Visitors to Preston Manor often ask how the Stanfords managed to maintain and finance not only the Manor itself but also the Pythouse estate in Wiltshire, 3 Ennismore Gardens in South Kensington, a yacht and large houses in Madeira and Norway known, respectively, as Quinta Vigia (later replaced by Quinta Stanford) and Stanfordhus. Effective land management supplemented by investment in stocks and shares provided the income necessary to support the family and their servants.
Acording to John Bateman’s The Great Landowners of Great Britain and Ireland (1876) the family land-holdings consisted of 6,997 acres with a gross annual value of £25,306. Approximately 1,000 acres was in Brighton and Hove, 800 acres elsewhere in Sussex (mostly Hassocks and Keymer), 5,026 acres in Wiltshire, 170 acres in Surrey and one acre in Middlesex. This land had been acquired and consolidated from the early eighteenth-century onwards.
The Transition from Tenant Farmers to Landowners
After Richard Stanford’s death in 1769 ‘in an apopleptic fit near Brighthelmstone’, his trustees invested the income from the sale of his livestock and grain in stocks, mortgages and loans. When his son William (1764-1841) reached the age of 21 he was already a rich man and his marriage to Elizabeth Avery in 1789 brought him land at Clayton, Keymer and Hurstpierpoint.
In 1794 William’s landlord, Charles Callis Western, sold Preston Manor and the surrounding estates of nearly 1,000 acres for £17,600. William purchased the Preston and Hove estate together with the lordship of the Manor of Preston and Raddingdeane and thus effected a significant transition from tenant farmer to landowner. This purchase was the foundation of the Stanford’s future prosperity.
The Standfords as Landed Gentry
As Lord of the Manor of Preston, William was anxious to consolidate his position within the landed gentry. He continued to farm his land and he was able to take advantage of the development of Brighton by selling his farm produce to the town. In 1839 the family fortune was substantially increased when the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway paid William £30,000 for the sale of land which would enable to railway to cross his property.
In 1804 the Prince Regent rented a plot of Stanford land to build a dairy farm. William charged the Prince £170 per annum for a fourteen year lease on twenty acres of land known as the Prince’s Dairy estate (the area was close to Preston Circus). In 1818 he increased the rent to £200 per annum.
The rapid expansion of Brighton in the early nineteenth century prompted William to consider laying out his seafront land as a building estate. In 1825 Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament, drew up a scheme for the site now occupied by First Avenue, Hove, and its surrounding streets. The principal elevation consisted of a massive Italianate terrace with a centre block and flanking wings. The scheme was never realised, however, and no significant building took place until the 1870s.
Stanford Land and the Chancery Court
William Stanford died in 1841 and was succeeded by his son, also William, who, in the face of enormous pressure for building land from the extension of Brighton and Hove, succeeded in maintaining a largely agricultural estate. Before he died in 1853 he made a complicated will which attempted to ensure that his land would remain intact.
His heir, Ellen Stanford, was made tenant-for-life of the estates. She was empowered to grant leases but she could not sell land outright – this power was reserved for the trustees of William’s will. As Ellen was only five years old the trustees collected the rents and invested any profits into stocks and securities. Further land could also be acquired, except in Ireland and Scotland. As a further precaution, the entire estate was placed under the authority of the Chancery court in London and Ellen was made a ward of the court.
This was a decision of far reaching consequence for the Stanfords. The money received from the estate was paid into the court by the trustees after the deduction of their expenses. All outgoings had to be approved not only by the trustees but also by the Master of the Chancery court.
In 1867 Ellen married Vere Fane Benett of Pythouse, Wiltshire. As she was only nineteen approval for the marriage had to be obtained from the court and Vere had to present a petition stating, among other things, his financial suitability. Although his income was £7,000 per annum his estate was encumbered with electioneering and other debts amounting to £26,000. In spite of this the couple married and moved to Pythouse.
Vere’s worsening debts forced Ellen to look to her Brighton and Hove estates as a means for lightening her husband’s financial burden. The problem was that under the terms of her father’s will the estate had been strictly settled to prevent the granting of freehold building land. The only way of resolving the problem was to have a private act of Parliament which would enable the sale of land. Vere had plans drawn up for a substantial building estate before the eventual passage of the Stanford Estate Act in 1871.
