Knowle Cottage – ‘a house full of curiosities’

Knowle Cottage - Mr Fish's show home. Picture: Sidmouth Museum.

Knowle Cottage - Mr Fish's show home. Picture: Sidmouth Museum. - Credit: Archant

With the recent news that the district council offices at Knowle could be bulldozed to make way for a retirement community, Nostalgia takes a look back at the history of the prominent plot and how it has changed over the years.

Lord le Despenser's Knowle Cottage, 1816. Picture: Sidmouth Museum.

Lord le Despenser's Knowle Cottage, 1816. Picture: Sidmouth Museum. - Credit: Archant

In the first of a two-part piece, we look at the beginnings of the site, with help from The Knowle, Sidmouth: A Stately Pleasure Dome by Christine and Rab Barnard.

Between 1805 and 1809, wealthy landowner Sir Thomas Stapleton, Lord le Despencer, commissioned the construction of a new property at Knowle.

Reportedly very difficult to work for, the Lord would appear just as the tradesmen were about to head home for the evening to see how the project was progressing - and if he disliked any of the work, he would cancel everything that had been built since his last visit.

Lord le Despencer sold the site before the building was finished in 1812, advertising it as ‘accommodation for a family of the first distinction’ with a ‘fine commanding eminence’ over nearby Sidmouth.

Knowle during the Thornton years. Picture: Sidmouth Museum.

Knowle during the Thornton years. Picture: Sidmouth Museum. - Credit: Archant

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The property was bought and sold, twice, by two wealthy landowners before Knowle Cottage was purchased by Thomas Leversidge Fish in 1820/21.

Mr Fish set about making considerable alterations to the property before opening it up as a show home.

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Visitors were free to explore the house and its grounds on Mondays, with a letter from a visitor to the town at the time describing the nine-acre plot as a ‘little paradise’.

The letter went on to list the animals which were living in the grounds – including 50 parrots, six kangaroos, two buffaloes and a South American camel.

Thousands of people are believed to have visited the ‘house full of curiosities’ - which provided a major boost to the Sidmouth’s economy - although strict rules prohibited children and dogs from gaining admittance.

But Mr Fish’s policy of allowing strangers into his home was not without incident.

In January 1848, three men from Heavitree were apprehended by police and charged with stealing eight goldfish and specimens of petrified moss from the grounds of Knowle Cottage.

The men had tried to sell their ill-gotten goldfish to an Exeter-based chemist, though unfortunately for them, the chemist was the very same man who had supplied Mr Fish with the animals in the first place.

Two of the thieves were sentenced to four months of hard labour, with the case against the third, fortunately for him, dropped due to a lack of evidence.

A second incident in 1853, this time the theft of an ornate plate, saw Mr Fish close his house to visitors.

Thomas Leversidge Fish died in 1861. He bequeathed Knowle Cottage and its contents to a friend, who auctioned off much of the property’s art, collectables and other curiosities. The estate was purchased by Richard Napoleon Thornton in 1867, who immediately began work to expand the property to include vineries, kitchen gardens and greenhouses for tropical plants.

He fell ill in May 1876 and died just a few days later, with the property being left to his eldest son.

? Next week’s Nostalgia will look at the site’s conversion to a popular hotel.

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