The magnificent palazzo where Disraeli’s Young England group used to gather is long gone, but its grounds have now been restored
The view from the grotto is much as it was. Call it a bowl, or a cleft between two hillocks, the landscape dips, before spreading gently into a parterre. The Surrey hills rise beyond. We are in the land of Coningsby, Benjamin Disraeli’s novel of 1844, with “groves of huge and vigorous oaks, intersected with those smooth and sunny glades that seem as if they must be cut for dames and knights to saunter on”.
For the last half-century, it has been less a case of sauntering than of wading, burrowing and ploughing with hands and feet through the glades of Deepdene. Concealed behind the Dorking bypass, near Box Hill, this vast estate was left to grow over after the neoclassical palazzo that stood at its heart was demolished in 1969. A major clean-up began in earnest in 2015 after a million-pound boost from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The idea was to create a walking trail, taking in as many of the views and remnants of the estate as it was possible to salvage.
There are references to woodland at “le Depedene” from as early as 1401, and to a cottage and 20 acres at “Dibdene” in the Elizabethan period. This month, Deepdene reopens after a dramatic restoration that takes its landscapes back to how they looked in the 19th century. As Alexander Bagnall, who managed the project explains, “We wanted to gently peel back to the point at which the garden was at its most significant.” These, one may now trill, were the hills that inspired Young England, Disraeli’s decidedly bucolic movement for social change. There, the garden John Aubrey described as the “ingeniously contriv’d long Hope . . . cast into the Form of a Theatre”, first designed for Lord Charles Howard in the 17th century. This, the neoclassical mausoleum of Thomas Hope and his family.
The story of Deepdene may be extraordinary, but it also speaks to a broader history of England. Not even its most colourful episodes — of political ambition and debt, of an American dance-hall singer and a diamond, of illicit sex and a spy — make Deepdene’s downfall atypical. The decline of Deepdene is the story of the decline of the English landed estate between the 19th century and the postwar period. Its rise again offers assurance that regard for English heritage did not die with Deepdene House in 1969.
How the members of Young England achieved anything during their meetings at Deepdene is a mystery. Bear cubs tumbled through the house and one day broke into the dining-room, trampling the china. The estate was so mesmerising that one “might have been gazing upon the Alhambra, or the Taj”. Among “the dusky cedars, the stately palace, the strange fragrance, the far noise of running waters,” George Smythe, son of Viscount Strangford and one of the movement’s leading members, dreamed that Deepdene’s statues had come to life. In Smythe’s descriptions of the estate, his biographer detects the hallucinatory influence of opium.
It wouldn’t be uncharitable to say that the literature and ambition that came out of the Young England movement was more important than the movement itself. Essentially nostalgic in outlook, it provided a group of young Tories with the opportunity to make their names known in the 1840s, and situate themselves publicly between the aristocracy and the working class. In the 1841 general election, Disraeli gained a Tory seat for Shrewsbury. While his voice grew steadily among the backbenchers, it resounded poetically in the Young England newspaper and the political novels he published from the forefront of the movement. Aspiring to old-fashioned values and pre-industrial pastoralism, Young England envisaged a broadly feudalistic relationship between the landed and the lower classes.
For Disraeli, landed interest involved the farmers and land labourers as well as the aristocratic and comfortably well-off landowners. Disraeli was not, of course, born to the same privileges as George Smythe or Alexander Baillie-Cochrane, son of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Thomas Cochrane, or indeed many of the other men who joined Young England in 1842. At the age of 13, he had converted to Christianity, conscious that as a Jew he would have been unable to sit in the House of Commons. Life experience had taught him that there was little to be gained from social segregation. The aristocracy needed reforming, not watering down, and he believed that establishing connections between it and the lower orders would be a more effective policy for social change than simple economic reform. England had become, as Disraeli subtitled his 1845 novel Sybil, “Two Nations”. It was at Deepdene that he began to dream of what England might look like as one nation.
