1935. Captain Allan Baxter of the Henfield Fire Brigade had just welcomed his newest recruit. George 'Joe' Gillett was now outside the station, being shown around the gleaming 1915 Dennis motor engine that had replaced the old horse drawn appliance the previous year. Joe had just been kitted out in the same kind of gear he himself had started in when Victoria still had many years left to reign - gleaming buttoned heavy wool tunic and trousers, brass helmet, high leather boots and soft cap. He had no doubt that Joe'd do fine - he was a former Scout! His mind wandered to a time when the Scouts were new...
August, 1908. Sitting down to breakfast with his wife Ada, he jumped up as a loud rap came at the door - a brass plate indicated the member of the Henfield Fire Brigade within. The call boy shouted "A fire at Cowfold!". Once a grocer and with years of experience in the Dorking Brigade, the chance to lead the Henfield counterpart had arisen with its formation by the Parish Council in 1904. Within five minutes he was to be found, helmet gleaming, at the fire station (now H. J. Burt's), where the bell was being rung hard. The two horses had already been brought round and hitched to the Merryweather engine. A voluntary brigade, as today, all members' jobs and homes had to be within running/cycling distance of the station. There was the last man, running up the High Street. Up, onto the engine, a flick of the whip and the brigade were off at rather stately, but determined pace. Amid shouts of "Make way!", holding tightly, they galloped down the High Street, past the startled pony and trap of one Miss Brown, headed to the station with Henfield violets aplenty. It would be no mere stack fire, but their first major event, at Cowfold Lodge. The moment would be photographed for posterity...
The Cowfold Lodge Fire of 1908 - description from a local newspaper
The fire at Cowfold Lodge on the 6th August 1908 was the first major fire attended by the Henfield Fire Brigade. The house, situated on the eastside of the A281 on the southern edge of the village, was owned by Arthur Labouchere who lived there with four servants. It was around 1 a.m. that a gas explosion was heard in the front hall, and within fifteen minutes flames had reached the roof and the whole front of the building. Mr. Labouchere roused three of the servants who escaped from the house unharmed in night attire and coats, but Lilla Clark a 27 year old housemaid in a back upper bedroom was not so lucky as her escape route had been cut off by the fire. She cried out that she was on fire, when in fact she wasn’t, and a fellow servant Miss Cooper on hearing her, believing this to be true, shouted to her to jump. She fell 20 feet to the ground and received serious injuries to her spine. If she had waited a few minutes a ladder was being brought around by which she could have escaped without harm. Mr. Labouchere, who had lost his moustache and much of the hair on his head in the fire, roused his neighbours and sent messengers to Henfield and Horsham to raise the fire brigades. The Henfield brigade led by Captain Allan Baxter with second officer Walter Powell, ten firemen, and a callboy, were first on the scene at 1.50a.m. by which time the house was completely gutted. With the exception of saving the stabling from catching fire the only other thing to do was to water down the burning timbers. The Horsham manual and “steamer” appliances arrived later, and both brigades were kept busy until well after daybreak. The building had to be rebuilt, but fortunately it was insured to the value of £12,000.
Back to 1935. Four years later, the brigade's ornamental helmets and regular duties would be swapped for steel 'Tommy' helmets and wartime exercises as the threat became reality. The 74 year old Captain Baxter would take a well earned retirement in 1940 as the emergency duties became more onerous. After service in the RAF, Joe Gillett worked as a coal man, living with his wife Ciss at Wantley and continuing in the brigade until 1967. Having served 17 years as station officer, he retired in the era of electric sirens rather than that of bells and messengers related by colleagues in his early career. Joe was a well known figure and Parish Councillor who some readers may remember - in fact, on 8th February 1994, he opened the very museum building his helmet now shines brightly in!
By R.S. Gordon. An earlier version of this article was first published in BN5 Magazine, July 2021
Malcolm and his sister Hilda Lucy Milne (1874-1959) were born in Cheadle, Cheshire and were children of Lucy Midwood (1847-1899) and John Dewhurst Milne (1847-1899). Malcolm was born on the 14th October 1887 and attended Sedbergh School from 1900 to 1906, and was articled to a firm of Manchester architects, Thomas Worthington & Sons, but ill health prevented him following that career. He turned to art, and between 1908 and 1911 studied at the Slade School of Fine Art under Professor Henry Tonks, and the Westminster School of Art in London under Walter Richard Sickert. During WW1 he enlisted in 1914, but no doubt due to his ill heath served with the First British Ambulance Unit in Italy, and produced drawings of Dolegnano and Udine while there.
In the early 1920s he was painting in Italy, Sicily, and travelled quite extensively in Europe and the Middle East throughout his life going to such places as Egypt, Syria and Turkey. In 1926 Malcolm and his sister Hilda came to Henfield and stayed with Miss Winnifred Shaw Harrison at ‘Dykes’, a cottage on the north side of Henfield Common. Malcolm had his studio in a wooden hut in the garden just to the east of ‘Dykes’. In 1927 a house was built on the site which was named ‘Dykes Studio’; it is now called ‘Camellias’. It was here that he lived with Dr Walter Archibald Probert (1867-1946) a retired physician, and had his studio. In 1928 Malcolm was elected a member of the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts where he showed his work until 1952.
Hilda lived with Miss Harrison at ‘Dykes’, and had her studio in a building at the bottom of the garden bordering on Henfield Common. This building can still be seen in ruinous state when walking along the top of the Common - in a former life it had been the cottage 'Dogham Place', once subdivided into two tiny households in the Victorian era. When Miss Harrison died in 1939 she left ‘Dykes’ to Hilda.
Malcolm was the more recognised of the two artists. He specialised in flowers, for which he is noted, but also painted landscapes, portraits, and did pen and ink drawings. A collection of 31 of his paintings and drawings were exhibited at Arthur Tooth & Sons 155, New Bond Street, London from October 21st to November 7th 1931. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1943 and died at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford on the 19th August 1954. Hilda died on the 15th September 1959 at Henfield. Both are buried in Henfield Cemetery.
The Tate Gallery, British Museum, and the V & A hold examples of Malcolm's work. In 1966 the Ashmolean Museum put on a retrospective exhibition of 91 of his paintings and drawings, and in 1969 an exhibition of 69 pieces of his work was put on at the Worthing Art Gallery.
The paintings in Henfield Museum (seen below) were done to form part of the 1951 Festival of Britain exhibition staged in the school on Henfield Common. He also painted the scenery for some of the productions put on by The Henfield Players.
by Alan Barwick, Curator
Paintings for the 1951 Festival of Britain: Malcolm Midwood Milne
St Peter's Church at Twineham is a rare early 16th century brick structure with Horsham slab roof and broached shingled spire. As you walk into the porch, glance to your left and you may notice something that looks a little out of place.
Within lies a sombre reminder of the aerial battlefields of WW1 - a temporary grave cross made from the propeller of an aircraft, brought over from Esquelbecq Military Cemetery in France. It memorialises Captain Eric Horace Comber-Taylor, K.I.A. on the 16th of June 1918, at the age of 29.
Born in June 1889, the son of Mr. William Overton Comber-Taylor and Mrs. Ida E. Comber-Taylor of "Furzelands" in Albourne (since renamed "Firslands"), Eric attended St. John's College (now Hurstpierpoint College). After school he became a bank clerk for the National Provincial Bank at Folkestone, moving to 33 Alexandra Street and later moving on to the Hythe branch.
Volunteering in Brighton in September 1914, soon after the outbreak of war, he began as a Private in the Royal Fusiliers, heading to the Western Front over a year later in November 1915. Returning for officer training in March 1916, he began his journey to becoming a pilot of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), being commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant in August 1916. Switching into the RFC within a few months, he earned his aviator's certificate on 7th December of that year. 1918 found him serving in the newly formed RAF with No. 10 (Reconnaissance) Squadron on spotting and bombing duties. 10 Squadron mostly flew BE2s well suited to their recce role, but for about 4 months from June 1918, they were supplied with a small number of the Bristol F2b 'Fighter', which Comber-Taylor also flew.
Artillery observation or 'spotting' was an unexciting, but necessary job. It involved flying within a small area for extended periods, reporting back to artillery posts via radio transmitter as to the impact of their volleys until they were zeroed in on their target. While the artillerymen on the ground couldn't radio the aircraft back, they could relay simple acknowledgements or queries with fabric laid out on the ground or other visual signals. The task could be quite an arduous one for the pilot and observer, depending on the skill of the particular artillerymen they were directing. However, while it required close attention, the surrounding skies could not be neglected - repeatedly circling artillery spotting aircraft could make tempting sitting ducks for enemy pilots. On occasion, this scenario would be used by Allied pilots who would sit in the clouds above the spotting plane, awaiting the arrival of an opportunistic Fokker or Albatros to take the bait.
