I’m a great visitor of historic houses but when I visited Uppark a few years ago, I was fascinated. It had an amazing history – not the usual stuff about wars, court intrigues and royal progresses, but something more personal, more fun, with a little tragedy thrown in. The visit inspired me to write Love’s Tangle, though obviously my hero bears no resemblance to the elderly Sir Harry! To see what I mean, read on.
Uppark lies in South Harting near Petersfield, West Sussex, and was built for Sir William Ford Grey, the first Earl of Tankerville, around 1690, then sold in 1747 to the fabulously wealthy Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh and his wife, Sarah. The house is in a spectacular position and commands views over the South Downs which are stunning. The outside of the house looks very much today as it did when originally built.
For ten years Sir Matthew and his wife redecorated the house extensively and filled Uppark with artwork and other treasures collected during their Grand Tour of Europe. Many of these still remain in the house. When Sir Matthew died in 1774, the house passed to his son, Harry, who continued adding to the treasures in the house and commissioned Humphry Repton, the great garden designer, to add a new pillared portico, dairy and landscaped garden.
As a young man Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh was a playboy. He was a great friend of the the Prince Regent before George became king, so that gives some idea of Harry’s lifestyle. In 1780 he began an affair with a seventeen year old Cheshire girl called Emma Hart whom he’d met in London at the Temple of Aesculapius where she worked as a ‘hostess’. Harry gave Emma her own cottage on the estate so she could be close at hand. It is said that she danced naked on the dining room table at Uppark House and caught the eye of more than one of Sir Harry's guests. Emma’s time at Uppark was short lived, though, and within a year she was sent back to Cheshire, six months pregnant. But that wasn’t the end of Emma Hart for she was destined to become a household name in England; she was, of course, Lady Emma Hamilton, the famous consort of an even more famous Nelson.
After the wild carousing of his youthful years, middle age saw Sir Harry becoming something of a recluse. He remained unmarried and had no children he cared to call his own. The years passed, until one day he walked into his dairy and astonishingly proposed to one of his dairymaids. She was Mary Ann Bullock and she was twenty years old. At the age of 71, Sir Harry scandalised Sussex society by marrying her. It’s possible today to visit the dairy where Sir Harry supposedly proposed to Mary Ann and see it exactly as it was. Despite thinking he had made a complete fool of himself, Mary Ann turned out to be a devoted wife and looked after him until he died in 1848, aged ninety-two.
He left Uppark to her and she continued to live there with her sister and when Mary Ann died, it was the sister who took on the estate. As a consequence, Uppark remained one of the least altered country houses in England. During its Victorian years, H.G. Wells spent part of his boyhood there. His mother, Sarah, was first a housemaid and then housekeeper between 1880 and 1893 and his father, Joseph, was a gardener.
Into the twentieth century and the house passed through various family lines until it reached Lady Meade-Fetherstonhaugh whose husband, Admiral Sir Herbert Meade, gave the house to the National Trust in 1954. The Trust began an extensive programme of renovation but only three days before the house was to be opened to the public, a huge fire broke out on 30 August 1989, caused by a workman's blowtorch while he was repairing lead flashing on the roof. The house was devastated.
Many works of art and pieces of furniture were carried out of the burning building by the family, National Trust staff and members of the public. By nightfall well over a hundred firefighters from all over Sussex and Hampshire were at the scene trying to prevent the destruction of one of the most important historic houses in the county. Although the Fire Brigade arrived swiftly, they were hampered in their efforts by the lack of mains water supplies high up on the Downs, and all they could do was hold the fire back for people to rescue as much as they could. Most of the pictures and furniture in the house were saved but the building was gutted and its future was soon in doubt. One MP called for the house to be bulldozed into the ground and the fields returned to agricultural use.
Thankfully the National Trust decided otherwise. It set about rebuilding Uppark and the house, beautifully restored, finally opened its doors in 1995.
This building houses the stables at Uppark, the small white canopy