Fascinating history of cliff-top cottage and its remarkable owner

Cliff Cottage in 1904. Kevin Gordon - 27-07-12
Cliff Cottage in 1904. Kevin Gordon - 27-07-12

Volunteers at Seaford Museum will know that one of the frequently asked question is about the red-brick wall under Seaford Head. Was it part of a Tudor Fort or maybe War Defences? The answer is far less exciting, it is merely the retaining wall for a building which once stood nearby; ‘Cliff Cottage’, later the Splash Point Hotel. The story of the wall is a bit dull but I must thank Lynn Lawson for her detailed and thorough research about the house and its owner, which is much more interesting.

In the summer of 1897, 24 year old Edward Hammond, a builder from Lewes submitted a planning application to the recently formed Seaford Urban District Council. He wanted to build a cottage on the steep slope of Seaford Head in a prime position overlooking the town and the sweep of Seaford Bay. The ‘cottage’ was to have nine bedrooms and was for a rich London client, Mrs Fleming Baxter. In those days a house built for a woman usually meant that she was a widow but in this case it was for a married woman who had a fascinating story.

Builder Edmond Hammond worked to a design by architect Arnold Bidlake Mitchell (1863-1944) who was a successful architect who specialised in the “Arts and Crafts” style so popular at the time. As he was designing the cliff-top cottage at Seaford he was also working on a design for a luxurious family house in Milford-on-Sea for the German industrialist Alexander Siemens. The Seaford House was brick built with tiles and was of a colonial style with verandas running along the length of the building facing the sea. The design included a narrow tower with a staircase from which there must have been fantastic views over the channel. There were three bedrooms on the ground floor and six upstairs, although there were only two bathrooms. There was also a basement which provided storage for wine, beer and bicycles. There were red tiles on the roof and tall chimneys.

The house was ready by late 1898, as it (and the surrounding wall) can be seen in the background of photographs of the wreck of the Peruvian which ran aground near the Martello Tower on 8th February 1899. Staff were retained at the house even when the Fleming-Baxter family were not staying there; a housekeeper Emily Legget and sisters Violet and Lily Blake from Camberwell who were maids.

But now let us look at the owner of Cliff Cottage, Mrs Maria Fleming-Baxter (nee Hancock). She was born in 1847, the eldest daughter of Charles Hancock a society jeweller. Shortly after Maria’s birth he opened a shop in New Bond Street, London and soon after received the Royal Warrant as a jeweller to Queen Victoria. In 1856 the company were given the task of designing and producing a new gallantry medal made from the cannon seized at the Siege of Sevastopol: the Victoria Cross. The company is still trading (now from the prestigious surroundings of Burlington Arcade off Piccadilly) and are still responsible for casting the medal.

By the age of 24, Maria was married with two children. Her husband, Herbert Fleming-Baxter was a rich merchant who had made his money in America. His family estate was at Sibdon Castle in Shropshire but after their marriage the couple moved into a grand 25-roomed house in Hampstead called “The Towers”.

Society women in the late 19th century were expected to be dutiful housewives, supporting their husbands and maintaining the family home; but our Maria was certainly not destined to follow the misogynistic ideologies of Victorian England. She was the Honorary Secretary of the Somerville Club for Women which met in central London to promote equality, irrespective of class. In 1886 she attended the unveiling of a memorial to celebrate the life of blind Liberal MP Henry Fawcett (1833-1884), Henry and his wife Millicent were steadfast campaigners for women’s suffrage.

Maria was also a campaigner for improving the health of women and was a member of the National Health Society. One thing that she definitely did not think was healthy was the fashion of women squeezing themselves into rib-constricting corsets. In 1884 she attended the International Heath Exhibition in South Kensington where she herself modelled a “Highland Mountaineering Costume” for women. It was made of dark blue cloth with gaiters, knickerbockers and a skirt that reached only to the knees.

It was clear that Mrs Fleming Smith was not a stay-at-home type and loved the freedom of expression and outdoor life... Maybe this is what prompted her to build a house away from her husband in the (then) unspoiled and unfashionable resort of Seaford. It would have been an ideal base for exploring the Downs and that mountaineering costume would have been just right for using some of the cycles stored in the cellar of her new house.

The house was occupied by Maria for just a few years. Her husband died just six years after the house was completed and she herself died two years later. Her name was shown on the original deed to the property and in her will she firmly and clearly leaves “my cottage at Seaford” to her old and dear friend Solicitor Edward Freeland.

Museum Member Lyn Lawson is still researching the history of Cliff Cottage (later The Splash Point Hotel) and would love to hear from anyone who has further information and photographs of the building.