PART 1: Farmstead


1.1. Location.

1.2. Iron mills, farming and smuggling.

1.3. Smugglers’ beacon at Skippers Hill.

1.4. All Sussex was smuggling.

1.5. Smugglers’ safe-deposit.

1.6. Super-farmhouse.


2.1. Farmstead’s layout.

2.2. Skippers Hill Estate.

2.3. Threshing barn.

  1. THE FRYS & THE HUGHES’ ERA: 1787-1893

3.1. John FryTWO m. Martha Constable.

3.2. John FryTHREE m. Elizabeth Usherwood.

3.3. The will of John FryTHREE.

3.4. Martha Hannah Fry m. Samuel Hughes.

3.5. Samuel Hughes’ will.

3.6. John Fry Samuel Hughes’ will.

3.7. Fry sells off Skippers.

3.8. Family trees.

4.FOOTNOTES [Part 1]

1. Historical background

1.1. Location

Skippers Hill Manor is situated high up on a hill (461ft; 141m) in the village of Five Ashes, East Sussex, perched on the rim of a natural ridge in the landscape. From the vantage point of its curved courtyard at the rear of the manor, you look down onto the school’s playing fields below, and across the sweeping, undulating patchwork of small fields, hedges, woods and sunken lanes of the High Sussex Weald.

Some four miles away, on the opposite side of our ridge, at one of the highest points in the county, lies the town of Crowborough (791ft; 242m). It was there that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the Last Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes at his home in Windlesham Manor in the late 1920s.

Three miles away to the north east of Skippers Hill lies the quintessentially Sussex village of Mayfield (143m), with its iconic, white-weatherboarded cottages, and once the base of a powerful smuggling gang during the early 18th century.1

1.2. Iron mills, farming and smuggling

Skippers Hill was once owned by members of the Fry family, who have roots in Mayfield and Rotherfield going back 800 years. Their wealth came from iron mills, farming and leasing their land to tenant farmers.

When the iron industry moved north, due to the switch to coke instead of charcoal to fuel blast furnaces, the Frys’ income nose-dived. Later, their income from agriculture and tenant farmers slumped too, due to competition from cheaper imported goods. Dire circumstances like these led some members of the Fry family to replace lost sources of income by diversifying into the extremely profitable business of smuggling.2

1.3. Smugglers’ beacon at Skippers Hill

The story goes that on clear nights, smugglers would light a beacon at Skippers Hill, signalling the all clear to the captains of vessels waiting off the south coast to unload their valuable cargoes.3 To evade excise duty, contraband, such as tea, coffee, gin and brandy4, was smuggled from the beaches at Seaford, Eastbourne and Hastings5, along trade routes (forest tracks, rivers, tunnels) that eventually led to some of the deep cellars of Mayfield’s houses and Skippers Hill.

1.4. All Sussex was smuggling

It seems that all layers of society were involved in the “highly respectable industry of smuggling” during the 17th and 18th centuries, according to C.B. Fry. That included landowners, farmers and the clergy.6 Although illegal, many Sussex villages were engaged in smuggling then, particularly Mayfield, Rotherfield and Alfriston, this last being connected by the river Cuckmere to the sea at Cuckmere Haven, near Seaford. Many of the inland distribution centres used by smugglers were located at the head of the Ouse and the Rother7, one of them being near Skippers Hill.

1.5. Smugglers’ safe-deposit

Skippers Hill earned its name from being one the “farm-manor houses” used as a safe deposit by local smugglers.8

The Fry family’s connection with smuggling is borne out by Charles Burgess Fry (1872-1956), the famous cricketer, all-round athlete and polymath, who used to visit relatives at Skippers during his school holidays.9 He wrote that its spacious cellars contained a large shipment of “square-face” gin10, when his father, Lewis John Fry11 (b. Rotherfield, 1843-1923), had lived there.12

1.6. Super-farmhouse

Charles Burgess Fry described Skippers as a squat, rambling super-farmhouse. It had a dining room with a low ceiling and heavy oak beams, and an open fireplace nearly as big as the room itself. Behind the ‘great barn’, near the house, there was a clump of tall trees and a pond. Alongside the trees was a sparse orchard with the finest daffodils in Sussex.13 Fry’s description would have been based on his visits on or after 1880.

