In 2011 I was honoured to be asked to say a few words at a meeting of the Alfriston & Cuckmere Valley History Society which was called to pay tribute of their former president, the late Lady Edna Healey who had died the previous year. I was in esteemed company, as not only Lord Denis Healey, but Baroness Shirley Williams and Baroness Jay (the daughter of Prime Minister James Callaghan) were also there.
I had been asked to say a few words about the architect of Lord & Lady Healey’s house in Alfriston. Lord Healey had told me that their house had been designed by a local man, Alwyn Underdown, but he had not been able to find more information.
There was little on record at Seaford Museum although I did find that in 1933 he had an office at Lloyds Bank Chambers in Seaford (opposite the Ritz Cinema – now Morison’s)
Underdown built in the “Arts and Crafts” style and the only clue I had was that he had a little “trademark” in that he often would include a bottle end into the eaves of his houses. I therefore set off around Seaford and when I saw a house with a bottle stuck into the eaves, I knocked on the door to gather more information.
People generously invited me into their homes and each gave me a little snippet of information. I soon was able to get an idea of the style of build and the features that he included in his houses. Most (but not all) have the bottle. Wherever possible Underdown tried to use recycled materials, particularly bricks and wood. It is believed that some houses in Cuckmere Road, Seaford were built from materials retrieved following the demolition of Laughton Place, a Tudor mansion to the east of Lewes. He regularly used large exposed wooden beams and, in most houses (including Lord Healey’s house) they were marked with two nicks in either end. These massive wooden beams were called ‘Ships Timbers’ although that was a generic name for any large piece of wood.
Underdown tended to use brick fireplaces with a large wooden lintel and internal doors tend to be solid wood with a wooden latch. The interesting thing was that most people thought that their houses were “Typical Underdown” although they were each of a different design. Basically, Underdown was building new houses which looked like weathered old country cottages and today Underdown houses are very much sought after and form a part of the sales pitch for local estate agents.
One house where I knocked on the door, was in East Blatchington. The friendly owners not only told me that it was indeed an Underdown house but in fact he actually lived there! He had purchased two 17th Century farm cottages and had converted them into his home, actually surrounding the walls in some places with a “new build”. This almost gives the effect of a corridor across the front of the building. It is a beautiful house with many of the Underdown trademarks, including the bottle ends and the brick fireplaces (although these are probably original)
But what of the man himself? Apparently although Alwyn lived in the house with his wife Queenie, he has a girlfriend Vera who actually lived in a cottage that he had built for her in his garden. Whenever he had a row with his wife her would walk across the garden and stay with Vera for a few days! He sounds quite a character!
Alwyn Underdown was born on 17th December 1897 in Colyton, just north of Seaton in Devon. He was the second son of Edward and Sarah Underdown of Knowle Farm., Southleigh. He originally worked as a labourer on his parents farm but between 19th January 1915 and 4th January 1917 he served as a Private in the Devon Regiment suggesting that he spent his early years in the West Country.
He must have moved to Sussex soon after the war as in 1919 he married his first wife Queenie Ellen Pike in Eastbourne.
He became a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and, as well as Seaford, had an office at 9, Hyde Gardens, Eastbourne. He was responsible for the design of many houses in Seaford, Friston, Willingdon, Lewes and the Meads area of Eastbourne. He also designed the Lottbridge Arms in Hampden Park but this was demolished in 2013. I have only found one objection to his work; in 1936 Hailsham Council objected to him building four houses at Nightingale Hill on the Polegate to Hailsham Road. He lost the subsequent appeal.
In 1933 he designed the Art Deco modernistic Saunten Sands Hotel in North Devon, which is massive, modern and unlike anything built around here. That same year he had an accident when his car was struck by a steam lorry in Maresfield.
Underdown was responsible of many of the houses on the East Dean Estate between Seaford and Eastbourne. He was so proud of his designs that he submitted three of them to the Royal Academy in 1934 and three of them were hung in the Architectural Room. The Editor of ‘Country Life’ magazine was most impressed with his work and visited the East Dean Estate to visit one of the houses. He wrote” “In working out his design, the architect has followed the character of local building. The walling is of old vegetated bricks and the steeply sloping roofs are covered with old local home-made tiles which are most pleasing in effect. The internal walls have been constructed in old ash framing with rough plastered panels., and the fireplaces have been built of narrow old bricks. Interior plaster-work has been done with an uneven surface and stipple texture; the hall floor has been laid with old flagstones, and a feature has been made of the staircase by extending the oak framing to the ceiling line and filling in with Tudor-headed spandrel pieces. The west end of the house and over-hanging portion of the first floor are tile-hung following a traditional method that is thoroughly weather-resisting. The tiles have retained the lichens which grew on them during their centuries of service elsewhere, giving the house its mellowed softness which accords so well with its Downland setting.” When you bought an Underdown house you purchased a new ‘old’ house!
With the success of the Saunton Sands Hotel Underdown turned his sights closer to home and in 1936 he submitted a plan to build a 100 room hotel on the junction of Dane Road and the Esplanade, Seaford on the site of the old Telsemaure House. Each of the rooms would have been en-suite and the building would have included a swimming pool and 36 lock-up garages. He said that the site had cost £7,000 to buy and the hotel – tentatively named ‘The Seaford Hotel’ would cost £175,000 and take two years to build. He gave evidence to the local planning committee saying that the hotel would be busy all year round especially as the railway line from London had recently been electrified.
Shortly after Queenie’s death Alwyn married Vera Robertson. In 1941 the new Mrs Underdown established a group called the “Seaford Ladies” who were formed to welcome refugees to Seaford from war-torn London. They opened a drop-in tea centre and knitting circles and tried to ease the burden of families who had been moved to Seaford under difficult circumstances. Although it was the Seaford Ladies – the Chairman of the committee was Alwyn Underdown! During the war the Underdowns moved to Knowle Cottage in West Dean.
It is recorded that Alywn and Vera visited South Africa twice, in 1949 and 1960. On both occasions they sailed from Southampton.
By the 1950s he was back living in Seaford in a house called Blue Haze on the Alfriston Road. (Named after a race horse) Underdown’s work was indeed varied; in the early 1950s he was working for Newhaven Urban District Council. He designed 20 council houses and four shops with flats over in the Meeching Area as well as twelve council bungalows in Southdown Close, Newhaven.
By 1959 he was describing himself as a retired architect. Alwyn Underdown died in 1976. His wife Vera in died in Lewes in 2000.
I was pleased to do this little bit of research for Lord Healey and I am sure that Lady Healey, a renowned historian, would have been interested to find out more about the house where she lived for so many years.