Probably since Anglo-Saxon times there would have been a building here - the ancient manor house of Hartley. Sometime before the Norman conquest the lord of the manor gave the land for All Saints' Church and endowed the glebe land for the minister. The unnamed lady who owned the manor in 1066 could well have lived here, if so she was the last owner to do so for about 700 years.
In 1100 Henry I granted Hartley and other lands to Payn Fitzjohn, whose descendants owned it until 1403. But the succession was convoluted. Hartley passed through the hands of the de Monchelsea family, the earls of Pembroke and finally in 1391 to Reginald de Grey. He was captured in Wales by Owen Glendower and had to sell Hartley to pay the ransom. The eventual purchaser in 1405 was John Urban of Southfleet. By the 1540s the manor had some into the hands of Nicholas and Mary Ballard, who after selling off Hartley Woods to Thomas Swan of Southfleet in 1541, they sold the rest of the Hartley Court estate to Thomas's neighbour John Sedley in 1544. His family owned it until 1770.
Of course none of these people lived at Hartley, so a series of stewards and bailiffs lived at the manor house to collect the rents and to manage the demesne estate. We do not know their names, but part of the gravestone belonging to a steward of around 1200 can be seen in the Church. We are also fortunate enough to have a description of the house in 1392. It was said to be a small thatched hall with an upper room (solar) at one end for the bailiff. Other buildings were a granary, cattle shed and two granges. The demesne land owned by the court in its own right is clearly identifiable as the same owned in the c19th. The estate consisted of two large blocks in what were probably two open fields: Northfield (Springcroft/Gorse Way etc) and the Rede (land between Ash Road and Church Road). The court also owned three other large fields: Court Croft (Manor Field and the land beyond), Eyleye (land south of Grange Lane) and Bridon (Bridelands Wood and much of the back gardens of the properties at the end of Church Road). There is also little reason to doubt that this was identical to the two carucates of land owned at the time of the Domesday Book.
By the time the Cripps family came to live here in the early c16th the house was already known as the Court. As tenants of Hartley's largest farm, they were naturally quite well to do. Theirs was the highest assessment in the c16th tax lists. Thomas Cripps (d 1527) was generous to the Church, leaving money to buy a new copper and gilt cross, and a new pitch torch, as well as money for general repairs (which would be needed if the Church Court records of the time are anything to go by!). Later in the century Thomas Cripps (d 1596) left an interest free loan of £500 "for as much as by the goodness of my landlady Mrs Anne Sedley I have enjoyed the farm wherein I now dwell at an easy and reasonable rate of rent and that I desire of her..... that my children may enjoy the same accordingly at the same rate."
Unfortunately for the Cripps, they seem to have attracted the criminal element. In 1544 labourer Thomas Clyff was convicted at the Dartford Assizes of stealing a black horse from James Cripps. As this was a capital offence, this might have been bad news for Mr Clyff, but this was to reckon without the pious perjury the law is capable of. Rather improbably he claimed to be a clergyman, and all he had to do to "prove" this was to be able to read Psalm 51 verse 1. So instead of hanging he would have got a branding on the thumb. Half of convicts escaped hanging by this method. More sensational was the burglary on 9 June 1575, when a gang of six from London were convicted at the Rochester Assizes of breaking into the house of James Cripps and stealing £11 6s, and also stealing 2 silver rings, a black hat, a shirt and £13 6s 8d in cash from the house of Thomas Cripps. This raises the question of whether there was another house nearby, or perhaps more likely that the members of the family had partitioned the court between themselves.
By the time the house was rebuilt around 1650, the Cripps were no longer the tenants. From the lists of those paying hearth tax 1662-73, it appears that a widow Mrs Reeve, was living here. According to English Heritage, the external appearance of the house belongs to the 18th century. We know that from at least 1744 until his death in 1765, the tenant was Thomas Underhill. His wife Elizabeth died in 1774 and like him is buried in Hartley Churchyard by the south eastern corner of the chancel, in view of their former home. But the tenancy had passed before then to one Thomas Edmeades. In 1770 the Sedley family sold the freehold to William Granville Evelyn, of St Cleres, Ightham.
William Bensted (d 1836) moved here in 1792, and was succeeded by his son William (d 1857). All of the family are buried in the Churchyard, one is a large tomb surrounded by iron railings. However the most impressive family monument is that to William junior's daughter Mary Beech by the pulpit in the Church, who died in 1851. As a child visiting All Saints' Church, I can always remember being fascinated by the scroll in the marble hand.
Colonel Evelyn seems to have lived here for a while in the 1870s. He does not seem to have got on with his neighbour Captain Laurie of Longfield Court. In 1875 he sued the Captain for trespass made by his cattle. Col Evelyn said he was woken in the night to find 15 of Capt. Laurie's cattle had got into his cabbage field and eaten their way through 270 cabbages. He claimed his groom was too afraid to deliver a letter of complaint to Captain Laurie, because he feared violence at his hands (Gravesend Journal 30 October 1875). This was settled out of court, but the rematch was not long in coming. Three months later Stephen Mitchell and George Cloke, groom and coachman to Col. Evelyn were summonsed for shooting rabbits on land leased by Captain Laurie from Col. Evelyn. The case was a complicated one and Col Evelyn clearly thought his servants were in the right, but the bench found that a "trifling" trespass had taken place (Gravesend Journal 22 January 1876). About this time there was also case of alleged criminal damage to his crops.
Late in the century Adam Tait (1836-96) lived here. He was a director of the P&O Steamship Company. He died and was buried in Switzerland, but is remembered by the east window of the Church and the plaque that his fellow directors set up in his memory. The link with the P&O company continues, for they most generously contributed to the reordering of the same window in 1987.
The freehold was auctioned and bought by Smethwick industrialist, Sir James Chance in 1901. Hartley Court was then described as having 6 bedrooms, dressing room, bath room, entrance hall and verandah, drawing room, dining room, kitchen, larders and cellars. There was also the tiled wellhouse with triple pump worked by wind engine, with 2 reservoir tanks that people remember. Mrs Dora Prime recalls that by the time of the war, the tanks, no longer used for their original purpose, were then used as air raid shelters. Subsequently Small Owners Limited bought the freehold and sold the house in 1926 to Brigadier General Andrus.
Colonel Godfrey Hildebrand took out a lease of the house and 26 acres for 21 years from 1904 at a rent of £110 pa. The Valuation Office valued the whole at £4,075 in 1910, which included £50 for the fruit trees growing there. His son General Hildebrand lived there for a while after his death. According to the electoral registers Major Brett lived at the Court in 1918 to about 1924, and then Mr A L Farrow until General Andrus came to live here in 1926.