Preston Hall Gardens, 1904
A wealth of history
Preston Manor, as the original building was previously known, was a country residence to a series of influential families who have played a notable role in British history. The first family to live at Preston Manor for over 400 years were the Culpeper family. The founder of the dynasty, the first Sir Thomas Culpeper, served as Sheriff of Kent and a courtier to King Edward I.
With Preston Manor as their country estate, the Culpeper family were involved in intrigues in the Tudor courts of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. One descendant, Joyce Culpeper married into the Dukes of Norfolk and became mother of Queen Catherine Howard, fifth wife of King Henry VIII. Another, Sir Thomas Culpeper (1514-1541) served as a courtier to King Henry VIII and was the secret lover of Henry’s fifth queen, Catherine Howard, for which they were both executed.
A later member of the Culpeper family plotted to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots.
The final Culpeper to own the Manor was Alicia Culpeper; when she died in 1723, and with the death of her only child and last husband, the Manor was passed to her late husband’s brother, Dr Charles Milner.
He lived at Preston Manor until his death in 1771 when the hall was passed to his great nephew. A memorial to the Culpeper family can still be found in the inside the Church to the north of the village today.
Preston Manor was purchased in 1848 by Edward Ladd Betts (1815-1872), a railroad baron who, as Chairman of William Betts & Sons, built parts of the British, Canadian and Russian railway systems. Edward’s wife Anne Peto, was an heiress and sister of Sir Samuel Morton Peto, who built the Houses of Parliament, Nelson’s Column and The Lyceum.
Grand carriage driveway, lawns and stone fountain
In 1850 Edward and Anne Ladd Betts commissioned architect John Thomas (1813-1862) to rebuild Preston Manor into the magnificent Jacobean style mansion, Preston Hall, which currently stands on the site. John Thomas was a favourite architect of HRH Prince Albert and the Prince Consort, worked on Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Westminster and Somerleyton Hall.
Preston Hall was given a grand stone façade with features including large bay windows; tall and ornate ceilings including a magnificent hammer-beam ceiling; rich wood wall panelling and marquetry; coats of arms; turrets and towers. An orangery and ornate stables were added and the new mansion was complete with carriage driveway, lawns, stone fountain and sculptures in the grounds.
To facilitate travel to their London mansion, the family built the local railway station and branch line. Like the Culpeper family, the Betts hosted large parties at the hall, with Kent and Surrey Cricket clubs invited to play on the cricket ground within the estate.
To promote the happiness and comfort of all the inhabitants
In 1867 the Betts family overstretched themselves financially building the rail network into London Victoria and London Bridge Stations and Edward became bankrupt and was forced to sell Preston Hall. Betts was highly regarded by the local inhabitants and in an address presented to Betts and his family at the time of their departure from Preston Hall, the villagers of Aylesford observed:
“We should not forgive ourselves if we allowed you to depart from us without our expressing to you our deep felt gratitude for the many benefits you have conferred upon this village. If we take a retrospective view of what Aylesford was 20 years back and contrast it then with its present state and condition, what a manifest improvement is everywhere to be seen – and this, Sir, has been brought about chiefly through your instrumentality. Our Village Church, the Wesleyan Chapel, the Infant School, the Library and Reading Rooms and the bringing of pure spring water to our doors, are all evidences that you were ever ready by your generous aid to promote the happiness and comfort of all the inhabitants.
And not only in these more public acts of generosity have you been distinguished during your residence among us, but also in the exercise of those kind and benevolent feelings which have prompted you at all times to relieve the widow, comfort the sick and aid the distressed; in which good work of charity Mrs Betts and the members of your family have also been most willingly engaged.”
Despite moving from the area, when he died in 1872, Betts’ body was interred in the family vault in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul’s Parish Church, Aylesford. With Betts’ insolvency in 1867, the Hall was bought by Thomas Brassey, a railway contractor, on behalf of his son, Henry Brassey. Henry did not work in railways himself, but his father was a friend of Betts and they had worked closely together, so Henry clearly knew Betts and Preston Hall. Henry moved to Preston Hall on the death of his father in 1870. Henry became a great benefactor of Aylesford, including financing major repairs to the church and provided the village with a school. Between 1868 and 1885 Henry was MP for Sandwich, Kent and later served as both Deputy Lieutenant and High Sheriff of Kent. He died in 1891 and his wife, Anna, in 1898.
On the death of Anna, Preston Hall passed to Henry and Anna’s son, Henry Leonard Campbell Brassey (1870-1958). Henry Leonard Campbell Brassey had married Lady Violet Mary Gordon-Lennox (1874-1946), the daughter of Charles Henry Gordon-Lennox, 7th Duke of Richmond, in 1894. Lady Violet did not care for Preston Hall, expressing the opinion “...it was only fit for commoners as it had no historical legacy.” They moved to Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire, in 1904 and sold off major parts of the Preston Hall estate (which had been hundreds of acres), selling the home farm, agricultural land and woodland, so that the house and grounds were reduced to 24.9 acres.