriage was to John Villiers Viscount Purbeckwho did his best to spend their money. Lady Chaworth wrote of him: “He makes what haste he can to consume his lady’s fortune by gaming and all other extravagances”. After Purbeck’s death there was a third marriage to Beau Fielding, but by this time parcels of land were being sold off to pay debts and Lady Muskerry died in financial distress about 1698.

    John Villiers, the son of her second marriage, inherited the much depleted Estate, and like his father he wasted his money gambling and had to sell soon after in 1698 to pay his debts. The estate then passed into the hands of Thomas Deakins (The 'Lowy of Tunbridge' states: THOMAS DEAKINS, gent. of Tunbridge, in 1707, gave to this parish 50l. to put out ten poor boys apprentices; and 50l. more to the poor, which was laid out in building two almshouses).

  • Woodgate

    William Francis Woodgate

    Somerhill, Sketch, c 1809

    Somerhill, 18th Century Engraving

    In 1712 the estate then came into the possession of the Woodgate family; John Woodgate (1664-1727) bought the house now known as Somerhill. Their association with the area is remembered in Woodgate Way, and William Woodgate’s portrait still hangs in the Long Library at Somerhill. By this stage the house was somewhat neglected and Horace Walpole who was touring Kent remarked: “The house is little better than a farm, but has been an excellent one and is entire, though out of repair.” On the 5th August 1752, and full of the romantic spirit, Walpole wrote to his friend, Richard Beatty: ‘We climbed up a hill to see Summer Hill ... it stands high, commands a vast landscape, beautifully wooded and has quantities of large old trees to shelter itself ...”

    The Woodgates were an important Tonbridge family in the 18th and 19th centuries. Before then, according to Parish records, the family were in the Penshurst area in the late 14th century, and later in the Chiddingstone Hoath area, where they lived first in Truggers farmhouse and then in a house referred to as Stonewall but now named Woodgates. This was built by Peter Woodgate in the mid-16th century and still stands, next to Stonewall Park.

    John Woodgate had 13 children, one of whom, Henry, inherited both Somerhill and Stonewall in 1728 and played a full part in public life; he promoted the Medway navigation scheme and left money for an organ in the parish church. Since Henry was childless, he made his nephew William (1743-1809) his heir. William was the son of Henry's brother Francis (1706-90) who had become a curate at Seal, married a local lady and was then given the living of Mountfield in Sussex by the Duke of Dorset.

    William married Frances Hooker, built up a considerable fortune and bought the new house (built by his brother-in-law Thomas Hooker) attached to Tonbridge Castle in 1793 for his son, William Francis (1770-1828). William Woodgate's participation in town life included sending his sons to Tonbridge School, serving as a magistrate, financing the new Town Hall in 1798 (just north of the Big Bridge) and owning about a dozen properties in the town.

    After William died, William Francis (‘The Major’) moved to Somerhill and made improvements to it. He had at least ten children, and one of his daughters married Dr Thomas Knox, the headmaster of Tonbridge School.

    During the threat of a Napoleonic invasion, William Francis commanded a troop of about 55 cavalry volunteers, as part of the West Kent Yeomanry, who were raised from among local inhabitants in 1794. His father had been one of three founders of the Tonbridge Bank in 1792 but in 1816 the Bank failed, bringing ruin to its backers. The Woodgates were hit hard by the agricultural depression at the end of the Napoleonic Wars and sold the same year. (The victorious Duke of Wellington declined to buy Somerhill, dissatisfied with its fox hunting!).

    William Francis was forced to sell Somerhill. Although Woodgates no longer lived in Somerhill after that date, another member of the family, Francis (1781-1843), returned to live in Tonbridge in 1823 when he bought Ferox Hall. With the large family of succeeding generations of Woodgates living in Sevenoaks, Seal, Pembury, Penshurst and further afield, the family features in many aspects of the locality's history throughout the whole of the 19th century.

    James Alexander (1769-1848) became the new owner of the Somerhill Estate and he obtained JMW Turner’s painting, completed in 1811 of the grounds and building before it was sold to the National Gallery of Scotland; its current home. The painting is probably the most exquisite example of Turner’s transformation of the tradition of the topographical house portrait. He had painted the scene apparently for the Woodgate family. His viewpoint was the lakeside looking up through the trees towards the house on the ridge. The honey-coloured stonework is bathed in warm, soft evening light.

