Preston Manor was outside of the borders of Brighton until 1928. But the manor’s history is deeply entwined with the town.
From tenant farmer to landed gentry
When Preston Manor was purchased by William Stanford in 1794 the estate stretched for miles into Brighton and Hove and down to the seafront. William soon became a well-known figure within the Sussex landed gentry. With the development of Brighton as a popular seaside destination, he was able to sell his agricultural produce to the town, and in 1803 he was awarded a contract by the Town Commissioners to clear night-soil from the streets. In 1808 he was appointed High Sheriff of Sussex.
The rapid expansion of Brighton in the early 1800s prompted William to consider laying out his land on Hove seafront for building sites, but he decided to maintain his agricultural estate. There was no pressing need for him to sell land as his income from rents was high. In 1833 he received £30,000 when the new railway line from London crossed his lands and spoilt his view from Preston Manor.
At his death in 1841, the Gentleman’s Magazine commented: ‘he was considered to be the richest private individual in Sussex and to have died worth more than half a million of money’. He left his wife:
‘all my pleasure carriage horses and all my household goods, plate, linen, books and furniture and all my stock of liquors and family provisions which shall be in or about my dwelling house at the time of my decease.’
He gave £20,000 to his second son, Edward, but the bulk of his estate was left to his eldest son, also called William.
Preston Manor estate remains intact
William continued with his father’s careful estate management and resisted the temptation to sell land for building development so that Preston Manor would remain a sizeable and wealthy estate. William made a complicated will that he hoped would ensure that the Stanford Estate would remain intact after his death. His heir was made tenant for life of the estate and was empowered to grant leases but could not sell land outright. This power was reserved for the trustees.
William died in 1853, leaving his five year old daughter Ellen as his heir. In 1854 Ellen’s uncle placed the estate under the authority of the Court of Chancery and made his niece a ward of court. This complicated land transactions, as it meant that decisions had to be approved by the trustees and the judges. Ellen’s fortune was put into a trust administered by Court trustees. William’s will had ensured that income from the Preston Manor estate had to come from rentals and short-term leases rather than land sales.
The Estate changes and so does the shape of Brighton
When Ellen married Vere Fane Benett, she looked to the sale of some of her lands in Brighton and Hove to help her husband with his debts. This meant challenging the strict provisions of her father’s will through an Act of Parliament. The 1871 Stanford Estate Act allowed 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. The way was now clear for the transformation of Stanford land from an agricultural estate to a building development.
The estate began to change dramatically. By 1884, 550 acres had been sold or had a sale agreed and some of finest houses in West Brighton (later Hove) began to appear, with the addition of grand roads, drives and avenues. To offset the constant sale of Stanford Estate land, Ellen instructed the trustees to buy new freeholds in Wiltshire, Sussex and south London. In 1891 the Stanford trustees purchased Vere’s Wiltshire estates, adding them to a portfolio comprising freehold lands in Sussex, Wiltshire and Middlesex and leasehold properties in London.
Ellen’s son, John, was bitter about the sale of his Wiltshire inheritance and fought a long-running battle with the family solicitors, trustees and the Chancery court. The value of the Stanford Estate grew, and when Ellen married Charles Thomas in 1897 John was convinced that Charles would encourage his wife to sell more land to support what John took to be an extravagant way of life.
An Elegant Edwardian Home
Ellen and Charles Thomas-Stanford returned to live at Preston Manor in 1905 and it became the main residence for themselves and the many servants necessary to support their lifestyle. Charles occupied himself with study and research, pursuing his interests in archaeology and history. Between 1903 and 1912 he published five books inspired by his homes and travels. He was elected Mayor of Brighton in 1910, a position he held until 1913, and so began many years of public and civic duty.
In July 1911, a thousand guests were invited to a garden party at Preston Manor about which the Brighton Herald commented:
‘The opulent sunshine of a July afternoon gave its touch of magic to a picture of old-world English beauty which makes a place like Preston Manor a precious national asset’.
His was a spectacular Mayoralty with Ellen and Charles entertaining guests including the author Rudyard Kipling, the Crown Prince of Sweden, and the Princesses Beatrice and Helena, two of the late Queen Victoria’s daughters.
In 1914 Charles was elected as Conservative Unionist Member of Parliament for Brighton, a position he held until 1922. As an MP he concerned himself with issues such as employment conditions for children, food supply to the Royal Pavilion Military Hospital, and coal shortages in Brighton. In 1922 he bought Lewes Castle and donated it to the Sussex Archaeological Society in trust for the nation. In 1925 Charles and Ellen were given the Honorary Freedom of Brighton and, four years later, Charles was created a baronet in recognition of his years of public service.