2. Early 17th century farmstead

2.1. Farmstead’s layout

Skippers Hill (or: Skyppers hyll) was once an early-17th century farmstead dating back to 1612.14 The farmstead is in an isolated position with a loose courtyard.15 A loose courtyard is characterised by detached buildings loosely arranged around one or more sides of a farmyard.16 Such farmhouses are typically detached and face into their own garden area, and sometimes have their own entrance.17

By the late 18th century, William Gardner’s map shows that Skippers Hill comprised a farmhouse, one detached building — a barn (red arrow) — and what appears to be a row of small, detached farm buildings at the rear.

2.2. Skippers Hill Estate

By the end of the 19th century, the ‘Skippers Hill Estate’ had expanded. The estate included Skippers Hill Farm, Newpin Farm, Inwoods Farm, Five Ashes Farm, Marchants and Skippers Hill House.18 From 1887 until 1893, the estate was owned and managed from Skippers Hill House by Elizabeth Fry Mary Hughes and her brother John Fry Samuel Hughes.

The Ordnance Survey map of 1873-74 (next page) shows that Skippers Hill Farm(stead) had at least five detached farm buildings loosely arranged around two sides of a farmyard (courtyard).19 The farmhouse (manor house) was situated diagonally opposite to, and facing the north side of, a Wealden barn, the largest of the agricultural buildings. The farmhouse faced its own garden, and the barn’s entrance porch faced a road.

The Skippers Hill Estate
Skippers Hill, Ordnance Survey, 1873-74, pub. 1878
Note loose courtyard with detached farm buildings (red arrows), farmhouse and garden

2.3. Threshing barn

Wealden barns were typically clad in horizontal, overlapping clapboard and were often painted white. Based on recent photographs taken inside the barn — now used as a classroom for Year 2 pupils — it appears that its timbers were sawn rather than hewn. One scarf joint is visible. Given the use of light timbers, the barn’s roof construction, the presence of a bridled scarf joint and the method of timber cutting, the Skippers barn would appear to be a late 17th or early 18th century, aisleless, timber-frame threshing barn of a post-and-truss construction.

Photo: Courtesy of Skippers Hill Manor Preparatory School, 2019

The irregular roof line suggests that two outshuts (or: lean-tos) — one on either side of the gabled porch — were added after the original construction. Adding outshuts was common practice. They would have originally been used for storage (e.g. for tools). The barn’s end-doors on both the west side and the garden side (east), would have enabled farm labourers and the farmer to access the barn and the storage spaces in the outshuts when, for example, the main doors of the barn were closed. It is very likely that the original west and south walls of the barn were taken down and the main barn extended into the outshuts when the barn was converted, probably when the prep school needed to use the space as an assembly hall, theatre and gymnasium. However, some conversions may have taken place before then, as a number of the rafters look as though they were replaced during the late 19th or early 20th century. The roof of the Skippers barn is hipped at both ends and pitched. This creates a large roof mass, offering considerable storage space under the roof. Threshing barns did not have haylofts, but were open to the rafters. This allowed wheat sheaves to be stacked right up to the roof. Being a Sussex barn, it almost certainly rests on a plinth made of chalk and flint or rubble, rather than on timber, as the use of wooden plinths ceased after the 13th century.

Originally, there would have been swing doors of full height underneath the gabled porch, to allow a loaded wagon to enter the barn. [There are still hinges on the current doors]. The wagon would have been unloaded on the central threshing floor and the sheaves stacked in the bays on either side. It would have then been driven out through the doors on the north side and down a ramp.