    James Alexander was an MP (Old Sarum) There is also a Sarcophagus in the grounds of Somerhill. It is believed to come from Tonbridge Priory where several coffins were found (the site being between Vale Road and Priory Road in Tonbridge, the ruins being demolished to make way for the railway) and Alexander acquired one of these. It is currently sited in the Rose Garden.

  • Goldsmid

    Sir Issac Lyon Goldsmid

    Frederick Goldsmid

    Sir Henry D'Avigdor Goldsmid

    In 1849, Somerhill Estate (which once covered 6,500 acres - 2600 ha) was bought by Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, Bt., a rich City banker.

    He passed the house to his second son Frederick in 1859 and then it went to Frederick’s elder son (Sir) Julian in 1866. Julian's brave attempt at providing a male heir - he had 8 daughters - eventually resulted in a virtual doubling of the house's living accommodation. Building work begun in 1879 (according to dated rainwater heads) and was completed as the (new) Stable Court - with clock tower - in Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee year, 1897. The old (Jacobean) stable court became servants' rooms and domestic offices. The terraces and lawns were added at this stage and the estate took on much of its present appearance.

    Today, the house is the second largest in Kent, after Knole, covering about 2½ acres (1 hectare) and with around 270 rooms.

    On the death of Sir Julian, and in accordance with Sir Isaac’s will (to be passed the house through male heirs), the house went to a grandson of his aunt Rachel, who was married to Count Solomon D'Avigdor. Osmond D'Avigdor Goldsmid was now the new owner

    At this stage it is thought the imitative Jacobean barrel ceiling was put up in the (Grand) Salon. Later it was given a flat Jacobean style and a suite of maids and nursery rooms were inserted above. The room was also extensively re-panelled. The Wainscoting and carved frieze were also added. The Entrance Hall below was similarly much re-panelled and the ornate Italian plaster ceiling renovated. The Jacobean style chimney piece in the adjoining room was retained (its features being in reverse of those also seen on a fine chimney piece at Knole). This chimneypiece of polychrome marble probably dates from around 1878, although subsequent visitors to the house have said that it was brought over in the 1930's from Italy. The Library, running 30 metres (93 feet) - the full length of the south wing and reputedly the second longest room in Kent, after the Gallery at Knole, was also refurbished.

    During the summer months of 1912 there is a mention of an Army Camp being held (in bell tents) in the grounds and in World War II Somerhill was known as POW Camp No. 40. The Army occupied the land from 1940 until 1945. In 1948 homeless squatters occupied parts of the area, and the Army Colonel in charge "locked the squatters in", apparently assisted by old barbed wire. In 1949 the local council had discussions regarding the land, and mention is made of there being at least 40 huts of varying sizes. Sir Osmond died in 1940 and was succeeded by his elder son, (Sir) Henry. Here's a picture of Somerhill from 1914.

    For a fascinating insight into this period, have a look at the Diary of Vinzenz Fetzer, a prisoner-of-war in Tonbridge during the Second World War, as valuably recorded on the website of the Tonbridge Historical Society. Fetzer spent three years at POW Camp No. 40 at Somerhill.

    During the family's residence at Somerhill in the 20th Century, there was some lavish entertaining (Sir Henry's wife, Rosemary D'Avigdor Goldsmid, once likened the place to a hotel, except the guests never paid!). Occasionally guests included royalty, and stories abound about the time spent at the house by David Niven, Enoch Powell, Sir Hugh Casson, Sir John Betjeman and others. Sir Hugh, a good family friend, designed the small changing pavilion by the swimming pool. In the closing years of the family's residence, a much-loved daughter, Sarah, was drowned off the South Coast. Marc Chagall, the famous artist, known to the family, was commissioned to design stunning new memorial windows in nearby Tudeley Church. There is also a commemorative stone in the gardens beyond Yardley Court School's war memorial lych-gate.

    On Sir Henry's death in 1976, Somerhill passed to his sole surviving daughter, Chloe - now Chloe Teacher - who lives at Hadlow Place Farm with her family. Lady D'Avigdor Goldsmid died in 1997.

