Arthur Soames: curator of colour

There have been many owners of Sheffield Park and Garden over the years, all of whom have left their marks in one way or another. Arthur Soames was no exception. Perhaps best known for the work he did in the garden, adding much of the vibrant colour we enjoy during spring and autumn, this year we are marking his contribution and continuing his spirit of experimentation.

A passionate plantsman

Arthur Gilstrap Soames came from a family of brewers in Lincolnshire and was the owner of Sheffield Park from 1909 until his death in 1934. Born in 1854 and Eton educated, most of his working life was spent at his malting business in Grimsby.

Malting is the process of germinating dried cereal grain in order to create fermentable sugars used to make beer, whiskey, vinegar and some baked goods. Arthur's brother Harold owned a bewery in Chesterfield, so the family business grew between the two of them. The business made Arthur a rich man, affording him substantial homes around the Grimsby area - he even became the High Sherrif of Lincolnshire - before life bought him to Sheffield Park where he was able to indulge his life long passion for horticulture.

Maltsters from Arthur Soames' brewing business
Sheffield Park maltsters image NOT FOR USE ANYWHERE ELSE
Maltsters from Arthur Soames' brewing business

Having previously visited Sheffield Park when the 3rd Earl of Sheffield was in residence, he had always loved the garden. The Earl had led a very extravagent lifestyle so by the early 1900's, he'd run up a number of substantial debts. Arthur, as one of the Earl’s creditors, had asked for first refusal if the estate ever came up for sale. He was finally able to purchase it on the Earl’s death in 1909.

A beautiful Sussex home

An article written in Sussex Life magazine from 1933, descibes how Arthur invested in the house to bring it up to date. He installed additional bathrooms (there was only one in the whole building), introduced electricity and heating, plus built a new dining room and converted the old one into a billiard room.  The article also talks about his magnificent collection of pictures on the walls of the grand staircase and other rooms.

Sheffield Park House - now privately owned and divided into flats
Sheffield Park House
Sheffield Park House - now privately owned and divided into flats

Horticultural experiments

Arthur was keen to make his impact on the garden as soon as he arrived. He drew on the knowledge he had gained from travelling around the world for inspiration. He corresponded with the famous horticulturalist and writer EA Bowles, as well as other leading horticulturalists of the day including WJ Bean, curator of Kew Gardens 1922-1929, Sir George Holford, owner of Westonbirt arboretum and Professor Sargent, American botanist and director of Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum from 1872 to 1927. 

Edward Augustus Bowles was a keen traveller, especially to Europe and North Africa. He later became elected to the council of the Royal Horticultural Society and has a memorial garden named after him at RHS Wisley. Writing to Bowles from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1923, Arthur explains in detail the plants and trees that he has seen, noting their best growing conditions, season and altitude. The ones he bought back to Sheffield Park were subject to his experimental ways with varying growing conditions, planting trees in different parts of the garden to see if one sheltered or well-watered position was more successful than another in creating autumn colour.

Arthur was also experimenting with hybrid plants, using Kalmia specimens from several sources to create the pinkest bloom. It’s thought Soames bought the Kalmia latifolia bushes to Sheffield Park having seen them at Knapp Hill Nursery in Surrey. This nursery was well-known for importing plants from America and the Far East, as well as experimenting with breeding them, something that would have appealed to Soames’ spirit of experimentation. 

The pink flowers of Kalmia latifolia, or calico bush
Kalmia latifolia, or calico bush, at Sheffield Park, East Sussex
The pink flowers of Kalmia latifolia, or calico bush

As part of his quest to introduce pinker forms to his collection, he planted Kalmia latifolia ‘Clementine Churchill’. This late-spring flowering shrub has dark pink crinkly buds that open in clusters of pale pink flowers against dark, glossy leaves. 

" Some twenty-five years ago I used to visit the Knapp Hill Nursery each year when their Kalmias were in bloom, and I was allowed to select the most promising pink varieties.  I then started to raise seedlings by crossing the best of these with each other, and later Professor Sargent was good enough to send me a small plant of their best pink form at the Arnold Arboretum. It proved to be no better than my best, but it gave me fresh blood, and perhaps improved my strain.  The pick of my seedlings are now in the garden, and they certainly are much pinker than the Kalmias one usually sees."

Rhododendrons, along with roses and azaleas, were also Soames’ passion. With their huge heads of flowers, he probably chose many of the ones in the garden from Knapp Hill Nursery too. Native to Asia and some regions of North America, the nursery was making crosses to develop new varieties. They even had a spectacular border known as the Rhododendron mile which King Edward VII was reputed to have visited. 

The vibrant colours of the rhododendrons at Sheffield Park and Garden
Sheffield Park rhododendrons
The vibrant colours of the rhododendrons at Sheffield Park and Garden

Soames bred later and later flowering hybrids and created Rhododendron ‘Angelo’ Sheffield Park for which he gained three First Class Certificates and several Awards of Merit from the RHS. This is now a commercially available variety.

Soames' influences on Autumn

In 1927, Arthur wrote an article for the RHS magazine, giving a guided tour of the autumn colour in Sheffield Park. We still use this detailed account today as a guide to our gardeners on Soames’ vision for the garden. In it he talks in detail about his choice of trees and shrubs in the garden, the soil conditions, drainage, the affect of the winds, rainfall and the management of the lakes. Arthur’s horticultural passion and knowledge shines through.

Late autumn view across Ten Foot Pond
Sheffield Park late autumn house view
Late autumn view across Ten Foot Pond


A companion later in life

In 1919 at the age of 65, Arthur married Agnes Helen Peel, granddaughter of Prime Minister Robert Peel. Agnes already had a grown-up daughter from her first marriage, and Arthur had no children. Together they had many years of enjoying Sheffield Park and Garden and were renouned for their hospitality. The County Life article said 'for they are never so happy as when they are sharing the delights of their beautiful home with countless friends'. Their annual garden party was an event attended by all the well-known Sussex families and any guests who might be staying with them. With guests entertained by a military band, free to roam the garden and enjoy the views from the house terrace, it must certainly have been a pleasant afternoon.

The next Soames era

When Soames died in 1934, he left Sheffield Park to his wife although his will was contested by his nephew, Arthur Granville Soames. After a protracted legal battle, he eventually won the estate although they reached an agreement to allow Agnes to continued to live there until 1949.

Life changed dramatically at Sheffield Park with the arrival of the Canadian troops during the Second World War and by the time she was 80 years old in 1945, the extent of the wartime damage to the land and buildings was too much for her to cope with. When Arthur Granville Soames took possession, he started restoration work but he too gave up and in 1953 sold the estate to a property company. It was at this point, that in 1954, the National Trust were able to purchase the garden and a few acres of derelict land near the entrance drive. Unfortunately, there was not enough money to purchase the house as well and it passed into private ownership.

Military vehicles in the grounds of Sheffield Park and Garden
Sheffield Park Second World War military vehicles
Military vehicles in the grounds of Sheffield Park and Garden

His enduring legacy

Although he looked after Sheffield Park for a relatively short space of time later in life, Arthur Gilstrap Soames was responsible for much of what we see in the garden today – the daffodils, kalmias, rhododendrons, palms and autumn colour can all predominantly be attributed his planting schemes.Although not remembered as a famous horticulturalist, we hope that Arthur would be most gratified to know that Sheffield Park’s seasonal delights are still being enjoyed by thousands of visitors every year.