What happened to Hightown?

My Manser ancestors lived at Hightown near Wadhurst in Sussex from the time of Richard III until the early eighteenth century. (I trace my connection to the Mansers of Hightown through my 10 x great grandmother Mary Manser, who married Stephen Byne in 1611.) Hightown stood on the Wealden Heights, about 400 feet above sea level, and was inhabited from the thirteenth century onwards, and perhaps before. In 1483 it was recorded as the home of Sir Robert Manser or Maunser, my 15 x great grandfather, described by one source as ‘a substantial landowner, whose descendants were great iron masters.’  According to the same source:

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.

Sir Robert Manser’s grandson, Christopher, my 13 x great grandfather, who lived at Hightown during the reign of Henry VIII, also owned properties at Riseden, Gregories and Wenbourne. On his death in 1545, Hightown passed to his eldest son, my 12 x great grandfather Robert, and on the latter’s death to his eldest son William, older brother of my 11 x great grandfather John Manser of Wadhurst (father of Mary who married Stephen Byne). William was succeeded by his son Nicholas, who died in 1653, the property then passing to the latter’s eldest son Thomas, and then to his son Nicholas, who died in 1674. Hightown then became the home of a third Nicholas Manser, the son of Thomas’ younger brother Herbert.

Deer at Wadhurst Park, Sussex, site of Hightown (via geograph.org.uk)

Deer at Wadhurst Park, Sussex, site of Hightown (via geograph.org.uk)

When this last Nicholas Manser died, some time before 1688, Hightown passed to his sister Constance. She had married William Crouch of Heathfield in 1673. They had a daughter, also named Constance, who married a clerk named Mr Wall. By the time William Crouch wrote his will in 1702 (he died in 1706), the Walls already had a daughter, yet another Constance, since she is named as a beneficiary of the will. Constance Wall married Joseph Weller of The Castle in Dallington in 1717.

Constance Weller retained ownership of Hightown until her death in 1761, when it passed to her brother-in-law John Newington of Wadhurst. The property remained in the Newington family until the early nineteenth century, by which time very little of the original house remained, most of it being of later, eighteenth-century construction. Apparently a map from 1839 shows Hightown with a house, gardens, outbuildings and cottages, the estate now covering 261 acres. 

wadhurst hall

At around this time the name of the property changed from Hightown to Wadhurst Hall. The website of the Wadhurst History Society takes up the story:

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. 

Sadly, this lavish lifestyle came to a sorry 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. 

The purchaser was Julius Charles Drew, co-founder of the Home and Colonial Stores. At least one more owner followed, and then:

During the Second World War the house was requisitioned for troops. Prior to the Dieppe raid and before D-Day Canadian soldiers were billeted there awaiting embarkation to Normandy. After that it was used as a prisoner of war camp. In 1948 because it was so dilapidated the house was demolished. 

In 1976 the estate was purchased by Swedish-born businessman and billionaire Dr Hans Rausing, said to be the richest man in Britain, who built a distinctive one-storey house, retaining parts of the old house as a feature of the gardens.

Part of Hans Rausing's modern reconstruction of Wadhurst Hall

Part of Hans Rausing’s modern reconstruction of Wadhurst Hall

In 2012 tragedy struck the family when Rausing’s daughter-in-law, socialite Eva Rausing, was found dead at her Belgravia home. Her husband, Rausing’s son, Hans-Christian, was convicted of possessing Class A-drugs.

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