Chafford Park was built in the 1740s on the site of a Tudor mansion. For two hundred years it had been the seat of a prominent Kentish family, the Rivers (baronets since 1621), who had relinquished the property in scandalous circumstances. An unsentimental new owner had pulled down the mansion and replaced it with a more modest building. Probably only ever intended as a farm-house, Chafford Park has been occupied ever since by working farmers and hop-growers. It has been owned by the Thompson family since 1902.
Built of red brick, with a few blue headers, Chafford is nevertheless a substantial, and particularly fine double-span house of five symmetrical bays (with its original sash windows), deep enough to merit an M-shaped roof. Successive tenant farmers were spoiled indeed, surrounded by eighteenth-century panelling and with a large inglenook fireplace to keep them warm. There are two storeys, an attic and a basement, and, to one side, a single-storey kitchen wing, also with an attic. The building conceals elements of a timber-framed structure that survives, perhaps, from Tudor times.
Other curious survivals are the plaster-relief medallions of women’s heads that are set into the wall at either end of the first floor. (Similar medallions adorn the Tudor wing of Hampton Court Palace). Dressed in classical garb, the women are named as ‘Sara’ and ‘Lekretia’, but have yet to be identified. They were presumably salvaged from the former house when it was demolished in 1743.
Parts of the adjacent outbuildings date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The front garden wall and mounting block are other features worthy of note. There is also a working oast-house.
Chafford owes its name to the river Medway – a considerable stream, but fordable at this point – which runs through the park. A paper mill, Turner’s, long operated nearby, producing fine writing paper – used by Jane Austen for her correspondence and by Tennyson for composing poems – as well as the paper for the earliest stamps. Though in the extreme south-western corner of the large parish of Penshurst, Chafford is closer to the church at Ashurst. By a quirk of history, it falls within the jurisdiction of the Duchy Court of Lancaster, which, however, has been of little relevance, except in cases of intestacy.
We can be sure that a house existed here as early as the fourteenth century, though nothing is known of it. It was the seat of a worthy man-at-arms called Ralph de Cobham, who is described in contemporary documents as ‘Ralph de Cobham of Chafford’.
Ralph was the third son of John de Cobham of Rundale (now Randall Wood) in Cobham, near Rochester. Little enough is known of him. He supported the priory or college of five priests that the then head of the family, Sir John, had founded at Cobham, endowing it in 1392-3 with portions of his own estate. (Re-founded in 1597 as the ‘New College’, the original priory buildings, behind the church at Cobham, are still in use, as almshouses for the elderly.)
Ralph would have considered this a worthwhile investment: the single duty of these priests was to pray, night and day, for the souls of the Cobhams. As participants in the Hundred Years War against France, they had much occasion to sin.
Ralph was also part of a family cooperative that acquired the manor of East Tilbury, Essex, in 1397. Sir John de Cobham had recently rebuilt the wooden bridge over the Medway at Rochester in stone, a sturdy structure that was to remain in use until 1856. By acquiring the nearest landing point in Essex, the Cobhams increased their control over the traffic of the Estuary. Such were the schemes that might have been hatched at Chafford.
Ralph died soon afterwards and, as directed in his will, was buried in the chancel of Cobham Church. He is commemorated in one of the fifteen family brasses that, by a small miracle, have survived there, for they seem to have been treated very carelessly in the past. When the Kentish historian, Edward Hasted, visited in the 1790s, he discovered that they were being purloined by the workmen repairing the roof. The fifteen remaining brasses, which in 1837 were carefully re-laid in their present position, on a pavement in the chancel, form the finest collection of medieval brasses in the world.
The image of Ralph is a solemn one, more revealing of his dress than his personality. He is clad in a mail coif, helmet and plate armour. The inscription, in old French, reads:
Rauf de Cobham de Kent Esquyer
Qe murrust le xx jour de Januer
Lan de grace mill cccc ij gist icy
Dieu de sa alme eyt mercy.
(Ralph de Cobham of Kent, Esquire,
Who died the 20th of January in the year of grace 1402, rests here.
God have mercy on his soul.)
Ralph bequeathed his armour, along with his swords, ‘jack’ (a sort of padded jacket) and ‘defensible sloppis’ (other military clothing) to his nephew William. The executors were his wife, Elizabeth, and William Tanner, Master of the College at Cobham.
Though resident at Chafford, Ralph de Cobham was ever loyal to his family and to the seat from which they derived their proud name. Chafford, meanwhile, passed to a family called Rowe, a branch of the Rowes of Rowe Place, in Aylesford, who occupied it for about a hundred years.
Tudor and Stuart Chafford
Chafford has ever been overshadowed by its grand neighbour, Penshurst Place. Built in 1341 for Sir John Pulteney, a merchant and four-times Mayor of London, it was subsequently the seat of John, Duke of Bedford (the third son of Henry IV), and of Edward, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, Henry VIII’s cousin and rival, who was famous for his splendid and costly attire.
Duke Edward employed as his steward a certain Richard Rivers, a Kentish gentleman. Richard’s great-grandfather, Sir Bartholomew Rivers, had been rewarded for his singular service to Edward IV with an ‘augmentation of honour’, a special addition to his coat of arms, consisting of the white roses and swans of the House of York. Sir Bartholomew’s son, William, had transferred his allegiance to the House of Lancaster, holding a command under Henry VII. In his will, dated 1506, he asked to be buried in Rochester Cathedral.
