Kent Barker cracks the case of the Highlands Crakes.

All too often historical research reaches a dead end – no records exist or can be found of this event or that person. But when the way opens up it can be extremely exciting. Take my recent quest to discover some details of Mr WV Crake. I came across him while investigating sources for a biography of John Collier, a mayor of Hastings in the early 18th century. Collier was a prolific correspondent and, amazingly, more than 2000 of his letters have survived down the centuries. Many Hastings historians have relied on them for contemporary facts and detail, including TB Brett and J Mainwaring Baines.

Collier’s letters were first transcribed and published around 1900 by a descendent named Charles Lane Sayer. Sayer loaned the most important to the Sussex Archaeological Society. 

This Society is still going today and it recently published further transcriptions of Collier’s letters, admirably edited by Richard Saville. The Society was founded in 1846 to enable people to enjoy, learn about and have access to the heritage of Sussex. One of its more important activities was to publish a journal of monographs on various aspects of the history of the county. Thus it was that, in 1902, volume XLV of the Sussex Archaeological Collections contained a lengthy account of “The Correspondence of John Collier, Five Times Mayor of Hastings and his Connection with the Pelham Family”. It was authored by one WV Crake. 

Crake’s Portrait from Contemporary Biographies

But who exactly was this Mr Crake? 
Google could throw up nothing on him, with most searches instead bringing up links to West Virginia. I wanted, at the very least, to be able to give him his full name in the footnote where I was quoting from him. Perhaps the Sussex Archaeological Society itself would know? After all, it was only just over a century since he’d contributed his article to their journal. I emailed various people connected with them and to my surprise and delight almost instantly received a helpful reply. It was from their honorary librarian, Esme Evans: “As Sussex Archaeological Collections at this period lists all members, and some give their names in full, I can tell you that his first names are William Vandeleur. Beyond recording that he was the Local Correspondent for Hastings for Sussex Archaeological Society (they were organised through local correspondents at that date), I have failed to find anything else in our collection.”

An excellent start! Now we know he was William Vandeleur Crake, back to Google, and this time a number of links appear. 

A 19th Century DFL
It seems that Mr Crake was not only the Hastings Correspondent for the Society, but he also helped to found the Hastings Museum and was for many years its secretary.

One of the numerous ancestry and heritage sites provided his date of birth, 1852, and death, 1917, and the names of his parents, Vandeleur Benjamin Crake and Louisa Frances Crake (née Browne). We also discover that in 1880, aged 28, William married Emma Taylor.

So we have his dates, the names of his parents and his wife, and that he helped found the Hastings Museum and wrote historical articles for a respected local journal. And along the way we have discovered that his father, Vandeleur Benjamin, was founding president of the Hastings Chess club.

This is already more information than I really need, but I’ve become intrigued by this man who died just over a hundred years ago. What was his day job? What were his hobbies? Where did he live? What other involvements did he have with our town? So when I get another email from the inestimable Esme Evans, excitement mounts. She’s found a mention of him in Sussex in the Twentieth Century: Contemporary Biographies, edited by W T Pike in 1910, which she scans and attaches.

It’s wonderful. Now we find he was born in London near Hyde Park, attending Eton and Jesus College Cambridge before graduating in 1877. He became a barrister of the Middle Temple and subsequently a JP for the borough of Hastings – though when he, or indeed his father, moved ‘down from London’ to the south coast it doesn’t say. He was initiator and organiser of the Hastings Museum as well as its first honorary secretary in 1889. It seems he was a committed Liberal and an executive member of the party’s Rye and Hastings division.

He was also a keen student of art, and a specialist on the ‘architectural and ecclesiological relations of art’ – whatever precisely that was or is!

His interests and influence spread along the south coast. He was instrumental in the restoration of the Guildhall in Chichester, a beautiful 13th century building, which had fallen into disrepair and is today both a museum and wedding venue.

The Highlands Gardens home of the Crakes

Dancing round the Highlands
The trouble with any research like this is that it almost invariably raises fresh questions and provides seductive new byways to go down. Both Vandeleur Benjamin Crake and William Vandeleur Crake have ‘Highlands’ in St Leonards as their address, one being Highland Cottage, Pevensey Road. But Pike’s biography intriguingly tells us that WV was ‘joint owner of
the Highlands Estate, West Hill, St Leonards’. The Highlands Estate? I’ve heard of the Highlands Hotel and Highlands Mansions, and even Highlands Gardens, but can I find any reference to a Highlands Estate? 

So another speculative email, this time to John Humphries on The Bohemia Village Voice blog, who mentions Crake in relation to the Museum. He can’t help, but kindly circulates my request to the Hastings Local History Group. Twenty-four hours later both their secretary, Heather Grief, and chairman, Brian Lawes, have replied, the latter attaching a cutting from the Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 3rd January 1885: “Last Saturday Mr and Mrs William Crake began the Christmas festivities with a charming Thé dansant at their house, 6 Highland-gardens. We understand that Mr and Mrs William Crake issued invitations for another Thé dansant on Saturday week. No doubt these afternoon dances will be the fashion this season.”

So off to Highland Gardens to have a look at where they lived and entertained in so singular a fashion. What an impressive baronial pile it is! But did they really own the whole ‘estate’, and just how extensive was it? Oh, dear, another diversion to keep me from getting on with my Collier book. In the meantime, though, my sincere thanks to all who have helped discover the Crakes of the (St Leonards) Highlands.


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