Few houses have been left with such a prominent reminder of what was once there. Hadlow Castle was largely demolished in 1951 but remarkably the tower was spared and dominates the village of Hadlow as much as it did when it was first built - though, sadly, not with the same style.
In many ways the early history of the Hadlow Castle is similar to other estates; a minor possesion of the aristocracy until fate or fortune elevate it to something altogether more grand. In the early 1400s Hadlow belonged to the Earls of Gloucester, and then the Earls of Stafford (who, in 1444, became the Dukes of Buckingham). At this time Hadlow was a small part of the much larger Tonbridge Castle estate so was probably tenanted. The estate remained with the Dukes of Buckingham until the 3rd Duke was executed by Henry VIII in 1521 after which it was passed around various local families and lacking any long-term ownership may have fallen into some state of neglect. In the early-1600s, the house was bought by George Rivers, second son of Sir George Rivers of Chafford, near Tunbridge Wells. One of George's ancestors, Sir John Rivers, was buried in Hadlow in 1584, as was his grandmother in 1619 indicating that there was some long-standing connection, possibly even that the Rivers had been estate stewards, looking after the interests of the Dukes of Buckingham.
The early history of the main house in Hadlow is unclear. It is recorded that one tenant in 1586 lived at 'Court Lodge', an Elizabethan house. Other research (W.V. Dumbreck) suggests that a house known as 'Hadlow Court Lodge' was built in the early Stuart period, around 1635. Hadlow manor was again sold sometime between 1660-85 when it passed to Amhersts, before being sold again in 1699 to John France, whose daughter, Sarah, inherited Hadlow manor on her father's death. It is through Sarah's marriage to Walter Barton in 1722 that the estate is finally connected with the family who were to raise Hadlow manor out of obscurity.
Walter Barton was the farmer of Hadlow manor at the time of his marriage to Sarah and so he now became the owner of the farm. Their son John married a local girl, Jane May, and they had two children; John and Walter. His eldest son was born deaf, blind and dumb, but their second son, Walter (b.1747 - d.1825), was healthy, and on his sixteenth birthday in 1763, inherited a large fortune from his uncle, Richard May, on the condition that he took the May surname. Walter May, as he now was, married Elizabeth Stanford of Peckham, bringing yet more wealth, and on the death of his father in 1786, he inherited Hadlow Court Lodge. With now the estate, house and wealth, Walter immediately started the process of tearing down the Court Lodge to create Hadlow Castle.
The house took over sixty years to achieve its final form. May decided that his grand new house would be built in the ornate Gothick style. This style had been popular since the mid-eighteenth century particuarly since the building of Strawberry Hill between 1749 until the 1790s, an almost scholarly essay in accurate Gothic detailing, by Horace Walpole. It's not known why he favoured this style as certainly no house he owned or in the area was similar, but it's possible that he simply chose it after reading any of the various architecture books which were being published. Indeed, knowing what books were in the library when the contents were sold may shed some light on his influences. Despite the scale and ambition of the project May interestingly chose the 'architect' J. Dugdale about whom almost nothing is known. Howard Colvin suggests may have been an amateur, rather than professional, architect1 - indeed, his only claim to fame other than the work at Hadlow was that he succesfully proposed the name for 'Trafalgar Square' in London.
Certainly the budget for the building of the house was generous. Although Walter May had inherited land and property and married into more wealth, a house on the scale of Hadlow Castle was a significant project and it has been suggested that to achieve his dream house he engaged in the very speculative - but potentially very profitable - practice of hop farming. Either way, the house which developed was an elegant and important example of Gothick architecture or as Sir Edmund Burke named it '...the Fonthill of Kent'.2.
The interior in particular attracted the praise of the many visitors. The house was organised around a main corridor which ran the 120ft length of the house from east to west, with each end having a large, stained-glass window. The corridor also acted as a sculpture gallery with Greek statues lining the edges, although it's not known if May acquired them himself whilst travelling. The house had 11 bedrooms, and on the south side on the ground floor the main reception rooms formed an impressive enfilade through the drawing room, which led through a pair of arched doors with Gothick detailing, to the octagonal library and then to the dining room. There was also extensive plasterwork and ceiling mouldings which, by contrast to the architecture, Classical in style with corinthian columns surmounting fluted columns. This deviation in the stylistic consistency indicates that neither Dugdale nor his client were as concerned about the intellectual purity of the inside of their creation - a stark contrast with the almost fanatical control A.W.N. Pugin exhibited over the Gothick interiors at Alton Towers.
Sir Edmund Burke was particularly impressed, as he described when visiting some years later in 1852;
"The interior of the castle is of the same ornate character, consisting of arches, groins, ramifications, and various flowers of Gothic grandeur. The stained glass that illumines the hall is very fine; one window in particular, representing the Ascension of Christ, is truly magnificent. The apartments are lofty and spacious; the dining-room and an adjoining one of octagon dimensions, together with a drawing-room en suite, are especially striking."2
The exterior of the house was equally impressive, though not as universally acclaimed at first. William Cobbett in 1825 described the house 'the most singular looking thing I ever saw. An immense house stuck all over with a parcel of chimneys, or things like chimneys, litle brick columns with a sort of caps [sic] on them at the top to catch the earwigs.'3. However, this initial scepticism should in no way detract from the pleasing composition of the house - an attractive arrangement of pinnacles, projecting and receding bays and elegant arched windows. It's important to remember that the house at this time lacked the huge tower which was to earn it the comparisons to Fonthill.
