Uncle Will Sayers

“Uncle Will Sayers wore a leather splint on his left arm.  His elbow was injured in the WW1.  He always said that the German doctors had been very good to him.”

It’s amazing what extra information comes out of Granny’s diaries.  It was an entry at the end of January 1940 which raised the topic of Will’s elbow:  “Will in bed again very bad arm”.    Mum and her sister lived with Uncle Will and Aunty Pat in Cowfold for about 18 months during WW2 when the Croydon children had been evacuated.  The reference to Will’s arm playing up led to this extra information about him.

So…I thought:  German doctors?  Did that mean he had been a POW?  I contacted William Sayer’s granddaughter to see if she knew anything of his war service.  She was able to provide the information that he had enlisted in the 5th Royal Fusiliers in November 1915 and had left for France in November 1916.  The following March he went missing.  While out on patrol he sustained his elbow injury and was subsequently taken prisoner.  The information from the family is that a German patrol came across him and put him down a well until they could return and get him to their doctors!  He got back to England in June 1918.

Well!  He was a lucky man indeed.  But I drew a total blank searching on Ancestry for his service record.  As for the Medal Index cards, well William Sayers is a common name so I couldn’t be sure of finding the right man.

My breakthrough came when I turned to The Genealogist.  There I found a list from The Times 9 June 1917:  “May 17 Wounded and Missing R.W. Kent R – Sayers 18663 W. E. (West Grinstead).”  Wrong regiment, but right village and the right sort of date.  It sounded promising.  And then I found an entry from the Daily Casualty list of 12 June 1918:  “Private W E Sayers 18683 Royal West Kent Regiment, Prisoner in Germany, now arrived in England”.  The regimental number differed by one digit, but that could be a transcription error.  Again the date tied in with the information I’d previously received.

So it was rather looking as though at some point William was transferred to the Royal West Kent Regiment, perhaps at a time when they needed more men.

At this point I turned to the International Red Cross records at https://grandeguerre.icrc.org/  to see if there was a card for him as a POW; now that I had a service number to match up I found him easily.

The cards vary enormously in how much extra information is available, but in Will’s case there were a number of other reference numbers on the card which led to other scanned entries, much of which is in German.  The information giving his next of kin as Mrs Alice Mary Sayers of 135 Worthing Road, West Grinstead, was the final confirmation I needed that I had found the right man.  William was in the 10th battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment at the time of his capture.

Information from the POW records

With some welcome help with the language from my sister in law (thank you!), we were able to conclude that he was captured on the Ypres Salient on 20 March 1917.  It looks as though he was then taken to the Casualty Clearing Station at Linselles, south east of Ypres. The records show that he had a gunshot fracture of his left elbow.  Perhaps it was while here that he received the careful attention of the German doctors that he remembered years later.  It looks as though he was subsequently moved nearly 300 miles to a POW camp at Limburg on the Lahn, north west of Frankfurt.

The fact that he was released back to England before the end of the war is interesting.  Sarah Paterson in her book ‘Tracing Your Prisoner of War Ancestors’ indicates that exchanges did take place of seriously wounded soldiers.   Two more documents on the Red Cross site gave additional information about his repatriation:  there was a ‘list of repatriated British prisoners of war arrived in England from Germany 2 June 1918’.  This again gave the information about his fractured left arm.  The second document titled ‘repatriated prisoners of war from Germany’ states that William was admitted to the King George Hospital Stamford St SE1 on 2 June 18 “wounded sev”.  I wonder if this means ‘wounded severely’?

Even with the service number I have not found a service record on Ancestry, but I did track down the medal index card which indicates that in addition to the normal medals he also received the Silver War Badge due to those who were invalided out of the army.

From having been a foreman brickmaker before the war, Will went on to become a postman in Cowfold by the time my Mum knew him in the 1930s.  The diary indicates that there had been ice and then a heavy snowfall at the end of January 1940.  Perhaps Uncle Will had fallen over and that was why his arm was so bad.  But on balance he was indeed a lucky man to have survived his serious injury, been able to return to England to his wife and young son and to have been fit enough to resume paid employment.

