The Seligmans at Shoyswell Manor, near Etchingham, Sussex (1890s-1924)
In the 1890s, Isaac Seligman, the head of the London branch of an international bank, acquired an estate of 180 acres, including 50 acres of woodland, a large lake, pastures and a large Elizabethan house, Shoyswell Manor. His country home, 2 ½ miles from Etchingham Station, where he could get a train to his office in the City, had a square hall, four reception rooms, and 17 bedrooms. The estate was well-equipped with farm buildings, cottages, and a stable.
Isaac Seligman was born in a small town, Baiersdorf, Bavaria, in 1834. He had seven older brothers and three sisters. The family had little income and his eldest brother, Joseph, left home to seek his fortune in North America. Their mother died in 1841, by which time Joseph was able to send money for his father and siblings to join him in New York. Isaac was seven when he arrived in New York.
As soon as he was old enough, his brothers made use of his talents to promote their dry goods business, which by the late 1850s was handling considerable quantities of Californian gold. Joseph sent Isaac to London on business in 1857, and then to Washington, at the start of the American Civil War, where he met President Lincoln. As a result, the Seligman Brothers became international bankers, who helped Lincoln fund the American Civil War. In 1864, Isaac opened the branch of Seligman Bros. Bank in London. In 1869, aged 34, he married 17 year-old Lina Messel, the daughter of Darmstadt banker, Simon Messel. Seligman’s bank served as fiscal agent of the US Navy and State Departments in London.
In the 1890s, at a doctor’s suggestion, Isaac supplemented his town house at 15 Queen’s Gate Gardens, London, with a country house, so that his ailing wife could profit from pottering about in the garden. Isaac bought Shoyswell Manor, where the couple welcomed their seven children, their spouses and their grandchildren.
There were sheep, cattle, and horses on the farm, greenhouses, and many ornamental flowers and trees. In late August, from 1907 until the outbreak of War, the couple opened their gardens to the public and arranged for the inmates of the Ticehurst Union workhouse to visit and enjoy the musical entertainment that the Seligmans laid on. At the event on 25 August, 1911, a local newspaper reported that Lina gave each woman a parcel of tea and each man a packet of tobacco.
Britain joined the War in August 1914. In early October, Mrs. Seligman took in two families of Belgian refugees, “both of the peasant class, numbering eight persons in all.” One family came from near Malines, and the other from a village near Brussels, carrying only a few little bundles that they gathered from their burning homes. She provided for each family’s lodging, food, and clothing, in two tied cottages on the Seligman estate, in the homes of Mrs. Brooks [wife of the head gardener] and Mrs. Hazell [wife of another employee].
The Belgians spoke Flemish but soon learned a few words of English. Lina set the women and girls to work knitting garments for the soldiers. They showed great skill in needlework. They liked the food but never drank tea, coffee being their favorite beverage. The local newspaper praised the Seligmans’ hospitality, offering “Sincere thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Seligman and others who are so nobly trying to relieve the sufferings of these poor people, whose fellow countrymen are fighting so bravely not only for the country they love but for us.”
Farm hands enlisted, but the harvest could not wait. Isaac had celebrated his 80th birthday in 1914, yet his age did not prevent him and Lina from helping with the haymaking when they could. In August 1917, he went to London, to the Devonshire Club that he had helped to found (in 1874), to protest vehemently to the Management Committee a racist motion against naturalised (German-born) British subjects:
“It is 61 years since I first landed in England. I have resided in London for over half a century and several years ago became naturalised. I have a son who has been an officer in the Army for three years, just returned invalided from East Africa, two other sons belong to the Inns of Court Volunteers for Home Defence, another of my four sons, incapacitated for the Army, has been using his car for driving officers of the Headquarter Staff of the Eastern Command.
I have at least half a dozen nephews, officers in the Army, the eldest of whom is Brigadier General commanding the Artillery of the Armies at the Western Front. I have two grandsons, one of them a Commander in the Royal Navy, the other an officer who was in Baghdad and is now in India. My son-in-law, Mr. Leopold Hirsch… and his two brothers have for several years maintained a hospital for wounded officers at the Fishmongers Hall. I ask you, gentlemen, have any of you done more for your country, have many of you done as much?”Speech given by Mr. Isaac Seligman at the Devonshire Club on August 20, 1917- Richard Levy Family Archive
On Saturday 12 May, 1917, The Hastings and St Leonards Observer reported on the pretty little church ceremony in which Miss Lillie Hazell, only daughter of Mr. and Mrs. H.E. Hazell [whose two sons fought in France], of Shoyswell Manor, married Mr. T. James of Brighton.
“Owing to the war… as much quietude as possible was maintained, but news travels quickly, and the villagers nevertheless turned out… The bride arrived at the church by motor, a beautiful Rolls Royce, which Mrs. Seligman, of the Manor House, kindly placed at the disposal of the bridal pair. The bride dressed in blue with white silk trimming with hat to match. She carried a bouquet of pink carnations, given by Mrs. Seligman.” She received many beautiful presents, including a pair of silver chocolate dishes from Mrs. Seligman and silver sugar tongs from her daughter, Mrs. Lewis.The Hastings and St Leonards Observer, Saturday 12 May, 1917
In 1924, Lina’s health was failing and the couple could no longer maintain the Manor and its large estate. Isaac gifted it to the Jewish Friendly Lodge Orders “Achei Brith” and “Shield of Abraham”, for use as a Convalescent Home. The Order Achei Brith engaged in helping Jewish refugees who had fled to Britain to escape religious persecutions in Central and Eastern Europe.
Lina died in 1925 and Isaac three years later. Their eldest son, Sir Charles David Seligman, joined Seligman Bros. Bank in 1893 and directed it for 54 years. His family treasured their memories of Shoyswell as well as the photographic souvenirs scattered among their photograph albums, which have been passed down through the children of Sir Charles, and are preserved by his grandson and great-grand daughter.
Research kindly shared with Strike a Light – Arts & Heritage for the Shalom Sussex project by Michele Klein