Aerial bombing in WW1 was of a very different nature to WW2. Although larger, specifically designed bombing aircraft had arrived by the war's end and Zeppelins made some costly sorties to bomb from the skies above Britain, most often a few bombs on underslung racks would be dropped from small aircraft like the Bristol fighter of Comber-Taylor at a relatively low height, or sometimes simply thrown from the cockpit. Although accuracy depended on the pilot having the required skill and taking the necessary risks at low height, it was a world away from the massed area bombing to come in WW2.
On Sunday the 16th of June, he lined up his only recently delivered Armstrong Bristol F.2B (C967) for take off from Droglandt aerodrome. A few miles north west of Poperinghe, he and his Observer, 2nd Lt. G. A. Cameron were scheduled for an artillery observation mission. Sadly, on take off, the engine immediately failed, causing the aircraft to stall. Whether due to a mechanical issue or due to Comber-Taylor not being familiar with the performance of the type, he was killed in the ensuing crash, while Cameron survived with serious injuries. Unfortunately such events were not uncommon, although perhaps more tragic than as a result of enemy action. Returned, the wreck of C967 was struck off charge as unrepairable four days later.
Eric's father placed the battlefield cross at Twineham Church, having had it returned from France when the cemeteries were formalised with stone markers in the 1920s. Around the 2000s, it was apparently moved from its original location outside, to within the porch. The original inscription reads: 'R.I.P. CAPTAIN E. H. COMBER-TAYLOR RAF KILLED IN ACTION 16/6/18'. An inscription added to mark the return reads: 'PROPELLER CROSS FROM THE GRAVE OF HIS SON ERIC HORACE ESQUELBECQ MILITARY CEMETERY FRANCE'. The memorial may possibly be made from the propeller of Comber-Taylor's own crashed aircraft itself; however most Bristol Fighters in service had two bladed propellers rather than four. The grave is now marked within Esquelbecq Military Cemetery, Plot III, Row B, Grave 20, with the same personal inscription noted below. He is also named on the Woodmancote war memorial.
At the red brick church at Twineham, a brass plaque is mounted within on the north wall, near the pulpit, and reads: 'IN MEMORY OF AN ONLY SON/ CAPTAIN ERIC HORACE COMBER-TAYLOR/ FLIGHT COMMANDER ROYAL AIR FORCE/ KILLED IN ACTION IN FRANCE JUNE 16TH 1918/ LOVED BY ALL FOR HIS GENTLENESS AND QUIET BRAVERY'.
Capt. Eric Horace Comber-Taylor. Newspaper portrait most likely from the Illustrated London News report of his death, Saturday 17 August 1918. For an additional photo of Eric, see Roll of Honour.com.
Article by R. S. Gordon, February 2017. This updated version was published December 2020. Additional background information provided c/o Adrian Vieler.
- CWGC: https://www.cwgc.org/find-records/find-war-dead/casualty-details/25099/ERIC%20HORACE%20COMBER-TAYLOR/
- Airhistory: http://www.airhistory.org.uk/rfc/files/names_combined_C.txt
- Great War Forum: https://www.greatwarforum.org/topic/158755-no-10-squadron-rfcraf/
- Imperial War Museum: https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/16776
- Natwest Group Remembers: https://www.natwestgroupremembers.com/our-fallen/our-fallen-ww1/c/eric-comber-taylor.html
- RAF Web: https://www.rafweb.org/Members%20Pages/Casualties/1918/Casualties_1918_C.htm
- Roll of Honour: http://www.roll-of-honour.com/Sussex/Twineham.html
This article was first published in Treasure Hunting Magazine in October 2020 and is published here with the kind permission of the author Jason Sandy to support the temporary Henfield Museum exhibition 'The Thames Mudlark', on show until December 2020.
Please note: in order to go mudlarking in London, a Thames Foreshore Permit must be obtained from the Port of London Authority. Check their website for full details. Digging, scraping, and metal detecting are restricted or prohibited in some areas. All objects which are 300+ years old must be reported to the Museum of London for recording on the British Museum's Portable Antiquities Scheme.
Imagine digging a deep hole and finding a beautiful, perfectly preserved medieval knife (Fig.1). Now imagine collecting 860 medieval and post - medieval knives while mudlarking along the River Thames. That's exactly what veteran mudlark, Graham duHeaume, has done during his 16 years of searching along the foreshore in London! Graham, who turns 83 years old this year, has amassed an astounding collection of historical artefacts, some of which are on display in various museums around Britain. His passion for mudlarking was sparked back in the 1950s when he heard Ivor Noël Hume speaking on the radio during an interview on BBC Children's Hour. Ivor wrote the legendary mudlarking book, Treasure in the Thames and was an archaeologist at the Guildhall Museum (London) as well as being the chief archaeologist and director in the Colonial Williamsburg (USA) archaeology programme. During the radio broadcast, Ivor described how he walked along the north bank of the Thames in the City of London and dis covered medieval pins, clay pipe bowls, pottery sherds, coins and many other artefacts. Graham first heard of the term 'mudlark' on the television show called 'Animal, Vegetable and Mineral'. During the broadcast the noted archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler told the story of Billy and Charley, notorious mudlarks in the 19th century who produced many fake medieval artefacts, claiming they were from the Thames.
First Mudlarking Exploits
In 1969, Graham first tried mudlarking for himself. According to Graham, "I first wrote to the Port of London Authority in late 1969 asking them for permission to search the foreshore. They replied saying that they had no objection as long as I refilled any holes I made. Those were the rules in those days. In early 1970, I convinced a friend of mine to accompany me. Of course, like the early radio broadcast, I came home with pipe stems and bowls, pins, pot sherds and guess what? A broken knife! I was heady with excitement and wanted more. This was a symptom of 'Thamesitis', a condition well known by today's mudlarks. I started with a shovel and it was a case of small excavations, a bit of checking the spoil and wandering around eyeballing at low water. It soon became apparent that you could tell if you were on undisturbed strata. So, the deeper you dug (Fig. 2), the older the pieces. It was a progression through the periods. This was where the ironwork was in exceptionally good condition. I didn't have a metal detector in the early days, that would come later.
I used to work in tandem with a friend, Martin Brendell, who also worked at the museum. I often went during lunchtime for a quick eyeball. I remember with pleasure my lunchtime forays with Simon Moore and my searches near Queenhithe with Peter and Martin and all the other erstwhile mudlarks, such as Tony Pilson, the Smith brothers and Peter Elkins (Fig.3). There were many other folk on the foreshore who contributed in some way or another to the advancement of knowledge relating to life on the river. My mudlarking experiences in these days certainly enhanced my appreciation of history, especially that of London."
In 1966 Graham started working at the Natural History Museum and was surrounded by many collectors. As the Head of the Technical Services Department, Graham worked for 5 years at the International Institute of Entomology situated in the Natural History Museum. He was responsible for sorting large collections of insects, illustrating technical papers with insect drawings and the identification of Thysa noptera (Thrips), Graham explains that "Having worked at a museum which is one large collection, it's not surprising that the environment I was in encouraged my desire to be a collector. After searching along the Thames from 1970 to 1986, Graham (Fig. 4) retired from mudlarking and moved away from London. Subsequently, he has spent countless hours carefully recording and documenting each piece in his collection. In this article, Graham gives us an exclusive insight into his extraordinary collection of fluvial treasures from both the River Thames in London and River Avon in Salisbury.
During the 16th - 17th centuries, Germany exported large quantities of pottery to London. The popularity of German stoneware is demonstrated by the vast amount of sherds recovered from the Thames foreshore. Occasionally, mudlarks find fragments of strange bearded faces, but Graham is one of the few lucky mudlarks who have found complete 17th century Bartmann jugs (Fig.5). Nicknamed after Cardinal Bellarmino who tried to ban alcohol, Bellarmine jugs were a type of decorated, salt - glazed pottery produced primarily in Frechen and Cologne. The bearded facemask appeared on the neck of the vessel along with a medallion or 'cartouche' on the belly. Dated to 1650-1670, Graham's jug here is decorated with a beautiful floral medal lion. Fragments from these German bottles are common from the Thames, but complete ones are extremely rare.
Our Lady of Tombelaine Pilgrim Badge
Graham has discovered several medieval pilgrim badges in the Thames, but the badge shown in Fig.6 is one of his best ever finds. He found it while searching with Martin Brendell in the River Avon in Salisbury. It is a pilgrim badge of Our Lady of Tombelaine which was identified by Brian Spencer, the former Keeper of Medieval Antiquities at the Museum of London. In her right hand the virgin holds a lily signifying purity, while the left hand of the holy child holds an orb, representing the universe. Tombelaine is a small island off the Normandy coast of France (near Mont Saint - Michel) which was a popular pilgrimage destination in the Middle Ages. An English pilgrim must have travelled to France and brought the badge back to Salisbury before dropping it in the river. Graham and Martin donated this badge to the Salisbury Museum and it is featured on the cover of their Medieval Catalogue.
