Chronicles: Steephill Castle – The Queen of the Undercliff

Following last week’s article on Steephill Castle – From Cottage to Castle – we pick up the story of the Steephill Estate in 1828 when it was bought by a Hampshire gentleman, John Hambrough.  He had been living in Freshwater, in Farringford House (later the home of Alfred Lord Tennyson) which he had ‘improved’ with Gothic embellishments and extensions, but now he wanted to embark on his own ‘grand design’, and chose the Steephill Estate for this.

In 1833 he demolished ‘The Cottage’ along with an Inn and several small dwellings, to build Steephill Castle; it took two years to build, and is said to have cost £250,000, a huge amount for those days.  Sadly,  Hambrough went blind before it was complete, so never saw what was sometimes called ‘The Queen of the Undercliff’.

Steephill Castle had a square ‘keep’ with battlements and a rounded tower rising 85 ft from the ground.  There was a separate stable block with a clock tower (still to be seen on the edge of Ventnor Park) and magnificent gardens, said to include Paliurus Aculeatus – ‘Christ’s Thorn’ – a shrub descended from the plant from which Christ’s crown of thorns was made.  At the entrance there was a stone arch  with the initials of John and his wife Sophie entwined, and the interior of the building was just as grand, featuring magnificent wooden panelling and carvings. The Steephill estate was extensive, including what is now Ventnor cricket ground, and the family could walk down across the fields to Steephill Cove to enjoy the beach there.  The estate was well kept, which seems to have been appreciated by the tenants; in 1869 when considerable work had been carried out, it was reported that:  the new tenants, as an expression of goodwill, invited Mr Honeyman [the steward] to a substantial supper at the Globe Inn.  Songs were sung and the company did not separate until after the short hours had begun their round.

Steephill Castle itself was created for entertaining on a grand scale.  A fancy dress ball given by Mrs Hambrough in February 1867 was described in these lavish terms:

Reception rooms were well filled by a brilliant assemblage.  Dresses were unusually handsome many of them even gorgeous.  The rooms, passages and  entrances were tastefully decorated.  Handsome entrance hall and corridor leading to the drawing room was draped and ornamented with evergreens and choice plants so as to produce, when viewed from the entrance, quite a fairy-like scene.  The large drawing room, in which the dancing took place, was very beautiful.  The fine paintings by which the panels were covered, the oak carvings and the polished oak floor, most successfully revealing the well chosen floral decorations.  A sumptuous meal was laid in the dining room.  The writer also mentions that:  a rather novel feature was introduced – the servants who acted as attendants wore fancy dresses too.”  One wonders how much the servants enjoyed this novel feature.

During his years in Steephill, John Hambrough was a great benefactor to Ventnor; amongst other things he contributed to the  building of St Catherine’s Church and the National Schools  in Albert Street, and Hambrough Road is named after him.  John and his wife Sophie both died in London in February 1863, but were brought back to St Catherine’s Church for burial.

There is a rather sad and surprising footnote to the story of ‘The Queen of the Undercliff’: When it was demolished in 1963,  the builders found that the grand ‘oak’ staircase was made of cheap timber, fashioned to look like oak, and the handsome carved wooden ceiling beams and ornamental woodwork were just plaster mouldings.  All smoke and mirrors!

Lesley Telford, Ventnor & District Local History Society. Sources: Information from documents in our Collection including Fay Brown’s indexes.  We have a ‘Steephill Castle’ exhibition in the Museum with detailed descriptions and photographs and a scale model of this well-loved building.  This article was first published in the South Wight Chronicle in 2016.

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