The origins of Hammerwood are obscure: it is unlikely that we shall ever know exactly what existed on the site of the present mansion before 1792 when B. H. Latrobe began work on it for John Sperling. So a little detective work must be undertaken.
Modern conveyancing deeds talk of 'the reputed manor of Bower' and old deeds show that the entire area lately forming the Hammerwood Estate was known as 'The Bower'. Indeed, you may have noticed as you drove down the lane to the House a Tudor farmhouse on your right called 'The Bower House'. But sadly the medieval 'manor of Bower' was nothing more than a fiction invented by 17th-century owners to enhance themselves, and by the lawyers to cover themselves.
The Bower was a substantial landholding which straddled the parishes of East Grinstead and Hartfield - a few miles north of the Ashdown Forest. A family called 'Atte Boure' are listed as paying tax to Edward I in the 1290s along with other families who were lords of local manors. The family would have held the land forming The Bower of one or more of the local lords.
In the mid 1500s a prosperous yeoman called Hugh Botting purchased the estate. He died in 1560 leaving his widely distributed lands to his family but reserving the principal chamber in his "house called The Bower" to the use of his wife, Joan. Whether this house was on the site of the farmhouse up the lane or on the site of modern Hammerwood is unclear. Sometime after 1588 the Bottings founded an iron forge at Bower which was situated immediately to the left of the lake as one looks from the house.
In so diversifying the Bottings were joining an industry which had existed in the Sussex Weald since Roman times (if one visits the nearby Cowden Church, one sees the iron burial memorial slab of 'John Botting of the Bower' dated 1622).
Eventually the Bottings fell on hard times and had to sell up to a rising East Grinstead family, the Paynes, in 1628; but it would appear that they continued in occupation of the land until the end of the 17th century when eventually they relinquished The Bower and the Paynes leased it to another local squire called Alexander Luxford for one year in 1693. It was he who, according to Edwardian legend, erected the 'nucleus of the present mansion': a little odd if the worthy Luxford only leased the 500 acre estate for one year.
Nevertheless by 1711 the Paynes (by now substantial landowners) were in situ, living at The Bower and, out of all the local residents, paying by far the largest contribution to parish church funds. John Payne's only child married John Smith, Rector of Withyham who, when he acquired The Bower became that celebrated 18th-century figure, the 'squire vicar'. Smith was a wealthy man who left in his will large cash bequests, silver and New South Sea Annuities. The Bower passed to his son and eventually to his daughter-in- law, who in 1766 paid Window Tax based on 41 lights, making The Bower the fifth largest out of the 150 taxable residences in East Grinstead.
Thus it seems that before 1792 there existed a very respectable house at The Bower. But the Tudor farmhouse you see today was not it, for in the 18th century it would have been considered hopelessly out of fashion, moreover then it was a third of the size it appears today. Almost certainly the residence of the Paynes and the Smiths was the 'nucleus of the present mansion' and when John Sperling purchased The Bower in mid-1792 he acquired a habitable property which he required Latrobe to enlarge and enhance. Indeed, as early as November 1792, Sperling was ordering linen for the house which was now named Hammerwood Lodge.
Whether the same 'nucleus' was the house of the Bottings we do not know. But if you walk around to the south side of the house and look at the west side of the central block you will see the remains of ancient foundations. Could this have been a part of the Bottings' house, situated to keep an eye on the iron workings in the valley? It seems that Sperling had this in mind when he renamed his house and the estate 'Hammerwood', a romantic gesture evoking the early prosperity of the area.
Jonathan Small BA
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