Yardley Court was founded in 1898 in Tonbridge, and came to the Somerhill site in 1990 in order to expand. Derwent Lodge, established in the 1930s, followed in 1993, moving from their Tunbridge Wells town centre home which they had outgrown. Somerhill Pre-Prep was established in 1995.
These three schools were separate, as the Schools at Somerhill, until 2018, when we saw the potential for integrating and building one special school community with shared facilities, vision and purpose.
In 2011, our mansion celebrated its 400th year. In its lifetime, it’s been through periods of growth, decline and restoration, and seen great families come and go. From the 1600s to the present day, here’s a look back at the history of Somerhill, and how it became the home of our happy, modern school.
Favourites, Fortunes and Fashion
The land Somerhill stands on was originally part of the Manor of South Frith. By the mid 16th century, this had reverted to the Crown. Elizabeth I gave the land to Frances, the only daughter of one of her court favourites, her Secretary of State and Spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham.
Frances Walsingham was married three times, first to soldier Sir Philip Sidney, of nearby Penshurst Place. After Philip’s untimely death in 1586, Frances married Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, but Elizabeth eventually sent him to his death, by execution on Tower Hill in 1601, after an unsuccessful military expedition in Ireland. Frances was left poverty stricken – all Devereux’s money had gone to pay his debts. It was probably around this time that Elizabeth granted the Somerhill land to Frances.
Frances’s third marriage (in about 1601) was to Richard Burke, 4th Earl of Clanricarde (1572-1635). A royalist who fought for King James I, he was honoured on the battlefield and had both Irish and English peerages.
Richard and Frances chose a site to build their new house with commanding vistas and natural beauty. Tunbridge Wells did not then exist (the Chalybeate Spring was first seen by Lord North in 1606). Tonbridge was a huge parish, in fact the largest in Kent, stretching from the foot of the Greensand (Sevenoaks) Ridge to the Sussex border.
In 1611, early in the reign of King James I, work began on the present building using local sandstone. A first draft of a plan in Sir John Soane’s Museum suggests John Thorpe was the architect. Thorpe designed houses for a number of families in England around that time.
Although Somerhill is clearly Jacobean in style – like the huge house of the Sackvilles at nearby Knole, Sevenoaks – the design follows architectural rules fashionably derived from Andrea di Pietro, alias Palladio, in his famous classical renaissance villa at Vicenza, near Venice. Until this time, large houses had been built with the central hall going across the building, but Somerhill has the hall running the length of the house. This makes the house one of the most innovative in the country for its time.
One of the most remarkable survivors at Somerhill is the complete set of original ornamented lead rainwater heads and rain pipes. The rainwater heads are at their most elaborate on the front of the mansion, some dating from 1611 or 1613. Many bear the initials of Robert and Francis Clanricarde, RCF.
Civil War and ‘The Lady in White’
The Clanricardes’ son Ulick took up arms during the English Civil War for Charles I. After the royalist defeat at the Battle of Naseby in 1645, Somerhill was sequestered by parliament and Ulick forced into exile. The house went first to Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, who died in 1646. Parliament then voted the estate to John Bradshaw who had presided over the court that condemned Charles I to death in 1649 (his is the first signature on the famous death warrant). Bradshaw died in 1659, and the house passed to his son. Bradshaw was given a huge funeral at St Peter’s church in Westminster, but a year later his body was dug up and hanged on the gallows at Tyburn.
Ulick sought to reclaim the house in a deal with Cromwell in 1653 in exchange for estates forfeited as part of the infamous Cromwellian Settlement in Ireland. Ulick died in 1659 and is buried in Tonbridge church. Eventually, with the Restoration of Charles II, the estate was returned to its rightful owner, Ulick’s only daughter, Margaret, the eccentric wife of Lord Muskerry.
Soon after that, the new Tunbridge Wells became fashionable with London nobility. Before adequate lodgings were developed around the Pantiles, Somerhill – like certain other nearby big houses – hosted many gentry visiting the Wells to socialise and to take the waters. In 1664 the Queen visited Tunbridge Wells; the Queen’s ladies stayed at Somerhill and ‘went every day to court or the court came to them’.
Lady Muskerry’s second marriage was to John Villiers Viscount Purbeck who did his best to spend their money. John Villiers, the son from her second marriage, inherited the much depleted estate and, like his father, he wasted his money gambling and soon had to sell to pay his debts. In 1698, the estate passed into the hands of Thomas Deakins. The Lowy of Tunbridge states: ‘Thomas Deakins, gent. of Tunbridge, in 1707, gave to this parish 50l. to put out ten poor boys apprentices; and 50l. more to the poor, which was laid out in building two almshouses.’
