Former home of Sir Oswald Birley and Lady Rhoda Birley

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Domesday Book

The extract about Charleston in the Domesday Book

Ralph holds Charleston from the Count. Wulfric held it from King Edward. Then it answered for 10 hides; now 2½ hides are in the Rape of hastings. Land for 8 ploughs. In Lordship 1; 6 villagers and 8 smallholders with 4 ploughs. 3 slaves; 3 salt-houses at 10s 4d; meadow, 20 acres. Value before 1066 £9; now £4. 10s.

The earliest known reference to Charleston is as ‘Cerlestone’ in the Domesday Book, see above,  in 1080 and is thought to have been at that time the property Ralph (1086) but according to Huxley, 1962 it was occupied by Alvred, William the Conqueror’s Cup Bearer, however there is a chronology discrepancy with this. (see Charleston Timeline). The name Charleston is probably derived via "Cerlestone" from the Old-English Churl, or farm worker. A "Churl Stone" being used as a boundary marker between two areas of property. There is such a large erratic stone (Erratic - not from the local geology) on the premises right outside the rear door of the Manor and this stone may well have been on the site for many hundreds of years. It has been subsequently used as a mounting block but it's odd shape precludes it from some architectural purpose.

Many of the buildings are extremely old, parts of the main house date to around 1170-80 with additions over succeeding centuries. In the early 17th Century the property was owned by William Thomas of Lewes a wealthy citizen whose elaborate and ostentatious tomb is worth visiting in West Dean Church. During replacement of some of the drains large trenches were excavated in the vicinity of the Manor during which the remains of building foundations were exposed. These remains lie some 1.5-2.0m below ground level and no further archaeology was conducted at the time. (Researchers Note: Please be aware that it is our understanding that there were pig pens and other ancillary agricultural buildings around the Manor during the time is was used as a farm and these may well have been connected with this phase of the Manor's history.)

Little other accurate information is known about the property until the production of the West Dean Tithe Map (William Figg, 1840). This map shows the lake much larger than that of today with the sites of the Manor, Garden House, Clock House and Great Barns occupied. The lake reached it's former proportions in the early spring of 1994 when the whole of the Cuckmere Valley flooded. It is recorded that in Saxon times the valley was open to the sea and indeed navigable up to West Dean and perhaps even the Manor itself. The Dovecote, although of much greater antiquity, appeared on the detail in 1874, as did the island in the lake. And by 1899 the other ancillary buildings had also been recorded.

Over the years between 1840 and 1928 the general layout of the garden had not altered very much however that was all about to change and by the time of the Ordnance Survey was taken in 1938 the whole area had been transformed into what we see today.

Our understanding was that Lady Birley was staying with friends, possibly Viscount Waverley at West Dean. Lady Birley was a member of the committee of Covent Garden along with Lady Waverley. Whilst out on a walk on the public footpath between West Dean and Littlington she stumbled  upon Charleston. The public footpath then actually ran right down what is now the main drive. It is also our understanding that the house at that time was in a poor state of repair and still separated into at least two dwellings and what is know the "Garden House" was nothing more than a cart shed. She obviously had some considerable vision to be able to determine that the muddle could be sorted out into what we see today.

During the ten year period commencing 1928, Sir Oswald and Lady Birley commissioned Walter Godfrey, Architect, to transform the buildings and gardens at Charleston from what was at the time little more than a farm. Extensive ancillary building works were carried out, the lake was re-designed and reduced in size, the walled Kitchen Garden was built and the whole area around the house rebuilt and planted. It is thought that Lady Birley developed a friendship with Vita Sackville-West  during her involvement with the "Land Army" and that Vita was inspirational in the design of the gardens, especially the "Rose Garden". We are searching for proof of this association but there are strong lines of evidence in the room like structure of the garden which is the "trademark" of Vita. We are sure of the connection with Sir Harold Hillier and his input into the garden both as a friend of the family and a supplier of many of the original trees and shrubs. Follow this link for full details of the garden. We are also sure of the association of Charleston with Nyma's (now National Trust) just up the road, as Sir Oswald and Lady Birley jointly funded some of the plant hunting expeditions to the Far East and China.

On the high bank, 200m to the left of the main gate there are a number of steps leading up to the level surface at the top of the bank. In this position there used to be a bungalow used as residence for one of the staff. The building has now been demolished. At the back of this site, now wooded, used to be a large clear area which was used during World War 2 for vegetable production, it represents almost the only area of flat ground which does not have a building on it.

All the other current buildings (1995) are as they were during the ownership of Sir Oswald and Lady Birley.

Researchers Note:

The buildings at Charleston have been studied by R.O.H.A.S. and detailed architectural reports are available as follows:

Report # Title NGR #
1075 Charleston Manor TQ 52090065
1076 Dovecote at Charleston Manor TQ 52050063
1077 Barn at Charleston Manor TQ 52130066

Additions to the text: Readers will now be aware that I have added a number of conjectural points to the text. In my mind these are not conjecture as I was lucky enough to interview on many of occasions the Retired Head Gardener and Chauffeur to Sir Oswald, Mr. John Lambert. It is from these interviews I feel I have the right to add to documented fact those points which I consider to be beyond dispute. Where I have documentary evidence I have added information without this reservation. I have made it quite clear in the text those points which I consider to be not in-doubt but unproven.


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