Disraeli’s Sybil was the second political novel in a trilogy. The third was Tancred (1847). The first, Coningsby, was “conceived and partly executed amid the glades and galleries of Deepdene”. It could hardly have been otherwise. Away from the smog and the traffic and the mayhem of the cities, Deepdene must have given the Young Englanders the space to reflect upon the cost of industrialisation. If even obliquely, Deepdene provided an impetus to Disraeli’s burgeoning ideas of One Nation Conservatism. The pastoral visions of other Young England members might have bordered on the twee. John Manners, son of the Duke of Rutland, for instance, could not keep quiet about parish churches and “the merry green, where youth shall disport itself, and old age, well pleased, look on”. Disraeli, however, kept his head — even while drawing on Deepdene dreamer George Smythe as his inspiration for the character of Coningsby: “In the hurry-scurry of money-making, men-making, and machine-making, we had altogether outgrown, not the spirit, but the organization, of our institutions”. No Arcadia could cloud Coningsby’s manifesto for a new England.
It is significant that the novel begins in 1832, the year of the Reform Act, which increased the electorate to around 650,000 and strengthened the representation of industrial cities in particular. To Disraeli, it was a disappointment. His own Reform Act of 1867 would enfranchise a million working-class men. The recent Act also struck a significant blow to the aristocracy by abolishing a number of England’s rotten boroughs. Many a young gentleman before now had secured his entry to politics through election to one of these, not least Henry Thomas Hope, dedicatee of Coningsby and owner of Deepdene.
The Hope family mausoleum was recently uncovered at Deepdene. The council had buried the monument to roof level beneath a mound of soil and in the shelter of a steep hillside around 1960 to protect it from vandals. Conservators have now dug it out. Its ashlar walls are still drying.
Inside, the mausoleum is as cold as one can imagine. Only thin streams of light issue through the half-moon window above the iron gates and into the antechamber to reach the inner sanctum. Behind three walls are loculi, 33 in all, which hold the remains of the Hopes, who once made Deepdene their own.
Henry Hope’s father Thomas, “a little ill-looking man . . . with a sort of effeminate face and manner” and “a very disagreeable voice” was the first of the family to arrive at Deepdene, purchasing the estate in 1807. Born in Amsterdam 38 years previously, Hope was descended from a prominent Dutch-Scottish banking dynasty, which had profited magnificently during the Seven Years War by providing governments with loans in exchange for trade. With little interest in the family business, Thomas Hope had embarked upon a very extended Grand Tour, before returning to England to settle with his wife Louisa Beresford, a pretty heiress (a contemporary caricature cruelly branded them “beauty and the beast”). In addition to Deepdene, they kept a property on London’s Duchess Street, which Sir John Soane much admired.
In a full-length portrait by Sir William Beechey, Thomas Hope, full-faced with a small, dark moustache, is dressed in luxurious woven fabrics and a turban. His travels had taken him to Italy, Spain, Portugal, North Africa, Greece, and finally to the Ottoman Empire. Rather than chronicle his travels in a “trite” journal, he chose to do so through the eyes of a fictitious Greek hero named Anastasius. The book became a novel, which Hope had published — at first anonymously — after settling at Deepdene.
Near the beginning of the book, Anastasius reflects, “Smyrna had been, in my imagination, the utmost limit of the habitable globe; and as to Europe, I deemed it to lie somewhere not far from the antipodes”. Thomas Hope was rather better travelled when he began his Grand Tour, having coming to London from Amsterdam to escape the French Revolution. It was not, however, autobiographical inaccuracy that led the editor of Blackwood’s Magazine to assume that the book had been written by someone else. Anastasius was so brilliant, assured and familiar that he believed it could only have been written by Lord Byron. Whether more flattered or angered upon seeing Byron’s name in the review, Hope wrote at once to assert himself as “sole author” of the work. Although Byron is said to have told Lady Blessington that he wept when he read Anastasius because he had not written it himself, rumours of the involvement of his and other hands have never gone away.
Whether Hope was the sole author of Anastasius or not, the spirit of the book may still be felt at Deepdene. The “whole wide world” which had struck Anastasius’s “young heart with awe” found its way to the English countryside, as Hope went about transforming his estate.
