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Changing Times | The history of West Dean and Binderton houses

By Pat Saunders, volunteer, and Portia Tremlett, museum assistant at the Novium Museum

 

The house in the post war years was leased out to private tenants and between 1956 and 1968 it was used as an independent boarding school. The Edward James Foundation, the charity that runs the house gardens and West Dean College, was set up in 1964.

 

ON THE outskirts of Chichester are two small and unassuming villages by the name of Binderton and West Dean, notable for their rural beauty, but also two beautiful country houses that have been the subject of visits from both royalty and infamous artists and sculptors.

 

The village of West Dean, sometimes spelt Dene, has existed since the Saxon period, and was originally part of the Hundred of Selsey. The Domesday Book shows it was held by King Edward but was later given to the Dukes of Norfolk after the Norman Conquest. It was later confiscated in 1572 by Elizabeth 1st when she had the Duke of Norfolk executed for treason. However, she returned the estate to his son, Philip, who then sold it. In 1622, owner John Lewkenor built a house on the estate.

 

The estate passed through several owners until it was acquired by Sir James Peachey, the 1st Lord Selsey. He commissioned James Wyatt, leading architect, to rebuild the house creating the core flint mansion seen today.

 

In 1891, it became the home of William Dodge James, an American rail road magnate who had moved to England. Records from 1896 show that Edward VII, Prince of Wales, visited West Dean house to go shooting. In 1889 William Dodge James married Evelyn Elizabeth Forbes, and in 1907 their only son, Edward, was born. Both William (died 1912) and Evelyn (died 1929) are buried in the churchyard. Edward was four when he inherited West Dean house and its 8,000 acre estate but didn’t start to manage it himself until he was 25. He was educated at Eton, before attending Christ Church Oxford, where he was a contemporary of the writer, Evelyn Waugh. Edward was always interested in the arts and was friends with many artists, in particular Salvador Dali.

 

In the 1930s alterations were carried out to Monkton House, which was within the estate, and had been built by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1912. The alterations were carried out by Kit Nicholson and Hugh Casson, with Salvador Dali’s help.

 

The house in the post war years was leased out to private tenants and between 1956 and 1968 it was used as an independent boarding school. The Edward James Foundation, the charity that runs the house gardens and West Dean College, was set up in 1964.

 

Edward James died in 1984 and is buried in St Roche’s Arboretum beneath a slab of Cumbrian slate inscribed by Sussex sculptor John Skelton with the simple epitaph “Edward James Poet 1907-1984”. West Dean house became a Grade II listed building in 1984.

 

Situated on the road from Chichester to Midhurst is Binderton, best described now as a small hamlet. It is most notable for Binderton House.

 

The area has Saxon origins and was known as Bertredtone. The estate at this time was held by Earl Godwin and his wife, Countess Gytha. Following the Norman Conquest, Gytha travelled to the Isle of Flatholme (in the Bristol Channel) where she lived awhile before moving across the sea to St Omer in Flanders.

 

Binderton survived as a village community until 1641 but later became largely deserted. The Medieval church which stood in this area was demolished by Thomas Smyth between 1660 and 1670, when he had Binderton House built. A small chapel was built at this time, but was never consecrated

 

In the mid-20th century, a notable owner of Binderton house was Anthony Eden (1897-1977) who served as foreign secretary from 1935 to 1938, and again in 1940 to 1945 when he became deputy prime minister. As foreign secretary, his rural retreat from the stresses of his position had been Binderton House which he’d affectionately referred to as “Old Binders”.

 

In the war years, one notable visitor to the house was Rex John Whistler (1905-44), the artist celebrated for his murals. He was often invited to large houses such as Binderton to paint for the owners. The last painting in England that he made is believed to be of Binderton House in July, 1944.

 

Binderton House has subsequently been divided up into a group of smaller residences.

 

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