Friday, 26 October 2012

A Halloween tale

With Halloween fast approaching the time seems right for a spooky tale.

Lewes Castle was built soon after the Norman Conquest by William de Warenne, it is associated with many ghost stories and this is one of the best known.

Many many years ago, probably during the Norman period, the lord of Pevensey Castle took an army to attack the Earl of Warenne at Lewes Castle; the two armies met at Mount Caburn just outside of Lewes where battle began.  But watching from the castle at Lewes was the wife of the Earl of Warenne who was holding their new born baby.  It seemed as if the lord of Pevensey was going to take honours and with his sword raised he moved in for the kill but the Lady de Warenne loved her husband and she prayed to St Nicholas, who protected those in danger, and promised that their son would not marry until he had been to Byzantium and offered up treasure to the tomb of St Mary.  St Nicholas obviously liked this plan and intervened in the battle, Lord Pevensey lost his balance, his sword missed de Warenne and without a wife to offer up their own child on his behalf he was killed and the battle was over.

Lewes castle today
Life went on, each year the de Warenne's celebrated their win over Lord Pevensey and the young baby grew up to be a fine young man.  As young men tend to, he fell in love and was soon going to marry the Lady Edona.  The  two  were dancing at the anniversary of the battle when suddenly, an icy wind swept through the hall and the room was plunged into dark as the candles and lamps were extinguished.  Now the room was lit by images of the battle which were played onto the walls and just as Lord Pevensey again went to strike Earl de Warenne everything was suddenly silent and quiet.

The de Warennes took this as an omen and soon their son found himself on a ship to Byzantium.  One year later, on the 17th May, his ship was spotted off the coast of Worthing and the de Warenne family along with the Lady Edona rushed to meet the returning hero.  They gathered along the coast near the church of St Nicholas in Brighhelmstone singing songs of joy as the ship grew closer.  Suddenly the ship hit rocks near Shoreham and sank almost instantly, it was too much for Lady Edona who dropped dead on the spot.  The Earl of Warenne had a new church built for St Nicholas on the same place were they had stood and Lady Edona was buried when she had fallen.

On the 17th May each year it is said if you stand on the hill next to the church of St Nicholas you too can watch the doomed ship trying to make its way home.

Of course given the change in the coast line and modern commercial development you'll have little chance of seeing anything but doomed shops sinking without a trace in the recession!

Friday, 19 October 2012

An early bonfire night in 1899

The Union workhouse in Westhampnett came to a sad but dramatic end on the 3rd November 1899.  It was a stormy night with gale force winds raging but all seemed calm when the master of the workhouse, Mr Moore, made his final inspection of the evening.  All 115 inmates were in bed and the staff had retired to their rooms for the night.  An hour or so later the Moores were woken by the sound of a crash and on inspection they found the attics were on fire and the ceiling to the cooks bedroom, which was fortunately unoccupied, had fallen in.  They woke the three nurses who quickly dressed and began removing the inmates including the mother and her newborn child from the lying in ward and a ten year old boy ill with typhoid who was carried out by another inmate.  Many of the inmates were elderly or infirm, they were confused by the chaos and had to be carried or coaxed out of the burning building into the howling gale and torrential rain, the staff were helped by some of the able bodied inmates such as William Waller and Joseph Frampton.  The newly constructed iron staircases at each of the building enabled quick evacuation of the building.

Meanwhile in nearby Chichester there had been a dinner held for the Corporation of St Pancras which included senior members of the fire brigade.  Their evening was interrupted by the arrival of a cab driver who had seen the fire at Westhampnett and driven at speed back to Chichester to raise the alarm.  The firemen, Captain Budden and Lieut. Gambling, commandeered the cab drivers horse and harnessed him to the fire engine, they rang the fire bell and the remainder of the fire brigade arrived promptly and they were soon at the scene of the conflagration.

The workhouse alarm bell was rung but the raging storm limited its effectiveness to such an extent that labourers asleep in neighbouring cottages slept on unaware of the drama until woken by others banging on their doors.  Dr Bostick did hear the alarm but by the time he arrived the inmates had already been removed from the building.  He got the workhouse's own fire engines out but found that the lengths of hose would not connect together rendering them useless.  The fire brigade also faced problems - this time the lack of water.  Although connecting the workhouse to the water mains had been discussed a year earlier it had been decided it was too expensive to undertake the work but it now cost them the workhouse as the water from the well was soon exhausted and little could be done to save the main building.
Westhampnett workhouse after the fire
Once everyone was out there was an attempt made to retrieve as many goods as possible from the ground floor which was still clear of the fire whilst Moore ran back in to turn off the boiler fearing an explosion when the fire reached it.  The fire was allowed to burn itself out which it finally did at 8am the following morning.  All the inmates had been safely removed although one of them, Thomas Gilbert, died shortly afterwards from shock and fright.  Overnight, whilst the fire still burned, inmates were collected by other nearby workhouses and hospitals who offered to rehome them.  It was fortunate that the workhouse, which had a capacity of 569 inmates, had only 115 at the time of the fire and even more fortunate that the fire escapes had been installed as there was little doubt at the time that if they had had to rely on the internal central staircase they would not have been able to get everyone out in time  However if the workhouse had been connected to the mains water supply it might also have been possible to save the building which had originally been Westhampnett Place and had ancient and grand origins before its conversion in 1835 to the workhouse.

