Suitable heads for historic stone tortoises?

Suitable heads for historic stone tortoises?

The Stanmer Estate has over the last year seen a major restoration of the Nursery together with restoration of other buildings and monuments within the park.  In March some of our members were very surprised to see that that the restoration of the Frankland Monument, a Grade ll Monument on the edge of Stanmer Woods, had resulted in the stone tortoises having some very strange heads. 

In March we sent the following letter to the Manager of the Restoration Project and to the Conservation Officers at the South Downs National Park Authority who are the planning authority for Stanmer.

Some of our members have recently viewed the Frankland Monument in Stanmer Park, which has been renovated as part of the Stanmer Park Restoration Project and were shocked to see the way that the stone tortoises have been repaired. The monument was extensively damaged during the war when it was reported that young Canadian Soldiers based in Stanmer Park used the monument for target practice.  At some stage all of the heads of the three tortoises that act as supports to the base of the monument were broken off.

The recent renovation work has included placing new heads on the tortoises.  However, it seems that no one actually bothered to research the history of the Monument and to ascertain its appearance before the damage.  The Record Office at the Keep has documents providing information on the process of handing over the estate to Brighton Council in the 1950’s.  These files have factual information on the Frankland Monument and photographs of the monument taken in the 1930’s before the damage occurred.  Photos 1 and 2 show the tortoises in their original form and their appearance following the recent works.  There appears to have been no attempt to restore the carvings to their original form and the chosen style of carving looks ridiculous – the appearance just looks so odd. 

This really should not have occurred.  The monument is Grade ll with full description under entry number 1380952 of Historic England’s register.  Some basic research would have also found that the design of the monument can be traced back to Coade Stone artificial stone works in London that was a very successful business in the 18th Century. (Ref: Mrs Coade’s Stone by Alison Kelly).  There is an entry in one of the council’s news sheets from last year providing information on the monument’s restoration including the statement that “the heads will be replaced using Portland Stone”.  So even the choice of material is probably unsuitable.

Finally, the documents in the Keep include a letter from Anthony Pelham (the Pelhams owned and lived at Stanmer for many years) written to the Borough Surveyor in 1955.  It details important artefacts on the estate that were being handed over to the council.  He refers to the Frankland Monument as being very significant to the Pelham family and emphasises in his letter that the Frankland Monument is “a very essential part of the history of Stanmer Park and should, I think, at all costs, be preserved”.

Tortoises on the Frankland Monument, Stanmer, taken pre 1939, published in Country Life magazine

After seven weeks we final received good news from Rob Dumbrill, Stanmer Estates Manager, that the contractors had been instructed to replace the heads with a more appropriate reproduction.

The “repaired” tortoise heads, Stanmer Park, March 2021

This is the first time that we have had to correspond with the National Park Planning Authority and their reticence to respond to any of our emails has been very odd.  Dealing with Brighton and Hove Council Planners is at times frustrating but at least they respond to our emails.  We have to be thankful that the Estates Manager who has kept us informed and, in the end, at least we have the good news that the monument will now receive a more suitable tortoise head.

Malcolm Dawes

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