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

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


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

Labouring under temporary insanity

While searching the British Newspaper Archive for relevant family members in West Grinstead and Shipley I happened upon a report of the inquest of the death of one Edward Freeman in December 1841.

Edward Freeman
Sussex Advertiser – Monday 13 December 1841. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


Now this name rang bells with me.  I realised that he had witnessed the marriage of my great great grandparents Caroline Osborne and Thomas Mitchell.  He also witnessed the second marriage of her older brother Caleb.  Their younger sister Sarah Anne married a John Freeman in 1845, so I wondered whether there was a connection there.

Now Caleb, Caroline and Sarah Anne’s father was also called Caleb and was a cordwainer by trade.  According to the newspaper report Edward Freeman was also a cordwainer, and the 1841 census reveals that he lived near the Burrell Arms in West Grinstead.

It’s a sad report.  It seems that he was “subect to excessive hypochondriac attacks”.  Perhaps today he might have been diagnosed with depression.  We glean some information about his working and living situation:  he had a ‘shop’, employed a journeyman, and had a wood house with a loft over it.  His wife (who it turns out was Ann, née Harris) had gone out for the day to work, but their teenage son William was  at home.  Edward was found “hanging by a cord to a rafter” in the aforementioned loft.  The verdict returned was that he “deprived himself of his existence whilst labouring under temporary insanity”.

Coincidentally I had been listening to a podcast on The National Archives site on Coroners’ Inquests – a talk given by Kathy Chater in 2012.  These podcasts are worth dipping into for useful background information .  Kathy asserts that the local paper is often the best and fullest source of information arising from an inquest, and I think this report is a good example of that.  She points out that a verdict of intentional suicide would mean the deceased could not be buried in consecrated ground, so here the verdict of “temporary insanity” is important.  A quick check of the West Grinstead burials on the Sussex Family History Group website reveals that Edward was indeed buried in the churchyard, four days after the inquest.

Further delving on the SFHG website reveals Edward Freeman’s baptism in West Grinstead in 1789 and the baptisms of his children Elizabeth, William and Edward.  Unfortunately it would seem that the John Freeman who married Sarah Anne was unrelated, having come from Thakeham.

But there is more:  on looking through the marriages on my West Grinstead CD (Sussex Parish Register Transcripts) I discover that Edward Freeman was some sort of professional witnesser of marriages.  From 1820 he was witnessing every other West Grinstead marriage, it seems.  Perhaps he was paid to act in this capacity.  The last marriage he witnessed was just under a month before his death.

How sad, that someone who was witness to so much joy in other people’s lives should have suffered so much that he took his own life.