When West Grinstead Went To War

Over a year ago I wrote of what I knew of Bert Mitchell’s involvement in the WW1.

He was my great uncle, born on 1 Aug 1892 in West Grinstead, and I remember him as I was 7 when he died.  It was an interesting challenge to research him as his is one of many service records that has not survived.

His ‘On War Service 1915’ badge was probably issued for his Red Cross volunteer work during the early part of the war  and finding Bert’s regiment and service number on his medals enabled me to find the matching Medal Index Card. Bert enlisted as a Private in the Machine Gun Corps on 2 December 1915.  Although I do not know exactly where he served, I do know that he was overseas when he sustained a head injury and was evacuated back to England to the Royal Victoria Hospital at Netley, near Southampton, for treatment and recovery.

Following his discharge in 1918 Bert worked as a Red Cross orderly at the Royal Victoria Hospital, making and fitting artificial limbs. Photos in my Granny’s photo album are a tantalising glimpse of his work there.  Later he worked for Pedestros Limbs Department in Southampton and subsequently at Roehampton.  I was intrigued to watch a recent episode of Call the Midwife showing families of children affected by Thalidomide receiving help with artificial limbs at Roehampton.

Having discovered that the West Grinstead Local History Group were putting together a publication on the role of people from that parish in WW1, I submitted to them what I had researched of Bert Mitchell’s life.  This weekend I had the joy of attending the group’s exhibition to mark the launch of the book ‘When West Grinstead Went To War 1914 – 1918’.

An excellent display with photos and commentary was complemented by various WW1 artefacts.  All those mentioned in the book were plotted on a large map of the parish.  I enjoyed chatting with several members of the research group, showing them my tree and my Mitchell write-up.  I also discovered a link with a lady who had travelled all the way from Cumbria to be there.

When West Grinstead Went To War
Displays at the Exhibition ‘When West Grinstead Went To War’







As well as service outlines of the men from the parish who served, there are articles in the book on Aviation in West Sussex during the war period, on the 4th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment and on Food and Agriculture.

Many congratulations to Dorothy, Norman, James, Colin, Mike and all those who brought the book to fruition – an amazing achievement!

Copies of the book can be ordered by contacting westgrinsteadlhg@gmail.com



Christmas toys and games

It’s lovely the way people play games at Christmas in a way that they don’t at other times of year.  Granted we often take a couple of board games away with us in the caravan on regular holidays, but at Christmas in our family there are other sorts of games to look forward to.

Mum’s ring board makes its annual outing!  I’m not actually sure how old this is (1940s?), but it has given hours of amusement over the years as people attempt the deceptively hard art of throwing rubber rings at the hooks on the board, the first team reaching a score of 101 being the winner.  We took it to family parties at Aunty Betty’s in the 1970s and played it at home when Granny came to visit.  Despite only having sight in one eye, she was remarkably good at the game.  No doubt when the furniture is finally moved in Mum’s house we will find the missing rings down the back of the bureau!  This year the ring board had a very successful outing to Hertfordshire, when we visited my husband’s family.

My Granny (Emily George, nee Mitchell) was also a great one for a game of cribbage.  She had learnt as a girl in Sussex, looking over the shoulders of the menfolk in her family who played.  Her mental arithmetic, even in her 90s, was as sharp as anything.  The cibbage board came out this Christmas when my Mum and my daughter had a game.

Despite the somewhat eventful year that she has had, my Mum still somehow managed to put together the annual newspaper headlines competition, and the ‘feely sock’ kept people amused in between the washing up on Christmas Day.

Christmas Day was also an opportunity to talk about the tradition of Christmas stockings.  We always had stockings as children, as did my Mum as a child and I did (oh, sorry, Father Christmas filled) stockings for my daughters once more this Christmas although they are somewhat beyond childhood.  Mum said that as a child she always liked mechanical toys and one year she had a clockwork steam roller in her stocking.  She remembers winding it up and running it on her bed until the fluff from the blanket made it grind to a halt.  Her father had to remove the fluff from the cogs before she could run it again on the lino of the landing floor.

Well I hope Father Christmas visited you this Christmas and that you enjoyed the festive period, whether you had games and toys or not!