The house as he found it was of red brick and Palladian in style. With ideas of turning it into a neoclassical palazzo, Hope had the now unfashionable bricks stuccoed, and employed Chequers architect William Atkinson to erect Italianate towers, orangeries and new entrance wings. He filled both house and gardens with sculptures made from Coade stone. His rooms became heavy with Greek vases and antiquities from his travels, arranged over Regency furniture of his own design. It was in Deepdene’s landscapes, however, that Anastasius haunted Hope most. At the end of the novel, Anastasius is devastated by the death of his son. In 1817, Hope and his wife experienced a similar tragedy: their young son Charles died from a fever. Heartbroken, Hope built for him the mausoleum at Deepdene. When Thomas died in 1831, his body was, as requested, “deposited in the quietest manner next to that of my ever lamented son Charles”.
The elder of Thomas’s surviving sons, Henry, was a “simple good boy”, who had studied at Eton and, fleetingly, at Cambridge. At Deepdene, he furthered his father’s work, extending the house to form what his friend Disraeli called “a perfect Italian palace, full of balconies adorned with busts”. More than anyone else, Disraeli idolised Byron, so one can imagine his delight on discovering that Deepdene was the home of the man who gave the world Anastasius. Henry expanded its landscapes, purchasing the nearby manor of Brockham, and Betchworth Castle, which he dismantled to form a folly. Working together as a whole, the various components of Deepdene now conformed handsomely to the fashion for the picturesque. Henry had become a great landowner. The only thing he lacked was a peerage.
Before he died, Henry’s father had determined to secure peerages for himself and his son. However, for all Deepdene’s grandeur, as an Amsterdam-born scion of a banking family, Thomas was by no means a shoo-in for such an honour. Since the late 18th century, peerages had been awarded increasingly for services which benefited the public good. One of the characters in Coningsby expresses a familiar view, that it was “monstrous” that men should be peers of places they had never been to, or that the few should possess such privilege of power. Dominated by the landed classes, the House of Lords had almost as much authority as the Commons. But, argued Coningsby, a “preponderance of aristocratic principle” provides stability in politics. The Lords, as Disraeli knew, was a necessity that needed reforming, but acceptance to a peerage was not always as straightforward as one might have imagined. Certainly the Hopes faced a challenge. It is said that an approach was made on Thomas Hope’s behalf to the Duke of Wellington with an offer of £10,000 in exchange for a peerage. It was rejected. With his father’s help, Henry became MP for the rotten borough of East Looe, but failed to obtain a peerage from Robert Peel.
Young England was not a particularly auspicious beginning either for Disraeli or for Henry Hope. Just as the movement was winding down in 1846, Disraeli, championing the landed interest, found himself at the centre of the Tory party split over the repeal of the Corn Laws. Henry, meanwhile, managed to secure the Tory seat for the City of Gloucester, which is where he made Disraeli’s acquaintance, but lost it in 1852. The failure of the two Hopes to achieve the honours they desired might have confirmed what Disraeli believed — that a landowner was a landowner, regardless of his class. For all the Hopes’ money, their power was negligible. A peerage, besides, hardly guaranteed a landowner security, as events at Deepdene would show.
In 1861, Henry Hope’s only child, Henrietta, married Henry Pelham-Clinton, the future sixth Duke of Newcastle, whose passion for horses and gambling had left him almost a quarter of a million pounds in debt. Henry Hope died in 1862; Deepdene eventually came into the possession of his grandson, Henrietta’s son Henry Francis Pelham-Clinton-Hope, the eighth Duke of Newcastle. Unfortunately, Deepdene’s new owner took after his father. He accumulated so much debt that, in order to pay the succession tax on his inheritance, he borrowed against his life interest, which he then had to mortgage off. Turning his back on Deepdene, he sailed to America, where he fell in love with a burlesque dancer and actress named May Yohé. They married in 1894, shortly before he was declared bankrupt.