St Christopher Pilgrim Badge
One of Graham's most extraordinary finds is a medieval pilgrim's badge of Saint Christopher (Fig. 7). It is the first St Christopher badge ever found on the Thames foreshore, and Graham donated it to the Museum of London where it is currently on display in the Medieval London gallery. According to the Museum of London, “ St Christopher was thought to protect travellers, and also gave protection against sudden death and plague. People believed that those who looked on his image would not die that day, which made him a very popular saint. The saint is shown leaning on a staff and looking round at the Christ Child, who he is carrying on his right shoulder. Christ is holding the orb of sovereignty in his left hand and holds his right hand out in blessing. This is the scene of the most famous part of the story of St Christopher whose job was to carry travellers across a dangerous river. One day he carried a child across who was so heavy that he could hardly bear the child's weight. The child told him that he was Jesus Christ and that he was heavy with the weight of the world." How fitting that Graham found the badge in a river! It is featured in Brian Spencer's book, Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges.
St. Thomas Becket Pilgrim Badge
Many pilgrim badges found in the River Thames represent Saint Thomas Becket, the former Archbishop of Canterbury who had fallen out of favour with King Henry II. In AD 1170, four knights associated with King Henry murdered Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, and he quickly became a highly respected saint. Canterbury was one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in medieval England. Written between AD 1387 and 1400, Geoffrey Chaucer's famous book, The Canterbury Tales, describes a group of pilgrims who exchange stories as they walk from London to Canterbury during a pilgrimage to visit Becket's shrine in the cathedral. The pilgrims often bought inexpensive pewter badges of Becket as souvenirs to take home with them and Graham found one of these 14th - 15th century Becket badges which he kindly donated to the Henfield Museum (Fig.8).
In the middle ages, satirical badges were produced to show "disapproval of the established order by parodying reality and by poking fun at hypocrisy and human behaviour generally, especially in the upper strata of society" explains Brian Spencer in his book, Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges." The medical profession was one of the most common targets of medieval satire and complaint. In the church of St Mary, Bury St Edmunds, a late 15th century roof - boss takes the form of an ape with a urinal, the universal emblem of the medieval physician. These burlesque images travelled downwards into the field of popular culture, explains Brian.
In the 1980s, Graham found a wonderfully comical 15th century pewter badge depicting an ape standing on a fish and urinating into a mortar that rests on the fish's head (Fig. 9). The ape holds a long - handled pestle which he uses to stir or pound the contents within the mortar. It clearly illustrates what people thought about doctors and their wild concoctions in the 15th century!
Seal Matrix Ring
A medieval seal matrix ring (Fig.10) was found by Graham and Martin Brendell on the bed of the River Avon in the City of Salisbury in 1981. After hearing the local Council had drained part of the river for bank repair, Graham and Martin went to Salisbury to go mud larking along the River Avon. Made of silver, the band of the ring is decorated with twisting ribs, A shield surrounded by a circular dot motif is engraved with three bird's heads (probably ravens). They donated the ring to the Salisbury Museum.
While digging on the foreshore, Graham has discovered several 13th - 14th century horseshoes (Fig. 11). Graham explains that "The bulges on the sides of the shoes suggest that the nail holes were punched whilst the shoe was still hot after being forged. Later horseshoes have smooth edges." Before cars were invented in the late 19th to early 20th century, horses had been the key means of transportation for millennia. Because of the long distances the horses travelled, carrying goods or pulling wagons, it was important to protect their hoofs from injury on the uneven, cobbled streets of London. Horseshoes provided the necessary protection. Thanks to the oxygen - free mud of the Thames, the iron horseshoes found by Graham are in extraordinary condition considering their age.
Medieval and Post - Medieval Keys
Over the years, Graham has found over one hundred medieval and post - medieval keys in the River Thames. The anaerobic mud perfectly preserved the ironwork and Graham has carefully and lovingly restored them. In Fig.12, some of Graham's best 15th and 16th century keys are presented in a display case. More 16th and 17th century keys are shown in Fig.13. The creative designs and unique shapes of these medieval and post - medieval keys are absolutely beautiful. Just imagine what doors and locks these keys opened in London centuries ago! I wonder what valuable goods were protected behind those heavy timber doors, secured with their robust Iron locks?
Tudor Dress Hooks
Brass clothes hooks became fashionable in Britain during the 16th century. The fasteners were used for a variety of purposes, mainly to hold clothing in place. Tudor women often wore a large neck scarf, and hook fasteners were used to secure the scarf to the garment below. They were also used in pairs to keep a woman's long dress out of the dirt as she walked through the streets. Graham has found several of these ornate dress hooks made of copper - alloy (Fig.14). The fasteners were beautifully decorated with openwork patterns, floral designs and abstract geometrical motifs. The wonderful designs illustrate the creativity of the Tudor craftsmen and their attention to detail.
Post - Medieval Spoons
Graham has discovered several complete spoons while mud larking (Fig.151). Four of the pewter spoons are from the 16th century and are decorated with a ball knop, baluster knop, seal knop and diamond knop. He has also found a 17th century slip top spoon and a brass trefid Cromwellian spoon from c.1680. You can imagine a sailor eating his morning porridge with one of these spoons as he was watching the sun rise over the Thames. Distracted by the passing ships and buzzing activity along the riverfront, he possibly dropped the spoon in the river accidentally.
Along with his unparalleled collection of knives, Graham has also found some exquisite, complete post-medieval forks while mudlarking along the River Thames (Fig.16). On land, the bone and timber handles of the forks normally don't survive, however, in the dense mud of the Thames these delicate handles have been perfectly preserved. Many public houses, taverns and inns were located directly along the River Thames in London, and they served food to the countless sailors, dockworkers, lightermen, stevedores and other tradesmen who lived and worked along the river. It is possible that these forks were dropped in the Thames outside these venues.
Love Token Made from a George Il halfpenny
The love token shown in Fig . 17 was inscribed by hand with the words 'Mary Coombs Sept. 1729'. Was the token engraved by a sailor on a long voyage at sea? In his boredom he could have taken a common halfpenny coin and used his pocketknife to inscribe a beautifully detailed flower motif and his sweetheart's name into the surface of the coin as he was dreaming of returning to London to see her again. I wonder if the date is the day they met, got engaged or married?
Pewter and Glass Brooch
While mudlarking along the River Thames Graham found a lovely Georgian/Victorian brooch (Fig.18). Two flowers are formed with several pink glass stones surrounding white glass pearls. The flowers are fixed to a circular, pewter frame with incised decoration, accompanied by natural leaf patterns. Although Graham considers this brooch to be the least valuable item in his collection, he thinks it still has charm. Graham says "I regard this piece as Doxyware, a group of my own naming. Doxy is an archaic term for floozie, trollop, wench, minx and prostitute."
Georgian Tankard In Central London
Graham unearthed this beautiful, late Georgian tankard (Fig 19) at the bottom of a four foot hole he dug in the foreshore. Made of Britannia metal, it has a maker's mark and is dated 1826. The tankard was made during the reign of King George IV. The words 'Windsor Castle' have been engraved on a circular belt decorated with an ornate buckle and strap end (Fig.20). In the centre of the belt is the inscription, Victoria Station Pimlico'. Still to this day, there is a Windsor Castle pub located near Victoria Station in London which serves traditional pub food and a fine selection of lagers and ales. King George IV died in Windsor Castle (the royal residence in Windsor) in 1830, four years after this tankard was made.
Webley British Bulldog Pistol
As the tide receded in West London Graham's son discovered the gun shown in Fig. 21 under a bridge in West London. It's a 142 calibre Webley British Bulldog revolver, first produced in 1872 by Philip Webley & Son of Birmingham. In Victorian times, these pistols were popular because they were lightweight, portable and easily concealed. They could be purchased by members of the public. Because the gun was found under a bridge, it is highly likely that this pistol was purposely discarded in the river, possibly after a crime or murder? If only this pistol could talk, it would be fascinating to find out what happened!
Graham didn't intend to start collecting knives, it just started naturally: "As I always say, most folk don't actually start to collect a particular item. It is only when you realise you've got more of one item than the others, you think oh! - I've got a collection. During my time on the foreshore, I noticed I was finding more knives than other pieces", he explains. Graham's knife collection comprises around 860 pieces which were all recovered from the Thames foreshore between 1970 and 1986. The knives range from the late 14th century up to the end of the 17th century. Graham has 110 complete scale tang knives from the 15th - 16th centuries, 94 knives from the late 16th - 17th centuries, 300 whittle tang scale knives from the 14th - 16th centuries and over 300 blades and part blades from the late 16th - 17th centuries. The seven knives shown in Fig. 22 are lovely examples from the late 15th and 16th centuries. Five knives are scale tang, and the bottom two are whittle tang knives. Some of the 17th century knives illustrated in Fig. 23 have beautifully decorated handles carved from elephant ivory, bone and brass. Each of these knives have a cutler's mark on the blade. Cutlers' marks were used for several decades, and the successive cutlers were in turn licensed to use that mark. The dating of these pieces is based on the cutlers listed during the style period of each piece, but it is often not possible to narrow it down to one name. For example, in Fig. 23, the dagger over anchor mark is from either Peter Bell (1640) or William Justice (1664); the cross and dagger mark from George Skuyt (1615); the triangle and dagger mark is from Benjamen Stennet (1688); the bunch of grapes mark is from William Balls (1627); the unicorn and dagger mark is from Peter Spitzer (1621); the trefoil mark is from Andrew Rose (1606) or Thomas Heddinge (1619), to name just a few.
