SISSINGHURST GARDENS - a secret history
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Acquired by Vita Sackville West with her husband Sir Harold Nicolson in 1930, Sissinghurst Castle gardens have become one of the brightest jewels in a spectacular crown of English country gardens. It was their unique vision and uncommon single mindedness that took this dilapidated Tudor estate and moulded it into a breathtaking series of compartmentalised gardens. But there is something at Sissinghurst which makes it quite unique, a quality of peace and tranquillity that has enabled it to become regarded as one of the most beautiful gardens in the world.
However, scratch the surface and you will reveal a history so sinister that you may never look at this place the same way again. To uncover the truth we must go back to over 250 years to when Britain was in the grip of a punishing war against France.
With the success of the British Navy during the ‘Seven Years War’, many ships from of the French fleet were captured as prizes and their seamen confined in prison hulks at Plymouth. As prisoner populations rose this proved to be an unpopular choice, and so the Government of the time decided that it needed a more suitable location to house them. With the owners of Sissinghurst being in considerable debt, they leapt at the chance of leasing it to the government, and did so in 1756. If prison conditions were believed to have been bad then, they were about to get much, much worse!
Unfortunately for the French, English prisons were traditionally run by the Royal Navy, and Sissinghurst had extra security in place by way of short term army garrisons. This made the inmates at Sissinghurst not just prisoners but also the enemy and as such, the treatment they received here was significantly worse compared to other British prisons. So powerful became its reputation, that the very threat of being sent to Sissinghurst was often enough to enforce discipline in other prisons across the country.
New prisoners would have been greeted by the stench of overcrowded, dilapidated and unsanitary accommodation, although the word ‘overcrowded’ is somewhat of an understatement. Even after 250 years, inscriptions still survive above the cell door frames indicating the maximum population level’s for each room. For example, one particular chamber of no more than 16ft by 20ft would have been home for up to eighteen men. Another, found under a staircase in the Elizabethan quarters, indicates a population of only 6, but it’s a cell of no more that 4ft square. If that wasn’t bad enough, there was no running water or toilets in these makeshift cells so imagine how intolerable the heat of summer would have been - bringing with it the stink of human faeces, and what would have seemed like a plague of lice and flies.
Of course with this many men living in such poor and barbaric conditions, diseases ran rife through the camp infecting prisoners, guards and the garrison alike. These were terrible times and instances of smallpox and dysentery were commonplace. There was enormous pressure to find somewhere suitable for treating the large numbers of infections and so the large Elizabethan brick barn - found to the left of today’s main entrance - was converted into a make-shift hospital.
With 18th Century jailers subjected to very poor pay and conditions it was down to them to come up with ways of making a little extra money, in fact they were expected to. It was common practice for all new inmates to be fitted with heavy irons. This was so that for a small payment they could be replaced with lighter ones, or - for an additional charge - they could be removed altogether. Unfortunately many of the guards had a strong sadistic side, so on top of stealing prisoner belongings and fiddling the exchange rates of foreign nationals, they also used their position to impose conditions of starvation, isolated confinement, and inadequate clothing.
Although the jailors were widely known for being institutionally corrupt, the French soon learned that it could be used to work in their favour. This was done by using bribes to condition the guard’s behaviour.
In one particular case, the guards were conditioned to such an extent that a number of prisoners were able to smuggle in explosives in an attempt to blow a breach in the castle walls. It was only when guards intercepted a prisoners letter, describing the escape plan to one of their mothers, that the plot was discovered.
Murder and fighting would have been commonplace at Sissinghurst, and although you’d think it would be in the guards interest not let such incidences become common knowledge, several letters of complant on the subject managed to find their way to a Court of Enquiry.
Perhaps the most senceless death was that of prisoner Jacobus Lofe who was shot as he lay sleeping in his hammock, secured in one of the topmost rooms in the tower. A statement from the sentinal charged with firing the shot - who was believed to have been drunk at the time claimed that ‘…he called out to the prisoners several times to put out their lights, which they refused to do so, and bid him fire and be damed…’ However, evidence from three other prisoners who were in the room at the time declared that there were no lights on and as such they didn’t feel the need to answer - believing the sentinal was shouting to another room. Unfortunately, this incident was caused by nothing more than a trick of the light because - on certain clear nights - the moon rises to a point where it can shine directly onto the tower lighting up the inside of these topmost rooms. Even today, its reflection in the glass can often look as though there has been a light left on inside.
Once in a while the prisoners managed to get their own back. On one recorded occasion, water was being brought to the top of the tower by a system of ropes secured to the outside wall. Rather than using the steep internal staircases this was the preferred way to supply water to these top most rooms. Unfortunately, once the bucket reached the top it became untethered and crashed down on the head of the supervising sentinal - killing him outright. It was put down as an accident but you can make up your own mind as to the ability of a French sailor to tie a secure knot?
As we have seen, the early days at Sissinghurst were little more than a slow and painful death sentence, with beatings and kicking's routinely administered by the guards. Although associated with medieval times, torture was an accepted part of prisoner interrogation right up until the eighteenth century and would have been authorised in order to retrieve valuable information on enemy troops and fortifications. Typically, irons and fetters would have been fitted - to prevent sleeping or cause paralysis, and on occasion prisoners were known to have been forced to stand in water until their feet rotted.
However there would have been times when more extreme devices were demanded such as the torture chair, the rack, foot crusher and the little known Scavenger’s daughter.
WHERE DID THEY GO?
By the end of the war in 1763 the prison camp was closed down with the garrison sent back to their regiments. Many of the released prisoners returned home to France, while some opted to stay and work within the grounds. A few even married local girls. Unfortunately the Elizabethan court yard had suffered tremendous damage during the French occupation, and 15 years later much of the house and furniture had been destroyed for firewood. Sissinghurst and its future looked bleak.
And it was as a soulless shell that Sissinghurst stayed for a further 150 years until it was rescued and loved by Vita Sackville West and her husband Sir Harold Nicolson.
By the creation of these wonderful gardens it has since become a fitting memorial to the atrocities that occurred here all those years ago. May God give peace to their souls.
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