The site of Great Fosters was originally within Windsor Forest, and there is evidence that the area has been occupied since the early Saxon period. A ‘U’ shaped moat, still a feature of the garden, has been dated to 500AD. It would have surrounded the settlement on three sides, a house completing the circle. Its purpose was to protect land, livestock and chattels from marauders. It is known that the site was called the manor of Imworth during the Middle Ages, and that the family of de Imworth lived there in 1224. From 1521 the name ‘Fosters’ is mentioned in the records and it has been suggested that it derives from the word ‘Foresters’ referring to its location within Windsor Forest.
The core of the present house was built by William Wareham in the 1550s. There is much evidence of royal residence, use or patronage during the Tudor period. It is documented that Henry VIII used it as a hunting lodge (before it was rebuilt in the 1550s). Queen Elizabeth I also used it. The date 1598 is incorporated into her crest which is situated above the main porch. Anne Boleyn’s crests feature in the plasterwork of the ceiling decorations of the Boleyn room (although the date of 1602 suggests that it was done retrospectively to mark a now forgotten connection made during her lifetime). In the Drawing Room there are devices of the Earl of Northumberland, probably those of Henry Percy, the 9th Earl, who was associated with the Gunpowder Plot and spent the final 15 years of his life in the Tower of London.
Fosters was a traditional Elizabethan ‘U’ shaped house by 1597, and there were later additions made in 1600. The Tower contains a very rare oakwell staircase which dates to this period. It is one of only two surviving in the country, the other being at Hampton Court. There are a number of Elizabethan brick pinnacles to the chimneys, which have nine different designs. These were made unsafe during bombing in the Second World War, but accurately re-built in the 1970s. Other original features are a very large oak front door with a wicket, which opens onto what was once the Great Hall. The bolts and hinges of this door are of very early design. In the hall is a Jacobean oak chimneypiece, dating to around 1620, which has beautifully carved cartouches, and the oak panelling in this area is also from the 17th century. Elaborate plasterwork is a further feature of the ceiling in this room.
Sir John Doderidge, a distinguished judge, lived at Great Fosters, and died there in 1628. During the Civil War, the Royalist family of Bennett lived there, and the house was frequently searched and occupied by Parliamentary forces. A succession of different families lived at Great Fosters during the later 17th and 18th centuries. In 1715 house was searched because the then occupants, the Orbey family, had Jacobite sympathies. In the late 18th century Great Fosters became a lunatic asylum. Sir John Chapman worked there, in partnership with the owner of the house from 1818, Dr Furnivall. Sir John is reputed to have treated George III at Great Fosters during his periods of insanity. He was a pioneer in his field, and was one of the first to believe that mental illness was not solely related to physical illness.
After Dr Furnivall’s death the house was sold in the 1860s to Colonel Halkett, whose wife, Baroness Halkett was a lady in waiting to Queen Alexandra. Colonel Halkett spent a great deal of money refurbishing Great Fosters, but after his death it was sold in 1910 to the Early of Dudley. At this time, the house lapsed into neglect. Further refurbishment was carried out from 1918 by the Hon Gerald Samuel Montagu, who turned it into ‘The Black Lake Poultry Farm’. It was at this period that the architect W H Romaine-Walker was employed to restore the house to the form that we see today.
Sir Harold Sutcliffe purchased Great Fosters in 1930, and opened it as a hotel in 1931. He paid £4,000 to relocate a Medieval Tithe Barn, dating to 1390, from Ewell Manor in Malden, Surrey, which now serves as the dining room. The hotel was a fashionable and stylish retreat for the rich and famous of the 1930s. Queen Mary visited in 1931, and other famous guests included Vivienne Leigh, Bing Crosby, Charlie Chaplin and David Niven. Great Fosters continues as a Country House Hotel, and is still owned by the Sutcliffe family.
Hunt, Roger, Starry days at Great Fosters, Historic Surrey Magazine, Local History Boxfile, Research Room
Great Fosters, History of Hotel, Local History Boxfile, Research Room