In 1652, the Honourable Charles Howard of Greystoke, fourth son of the Earl of Arundel, Surrey, and Norfolk, received of his father his share of the manor of Dorking and Capel, along with a small property known as The Deepdene, so named because of the narrow dene or dell formed by a cleft in the hillside behind the house. The house was described by the young man’s friend John Aubrey as ‘Howard’s Cottage of Retirement’; in an era when his faith was frowned upon, it behooved this scion of the prominent Catholic family to keep a low profile. Under a more benignant monarch, however, he began about 1660 to build a mansion large enough to require eighteen fireplaces.
The young Charles Howard interested himself in the sciences and built what was called an ‘elaboratory’ for his experiments, with an adjoining oratory and underground spaces for furnaces. He also designed a formal garden in the dene, a garden that was admired and described by his famously horticultural neighbour, John Evelyn. The terrain behind the house forms a natural amphitheatre around the main garden, lending it an air of secrecy and drama; tiered walks on the hillsides above provide changing views of the parterres below. (As of this writing, the garden is under restoration and may be visited on guided walks organised by the Dorking Museum.) At the upper end of the dene is a grotto, with steps above leading to the top of the hill; in Charles Howard’s day, a terrace near the summit was planted with a vineyard, and below in tiers were fruit trees including figs, apricots, quinces, plums, pears, and cherries (Mercer, The Deepdene, Dorking, p. 12). Aubrey’s description draws heavily on pastoral clichés, right down to a mention of ‘two pretty lads, his gardeners, who wonderfully delight in their occupation; and this lovely solitude, and do enjoy themselves so innocently in that pleasant corner, as if they were out of this troublesome world, and seem to live as in the state of innocency.’ I bet.
In addition to his gardens and elaboratory, Howard also added to the estate by purchasing adjacent properties. Having spent fifty years creating this enviable personal paradise, he passed it on to his son, Henry Charles Howard, in 1713. Henry lived only a few years, so The Deepdene went to his one-year-old son in 1720. For some time the house was leased to a neighbour, Henry Talbot of The Vineyard (later called Chart Park), but by 1768 the son—another Charles Howard—had taken up residence. Like his grandfather before him, he was inspired by the beauties of the spot to build a new house just south of the older one, to the satisfaction no doubt of the many local tradesmen he employed. It was a large structure in the Palladian style, largely unornamented, with thirteen bays, and must have dominated the view from Darking town.
Sir William was a retired commissioner of the Excise, which must have added a fillip of excitement to the Tilt family’s smuggling expeditions in the 1790s as they led their packhorses along the lane below the house. After his death in 1796 his widow, the wealthy Lady Sophia Burrell, remained there. She was an author of indifferent plays and verse about society and classical subjects and after her husband’s death soon remarried the Reverend William Clay.
This was the house and these the occupants in 1800, and a description survives in an 1807 property sale catalogue of how the interior appeared at this time: it was ‘“a modern built brick house”, with four principal rooms on the ground floor, the library, breakfast room, the spacious, elegant dining-room with stained glass in the windows, and the billiard room; also a handsome bedroom with a marble chimney-piece. The elegant drawing-room, handsomely papered, finished with gold mouldings, enriched cornice, statuary marble chimney-piece, inlaid with verd antique, with bowed front’ was on the floor above (Mercer, The Deepdene, Dorking, p. 15). It all sounds very vulgar, and of a piece with Lady Burrell’s writings. Among other masterpieces she penned an ode to several generations of the previous owners of the property, whom she lumped together under the portmanteau name ‘Howard’; it reads in part:
If worth, if learning, should with fame be crown’d;
If to superior talents fame be due—
Let Howard’s virtue consecrate the ground
Where once the fairest flowers of science grew.
Within this calm retreat, th’illustrious sage
Was wont his grateful orisons to pay;
Here he perused the legendary page,—
Here gave to chymystry the fleeting day.
Cold to ambition, far from Courts removed;
Though qualified to fill the statesman’s part;
He studied nature in the paths he lov’d,—
Peace in his thoughts, and virtue in his heart.
If she was aware that the Tenth Duke of Norfolk, the last Howard to occupy the place, had drunk himself to death, she disdained to take notice of it in this tribute, which she caused to be etched in marble and placed on the ruined wall of his elaboratory.
She also published a tragedy in 1800, Maximian, which on the title page she endearingly admits was ‘taken from Corneille’, and which was fawningly dedicated to her neighbour, William Lock of Norbury Park. In the dedication she boasts of improving the original play by the addition of ‘more bustle and variety’, an enhancement she considered ‘necessary to render it interesting’! She must have been a thoroughly egregious neighbour.
It appears to be the unhappy fate of The Deepdene to be despised by its heirs, for again in 1807 her son, Sir Charles Merrik Burrell, declined to live there and sold it to Thomas Hope, Esq., from a family of Dutch merchants of Scottish descent. Hope in his turn greatly expanded the house and added to its opulence, transforming it first into a pseudo-medieval monstrosity (see below) and then into an Italianate palace as a backdrop for his art collection. (His younger brother was the owner of the Hope diamond.) The house was finally demolished in 1969, and an office building now stands on the site of the seventeenth-century house.
8 September 2021
Lady Sophia Burrell, Maximian (1800).
H. K. S. Causton and Walter Howard, The Howard Papers: with a Biographical Pedigree and Criticism (1862).
H. E. Malden, The Victoria History of the County of Surrey, vol. III (1911; repr. 1967).
Doris Mercer, The Deepdene, Dorking, with an additional chapter on the Deepdene Park residential estate by Alan A. Jackson (Dorking Local History Group, 1996).