Property: Beedingwood House
Location: Horsham, West Sussex
Site report by Anna Clements — Curatorial Research Department of English Heritage
Date: 21st September 2005
About the property:
Beedingwood House is (locally I’m told, according to it’s listing application) a much beloved late Victorian pile located outside Horsham, a small yet historic Sussex market town that dates back to 947 AD. The house is situated 3 miles from the town centre in an area delightfully named Pease Pottage, which is mostly made up of dense woodland and a golf course.
It was built in 1876 by Thomas Anthony Denny, a rather eccentric Irishman who referred to himself as a “pork philanthropist”, owing to his fortune found in the bacon business and the charitable organisations of whom he was a benefactor. Denny was always a religious man, but truly found his faith upon marrying Mary Jane Noel, the daughter of the Reverend Wriothesley Noel who was a prominent evangelical baptist and president of the Baptist Union.
After their marriage, Denny purchased the land in Sussex and set about building his home in order to raise a family outside of what he no doubt considered to be the sin-ridden streets of London. It is to my mind and in my experience as a researcher, rather strange that such a pious man as Denny would choose to build his family home in the style we now refer to has High Victorian Gothic (NB: I will refer to this as HVG throughout the rest of this report for ease).
As a brief sidebar here for context, we know that the HVG style was a reaction to the resurgence in interest in the original medieval gothic style in the 1850s; People loved the aesthetic of gothic throughout the Victorian age for its grandeur, Christian roots and perceived English provenance, however huge changes in building technology, thanks largely to the industrial revolution, meant that the rigid rules around gothic architecture as set out by John Ruskin in his seminal text the Seven Lamps of Gothic Architecture of 1849, were no longer a necessity. The HVG movement gave us buildings that were highly adorned, polychromatic in brickwork, textured and had decorative details that didn’t merely support the structure. Ruskin was not a fan, nor was the great early 20th century British architect Sir Charles Herbert Reilly who we generally know took great umbrage against all decorative architectural forms of any kind, whether art nouveau, jugendstil or the good old arts and crafts movement — he called the HVG buildings “the colour of mud and blood” and believed them to be indulgent nonsense. (NB: Forgive me but even in this role it is rare I get to show off my Art History degree knowledge so I hope you will allow this brief indulgence.).
Back to Denny; his house would be one of the first exponents of the HVG in Sussex, a county mostly littered with grand Georgian houses and quaint historic villages, some of which date back to the Doomsday book. By all accounts, the locals were initially not at all pleased with the new addition, thinking it to be too modern and gaudy, not at all befitting the historic woods that were the site of smaller battles of the Norman invasion and no doubt had stood there long before. One can’t help but picture an episode of Grand Designs with a waist-coated and top-hatted Kevin McLeod looking bereft as our protagonist Denny goes nonchalantly full steam ahead with his dream home while the locals harangue him and his bank account gradually depletes. You get a sense on the site that you are in a very old place indeed; it is beautiful but has an intangible strangeness to it, as if you stand still for too long you will become as rooted to the ground as the ancient trees. After the building project was completed, Denny and his wife took occupancy of the lavish house and by all accounts he was, for a while at least, extremely proud of what he had built. It had every fashionable adornment of the period, with every pattern and style in the HVG architectural vocabulary: gables, cone-topped turrets, grand gothic arches, dormers, enormous bay windows, a porte-cochère opening onto a lush courtyard and, perhaps its most distinctive feature, the round room with its strange row of porthole-esque circular windows. It really is quite a sight to behold, even now. It’s odd then perhaps that none of the records for the house list an architect responsible for the design, which is truly one of the most unique of its kind I have seen of the period. For me, this is additionally frustrating as it makes the case for preservation much more difficult.
Examining the remnants of Denny’s diary, it appears he himself spent very little time in the house. He and his wife struggled to conceive an heir, due in part to their advancing years, and so he busied himself with visiting building projects he funded around the world for the Salvation Army. In fact, he was all way over in Brisbane, Australia when Mary Jane suddenly passed away in 1887. She had not been ill; quite the contrary, she was a spritely 58 year old who had volunteered locally, been very active in the church supporting the poor and needy and such, as well as running the household which hosted regular fundraising events for the Sally Army. Servants had found her one morning in bed, having died in her sleep on the morning of one such fundraiser. By the time a telegram arrived Down Under for poor old Denny, he had already arrived home, finding out that his wife had died a month previously and had already been buried. The local reverend came to visit a few days later and he wrote in his diary that Denny was fundamentally changed, a broken man, haunted by the fact he had neglected his home life to such an extent. But before we start feeling sorry too sorry for him, I might point out he did remarry within a few years; aged 72 he was wed to Elizabeth Hope, the widow of British Evangelist and Temperance movement advocate Sir James Hope, who was aged just 29. You may recall that she was famed for alleging in 1915 that her personal friend Charles Darwin was going to retract his theory of natural selection just before his death, but had no proof of the fact — that should give you some insight into the mindset and convictions of this young woman.
Initially, the couple took up residence at Beedingwood, resuming fundraisers and charitable events. But then something happened. What, I cannot say; the diaries of Denny and Elizabeth, their nearest and dearest and the local clergy, only refer to an “incident” of some kind in the round room in early 1893. This had been used as the entertaining space and games room, and was Denny’s particular pride due to its unusual appointment and decor; the wall was decorated with an huge and intricate mural of romanticised 19th century town scenes, hand-painted between the picture rail and the aforementioned row of upper round windows. Guests apparently found the room to be disorientating and strange, yet compelling, and the mural amplified that sense. Today the original is long gone, but one of the many urbexers who have taken to visiting the property have painted the rotting walls with a large graffiti mural of the house in its original form in red paint, which is eerie to say the least. I have seen the photographs of the original mural taken in the 50s, before the building was sold off to a management company who turned it into a secretarial school, long before it fell into the state it’s in now; it’s an exquisite piece of workmanship (another unknown artisan, sadly) and such a shame to have been neglected as this would’ve greatly enhanced the case for listing. There are aspects of it that are a little disturbing; if you stare at it too long, it almost appears that the characters depicted are alive and moving, so no doubt superstitious Elizabeth would’ve not cared for it. Whatever happened in there spooked the couple so much, they packed up and left for Sydney, Australia for good! The house was put up for sale and was left vacant for a year. Local chit chat said that it was cursed or haunted and would never sell, but it eventually found a buyer.
