Midhurst's iconic Cowdray Ruins
The fire happened on 24th September 1793 and was caused by cowboy builders, rather than any mysterious supernatural forces.
The 8th Viscount Montague was about to be married to the daughter of the Countess of Guildford. It was decided that Cowdray House needed to have a bit of a makeover before the wedding celebrations and so, luckily, many of the household had moved out while the builders came in.
Carpenters had lit a fire in the North Gallery and failed to douse it properly when they left for home at the end of the day. Later that night the flames were licking at the windows and Cowdray House’s days were numbered.
Various efforts were made to put out the flames but a mixture of bungling and the sheer force of the fire meant that little could be done By the morning of the 25th one of the finest houses in Sussex had been reduced to a ruin.
Insult to injury was added by the theft of the few valuables that remained unscathed by the fire, including the lead from the roof. Those valuables that weren’t pilfered were simply left to rot. These included the contents of Cowdray House’s great library which were still scattered amongst the ruins in 1834 when they were noted by precocious Midhurst schoolboy Howard Dudley.
A double tragedy
At the time the 8th Viscount Montague was in Switzerland on the 18th century version of an adventure holiday. The Viscount had decided, along with his friend Charles Sedley-Burdett, that it would be fun to attempt to shoot the Falls of the Rhine.
Local watermen told them they were crazy to attempt this and the Viscount’s servants begged them not to go. Various attempts were made to dissuade them by the Swiss authorities too but they wouldn’t be persuaded that doom lay ahead.
And doom it was. It didn’t take long before the two friends plus their black dog were tossed out of their boat into the churning waters. Only Viscount Montague’s body was ever seen again.
The fire and the curse
It is said that this double tragedy was the fulfilment of the Curse of Cowdray and its prophecy of destruction by fire and water. Who knows? In any event it’s a good story. But in a day when the nobility were the celebrities of the time you can see why this desperate double Midhurst tragedy took such a hold of the popular imagination.
It continues to have a place in Midhurst’s psyche today.