Shadwell’s Folly and the House of Usher

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ONCE known as Shadwell’s Folly by locals, Fairlight Hall in Martineau Lane is an early Gothic mansion that has panoramic views of the sea, coastline and surrounding valley farmland. It was designed by the architect of Hyde Park Gardens, John Crake.

He was a pupil of the Georgian architect Decimus Burton who’s father James Burton started building St Leonards as a holiday resort in 1828.

The first owner of the hall, completed in 1855, was William Drew Lucas Shadwell. He inherited a fortune from his uncle, William Lucas Shadwell, an important local figure who helped finance Hastings first bank and the crescent of St Mary in the Castle on Hastings seafront. The younger William Shadwell and his wife Florentia, a successful writer of morally uplifting literature, supported the ideals of temperance. On the Fairlight Hall Estate, which by the end of the 19th century covered three thousand acres, the sale and drinking of alcohol were forbidden and employees could be dismissed for indulging. The forbidding exterior of Fairlight Hall belies the grace and beauty of the interior, which features relief carvings based on traditional Tudor motifs and plasterwork, decorated with depictions of English plants and flowers . Religious quotations are carved into walls and fireplaces, along with the entwined initials of William and Florentia.

As always with old buildings the question arises, “ Is there a ghost?” Mrs Sarah Kowitz, who with her husband David now own Fairlight Hall, said there are two. One, a lady who looks like a Victorian housekeeper, has been seen by a number of people, in what was previous staff quarters. The other, a boy of about seven or eight, has been witnessed by only two. In daylight he appears at a bedroom door, laughs and runs away down the corridor, disappearing into a room without opening the door. Mrs Kowitz said neither apparition causes alarm and that the ghosts seemed like living people. The atmosphere of the house is benign and peaceful.

After WWI, as in many such cases, the estate went into decline and was sold in 1917.

From 1938 to 1949 it was a boarding school, accommodating evacuees and Jewish refugees. It was used by the local and recently late film-maker, George Ivan Barnett as a setting for his production, The Fall of the House of Usher (1949). in the following decades the Hall was variously an equestrian centre, a family home and health club. Mr and Mrs Kowitz took possession of Fairlight Hall in 2002 and have made it their home. After period of neglect and decay the Hall is now returned to its former grandeur, with its infrastructure secured for many years to come. Mrs Kowitz has restored the Hall’s Victorian walled garden to its former beauty and practical use. She has also co-founded the free-to-enter Ore in Bloom Competition, encouraged the involvement of schools and businesses in planting wild and cultivated flowers in Ore’s public places and set up the educational Field to Fork initiative. David Kowitz is establishing Fairlight Hall as a venue for recitals that showcase international talent.

Victoria Seymour gives talks based on her books - Hastings modern social history.

For more information call Victoria on 01424 424981.