Of the 860 knives, about 795 blades bear a cutler's blade smith's mark (Fig. 24). Graham explains that "The origins of the bladesmith's mark go back to 1365 when King Edward III enacted that all makers of swords and knives mark their blades. This was an early quality control, since there must have been many examples of shoddy workmanship. These knives were recovered from deep in the Thames foreshore and were preserved in a strata which prevented oxidization. Consequently, the makers' marks are in remarkable condition. The marks are in various forms such as a star, crescent, fleur - de lys, crown, rose, sword and many other devices, some of which have not been identified. Unfortunately, there is precious little information as to the identities of the makers in the medieval and Tudor period." Simon Moore , who accompanied Graham on many lunchtime forays to the foreshore, wrote a book called, Cutlery for the Table, which is one of the most important contributions to the archaeology of cutlery in the United Kingdom. Some of the knives which appear in the book are from Graham and Simon's personal collections.
The Worshipful Company of Cutlers
At age 83, Graham has been contemplating what to do with his expansive collection of knives. He said that “There were only two options as far as I was concerned, the Museum of London or the Worshipful Company of Cutlers. In the end, I decided on the WCC as the makers' marks are more important to them." The Worshipful Company of Cutlers is an ancient livery company in the City of London which received its Royal Charter from Henry V in 1416. The Company was originally established to regulate trade and ensure the quality of the swords, knives and other cutlery produced in London. Located in a beautiful, historic hall near St Paul's Cathedral, the Company still exists and has active members who meet on a regular basis. Graham was invited (together with fellow mudlarks Monika Buttling - Smith and Nick Stevens ) to give a talk at Cutler's Hall and to display some of his amazing finds (Fig.25). At the end of the presentation, the chairman of the Company formally accepted Graham's donation of his knife collection (Fig.26).
The Collection is Homed
In February 2020, Graham received an official acceptance letter from Rupert Meacher, Clerk of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers. Rupert wrote: "I am writing on behalf of the Master and Company as a whole to express our huge gratitude for the most generous gift of your superb collection."
When the letter arrived, Graham said he was thrilled - "The letter confirmed my decision to donate my collection to Cutler's Hall was correct. I am delighted they appreciate its contents. Graham, Monika, Adam and I were invited to a formal lunch at Cutler's Hall on 2nd March 2020 to honour Graham and acknowledge his generous donation. After a few glasses of champagne, we were served a three course meal including a delicious roast dinner in the Cutlers' oak - panelled dining room (Fig 27), warmed by a crackling fire. Rupert confirmed that they are in the process of acquiring oak display cases which will be installed in the entrance foyer to permanently exhibit Graham's knives for all to see.
Graham, Monika and I have been invited to curate the knives within the display cases. This will be a lasting legacy to Graham's generous donation and his years of excavating and carefully restoring over 800 historic knives from the Thames foreshore. He has made a significant contribution to the archaeology and history of London and the River Thames. "It pleases me to think I have added an appreciable amount, especially to the world of cutlery. I think that the knives I have donated will improve the understanding of Cutlers' marks in general - The Worshipful Company of Cutlers will continue to research the knives in Graham's collection, which will educate and enthuse visitors, historians and academics for many generations to come. This is a true story about the ultimate goal of treasure hunting - the donation of an outstanding collection of historical artefacts to an institution which will protect and use the collection for educational purposes. If you would like to see Graham's knife collection, many of his knives will be on display in a mudlarking exhibition at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, London as part of the Totally Thames Festival in September 2020.
by Jason Sandy
First published in Treasure Hunting Magazine, October 2020.
The long descending gully of the Henfield sandpit tramway, left foreman Bill Carter, right unidentified worker, c. 1912. Image: Henfield Museum (CC BY-NC-SA), colourised, 2020
As Nep Town windmill reached the end of its life with the Victorian era itself (finally collapsing in 1908), a new industry was firing and clanking up - the digging of sand. Henfield has had several sandpits over its existence, earlier pits being for limited local supply. The Sandy Lane pit was the most prominent, ultimately supplying large quantities of sand to the Brighton Corporation in the 20th century, playing an important role in Brighton's development. Windmill Hill was always a tempting place to dig, being itself a massive sandstone buttress on the edge of Henfield's sandstone ridge. Descend Sandy Lane and you will rapidly leave Henfield's sandstone, hitting the low lying brooks and floodplains of the River Adur.
With an initial smaller excavation to the west of Sandy Lane in use by at least the 1870s under local builder Philip Hedgcock, by the 1890s, activity had greatly expanded to the east of Sandy Lane, with a pulley driven tramway having been put in place. With sand dug out by hand from the faces, it was first loaded into barrows which were dumped into the tramcars. Next sent on its way downhill via a long gully, it crossed the left hand fork of Sandy Lane heading on down to the London - Brighton railway line where an agreement for use of a siding was in place with the London, Brighton & South Coast railway. There a raised wooden platform allowed the tramcars to tip their load straight into railway trucks waiting on the siding. From whence it would be sent onwards, primarily for use in cement.
For many years the foreman was William (Bill) Carter, born in 1867. He had moved up from Brighton in around 1900 and lived at Old Mill Cottage with his wife Alice, born at Henfield in 1863 and perhaps happy to return home. With the mill having fallen silent, its Horsham stone roofed house (now Grade II listed Old Mill House) still provided a heart to the activity in the area, with it and the neighbouring new cottages for the workers overlooking a large new pit next door!
By 1901 Bill and Alice had two daughters; Nellie aged 5 and Ethel Rose aged 1 (two others had died in infancy). By 1911, Alice did not show on the Census and Nellie was a nurse of 15, with Ethel at school. Prior to moving to Henfield, Bill had been a stationary engine driver in Brighton, which would no doubt have made the construction and operation of the quarry tramway simple enough. He is shown on site in the photos below with two workers - their identities currently unknown - alongside family members.
Philip Hedgcock died in November 1903, but in the preceding few years he had worked out an agreement with what was likely to have already been one of his main customers, the Brighton Corporation (forerunner of the council). The Brighton Borough Surveyor and the solicitors acting as Trustees to Philip's will had agreed that the sandpit, equipment and associated agreement with the railway would go on long term (35 year) lease to them at £600. As well as any profit going to the Trustees, a sixpence royalty per cubic yard of sand extracted would also be charged until the Corporation paid the sum off and took full ownership! From New Year's Eve 1905, the lease on the 'Mill House Sand Pit' became active. Having previously been the customer, the Corporation was now its own manager and supplier, with much of the sand going straight towards the 20th century expansion of the city of Brighton.
By 1909, the pits, along with the tramway, had expanded towards Windmill Lane where the windmill's long overwatch of the Downs had recently ended. Occasionally, if Bill or another of the labourers were watching carefully enough, the pit would reveal secrets of the area's past. Truly ancient pygmy flints from the Mesolithic era saw the light, painting pictures of long ago groups of hunter gatherers congregating on this high point knapping their tools, surrounded by the untamed wild. This many millennia before the idea of nations, settled villages or arguably even the idea of the individual as we know it had arisen. Evidence of later activity came too - Roman pot, perhaps last used by an inhabitant of the province of Britannia, surveying the tamer lands of the coastal strip from what would many centuries later, become Windmill Hill. At their back, the vast Forest of Anderida stretched from the edge of whatever name the limited settlement where Henfield now stands once had, almost to the capital at Londinium.
By the arrival of the 1930s, the pit was largely worked out. The last act came just before the Second World War when the field east of Windmill Lane was mechanically excavated from 1935-8, leaving a large pit and steep drops on both sides of the old, already sunken Windmill Lane. The north part of this new pit was then initially rented by the aptly named Greenfields for market gardening, with the south rented by David Stephens who ran a sawmill there. The pit is well evident today and now home to the house 'Sandpits'. An afterlife for the old hand worked pits came in the form of allotments to the south and a chicken farm to the west of the site, active until the removal of the railway in the 1960s - the foundations of the chicken huts are still well evident today.
In recent decades, the former pit has returned to nature. With woodland having grown up across the site - the clamour of industry once having arisen, has now receded.
R. S. Gordon, 2020
- Barwick, A. & Carreck, M, Henfield: A Sussex Village (Chichester, Phillimore, 2002)
- c. 1912 photo series (held by Henfield Museum)
- Census returns
- Old Mill House investiture, 1907 (privately held)
- Oral recollections
- Historic Ordnance Survey maps c/o the National Library of Scotland.