An Important Tonbridge Family
In 1712, the estate came into the possession of the Woodgate family. John Woodgate (1664-1727) bought the house now known as Somerhill. Their association with the area is remembered in Woodgate Way, and William Woodgate’s portrait still hangs in the Long Library at Somerhill. By this stage the house was somewhat neglected. Horace Walpole, who was touring Kent, remarked: ‘The house is little better than a farm, but has been an excellent one and is entire, though out of repair.’
On 5 August 1752, full of romantic spirit, Walpole wrote to his friend, Richard Beatty: ‘We climbed up a hill to see Summer Hill … it stands high, commands a vast landscape, beautifully wooded and has quantities of large old trees to shelter itself …’
The Woodgates were an important Tonbridge family in the 18th and 19th centuries. John Woodgate had 13 children, one of whom, Henry, inherited both Somerhill and Stonewall in 1728 and played a full part in public life; he promoted the Medway navigation scheme and left money for an organ in the parish church. Since Henry did not have children, he made his nephew William (1743-1809) his heir. William was the son of Henry’s brother Francis (1706-90) who had become a curate at Seal, married a local lady and was then given the living of Mountfield in Sussex by the Duke of Dorset.
William married Frances Hooker, built up a considerable fortune and bought the new house (built by his brother-in-law Thomas Hooker) attached to Tonbridge Castle in 1793 for his son, William Francis (1770-1828). William Woodgate’s participation in town life included sending his sons to Tonbridge School, serving as a magistrate, financing the new Town Hall in 1798 (just north of the Big Bridge) and owning about a dozen properties in the town.
After William died, William Francis (‘the Major’) moved to Somerhill and made improvements to it. He had at least 10 children, and one of his daughters married Dr Thomas Knox, the headmaster of Tonbridge School.
During the threat of a Napoleonic invasion, William Francis commanded a troop of about 55 cavalry volunteers, as part of the West Kent Yeomanry, who were raised from among local inhabitants in 1794. His father had been one of three founders of the Tonbridge Bank in 1792 but in 1816 the Bank failed, bringing ruin to its backers. The Woodgates were hit hard by the agricultural depression at the end of the Napoleonic Wars and sold the same year. The victorious Duke of Wellington declined to buy Somerhill, dissatisfied by its fox hunting!
William Francis was forced to sell Somerhill. Although the Woodgates no longer lived in Somerhill after that date, another member of the family, Francis (1781-1843), returned to live in Tonbridge in 1823 when he bought Ferox Hall. With subsequent generations of Woodgates living in Sevenoaks, Seal, Pembury, Penshurst and further afield, the family features in many aspects of local history throughout the 19th century.
James Alexander (1769-1848) became the new owner of the Somerhill estate. He obtained JMW Turner’s painting, completed in 1811, of the grounds and building before it was sold to the National Gallery of Scotland, its current home. It’s thought that Turner painted the scene for the Woodgate family. His viewpoint was the lakeside looking up through the trees towards the house on the ridge. The honey-coloured stonework is bathed in warm, soft evening light. The painting is probably the most exquisite example of Turner’s transformation of the tradition of the topographical house portrait.
Alexander acquired one of the stone coffins that were found at Tonbridge Priory when the ruins were demolished to make way for the railway. This is still on the Somerhill site, currently in the Rose Garden.
Riches, Renovation and War
In 1849, Somerhill estate, which once covered 6,500 acres (2,600 ha), was bought by Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, 1st Baronet, a rich City banker. He passed the house to his second son, Frederick, in 1859 and then it went to Frederick’s elder son, Sir Julian, in 1866.
Julian’s brave attempt at providing a male heir – he had eight daughters – eventually resulted in a virtual doubling of the house’s living accommodation. Building work began in 1879 (according to dated rainwater heads) and was completed as the new stable court, with clock tower, in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year, 1897. The old, Jacobean, stable court became servants’ rooms and domestic offices. The terraces and lawns were added at this stage and the estate took on much of its present appearance.
Today, the house is the second largest in Kent, after Knole, covering about two and a half acres (one hectare) and with about 270 rooms.
On the death of Sir Julian, and in accordance with Sir Isaac’s will (to pass the house through male heirs), the house went to a grandson of his aunt Rachel, who was married to Count Solomon D’Avigdor. Osmond D’Avigdor Goldsmid was now the new owner.
It is thought the imitative Jacobean barrel ceiling was put up in the (Grand) Salon at this stage. Later it was given a flat Jacobean style and a suite of maids’ rooms and nurseries were inserted above. The room was also extensively re-panelled, with wainscoting and carved frieze also added. The Entrance Hall below was re-panelled, its ornate Italian plaster ceiling renovated. The Jacobean-style chimney piece in the adjoining room was retained (its features being the reverse of those seen on a fine chimney piece at Knole). This chimney piece of polychrome marble probably dates from around 1878, although some visitors to the house have said it was brought over in the 1930s from Italy.