Source: The Observer and West Sussex Recorder - November 8th 1899 (page 5)

Monday, 15 October 2012

Marriage and our ancestors

How old were they when they married?

The average age for marriage nowadays is 36 years for men and 33 years for women, a figure which includes first and subsequent marriages.  Most couples marry now for the first time between their 25th and 29th birthday. 

We tend to think that our ancestors married at a younger age than us but how much younger were they?

Peter Laslett's study of marriage licences applied for at Canterbury for couples marrying for the first time between 1619 and 1660 found that the average age for grooms was 26 years and for brides was 23 years, although when he limited the marriage licences to those of the gentry he found the age dropped to 24 years for grooms and 19 years for the brides.  He did find the occasional marriages with particularly young brides including one 13 year old and four 15 year olds.

I did a similar study of marriage licences issued at the Archdeaconry of Lewes between 1772 and 1837 (based on 250 marriage licences), and found that the average age for marriages at this time was 25 years for men and 23 years for women.

 There are some limitations to using marriage licences to determine the average age for marriage.  Marrying by licence was more expensive than marrying by banns so it tended be the gentry, those who aspired to better status and those who needed to marry quickly who used marriage licences.  The wording on the marriage licence says "aged x years and upwards"  we are only given their youngest possible age and given the increasing number of couples who married in the 1830s where both were 21 years and upwards it is unlikely that they were all 21 years old when they married. 

George Battcock and Mary Patterson Paine married on the 25th March 1813 in Brighton and according to their licence both were 21 years old and upwards.  George was baptised in Storrington on the 19th October 1784 so he was actually 29 years old when he married Mary whilst she was baptised in Brighton on the 10th May 1787 which meant she was 26 years old.

Richard Bannister married Ann Roots on the 2nd April 1778 in Framfield and again their marriage licence gives both their ages as 21 years and upwards. Based on their age when they died they were born in 1739 and 1745 so they were actually 39 years and 33 years old when they married.

It seems more likely that the age given is more accurate when the couple were younger than 21 years.  Anyone marrying under the age of 21 years needed parental (or other responsible adult) permission and their details should be included on the licence.    John Avis married Ann Ovenden on the 17th November 1776 in Withyham, according to their marriage licence they were "20 years or thereabouts" but they were actually about 16 and 15 years old.  The minimum age for marriages since 1753 had been 14 years for men and 12 years for women but it was unusual for couples to marry that young.  John and Ann's daughter was baptised the month after their marriage so it would seem that they 'had' to get married.

William Bean married Ann Farncomb on the 1st October 1778 in Wivelsfield when they were 19 years and 28 years old, the marriage licence gave their ages as 19 years (William had the permission of his father, William) and Ann's as 25 years plus.

The 17th century average age of marriage is 26 years for grooms and 23 for brides whilst I found the average in the late 18th/early 19th century to be the same.  Looking at specific examples I found they were generally older than the age given in the marriage licence which would raise the average age for the latter period.  Rather than being much younger when they married it seems that in most cases couples married at a similar age as we do today.

The World we have Lost Further Explored Laslett, Peter   Routledge 1983
Sussex Record Society Volume 25 Marriage Licences at Lewes 1772-1837 A-L

Friday, 5 October 2012

Firle and the spitfire

West Firle Poor Law Union formed in 1835 providing a workhouse for the people of West Firle and nearby parishes.  The workhouse could house 180 inmates but it was closed after 1898 when the union merged with Chailey and Lewes unions.

The building was converted into a row of private houses known as Stanford Buildings but they were badly damaged on the afternoon of the 22nd May 1942.  Two Spitfire pilots left the airfield at Redhill in Surrey for a practise flight when they came across low cloud over Firle.  Flt Lt Barrett climbed above the cloud and returned to Redhill but Sgt Harold Ernest Barton went below the cloud which was lower than expected.  He hit the end of the row of houses destroying part of it and injuring one of the residents.  Barton was killed; the end of Stanford buildings was badly damaged both by the impact and the resulting fire.

The fire was reported in the local papers but not the cause so as not to affect morale.  The Sussex Daily News emphasised the work done by the National Fire Service from Lewes "effective work by NFS personnel from Lewes greatly minimised damage to property when they attended a fire at Stanford-buildings Firle".  The Sussex Express mentioned that it was caused by a plane crash but gave no details concentrating on the rescue of Mrs Hughes from the house by another resident of Stanford Buildings  "Mrs Hughes's husband told the story to an 'Express Herald' representative and extended his grateful thanks to Mr Mitchell for the manner in which, under great danger to himself, he carried out the rescue".

The official report on the crash was short and too the point "Cause of crash not known.  Hit buildings and burnt out.  Sgt  H E Barton of 602 Squadron Redhill.  One civilian injured. 25 people evacuated from buildings"  Any further official documents are closed subject to the 100 year rule.

Sussex Daily News - Monday May 25th 1942
Sussex Express & County Herald - Friday June 5th 1942
East Sussex Record Office: SPA 2/21/45 Crashed & forced landings of British and German aircraft in East Sussex 1939-1945