Wallett's Court - A Brief History
"Like most old houses, it has a living perceptible aura of its own; a knowledge of birth and death, of far off happiness, of time remembered, and grief not so much forgotten as folded tranquilly and with acceptance into the pattern of the years."
Wallett's Court is a building steeped in history. It gets its first mention in the Doomsday Book of 1085 as the Manor of Westcliffe, where it was associated with Bishop Odo of Bayeux, half-brother of William the Conqueror. He was granted the manor as one of many in Kent given by his brother.
Later the manor was held by the Crevecoeur family and the tower at dover Castle bears the name from Robert De Crevecoeur who was responsible for its design.
By 1248 the family of Bertram De Criol owned the Manor of Westcliffe and the arms of their family may be seen on the vaulting in the cloisters of Canterbury Cathedral.
In 1284, Queen Eleanor of Castille, wife of Edward I, acquired the manor and church for one thousand marks. As Queen of England she gathered many manors and lands into her possession to strengthen her position. It is quite possible that she chose Westcliffe for its strategic position, close to the Channel, yet very private. Perhaps she worshipped in the church and even stayed in a house on the site of Wallett's Court. The cellars certainly date from that time, the 13th century, and some Caen stone was used for the cellars as for the church opposite.
There is a detailed and romantic story associated with Queen Eleanor, who in spite of producing thirteen children in her short life, often followed her warlike husband into battle.
On one occasion she travelled north towards Scotland, but was taken ill and died in Harby, Lincolnshire in 1299. Her heartbroken husband ordered her body to be returned to London and at every place it rested a cross was to be erected. There were thirteen Eleanor crosses and a few have survived. The last at Charing Cross was redesigned in Victorian times.
As part of each cross stone figures of Queen Eleanor were carved. Look at the wooden carving in the dining room at Wallett's Court. This is undoubtedly a copy of the effigy of Eleanor. The same hairstyle, necklace, holding her heart and the dress falling in folds. The date on the beam is 1627. Did the woodcarver know of the story and therefore copied her effigy? From that time Westcliffe, later Wallett's Court was known as Queen Eleanor's Palace.
Keeping to the story of the Edwards, note the wall paintings in the corridor upstairs and in the gent's washroom. A document of 1902 tells us that the upper rooms were probably decorated around 1627, when there was a major renovation of the house and that the Prince's Room would have also included the corridor. Above the fireplace, showing in 1902, were the arms of the Prince of Wales, the Black Prince, the three feathers and Ich Dieu motto which he won from the King of Bohemia in 1346 at the Battle of Crécy. Silhouetted behind was the sunburst from his father's, Edward III's arms. Today see the arms and regalia of the Black Prince in Canterbury Cathedral.
Shades of the famous continued to appear in the Manor of Westcliffe.
In 1481 Sir Edward De Burgh owned the manor. His eldest son, Edward, was the first husband of Catherine Parr, who later became the sixth wife of Henry VIII and the only one to outlive him.
From 1573, for almost one hundred years, the Gibbon family owned Westcliffe and in Thomas Gibbon's will of 1596, the name Walletts Court is used for the first time. Wee the translation of the wills of Thomas 1596 and Matthew Gibbon 1628 in the lounge.
It was during the ownership of the Gibbons that many of the features you see in Wallett's Court today were established.
The brick pillars on the front of the building were an effort to reflect the style of Inigo Jones and Grecian pillars. The decorated chimney breast on the side of the house had been covered in ornate plaster with brick chimneys to impress the neighbours.
The oak porch with the initials 'T' for Thomas and 'D' for Dorothy Gibbon and the date 1627. The 'back to front' 'G' showing the lack of educational skills of the carver, perhaps. Inside the house the carved pillar with the initials 'T' for Thomas 'R' Richard 'E' Elisabeth 'A' for Ann, children of the Gibbon family, and one left blank. There are numerous fireplaces throughout the house showing the Stuart influence of shields, leaves and flowers. Particularly look at the one in the Adam room.
Study the beams throughout, some particularly long from one complete tree. Note the carvings of roses. See the linen-fold beams in the lounge from an older Tudor part of the house and find the carpenter's marks.