- West Sussex Historic Environment Records: MWS3343 & MWS878
Gallery - Henfield Sandpit
Along with the leading image above, these photos have been suggestively colourised and in some cases enhanced, as indicated by the bottom left corner graphics. The first set of five photos was taken c. 1912 and were donated to the museum by a grandson of Bill Carter (licensed under CC BY-NC-SA).
At the far end of the former hamlet of Nep Town, the sandstone ridge of the village descends to the River Adur flood plains below. Passing Mill End and Windmill Hill, the road curves down into Dropping Holms to the right and descends the ancient sunken lane of Sandy Lane at left. Over the centuries the area has been central to parts of Henfield's history - here we tell the story of what was once popularly known as Henfield Mill...
The Nep Town Mill, Henfield, c. 1890s. The barn was actually some distance closer to Windmill Lane and the photographer than it appears. Image: Henfield Museum (CC BY-NC-SA), colourised, 2020
This post mill was most likely first erected at some point in the 17th century - it probably takes a position as the second oldest of the Henfield windmills with another noted as existing in a field near the house 'Cannons' by 1575. Several 17th century sources refer to what is most likely to have been the mill on this prominent site, although it is not known when the Cannons mill ceased operating. For example, the Commonwealth Survey of 1647 refers to notable local landowner John Gratwicke of Shermanbury holding 'the Windmill house and lands'. The mill was definitively featured on Budgen's 1724 map of Sussex and also features on Yeakell & Gardner's 1778 map of the county, being a notable Henfield landmark for generations. But this was only a continuation of use of an ancient site, with finds of Mesolithic pygmy flints having shown that hunter gatherers once lived and worked at this high vantage point. It was commonly known as 'Henfield Mill' before the arrival of the 'New Mill' on the Common in around 1820, after which it tended to be known as the 'Old Mill' or 'Nep Town Mill'.
A post mill body or 'buck' would be rotated on its post to allow its sweeps to face the prevailing wind direction - woe betide a mill facing the wrong direction in a gale! This meant that millers or assistants needed to be ready to turn the mill at a moment's notice if the wind got up from a new direction or if a storm arrived in the night. The turning pole with wheel attached at back to ease the job of rotation can be seen in the photos. Newer mills such as the Henfield Common windmill (built in 1820) were updated with fantails, which on post mills like these were attached to the ground wheel and automatically rotated the mill to face the wind direction. The veteran Nep Town miller at this time, Robert Loase, ran the mill and associated farm where his wife Mary ran the dairy. Shortly prior to the announcement of the new mill, he had recently had his worst year in a quarter century milling - so quite what came to mind when he heard the news of the upcoming competition may not bear repeating! As with many trades of the day, the fortunes of milling could turn as easily as the sails of the mill itself. Robert had willed the property to his daughter (via her husband), However, on his death, a £400 debt to local landowner (and botanist of note) William Borrer was still outstanding and Mary had no choice but to sell the dairy farm - the mill however, was kept in the family for now.
The characterful c. 1865 painting in the gallery below harks back to an earlier era in the windmill's history. By Nehemiah Vinall, it shows the mill when still active - perhaps the bearded sawyer shown was the miller of the day. It links into interesting and tragic events in the mill's history and it is suggested he painted it due to a family connection. His great great grandfather William Vinall (the Elder) had been a miller and Henfield churchwarden in the latter 18th century. His son - and Nehemiah's great grandfather William Vinall (the Younger) was also Nep Town miller. One sad and dramatic day in 1795, he was drawn into the milling machinery and killed - a stark illustration of a time when workplace safety was largely an individual responsibility.
With the set price Corn Law debates of earlier in the century becoming a distant memory as free trade and large industrial interests won the day amidst the increasingly corporate and globalised industrial scene, small scale local production of the sort offered by Henfield's two windmills became less and less viable. Long time journeymen millers like James Randall originally worked at the Nep Town Mill, but switched over to the new mill on the Common as demand was squeezed. There however, his situation did not ease - he was now a widower with six children and a taste for beer. A taste which would ultimately lead to three months' hard labour at Petworth Gaol for embezzlement when it was discovered that he had only been recording some of the daily transactions in the day book, the others in his own purse alone... To make matters worse, direct local competition had arrived in the form of two steam mills in 1860 and 1874 - which would themselves succumb before long to the powerful forces of the wider economy. By 1871 master miller Richard Luff and his wife Harriett were living at the Mill House, with five children and son Richard also being noted as a miller. However, having been a steady source of flour for centuries, the windmill finally went out of use in ~1880 with either Clement Knight or John Sharp recorded as being the last miller (one perhaps gave the mill a brief resurrection). Papers of the time recorded a final drama before the end when a local lad jumped onto a sail, presumably aiming to ride it a short distance. However, his hand became caught and he was unable to dismount in time, being swept up into the air. The sails were stopped, but he fell from some height, luckily surviving, albeit with some bruising and no doubt a great deal of embarrassment.
Its life of grinding corn over, the mill still provided a fine vantage point over the countryside. For Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887, numerous bonfires - between 20 - 30 - were apparently spotted by those watching from its steps. The mill itself was retained as a Trinity House (and village) landmark, but according to de Candole's history of Henfield it finally collapsed with 'a loud crash in a mighty gale' on Friday, February 21st 1908. By the time of the First World War a few years later, a correspondent seeking it out reported very little remaining on site. The hill it stood on is now in many places much reduced in height having been subsequently dug out during the excavation of the Henfield sandpits, with the area now being almost entirely wooded. However, the sandpits did offer a small postscript for the mill - in the same way as the prehistoric flints, Roman pottery was discovered. Perhaps, many centuries before, it had last been used by someone standing atop what would become Windmill Hill, looking across the Roman province of Britannia.
Although going out of use at about the same time, the sole survival of the c. 1820 'New Mill' on Henfield Common for an additional forty-five years led to its having become much the better known of Henfield's mills today.
R. S. Gordon, 2020
Barwick, Alan., Carreck, Marjorie, Henfield: A Sussex Village (Chichester, Phillimore, 2002)
Bishop, Lucie, Henfield in the News (Henfield, Private Print, 1938)
de Candole, Henry, The Story of Henfield, (Hove, Combridges, 1947)
Colgate, E. J., Henfield's 19th Century Egg Basket (Winchester, George Mann, 2020)
Budgen's Map of Sussex, 1724
Yeakell & Gardner's Map of Sussex, 1778
Sussex Mills Group
Henfield Museum records
West Sussex Historic Environment Records: MWS3343 & MWS878
Galleries - Nep Town Windmill
The limited number of known photographs of the Nep Town Mill are shown here (along with the leading colourised version in the photo above). This contrasts with the large number of surviving photographs of the 'New Mill' on the common.
(Images from the Henfield Museum collection licensed under CC BY-NC-SA).
Paintings & Sketches
Luckily we also have a number of paintings and sketches from various artists in our collection which help to bring the mill back to life and provide information on the historic setting.
(Images from the Henfield Museum collection licensed under CC BY-NC-SA).
An account by Peter Bates
When we came to Henfield in 1969 the residents of Hole Farm Studio at Woodmancote were the sculptress Fredda Brilliant with her husband, film maker and translator, Herbert Marshall. Fredda sculpted many of the great figures of 20th century history, including Mahatma Gandhi and J. F. Kennedy. Her most famous statue, a 12ft bronze image of Mahatma Gandhi, stands in the centre of London's Tavistock Square. The project for the statue floundered and was saved in 1966 when the Labour Government stepped in with a grant of £4,000 towards the cost of £9,500.
I remember giving them both a lift home after a jumble sale and being shown round the vast collection of small and large statues that there were in and around her studio. In the 1930s the couple lived in Moscow where Fredda, with no formal artistic training, cast in bronze many Russian film makers and authors, including Sergei Eisenstein and Anton Chekhov. She also sculpted Molotov for the Soviet Government.
Fredda Brilliant, who died in 1999 aged 95 in Illinois, USA, was born into a Jewish family in Lodz, Poland. The family emigrated to Australia where Fredda became an actress and continued to act after emigrating to America in 1930. She also worked there as a scriptwriter and singer. She married Herbert Marshall in 1935 and they came to England in 1937, after their Soviet sojourn, managing to leave while the going was still somewhat good. After the war, in 1947, she played the lead opposite Michael Redgrave in Thunder Rock in London's West End, directed by her husband.
From the late 1940s Fredda and Herbert spent much of their time in India where she sculpted a whole generation of Indian politicians and he made films for the Indian Government. From the mid 1960s the couple alternated between Illinois, where he was professor of Soviet Film and Literature, her London studio in Belsize Park and the converted barn studio in Woodmancote. Herbert Marshall died at Homelands Nursing Home in Cowfold in 1991.