My Granny playing rings in 1982
My Granny playing rings in 1982
The same ringboard in use Christmas 2016
The same ringboard in use Christmas 2016



Granny playing cribbage in 1981
At home with the cribbage board, probably a different Christmas
At home with the cribbage board, probably a different Christmas


My Granny, Emily Eliza Mitchell, was baptised at Shipley, in Sussex, on Advent Sunday in 1888, 128 years ago.

I learnt that piece of information 24 years ago, when, following a fairly traumatic birth, we took our first baby daughter to Church on Advent Sunday for a Thanksgiving Service.  She is partly named after her great grandmother, and my Mum remarked on how appropriate the day was.

I do like Advent.  There’s something about all those great Advent hymns in minor keys (‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’, ‘Come thou long-expected Jesus’, ‘Lo, he comes with clouds descending’ etc), the purple of altar frontals and liturgical robes and advent candles to light.  And of course Advent Calendars.  I remember as a child being thrilled when our neighbours the Madgwicks gave us an Advent calendar (no chocolate ones in those days!) and I still like to have one.  It brings out the child in me to count the days till Christmas!  When our children were small we made a large Blue Peter-inspired one which involved toilet rolls and lots of tissue paper, glue and paint.    It got re-used for a number of years.

Last Sunday being Advent Sunday it got me thinking about what my ancestors might have been doing during that period in years gone by.  Not counting the days with chocolate-filled Advent Calendars, that’s for sure.

David George, my earliest proven ancestor on my Norfolk George tree, married Elizabeth Jefferies on Sunday 7 December 1806 at East Dereham – the second Sunday in Advent, but only a year later they buried their first baby, Mary Ann, on 13 December 1807, the third Sunday in Advent.

David’s son John George married Emily White on Sunday 6 December 1840 – also the second Sunday in Advent.

His son David, my great grandfather, married Elizabeth Mayne in Croydon on a Saturday – the 29 November 1873 – the day before Advent Sunday.

On my Wakefield tree, my great grandfather William Wakefield married Annie Neighbour on 10 December 1893 in Newington, again the second Sunday in Advent.

Caleb Osborne, the cordwainer from Shipley in Sussex, married Mary Botting on the Tuesday after Advent Sunday in 1802 – the 30 November.

My Mitchell and Phipott ancestors, on the other hand, seem to have had a distinct aversion to doing anything like getting married or baptised during the back end of the year – apart from my Granny, that is.

I discovered  when Advent Sunday was in years gone by on this website: www.timeanddate.com/holidays/uk/first-day-advent , where you can also calculate all kinds of dates.

So Happy Advent!  I hope this season is not too frenetic for you and that you can find some space to welcome the coming light:

“O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight.” 



Family Bake Off

Unlike some TV shows one could mention, The Great British Bake Off seems to have enriched our community lives. Families sit down together to watch the show itself; my cousin’s wife told me how her circle of friends go to the house of one of their number each week and the home bakes come out as soon as they get to the Technical Challenge.  My daughter has organised colleagues in her office so that each person is allocated a contestant and when that person leaves the tent they have to bring in cakes (or Steak and Ale pie, as one colleague is promising!).

What does this have to do with family history?  Well, coincidentally, October’s issue of Family Tree magazine www.family-tree.co.uk has a great article by Rachel Bellerby entitiled ‘A taste of the past’.  As she so rightly states “food and cooking play a big part in your memories”.  In common with many families, mine have had regular gatherings for as long as I can remember, often at Christmas, where everyone contributes food.  I can remember as a child making pink meringues to take to Aunty Mary’s now legendary Christmas parties.  In no small part due to her parties, that side of the family has remained in contact.  Once we had moved back within range of the rest of the family and had enough space, we instituted our own Christmas parties, knowing we could rely on Mum to bring the mushroom vol-au-vents.

Rachel Bellerby’s article highlights how precious a handwritten family recipe book can be.  At a recent visit with my daughters to my Mum’s house, the subject of baking came up, and out came her mother’s handwritten recipe book.  “Treat it like a form of autobiography” says Food Historian Dr Annie Gray www.anniegray.co.uk  :  clippings from magazines tell you what people read and names attached to recipes give you a clue to other relatives and friends.  Well, Granny’s recipe book has clippings from The Lady, a recipe for a Mother’s Union sponge cake (“very good”) and Mary’s recipe for something and Auntie Winnie’s recipe for something else.  The Mary in question is likely to be Granny’s friend Mary Moreley, who also lived in Croydon in the 1930s.  The recipe for Dandelion Wine reminded Mum of an occasion when she was a young child when her mother announced when she came home from school at lunchtime that it was a perfect afternoon for picking dandelions!  Off they went on the bus to Mitcham Common to pick the flowers, but Mum felt so guilty that she was being made to miss afternoon school!  It’s strange to think of my Granny encouraging truanting, but then she came from a rural community where staying off school in the 1890s to help with the harvest was the norm.

