Unlocking the Castle Archives

Tucked away in an unassuming office, hidden in the eaves and separated from the main thoroughfares of castle life is Room 203. Unlike other, more famous rooms (think Room 101 for example), this is not a room where we send things to be lost, forgotten and done away with, quite the opposite in fact; this is a room where we can go to unlock the castle’s past and investigate some of its many curiosities. This is the room which holds the castle’s archive.

Since 1993 when Drs Alfred and Isabelle Bader gifted the Herstmonceux Castle Estate to Queen’s University (Canada) the castle has been home to the Bader International Study Centre (BISC). For almost twenty years it has been a place of learning and scholarship, hosting students and faculty from across the globe. But Herstmonceux Castle was not always an educational centre and anyone familiar with its past will know of its colourful and somewhat chequered history.

Originally built in 1441 by Sir Roger Fiennes as a decorative home rather than a functional castle, this building has weathered plenty of storms and has many stories to tell. From making it through the English Civil Wars unscathed to becoming a famous ‘party palace’ in the roaring ‘20s; the castle has been home to noble families, extravagant MPs and the Royal Greenwich Observatory before finally becoming home to a community of students and scholars.

The BISC Archive at Herstmonceux Castle holds a range of fascinating documents and is particularly rich in material dating from the 20th and 21st centuries. These documents and artefacts can help us to explore life at the castle in the Second World War, the role of the castle as an educational institution, the life of its students from 1994 to the present day and the castle’s relationship with the local community throughout some of the most definitive events in our modern, national history. During my first few weeks at the BISC I decided to plunge headfirst into our archival collections and within a few hours I had stumbled across some brilliant sources which really highlight the riches that are there to be uncovered.

The first interesting source I unearthed was this copy of a poster advertising an auction at the castle in 1929. The auction was held at the direction of the executors of Colonel Claude Lowther’s will.

BISC Archive, 1929 Auction Poster, currently uncatalogued.

Lowther was the owner of Herstmonceux Castle between 1911 and 1929. When he purchased the castle it was little more than a ruin and he had started carrying out extensive renovations during his castellanship. He also collected a huge range of fixtures, fittings and objects d’art, many of which were to be sold as part of this auction. Despite ambitious beginnings, as the 1920s progressed Lowther’s health declined and he died in 1929 before the restoration of the castle was complete. This poster tells us the date and location of the auction and we also now the items that were for sale thanks to the survival of a sale catalogue,  but what we don’t know is who bought these items and for how much. Some further investigation is certainly needed…

The second item I discovered was a commemorative book celebrating the centenary of the Hearts of Oak Friendly Society which occupied Herstmonceux Castle between 1939 and 1945. In this book we have some wonderful images of the castle and its inhabitants during the Second World War, including a picture of the Hearts of Oak staff who acted as A. R. P wardens for the local area. Hearts of Oak had been established in 1842 with just twelve members and since then had become a well-known insurance company in Britain with over one million members.  When war was declared in 1939, the company and its employees quickly carried out their evacuation plan to the castle, which underwent several dramatic changes to accommodate them. You can find out more about what Herstmonceux Castle looked like in the Second World War from the Environments of Change project here.

BISC Archive, HCE Box 7, File 5.

The final item I came across during my first foray into the BISC Archive was a file relating to the fight for the castle between 1988 and 1993. In 1988 the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) decided to relocate to Cambridge University after spending some thirty years at the castle. The local community were increasingly concerned at the prospect of the estate being purchased and turned into a luxury hotel resort complete with time-share bungalows, golf course and swimming pool. In response to these threats the Herstmonceux Castle Heritage Trust (HCHT) was formed and thus began their campaign to save the castle as a heritage site.

Along with documents relating to the formation of the HCHT, we also have documents relating to their campaign such as this draft article, written in 1988 by Mary M. Smith, Chairperson of the HCHT. In it she implores people to ‘help if you can’, making the case that although ‘the future of the Royal Greenwich Observatory has already been decided – the future of Herstmonceux Castle has not!!’ This document really highlights the concerns of local people and their desire to keep the site safe for future generations.

BISC Archive, RGO Box 1, File 1/7.

The BISC Archive is full of many hidden treasures which we’re hoping to explore further in this blog series. Combined with research at The National Archives, the British Library and the Keep we will be carrying out a range of research projects to uncover more about the castle’s past. Castle Curiosities will unlock the secrets in our archive, investigate the castle’s quirks and showcase the new research that is being done on the estate. If you have your own ‘castle curiosity’ that you would like to write about, please get in touch!


Dr Claire Kennan, History Lecturer and Research Coordinator at the BISC.