William Sayers far right, possibly about 1922

Getting to know you

Deciding that it was high time I turned my attention to the correct storage of my old books, papers and artefacts, I recently ordered myself a nice big archival storage box and some acid free tissue paper.

I have had in my possession for some time some old books of my Granny’s, such as her illustrated Bible, a copy of On The Imitation of Christ, and various notebooks where she recorded notes from sermons. I have carefully extracted these from the drawer where they have lived for many years, wrapped them in tissue paper, labelled them and placed them in the new box.

One book which I had completely forgotten I had is a small (4” x 3”) book entitled ‘The Keepsake Scripture Text Book’, which had belonged to my Granny’s brother, Uncle Bert Mitchell. Unfortunately I cannot now remember how I come to have this little book, but it is quite possible that it was given to me after the death of his daughter Mary.  Inside the front cover is inscribed “Albert Mitchell – a present from his loving sister Carrie”.  There is no date, but the writing is certainly that of a child.  The book cost 1 shilling.  On each double-page spread through the book there are Bible verses one one side and dates through the year on the other – three to a page.  Uncle Bert used this book primarily as a Birthday Book, but also recorded the dates of family deaths and weddings.  It seems to have been used by him throughout his lifetime:  the earliest date is a death in 1897 and the latest a birth in 1962.  Some of the later entries are, I am sure, written in a different hand, possibly that of my Aunty Mary.  Since Bert was born in 1892 I suspect that the 1897 death was entered in retrospect, but there are a number around 1903/4, so he may well have been given this book around the age of 10 or 11.

The Keepsake Scripture Text Book

In addition to the family events it is interesting to see what else is recorded. There are names of the local gentry and clergy (eg the birthday of Miss Joan Burrell, daughter of Sir Merrick Burrell of West Grinstead).  Other names may be neighbours or friends from the area (Miss Parvin, Mrs Blotting, Mr A Mason, Miss Bacon) and others may be schoolfriends (Willie Myram, Tommy Botting).  When I have nothing better to do, it would be really interesting to try to find some of these names on a census and establish who they might be.

However, other entries record ‘Jan 18 Knepp Castle burnt down 1904’, ‘March 10 King’s Wedding day’, ‘May 22 York Minster 1926’, ‘Aug 4 European War 1914’, ‘Sept 3 II World War 1939’. It is fascinating to see what is included.

Some entries are tantalising: ‘April 15 Uncle Amos died 1900’.  Amos?  Doesn’t ring a bell.  I go to my Mitchell tree on Ancestry, but no Amos. Ok, so which other family?  I try the Philpott tree – yes, there he is, Amos Sayers born 1842, an uncle of Bert’s mother’s, and therefore his great-uncle.  Bert’s maternal grandmother was Eliza Sayers.  This discovery leads me on an interesting path of discovery.  I knew that Amos was born in Ifield, Sussex, near Crawley.  I found him there in the 1851 and 1861 censuses (‘son’ and ‘watchmaker – servant’) before his marriage in 1868.  Subsequently he appears on the 1871, 1881 and 1891 censuses, all in Ifield, where his occupation is given as ‘post messenger’, ‘post messenger and watchmaker’, and ‘postman’ respectively.  It looks as though he may have served an apprenticeship as a watchmaker and then continued to practise that trade whilst also earning a wage as a postman latterly.  I haven’t found his burial, but the Probate calendar confirms his date of death as 15 April 1900.

Entry for Uncle Amos

What I find quite interesting is that a number of Sayers names appear in the book, which indicates to me that these were uncles, aunts and cousins of Bert’s mother’s with whom she stayed in touch. I already knew that the extensive Mitchell family kept in close contact, despite emigrations to the USA and Canada, but now I know that the this was also true of the Sayers family.  I feel that through this lovely little book I am getting to know my Granny’s family and the relationships that were important to them.

I also realise that I have a lot of blanks to fill in on the Sayers tree, so that might be a nice little winter project….when I’m not looking up all those other friends and neighbours from the book….


Sir Hugh Shot

I’ve just been given some rather important documents (for me, at least).

I have very gratefully inherited an old suitcase containing the diaries that my Granny kept between 1937 and her death in 1984. I have known of their existence for very many years and have been anxious for their preservation, but a few weeks ago the time became right for them to pass to me.

