Corsica Hall – the evidence for a shorter Harben presence
Published Harben family history states that three generations resided at Corsica Hall, in Seaford, Lewes, Sussex. Yet, readily available sources show that at most the Harben’s occupied this dwelling only for the period after 1773 until 1812. After which the building was largely demolished and a new structure took its place and name.
To be fair to to those interested in the Harben connection to the building there are three generations that shared the same ‘Thomas Harben’ name (see below). The second Thomas Harben (1736-1803) was very active in politics, business and socially. He was reported in newspapers, magazines and books of the era but in a manner that could be confused with his father’s or son’s actions. Later, Harben descendants, in particular those of the Victorian era, would have been happy for the ‘ancestral home’ to presented as being much more intergenerational than in fact it was.
The three generations are:
- Thomas Harben (1707-1766) ‘the original’
- Thomas Harben (1736-1803) ‘the son’
- Thomas Henry Harben (1768-1823) ‘the grandson’
Above, the original Corisa Hall, in Wellingham (c1740-1783)
Below, the re-located Corsica Hall, in Lewes (1786-1823)
- 1740s – “The Lodge” originally constructed at Wellingham for Mr John Whitfield
- November 1747, Nympha Americana wrecks on the coastline. Thomas Harben ‘the original’, noted as being a clock maker of Lewes, is widely credited with making a significant fortune from this – there is no evidence to suggest that he did.
- Before 1760 – Mr Whitfield’s involvement in the illegal importation of Corsican Wine leads to him presenting the King (George the 2nd) some of his finest wine to escape legal consequences. He is successful and “The Lodge” becomes known as Corsica Hall. George 2nd’s reign was from 1727 to 1760.
- 1766, Thomas Harben, ‘the original’ dies. He is not a wealthy man nor does he have any connection to Corsica Hall.
- Before 1772, After the death of Mr Whitfield, Francis Scott, the fifth Lord Napier, purchases Corsica Hall.
- May 1772, Lord Napier’s son inadvertently shoots dead Rev. Lowden (the Lord Napier’s domestic chaplain and private tutor) at Corsica Hall (widely reported at the time).
- April 1773, Lord Napier dies and afterwards the family vacates Corsica Hall. The building became known as being haunted – “was invested by the ignorant and superstitious with an evil and unlucky character”.
- 1773 – 1782, While Land Tax is paid it appears that the building is not tenanted
- 1782, Land Tax records show, Thomas Harben, rent £60 occupied by himself
- 1784, Corsica Hall no longer appears on Land Tax records – presumbably the relocation has started.
- September 1785, A significant quaintity of Lead, stolen from Corsica Hall, is uncovered buried near the old site. This indicates that no other part of the structure remains at Wellingham.
- September 1786, the Sussex Advertiser and Lewes Journal reported that ‘Last Friday Mr. Harben of this place gave an elegant dinner at his new house in Seaford.”
- 15 Oct 1792, Mr Harben of Corsica Hall (now in Seaford), is noted as helping eight French clergymen on the coast – as mentioned in “An Historical and descriptive account of the coast of Sussex” by J D Parry.
- Around 1812, “Corsica Hall, a plain brick mansion westward of the town, was lately the residence of Thomas Harben, Esq. by whom it was sold prior to the general election in 1812 to the Hon. Thomas Bowes, brother of the Earl of Strathmore.” page 157 of ‘The Beauties of England and Wales: or Original Delineations’ – vol 14, 1813.
- Before 1822, described as “Corsica Hall, the residence of the Hon. Thomas Bowes, brother to the Earl of Strathmore, stands to the westward of the town, and was previously occupied by Thomas Harben, Esq. who sold it to the present proprietor. It is a brick mansion; and its exterior appearance, being deficient in every pretension to ornament, is totally unprepossessing.” in the 1822 edition of ‘Excursions in the county of Sussex’ – by T K Cromwell. (page 82)
- 1823, Corsica Hall was purchased by John Fitzgerald and by 1824 had been largely demolished. A new building, named “The Lodge” built in its place. It is this new building which currently referred to as Corsica Hall.
The oft writtern but unlikey to be true
Apologies for the extensive quote below (a internet serach will show several versions of this account) – my observeration is in bold to the right;
When Whitfield died the house was purchased by Francis Scott, the fifth Lord Napier. The family spent time in Sussex presumably to get respite from their chilly Scottish estates. In May 1772 Lord Napier’s son was in the house with his tutor. A loaded pistol had been carelessly left in the classroom and the young lad picked it up and pointed it at his teacher. ‘Shall I shoot you’ he joked, to which the tutor laughed and said ‘Shoot on’. The trigger was pulled and the poor teacher was shot dead. The Napier family moved away and the empty house was said to have been haunted. We now go back a few years to 1747 when the Spanish ship Nympha Americana was wrecked on the cliffs at Crowlink near Friston. The cargo included a large amount of valuable metals and currency and much was washed up on the shore. Horse Guards who were billeted nearby were tasked to protect the cargo and the story is told of one soldier who tried to steal gold coins by slipping them into his boots. He was caught when he was ordered to mount his horse but couldn’t as the weight of the gold doubloons prevented him from lifting his foot to the stirrup. Another man from East Dean was more wily as he carefully buried his loot under the sand until he could retrieve it later. He had found some blocks of heavy metal but was not sure what they were. He took them to Lewes where he sold them to a watchmaker called Thomas Harben. He acquired the blocks at a small cost but this one transaction made his fortune as his purchase was a set of virgin gold ingots. With this money Harben purchased the vacant Corsica Hall but, although he liked the house, he wanted a more picturesque setting and was so rich that he could afford to move the building brick by brick to Seaford.
Harben was to become a major force in Seaford politics. In 1823 Corsica Hall was purchased by John Fitzgerald (1775-1852), but within a year he had pulled most of the old building down and built a new house which he named The Lodge. Fitzgerald lived in the house when he was MP for Seaford between 1826 and 1832.
It likley that two seperate events have become interwined here;
John Whitfeld was the ‘wreck master’ for the 1747 recovery of the Nympha Americana. At the time he was also the owner of ‘The Lodge.’ It is so far undisputed that he made is fortune from contraband trading – including Corsican wine. Prior to Mr Whitfeld fleeing the region around 1856 he had re-named the building as Corsica Hall.
The politically active Thomas Harben (1736-1803) ‘the son’ attracted negative press and it would have been easy for detractors to conflate the smuggling history of Cosica Hall (and the suggestion of illicit fortunes from the Nympha Americana) with it’s later owner Thomas Harben.
Later, the Victorian era Harben’s appeared to ‘stretch’ the period of time the family had called Corsica Hall as their ancestral home.
In 1747, Thomas Harben (1707-1766) ‘the original’ is a clockmaker in The Cliffe, Lewes. It is possible that he would have dealt in the recovered mecury from the wreak of the Nympha Americana. However, there is no sudden (or slow) signs that his fortunes increased.
His son, Thomas Harben, who was 11 years old in 1747, went on to purchase Corsica Hall in 1782. As there is a generation and 35 years between the two events it seem unlikely they are related.
It is likey that the continued interest in the orgins of the Corsica Hall are in part based on the modern and quite impressive Corsica Hall, Seaford.
Right: The ‘new’ Corsica Hall (abt 2011). Copyright Paul Farmer