It was quite common for such barns to have a ramp on the exit side. Although there is no evidence of a north door today, there is a significant slope on the north side. The height of the current staircase on north side (7-8 steps high) may indicate where the ramp originally sloped down from the north door into a farmyard.20

Original layout of barn

Sketches by Ken Bonham, 2019

The barn still retains three original wall-posts (red P1, P2 and P3) located on the road side (south) of the barn.21 Two of the posts mark the left and right-hand side of the porch, and all such posts are attached to horizontal tie beams. The image below is a computer reconstruction of the barn’s timber framework, based on interior and exterior photographs. It shows two outshuts on the south side, the position and structure of the gabled porch, wall and roof timbers, the location of a scarf joint, the outshut on the west side, and the three wall-posts.

Sketch of the Barn’s timbers
by Ken Bonham, 2019

3. THE FRYS & THE HUGHES’ ERA: 1787-1893

3.1. John FryTWO m. Martha Constable

The ownership of Skippers Hill goes back to well before 1700. Tracing its history further back than that falls outside the scope of this research. What I discovered was that John FryTWO inherited Skippers Hill in 1786, when his father John FryONE (b. Mayfield, 1705) died. John FryTWO (b. Mayfield, 1738-1813), a gentleman farmer and landowner married Martha Constable (b. Mayfield, 1750-1816) in 178722 and moved into Skippers Hill on marriage. She bore him three sons there: John FryTHREE (b. 1788), Robert Fry (b. 1790) and Thomas Fry (b. 1791), the great grandfather of Charles Burgess Fry. When John FryTWO died in 1813, Martha Fry continued living at Skippers Hill until her death in 1816.

3.2. John FryTHREE m. Elizabeth Usherwood

After Martha Fry died in 1816, her eldest son John FryTHREE (b. Mayfield, 1788-1845) inherited Skippers Hill from his mother. John FryTHREE, a gentleman farmer, lived there with his wife Elizabeth Usherwood (b. Ticehurst, 1788-1862, m. 1810), his daughter Martha Hannah Fry (b. Mayfield, 1817-1880) and his sister-in-law Mary Barnes Usherwood (b. Wadhurst, 1800-1890), from 1816 until his death in 1845.23 After John FryTHREEdied at Skippers Hill in early 1845, the house passed to his wife Elizabeth, who became a landowner and head of the Skippers Hill household. Her sister Mary, who visited Skippers Hill at the time of the 1861 England Census, was also a landowner in Mayfield. The Frys employed three local servants to help run the farmhouse.

3.3. The will of John FryTHREE

In John Fry’s 4000-word will, he appointed his wife Elizabeth Fry, his brother-in-law James Usherwood, and his son-in-law Samuel Hughes (barrister at No. 10 Farrar’s Building, Inner Temple, London), executrix and executors of his will. Fry gave his wife all his household goods and furniture, clothes, carriage, horse, plate, linen, printed books, prints, wines, liquors and provisions and £100 sterling. He gifted James Usherwood and Samuel Hughes £50 each, and gave £100 to his daughter Martha Hannah Fry.

He bequeathed his all his messuages (dwellings), farms, lands, real estate, cattle, stock, securities, monies, as well as his personal estate and effects to his wife Elizabeth, James Usherwood and Samuel Hughes. Fry made several conditional provisions: (i) for his nephew Robert Burgess Fry (1815-1866), (ii) for the children of his brother Robert Fry, and (iii) for his daughter Martha Hannah Fry, stipulating that an annuity of £100 be paid to any husband who survived her. When Fry’s spinster cousin Anna Philcox (b. Burwash, 1779) of Burwash died in 1841, she bequeathed John FryTHREE and Edward Hughes (barrister and brother of Samuel Hughes), her “3% consolidated bank annuities” (government bonds) worth £3,063 (codicil).24

When Fry himself died, he was the sole surviving trustee and executor of Anna Philcox’s will. In his will, he bequeathed any real and personal estates (e.g. annuities) that were still vested in him under her will, to barrister Samuel Hughes and to Burwash solicitor and gentleman John Baldock (b. Burwash, 1778-1867). In a 1844 codicil to Fry’s will, he made a last-minute bequest of 25 guineas to his wife’s spinster sister, Mary Barnes Usherwood.25

3.4. Martha Hannah Fry m. Samuel Hughes

After Elizabeth Fry died at Skippers Hill in October 1862, the house and estate passed to her 45-year-old daughter Martha Hannah Fry (m. 1856) and her husband Samuel Hughes (1802-1887), who is recorded as a non-practising barrister in 1861. They lived there with their two children, Elizabeth Fry Mary Hughes (1858-1890) and John Fry Samuel Hughes26 (1860-1893), a graduate of Pembroke College, Cambridge.27 Both children were born at Skippers Hill.

