HISTORY OF WEST HORSLEY PLACE
In 1931 the Marquess of Crewe (Bamber Gascoigne’s great-grandfather) and his second wife, Peggy, sold the massive Crewe Hall in Cheshire. They had decided to ‘downsize’ and were looking for a small house in Surrey. Their searches brought them to West Horsley Place. They immediately fell under its spell, as almost everyone does, and bought it although it was, in Crewe’s biographer’s words, ‘larger than they had intended’. Beautiful, large, ideal for house parties and family gatherings, it was the perfect place for them to live in style in the years up to the war. The house then, as now, was full of a vast number of books as both Crewe and his father had been passionate collectors.
There has been a manor house on the estate since soon after the Norman Conquest, but the present house is a sturdy timber-frame building from about 1500. It was still virtually a new house when Henry VIII seized it and gave it in 1536 to his cousin and childhood friend, Henry Courtenay. The grateful Courtenay felt he should ask the king and his retinue to lunch in the Great Hall, an expensive undertaking. The details of the 35 courses survive. The range of birds on offer is startling – stewed sparrows, larded pheasants, ducks, gulls, stork, gannets, heron, pullets, quail and partridge. But the king was an unreliable friend. Thomas Cromwell later persuaded him that Courtenay was unreliable, with a Catholic wife, and in 1539 Henry had him beheaded. Three years after lunch!
There is no external sign now of West Horsley Place being a timber house but the original oak structure (much of it now finally weakened) is still holding up the entire building. The beautiful front of the present house is pure sham. The owner in about 1640 seems to have decided that it was embarrassing to live in such an old house. So he went for a cheap option – he commissioned the brick façade and had it screwed to the timbers. At the top it has drifted five inches away from its support. But screwing it back is apparently simple in comparison to other restoration that is needed.
Mary Crewe-Milnes, Duchess of Roxburghe, (1915-2014) was a god-daughter of Queen Mary, after whom she was named. Her mother, Peggy Primrose, was the daughter of the British prime minister the Earl of Rosebery. In 1935, Mary married the dashing, eligible Duke of Roxburghe, known as Bobo, and moved to the massive Floors Castle, not far from Edinburgh. She was living there in 1953 when Bobo served divorce papers on her and told her to leave the castle. But her solicitor advised her not to go quietly, pointing out that in Scottish law the size of the alimony depended on how willing or unwilling the wife had been to leave. So on his instructions she sat out a ten-day ordeal which became a sensation in the national press. First the duke sacked all the servants he could, leaving her only one – her lady’s maid paid by herself. The huge empty castle was eerie for the two women alone. And their nights were soon lit only by oil lamps when he disconnected the electricity. But when he cut off the water, the solicitor said her point was made. And it had been worth it. The alimony was excellent.
Mary moved south and, with her mother’s death in 1967, she became châtelaine of West Horsley Place, living there for more than 40 years and playing an enthusiastic part in local activities.