In an obituary in the Independent in June 1999, Patrick Reade writes that Fredda and Herbert returned to Sussex in 1989 and faced a bitter fight to reclaim their home from tenants and lived a very reduced state for many months. Doubtless folk will remember that 'she promenaded around the village of Henfield dressed in long black dresses, tasselled shawl about her shoulders and brilliant headscarf encircing her dark hair and small face - in winter she would wear a fur cost to the knees. With her emotions unleahed, her language let loose and her clothes trailing behind her, she became something of a local legend'.
Text by Peter Bates, as first published in the Henfield Parish Magazine, 2020
With pinned back chestnut hair and piercing blue-grey eyes, few could resist the intensity of the gaze - nor the personality to match - of Miss Elizabeth Robins. Actress, writer, suffragist and feminist, in her time a darling of the London literati, a friend of Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw and Henry James, she was known in this country as the 'High Priestess of Ibsen'.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky during a thunderstorm amidst the savage bloodletting of the American Civil War, her father moved the family to Staten Island, New York. A self made businessman and follower of the Utopian socialist policies of Robert Owen, he instilled in Elizabeth the spirit of inquiry and social and scientific scepticism.
From the age of 10, 'Bessie' Robins was largely raised in Zanesville, Ohio by her grandmother Jane, a devout and forthright woman who became her 'touchstone' and strong formative influence. Her father Charles moved around frequently for work and her mother Hannah was often considered mentally unstable, spending the majority of her latter years in an asylum. This was blamed on family marriage to cousins, a hereditary weakness which the family was all too aware of. In fact, all of the Robins children avoided having children of their own as a result. Given a book of Shakespeare by Jane and inspired by seeing Hamlet aged 14, she yearned to start a career on the American stage, despite family reservations and her father initially having had a scientific career in mind for her.
As a last attempt at distraction from this lure, Charles made the somewhat dramatic, but characteristic move of taking the 17 year old Elizabeth along with him during the summer to his job at a gold mining camp in the Colorado mountains - to be tutored by him and to learn more of nature. Although these skills were to come in useful later, she was not dissuaded from the theatre and a little later realised that her father did not truly have the money to send her to college anyway. Boldly, on 24th August 1881 she left for New York at the age of 19 with little of her own money and few contacts. A striking and perhaps crucial exception to this was her mother's cousin, Lloyd Tevis. The wealthy President of the Wells Fargo bank, her mother arranged a $500 loan from Tevis, who would also prove a future saving grace in an era when members of companies would have to fund such things as costume entirely themselves. Payment for acting and elocution lessons as well as direct loans to her theatrical troupe later resulted from his promise to be her 'good genie and good friend'.
However, money was only one part of the equation. She met her 'first useful dramatic friend' James O'Neill, by chance, as they lived at the same boarding house. After a fruitless tour around agencies, she seized her chance to join his touring troupe. Her three line debut came on Boxing Day 1881 in the play The Two Orphans, set in Ancien Régime France. Determination and hard graft did the rest. Almost bywords for Robins - or 'Clare Raimond' as she branded herself for the character roles O'Neill cast her in. With O'Neill's company breaking up in early 1883, she joined H.M. Pitt's, choosing this moment of independence to revert to her own name - but, on the advice of her family the more seriously theatrical 'Elizabeth' rather than 'Bessie' was chosen. As the 1880s gained pace, her increasingly large roles soon began to gain attention. One typically favourable notice in the Dramatic Times of June 12th 1882 for her role as 'Rose' in Forgiven remarked that she was 'attractive in appearance, remarkably intelligent and does her work with an artistic discrimination and a natural force that promise much for the future'. Pitt was no doubt pleased, as he had given her the role as a result of a loan arrangement with Tevis. Maintaining such traits in the theatrical life of the time was no easy feat - arduous travel, little sleep, preparation for dress and role, before even reaching the 10 performances a week, usually with no understudy and a written or unspoken contract not to let the company down due to illness.
In August 1883 her choice of career became more secure after she moved to the long established Boston Museum Theatre Company. Pitt had run into financial trouble and been unable to pay his players - Boston Manager R. M. Field had his eye on the talent and Tevis had negotiated a strong three year contract for Elizabeth - $25 per week, rising to $50 by the third year. This was to involve an estimated 200 smaller and larger roles in Shakespeare and modern melodrama. Her debut in front of the refined Boston audience as the heroine Adrienne in A Celebrated Case was a challenge and a considerable shift in gear. Of the many admirers who she was surprised to find now pursued her, a fellow Boston Museum actor, George Parks, had done so with such alacrity, that finally, despite initial personal and family reservations, he succeeded in convincing her to marry in January 1885 - at a secret ceremony in Salem with just one witness. But of course the news quickly got out. As a direct result, Field informed her by letter of her early release from her Boston Museum contract at the end of that season.
Although Elizabeth had through half a decade of hard work gradually become quite successful, if with very little choice over roles, she suffered multiple personal and public blows as the '90s approached. In 1885, suffering from continuing fears and 'delusions' of violence towards her children, her mother had been placed into 'the living grave' of an asylum where her own Doctor later committed suicide - Elizabeth felt ongoing guilt about her inability to support her mother personally. In September of that same year, she learned at curtain down one evening that her Grandmother and in some ways the family glue Jane had died. Further, although they were not very close, in November, her sister Una also died from malaria. After leaving the Boston Museum Company she had to rejoin O'Neill's - she saw success in the prominent female role of Mercedes in his very successful productions of the Count of Monte Cristo, including in her hometown of Zanesville where she and production were given rave reviews. But as expected, she found the repetition of the role oppressive and only stayed for the autumn of 1886 - a decision hastened by the drastic setback of a boiler flood ruining all of the expensive and especially fitted theatrical gowns she had had made over the summer for the following season.
While there was passion and fondness in her relationship with George, they were often apart due to the nature of the work. He had not matched her consistent success in acting, but certainly had with his insistence on marriage and his level of emotional dependency on her, which she would and could not reciprocate. He, as more of a traditionalist than most in the theatre set of the time, wished for nothing more than to have Elizabeth cease acting and be provided for by a level of success that ever eluded him. In 1886, further struggling with illness which had forced him to stand down from a role, subsequent financial distress, and a general susceptibility to serious depression, George weighed himself down with his theatrical chain mail and committed suicide by jumping into the Charles River. He left a stark and what can only have been emotionally traumatising note, stating amongst expressions of love, doubt and regret - that 'I will not stand in your light any longer.' His body remained undiscovered for almost two weeks - when it was found, the tragic case made front page news. Six pages of her diary for the period prior to discovery were torn out, with only the phrase 'usual shuddering dream' remaining as stark testament to that time. George's family blamed Elizabeth for the tragedy and at times she certainly also blamed herself. In addition, allusions and inferences from Elizabeth and several other sources suggest the possibility of an aborted pregnancy around this time, although this is never stated explicitly enough to be completely certain.
Elizabeth in an early role as 'Rose' in James Albery's play 'Forgiven', 1883, during her brief time with Pitt's company. Bernard Shaw cheekily suggested Elizabeth use this cigarette portrait photo of pre-'New Woman' Elizabeth as the frontispiece to a future memoir. Decades later, she did, in 'Both Sides of the Curtain'. Resolution enhanced by Henfield Museum, 2020
Despite this dark time, Elizabeth was nothing if not indomitable and had now built up considerable experience. Before George's death she had attempted to assist their financial situation by boldly going to meet and then gaining a contract to join the foremost American Shakespearean company of Lawrence Barrett and Edwin Booth, both former Boston company men. The latter had long since resigned himself to being equally known as the brother of the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. She had seen Booth perform in her first year in New York, describing his Iago as 'a perfect piece of unrestrained art', so it was a welcome move. They travelled 30,000 miles across the breadth of America from the east coast to the 'wild' west by train, the company as a whole staging 258 performances in 72 venues and ending on the Merchant of Venice in San Francisco. Needing to cut the size of the troupe, Elizabeth's contract was ended, after which she visited her benefactor and mother's cousin Lloyd Tevis, who was for once unable to negotiate her a contract extension. From this largely positive experience she would in 1890 write her first published article: Across America with Junius Brutus Booth.
Having so completed her contracted tour (which she could not have known would be her last in America) and travelled back to the east coast via Panama, a sorely needed opportunity arose to forge paths afresh. Elizabeth accepted an invitation from her friend the widow Sara Bull and left for Europe in September 1888. To begin, she spent a week sightseeing in London, followed by her one and only visit to Norway, to Lysøen Island - the Island of Light. This was the former home of Sara's husband, the Norwegian composer and proponent of the Romantic movement, Ole Bull. She described the trip there as 'like a dream floating into fairy harbors & seeing shores that fade with day.' and noted that it certainly provided at least a beginning of the needed escape from recent experiences past. Ole's brother Edvard provided a strong welcome, but his 'quiet old wife' in Elizabeth's words, was in fact her first true connection to Ibsen, In her youth, she had worked with him at the Norwegian Theatre at Bergen - founded by Ole Bull. It is not however certain whether any special weight was given to this in their conversations of the time. This experience was both Elizabeth's introduction and her one and only visit to the captivating home country of the playwright she would soon come to be defined by.
