East Cowes Castle

Isle of Wight

Location   East Cowes
Year demolished   1960  
Reason   Wartime neglect and damage and subsequent urban expansion  
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East Cowes Castle was a fairytale vision and home of the renowned architect John Nash, who designed and built it himself. The Castle was an important building as part of architectural history for its role in the spreading of the nascent Gothic revivalism movement both in the UK and abroad.

Nash had been visiting the Isle of Wight since 1793 and in 1798 he bought some land in East Cowes overlooking the bay and started building. The castle was a typical John Nash 'Gothick' country house of which he had designed and built several including Luscombe Castle in Devon and Lough Cutra Castle in Ireland - the design of which gives an impression of what East Cowes may well have looked like.

The resulting house was noted for its towers, turrets and extensive crenallations. In 1868 the National Gazetteer1 wrote "...its picturesque turret, rising boldly over the wooded screen which embosoms it, forms a pleasing addition to the scenery of the coast" and in Mason's Guide2 of 1876 as "...a large castellated mansion and when beheld from the sea, or the opposite banks of the Medina, with its towers and battlements rising above the luxuriant plantations around, [it] has a fine and pleasing effect". According to George Brannon, who wrote a famous travel guide to the Isle of Wight in 18493, East Cowes Castle "...enjoys a truly enviable site (for it combines an uncommon degree of shelter with the most extensive and animated prospect)". The house he described as having "...three handsome fronts of varied elevations, with a tasteful diversity of towers, mantled more or less by the most luxuriant ivy...". Brannon in his earlier book, 'The Vectis Scenery'4, had decided that "The west or Conservatory front is perhaps the most beautiful: opening upon a bowling-green terrace —and through the graduated tints of several vistas in the luxuriant plantations, are some very pleasing catches of the more distant objects."

Brannon also wrote that Nash would occasionally make additions and alterations as the whim took him. Though this was usually to the benefit of the overall Picturesque look, the result was also that the changes "...certainly [are] not calculated to insure the greatest amount of domestic convenience (as regards the size and arrangement of the rooms)". These changes no doubt contributed to its eventual demise as an inconveniently arranged house was seen as more of a burden.

Nash died in 1835 and the Castle was sold the same year to the Earl Shannon. Following his death it was bought by one N. Barwell esq. in 1846 and the furniture and art collection sold. By 1906 the house had been bought by John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort (also more famously known as Field Marshal John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort VC, GCB, CBE, DSO & Two Bars, MVO, MC (b.10 July 1886 - d.31 March 1946) commander of the British Expeditionary Force who defended France against the German invasion in 1940). Interestingly, the Gort title and estates were centred around Lough Cutra in Ireland. The 1st Viscount Gort had seen East Cowes Castle and been sufficiently impressed that he commissioned Nash to build something very similar. Subsequent financial difficulties meant that the Gort family had to sell Lough Cutra in the late 1840s.

East Cowes Castle became Lord Gort's retreat during his illustrious military career. Appropriately, during WWII, the house was requisitioned by the Army. Further information has been provided by someone who lived locally and had met Lord Gort.

"There was little doubt that the requisitioning of East Cowes Castle by the army for the duration of the war wrought the most horrendous damage upon it, despite it being unscathed - as far as I am aware - by enemy action. It was in a pitiful state after the war and, upon returning home from evacuation elsewhere, I used to wander through the ruins, some rooms floorless and most with smashed windows. I recall in particular the magnificent Conservatory was a ruin with broken glass, making walking very tricky, although most of the stone work and the tiled floor survived the British Army onslaught!

Later on when it was clear the Vereker family had no intention of attempting its rehabilitation, after much local controversy - bearing in mind this was before Listed Building status came into force - the Council gave consent for the current housing development to take place over most of the Park, so it was demolished. After all, it did help provide affordable homes, at the expense of our heritage, of course. I think the Council may have taken the view that East Cowes had more than enough examples of Nash villas along York Avenue to justify sacrificing the Castle for the greater good. You may find help from archived copies of the Isle of Wight County Press of that post-war period to confirm the substance of the arguments that were raged over the Castle's fate. I can recall reading about it at the time.5

The house was demolished in 1960 and the site is now covered by a housing estate though the ice house and Lodge remain.

1 - 'The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland' (1868)
2 - 'Mason's Guide to the Isle of Wight' (1876)
3 - 'Brannon's Picture of The Isle of Wight - The Expeditious Traveller's Index to Its Prominent Beauties & Objects of Interest. Compiled Especially with Reference to Those Numerous Visitors Who Can Spare but Two or Three Days to Make the Tour of the Island.' - George Brannon (1849)
4 - 'The Vectis Scenery, Part 1' - George Brannon (1848)
5 - Source: local resident who emailed me.