British Empire Article

Hugh Sackville-West

Obituary in Telegraph 16 March 2001:

HUGH SACKVILLE WEST, who has died aged 82, was for 25 years land agent and surveyor for Knole Estates and for the National Trust, supervising an extensive, long-running programme of building restoration at Knole, his family's ancient seat near Sevenoaks, Kent.

In 1960, Sackville West, then with the Colonial Service in Nigeria, resigned his post and returned to England to train as a chartered land agent. His uncle, the 4th Lord Sackville, had recently handed over responsibility for the family estate at Knole to Hugh Sackville West's elder brother; the house itself - with its 365 rooms, 52 staircases and seven courtyards - had been given to the National Trust by Lord Sackville in 1946.

Sackville West, with his experience as an administrator, his interest in practical matters and his patient, thoughtful temperament, was recognised as the ideal man to run both house and estate.

He maintained a masterly balance between the interests of the building and its setting, the visitors, the National Trust and his family, who continued to occupy part of the house. Moreover, with the sensitive planning of restaurants and tearooms, he succeeded in preserving the historic atmosphere of Knole, while at the same time improving its finances.

He also co-ordinated a vast restoration programme, scraping together the necessary funds from government and other bodies, ensuring that work was carried out in the manner required by the Historic Buildings Council, and generally holding the ring of all the parties involved. Crumbling Kentish ragstone was replaced, chimney stacks were rebuilt, gables were repaired, decaying oak beams were strengthened with steel cantilever brackets, all the leading in the windows was renewed and the entire seven acres of Knole's roof was replaced. "When the programme is complete," said Sackville West, "there should be nothing more to do for a long time."

Hugh Rosslyn Inigo Sackville West was born at Brighton on February 1 1919, the second son of Bertie Sackville West, who was Inspector at the Ottoman Public Debt Office, Constantinople, overseeing British loans to Turkey.

Bertie Sackville West was a nephew of the 1st and 2nd Lords Sackville, while his two elder brothers succeeded in turn as the 3rd and 4th. Hugh's elder brother Lionel would in due course become the 6th Lord Sackville on the death in 1965 of the 5th - their cousin Eddy, the author and music critic. The Sackvilles take their name from Sauqueville in Normandy; Herbrand de Sauqueville is recorded in Domesday as holding Fawley, Buckinghamshire, in about 1070. The barony of Sackville, though, dates back only to 1876, when it was created for Mortimer Sackville West, fourth son of the 5th Earl De La Warr and his Countess, who had been born Lady Elizabeth Sackville, younger daughter and co-heir of the 3rd Duke of Dorset.

It was to the Duke of Dorset's ancestor Thomas Sackville that in 1566 Queen Elizabeth I granted the reversion of the manor of Knole, which had been a palace of the Archbishops of Canterbury from 1456 to 1538, when it was seized by Henry VIII. Sackville, who became Lord High Treasurer of England and 1st Earl of Dorset, took possession of Knole on the Queen's death in 1603.

Centuries later, Mortimer Sackville West inherited Knole through his mother. The writer Vita Sackville West, who grew up at Knole at the turn of the 20th century, was the only child of Mortimer's nephew, the 3rd Lord Sackville, and thus a first cousin of Hugh's.

Young Hugh had a somewhat lonely childhood. When he was about five, his mother's health began to fail and her doctors sent her to Switzerland for long periods; his father, already in his fifties, was becoming increasingly deaf. Consequently, Hugh - who was known in the family as "Huffo" - either accompanied his mother abroad or stayed with a great aunt in England.

His mother died in 1936, when he was still at Winchester. He went on to Magdalen College, Oxford, and when war broke out in 1939 he joined up. Having been evacuated from France with the BEF in 1940 and commissioned in the Royal Tank Regiment, he then spent much of the war in Britain. His active service came after the Normandy landings in 1944.

The battle for Deventer, a town to the east of the river Ijssel, took place on April 10 1945, when a half squadron of 7 RTR was supporting the Royal Winnipeg Rifles (part of 7 Canadian Infantry Brigade) in breaching Deventer's outer defences - which consisted of a strongly defended anti-tank ditch - and in capturing the north-eastern outskirts of the town.

During the approach march, both the infantry and the tanks came under heavy enemy shell fire, and the tank from which Sackville West was directing the movement of the half squadron received a direct hit and burst into flames. Leaping out, Sackville West dragged a dazed member of the crew with him, and then attempted to reach the driver, who had been knocked unconscious by the force of the explosion, but he was beaten back by the flames.

The infantry now sent back word that they had come under enemy machine-gun fire, and requested the support of flame throwers to take out enemy positions on the far side of the anti-tank ditch. Sackville West immediately climbed into another tank and, despite a heavy concentration of mortar and self-propelled artillery fire, proceeded to direct his attack so skilfully that the enemy was routed. He was awarded an MC, to which he later added a Croix de Guerre.

With the return of peace, he decided to try for the Colonial Service. All his life he had had a severe stutter, and after a few testing minutes before the Colonial Service Appointments Board in London he was thanked and asked to leave the room. "All right?" inquired one interviewer of another as the door closed. "All right," came the decisive response. "Good stable."

Posted to northern Nigeria, Sackville West rose steadily in rank from Assistant District Officer, Sokoto Province. He became fluent in Hausa, and was posted to the Abuja Division of Niger Province, and to the provinces of Benue and Borno, touring the various districts, meeting officials and the local Muslim judges, giving advice and hearing complaints.

A gentle, charming, unassuming and thoroughly good-natured man, large of frame but with a panther step, Hugh Sackville West possessed a quiet authority and a gift for remaining unruffled in the most trying circumstances. He was never known to speak ill of a colleague or acquaintance, or to raise his voice in anger, and no one ever grew tired of his company. He married, in 1957, Bridget Cunliffe. She survives him, together with their two sons and three daughters.

Photograph courtesy of National Trust

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