Edward Douglas Lennox Harvey OBE, his wife Constance, their four children and 20 domestic staff took up residency in Beedingwood House in late 1894. Harvey had retired from his position as rector of Downham Market in Norfolk and was keen to embed himself and his family in the local community in Horsham. Not only did he become Justice of the Peace but was also a Deputy Lieutenant for Sussex, Chairman of Sussex County Cricket Club, a private school governor, chairman of the local Conservative Party, a magistrate, as well as becoming a member of the District and County Councils — a regular polymath you could call him, I suppose. Local records show that Mrs Harvey was much like the first Mrs Denny, in that she liked nothing better than hosting fundraisers and volunteering with the local church. Once again, much like the Denny family, it appears like they were very happy in their first few years in the house, but this didn’t last.
In 1897, the family suffered the loss of their youngest daughter, nine year old Marjorie. The doctor’s report indicated that she had become ill very suddenly and died within a few days. In 1908, Harvey’s youngest son Ernest drowned in a freak boating accident, having just arrived back at Eton after spending the summer holidays at the house. Mrs Harvey herself also passed away just three months later, with the doctor’s report once again citing “sudden illness” with no further detail. The following year, it seems Harvey remarried, with his second wife giving him a son in 1913, but tragedy struck once again the following year when his two eldest sons, Douglas and Frank, were both killed in action almost immediately upon arriving at the battlefield in Flanders. This series of tragedies seemed to give Harvey a change in perspective; he withdrew from public life, retiring from all his various roles and sending his new wife and baby back to his Norfolk home with 17 members of his staff. He however chose to stay in Beedingwood with his butler, a housemaid and gardener. His diary also indicates strange goings on in the round room, but in a lot more detail than Denny; he writes of hearing the figures in the mural talk and sing and beckon him. One entry in April 1922 sticks out in particular and what drew me to want to visit the site during my initial research. He says: “I know not what devils lay in that wall, why they talk to me, what they want or why, but I know they aren’t of this world. I swear on the life of my remaining son that Constance is there, as is Majorie and the others. They are trapped. This room surely is a kind of hell, a hell that I know one day will claim me too”. Harvey himself died in the house in 1938 at the ripe old age of 80. The estate and all its contents was turned over to the state by the second Mrs Harvey in 1943 to help with the war effort. After she moved to the family’s Norfolk estate, she never visited, not even after her husband’s death. Whatever it is, there is something about the place that makes people feel the need to stay away.
As written in my original pitch for the building’s preservation, we know that after the war, the building was used as a rehabilitation facility for ex-servicemen experiencing what we would now call PTSD. Records from that time show that the aforementioned round room was closed off during most of this period after one patient gouged out their own eyes after spending too much time in there (NB: apologies for the graphic description here but I am quoting verbatim for the record). After it was sold off again in the 1950s, the mural was removed in favour of the more de rigeur woodchip wallpaper of the time. The building was then passed between various companies, before being gutted for everything valuable and the land sold off in 1994. It seems the present owners (who can’t be found listed anywhere for love nor money) have left it to rot, no doubt in the hope to sell off the land to developers in this particularly desirable part of the country.
I visited Beedingwood House on behalf of English Heritage, following an anonymous application for grade one listing of the house. We get many of these and they are mostly time wasters, but after researching the history of the house, I felt oddly compelled to do so.
It was raining when I arrived at the property and there was no one there to meet me. I took it upon myself to inspect the house and it is — in my professional opinion — completely unsalvageable. Many of the original features such as flagstones, fireplaces, floor and roof tiles, cornicing and even the floorboards have been taken over the years, no doubt snapped up by salvagers trying to make money from all those Londoners buying and doing up derelict Victorian properties in Brighton. The owners have also clearly allowed for this to happen as there is no site security of any kind. It’s actually one of the saddest cases I’ve ever seen in this role, with many of the upstairs rooms already caved in and the roof almost completely exposed to the elements. This incredibly grand house has been purposefully left to go to waste to the point it is no doubt only a few years from falling down entirely.
Before I left, I went to inspect the infamous round room. With its aforementioned red graffiti and missing floorboards, it looks like something from a horror film. One must walk on the beams in order to take a closer look, but there is a good four foot fall beneath into the foundations, so I did not take my chances. It was strange though and worth remarking that I swear I could hear voices in the room — like children’s laughter or crowds or something — coming from the walls. I brushed this off as noise from the nearby road and silliness on my part from reading the rather creepy notes on the train down here. I looked up through the floors, once covered in floorboards and now just supporting beams all the way up to the fully exposed roof, and I’m sure I saw something. Something where once a floor would’ve been. Something like the underside feet, walking, which is impossible because there is no floor left. But it can’t have been, surely. Whatever it was, I couldn’t make myself go back in — it made my blood run cold. It made me feel as if my presence wasn’t wanted there, like I was in danger if I stayed. The taxi had waited for me and I immediately made haste back and got the train back to the office.
Whether what the Dennys and the Harveys had witnessed was real or not, or what it was is not for me to say. All I can say is I hope that when Beedingwood eventually succumbs to its neglect, whatever has made its home there goes with it.