Cowdray House, Midhust, West Sussex title banner, a history of a magnificent 16th Cent house, destroyed by fire in the late 18th Cent
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post fire

post fire

post fire

post fire

sinking of the Mary Rose


The Browne family seemed to show a complete lack of interest in saving what was left of Cowdray after the fire. They were probably too stricken with grief and despair after the double loss they suffered. In the weeks following the fire, the whole neighbourhood was allowed to roam through the ruins carrying away anything that could be moved, either as a momentoe, or as an article likely to of some use, or value. There must have been many a house around and about that contained some object from Cowdray, but sadly, many must have been lost or broken. Very occasionally, an article is returned and put on display in the museum at Cowdray.

During the months and years that followed, many learned visitors wrote of the sorry scene that met their eyes. A month after the fire a sketch was published in the Gentleman's Magazine showing the west front of Cowdray. From it, it seems that though gutted, it could easily have been made habitable again. Only the section to the north of the gatehouse and the north range, seem completely derelict, as was probably much of the east range. But the south side of the gatehouse and the south range seemed to be structurally intact.

Very soon, ivy spread through the runs, hiding the stone work and causing untold damage as it prised stones and bricks apart. On windy days the public were kept away, in case one of the walls should fall and kill somebody. Those that became very dangerous were pulled down anyway.

As referred to earlier, only the kitchen tower remained almost untouched. In the kitchen itself, some of the few remaining lesser pieces of furniture and paintings were stored. In the muniment room above, the old documents were left strewn across the floor, getting blown about and soaked by the wind and rain coming in through the broken windows. Any visitor who cared to ascend the stairs to the room could handle and read the papers as he wished and many were stolen, either as souvenirs or because there was a famous signature on the bottom. Some feeble attempts were made to safeguard the few documents that were of some special interest. They were separated from the rest, then nailed up in cupboards around the room and left to decay. The room itself was becoming unsafe and likely to fall into the kitchen below. This is an odd state of affairs as a year after the fire, Mr. William Stephen Poyntz, who through marriage became the new owner of Cowdray, went to the bother of adding a floor, 12ft up in the kitchen, to form a new room. He even added two fireplaces and yet he did not seem to bother to preserve the muniment room above, or look after its documents.

The situation did not change until after Mr Poyntz's death, when the estates were sold to George James, the Sixth Earl of Egmont in 1843, fifty years after the fire. He cut down on the number of people idling through the ruins and stopped people from entering the muniment room. Incredibly it was a further eleven years before the documents were sorted out and taken care of.

The fountain in the centre of the court at Cowdray was removed to Woolbeding, a grand house located nearby, shortly after the fire. There I thought it stayed, but while watching the excellent BBC television series “Royal Heritage” that was broadcast in 1977 as part of Her Majesty The Queen’s Silver Jubilee, I made an interesting discovery. In one part, the Raphael Cartoons were being featured and they were being filmed in their gallery in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Into camera came a large fountain that I though I recognised. I had an illustration of the fountain at Cowdray and I felt certain that the one I saw on the television was the same one. By coincidence, I was going to London the following week and I went straight to the Victoria and Albert Museum and found my way to the gallery, where I as delighted to find, in its centre, the fountain from Cowdray! It seems that it stayed at Woolbeding until the National Trust took the house over in 1956, when the fountain was loaned to the Museum as an example of sixteenth century Florentine bronze fountain. The only alterations that had been made, were that the griffin heads used to be set on the stone surround facing inwards, where as they are now on the centre facing outwards. I as very pleased at finding an original piece of Cowdray that had existed before the fire.

The ruins remained in a state of advanced decay. The north and south ranges had fallen, as had much of the west. Finally, the Eighth Earl of Egmont sold the estates to Sir Weetman Dickinson Pearson, Bart, in 1908. He later became Baron Cowdray of Midhurst and finally put a halt to the decay. He arranged for the careful removal of all the ivy and the restoration of any unsafe structures, including windows, where mullions were missing, to prevent further decay. Excavations and a though survey of the ruins were made, the first ever to be under taken. A low rubble wall to indicate the extent of the building marked the foundations of all the fallen sections. A comprehensive book was written by Sir William St.John Hope, entitled Cowdray and Easebourne Priory and published in a limited edition of four hundred copies. It contained all the results of the survey and for the first time gave a detailed and as far as possible, accurate account of Cowdray’s history.

In 1917, The Baron became Viscount Cowdray and since then the house has remained in the Pearson family, the Third Viscount being the current holder. The family now live in a new Cowdray House, three-quarters of a mile to the east of the ruins, that was built on the site of an earlier lodge that had been the home of all Cowdray’s owners since the fire.

The old Conduit House to the north of Cowdray has now been converted into an interesting house of two stories. All the rooms are triangular as they radiate from the central pillar. It is now called the Round Tower and is the home of the resident custodian, from whom tickets may be bought for admission to the ruins.

Since the preservation of the ruins, the deterioration of Cowdray has almost stopped, except for the slow weathering and damage caused by unthinking visitors as they pull pieces from the wall or scratched their names on the stonework. In recent years, the ruins have been the venue for private parties and some notable rock concerts. Vibrations from the music cause small stones to fall from the walls for weeks after. Annual attempts to de-foliate the walls of creepers and plants that are still growing on them are made, but some plants on the top of the walls survive and turn into small bushes that dislodge large stones. This is the case with the southwest turret where a small bush is growing out of the top and making the turret unsafe. More and more parts of the building have become unsafe and there are many restrictions to access. But if it had not been for the care taken in the last ninety years, there would be a lot less of Cowdray to see, than there is today.

If Cowdray were not a ruin, then I doubt if it would have the same appeal for me. Like so many buildings of its type, it probably would have suffered under the hands of the Victorians, who are notorious for ‘improving’ buildings and so they lose their historic character. Though much of the building has gone, the ruin that remains has matured and regained a character that I think is more authentic in many ways than intact buildings of the same period.

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