The Final Countdown

By Jane Alderson


This title is more suggestive of an episode of Star Trek or Thunderbirds, but at least it implies momentum and the achievement of the goal!  By the time you receive this edition of The Female Spectator it will be 2002, the final full year before we open our doors in mid 2003.  This is an opportune moment to give you all a brief update and mention some of the exciting highlights of the last six months.


I’m pleased to announce that we have strengthened and expanded our links with Southampton University on a number of fronts.  Professor Cora Kaplan, an internationally recognized scholar in the field of late 18th century women’s writing, has agreed to join with Trustee Isobel Grundy in providing overall strategic, mentoring, and intellectual guidance to the project.  In addition, the University has agreed to appoint a Postdoctoral Research Fellow who, funded by the Charity and acting under Professor Kaplan’s guidance, will coordinate related academic offerings on-site at the Chawton House Library and on the University’s Southampton campus.  The “Chawton House Library Fellow” will also work to promote the Library through her or his own related research as well as through regular communication with interested scholars worldwide.  The focus of this three-year post, for which the University will begin considering qualified applicants this spring, will be:



In addition to expanding academic support for Chawton House Library, the University has pledged additional support in the area of information technology through Professor Wendy Hall and her multimedia group.  They are busy working on an updated and more comprehensive web site for the Library, and will continue to administer the Novels on-Line project. 


On the fundraising side we have recently engaged the services of Tony Byrne as Special Advisor to the Trustees.  Tony brings a wealth of experience to Chawton House.  From 1994 to 2000 he was Director of Development for Corpus Christi College at the University of Cambridge, and responsible for fundraising for the Parker Library project.  In addition to the staff and Trustees, Tony will be able to call upon our new complement of patrons for advice and assistance.  This distinguished group includes Professor Marilyn Butler CBE, The Hon. Mrs. Harriet Cotterell, Mrs. Mary Fagan JP, Brian Pilkington, Michèle Roberts, The Rt. Hon. the Earl of Selborne KBE FRS, Dr. Brian Southam; and Claire Tomalin FRSL.


Restoration Progress


Activity on the renovation of Chawton House continues on schedule, with thirty to forty contractors and input from a wide team of professionals including architects, engineers, historians, and archeologists.  The restoration is now entering its latter stages and is due for completion by the end of 2002. 


In October 2001, the residents of Chawton gave a sigh of relief as once again we had a huge mobile crane on site, lifting off the temporary roof structure prior to the removal of the scaffolding.  At last Chawton House would be displaying an elegant roofline and not looking like something from outer space.  Not for long though.  The removal of the temporary roof and scaffolding marked the end of phase III of the work.  Phase IV began in earnest on 1st October and by the end of December the North range of Chawton House was covered in scaffolding and sporting an even larger temporary roof structure.  The good news is that phase IV is the final stage of the work and this will be the last section of the House to be covered in scaffolding.


The whole of the South range has now been completed as part of phase III of the work.  This included:

·        Timber repairs to the roof and re-tiling using a combination of salvaged tiles and new tiles—new tiles were used on hidden elevations where possible.

·        Installation of services.

·        Fireproofing.

·        Structural repairs to the beams and joists.

·        Structural repair work to the cellars.

·        The de’copage on the Jacobean staircase has been completely uncovered and partially restored and preserved.


The work on Chawton House Stables was completed on time and it has been in regular use since July.  Work on the new, traditional timber framed stable block, alongside Chawton House Stables, will soon be underway and by early 2002 we hope to have Shire horses in residence.




During the work in the South range, things were discovered under floorboards and hidden in dark corners, presumably by children as they included part of a child’s jigsaw, crackers made from children’s handkerchiefs and an assortment of beads.  On a grander scale, when the stone floor was lifted in the hallway, what is believed to be an Elizabethan timber floor was revealed.  The repair of the study floor uncovered a set of steps believed to lead to the Elizabethan cellars or possibly the cellar of the Medieval manor.  A leather bound telescope was discovered behind the panelling above the fireplace in the dressing room adjacent to the Oak Room on the first floor.  Further investigation revealed the panelling to be a hidden door to shelving; a secret cupboard.  Initial research on the telescope indicates that it may date from as early as 1700; it has been recommended that a specialist in early optical instruments be consulted. 


