Being by some margin the most densely populated of the old English shires and with its towns just a half-hour train ride from 7 million-plus Londoners, willfully or otherwise, Surrey has to be as hard a county as any in which to sustain obscurity. But a 2012 edition of Country Life magazine insisted that the place did still have some relatively undiscovered corners, listing ‘The ten secrets of Surrey: Everyone knows about Hampton Court, Clandon Park, Leith Hill…’
The last-named landmark is, some may know, topped by the unambiguously conspicuous structure that is Leith Hill Tower, an C18/C19 structure designed to be seen and to see from. Now managed by the National Trust, its platform is the highest elevation in S-E England offering, on a clear day, a limitless prospect in all directions. In the immediate vicinity ‘leafy Surrey’ is here at its leafiest. Looking north, the dense woodland of the Surrey Hills AONB is interrupted by a celebrated pastoral swathe between Guildford and Dorking. Here, ‘the landscape owes its timeless beauty to the benign ownership of local estates: the Dukes of Northumberland at Albury; the Bray family at Shere and the Evelyns of Wotton. These estates encompass thousands of acres, with some ownership going back to the C16.’¹
But while these particular estates are indeed still intact none of their associated ‘big houses’ remain in these families’ hands, all now having been sold off and variously repurposed. Turn about and look south from Leith Hill Tower, however, and there is a different story…
…albeit one which would appear to remain substantially untold. As the woods end and the land gently slopes away towards the Sussex Weald much of the immediate vista, significantly unchanged for centuries, is comprised of the Jayes Park Estate, family and little-known, always private, house still intact. Being also visible from the road, it could be said that Jayes Park has long been hidden in plain sight.
‘An ancient family…it is certain that no-one not possessing the patronimic of Steere has ever lived at Jayes since the Conquest,‘ stated a 1879 profile of then owner, Lee Steere MP (1803-90).² A mightily impressive claim, to be sure, and a line which one local firm of estate agents found quite irresistible when tasked with marketing Jayes, circumstances having led to the house being available to let for a period in the mid-1930s: ‘Never before on the market since the Conquest’.
Attempting to ascertain the veracity of this statement, Handed on turned to Burke’s Family Index (pub. 1976, ‘a reliable and comprehensive guide to the 20,000 different family entries’ featured in Burke’s Peerage and Landed Gentry volumes since 1826) and found … absolutely nothing. No entry for Lee-Steere of Jayes Park ever. Which was frustrating, of course, yet at the same time really rather impressive.
Initially, the publicly available archive of documents relating to the Jayes Estate of the Lee Steere Family appears persuasive, spanning as it does the period C12-1920. (Though this collection has been on deposit since 1951 an experienced-looking archivist on duty at the Surrey History Centre when Handed on dropped by seemed never to have heard of the place – more bonus points!) The Centre’s page-and-a-half catalogue description stands as the most detailed historical scrutiny this place has ever received. It, and Ockley parish registers, certainly confirm the local presence of Steeres in the early C16 but reveals that ‘the property called Jayes was acquired by Thomas Steere in 1609′.
The estate in John Steere’s day was c.800 acres and has since grown to its present 2,700 acres. Similarly, the residence has developed and enlarged over this time but just exactly when and how appears not to have been explored in any great detail. Turning again – with due caution – to that estate agent’s advertisement of 1935:
‘The main portion of the house is Georgian the rear of it being probably Elizabethan. 17 bed and dressing rooms. Garden and pleasure grounds..enjoy that distinctive character which age alone can give.‘But architectural artifice can sometimes lend a hand, of course: ‘Elegant classical stock-brick front which looks early C19 but is actually of 1913, very restrained and unusual for the date‘.³ Pevsner’s one line entry for Jayes, concurring with the G.II-listing text that the entire main facade is neo-Regency. What to make then of these two photos (above, c.1908; r, 1972) which appear to suggest that the tower and an additional bay were the most fundamental alterations a century ago to what this 1822 account described as ‘Mr Lee Steere Steere’s..recently completed noble mansion’. And while the story of Jayes Park’s entrance facade is inexact the evolution of the diverse red-brick elements in rear, not the least of which being several fanciful turrets accentuating the garden walls at various points, is only marginally less so.
By contrast, indisputably a matter of record are the cruel blows dealt to the Lee-Steere male line in the last century by both World Wars. The present owner was but a few months old when his fighter pilot father Charles was lost over Dunkirk in May 1940. And the myriad melancholy WWI centenaries now coming upon us will soon include that of the death of the 19-year-old only son of Henry and Anna Lee-Steere of Jayes Park.
Novice platoon commander 2nd Lt. John Henry Gordon Lee-Steere left England for the front line on 16 Oct 1914. “I must confess to being rather jumpy at the moment,” he wrote home from the trenches in Ypres soon after. “The Germans have so many fresh troops they keep flinging in while we only just have enough to keep them off”, he reported ominously in another letter dated 17 Nov 1914 – his last. Wretchedly exposed and overrun, heavy casualties briefly thrust the young officer into commanding what remained of his company that day, before he too took a fatal sniper’s bullet.4‘The men in uniform were, not surprisingly, disproportionately working-class but those who died were disproportionately the social elites.’5 John Lee-Steere is buried in ‘the Aristocrats Cemetery‘ close to where he fell in Flanders. Much nearer to home, hard by the old Roman road of Stane Street, stands Ockley village hall (r), given by his parents in memory of their personal toll in the Great War’s grim harvest of ‘the brightest and the best’…
¹ Cresswell, A. In praise of Surrey, Country Life 21 May 2014.
² Monthly Magazine: Surrey Record & Illustrated Journal, vol.2, no.17, 1879.
³ Nairn, I. and Pevsner, N. The buildings of England: Surrey, 1971.
4 Murland, J. Aristocrats go to war, 2010.
5 Winter, JM. The Great War and the British people, 1986.