FROM MANOR TO COASTAL RESORT
THE 7th AND 8th EARL DE LA WARR
Like his predecessors before him, Reginald Sackville, 7th Earl De La Warr, rarely visited his manor in bexhill… preferring instead to stay at Knole House in Kent. However, the growing success of the seaside resort did foster in him a plan to develop Bexhill in much the same way the Duke of Devonshire was developing Eastbourne.
The Lewes To Bulverhythe railway line came in 1846, but Bexhill being positioned half a mile away on top of the hill did not initially have a dedicated station, just a small halt stop next to a coal yard at the bottom of Belle Hill.
The first road that linked the station with the village was built by Samuel Scrivens ow the stretch of London Road leading to Town Hall Square. It serviced the first development outside the confines of the original village of Bexhill – located at the bottom of Belle Hill.
The success of this first expansion encouraged the Earl to begin the development of his land east of the Manor. The tract along Hastings Road was identified as a likely residential overspill for the businessmen of Hastings, and plots were sold by the De La Warr Estate too private individuals at the start of the 1880’s.
The disappearance of farmland became more pronounced with the construction of a large Convalescent Home at the top of Sea Road in 1881.
The Metropolitan Convalescent home took full advantage of the growing numbers of people seeking asylum from the crowded and unhygienic conditions in London. This, along with the alleged therapeutic qualities of the local water instilled within the general populace the idea of Bexhill as a burgeoning health destination.
In 1882, Reginald Sackville was granted a licence from from the High Court to further develop his estate and included plans to build a sea wall from Galley Hill to Sea lane, lay a number of roads in the area and provide an adequate drainage system for the low lying marsh land. He engaged John Webb to construct the sea wall at a cost of £34,000 in cash as part payment. The remaining payment was made up by almost half of the remaining manor land (located on the marsh land to the south of the Old Town) going to John Webb for development.
The sea wall, parade and major drainage works were completed in 1883. It greatly increased the value of the land between the village and the sea, and paved the way for the costal resort of Bexhill-on-Sea, but it came at a great cost. This single agreement caused the biggest fragmentation of Estate Lands at Bexhill in its 1100 year history.
The 7th Earl De La Warr had banked on the trend for urban expansion to follow a westerly trajectory, as seen at Brighton, Folkestone and Eastbourne. This clearly influenced his decision to give John Webb land situated to the south east of the village, and him to develop the land to the west of Sea Road.
Unfortunately for the Earl, the construction of a large Gasworks on Ashdown Road in 1887 greatly hampered his efforts, whereas John Webb went on to successful create the Egerton Park Estate and most of the business district of the New town.
The 7th Earl brought in his second son Gilbert Sackville to manage the estate at this time. Not one to shy away from extravagance, Gilbert moved into Sackville House while he restored and greatly expanded the Manor House in the heart of the ‘Old Town.’
He married Muriel Brassey in 1891 and moved into the now fully renovated Manor House in 1892. In the same year he took full responsibility for the bexhill estate, giving the town of Bexhill its first Lord and Lady in residence in its long history. The move was also seen as the sparking of Bexhill’s ‘Golden Era’ of the 1890’s and the Manor House became its focal point. The existing cattle shed had been turned into a ballroom (now the Manor Barn) and a two day House Warming Ball became the first of many aristocratic weekend parties held at the Manor House.
Muriel initially stood by her husband throughout the crisis, despite her husbands infidelity. However, a chance encounter with a performer appearing at the Kursal led to another affair. The Earl left the Manor House in 1901 to live with Miss Turner, and Muriel petitioned for a divorce in 1902. The scandal rocked the town and Muriel returned to the Brassey home at Normanhurst, leaving the manor house to be leased out once more.
Despite the scandal, the future of Bexhill-on-Sea was assured. 1902 saw a new central train station built on Sea Road and another on Terminus Road to service the new Crowhurst branch. The year also saw Bexhill becoming an Incorporated Borough (the last in Sussex). To mark the occasion and promote the new resort, Earl De La Warr organised the country’s first motor races along the seafront, now widely accepted as the birth of British Motor Sport.
Famously, in 1894, the touring Australian Cricket team played on the purpose built cricket ground to the south west of the Manor House. Gilbert Sackville captained for the ‘Earl De La Warr’s XI’ during two, first-class level matches in the town.
By 1896, Gilbert had converted Sackville House into the Sackville Hotel opened his new entertainment facility the Kursal and hosted an international Cycle tournament at the manor house. With the westbound development struggling to take hold, the expansion and the opulence were funded by a piecemeal sell off of the remaining land, further dwindling the estate. 1896 was also marked by the death of Reginald Sackville, and George inherited the title of 8th Earl De La Warr (having survived his brother who had died in a sailing accident in 1890).
To bolster his finances the new Earl backed a speculative venture headed by the famous entrepreneur and industrialist Ernest Terah Hooley. He used his position to get other earls to back the project. When the scheme fell apart in 1898, Ernest Terah Hooley was left bankrupt and Gilbert Sackville was forced to pay back various ‘sweeteners’ he had received from other investors and created a huge financial crisis for the couple. While they survived the crisis, the earl’s fortune would never fully recover and marked an end to the dominance the sackvilles had on the town.
After WWI, the Manor Barn was sold to Robert Leicester Harmsworth, ending the Sackvilles ownership of the oldest property in the Town.
Robert Leicester Harmsworth stayed at the Manor House until his death in 1937. His widow remained, taking care of their only son (left with serve disabilities after being wounded in France in 1916). Lady Harmsworth died a year after her son, in 1962, and the Manor was put up for sale for the very last time. With no buyers, the Corporation of Bexhill stepped in and purchased the property in 1963.
The ensuing controversy over what to do with the dwelling led to the formation of the BOTPS. Despite being unable to stop the demolition of the Manor House in 1967, it did prevent the site from being turned into high rise flats. They secured the lands as public space, saved the Manor Barn (which it leases and runs as a thriving wedding and and private hire venue) and made sure the most ancient portions of the house were saved. The ruins now form the focal point for the ornamental gardens, and are the last vestiges of a property that was instrumental in history of the town.