William Fletcher resided at what is now Hotham Park House for over 40 years.
William Holland Ballett Fletcher was born on October 29, 1852, in Broadwater, West Sussex, and was only 11 years old when his father died. With the guidance of his mother, he went on to St John’s College in Cambridge from where, in 1875, he obtained his BA and an MA in 1879.
During his period at Cambridge, he met and in 1875 married his wife, Agnes Caroline Nicholls, and it was on the occasion of his wedding that he found a cork oak at Goodwood. He planted it in the grounds of his home to commemorate this marriage. The cork oak can still be seen today in Hotham Park.
In the mid 1870s, William and Agnes lived in Worthing, where their two children were born, John in 1879 and their second son, Edward, in 1881 but sadly he died nine months later. During his time at Worthing he was elected to West Sussex County Council in 1893 and between 1894 and 1896 he became the Mayor of Worthing. He was also elected to the Bench of the Justice of the Peace for West Sussex.
On the death of his mother in 1899, the family moved into the house known at that time as Bersted Lodge, today Hotham Park House. William immediately changed the house’s name to Aldwick Manor, as he had also inherited the Lordship of the Manor of Aldwick. In 1902 he restored Barton Manor (as a descendant of James Ballet).
In 1906, William was co-opted as chairman of the Bognor Urban District Council and in 1910 he became a county alderman. He insisted on his anonymity for much of his charity work.
Their son, John, was developing his life and attended the same college as his father and grandfather at St John’s in Cambridge where he also obtained his MA before he became a barrister in 1902.
An article by Gerard Young in 1976 describes life in the house where ‘the steel fire-grates shone like silver. Swiss lace and blue and silver brocade curtained the windows. Dinner was eaten in the glow of 12-branched candelabra and every Sunday each servant was given a basket of fruit. He was very courteous and shy.
In 1914 his son John joined the armed forces in the First World War and became a Lieutenant of the 7th Battalion of the London Regiment. Sadly, he was killed on May 13, 1915, and is buried in the town cemetery of Bethune in France. The death of their son was to greatly affect William and Agnes and they were soon both seen as having a reclusive lifestyle.
Another aspect of the life of William Fletcher that remains with us today is the planting and maintenance of plants, trees and shrubs in his grounds. He worked closely with Kew Gardens and at one period the plantings were compared with Kew as being such an outstanding collection of species.Each year, the woodland around the house became carpeted with primroses and bluebells between the small mossy paths. The area known by many people as the boating lake was his pond and where he could be seen regularly standing at the side feeding his huge goldfish with bread. He also kept a large container of corn near the front lawn from where he would feed the rooks, which the staff referred to as ‘Mr. Fletcher’s canaries.’
He was viewed as a gentleman with his Sherlock Holmes hat, stick and his Airedale terrier when walking through his grounds. He had strong links with North Mundham and its church because his brother, John, was the vicar there, and there were many mentions of William in parish magazines when he was involved in either providing cash or attending functions to raise money for the parish.
Agnes became well known in her own right, for her unusual interest in reptiles, amphibians and rodents. She was a life fellow of the Zoological Society of London with a large collection of snakes.
As the years passed, old age began to take its toll and in 1934, when he was in his 80s, William had to retire from some of the positions he held due to increasing deafness. Agnes died in 1939, at the age of 84, and within two years, in 1941, William also died, thus ending a Fletcher house association that had lasted over 80 years, since his father took over the house and completing more than 40 years for William.
Their deaths finished the private ownership of the house and park we know today. On William’s death, his monies were divided between three hospitals to leave no money for a grave or permanent memorial to this man.