Ned & Clare Mersey
Bignor Park was held from at least the mid-fourteenth century by the Earls of Arundel. Originally used as grounds to fatten deer, Bignor Park was bought in 1584 by Richard Pellatt of Steyning, who built the first house on the site, the only surviving relics of which are two finials at the west end of the walled garden. The property descended through his family until sold in 1712 to Nicholas Turner. Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806), prominent poet and novelist, spent her childhood at Bignor Park and it became the inspiration for many of her poems (see separate section).
At the start of the 19th Century the Cornish tin miner John Hawkins (1760-1840) bought the estate. On the early death of his father the family estate of Trewithen in Cornwall plus its mining interests passed to his elder brother and Hawkins set out to make his own career path. He built the present house in 1826-9, having lived with his family in an older house on the same romantic site which had captivated him. He employed the Belgravia architect Henry Harrison who took advantage of the prevailing style of neo-classicism which chimed with Hawkins love of antique Greece. He also laid out the surrounding parkland according to a plan devised by renowned landscape designer and artist William Sawrey Gilpin.
After studying geology and mining in Europe, Hawkins joined a botanist friend on a couple of lengthy and dangerous explorations of the Levant, collecting and cataloguing the native flowers of the region. On returning to these shores his friend John Sibthorp died in his early thirties, having entrusted Hawkins with the final publishing of his massive and disorganised collection. The result was the Flora Graeca which was produced by Hawkins to a uniquely high standard, taking the last 40 years of his life. In this age of discovery Hawkins was closely connected to a host of intellectual and scientific friends both in this country and abroad, contributing to learned societies and sharing his knowledge widely. It could have been his encounter with antiquities there that encouraged him to take such an active part in the excavation of the impressive Bignor Roman Villa half a mile away (www.bignorromanvilla.co.uk). In 1834 Bignor Park was visited by the painter John Constable and images of his watercolours may be seen above and below.
Bignor Park remained in the Hawkins family for over a hundred years and his last descendant to live here was Mrs Josephine Johnstone. She became a widow and lived in the house with a number of servants (in 1911 there was a footman, a cook, three housemaids, a kitchenmaid, and a scullery maid). During World War One, Mrs Johnstone (now aged 71) set aside three adjacent rooms in the house (the drawing room, library and smoking room) as wards for a Red Cross hospital. This she paid for and ran herself, with the help of two trained nurses and Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurses from local villages. A doctor visited daily. She set up the wards, along with an operating room and dispensary, in early August 1914, and the first patients arrived shortly afterwards.
The men must have found the green and peaceful surroundings a welcome contrast to the battlefields they had come from. At least two of the VAD nurses (Beth Richardson of Fittleworth, and Evelyn Palmer of Sullington) had autograph books – now in West Sussex Record Office – which were written in by some of the patients. These reveal that the sick and wounded servicemen came from across the British Isles, as well as from Belgium, Australia and Canada. By the end of 1915 there were 40 beds, and 370 patients had been treated. By the end of 1916 the number of beds had risen to 50 beds, but figures are not given for the number of patients that year. The annual report of the Sussex Branch of the British Red Cross Society noted that there was ‘complete provision for English Massage [physiotherapy], the French Eau Courante system, Radiant Heat, Faraday and galvanic treatment. There are abundant facilities for indoor and outdoor games.’
By the end of 1917 there were 55 beds, with an average occupancy of 45, and 513 patients received treatment during the year. At the end of 1918 the number of beds was unchanged, average occupancy was 34, and 381 patients had been treated. For her work at Bignor Park Hospital, Mrs Johnstone was awarded the OBE in 1918. The hospital closed in January 1919.
Bignor Park has been with the Bigham family since 1926, when it was bought by Charles Bigham, second Viscount Mersey (the first Viscount Mersey was the judge at the inquiries into the sinking of RMS Titanic and RMS Lusitania). The second Viscount was an author, traveller and collector. His son Edward, third Viscount Mersey, moved to Bignor with his family in 1959 and his wife Katherine, Baroness Nairne, renovated the house and garden.
The great storm of 1987 blew down forty trees in the shrubbery, leaving it exposed and bare. In 1992 Richard, fourth Viscount Mersey, built a temple there to commemorate his mother Kitty’s 80th birthday, a homage also to her ancestress Lady Carolina Nairne, friend of Sir Walter Scott and author of Jacobite ballads such as Charlie is me darlin, Caller Herrin’ and Will ye no come back again. Richard and his wife Joanna moved into the house the same year (watercolour below by Richard Mersey), and Joanna redesigned certain aspects of the garden, including the creation of the Zen Pond.
Richard died in 2006 and their son Ned, the fifth Viscount, has now taken over the running of the estate, moving down with his family in 2010. As well as the restoration of the Stables, Ned has overseen the extensive repair of garden walls, haha, house and parkland fencing. With assistance from Natural England and advice from the South Downs National Park Authority and the Sussex Wildlife Trust, Ned has undertaken a parkland restoration plan put together by Dr Philip Masters of ACTA, following the original 1820s scheme of William Sawrey Gilpin.