Richard Rivers would no doubt have witnessed the visit to Penshurst of Henry VIII in 1519 and have attended the lavish feast that was held for him in the hall. Two years later, his master, the Duke, was executed on a well-grounded charge of treason. The fortunes of the Rivers family seem not to have been affected, however. As steward at Penshurst, Richard would have been well placed to eye up Chafford as a potential investment.
The estate is said to have come into their hands during Henry’s reign. The purchaser was probably Richard’s son, John Rivers, who prospered as a grocer in the City of London and in 1573-4 was to serve as Lord Mayor, for which he was knighted. He married the daughter of another Lord Mayor, Sir George Barne.
Wealthy Sir John is likely to have replaced Ralph de Cobham’s old manor-house, which was probably made of wood, with a more splendid one of brick. The grandeur of the Tudor mansion may be gauged from the adjacent stable block which partially survives, as an L-shaped barn. It is a solid brick structure with arched doorways and an ancient panelled door. The house was entered through an impressive gateway, on which the arms and crest of the Rivers family were engraved.
Sir John died in 1584, having had several children, and was succeeded at Chafford by his eldest son, Sir George Rivers. Born in about 1553, he seems to have been educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, then at the Middle Temple in London. George owned another estate at Withyham, a few miles away in Sussex, close to the seat of the Sackville family at Buckhurst.
The Sackvilles were related to Queen Elizabeth through the Boleyns, but owed their great wealth to the sale of timber from their estates to the Wealden iron industry, which used charcoal to fuel its blast furnaces. Sir Richard Sackville had earned a further fortune as a grafter at court, along with the nickname ‘Fillsack’. Sir Richard’s son Thomas, 1st Earl of Dorset, was granted the reversion of the former archiepiscopal palace at Knole in 1566, still the principal seat of the Sackvilles.
Sir George Rivers was on intimate terms with the Sackvilles and it was no doubt through their intervention that he obtained, on two occasions, a seat in Parliament, as the member for East Grinstead. As executors of the will of Robert, the 2nd Earl, Sir George Rivers and Lord William Howard undertook the establishment in 1616 of Sackville College, a picturesque almshouse in the centre of East Grinstead. The College continues to fulfil its original purpose, as sheltered accommodation for the elderly.
Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Chafford
Sir George Rivers, the fourth baronet of Chafford, married, in 1691, Dorothea, daughter of Sir William Beversham of Holbrook Hall in Suffolk. They had four sons and seven daughters. The eldest son, Beversham, died unmarried at the age of 23. The next son, George, was married but left no issue. Thomas and William both died in infancy. Husbands were procured for four of the five girls who survived to adulthood.
It was the end of the Rivers occupancy of Chafford. The baronetcy had passed to Sir George’s nephew, but he and his descendants were to reside elsewhere.
The purchaser in 1743 was Mr William Saxby of Horsted Keynes in Sussex, probably a nouveau riche (he obtained a grant of arms in 1752), for whom the purchase of Chafford was merely a business opportunity. Saxby is responsible for pulling down the Tudor mansion and for building the present farm-house on the site.
After Saxby’s death in 1783, Chafford was sold by his executors to Robert Burges, Esq., of Hall Place in Leigh, who died in 1794. His widow, Mrs Sarah Burges, subsequently married James Harbroc, Esq., who in turn became master of Chafford. None of these people is likely to have lived there. A Thomas Snatchall, presumably the tenant, was paying rates for his ‘part of Chafford’ by 1794.
The estate was bought by John Thompson in 1902, founder and director of Thompson’s Model Laundry Ltd., of Fulham Palace Road, Hammersmith.
5. The Twentieth Century and Beyond
John Thompson had married at Hampstead in 1866 but had been in business at Chard, Somerset, where he owned the Snowden Collar Works. The stiff, starched collar was at that time essential formal wear for men and boys. He had returned to London by 1886 where he had founded the Model Laundry.
While based at Melbury Lodge, Kingston Hill, John had maintained a series of country residences – Pyne Cliffe, Lyme Regis, by 1890; then Styllyans, Horeham Road, near Heathfield, Sussex, by 1900; and, finally, Chafford Park, which he bought at auction in his seventieth year (it had been advertised in The Times), along with its fully operational mixed farm of 300 acres. John and his wife Caroline repaired the farm-house and moved in.
Caroline, a pillar of the church at Ashurst, died at Chafford in 1913. Within the year, John, now in his eighties, retired to another house which he called ‘Pyne Cliffe’, at Canford Cliffs in Dorset (overlooking Bournemouth Bay), where he died in 1926. Chafford Park and its farm had meanwhile been taken over by their eldest son, William Thompson.
William and his younger brothers, Arthur and Percy, had all been drawn as young men to new lives in Canada. William had made a career as a ‘bronco buster’ (breaker of horses) on the prairies near Calgary. He had returned to England for a brief visit in 1900, while on his way to South Africa for service in the Boer War – not in uniform but assisting in supply work, particularly cattle droving. After the war he had returned to Canada, but the prospect of taking over Chafford had eventually lured him home.
William married May Roberts in 1924. They are both buried at Ashurst Church. Their son William (‘Bill’) Thompson succeeded to the farm, where his work was interrupted by war service in the R.A.F. and Royal Armoured Corps. Bill’s daughter, Mrs Sarah Swiderski, is the present owner of Chafford Park.
RUPERT WILLOUGHBY 2013