3.5. Samuel Hughes’ will

When Samuel Hughes died in 1887, he bequeathed his daughter Elizabeth, the messuage (dwelling house) or tenement (fixed structure on real property), and all associated buildings, garden, ground, land, hereditaments and premises, at or near Five Ashes, Mayfield, totalling 3 roods 1 perch, which Hughes had bought in 1864 from James Thomsett, plus the house, shop and buildings that were subsequently erected on that land.

He also gave Elizabeth waste land of the Manor of Mayfield, once used as a gravel pit, totalling 18 perches, and parcels of land near Five Ashes, formerly waste land, totalling 26 roods, which he had purchased from James Thomsett in 1866. She also got the freehold land and wood ground totalling 23 acres 1 rood 9 perches, that once formed part of a farm and lands called Five Ashes Farm (before: Leeds), which Hughes had purchased from James Thomsett in 1866. Grand total: 30 acres 2 roods 28 perches. The residue of the real estate (messuages, cottages, lands, buildings and premises) were to be split equally, making Elizabeth and her brother John, joint owners of the residual estate. Money, securities and personal effects were also to be split 50:50.28

3.6. John Fry Samuel Hughes’ will

John F.S. Hughes, an unmarried lawyer who had lived at Skippers Hill since birth, inherited the Skippers estate from his unmarried sister Elizabeth when she died three years later in 1890, aged just 32. He continued living at Skippers Hill assisted by two servants for three more years, until his own untimely death in September 1893, aged 33. He left no issue.

In his will, John Hughes appointed his two second cousins, Lewis John Fry and William Walter Baldock Fry, to act as his executors and trustees. At the time of his death, Hughes owned numerous plots of land which included Newpin Farm, Inwoods Farm, Skippers Hill Farm and Marchants. His whole estate, which amounted to 93 acres, was valued for probate at £8,919, equivalent to £732,000 in 2017.

A bequest of 36 acres of land and buildings called Marchants, was made to Elizabeth Usherwood (née Usherwood; Ticehurst, 1818-1901)29, the widow of James Usherwood (Wadhurst, 1796-1888), John’s great uncle, and once a farmer-employer in Leigh. However, once Elizabeth died, the land would pass to her niece Kate LSeabrook (née Usherwood; Ticehurst, 1859)30, and her heirs and assigns for ever.

John Hughes bequeathed to his second cousin, Lewis John Fry, the entire contents of his household furniture and effects in his home Skippers Hill, as well as all his china, wines and spirits, horses, carriages, cattle, crops, harnesses and farming effects, for his absolute use. In addition, he gave Fry 18 enclosures (plots of land) which included Plot No. 26, the “House and Pleasure Ground” (ed. assume: the farmhouse Skippers Hill), totalling 57 acres 3 roods 28 perches, for Fry or his heirs or assigns to use forever.31

3.7. Fry sells off Skippers

However, Lewis John Fry decided to sell off Skippers Hill, due to personal circumstances. In 1894, Lewis John Fry was living in Wandsworth, London32, close to work, so he would not have wanted to own Skippers and bear the burden of running a large house and estate on his modest salary. Moreover, he was in poor health and had been advised by his doctor to reduce the time he spent commuting.33 His brother and co-trustee, William W.B. Fry, had settled in Breconshire. Consequently, Lewis John Fry sold off the Skippers Hill Estate by the end of the 1890s, to the great regret of his son, Charles Burgess Fry.34

