Chronicles: Steephill Castle 1 – From Cottage to Castle

Sir Hans Stanley was the Governor of the Isle of Wight between 1764 and 1780, and during this time he built  himself a summer residence on land known as Barkers Farm, which lay where ‘The Parish of Godshill and the Manors of Rew and Appuldurcombe reach the sea at Steephill.’

The farm buildings stood where Flowers Brook is now, and the new house, known as ‘The Cottage’ was north of the road. Despite its thatched roof, it was not a cottage as we would know it, but an elegant residence for an important political figure. The author William Gilpin, observed that: It is covered indeed by thatch; but it makes no more a cottage than ruffles would make a clown into a gentleman, or a mealy hat turn a laced beau into a miller. We everywhere see the appendages of a junket and good living. Who would expect a fountain bubbling up under the windows of a cottage, into an elegant carved shell, to cool wine?  The thing is beautiful, but out of place. (From ‘Observations on the Western parts of England relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty’ 1798)

The entrance from the gate to the house was lined by an avenue of ash and elm trees.  There was a lawn in front, sloping gradually down with an extensive kitchen garden beyond a wicket gate at the right, and on the west of the house there was a stone basin in the shape of a scallop shell, constantly filled with clear water from a spring, as Gilpin mentions. There were magnificent views of St Lawrence to the west and the wide ocean to the south.

Originally from Hampshire, Hans Stanley was MP for Southampton from 1754-1780. As well as being Governor of the Isle of Wight, he served as Ambassador to Russia in St Petersburg and also in France.  Like others of his privileged background and education, he was fluent in several languages, including Latin and French. A scholar of classical history, he was one of the first Trustees of the British Museum, and was comfortably at home with European intellectuals and politicians.   However, despite his gilded career, Stanley seems to have been rather odd and difficult, an awkward, ungracious and eccentric man who never laughed. Horace Walpole, politician and writer, remarked that a document Stanley wrote to defend the British seizure of French ships was  written in Latin, and composed as a dialogue in imitation of Tully’s philosophic works.

Hans Stanley never married (although he left provision for a natural son in his will), and there may have been some mental instability in the family – his father committed suicide, and so did Hans himself, cutting his throat at Althorpe in Nottinghamshire in 1780  when on a visit to the Earl of Spencer.

Stanley left his Steephill estate to his sisters, and it was sold to Wilbraham Tollemache, the Earl of Dysart.  ‘The Cottage’ becoming his favourite residence, although Old John Green, the Parish Clerk of St Lawrence, says in his Memoirs that in 1783 it was partly burned down by a thoughtless person, who was assisting the cook to get dinner for a large party of French gentlemen visitors. To hasten the fire for cooking she threw some dripping on the grate, which caused a furious blaze and set the kitchen on fire, and the man who was on the roof at work, finding the lead was melting, jumped off to escape the fire and broke his leg.

After Tollemache’s death in 1821 ‘The Cottage’ was sold to John Hamborough, who in 1835 started to demolish it to build his own magnificent  folly, Steephill Castle, which became known as the ‘Queen of the Undercliff’.

Next week we have a story for Christmas, but in the New Year we will continue with the history of Steephill Castle and its glory days of balls and entertainments.

Lesley Telford, Ventnor & District Local History Society.  Sources: records in the Society Collection.