The famous tower was built by Walter's son, Walter Barton May (b.1783 - d.1855), who had grown up between the ages of seven and twenty watching the house develop. Perhaps inspired by this Gothick construction and being wealthy enough to not need to work, Walter devoted his life to study and reproduction of the architecture of the Middle Ages. It was therefore unsurprising that he wished to add to his father's work - but he was not able to do so quickly. In the meantime, in 1815, aged thirty-two, and eight years before his father's death, Walter took over the estates and in 1821, aged thirty-eight, he married Mary Susannah Porter of nearby Fish Hall. It was only in 1832 when he inherited £22,000 from his mother's family that he was able to start work.
Fonthill Abbey, in Wiltshire, was an obvious inspiration for Walter. Designed by James Wyatt and built between 1796 and 1818 for William Beckford, a reclusive, eccentric man who was reputed to be the wealthiest commoner in England with a vast inheritance and enormous annual income. Beckford had decided that he wanted a house built on the same scale as a cathedral having probably been influenced, in part, by writings such as Edmund Burke's theory of the Sublime which emphasised "...feelings of awe and terror arising from dark and gloomy colours, vastness of size and conception, and compositions of rugged grandeur."5. Part of this effect was to be achieved through his vast central tower which rose to 270ft, though inadequate foundations ensured that it collapsed in 1825.
To ensure such a disaster did not befall his tower at Hadlow, May employed the architect George Ledwell Taylor (b.1788– d.1873) who had been responsible for Sheerness and Chatham dockyards. Not that Taylor lacked style; he also designed many of the streets in Paddington in London, part of Hyde Park and Gloucester Squares and the eastern side of Trafalgar Square. Taylor built May a tower which rose to 170ft and with firm foundations it was made to last. Inside were three octagonal rooms, one above the other on each floor. It was certainly one of the local wonders, being described as "...a tower of extraordinary elevation, which forms a striking feature of that part of Kent, and is seen from the distance of many miles."6. Despite this it became known as 'May's Folly', though no-one has definitively proven why. One suggestion is that as construction started about the time his unhappy marriage broke down and his wife moved back to nearby Fish Hall, the tower would allow him to spy on her - or to be a constant reminder to her.
This was not the final form of the tower - in 1840, May added a lantern to the tower. In 1852, he another smaller tower, built in a 14th-century style, to the other side of the house. It's almost as though he was putting into practice some of the ideas from his lifelong study of ancient buildings. Walter Barton May continued to live in the house for the rest of life, dying in 1855. Unfortunately Walter's death was also the start of the decline of the house - though it was to take 100 years to reach the final act. The estate was left to his only surving son, Walter Horatio May (b.1822 - d.1907), but oddly, he stipulated that his sister was to receive the entire income of the estate until her death, which she enjoyed for eight more years. Walter Horatio obviously did not inherit his father's passion for architecture as he had not even moved in when he put the estate, now comprising some 700 acres, up for sale in 1858. He then lived in Brighton and Tendring, Essex before his death in 1907, after which he was buried in Hadlow churchyard.
The house was bought in 1859 by Robert Rodger, a local magistrate who became high sheriff of Kent in 1865 and died in 1882, with Hadlow Castle being inherited by his son William. Due to a lack of an heir, the estate passed on William's death to his uncle John Pickersgill Roger. In 1891 the house was bought by a man who was to become one of the first commuters to London. Dr MacGeagh was a Harley Street specialist who each day drove his carriage to Tonbridge station before catching his train each day. The estate passed on his death to his daughter, who married the local vicar, Rev. Sinclair Howard Moneypenny. In 1919, T.E. Foster MacGeagh sold the now 254-acre estate to Henry Thomas Pearson, whose family lived there until 1946. During WWII, the tower was used as a lookout by the Royal Observer Corps.
After being sold by the Pearson family, the house was resold several times but was never occupied. Without maintainence the house quickly deteriorated and so, in 1951, the decision was taken to demolish the Castle and all the buildings. Luckily, one local resident was the painter Bernard Hailstone who stepped in and enabled the tower, lodges, entrance arch, and service courtyard to be saved. The lodges and courtyard buildings were then converted into homes.
What remains of Hadlow Castle provide a tantalising taste of how impressive it was before the demolition. The courtyard buildings are outwardly largely as they were. Unfortunately, along the drive, plots have been sold off and a curious mixture of architecturally unsympathetic houses have sprung up. However, the impressive - though somewhat neglected - entrance gate and lodge houses are still a prominent part of Hadlow high street. But the most obvious sign is the grade-I listed tower. Sadly, the Great Storm in 1987 caused significant damage and weakened the Gothick decorative stonework causing three pinnacles to fall and so the decision was taken to remove the remaining decorative stonework and store it until it could be restored. Eventually, because the structural damage wasn't repaired, it weakened the tower and so in 1995 the council removed the lantern and placed it in storage too.
Recently however, there have been some promising developments following a succesful campaign by the local Save Hadlow Tower Action Group. In 2006, the council issued a compulsory purchase order and agreed to transfer the tower to the Vivat Trust have now completed the restoration of the tower, restoring the Gothic decoration, and converted it into holiday accomodation. This should provide long-term security and ensure that the glory of the Hadlow Castle tower will remain as a local landmark for future generations.