The lounge was the original kitchen with a vast fireplace opening with two chimneys, now unfortunately, for practical reasons, hidden. One chimney would have been for smoking hams, rising only twelve feet. Inside the fireplace, recesses for keeping salt dry. Beneath the floor of the fireplace we found a catchment of Georgian coins to maintain the wealth and prosperity of the house. The door to the outside beside the fireplace leads to the courtyard and the well, 340' deep. The building definitely extended here to house a donkey wheel to bring up the water for what would have been a large family and farming community.
Back into the lounge to the large corner cupboard which during restoration revealed a coin dated 1753stuck in the paintwork. A little historic detective work. Returning to the hall to the very authentic staircase with carved balustrade and treads heavily restored, climbing to the second floor and here note how the staircase was constructed. There were no doubt rooms on the top floor but the roof at some stage was altered so that the major structure was removed and modern 18th/19th century beams and slates replaced the Kent Peg roof.
Steps from the ground floor lead down to four cellars, which now form a working part of the business and each one has its own features and character, including scratched initials in the chalk blocks, large hooks for hanging meats and arched brick recesses for barrels.
And, of course, no old house is complete without a priest hole. In the last years of Queen Elizabeth's reign, the 1590s, the Pope sent Jesuits to England to help the Catholic faith, which was sorely oppressed by the Queen. Many preached in private houses and every effort was made within the fabric of the building to conceal their whereabouts. Hiding places were made in hollow walls and in ceilings. At Walletts a second flue also rose from beside the main chimney in the dining room up into the roof. This was made of brick with ridges for anxious fingers and feet to climb.
Hereby also lies a curious fact. It is known that a wandering priest by the name of 'Wallett' was at this time in Kent. Was there any connection with this house? Why was the house named Wallett's Court for the first time in the will of Thomas Gibbon in 1596? It makes fascinating reading! Before we move on from the Gibbon family, it is of interest to note that from the Gibbons later descendants included Edward Gibbon the historian who wrote "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" in the 18th Century.
The Gibbons were a notable family and their family tree reveals some interesting connections. Wallett's Court was definitely a house of some note.
In 1660 Sir Streynsham Master purchased the major and by 1700 Lord Matthew Aylmer, Admiral of the Fleet, retired there. His descendants now live on the Isle of Wight.
Soon after 1720, Walletts became a tenanted farm but owned by local notable families including George Leith, a naval surgeon of Deal, then Thomas Peck and later the Poynter brothers, also naval surgeons who married Thomas Peck's daughters Elizabeth and Thomasin.
Descended from Thomasin and Ambrose Lyon Poynter was Sir Edward John Poynter neo-classical artist and President of the Royal Academy.
During one of these ownerships the Rt Hon William Pitt, Prime Minister of Britain was known to have paid the rent for Wallett's Court in 1804 and 1805. He died in January 1806. Here we can only conjecture on his reasons for being at Walletts and it can remain a romantic mystery. However what is worth observing is that the fine wooden shutters and some doors date from this time and could indicate some alterations to suit such an occupant! Later as Walletts became a working farm so the building began to be maintained only for its usefulness and appears to have been little altered for many years. Layers of paint now covered beams, small tiled fireplaces replaced large inglenooks, rooms were divided, the main staircase boxed in. Farming occupants did their best but the maintenance of the building was not a priority.
During the Second World War the house was evacuated and a battalion of gunners moved in. They were manning the wartime guns 'Winnie' and 'Pooh' sited on the hill overlooking the Channel. From 1935-1973 the farm was occupied by the Dare family. Many are buried in the churchyard opposite together with the other occupants from the years before.
From 1973-1975 the house was unoccupied. It began to fall into disrepair, not unlike 'Colditz'. The garden became overgrown, like the garden in the fairy story 'Sleeping Beauty'. When Chris and Lea Oakley with sons Craig and Gavin viewed the property in the summer of 1975 they remarked that "anyone buying this would have to be mad!" Madness prevailed!
"We know that in over five hundred years the house must have witnessed many dramas of life and death, hopes and disappointments, of which we shall never learn. The house has been here so long it makes us conscious of our own relative insignificance. We don't feel that we own it, rather that it has been lent to us for a time and that we have an obligation to care for it. Who can tell how many will come after us or what times they will live in. We can only hope that they will love the place as much as we do, respect its age and cherish it.