The Colonel and The Party Palace: Life at Herstmonceux Castle in the Roaring ‘20s

The decade known as the ‘roaring twenties’ is synonymous with glamour, exuberance and partying. As the world emerged from one of the greatest conflicts in our history, survivors looked to the new decade with hope and excitement, much as we are doing today as we emerge from our own global crisis.

The 1920s is such an exciting decade in our history because so much change was happening and, in these changes, we can see the emergence of our modern world. For women in particular this was a momentous decade. In 1918 in Britain some women were given the vote for the first time and in 1928 under the Equal Franchise Act all women and men over the age of 21 were allowed to vote; this caused significant shifts in British politics and culture. In 1919 Nancy Astor became the first female Member of Parliament to take her seat and throughout the 1920s more female Members of Parliament joined her in the House of Commons. [1] Women also had an increasing amount of freedom as knee-length skirts and dresses became socially acceptable, as did bobbed hair with a finger wave or marcel wave; the women who pioneered these trends were often known as ‘flappers’.  

Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston at the Folies-Bergere, Paris. Image available under the Creative Commons Licence.

There were other important political, social and cultural shifts too. The hyper-patriotic mood in politics faded and new political movements, including Communism, gained traction. Jazz music became widely popular, new dance crazes such as the Charleston took over, the Art Deco movement peaked and Surrealism entered the mainstream. [2] The media began to focus on ‘celebrity’, especially sports heroes and movie stars and palatial cinemas were built across the country, including the beautiful Hailsham Pavilion located a few miles from Herstmonceux Castle. 

The interior of the Hailsham Pavilion, image author’s own.

The 1920s saw the large-scale adoption of automobiles, telephones, motion pictures, radio and household electricity, as well as unprecedented industrial growth, accelerated consumer demand and aspirations. In 1928 Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin, one of the most important and frequently used drugs in the world, and in 1922 Howard Carter opened the tomb of the Ancient Egyptian Pharoah Tutankhamun kick starting a resurgence in the study of Egyptology. Literary works such as F. Scott-Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby captured the spirit of the age and have remained at the forefront of the literary canon.

First Edition Cover of The Great Gatsby. Image available under the Creative Commons Licence.

In short, the 1920s was a decade which brought about several novel and highly visible changes which altered the course of the 20th century. These new trends in everything from politics to art, music to fashion, architecture, science and technology were made possible by sustained economic prosperity and they were most visible in major cities including New York, Chicago, Paris, Berlin and London. However, their influence and impact can also be seen out in the countryside too, such as at the rural idyll of Herstmonceux Castle.

We know that by the turn of the 20th century Herstmonceux Castle was little more than an ivy clad ruin but a new owner in 1911 was about to change all that. Colonel Claude Lowther purchased the castle with a view to creating his own country retreat and as the grandson of an illegitimate union between an English lord and an Italian opera singer, he certainly felt he had plenty to prove. Rebuilding work began almost straight away on the south face of the castle, which was in relatively good condition. The labourers working on the site were trained so that they could use traditional materials and methods, but it soon became clear that the Colonel did not want a medieval castle, he wanted a modern party palace. Instead of recreating the four small interior courtyards, the Colonel insisted on a large open space which would be better for his famous parties. The interior of the castle reflected the Colonel’s eccentric and eclectic tastes and it housed everything from medieval tapestries to 18th century paintings, army bugels hung on the walls and the grand Elizabethan staircase which was purchased from Theobald’s Palace in Hertfordshire. Throughout the 1920s the castle was the scene of elaborate entertainments and wild parties as the Colonel hosted the glitterati of the age.

While we have been able to identify some of the goings on at the castle during this decade, there is still so much more for us to uncover. This is why we are launching a brand-new research project: ‘The Colonel and The Party Palace: Life at Herstmonceux Castle in the Roaring ‘20s’. This research project will be student-led and will allow us to answer the following questions:

  • Who was living and working at the castle during the 1920s?
  • Who was part of the Colonel’s Lowther’s inner circle and wider social networks?
  • What do we know of the fashions worn by the Colonel and his party-going guests?
  • What kind of events did the Colonel throw at the castle?
  • What food were they eating?
  • Can we re-create what the castle may have looked like during the Colonel’s castellanship?

The new research project will have a number of exciting outputs including short articles as part of our Castle Curiosities blog, 1920s themed performances and events and new information for our Visitor Centre, website and social media channels. As part of the project, we will also be hosting a series of lectures about life in 1920s Britain with experts from across the country.

Through The Colonel and the Party Palace we hope to bring to life once more the ‘remarkable and brilliant personality’ that was Colonel Claude Lowther and shed light on those who were living and working on the estate during this transformative period in its history. [3]

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


[1] Astor 100 – Celebrating 100 years of women in parliament (reading.ac.uk [last accessed 25/10/21].

[2] See Cathy Ross, Twenties London: A City in the Jazz Age (Museum of London, 2003), pp. 13-33.

[3] R. P, ‘Obituary: Colonel Claud Lowther, Soldier, Politician and Wit’, The Times, 18 June 1929, p. 18.

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