An extract from ‘The People’s History of Essex’ written by D.W. Coller, published in 1861.
Hill-Hall, the seat of Sir William Bowyer Smijth, Bart. – The third parish bearing the name Thoydon, with the distinctive title of Mount, is united with that of Stapleford Tawney; and high in its midst stands the noble seat of the ancient family of Smijth. After climbing the hill top on which the mansion is erected, we enter a long avenue on the northern side of the park. As we traverse it, and when we reach the tasteful pleasure grounds and terrace, we look forth on a beautiful forest scene, and realize the description, long since given that “Hill-hall, in point of elegance and prospect, may be reckoned inferior to very few houses in this county.” To the westward the finely-timbered park falls boldly into a deep wooded valley, beyond which the country gradually rises; and from this height we see its cultivated lands sprinkled over with farm-houses and villages, with the thick dark mass of the forest in the distance forming a back-ground to the rural landscape. On the south and other sides extend views of equal sylvan beauty, which compel us to admire the taste of those who, even before the time of the Norman – for this was one of the lordships of Suene – planted their manor-house on this commanding spot. The present hall id one of those fine massive old mansions which combine the solidity of the past with the elegancies of the present. It is a quadrangular building, with very thick and lofty walls, erected near the site of the ancient edifice, by the ancestor of the present possessor in 1548. On the north, the appearance of the structure, with its arched entrance and large massive door, leaves an impression of its original gloomy strength; but the eastern side is in the decorated Grecian style; and the southern or terrace front has been modernized and changed in character since the Elizabethan architect first raised the pile. On entering the mansion, the visitor will be struck by the beauty and proportions of the great hall, which is adorned by some fine paintings, and decorated with specimens of ancient armour and arms wielded in the hand-to-hand combat on the olden battle-fields of the country. Along one side runs a handsome gallery, and in traversing it we glance with interest the curious object which obstructs our path, very unlike anything belonging to the equestrians of the present time – the veritable saddle on which Queen Elizabeth rode while sojourning at Horham Hall [near Thaxted], which was formerly one of the seats of the Smijth family. The dining and drawing rooms, and the library, are large and lofty apartments; and upon their walls is the finest array of family portraits we have seen in the county. They form a pictorial history of the house of Smijth for the last three hundred years, mingled with paintings of royal and other personages with which it has been connected. Many are by the master-hands of their time. Amongst them are found portraits of Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth; Sit Thomas Smijth, the founder of the family, and the nephew to whom he left the estate; Charles I; the second Sir Thomas Smijth; Sir Edward Bowyer; the Black Prince; the present Lady Smijth (daughter of Sir Henry Meux); James I; James Smijth Esq. and his wife; Sir Edward Smijth and his Lady; Sir William Smijth, by Copley; Sir Edward Smijth, father of the present baronet; Joseph Windham, by Sir Godfrey Kneller; the Bishop of Salisbury, connected with the family in 1663; Sir Edward Smijth, by Sir Godfrey Kneller; Sir William Smijth (1777) by James Barry; and a host of others, interesting as specimens of art and curious as illustrating costumes of the different periods in which they were painted.
The family of Smijth is of great antiquity in the land. By some it is traced up to Edward the Black Prince, as descended from Sir Roger de Clarendon, his natural son. In Essex, however, it is of about three centuries standing. About 1480, the estate was in the Hampden family, under the title of Thoydon-at-the-Mount and Hill-hall. Sir John Hampden died in 1553, and his widow being jointured with this property, married Sir Thomas Smijth, knt., who bought the reversion of the estate, made it part of the family patrimony, and built the Hall. Sir Thomas, who was the son of John Smijth, Esq., of Saffron Walden, sheriff of Essex and Herts in the reign of Henry VIII, was one of the most celebrated statesmen and accomplished scholars of his day, and the author of several learned works, amongst them “the English Commonwealth”, which has been several times reprinted. He is described as a most excellent orator, mathematician, philosopher, and perfect in several of the modern languages. These qualities marked him out for public duties and distinctions. He was appointed secretary of state under Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth, was often employed in important foreign embassies and negotiations, and was made chancellor of the order of the garter. Essex, too, was anxious to do him local honour, and twice elected him one of its knights in parliament. He died in 1577, leaving his name honourably stamped on our political and literary history. His epitaph, on the sumptuous tomb in the little village church, which stands within the park, contains a record of him – the original being in Latin:-
“Sir Thomas Smijth, knight, lord of the manor, privy councillor and principal secretary of state to both King Edward VI and to Queen Elizabeth, and then ambassador to the greatest kings, chancellor of the noble order of the garter, colonel of Arda and Southern Clonebey, in Ireland, honoured eben when a youth with the highest title of the civil law, a most excellent orator, mathematician, and philosopher, very skilled in the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and Italian languages, a friend of the honest and ingenious man, singularly good, serviceable to many, hurtful to none, averse to revenge. In short, remarkable for his wisdom, piety and integrity, and in every part of life, whether sick or well, prepared for death. When he had completed the 65th year of his age, piously and sweetly slept in the Lord, at his seat of Mont-hall, on the 12th day of August, in the year of our salvation, 1577. – The glory of a short life makes a man famous when buried in the bowels of the earth. My life was blameless; if after my death you hurt my fame (wretch) the Almighty will punish thee for so doing”.
The family have ever since held a high position in the county. Several of its members distinguished themselves as soldiers; and one of them, a youth of fifteen, won himself a reputation as a volunteer under Prince Rupert in the civil wars. The chancel of the church contains the monuments of many of them. Of Sir Thomas Smijth, the first baronet, we are told, in these funereal records, that:-
“He lived 66 years with great reputation for loyalty to his prince and conformity to the church of England in apostate times, and served his king and country in chiefest places of trust and credit in the county”.
The present owner of Hill Hall is the eleventh baronet, the title being conferred to the family in 1661; and bears the name Bowyer prefixed to that of Smijth, the surname and arms of that family, in consequence of an intermarriage long previously, having been assumed by royal licence in 1839.
In Stapleford Tawney is Suttons, the seat of Sir Charles C. Smith, Bart. It is a large and delightful mansion, the head of the manor which appears to have been cut off from the Hall, now belonging to Sir William Bowyer Smijth, but long the property of the De Tanys, a family in ancient times of high repute and large possessions in the county. Sir C. Cunliffe Smith is descended from John Smith, Esq., a London merchant, who was created a baronet in 1804, and having married, as his second wife, the daughter of Sir Ellis Cunliffe, the two names became united. The present occupant of Suttons, who has been the high sheriff of the county, is the third baronet. Tawney Common is a rugged-looking place – though now mostly enclosed – with a few scattered cottages. In the parish is a school-house, erected in 1745, by Jane Luther, who left 5s. to the parish clerk, and £2. 17s. 6d. each to this parish and Kelvedon Hatch, for distribution in bread, out of an estate at Little Warley. The poor have also the rent of four acres of land, left by an unknown donor; and a rent-charge of £5 left by Thomas Luther, in 1718.