Since starting at the very beginning is a very good place to start, I have begun transcribing the diary for 1937. Most entries primarily describe daily and weekly domestic life:  shopping, washing, mending, children being fetched from school, spring cleaning, going to Church, meeting friends, Sunday afternoon walks.  Every day without fail starts with a weather report.  Two things have struck me so far above all – the distances that the family regularly walked (including children of 7 and 9 years) and the frequency of letters and postcards being sent to and received from family and friends.  Communication and keeping in touch with loved ones was obviously very important and the means of doing this very different from the hastily written Text and WhatsApp messages that I tend to send and receive!  I am finding out a great deal about what was important to my grandparents and I feel that I am getting to know them afresh.

Very very occasionally there is a reference in the diary to something of wider or national importance. One such instance caught my attention recently, at the very end of the entry for Thursday 26 August. Granny and family were staying with her brother in Guildford, and they had a day trip down to Southsea by bus.  “Warm but very misty. Left Bellfields 9am for Southsea.  Lovely ride thro’ Godalming, Hindhead, Grayshott, Horndean etc arriving at 11.15am.  Had lunch on the Beach.  Children paddled, then walked along to South Pier.  B & B rode in miniature Train”. And then unexpectedly at the end “Sir Hugh shot”.

Sir Hugh? Shot?  What was this all about then?  Hurrah for Google.  I put in the date and ‘Sir Hugh Shot’ and was rewarded by a number of items revealing that this was Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, Ambassador to China, who was seriously injured by machine gun fire from a Japanese plane which targetted the car in which he was travelling to Shanghai.  And if you regularly read my blogs you will recognise the surname!  Sir Hughe was the second son of Reverend Reginald Bridges Knatchbull-Hugessen, Vicar of West Grinstead from 1889 to 1908. Hughe was just two years older than Granny, so doubtless she remembered seeing him at Church when they were young, even if he did then go off to be educated at Eton.

How did Granny learn of this occurrence? From a newspaper?  From a letter from family in Sussex?  I don’t know.  But it would appear that the Knatchbull-Hugessen family were held in some esteem for that entry to have appeared in the diary.

Diary entry 26 Aug 1937

The postscript to this is that I had related the finding to my Mum, who has been shedding light on some of the people and places which appear in the diary. When we visited her last weekend, she proudly produced a newspaper cutting found within an old book of poetry.  The cutting is an obituary of Sir Hughe, with the date 21 March 1971 handwritten at the top – the date of his death.

Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen
Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen obituary


A Walk round West Grinstead

(OS Explorer Map 134)

My visit to the exhibition at Partridge Green a few weeks back made me think how lovely it would be to explore some of the footpaths in that area, and dry weather over the Easter weekend was a perfect opportunity to do so.

We drove over to West Grinstead and parked at what used to be West Grinstead station, just off the A272.  The platform  and station sign are still there, the line having now become the Downs Link walking and cycle path which eventually ends at Shoreham.

West Grinstead station
West Grinstead station

We walked north on that path for a little way, before bearing off to the left through some beautiful bluebell woods en route to Newhouse Farm.  From there we headed south, crossing the A272, and walking straight through Park Farm.  This is now the setting for a number of exclusive-looking houses, but somewhere amongst them must be the house where my great great grandparents, Thomas and Eliza Philpott, lived.  At this point I was particularly excited  – Granny’s other Grandfather, Thomas Mitchell, was a woodman on the West Grinstead estate, and as we passed lots of coppiced woods I could imagine that perhaps he had once worked in those woods – they were beautiful, with bluebells, primroses and orchids. 

We joined Green Lane and continued to cross West Grinstead Park.  The house itself is long gone, but my ancestors would have been very familiar with the terrain.  A couple of women were tending to some sheep in a pen.  On enquiry I learned that they were South Downs Sheep – a most attractive breed, with their lovely, woolly round faces.

South Downs sheep


Park Stews WG





The Park Stews which we crossed presumably once supplied fish for the big house.

As we headed towards the B2135 we had a lovely view of the Steyning Road Lodges, where my Granny had lived.