     

  • 1980 - The Present

    The Chagall Window, Tudeley Church

    Somerhill c 1997

    The View from the Paddock

    Somerhill House, after years of gentle neglect, was sold, with the gardens and parkland in 1980. Thereafter the property changed hands three times in eight years, during which further neglect, decay, storm damage and vandalism took a large toll. The first new owner, in an act of ignorance bordering on vandalism, removed the carved wooden hall screen and over-stained large areas of panelling in the Entrance Hall and upstairs Salon

    What we see today is little short of a miracle. From 1989-91, the house was extensively repaired and restored at great cost, but eventually, with some help from English Heritage, as the house is listed Grade I. Incidentally, some 12 miles of cables were used in the re-wiring!

    The main contractors were Durtnells of Brasted, near Sevenoaks – the oldest building firm in Britain. In 1991, as work drew to a close, this family firm celebrated its 400th anniversary with a big party at Somerhill - one of a number of local houses which the firm very likely helped to build in the first place!

    Today, the estate covers 152 acres (60 ha). There are three schools on site, comprising a “one-stop” independent school campus, overseen by The Schools at Somerhill Charitable Trust. Restoration and development needs for the schools’ use have to continue to be kept in careful balance: much discussion is required with conservation experts and bureaucracy is inevitably encountered, but the building has proved remarkably well suited to its new role. The huge neo-Jacobean Victorian wing has many rooms adapted as classrooms. These are occupied by Yardley Court School, which celebrated its centenary in 1998, and by Somerhill Pre-Prep. The Old Stable Court contains offices and the main mansion houses Derwent Lodge School. Derwent Lodge was founded by the Hon Helen Gully in 1952 and takes its name from the house in Tunbridge Wells where the school was located until it moved to Somerhill in 1993.

    The rooms on the top floor beneath the restored roof of the mansion house the Computer, Art Rooms and classrooms, these having been opened in September 1998.

    The former Grain Store at the top of the Victorian wing has been sensitively restored as classrooms for Yardley Court and some of the old Stables are preserved and are now used as a maintenance workshop.

    The central span between Old Stable Courtyard and Stable Courtyard was reinstated towards the end of 2000 ready for occupation in the January term 2001. This work under the watchful eye of English Heritage and Tunbridge Wells Planning Department was carried out at a cost of approximately £720,000. This building now provides purpose built accommodation for the Pre-Prep, classrooms for the senior schools and administrative offices.

    The formal gardens are, with the approval of English Heritage, based on a low maintenance plan, the formal rose garden at the front of the house being the only one retained.

    In 2000, planning permission was obtained for a scheme that enabled Somerhill to build a multi-purpose hall on the top sports’ terrace. Such a facility greatly enhances the educational opportunities available to each child. The total project costing £1.4 million was completed in the summer term 2002. A further addition to the facilities was the completion of the synthetic grass pitch in 2003.

    The lake bridge at the southern end of the estate which was listed by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council in 1998 as a Monument at Risk was in May 2004 refurbished at a cost of over £170,000 with a grant from the Borough Council of £32,000. It is from this lake that Turner painted Somerhill.

    In April 2006 permission was granted to build a dining room and indoor swimming pool in the walled garden. The enabling work to the actual wall of the walled garden commenced in the spring of 2007 with the main project commencing in the summer. The school moved into the purpose built dining hall in October 2008 and the pool in January 2009. The final phase of refurbishment took place in the summer of 2009 when the areas in the mansion used for catering and administration were refurbished in accordance with planning requirements.

    The Schools at Somerhill now thrive with around 600 pupils. Yet this fine historic building was nearly lost beyond repair during the 1980’s through crude speculation, bureaucratic wrangling and lack of proper recognition of its heritage and potential. What we see now demonstrates the opportunities for restoring and re-using very large historic houses and their grounds. Many hopes, prayers, team work and sheer hard slog have produced Somerhill as it lives today.

back to the top
© The Schools at Somerhill
About the Schools at Somerhill

Welcome to The Schools at Somerhill. A unique family setting of three outstanding schools sharing one stunningly beautiful site.