by Alan Smith for, 21 May 2024

The hunt is on for two lost portraits of a 17th century knight and his wife.

Sir Thomas Dunk, from Hawkhurst, made a fortune during his lifetime from two principal businesses – the production of cloth and iron. But although he lived a lavish lifestyle at his impressive estate at Tongs Wood – now home to St Ronan’s School – he was also a generous benefactor to his village.

When he died, Sir Thomas (1657 to 1718) left land in Hawkhurst with a large bequest and instructions that almshouses should be built there, along with a boy’s school and a house for the schoolmaster. The result was the Dunk’s Almshouses that still stand in a prominent position in the Highgate end of the village, and which still provide subsidised accommodation for those in need.

This year, the Dunk’s charity which runs the almshouses will be celebrating its 300th anniversary, with events including an exhibition about Sir Thomas and the history of the almshouses and the school he created.

However, what would have been the centrepiece of the exhibition – contemporary portraits of Sir Thomas and his wife – have been missing for more than 70 years. The portraits, the only known images of Sir Thomas and Lady Cornelia (1668–1717), hung for more than two centuries in the almshouses he created.

But in 1927 the Dunk’s trustees asked Hawkhurst Parish Council to hang the paintings in the Victoria Hall – then Hawkhurst’s main village hall (now The Kino cinema) – so they could be admired by more members of the public. They are known to have still been there in 1950 but around 1951 the hall was refurbished and somehow the paintings disappeared.

As a consequence, the charity does not have a single image of its most generous benefactor and has no idea what happened to the artwork.

A spokesman for the trustees said: “We really haven’t a clue. It would be complete speculation after all this time. But we’d dearly love to know.”

Sir Thomas Dunk’s will
Dunk’s School circa 1911

It was not until Elizabeth Clark began researching the history of the charity in 1989 and found references to the paintings that it was even realised they were missing. Sir Thomas came from a family of “great clothiers” with their wealth derived from centuries of textile production. But it was Sir Thomas who diversified into iron-making using the rich timber from Hawkhurst’s woods to fuel the furnaces to smelt the iron ore. He received his knighthood from Queen Anne.

He and his wife had no surviving children but Sir Thomas also owned a large house in London and a further estate in Chieveley in Berkshire. He left the latter to William Richards (1690–1733), who is believed to have been an illegitimate son, on condition that he changed his name to Dunk. William had a daughter Anne, who, in 1841, married George Montagu, 2nd Earl of Halifax, who also took on the surname Dunk, finally making the family part of the aristocracy.

Sir Thomas Dunk's gravestone within St Laurence Church in Hawkhurst
Sir Thomas Dunk’s gravestone within St Laurence Church in Hawkhurst

Sir Thomas had served as Sheriff of London in 1711 and was also a governor of St Thomas’ Hospital in the capital. His initial bequest provided for six almshouses in Rye Road but over the years they have been expanded and there are now 10 one-person flats and four bungalows.

Sir Thomas is buried at St Laurence Church at The Moor in Hawkhurst.

He also provided for a school, initially for 20 pupils. Two other famous sons of the village were educated there – William and Reginald Rootes – who went on to establish the Rootes Motorcar Company.

A Dunks school photo from the early 1900s. William and Reginald Rootes are among the pupils
A Dunks school photo from the early 1900s. William and Reginald Rootes are among the pupils

But the school closed in 1923. The school hall remains and is let out for village meetings and events, the income from which is used by the Dunk’s Educational Foundation to support the education of Hawkhurst’s children with grants where needed.

The Dunk’s charity will celebrate its tercentenary with an exhibition open from 10am till 4pm each day in the old schoolroom over three days from June 20 to June 23.

Children from Hawkhurt’s three schools – the primary school, St Ronan’s and Marlborough House – are also taking part in an art competition to reflect its long history. There will also be a grand raffle.

The chairman of trustees, Nigel Collinson, said, “By making a bit of a splash in celebrating the 300-year milestone, the trustees are hoping to spread the word about Hawkhurst’s great son and to encourage active involvement from the wider community so that Dunk’s can sail safely through the turbulent waters of the next 300 years.”

Lord Halifax and his secretaries, a painting by Daniel Gardner
An interior of one of the Dunks Almshouses