Steyning Lodges WG
West Grinstead church






Crossing the road, the path rose to a crest, from where Chanctonbury Ring was clearly visible.  I had never realised that before.  West Grinstead church then came in sight, and we entered the churchyard through a rear gate.

Within a few moments I was able to locate the grave of my great grandparents, William and Mary Mitchell, due to its strange shape.

Grave of William and Mary Mitchell
Interior West Grinstead church






The Church being open was an added bonus, (Easter flower arranging being in progress), so we took the opportunity to look inside.  I had forgotten that the pews had the names of the properties on them, presumably where families paid to have that particular seat.

Crossing back over the B2135 the path then cut across the corner of West Grinstead Park, past another copse with beautiful bluebells, and came out onto Park Lane. Thomas Mitchell might have walked that path on his way to Church. The footpath the other side heading due East rose to rejoin the Downs Link path, where we turned north to arrive back at the station car park.

We had planned to have lunch at the Green Man at Jolesfield (my Granny’s father’s cousin George Mitchell had been the licensee there at one time), but despite advertising ‘bar meals’ outside, the choice of food seemed to be rather ‘gastro’ and with no staff in evidence to serve us anyway, we abandoned that idea and went down to the Partridge at Partridge Green where we enjoyed a very nice bar meal.

The Green Man, Jolesfield

It was a very pleasant walk and the opportunity to walk the paths trodden by my ancestors, appreciating the landscape they knew, was very special.

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



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

Going to the Fair

Don’t you just love going to a fair?  No – not the kind with bumper cars and candy floss, but a Family History fair, with the excitement of new resources to browse and buy and Useful Conversations to have!

Back in November I’d been to the West Surrey Family History fair in Woking, but this was a much smaller affair – the Sussex Family History Group ‘Family and Local History Day’, held at the Steyning Centre in, er, Steyning.

When I got to Steyning it was obvious that something else was happening in the town that day, with road closure notices abounding.  I made it to the Steyning Centre car park just before some sort of procession started, I think, securing the last space in the car park and then only because I have a very little car!

Heading first to the Sussex Family History Group stall I was able to purchase the CD ‘Sussex Poll Books and Directories’ which I had seen advertised in the journal and thought would be a good resource to have.  They seemed to be having a good clearout of old booklets, so I had a good rummage and came away with a number in exchange for a donation.  They may be dated, but background reading on, for example, Quarter Sessions, Victorian Censuses and English Noncomformity are often invaluable to dip into I find.

Moving round the hall I was surprised but pleased to see that the Quaker Family History Society had a stall.  I stopped to have a chat with them, since the Musketts were some of the earliest Quakers in Norfolk.  The Society’s next London meeting is coming up on 9 July.

Staff from The Keep and from West Sussex Record Office seemed to be very busy on their stalls .  I had a browse of the postcard stall, but without success.  However, I did have a lovely chat with the lady on the West Sussex County Council stall and bought a copy of the book they have produced in conjunction with the Record Office:  ‘ West Sussex Remembering 1914 – 18’. W S Remembering

I had not seen this advertised anywhere, but looks a useful book, with chapters covering aspects such as Women at War, The Local Economy and Invasion Threats.  On this stall I also learned about West Sussex Past Pictures.  This was not a site I had known about previously, but on looking it up when I came home I discovered that it is “a free to access online database of the best scanned photographs and pictures, with detailed descriptions, owned by the County Library Service and seven of the County’s museums”.  It offers free downloadable images for use in private research, so looks a very useful resource.  I quickly found an image of the interior of West Grinstead Park house, which I had certainly never seen before.

Before leaving I had a look at the WW1 display set out in the adjacent room, put on by the Sussex branch of the Western Front Association.  I was particularly fascinated to see the photos from what looked to be a reenactment day, with mounted soldiers pulling equipment and supplies and horse-drawn ambulances.

My exit from Steyning was scarcely less eventful as it coincided with a wedding party leaving the church opposite, unfortunately under umbrellas, but they seemed a very happy party.

All the fun of the fair!

Sussex Family History Group
SFHG Family and Local History Fair May 2016 – photo from the group’s facebook page