The seaside town is pretty raucous but a mere five minute taxi drive inland takes you from the crazy coastline to the peaceful Preston Manor where all is leafily calm: serenity prevails, tranquillity reigns. The house exudes more than a whiff of colonialism thanks to a generous splattering of shutters and a liberal smattering of verandahs. Mount Vernon-on-Sea. A squat steeple pops its pointy head over the garden wall. Preston is Brighton’s suburban answer to Belfast’s Malone, Bristol’s Clifton, Frankfurt’s Sachsenhausen.
Country Life covered Preston Manor a couple of years after it opened as a museum. The article included 18 pictures of the gardens, the exterior and the interior. A further 15 were left unpublished. They are mainly photographs of individual items of furniture as well as a few alternative exterior views. Country Life reports: “Little is known of the origin of the furniture in the house.” The magazine goes into more detail about the owners and architecture of Preston Manor.
Little has changed in the intervening 80 odd years. The ivy has gone and the grey render on the entrance front has been painted white. The two glazed panels in the entrance doors are now solid. That’s about it outside. Moving indoors: more Edwardian, less Georgian. More cluttered, less staged. Otherwise it’s a game of spot the difference. The interior is atmospherically charged: creaking, sloping floorboards weighed down by history. Servants’ bells line a basement corridor and are labelled: Front Door | Front Door Steps | Back Door | Hall Right | Bedroom No.5 | Library | Dining Room | Stanford Sitting Room | Hall Left | Cleves Room | Bedroom No.2 | Bedroom No.1 | Bedroom No.4 | Drawing Room | Nurses Room.
Here are extracts from the Country Life article: “Preston Manor is the youngest in date and the most domestic of public museums. By the wish of the donors, the late Sir Charles Thomas-Stanford and his wife, their house at Brighton, with its fortuitous accumulation of household furniture and ornaments, is preserved very much as they left it, and at its opening in 1933 nothing was in the house except their possessions. It looks still a house that is lived in; most of the furniture is still in the same rooms as in the donors’ day, and even their little personal possessions, boxes and ornaments are either in their original places or preserved in cases in the actual rooms in which they were on view.
Preston (‘Prestitone’) is listed in Domesday as one of the eight manors belonging to the bishopric of Chichester. The original manor house may have been built at the same time as the church of St Peter, in the middle of the 13th century; and two doorways of Caen stone in the semi basement of the present house are assigned to this date.
Sir Charles Thomas-Stanford’s public work for Brighton is well known. He was Mayor from November, 1910, to 1913, and Member for Brighton from 1914 to 1922. In the words of one who knew him well, ‘the same breadth of imagination which enabled him to seize the opportunity of acquiring Lewes Castle for the nation and showed itself in his public work in the large schemes which he initiated or supported, as for instance the acquisition for the towns of Brighton and Kemp Townlands‘, showed itself in his final benefaction to the town. In 1925, Sir Charles Thomas-Stanford made provision that (subject to the respective life interests of himself and his wife) Preston Manor and four acres of the adjoining land should best in the Corporation of Brighton in perpetuity, to be used for the purposes of a public museum and public park, the ‘house preserved as a building of historic interest to the public, and to be used exclusively as a museum devoted to the preservation of objects linked up with the Borough of Brighton and the County of Sussex, and as reference library containing works relating to subject objects’.
He died on March 7th, 1932, having willed to Corporation, among other things, all his ‘books, documents, ancient deeds and papers relating exclusively or principally to the County of Sussex or any part thereof.’ Lady Thomas-Stanford continued to live in the manor until her death in November of the same year; and by her will she left to the Corporation of Brighton ‘such pictures, clocks, furniture, fittings and other effects in Preston Manor as the Director of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery may select to be retained at Preston Manor… in order that future visitors to Preston Manor may have a correct idea of the appearance of the house as it was at the time when it came into the possession of the Corporation’.
Preston Manor is a pleasant two storeyed building, with its north, or entrance front assuming a Regency air (very suitable to the Brighton neighbourhood) with its glazed verandas, which date from the 1905 alterations. As shown in a sketch (1818) and a painting dated 1841 (which hangs in the house), it consisted of a central block and small flanking wings, each with its separate roof at a slightly lower level. About 1867 the porch on the south, or garden, side was added, faced with knapped flints, and having the arms of Anne of Cleves and the Bennett-Stanford family carved in panels. On the south side the tower of the church is seen projecting into the manor garden.
In 1904 a new wing (which includes the present dining room) was built at the west end of the house, on the ground floor of which had been a brewery; and the entrance hall was also widened to the east by the inclusion of a room known as the Stucco Room. The drawing room, easily the finest room of the house, retains its coved ceiling and stucco ornament, dating from the mid Georgian rebuilding under the Westerns. The late 18th marble chimneypiece is a later addition, and the pedimented surrounds to the two old mahogany doors were built-in in 1923.
The staircase leading to the first floor also dates from the Western rebuilding in 1739, and on the staircase walls are hung pictures of the Manor and its surroundings as they were in 1841, 1845 and 1875. Next to the 1875 pictures hangs the original watercolour drawing of the picture showing the removal of a mill in 1797 from Regency Square, Brighton, to Dyke Road, by 86 oxen belonging to William Stanford of Preston and other gentlemen. The library (which before the 1905 alterations was the dining room) is reached through a door at the eastern end of the entrance hall. It housed the greater part of Sir Charles Thomas-Stanford’s general library (since purchased by the Corporation) in addition to the collection of Sussex works now on its shelves. It contains a late Georgian bookcase bought from Wincombe Park in Wiltshire. A door to the right of the library leads to the morning room, Lady Thomas-Stanford’s sitting room, which is furnished with 19th century rosewood and mahogany.”