The Act enabled Ellen to grant building agreements with the option to purchase the freehold within seven years at a price equivalent to the ground rent for twenty-five years. No sale was valid unless approved by the Chancery court. The way was now clear for the transformation of Stanford land to a building estate.
Developments on Stanford Land
In 1871 a massive development of land between what is now First and Fourth Avenues, Hove, was undertaken by the West Brighton Estate Company, with Ellen’s uncle, William Morris, as the major shareholder. The company acquired fifty-seven acres of land and paid a rental of £3.800 a year, with an option to buy the freehold of certain plots. A master plan was drawn up by Sir James Knowles, the Company’s architect and surveyor – it envisaged a series of massive mansion blocks with tall end pavilions; lesser houses flanked the main thoroughfares.
The Prince’s Dairy estate was also developed in 1871 – by 1874 nearly 400 houses and a church occupied the site. Further developments included the erection from 1874 of large villas on the west of Preston Road (now largely replaced by offices) and the sale of Preston Park in 1883 for £50,000. By 1884 550 acres had been either sold or was under building agreement for sale at an average price of £1,000 per acre; in thirteen years £550,000 had been raised.
New Land Purchases
In an attempt to offset the constant sale of Stanford land the Trustees did acquire new freeholds. About £13,500 was spent on land purchases in Wiltshire between 1872-1874 and in 1878 £26,000 was paid out on land in Mitcham and Croydon. A further £32,000 was spent on land in Keymer and Clayton. In 1891 Vere’s estates in Wiltshire were purchased by the Stanford Trustees for £101,000. This money from the Stanford capital account enabled Vere to buy a yacht, the ‘Medora’, and a villa in Madeira known as ‘Quinta Vigia’.
John Benett-Stanford and his diminishing legacy
Vere and Ellen’s son, John Benett Stanford (1870-1947), was bitter about the sale of what he took to be his Wiltshire inheritance. As his mother’s tenant he paid an annual rental whilst receiving an annuity from the Stanford capital account of £5,000. John’s relationship with his mother disintegrated from the 1890s onwards, complaining about her waste and extravagance. He fought a long-running battle with the family solicitors, trustees, and the Chancery court to maintain control over the estate finances.
In 1894 Vere died of ‘fatty degeneration of the heart’ and in 1897 Ellen married Charles Thomas, who took his wife’s name of Stanford. John was convinced that his mother and stepfather, who spent much time abroad, would fritter away his inheritance. His increasingly bitter letters to his mother reflect an unstable and eccentric personality.
The Fate of Preston Manor
Charles and Ellen concentrated on developing the area between Old Shoreham Road and Dyke Road. In 1918 Ellen made tentative plans to sell Preston Manor to Brighton Corporation, but in the end her husband, Sir Charles, bought the house and grounds from his wife’s trustees and, by Deed of Gift in 1925, made provision that after his wife’s death, the house and four acres should be vested in the Corporation of Brighton in perpetuity. A further four acres of land was sold to Brighton Corporation for £5,000. Land sales continued to reach a peak in 1920 and 1925. In a last ditch attempt to preserve his shrinking legacy John attempted to turn the estate into a limited company. The scheme failed.
When Ellen died in 1932 the gross annual value of the capital was put at £229,500, yet over a million pounds had been received by the estate trustees. John was convinced that the disparity was due not only to his mother’s extravagance but also the ‘robbery of the “death duties”, lawyers and other bandits’. The fact that every decision about the estate had to be approved by the Chancery court enormously increased expenses (as any reader of Charles Dickens Bleak House will know).
The Stanford legacy
The Stanford family are now extinct but their legacy lives on not only in Preston Manor, which illustrates the way of life of the family and their servants, but also in the names given to streets and roads on the former Stanford lands: Stanford Avenue, Benett Drive, Vere Road, Shaftesbury Road (Vere was MP for Shaftesbury from 1873-1880) and Ellen Street. Other names recall the family estates in Wiltshire: Tisbury Road, Norton Road, Bavant Road, Knoyle Road and Semley Road, whilst Shirley Drive and Erlington Road are named for former owners of the Manor of Preston.
Adapted from an article by David Beevers, The Royal Pavilion Review, 1990 Number 1.
The author would like to acknowledge the help he has received from the published work of Dr Sue Berry and the research on the Stanford estate undertaken as an MSC project by Mr Tim Sheriff in 1986.