Bringing Preston Manor back to Life

South Lawn looking east c1909
South Lawn looking east c1909

Over the last year, I’ve been working on a special project to improve the visitor experience at Preston Manor. When the house re-opens on 1st April, my hope is that visitors will feel as if they are visiting a much-loved family home and discovering the story of the Thomas-Stanford’s and their servants.

I’ve worked for the National Trust before so I’m used to historic houses but I didn’t know anything about Preston Manor before I came here. It’s been great fun for me to get to know the Stanford family using the resources in Brighton History Centre, the recollections of former keeper David Beevers (now Keeper of the Royal Pavilion) and the photographs and archive material that we hold in our collections. I soon discovered that Preston Manor and its owners played a really important part in the history of our city.

I was really keen to give visitors a sense of the house as both a home and a place of work. The greatest use is made of Preston by school groups who come to experience Victorian role play and learn about life as a servant at Preston Manor. I wanted to incorporate some of their experiences into a general visit, by dressing some of the rooms with items of clothing, putting replica food into the kitchen and installing some listening posts which will play extracts from our previously recorded interviews with former servants.

Pouring Tea
Pouring Tea

The biggest part of the project has been making a short film that sets the scene for a visit to Preston, by giving an insight into how Ellen and Charles Thomas-Stanford lived at Preston Manor in the early 20th century. We had great fun filming with local production company Fat Sand for a few days in January, with some of our brilliant role play staff playing the parts of Ellen and her servants. The finished product has brought tears to my eyes, and I’m not the only one!

The Hall c1909
The Hall c1909

I’ve also arranged new interpretation panels and information stands in key spaces around the house, so visitors will get a better idea of how the rooms looked when Charles and Ellen lived here and what they were used for. Most of the photographs I’ve used on the information stands were taken by Ellen Thomas-Stanford herself in 1909.

The small first floor dressing room has been turned into a gallery space, and a display of Victorian spirit photographs from our collection is the first to be shown. We felt this was an appropriate subject given Preston Manor’s haunted history and regular ghost events. Ellen’s mother, Eleanor Macdonald, held a séance at Preston in November 1896. I often wonder if Ellen approved of this.

New Carpet in the Drawing Room
New Carpet in the Drawing Room

Hand in hand with all this new interpretation has been some good old fashioned conservation work. The house has been given a spring clean by our dedicated staff, furniture and paintings have been checked and treated for damage and the drawing room has a lovely new rug to replace the badly worn carpet. I’ve really enjoyed my time at Preston Manor and I will miss this special place now it is time for me to move on to another project.

Laura Waters (Curator – Collections Projects)

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