WENDY’S WEEK Sir Richard Hotham – The Man who turned Bognor Regis into a seaside resort
By Wendy Hughes
Last week I promised to tell you about the man who turned one of the oldest recorded Saxon villages into a seaside resort. In a document dated 680AD, Bognor Regis, as it called today, was referred to as Bucgan ora, which means Bucge’s ( a female Saxon name) shore or landing place, and up until the 18th century it was just a fishing village and a haunt for smugglers.
But in the summer of 1784, things changed when a London Hatter Sir Richard Hotham (MP for Southwark at the time) decided to try the recuperative qualities of the sea air and headed for West Sussex. There he found the climate of the south coast had many benefits, and was so taken with the area that having retired from politics he decided to build his own mansion which he named ”Bognor Lodge” (now Hotham Park House) and had an idea to build a new fashionable seaside resort. In all he bought up around 1600 acres of land and started to build large terraced houses to attract the wealthier visitors to his resort, with the ultimate aim of attracting the then King and Prince of Wales.
Richard Hotham was born in the city of York on October 5 1722, and was the youngest of five children, and his date of birth was only revealed when a plate fixed to his coffin was moved in 1870. We have no records of his early years, but we know he moved to London and became apprenticed to a hatter, and then traded as a hatter and hosier in Serle Street in Lincoln’s Inn in London, and advertised his trade by means of small round copper tokens.
On December 1 1743 he married the 25-year-old Miss Frances Atkinson was may have been the daughter of his employer. The wedding took place at the chapel within Chelsea Hospital and they had one son in 1751, but sadly he died after just one day. Hotham set up his business in 1746 and became known as Hotham the Hatter and the pubic house ‘The Hatter in the Queensway’ in Bognor Regis is named after him.
Sometime in the 1750s he moved to the corner of the old Hungerford Market in the Strand on the site of today’s Charring Cross station, and he continued to issue his copper tokens to advertise his hat selling business, bearing the Searle Street address.
For a while it was believed that Frances had been his only wife, but recent research has discovered that Frances died in 1760, and was buried on 14 August. Within eight months he married Barbara Huddart on 7 April 1761 in St Margaret’s Westminster and she became Lady Hotham when Richard was knighted in 1769 when he was 46 years-old. This recent discovered of a second wife was to change the known history of Richard.
Like most business men Richard joined the East India Company and rose to become known as a ‘ship’s husband’ controlling four ships, and it also about this time, 1860s, that he became involved in building property at Merton Place, which was later to become the home of Admiral Nelson. He then went on to build Merton Grove which was near the site of South Wimbledon tube station today, and for many years during the 1770s and 1780s he was involved in the life of his neighbourhood in Wimbledon becoming a magistrate, and appointed Sherriff of Surrey, but his successful working life did not match his personal life, and sadly his second wife died in 1777 at the age of 44.
He was elected MP for Southward in September 1780 and remained a member of parliament for four years, but his health began to fail and he decided to spend the summer months at the seaside and aged 62 he arrived on the south coast staying at a farmhouse owned by Captain Blanchard who was a Captain on one of his ships. He returned to Bognor for a second year and then purchased his first piece of land, which contained a farmhouse, for the price of £200 from a George Moore who was a riding officer in the Customs, but once Sir Richard decided to stay he set about building his own property and found that the earth in Bognor was particularly good for brick making. With local labour and material he rebuilt the farmhouse, and the event is recorded on January 18 1787in the parish register by the Rev.Thomas Durnford and reads: ‘The first foundation stone of a public bathing place at Bognor in the Parish of Berstead was laid by Sir Richard Hotham, at the house called The Lodge, the reason that Bognor Regis celebrates his birthday annually on 18 January by a wreath laying ceremony.
One of the best Ice houses of its type in Sussex was built around 1792 for Sir Richard Hotham who developed Bognor as a seaside resort. It was used to store ice for domestic use and to keep food and wine chilled. Blocks of ice were separated with straw which is well known for its insulating properties, and it can be seen today in front of the Edward Bryant School in London Road Bognor and is I in a remarkable state of preservation. The construction consists of a 28ft. deep central area from the dome to the floor, which is below ground level, and the diameter of the chamber is approximately 12ft. The circular exterior wall is of fine brickwork with the dome being cemented on the inside.
Sir Richard’s name is associated with many activities in the town including spending £6,225 on land and building Hothampton Place, consisting of 7 houses. He also built 6 houses in East Row and both these constructions overlook the area known as Waterloo Square. His work initially began by developing his seaside resort bordered on the one side by the Rife, situated between the resort and the village of Felpham.
In 1789 Sir Richard Hotham became known as Lord of the Manor of Aldwick, when he purchased the second half of the manor from Canon Miller for a reputed 4,000 guineas and his building continued when he purchased the dilapidated Fox Inn and built a hotel on the seafront and the end of West Street, and had stabling for 80 horses and 15 carriages. During all this work Sir Richard Hotham had not forgotten his roots and in 1791 he erected a memorial to his parents in Skelton church, north of York.
By 1791 visitors were beginning to arrive at Bognor, which was classed as their first main season with accommodation ranging from 5 to 10 guineas .a week. Building continued during the 1790s with Hothamton Crescent being built and a tea room situated underneath its Dome. A row of 7 houses were built in Spencer Terrace and Sir Richard also built his new home known as Chapel House, which was next to the original Bognor Lodge. On the 12th August 1793 the Duke of St. Albans was in the town to lay the foundation stone of the Chapel, which would allow visitors to have their own exclusive area for prayer. In 1794 John Thwaites of London installed the distinctive clock, and this fact is clearly noted on the clock, which is still operating today in the tower attached to the house.
Sadly by 1795 things were not proceeding well and lodging receipts for the year only amounted to £1,919, 5shillings and. 6 pence and the town was apparently receiving refugees from the French Revolution. It is reported that over £100,000 had been spent on the resort, but it was still losing money. Royalty were beginning to arrive in the district when Lady Jersey took The Dome for the months of August and September, in order to avoid going to Brighton.
Sir Richard Hotham continued to expand his ideal seaside resort, and continued to wish for royalty patronage, but sadly his dream came to an end when on the 13th March 1799 he died at his home and was buried at the parish church of St. Mary Magdalene at South Bersted, where to this day there is an annual wreath laying ceremony at his grave.
Following his death the estate was broken up and in the intervening years many of his fine buildings have vanished, although some gems remain, including Hotham Park House, now a private residence in the middle of Hotham Park, and the grounds of Aldwick Manor are now a public park known as Hotham Park, and the resort he founded, now known as Bognor Regis Bognor, has continued to attract visitors to the present day.