I am ashamed to say that my own recipe book mostly consists of scraps of paper which I have never got round to writing up properly.  But, in a similary manner, you can tell which magazines I’ve read and who recipes have come from.  I still use Vicky’s mince pie recipe (she was a university friend) and Aunty Elsie’s biscuits are a firm family favourite.  Now you need to understand that I’ve never had an Aunty Elsie – she was an aunt of my Mum’s cousins’s husband!  Well I guess that indicates that one of these days I should write up these recipes properly and identify the provenance – as far as I can – before the likes of Aunty Elsie are totally unidentifiable.

On your marks, get set – bake!

Recipes in my collection
Recipes in my collection
Granny's recipe for dandelion wine
Granny’s recipe for dandelion wine
Winnie's cake
Winnie’s cake

The Chestnut Tree

Driving to my parent’s house the other day I suddenly noticed that the big chestnut tree down the road had been cut down!  It was quite a shock to see the space where it used to be and it almost felt like a sudden bereavement.  As children we often used to play round the tree and of course collect conkers in the autumn.  Apparently the poor tree had been dead for a while and so had to come down.

It led me to think about how trees can be so important in our lives.  In many cases they can outlive us significantly.  On bank holiday Monday, for example, we visited Leith Hill Place, and I was absolutely blown away by the shere magnificence of a tulip tree on the path from the house to the car park.  It is thought to have been planted around 250 years ago, about the time that Leith Hill Tower was built.  There are many other specimen trees, plus the rhododendrons planted by Caroline Wedgwood in the mid nineteenth century.  I had not previously appreciated the family connections between the Darwin, Wedgwood and Vaughan Williams families:  Josiah Wedgwood III married Caroline Darwin, the sister of Charles Darwin.  Their daughter Margaret married Revd Arthur Vaughan Williams, whose family lived locally, and hence in due course Leith Hill Place became the home of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.  What a stunning location in which to spend your childhood, and he too would have been familiar with the specimen trees that we can admire now.

On a slightly less grand scale, the apple trees which were once in the garden of my granny’s childhood home, can still be seen by the side of the road at the Buck Barn crossroads on the A24 near Shipley, though the house has long since gone.  I remember my Granny once telling me that she and her brother made up stories about imaginary little people living in those trees.

I’ve always enjoyed growing plants.  At primary school we were once given conkers to take home and plant, and I won a pencil because mine grew the tallest.  It must have been around that time that I planted some apple pips.  One of those seedlings went on to grow into a fine specimen and now, well over forty years later, it still produces an abundance of apples.  It turned out to be a James Grieve. Whether or not that tree outlives me will depend very much on the future occupants of that house, but I hope both it and I will thrive for a few years yet!

The remains of the chestnut tree
The remains of the chestnut tree

Dem bones, dem bones….

There were many awe-inspiring moments on our recent tour of the Spanish cities of Seville, Cordoba and Granada – the Alcazar in Seville, the mosaics in the Roman city of Italica and the courtyards of the Alhambra to name but three.  But one of the most profound moments was viewing the actual coffins of the ‘Reyes Católicos’, Ferdinand and Isabella, in the Capilla Real in Granada.  That was quite unexpected.  Their marble momuments are splendid, but underneath lie their simple lead coffins.  So much history focussed in two simple coffins!  Click on this link to see a picture of the coffins.  http://www.capillarealgranada.com/index.en.html

In the case of Ferdinand and Isabella there is little doubt that Granada is their final resting place.  But the tomb of Columbus in Seville Cathedral is a different matter.  Although he died in Spain, his body was taken to the Caribbean thirty years later as it was his wish to be buried there, but he was brought back to Seville in 1898.  There is ongoing controversy as to whether the bones under that huge tomb are really his.