In addition to Deepdene, the new Duke of Newcastle inherited from his grandfather the most precious of the family jewels, the Hope Diamond. Deep blue and 45.52 carats, it must have been among the most spellbinding objects to have been displayed at the Great Exhibition of London in 1851. Discovered in India in the 17th century, the jewel had been owned by Louis XIV and King George IV; Thomas Hope’s brother bought it after the latter’s death. Sale of the diamond was prohibited by a covenant, news which must have been bittersweet to glamorous May Yohé, who rather enjoyed wearing it, but more of a headache to the duke. He would spend the next seven years seeking the right to sell the jewel, which he was finally granted in 1901. By then, May Yohé had run off with another man. She and the duke were divorced in 1902.
Deepdene, meanwhile, was falling apart. It was not enough that the duke had already sold dozens of paintings off its walls. His debt was so great that he had no choice but to let the property. The Duchess of Marlborough soon moved in. Winston Churchill, her nephew by marriage, was quite taken with the “comfort and splendour” of the house, and visited often. On one occasion he found the future Edward VII waiting anxiously for him in the drawing-room. Churchill was late, but Edward would not start dinner until he got there. Without him, there would have been 13 at table.
The financial situation, however, continued to deteriorate. In 1917, Christie’s auctioned off the contents of most the rooms. The catalogue brims with Greek and Roman marbles, bronzes, fine furniture and two grand pianos. The sale is credited as contributing to the Regency revival of the 1920s. After the last lot, Deepdene itself was put up for sale. “The problem of what to do with the larger country houses would be less difficult of solution if all of them were as well placed in relation to Town, and as suitable in all respects for hotels, as Deepdene happens to be,” said The Times in 1920. It was becoming all too common a story.
The architectural writer Ian Nairn called Deepdene’s a “disgraceful and depressing story”. In 1920 it became a hotel, advertised in the newspapers as “luxurious”, but in reality a notorious knocking shop.
In 1931, it was leased to Peter Mazzina, a friend of John Maundy Gregory, the political fixer who also claimed to be a spy. It has been suggested that Maundy Gregory was behind the venture, which would add a further layer of irony to Deepdene’s history. The Hopes of Deepdene had always wanted peerages. Here now was Maundy Gregory, the man who extracted thousands of pounds from those led to believe he could secure them honours from Lloyd George.
In 1939, the Directorate of Lands and Accommodation added Deepdene to its list of properties that could be requisitioned. Now connected by both rail and road to the capital, it was seized upon as a communications hub for the Southern Railway Company.
“When Southern Rail came in 1940, they discovered this network of caves and tunnels and made them a lot larger,” says restoration project manager Alexander Bagnall, pointing at the newly-polished arches on the east side of Deepdene’s parterre. Charles Howard, who owned Deepdene in the 17th century, had used the caves as an “Elaboratory”, as John Evelyn called it, in which to conduct experiments. In one, he pioneered the growing of saffron.
Deepdene served its purpose during the war. A number of operations — including aspects of Dunkirk — and battles were planned from both the caves and the main house. Some would say that the damage the house endured in the process was worth it. Others would disagree, for by the end of the war the condition of the property had changed irreparably.
England, too, had changed. So many houses had been left to ruin, so many heirs to them had died. Death duties on estates over £200,000 had risen from 40 per cent in 1919 to more than 80 per cent. Many had little choice but to leave them to the asset-strippers. As at Deepdene, however, there were sometimes longer-term causes which contributed to the decline. Neglect and overreaching were not confined to the war. Shortly after Disraeli left office in 1880, having finally achieved his more enduring premiership in 1874, a series of Settled Land Acts was passed to assist landowners in the sale of entailed land, precipitating the end of many more country estates.
Having just about survived the 19th century and two world wars, Deepdene was auctioned off. Some of the surrounding territory went to the council, and some became a golf course. The house fell into the hands of developers who, in 1969, did their worst and demolished it.
Ralph Vaughan Williams was among those who stepped in and succeeded in saving some of the garden, including the Hope terrace, which has now been restored. The landscapes today are more alive than they have been for almost 100 years.
The two main buildings left at Deepdene serve as bookends to the story. One, standing on the site where Thomas Hope once kept his home, is a 1970s concrete office block, the headquarters of Kuoni Travel. The other, situated at the opposite end of the new trail, is the Hope mausoleum. The last member of the family to have been interred there was the eighth Duke of Newcastle, the man who frittered so much away.