The history of Sissinghurst Castle Garden

Open doors leading through to a courtyard with Sissinghurst in the background

Our past is a complicated one; spanning many centuries, monarchs and uses. Delve into the past of one of the most intriguing places in the Weald of Kent.

How Sissinghurst became a castle

The site that Sissinghurst Castle Garden sits on was once a Saxon pig farm, it would have been originally called 'Saxenhurst', with 'hurst' having meant woodland.
The tudor buildings were used as a prison for up to 3,000 French sailors who were captured by the British during the Seven Years War, between 1756 - 63. Held for months at a time in vile, stinking conditions, the prisoners lived in 'cells' with little access to fresh air, clean water or adequate food supplies.
The sailors referred to Sissinghurst as 'le chateaux' hence 'castle' being adopted in to its name, although not a direct translation. 
An original ink and dye drawing on display in the library gives a remarkable insight into what the Sissinghurst site would have looked like in the 18th century. 

Sissinghurst in the 19th century 

In 1796 the Cranbrook 'Councillors' took out a lease on Sissinghurst from the owners at the time, the Mann-Cornwallis family, this was to be used as a poor house for the able bodied. Around 100 men were offered housing, employment and food. The owners repaired many of the buildings, their legacy is apparent even today, on the weather vanes you can see the markings MC 1839. The inmates worked the farm which became profitable for the local parish. When the estate reverted back to the Cornwallis family in 1855 it was the beggining of a great period of Victorian 'high farming,' the Sissinghurst farm was deemed to be the best on the whole of the substantial Cornwallis estate. 

Sissinghurst in the early 1930s

When Vita Sackville-West and Harold purchased Sissinghurst in early 1930 it looked quite different to the present day. The buildings were used to house farm workers, the current famous garden had yet to be laid out and was mostly growing vegetables for the workers. The surrounding farm was growing cereals as well as having well established orchards and hop gardens. 

The view from the tower in 1932
The view from the tower in 1932

The Women's Land Army

During the Second World War the shorthorn dairy cow enterprise continued. The milking and day to day operation of the herd were assisted by members of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) who used to get up at 5.30am to milk the cows. Molly Carr, was a member of the WLA who lived and worked on the farm. Vita Sackville-West was heavily involved in the organisation and welfare of the WLA in Kent. 

Vita and a group of her 'shillingses'

The garden at Sissinghurst Castle opened to the public in the late 1930s. The admission fee was 1 shilling, hence Vita's name for visitors to the garden - shillingses. Visitors would often leave their admission charge in an old tobacco tin on a table under the entrance archway.
Vita with her 'shillingses' at Sissinghurst Castle Garden
Vita with her 'shillingses'


Sissinghurst in the 1940s

The library at Sissinghurst in the 1940s
The library at Sissinghurst in the 1940s
A photograph of the library found in the collection at Sissinghurst Castle shows how it would have appeared in the 1940s. Prior to it's conversion, this large, long room formed part of the stables.  This room wasn't used often by VIta and Harold unless they had important and grand guests.

Sissinghurst in the 1950s

By the 1950s Sissinghurst was a working farm with a yard and machinery all over the site. Several of the buildings no longer exist whilst those that remain have a completely different use today, the gift shop was once the piggery and the restaurant was the granary.
The view from the tower in 1950
The view from the tower in 1950

The last private owners of Sissinghurst

Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson were the last private owners of Sissinghurst Castle.  After Vita's death in 1962, Harold decided that Vita's beloved Sissinghurst should be given over to the care of the National Trust. We started taking care of it in 1967.