The tomb of Columbus, Seville Cathedral
The tomb of Columbus, Seville Cathedral

Why does it matter to us so much to be certain of the identity of bones?  I recently watched a TV programme where Shakespeare’s tomb was scanned and where a mystery skull buried elsewhere was tested to see if it could be his (it wasn’t!).  With amazing forethought Shakespeare had a curse placed on his tomb to avoid it being disturbed in the future.

Shakespeare's grave in Stratford
Shakespeare’s grave in Stratford

Somehow a sense of place is important to us as we research our ancestors.  To be able to visit (or at least see pictures of) the places where our ancestors lived helps us to appreciate more of their lives, but in many cases to be able to stand by their gravestones is also a special experience as we connect with the families who went before.

The grave of my great grandparents William and Mary Mitchell in West Grinstead
The grave of my great grandparents William and Mary Mitchell in West Grinstead

Increasingly this will be an unusual experience with the vast majority of people in this country now being cremated rather than buried and with there being no lasting memorial to visit.   Perhaps that’s as it should be.  We can still connect with the past through the places we visit and the objects we inherit without, as Ellis Peter’s first novel of the Cadfael Chronicles suggests, a “morbid taste for bones”.

That Eureka moment!

Last Friday I had a rare Eureka moment!  Fortunately I was in my own living room and not working in the quiet of a record office, so my fairly audible “yes!!” did not disrupt the concentration of anyone else.

I should explain that I have been searching for some evidence of Allen Mitchell for a good thirty plus years.  My Granny had 3 uncles who crossed the pond – James, Henry and Allen.  James (born 1839 West Grinstead, Sussex) ended up in Canada, in Hamilton Ontario, and with occasional trips to the library to use Ancestry Worldwide I have pieced together a fair amount about him.  Henry (born 1842 West Grinstead) went to New York state, settling in Palmyra, as did his much younger brother Allen (born 1851 West Grinstead).  I had got as far as discovering Allen living with his brother Henry and family at the time of the 1880 US census.

Granny believed that Allen was killed in a railroad accident – but when?  I had failed to find Allen in a census after 1880, no sign of a death, and I had also searched for a newspaper report without success.

The free weekend on Findmypast had led to an email offering me a month’s subscription to the site for £1.  That sounded a pretty good deal to me, so I signed up.  I noticed that this included access to worldwide records.

Now I wasn’t really thinking about my overseas Mitchells particularly, but an enquiry from someone about the Canadian connection meant I turned to that section of my notes.  In doing so, I discovered that I had made a note to myself to check, at some point in the future, the Syracuse Herald for 23 March 1914 on Findmypast, as it appeared to have a reference to an Allen Mitchell.  So I duly discovered how to find this publication, narrowed it down to the relevant date and searched for Allen Mitchell.  Yes!!!!


Syracuse Herald 23 March 1914
Syracuse Herald 23 March 1914

At long last, there he was!  And what a goldmine of information!  “Allen Mitchell killed by a car.  Veteran Central employee struck at Buffalo”.  63 year old Allen had just returned to work following a previous accident.  Walking along the track at about 8.00 am to where he was doing some reconstruction work, he was hit by a runaway coal car and was killed instantly.  The report says that he had been working for the railroad company for about 35 years.  Having started as a carpenter, he had risen to the position of constructing engineer and foreman and was “well known to railroad men throughout this section of the State”.  The report also tells us that “Mrs Mitchell is on the verge of collapse from shock”.  Well I didn’t know he even had a wife, and poor woman receiving this news!  It also gives an address for the Mitchells in Lodi Street, Syracuse.  It seems his current place of work at Buffalo was around 160 miles away from home.

Having recovered from this excitement, I proceeded to see if I could find Allen and his wife on the 1900 census – a name for Mrs Mitchell would be nice.  And there they were:  Allen Mitchell had been married to Louisa for 12 years at that point, and she had been born around 1857 in New York.  They had no children and the census gave Allen’s year of immigration as 1871.  Well, moving on to the Passenger Lists on Findmypast, I found a possible entry for Allen:  leaving Liverpool on the City of Brooklyn, 19 year old Allen arrived in New York on 26 March 1870.

The blank space under Allen’s name on the family tree can be filled in at long last.  £1 well spent!

City of Brooklyn
The City of Brooklyn