On her return to London, she had telegraphed home to accept a role in New York with a reliable but autocratic actor manager she would certainly not have got along with. But the combination of her striking looks, personality and theatrical intensity quickly won many admirers and stalwart friends for 'Lise' as she would soon become known to friends. Amongst these was the budding Ibsenite Oscar Wilde, then the toast of London, if not yet quite at the peak of his fame. Despite her rather equivocal initial diary description of him as ‘smoothshaven, rather fat face, rather weak; the frequent smile showed long, crowded teeth, a rather interesting presence in spite of certain objectionable points.', in her words many years later, 'he was then at the height of his powers and fame and I utterly unknown on this side of the Atlantic. I could do nothing for him; he could and did do everything in his power for me.' With encouragement from Wilde and with all too vague promises of a role from theatre manager Herbert Beerborm Tree (to whom Wilde had introduced her), she made the decision to cancel her return steamer and stay in London. Wilde was to remain a friend and enthusiastic attendee of her later productions until his downfall. With her decade of experience, much further effort and initially through the web of social introductions, she managed to find initial steady work before then building a reputation as a leading lady of the London stage through the 1890s. This at a time when actor managers still dominated, many of whom, like Henry Irving as she discovered to her disappointment, often viewed female parts simply as a visual means of showing dramatic pathos.
And what of her literal theatrical voice, central to the appeal of an actress? Elizabeth in fact made several radio broadcasts for the BBC in the 1920s, but unfortunately, typically for the time, recordings were not made. Tree provides a clue, as Elizabeth noted him as saying to her "How American you are, in spite of your voice!". The elocution lessons she had taken had no doubt reduced signs of any American accent she may once have had. Her having some degree of the trained Transatlantic accent of the late 19th and early 20th century might perhaps be a fair guess.
As her situation stabilised somewhat, Elizabeth was drawn to the challenging nature of Henrik Ibsen's plays and their radical challenge to societal expectations and gender roles. But she, initially with actress Marion Lea and later the help of her close supporters such as the theatre critic and early Ibsen promoter William Archer, had first to engage in a delicate and frustrating game of diplomacy over the thorny issues of rights, translations and professional pride. Powerful men such as early Ibsenite Edmund Gosse and up and coming publisher William Heinemann were successfully charmed and placated and the path ahead was free. She was now able to organise, manage and produce entire productions independently.
One of her many theatrical and personal admirers was (George) Bernard Shaw - although she rebuffed his amorous advances, the strength of his efforts and her fieriness in resisting them have frequently arisen in recent accounts due to his tongue in cheek later description of her having fended him off in her flat with a gun - but by her own account a prop gun, waved at him theatrically!
After her earlier tragic experience with George Parks and as someone who delighted in never revealing her true self to those who seemed determined to want to discover it, Archer, her stalwart sounding board throughout her time in London, was the one man of her many male admirers that she allowed herself to become truly intimate with throughout the 1890s.
With the morality of the 'New Woman' being strongly debated among not only avid theatre goers but the wider society of the day, Elizabeth's passion in these roles, drawing strongly upon her own experiences, entranced many. These included the 21 year old Bertrand Russell, who revelling in the rebellious mood of the times, stated that Ibsen's plays 'excited me in a very high degree'. Within a few weeks in the summer of 1893, he had read the plays and gone on to see Robins play Helda Wangel in The Master Builder, Rebecca West in Rosmersholm and the title role in Hedda Gabler. For Russell, Elizabeth's parts were 'embodiments of his own fantasies of being released from the confines and restrictions of his past by a woman unfettered by conformity to tradition.'
As the 1890s progressed, Elizabeth found the time to supplement her often unsteady theatrical income by becoming a successful novelist, at first under her old pseudonym of C. E. Raimond (until outed by the papers). Novels such as The Open Question drew strongly upon her own experiences both growing up in America and more recently in England. A criticism friends and she herself often levelled was a lack of focus on any single project at one time - nonetheless, her output on all was impressive.
Taking Hedda over the Atlantic, the play was premiered at New York's 5th Avenue Theatre in 1898. However, by 1900 the golden era of popularity and challenge of Ibsen's plays was past and Elizabeth expressed disappointment in his final play When We Dead Awaken. She instead looked for catharsis in the new century, embarking on a dangerous adventure in search of her equally idealistic younger brother Raymond. Twelve years older, she had been something of a surrogate mother to him in earlier years in America while her mother was absent, but they had not seen each other since her original move to London twelve years before. As it turned out, Raymond had ended up on one of the last American frontiers in the town of Nome, Alaska. Later famous for the Iditarod dog sled race, it had sprung up almost overnight as a result of the fevered arrival of masses of men seeking their fortunes as part of the Klondike gold rush. He had stepped somewhat inadvertently into a role of community leadership for the new town, sold to him by an associate of a religious movement who had been somewhat economical with the truth of the situation.
Raymond was involved in both ministering to and dealing with the sometimes violent and deadly disputes in the wild town, which had not yet seen much sign of the formal structures of authority. It was of some concern to the sceptic Elizabeth that reports indicated that Raymond was suddenly and seriously considering dedicating his life to religion, given his former intentions to work as a lawyer. Although she found her brother and also saw for what was to be the last time her other brother Saxton, in so doing she contracted Typhoid, a condition which was to hamper her health for the rest of her life. But, as planned, her dramatic experiences offered a rich seam of writing material for her bestseller The Magnetic North in addition to other works and articles. Book sale proceeds would allow her to purchase the Florida estate of Chinsegut in 1904 - this had originally been a dream she and he had had decades before. Raymond would go on to live there with his wife Margaret, and Elizabeth would continue to travel back to America from time to time to visit her brother there.
Retiring as an actress at the age of 40 in 1902, she in 1909 found a quiet refuge in Sussex, restoring the house at Backsettown and becoming a Henfield resident as the struggle for women's suffrage was reaching its peak and her own thoughts on feminism were culminating. Although rural Henfield was a quiet retreat for her, Elizabeth by her presence alone nonetheless brought the village to centre stage. A few years previously, she was enticed into the movement and had written the play Votes for Women (subsequently expanded into the book The Convert) which had opened to great success in 1906. Joining the long running National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) run by Milicent Fawcett, she became a frequent spokesperson in The Times and other papers and magazines for the Suffragist cause and subsequently the newly evolving more militant Suffragettes (initially a press term of derision) led by the Pankhursts' Womens' Social and Political Union (WSPU).
As well as friends from her society life, leaders of the movement visited Henfield over the next few years - on the 29th May 1909, Christabel Pankhurst, Frederick and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (editors of the WSPU newspaper Votes for Women) and Mabel Tuke (WSPU Secretary) are all shown in the guest book meeting on the same day as the writer H.G. Wells. Although Wells professed to support female suffrage, the meeting that day may not have been entirely convivial. In her biography, Octavia Wilberforce, who lived at Backsettown at the time, detailed that '...he had invited himself, that he had stayed up till past midnight arguing with Elizabeth Robins, who disapproved of his affair with the daughter of one of her friends.' Elizabeth later described Wells' views on women as 'sex-obsessed' and 'antediluvian'!
Although still supporting the cause, she left the committee of the Pankhursts' Women's Social and Political Union in 1912 as she felt the continuing militancy was now hindering more than helping. As the frequent advocate in print for the movement (and more rarely in voice, as she disliked public speaking), this had put her in the difficult position of having to criticise her more moderate friends, both in the movement and without. The final straw came when her close friends the Pethick Lawrences were asked by Emmeline and Christabel to leave the committee - Emmeline was of the view that Elizabeth's view on the matter was not of weight as she'd not regularly attended committee meetings! The house was nonetheless set up after the Cat & Mouse Act of 1913 as a refuge for suffragettes recovering from hunger strike and was rumoured to also offer refuge to those wanted by the law! Elizabeth gamely filled in her 1911 Census return for the address with: 'The occupier of this house will be ready to give the desired information, the moment the government recognizes women as responsible citizens.'
In 1909 Elizabeth met the young Octavia Wilberforce, Great-Granddaughter of William. Elizabeth supported her goal of becoming one of the second generation of female doctors, for which Octavia's father was to disinherit her. The two became lifelong friends, with Octavia coming to live in Henfield with Elizabeth. The First World War was to provide her with much experience of treating casualties and she achieved her goal in 1920. With the driving support of the new Doctor Wilberforce, Backsettown was to be formally set up as a women's shelter in 1927, remaining so for many decades afterwards. It was insisted upon that there be no mention of illness and frequent provision of fresh produce, some grown in the Backsettown gardens and others no doubt sourced from Henfield's many commercial market gardens of the time.
