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: , 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.” 



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

Mother to daughter

Well I was going to write a nice little piece aptly timed for Mothering Sunday last weekend, but then events took an interesting turn and I was unable to schedule a blog post for the first time in six months; so my apologies for that!

I had looked forward to a Mothering Sunday spent with my mother and with one of my daughters.  In the event I did see both of them, but we were visiting my Mum in hospital following a fall, fracture, and emergency partial hip replacement.  Not quite how I had imagined the day.

I had mentioned to the Registrar that both Mum’s parents had lived well into their nineties.  Granny was nearly 96 when she died, having lived through two world wars.

A couple of years ago I had an attempt at compiling a matrilineal tree – ie tracing back through daughter to mother.  It’s an interesting exercise, not without its challenges, but fascinating to do.

The earliest female ancestor I could find in this line was Sarah Stridwick, whose daughter Mary Cooper was born around 1688 in Warnham, Sussex, meaning that Sarah may have been born around 1668.  Mary Cooper’s daughter was Mary Knight, also born in Warnham, as was her daughter Sarah Charman, born in 1762.  Sarah’s daughter Harriet Capon was not born until 1800, this time in Capel, Surrey, just across the border.  I recently discovered, in the Haywards Heath Asylum Admission records at The Keep, that Harriet spent the last four months of her life in the Asylum, being admitted due to “senile insanity”.

Sayers, Ifield
Eliza Sayers, born 1825 Ifield, Sussex

Harriet’s  daughter Eliza Sayers was born in 1825 in Ifield, Sussex, again just back across the Surrey/Sussex border, and her daughter Mary Philpott was born in 1853 a little further south in Shipley, West Sussex.  My grandmother, Emily Mitchell, was born 35 years later, also in Shipley, in 1888.

Philpott, Shipley
Mary Philpott, born 1853 Shipley, Sussex

Of these seven women, two were over 80 at death and two more over 90 years of age.

I am happy to say that Mum is making good progress.  I hope the new hip keeps her going for at least as long as her female ancestors!

Sliding on the ponds

Our annual trip south to get a vehicle serviced provides an ideal opportunity for a visit to West Sussex Record Office in Chichester.  After a good six months thinking about Norfolk and the George family it was time to get my head round all my Sussex ancestors once more.

It was this time last year that I started looking at some school log books, so I was eager to order these up again.  They give such a fascinating insight into the social history of the time.  I started with the log book for Dial Post school, which my Granny attended from 1896 following the family’s move from Shipley to West Grinstead.

In reading through, you realise the importance of the local gentry in village society: “14 October 1898.  A half holiday given on Thursday afternoon to allow the teachers to attend a fete at Knepp Castle to commemorate the coming of age of Mr M Burrell.”  (This was Sir Merrick Burrell, Baronet, who was born in 1877).  “28 June 1901. A half holiday on Thursday on account of the fete on Knepp Lawn”.

You also realise the impact of the weather on school attendance in the days when all children had to walk to school – often quite a distance.  “16 February 1900.  The attendance this week has been very poor owing to the very bad, wet and snowy weather”.  “28 September 1900.  From now the school will be closed at half past three to allow those who live a long way off to get home before dark”.

National events also had an impact:  “25 May 1900.  A holiday given on Monday to commemorate the relief of Mafeking”.

Sickness of the pupils is a recurrent theme and must have had a major impact on learning:  “25 September 1901. Owing to another outbreak of measles the Attendance Officer has visited today and closed the school for three weeks.”

We know that in autumn 1901 Granny moved to Jolesfield School apparently because of her mother’s concern about the recurrent outbreaks of measles at Dial Post.  Although the Jolesfield Log Book has more detailed entries and gives the impression of more going on, that school, too,  also experienced issues of sickness and bad weather affecting attendance.  “24 January 1902. The work this week has been greatly interfered with.  Many children all away ill some are sickening.  Measles, whooping cough and mumps all prevalent”.