Work on the West range got off to an exciting start when the removal of the panelling from the north wall in the Great Hall, the high end of the hall, revealed an additional fireplace.  It is likely that this fireplace was last seen when the panelling was fitted in the hall around 1660 at the latest.  It is thought that because of the strange, off centre position of the fireplace and its position at the high end of the hall, that this fireplace predates the Elizabethan Hall.  Speculation is that the fireplace is from the earlier Mediaeval Manor and had undergone some local repairs in the years preceding the freehold purchase of the estate, circa 1580.  Further investigations are underway to determine if parts of the existing house are Mediaeval, thus indicating that the Elizabethan House was built around the Mediaeval Manor.  A future edition TFS will contain a full report on the conclusions of these investigations.


On 1st November a message in a bottle was discovered under the floor in the Great Hall.  The cork was extracted and the message removed in the presence of the Architectural Historian, Edward Roberts, on 6th November.  The message reads:


Stet Fortuna Domus

The old stone floor was

taken up and the present one

of deal and oak laid down

about the Feast of All Saints 1868

John Wyeth & William Wyeth

being carpenters.

I write this my father being

absent at the sea-side.

              Montagu Knight

All Saints Day     for

AD 1868       Edward Knight





The message bears the greater part of the Knight seal at the bottom.  It is interesting that we actually discovered the message on All Saints Day, 2001, 133 years to the day after the message was written.  The message is written on the back of a piece of parchment which was originally part of what appears to be a much earlier legal document, possibly from the 17th or 18th century.


Animal Antics


Anyone who followed my progress reports through last autumn and winter will remember that it was a little wet here.  Flood alleviation work is underway to prevent a repeat performance, which included a closed circuit television inspection through the culvert running under the main drive of Chawton House.  The culvert runs from St. Nicholas Church, alongside Chawton House Stables, Coach House Cottage and neighbouring buildings to emerge underneath The Courtyard.  Three men arrived on site with a large van full of technical equipment to enable them to control the progress of the video camera along the culvert and to monitor any findings.  About thirty metres into the culvert, from the church, the camera encountered a pair of eyes, too large to belong to a rat, unless it was some kind of super rat!  Further investigation revealed the eyes to be attached to a sheep, thankfully a live sheep.  The sheep in question had discovered that at the mouth of the culvert by the church there was some rather appetizing grass.  Unfortunately, this grass was on the wrong side of the existing metal hurdle, protecting the mouth of the culvert from invasion by ‘foreign bodies’.  The intrepid sheep had climbed over the hurdle, eaten the grass and then decided to explore the culvert. Once inside, turning around was not an option and reverse is not a direction familiar to sheep.  The shepherd was called, our versatile Restoration Project Manager, Adrian, directed the rescue, and I went along as chief photographer.  The sheep was rescued via the manhole at the side of Chawton House Stables by passing a nylon sack under her stomach, attaching her to the winch on the back of the CCTV van and hauling her out.  The shepherd grabbed her, checked her over, led her back to the field beside the church where she quite happily went back to eating grass, grubby and hungry but otherwise unaffected by her adventure.


Human Interest


A generous grant from the J. Paul Getty Junior Charitable Trust has enabled a section of the wall forming the walled garden to be restored.  This has in turn facilitated the start of the reinstatement of the beds and footpaths within the walled garden.  It is particularly rewarding to be able to report that several volunteers and children from the Learning Zone have carried out much of the work in the walled garden.  The Learning Zone is a local education authority sponsored initiative to provide education, help and guidance to young people who have a statement of emotional or behavioural difficulties.  We have also picked in excess of 2 tonnes of apples in the walled garden, which have mainly been used to produce 90 gallons of Chawton House cider!


In June we took part in the Chawton Open Gardens weekend to raise money for the repairs to St Nicholas Church.  We were one of eighteen gardens and attracted over 1,500 visitors. Much of the publicity focussed on the inclusion of Chawton House in an attempt to encourage more visitors.  Feedback indicates that this had the desired effect.  The route around the garden was marked with arrows and information boards were erected at the main points of interest.  This was supplemented with a leaflet giving information about the project and reproducing the information from the boards, as well as promoting our drive to enroll volunteers!  This route has been used many times over the last few months, especially as the interior of Chawton House has been largely inaccessible to visitors during this time. 


Our educational outreach activities are now well underway and projects were undertaken with various local schools as an integral part of their national curriculum requirements in art, media and English.


Our Friends membership is steadily increasing and we hope to develop Friends ‘activities’ over the coming months.  We also have an enthusiastic pool of volunteers who are helping with the gardening and the literary initiatives—volunteers are always welcome.  Hopefully we will not be seeking volunteers to help with flood prevention over the next few months!