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The history of Monk’s House

Virginia Woolf's bedroom at Monk's House, East Sussex
Virginia Woolf's bedroom at Monk's House | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Whilst most famously known as the house of author Virginia Woolf, and her husband Leonard, over its 400-year history Monk’s House has been home to several interesting characters. Nestled in the Sussex village of Rodmell, surrounded by the South Downs, it has been a fixture in the history of the village and the lives and trades of many that lived there over the centuries.

The humble beginnings of Monk's House

Originally built in the 17th-century in the village of Rodmell, East Sussex, it is likely that Monk’s House was constructed at the request of a John Chambers as an outbuilding for his manor hall. According to a vernacular building survey conducted in 2018, the original two-storey, timber frame house followed a ‘three-cell’ structure comprising a hall, two parlours and two chamber rooms.

Sold to a locally respected carpenter by the name of John Clear (or Cleere) in 1707, the house, now known as ‘Clere’s House’, remained with the Cleere family for almost 90 years. During this time, the house underwent significant structural change. Partitions and divisions were removed to make room for the busy household. After a succession of family deaths, Cleere’s House found itself once again up for sale in 1796.

The heart of the community

Faced with the social and economic problems of population growth, Britain began to consider new agricultural methods to feed its communities. A non-intensive agricultural system of fowling and fishing was replaced with high-intensity arable farming, and low-yielding crops like rye were supplemented with high-yielding crops such as wheat and barley.  

It is possible that this agricultural revolution brought the next owner of Monk’s House to Rodmell in 1765. Initially settling into the property as a tenant, it wasn’t until 1796, and the death of his father, that the yeoman John Glazebrook was able to purchase Monk’s House. Soon after, in 1810, Glazebrook decided to resurrect the family trade of milling, purchasing the Rodmell mill in 1810 for £700. The stones of this mill later became the paths that paved the garden.

The Glazebrook family flourished in Rodmell and successive generations bought other properties within the village and expanded their trades to include bakers and shopkeepers.

The garden

With the community of Rodmell wishing to remain largely self-sufficient during times of agricultural pressure, Monk’s House was bought by local farmer Jacob Verrall in 1877 and the garden of Monk’s House developed into a small vegetable empire. Peas, beans, broccoli, onions and cauliflower could all be found sprouting from its soil, and the Woolfs later found evidence of pig houses and hen houses.

Following the sudden death of his wife Lydia in 1912, Jacob Verrall took little interest in the pleasures of his home and garden, dying on 10 March 1919 having starved himself to death from grief.

The Woolfs move in

Monk’s House went up for auction for the final time in the summer of 1919. The Woolfs had already purchased a property in Lewes, but a visit to the bountiful garden at Monk’s House persuaded Virginia that her heart lay in Rodmell.

Leonard and Virginia Woolf bought Monk's House as somewhere to write in the tranquillity and beauty of the Sussex Downs, far from the constant interruptions of London. In the beginning, Virginia noted that there were ‘no buses, no water, no gas or electricity’. Though the Woolfs improved the house over their 50 years here, its rustic simplicity and charm was retained.

In a letter to Katherine Arnold Forster, Virginia wrote:

‘We came down last month to look at the Round House; on the way up from the station saw a notice of an old house to sell at Rodmell; went and bought it at auction for £700… now in 10 days or so Mr Gunn is going to move us in the farm waggons across the Bridge to Monk’s House. That will be our address for ever and ever; indeed, I’ve already marked out our graves in the yard which joins our meadow.’

- Virginia Woolf

The Woolfs at Monk’s House

The Woolfs had bought the house for £700, along with some bone-handled knives and forks, kale pots, sheep digging trough and three paintings of the Glazebrooks. Monk’s House was in poor condition. The floors of the living room were damp, there was no bath and the house was supplied with no water and little heat.

Renovations to their beloved country retreat began in earnest. In 1920, the small kitchen was extended into the coal store. 1926 saw the completion of a bathroom supplied with hot water, and in 1929 the garden acquired a 2ft fishpond, a new terrace and beehives. A two-room building extension allowed for the construction of Virginia’s garden bedroom.

A room of one’s own

A writing lodge was created for Virginia to work in and was decorated with paintings by her sister, Vanessa Bell, and niece, Angelica Garnett.

Commuting to the writing lodge each day with the 'regularity of a stockbroker', Virginia would spend hours writing and even sleep here on fine summer evenings. With the tranquillity of the Sussex Downs through the window and the garden surrounding her, it was the perfect place to write.

She finally had a room of her own.

Creating the garden

When the Woolfs arrived at Monk's House, the garden was little more than an allotment in the ruins of old farm buildings. Half a century later, Leonard Woolf had overseen the creation of a beautiful English country garden full of ornamental beds, a charming orchard and enviable vegetable patch.

Virginia Woolf was greatly influenced by the garden and her short story 'The Orchard' was inspired by the garden at Monk's House. Guests would be invited for a game of chess or bowls on lawn. Tea and debate would take over long summer afternoons.

Moving on

Leonard continued to live in the House after Virginia’s death in 1941, and the property remained with him for the rest of his lif, then bequeathed Monk’s House to his companion, the artist Trekkie Ritchie. In 1969, the house was transferred to Sussex University in 1972.

Concerned about the house falling into a state of disrepair and wishing to conserve the property as it stood during the Woolfs' occupancy, Nigel Nicolson, son of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, wrote to Quentin and Anne Oliver Bell in 1975 about the possibility of its purchase by the National Trust. After six years of campaigning, this was approved by the Queen in Council in 1981, leaving the way free for the Trust to open the house to the public.

Virginia Woolf's writing desk in the Writing Lodge at Monk's House, East Sussex
Virginia Woolf's writing desk in the Writing Lodge at Monk's House | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Were there ever any monks at Monk’s House?

The answer is probably not. Leonard Woolf was incredibly interested in the history of his home and had come across a legend that told of the house belonging to the 15th-century Lewes Priory which used the property as a ‘retreat’ for its monks. However, Leonard found no deeds to the property before 1707 to substantiate this claim and a recent survey concluded that the house was likely built in the 17th-century.

The house was variously named ‘Cleeres’ and ‘Glazebrooks’ after its occupants at the time. As far as we can tell it acquired the name ‘Monk’s’ shortly before the Woolfs took ownership. It is thought the name arrived with a previous occupant who had lived at Monks Gate, Horsham. This is pure speculation, and the name's origin remains a mystery.

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