As at Dial Post school, the local clergy and their wives were frequent visitors:  “29 January 1902.  Revd and Mrs Knatchbull Hugessen visited the school”.  “27 February 1902. Mrs Hugessen visited the school and stayed during first class recitation lesson.  She was pleased with what she heard”.  “12 March 1902. Miss V Hugessen visited during needlework lesson”.  Then on 19 June 1902 it was Miss Hugessen’s Wedding Day and the children were given a half holiday for the occasion. [Looking at the census returns subsequently, I saw that there were a number of daughters in the Rectory family.  Miss V Hugessen was not the one marrying on this occasion].

The Bible presented to Granny by Miss Violet Knatchbull-Hugessen in 1904

The influence of the Church can also be seen in holidays for Ash Wednesday and Ascension Day and choir and Sunday School outings.

June 1902 saw the end of the Boer War:  “2 June.  Children assembled.  Rev P W Shirley briefly addressed them.  They then sang the National Anthem and were given a whole day’s holiday in honour of the Declaration of Peace”.

Health and Safety was obviously not what it is now!  Apparently there were no minimum working temperatures:  “5 December 1902. This week has been very cold.  Several children could not write very well owing to their hands being numbed”.  PE lessons were referred to as ‘drill’, and I was amused to read the entry for 16 January 1903: “during Drill time the children this week have been allowed to go on the ponds to slide just opposite the school”.  I wonder whether the teachers tested the thickness of the ice first?  By this time Granny had left the school in order to help her mother at home, but maybe she was still able to go sliding on a nearby pond!

St James Park Frozen (1)
Nineteenth century skaters in St James Park

More of Picturesque Sussex

One of the reasons for buying ‘Picturesque Sussex’ (see first installment on 19 Dec) was because it mentions West Grinstead in its grand tour of the county.

West Grinstead was where my Granny grew up and was married and where several generations of Mitchells before her had lived and died.  Certainly at least three generations had been employed at West Grinstead Park:  James Mitchell was some sort of  ‘caretaker’ during the first half of the nineteenth century, Thomas Mitchell was woodman on the estate around 1860 – 1880, and my great grandfather William Mitchell was a ‘houseman’ from the 1880s onwards, one of whose duties was apparently to “raise and lower the flag”.  In fact I have an old postcard of the house which says on the back “Dad standing on tower about to take flag down”.

West Grinstead
West Grinstead Park

West Grinstead Park House was unfortunately demolished in 1964, but the Park itself still exists, and Steyning Lodge, where my Granny lived, is still there.

West Grinstead
Steyning Lodge, West Grinstead

‘Picturesque Sussex’ describes West Grinstead as “a large village surrounded by copses and meadow-land”.  Apparently the Park was famous for ‘Pope’s Oak’ – a reference to Alexander Pope, a friend of one-time owner John Caryll.  It is believed that he wrote ‘Rape of the Lock’ while staying at West Grinstead Park in 1712.  However, the entry for West Grinstead in the Victoria County History claims that “there is no evidence that the incident which gave rise to the poem occurred at West Grinstead,  nor that the poem was composed under the oak tree in West Grinstead park which was made the subject of a tree preservation order in 1951”.

The book also refers to the ruins of Knepp Castle, within the parish of Shipley, which can still be seen from the public footpath on the west side of the A24.  It goes on to say that King John stayed there several times.  ‘Picturesque Sussex’ then mentions the ‘new mansion’ (built around 1809) which suffered a ‘disastrous fire’ in 1904.  What it does not mention,  is that the house was rebuilt the following year.  I know this from one of the old postcards in my possession that have been kept within the family.  My 3 x great grandfather Francis Philoptt lived at Knepp Mill around 1861 – 1871 and would have known the ‘new mansion’ in its prime.

Knepp Castle
Rebuilding Knepp Castle Jan 18th 1905
Knepp Castle
The Lake Knepp Castle

‘Picturesque Sussex’ is giving me new glimpses into notable features of the county just over a hundred years ago.