The library, running 30 metres (93 feet) – the full length of the south wing and reputedly the second longest room in Kent, after the Gallery at Knole – was also refurbished.
During the summer months of 1912 an army camp is said to have been held (in bell tents) in the grounds and, in the Second World War, Somerhill was known as POW Camp No 40. The army occupied the land from 1940 to 1945. In 1948, homeless people occupied parts of the area, and the Army Colonel in charge ‘locked the squatters in’, apparently assisted by old barbed wire. In 1949, the local council had discussions regarding the land, and it’s said there were at least 40 huts of varying sizes. Sir Osmond died in 1940 and was succeeded by his elder son, Sir Henry. Here’s a picture of Somerhill from 1914.
The Diary of Vinzenz Fetzer, a prisoner-of-war in Tonbridge during the Second World War, who spent three years at POW Camp No 40, gives a fascinating insight into the Somerhill site during this time.
During the Goldsmid family’s residence at Somerhill in the 20th century, there was some lavish entertaining. Sir Henry’s wife, Rosemary D’Avigdor Goldsmid, once likened the place to a hotel, except the guests never paid! Occasionally guests included royalty, and stories abound about the time spent at the house by David Niven, Enoch Powell, Sir Hugh Casson, Sir John Betjeman and others. Sir Hugh, a good family friend, designed the small changing pavilion by the swimming pool.
In the closing years of the family’s residence, a much-loved daughter, Sarah, drowned off the south coast. The artist Marc Chagall, who was known to the family, was commissioned to design stunning new memorial windows in nearby Tudeley church. There is also a commemorative stone in the gardens beyond Yardley Court’s war memorial lychgate.
On Sir Henry’s death in 1976, Somerhill passed to his sole surviving daughter, Chloe – now Chloe Teacher – who lives at Hadlow Place Farm with her family. Lady D’Avigdor Goldsmid died in 1997.
A House Becomes a School
In 1980, after years of neglect, Somerhill House was sold with the gardens and parkland. The property then changed hands three times in eight years, during which time more neglect, decay and storm damage took its toll. The first new owner, in an act of ignorance bordering on vandalism, removed the carved wooden hall screen and over-stained large areas of panelling in the entrance hall and upstairs salon.
What we see today is little short of a miracle. From 1989-91, the house was extensively repaired and restored. Some 12 miles of cables were used in the re-wiring! The main contractors were the family firm Durtnells of Brasted, near Sevenoaks – the oldest building firm in Britain. In 1991, as work drew to a close, the firm celebrated its 400th anniversary with a big party at Somerhill – one of a number of local houses which the firm is very likely to have helped build!
Any restoration and development for the school’s use is handled sensitively, in consultation with conservation experts, but the building has proved remarkably well suited to its modern role. Many of the rooms in the huge neo-Jacobean Victorian wing have been adapted to serve as classrooms. The rooms on the top floor beneath the restored roof of the mansion house the art rooms and classrooms, which were opened in 1998. The former grain store at the top of the Victorian wing has been sensitively restored and some of the old stables are preserved and now used as a maintenance workshop.
The central span between Old Stable Courtyard and Stable Courtyard was reinstated towards the end of 2000. The formal gardens are, with the approval of English Heritage, based on a low maintenance plan, the formal rose garden at the front of the house being the only one retained.
In 2000, planning permission was obtained for a scheme that enabled Somerhill to build a multi-purpose hall on the top sports terrace. This was completed in the summer term 2002. Facilities were further improved by the completion of the synthetic grass pitch in 2003.
The lake bridge at the southern end of the estate which was listed by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council in 1998 as a Monument at Risk was refurbished in May 2004. It is from this lake that JMW Turner painted Somerhill.
In April 2006 permission was granted to build a dining room and indoor swimming pool in the walled garden. The enabling work to the actual wall of the walled garden began in the spring of 2007, the main project in the summer. The school moved into the purpose built dining hall in October 2008 and the pool in January 2009. The final phase of refurbishment took place in the summer of 2009 when the areas of the mansion used for catering and administration were refurbished.
This fine historic building was nearly lost beyond repair during the 1980s through crude speculation, bureaucratic wrangling and lack of proper recognition of its heritage and potential. What we see now demonstrates the opportunities for restoring and re-using very large historic houses and their grounds. Many hopes, prayers, team work and sheer hard work have produced Somerhill as it lives today.