Denys Eyre Bower (1905-1977) was a gifted collector, devoting his life to finding fascinating objects and works of art. He displayed his objects throughout Chiddingstone Castle, which he bought in 1955 to home his collections and fulfil his wish of sharing them with the nation. Chiddingstone Castle remained his home until his death in 1977. Denys intended to leave his home and collections to the National Trust, but they refused it as it didn’t come with an endowment. A private trust was then created with the mission of preserving his collections in their original setting ‘for the enjoyment and learning of future generations’.
Denys’ interest was inspired by his father and grandfather who were both collectors. He purchased many of his items at auction and from art dealers, taking advantage of the economic downturn of the 1920s and 1930s. Japanese objects in particular were not fashionable at the time and Denys would always find good deals. His extensive research and excellent eye led him into amassing a unique collection. Objects within the collection includes Japanese lacquer, armour and swords; Ancient Egyptian artefacts; Stuart & Jacobite papers, portraits, and memorabilia; and Buddhist statues and sacred images. In 2015, the Library at Chiddingstone Castle was opened to the public, thanks to a volunteer-led project that documented Denys’ vast collection of books.
Born in 1905 to a respected middle-class family, Denys had a comfortable upbringing in the small Derbyshire village of Crich with his parents and younger brother, Alban. Denys was surrounded by collecting from a young age. His father collected Chinese porcelain and his grandfather, who was the Director of Midlands Railway, had the funds to be able to collect art and antiques. Denys began by collecting stamps, coins, and Stuart and Jacobite objects, which were part of the history of the area he grew up in. Him and his brother were particularly fascinated by the swords in their father’s collection. They discovered that the Japanese swords were the sharpest, and got into trouble for parading around the village with them.
Denys was not particularly interested in school and left aged 17. He began a career as a clerk for the Midlands Bank and would often skip work to attend auctions or to make phone calls to people that he had sent to bid on things for him. His passion for auctions and collecting effected his work and he was moved around to various different branches. Eventually, when Denys was 38, he left banking and moved to London to pursue his real dream - setting up his own antiques shop. It was called ‘Cavendish Hood’ and was located in Portman Square. He kept his favourite antiques for his own collection and filled his nearby home with them. When the lease on the shop ended and he had run out of space for his collections, Denys bought Chiddingstone Castle as a place to live and to display his collections. He bought the Castle in 1955 for £6,000, with a full bank loan, and remained a determined collector. Denys opened Chiddingstone Castle to members of the general public so that they could view his collections. For a small fee, they could enter the Castle, peer at the dusty objects crowded into antique wooden cabinets, and occasionally receive a tour from Denys himself. He arranged the displays, wrote the labels by hand, took the entrance fees from a makeshift ticket booth or through an open window. Denys was very proud of his collections, but he rarely revealed to his visitors that he was the owner.
Denys had only lived at the Castle for a few years, when his life took a dramatic turn. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to Wormwood Scrubs prison for the attempted murder of his girlfriend. The story goes that Denys was carrying an antique revolver which accidentally went off, with the bullet hitting his girlfriend who luckily survived. Thinking that he had killed her, he then turned the gun on himself. Denys woke up in hospital and was eventually sent to prison. In the end he stayed behind bars for only a few years, as a lawyer called Ruth Eldridge and her sister Mary became fascinated by his case and the Castle, and worked to have him released. They had lived near his antiques shop in London. The Eldridge sisters took on the job of looking after Denys and the Castle following his release, and began work to restoring the building to its former glory.
Denys, still resident at Chiddingstone Castle, died in 1977. He was known in the area for being an eccentric character and wasn’t particularly good at managing his money or maintaining the house. He kept the Castle going by continuing to sell objects from his collections at auction. The Eldridge sisters remained his close friends and worked tirelessly to look after the Castle after Denys’ death, establishing the charitable trust to fulfil his wish to continue sharing the Castle and his collections with the nation.
You can read more about Denys Eyre Bower’s life in The Study at Chiddingstone Castle and in the book Beyond Belief by Mary Eldridge, which is available in our gift shop.