27 July 1903: William Waldorf Astor purchases Hever Castle

Castle, Garden, History

William Waldorf Astor

bringing hever back to life  

27 July marks one of the most important days in Hever’s history. On this day in 1903, the sale of Hever Castle to William Waldorf Astor was completed. Astor wrote in his personal ledger: 

“The sale of the freehold of the Castle and 630 acres was completed by Edmund Meade Waldo. Esq.”

The Astor family’s story is a ‘rags to riches’ one, just like that of the Bullens in Tudor times. Johann Jakob Astor, William Waldorf Astor’s great-grandfather, emigrated from the small German town of Walldorf to America. He took up fur-trading in the north-east and became increasingly successful until, by the end of the 18th century, he owned a fleet of 12 merchant vessels. He extended his empire to New York real-estate and when he died in 1848, he was the richest man in America. 

William Waldorf Astor had been the Italian Interior Minister from 1882 – 1885; during his time in Italy, he developed a lifelong passion for art and sculpture which can be seen prominently in the gardens today. 

Upon the death of his father in early 1890, Astor inherited a personal fortune that made him the richest man in America. He grew increasingly disenchanted with America announcing that it was “no longer a fit place for a gentleman to live” and in 1891 moved to England with a reputed $100 million.

“Hever Castle at the time of the Astor purchase, in 1903, was little more than a farmstead, but Astor saw the possibilities and developed an enormous project whilst retaining essential features of an ancient Castle” – Charles Frederick Huebner son of Frederick Herman Huebner (first curator of Hever Castle). 

William Waldorf Astor

WILLIAM WALDORF ASTOR’S ‘GRAND DESIGN’

At Hever, William Waldorf Astor was able to translate his historical sense and romantic taste into this own ‘grand design’. He was a man of enormous energy and vision. He wanted to live in 20th-century style and comfort and to entertain lavishly but, at the same time, preserve the Castle itself and to perpetuate its historical associations.

Every fragment of the original Castle structure was preserved. The modern additions put in by the previous tenant, Captain Sebright, such as doors, locks, windows and glass were replaced by the best materials used in the manner of the sixteenth century. The workmen were not allowed to use modern planes, only the adze and the chisel. Many of the beautiful carvings and plastered ceilings in the Castle were undertaken by Nathaniel Hitch and William Silver Frith.

Between 1903 and 1908, with his architect F.L.Pearson, Astor set about building a complete 100-room wing in the style of a Tudor village. Cellars were built beneath the Astor Wing and parts of the Castle and cutting edge technology was implemented, including central heating, a power station, a fire-fighting system and a private water supply. 

Astor’s massive project employed an incredible 748 craftsmen which included the most skilled plasterers, carpenters, stonemasons and metal workers of their generation. Astor also visited many Tudor and Elizabethan buildings for inspiration.

William Waldorf Astor

the creation of the hever castle gardens 

When William Waldorf Astor acquired Hever Castle, all traces of former gardens had disappeared with the exception of a few old fruit trees and a moat surrounding the old building. Over 1,000 men worked on the gardens between 1904-1908, with a further 800 men taking two years to dig the lake.

The construction of the gardens entailed tremendous movement of earth by great steam diggers and a small temporary railway to make up the new features and contours. In just four years, 125 acres (50 ha) of classical gardens and natural landscapes were constructed from marshland and rough meadow.

Work on the Hever estate reputedly cost £10 million (over £1 billion today). Of which almost £1 million was spent creating the gardens and lake (over £110 million today). Astor’s flamboyance and passion resulted in a garden design that is recognised as one of the great gardens of the world.  

The Astors invested huge amounts of time and money into the restoration of Hever Castle and the creation of the gardens; the efforts of which are loved by visitors from all around the world today. 

You can also delve deeper into the Astor’s history in the Astor Suite, located in the Castle. 

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