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The history of Sheffield Park and Garden

18th-century watercolour of Sheffield Park by an unknown artist, shows the view across the lake towards the house with deer in the trees and people on the edge of the lake
18th-century watercolour of Sheffield Park by an unknown artist | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

There have been many owners of Sheffield Park and Garden over the last 250 years, all of whom have left their marks in one way or another. From Capability Brown’s foundations to Arthur Soames’s horticultural legacy, discover more about the history of this historic parkland and woodland.

On purchasing Sheffield Park in 1769, John Baker Holroyd (later First Earl of Sheffield) set about remodelling the house and garden in the latest fashionable style. He brought in architect James Wyatt to design the house and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphry Repton to work on the garden.

'Capability' Brown and Humphry Repton at Sheffield Park

Brown created walks through the woodlands, with clearings to give views down to the lakes and nearby Fletching village.

Dotted around the garden and parkland you can still see oaks in groups of threes and fives, breaking up the landscape, but cleared around the base so as not to obscure views.

Of the five lakes, it’s Upper and Lower Woman’s Way Pond that were originally created by Brown, a feat of 18th-century engineering in itself.

Repton is brought in

Later, in 1789-90, Lord Sheffield brought in landscape gardener Humphry Repton to advise on the lakes nearer to the house.

To help illustrate his designs to his clients, Repton produced Red Books of beautifully rendered watercolour illustrations and explanatory text showing before and after pictures of his proposed changes.

Repton's Red Book regret

Sheffield Park appears to be unique among Repton’s work as the one country estate he worked on for which he did not produce a Red Book.

In a letter to Lord Sheffield in 1801, Repton lamented this omission, describing in detail his proposals for changes to the garden, parkland and lakes and mentions sketches and drawings that he has produced.

A missing letter

However, the only known copy of this letter is a 1930s typed transcript held by Harvard University which does not include any drawings or sketches.

With Lord Sheffield’s documents and papers being much dissipated since his grandson’s death in 1909, the location of the original letter remains a mystery.

The extravagant Third Earl of Sheffield

Henry North Holroyd was born in 1832. He served in the military and became an MP before succeeding his father in the earldom in 1876.

Lord Sheffield was well known for his love of entertaining, hosting local flower and vegetable shows, as well as annual picnics for up to 2,000 children who were treated to games, music, pony rides, diving displays and fireworks, all at his own expense.

Offering the use of the land

As an ex-military man, he also offered his land to the Volunteer movement who would stage mock battles, test explosives and hold overnight camps.

The cricket legacy at Sheffield Park

However, the Earl’s first love and biggest extravagance was cricket. The cricket pitch was built for him by his father in the mid-1800s, but on inheriting the earldom, Lord Sheffield set about creating a world-class cricket pitch, suitable to host international matches.

He famously hosted the Australian cricket team in 1896, along with 25,000 spectators and the Prince of Wales.

Lord Sheffield had a number of pavilions built around the ground for his guests and visiting players. Two of these were of a very lavish design, made out of cast ironwork, painted blue with details picked out in gold. Sadly, none of these buildings survive but photographic records help us to visualise them.

In a time before central authorities organised cricket tours, Lord Sheffield arranged and financed the 1891-92 England tour to Australia. During the tour he donated £150 to support Australian cricket, which was used to buy the Sheffield Shield. This trophy is still played for in Australia today.

These days, the ground is used by a local team, the Armadillos, whose pavilion you can see. Matches are played here throughout the summer, reviving the passion and history of cricket at Sheffield Park.

The Earl's expensive hobbies

The Earl had many other hobbies and interests that proved expensive. He loved to travel, and as well as shorter trips on his own yacht, ‘Heloise’, he would take long winter holidays to places such as Pompeii and Egypt.

His changes to the garden would also have been a costly exercise, with much planting taking place under the Earl’s ownership as well as the building of the Pulham Falls and expansion of the top two lakes and storage pond.

Some of the collection is sold

By 1907 the Earl had begun to sell off some of the art and library collections, suggesting financial problems. He died in 1909, unmarried and in debt.

Arthur Soames

Arthur Gilstrap Soames 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 before life brought him to Sheffield Park where he was able to indulge his lifelong passion for horticulture.

Having previously visited Sheffield Park, he had always loved the garden. As one of the 3rd Earl’s creditors, he had asked for first refusal if the estate ever came up for sale and was finally able to purchase it on the Earl’s death in 1909.

A beautiful Sussex home

A 1933 article in Sussex Life magazine describes how Arthur invested in the house to bring it up to date.

He installed additional bathrooms, introduced electricity and heating, and built a new dining room converting the old one into a billiard room. The article also talks of his magnificent collection of pictures on the walls of the grand staircase and other rooms.

Arthur marries

In 1919 at the age of 65, Arthur married Agnes Helen Peel, granddaughter of Prime Minister Robert Peel. Agnes had a grown-up daughter from her first marriage, and Arthur had no children. Together they enjoyed many years at Sheffield Park and Garden and were renowned for their hospitality.

A wooden bench is set near an Acer palmatum by the Upper Womans Way Pond at Sheffield Park, East Sussex in autumn
A wooden bench near an Acer palmatum by the Upper Womans Way Pond at Sheffield Park | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Horticultural experiments and autumn colour

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.

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.

Collecting plants from Sri Lanka

The ones he brought 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 also experimented with hybrid plants, using Kalmia specimens from several sources to create the pinkest bloom. Rhododendrons, along with roses and azaleas, were also Soames’s passion.

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. Our gardeners still use this detailed account today as a guide to Soames’s vision.

In it he talks in detail about his choice of trees and shrubs in the garden, the soil conditions, drainage, the effect of the winds, rainfall and the management of the lakes. Arthur’s horticultural passion and knowledge shines through.

Sheffield Park during the Second World War

During the Second World War, Sheffield Park was requisitioned by the War Office and became an extensive camp for several Canadian regiments.

The Nissen huts that housed the soldiers covered a wide area stretching from the main road almost to Fletching village. The impact on the landscape was noticeable and the garden took many years to be reinstated to its former glory.

Churchill's black swans

Thought to be under threat of bombing at his home in Chartwell, Churchill moved his beloved pair of black swans to Sheffield Park, the estate being owned by his son-in-law's father.

Local legend has it that the Canadian soldiers, many of them woodsmen and hunters, unfortunately shot and killed the swans and replacements were hastily acquired.

The next Soames era

When Arthur died in 1934, he left Sheffield Park to his wife although his will was contested by his nephew, Arthur Granville Soames, who eventually won the estate but allowed Agnes to continue to live there until 1949.

Life changed dramatically with the arrival of the Canadian troops 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 manage.

Estate is sold

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 in 1954 the National Trust were able to purchase the garden and a few acres of derelict land near the entrance drive.

Unfortunately, there were not sufficient funds to purchase the house as well and it passed into private ownership.

View from First Bridge towards Middle Lake at Sheffield Park East Sussex

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