From bishops to landed gentry, Preston Manor has long been held by the wealthy and influential.

The Bishops of Chichester

The name Preston derives from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘priest’s holding’ suggesting that there was a settlement here in Saxon times. By the time the Domesday Book of 1086 was compiled it recorded that the property was one of eight manors belonging to the Bishopric of Chichester. The bishops held Preston for about 470 years, the manor being administered by a steward or bailiff. Manor lands comprised the greater part of the parish of Preston, large parts of what is now Hove, part of the parish of Bolney and minor lands elsewhere.

The Elrington and Shirley Families

In around 1500 the bishops gave up farming their manors through a bailiff and started renting them out to tenants. In 1510 the Bishop granted a lease of the Manor of Preston to Edward Elrington. A 1559 Act of Parliament enabled Queen Elizabeth I to enforce an exchange of property with the bishops and Preston Manor was acquired by the Crown in 1561. The Elrington family continued to lease and farm what were now Crown lands.

Sir Anthony Shirley, c1660
Sir Anthony Shirley, c1660

In 1569 Preston Manor was inherited by Anthony Shirley (step grandson of Edward Elrington). Anthony’s son Thomas became the first lay lord of the manor, buying back the lease from the Crown in 1628. The house stayed with the Shirley family for four generations, during which time Anthony Shirley the second gained the favour of King Charles II and was rewarded with a baronetcy in 1666. His grandson Richard died unmarried in 1705 and the title became extinct. The property was inherited jointly by Richard’s three sisters (Anne, Judith and Mary) and passed to the sole ownership of Mary and her husband Thomas Western in 1712.

The Western family takes over

Thomas Western was a member of a prosperous mercantile family from Rivenhall in Essex. He died at the age of 41 and was succeeded by his son, also called Thomas. He was educated at Cambridge and spent his vacations at Rivenhall and Preston. In 1736 he married Anne Callis, sister of naval hero Admiral Smith Callis, and they had nine children although four died young. The succession passed jointly to Charles Western and his brother Reverend Thomas Walsingham Western, who subsequently exchanged his Sussex estates for an estate in Essex. Charles married Frances Shirley Bollan in 1766. Their married life was short as, during a carriage ride, Charles was killed when their horse stumbled. Their surviving son and Thomas Western’s great grandson, Charles Callis Western, devoted his life to political and agricultural reform. He eventually sold Preston Manor to the son of one of his tenant farmers, William Stanford.

The Stanford inheritance

The Stanfords were established landholders in Sussex and tended to marry other local families of similar status. The first time a Stanford is shown in connection with Preston Manor is in 1758 when Richard Stanford is recorded as a tenant of manor farm, then owned by the Western family. In 1762 he married Mary Ockenden and they had three children, who were all still living when he died of an apoplectic fit in 1769. His will divided his property equally between his children and when his son, William, came of age he was already a rich man.

Nine years later, in 1794, William Stanford purchased Preston Manor for £17,600. The sale included the manor house, farm and surrounding lands in Brighton and Hove. In 1789 he had married Elizabeth Avery, and they had two children both of whom died in 1790 followed by their mother the following year. By the time William became High Sheriff of Sussex in 1808 he had married again and had seven children by his second wife, Mary Tourle.

Their eldest son, William Stanford the younger, inherited in 1841 and led the life of a country squire at Preston Manor with his wife Eleanor Morris who he married in 1842. The couple had two children, William who died at five months in 1847 and then a daughter born in November 1848 and named Ellen. William himself died in 1853, aged 44, and the estate passed to his five year old daughter Ellen.

Ellen continued to live at Preston Manor where she was brought up by her mother Eleanor and step-father Captain George Macdonald, who Eleanor married in 1854. Ellen eventually had three half-sisters, Flora (born in 1857) and twins Christiana and Diana (born in 1866). As heir to the Stanford Estate, Ellen had been made a Ward of Chancery and her fortune was put into a trust administered by the Court. All transactions affecting Ellen and the estate had to be approved by the judges. Ellen went to private school in Brighton and then had two social seasons in London in 1866 and 1867.

The married life of Ellen Stanford

Four generations of the Stanford family, c1890
Four generations of the Stanford family, c1890

In October 1867 Ellen married Vere Fane Benett of Pythouse, Wiltshire at St Peters Church followed by a wedding breakfast for forty guests at Preston Manor. After the marriage, following a provision in William Stanford’s will that his daughters husband must obtain a Royal Licence to use the Stanford name and quarter the Stanford arms with his own, Vere assumed the Stanford surname.

Ellen and Vere spent their married life at Pythouse or their London townhouse. In February 1870 their son, John Montague Benett-Stanford, was born. In 1891 Vere persuaded the trustees of the Stanford Estate to purchase his Pythouse and Norton Bavant estates in Wiltshire, the proceeds of which enabled he and Ellen to purchase a yacht and a property in Madeira. Vere went there every winter for the benefit of his health, and died there in May 1894.

The widowed Ellen Benett-Stanford divided her time between London, Brighton, Wiltshire and Madeira. It was on the island in 1896 that she met Charles Thomas, whom she married in May 1897. Six months later he was granted Royal Licence to take the name and arms of Stanford in accordance with her father’s will. The couple first lived at Pythouse, settling at Preston Manor in 1905 following the death of Ellen’s mother.

Ellen and Charles Thomas-Stanford had no children but Ellen’s son John and his wife Evelyn Helme had a daughter, Patience, who died young and a son, named Vere after his grandfather. Vere would have eventually inherited Preston Manor, but his life was cut short at the age of 28. Having fought in the First World War, he died of tuberculosis in 1922.

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