3.8. Family trees

Family trees of the Frys and Usherwood families
Compiled by the author, 2019

4. FOOTNOTES [Part 1]

  1. Masterminded by Gabriel Tomkins. Smuggling in the British Isles, by Richard Platt, The History Press, 2011.
  2. C. B. Fry: An English Hero, pp. 4 & 5.
  3. Ibid.
  4. A Life Worth Living, p. 17.
  5. Smuggling in the British Isles, by Richard Platt, The History Press, 2011.
  6. A Life Worth Living, p. 17.
  7. Ibid, pp. 17 & 19.
  8. Ibid, p. 16. Farm-manor house.
  9. C. B. Fry: An English Hero, p. 5. Fry presumably visited Martha Hannah Hughes (née Fry; his first cousin twice removed), her husband Samuel Hughes and their children, Elizabeth F.M. Hughes and John F.S. Hughes, in the late 1880s to early 1890s.
  10. A popular name given to gin in South Africa, where it was once sold in square bottles. Merriam Webster dictionary. Given Skippers’ links with smuggling, it is assumed that Fry meant bootlegged gin.
  11. Worked as a ‘clerk of accounts’ in the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard), London. Dictionary of National Biography 1951-1960, p. 380.
  12. A Life Worth Living, p. 16. Charles Burgess Fry said that his father lived at Skippers for a few years. Charles B. Fry, it seems, only lived in the house during school holidays.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Torquay Times and South Devon Advertiser, 20 October 1900.
  15. Medieval farmstead (large). Ref. MES21297, East Sussex Records Office (ESRO), Falmer, Brighton, East Sussex.
  16. South East Farmsteads Character Statement. Medieval barns and courtyard layouts.
  17. Historic Farmsteads, A Manual for Mapping. Loose courtyard plans, p. 41.
  18. The manor house and the farm are referred to as ‘Skippers Hill House’ and ‘Skippers Hill Farm’, respectively, in John Fry Samuel Hughes’ will.
  19. Ordinance Survey Map, Skippers Hill, survey date 1873-74, published 1878. Sussex XXVIII (includes Buxted, Hadlow Down and Rotherfield). Source: National Library of Scotland.
  20. Ken Bonham, of Ken’s Great Barns, helped interpret recent interior photographs of the barn, described threshing barns, and made the computer sketches of the barn specially for this project.
  21. Verified from photographs of the interior of the barn (now the Year 2 classroom) taken in 2019.
  22. The Weald of Kent, Surrey and Sussex website (
  23. The 1841 England Census recorded John Fry and wife Elizabeth Usherwood et al. living at Skippers Hill, and the ages of Elizabeth Usherwood (50) and Martha Hannah (20).
  24. The last will and testament of Anna Philcox.
  25. The last will and testament of John FryTHREE.
  26. The England Censuses of 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1871.
  27. Cambridge University Alumni, 1261-1900,, Provo, UT, USA.
  28. Samuel Hughes’ will.
  29. Elizabeth Usherwood and James Usherwood were first cousins once removed. Her great grandparents and his grandparents and were the same people: Thomas Usherwood (1712-) and Elizabeth Barnes (1713-1789).
  30. Kate Usherwood went to live with James and Elizabeth Usherwood after Kate’s mother died in 1861 and her father, Henry Usherwood, remarried. Kate married Frederick Seabrook in Q2 1891 and became Catherine Seabrook. The ‘S’ of Seabrook was mistaken for an ‘L’. [transcription error assumed]. Thus ‘Leabrook’ in the will. She and her husband, a farmer, employer and flour miller with 300 acres, lived at Priory Mill House, Tonbridge, Kent. Source: The England Censuses of 1861, 1871 and 1911.
  31. John Fry Samuel Hughes’ will.
  32. The Electoral Registers for 1893 and 1895. Fry’s address: 24 Montrell Road, Streatham Hill, Wandsworth, London.
  33. C. B. Fry: An English Hero, p. 17.
  34. Ibid, p.16. “Years later, he regretted that his father had sold the place [ed. Skippers Hill], wishing that he had been able to own it and enjoy it”.