Both women funded and supported women's health services locally including the Lady Chichester Hospital and the New Sussex Hospital for Women. Robins became a familiar (if perhaps remote to most) figure in Henfield and was involved with the formation of the Henfield Women's Institute, where she initially served on the committee of what was then a particularly political branch of a much more political organisation than the WI of today. Virginia and Leonard Woolf were to become friends and visitors of the two women during the inter-war period. Never short of stylish elan, an essential during her acting days and later a useful counter to attacks on 'dowdy' suffragettes, the daughter of the owner of the local bicycle shop nonetheless fondly remembered her frequent visits where she would knit clothes for her dolls.
During the inter war years, with Backsettown a busy convalescent home, she was largely based in Brighton at Octavia's surgery. Despite declining health, she continued to write articles for magazines such as Time and Tide as well as working on books, both retrospectives and novels. To her distress, shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, the then almost 80 year old Elizabeth - being an American citizen - was compelled to return to an America she no longer felt at home in by a mixture of onerous wartime 'alien' reporting requirements, the thought that she could advocate more effectively for Britain stateside and ultimately firm advice from the US Embassy. However, she afterwards returned as soon as possible. She had spent the war years working on a comprehensive autobiographical work - tragically her trunks were rifled on the Liverpool docks on her return and the manuscript was never recovered, her legacy suffering as a result. Elizabeth spent her final years in Brighton at 24 Montpelier Crescent, looked after by her long time friend Octavia and regaling visitors with stories of her life and the Victorian stage.
~ Postscript ~
In 1960, a plaque in her memory was unveiled at Backsettown by amongst others, her latter life friends Leonard Woolf and Sybil Thorndike. Famous in her time, her legacy has been partly obscured perhaps by her early theatrical retirement, her long life, and a thirty year hold she put on the opening of her extensive archives in New York. However, the last three decades have seen an increased appreciation, with two biographies leading the way and a spotlight shone upon Votes for Women! during the centenary of the Representation of the People Act in 2018. With the Backsettown convalescent home at Henfield finally sold in 1991, the managing Trust subsequently passed the rights to the Robins papers to the charity Independent Age - a cause Elizabeth would doubtless have supported in struggles to stay productive in the face of health issues in her later years. In 1919, she had written in her diary - 'To be a successful old woman - that's the great achievement.'
It is hoped her story will now be better known in her beloved Sussex too. In 2019, as part of the Horsham District Year of Culture, two new community mosaics were unveiled in Cooper's Way, Henfield, highlighting the village's role in women's suffrage. One shows a violet, both symbol of the suffragettes and a tribute to the Misses Allen-Brown, female owners of their own famous violet nursery and suffrage supporters and friends of Robins. The other shows Backsettown, with the waving figure of Elizabeth as suffragette standing in front.
By R. S. Gordon, 2020
Research into Elizabeth always reveals many fascinating sketches of her life and times - it is hoped to release further articles focused on specific aspects in the future.
For a further selection of restored and colourised photos of Elizabeth, see her page in our 'Henfieldians Past' section.
The 2019 mosaic of Elizabeth and Backsettown, a community created project led by Creative Waves and the Henfield Community Partnership. Photo: RSG
Gates, Joanne E., Elizabeth Robins, 1862-1952 Actress, Novelist, Feminist (The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 1994)
Hill, Leslie Anne, Theatres and Friendships: the Spheres and Strategies of Elizabeth Robins (University of Exeter Thesis, 2014)
John, Angela V., Elizabeth Robins, Staging a Life. 2nd ed. (Tempus Publishing Limited, Stroud, 2007)
Moessner, Victoria Joan, Gates, Joanne E., eds., The Alaska Klondike Diary of Elizabeth Robins 1900, (Fairbanks, University of Alaska Press, 1999)
Monk, Ray, Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921, Volume 1 (London, Vintage, 1996)
Powell, Kerry, Women and Victorian Theatre (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997)
Robins, Elizabeth, Both Sides of the Curtain (London, William Heinemann Ltd, 1940)
Henfield Museum Collection/Archives
In a time when as a species we seem to be too often struggling to rediscover our connection with nature, we are able to shine a light on a notable green heritage in Henfield. To help inspire Sustainable Henfield 2030, take a look back at the life of one green of finger and of name - Charles Green.
Charles was born in Lewes, but by the time of the 1841 Census, he had arrived in Henfield and was lodging at Church Street in the house of Sara Ward as an Apprentice Gardener (aged 15). Each day, he would walk out of Church Street and proceed up the High Street towards Golden Square and work, where, for almost a century and a half, a great verdant mass of flora greeted visitors to Henfield - also unmistakable for those arriving across the Common or up Barrow Hill. This was the famed garden of the Italianate Barrow Hill, home to William Borrer Esq., one of the foremost botanists of the first half of the 19th century, a particular expert on salix and lichens (and recently featured in the museum's roving display case). Green had had the high good fortune to be taken on by Borrer. He no doubt collaborated closely with Borrer over the next two decades, continuing to put the main physical manifestation of Borrer's life's work into the soil. By 1851, he was lodging at Chatfields with Daniel Buckwell and Daniel's wife Mary and daughter Harriett. Daniel too was a gardener and most likely also employed at Barrow Hill.
By the time Borrer died in 1862 at the age of 80 - tragically from a cold caught attending the Christmas play of the school to which he had been a primary benefactor - Green had progressed from Apprentice Gardener to the Head Gardener of a nationally renowned botanical garden with over 6600 separate species of plants. He would likely have assisted with the subsequent transfer of many of the rarer plants to Kew Gardens (along with Borrer's Herbarium - his lifetime collection of books of dried specimens). By this point, his wife Lucy had also died, leaving him a widowed father looking after his four year old daughter Lucy with help from his mother in law (also Lucy!).
Green's photo was apparently taken at the garden of his next employer, William Wilson Saunders, who like Borrer was a fellow of the Linnean and Royal Societies and no doubt got the inside track on acquiring Green's talents after Borrer's death. Green subsequently elevated Saunders' garden at Hillfield, Reigate to national horticultural fame. It apparently contained over 20,000 species and was 'one of the most extensive botanical collections then seen in a private garden'. By this point Charles had remarried to Emily. Eleven years later Saunders suffered financial catastrophe and the collection was sadly dissolved in 'one of the greatest calamities that has befallen horticulture in our time.'
Having to move on, Green ran a commercial nursery at Reigate for a few years where he continued to popularise plants and pioneer new hybrids. For example, at the January 1876 meeting of the Royal Horticultural Society, the Floral Committee voted him a botanical commendation for his submission of the other-worldly looking lithops succulent Mesembryanthemum truncalatellum, with thanks also given for his other submissions, including the orchids Masdevallia melanopus and polysticta (plus variants thereof).
Before too many years had passed, Green was happily recommended to Sir George Macleay by Saunders, allowing him to move out of the commercial nursery business and back to his much preferred world of private gardens. His final garden at Macleay's Pendell Court was described as containing 'one of the richest private collections of plants in Europe'. Both it and Hillfield were famed for their large greenhouses, particularly focused on orchids and ferns. Descriptions of both gardens still survive.
Green died at Reigate at the age of 60 in 1886. The anonymous author of his obituary in The Garden magazine stated that 'Few men of the present day possessed such an extensive knowledge of plants...and his love for all kinds of plants, especially those out of the ordinary run, was only rivalled by his skill in growing them.' Green was 'Unassuming in his manner, ever ready to impart information about plants, he won respect from everyone. His death is a real loss to horticulture, for it may truly be said that he was the means of preserving many a plant that would have been cast aside in accordance with the vagaries of fashion, and of rescuing other fine plants from the oblivion into which they had fallen.' The obituary also notes that 'Borrer's Garden contained one of the finest collections of plants, particularly of hardy perennials, then existent'.
A touching anecdote was sent by letter to The Garden magazine in response to their previous publication of his obituary:
'Of all the plant growers that I have ever known, Green seemed to me to individualise and love his flowers with an affection I have never seen equalled. As a proof of this I may mention that he gave to me as the reason of relinquishing his nursery at Reigate...that he could not bear to part with the plants he had been tending for years. I remember his saying that to me in a quite broken-hearted sort of way, and as a nurseryman's business consists in passing things rapidly through his hands, Green soon had enough of it, and he was much more happy at Pendell Court. How successfully he managed that most splendid collection not a few can remember, but I have put together these few remarks to emphasise the fact that he loved his flowers as much as most men love their own children. H.E.'
Green is still discussed today, cropping up in a journal article in May 2019 (with some recent research having discovered his photo and a little of his elusive story). Botanists at the University of Johannesburg discussed his likely commemoration in 1880 by the rockery plant Aloe greenii. Due to confusion with the name having already been used five years prior, they supported the renaming of this plant to Aloe viridiana, which still credits Green, if now a little more loosely.
He is credited as having been the source of the name for several others, with more likely but not definitely attributed:
* Sempervivum greenii ('houseleek', a succulent perennial)
* Mormodes greenii (an orchid, flowered by Green's employer Wilson Saunders and named in Green's honour by J.D. Hooker in 1869)
* Zygostates greeniana (an orchid, now renamed Centroglossa greeniana)
* Streptocarpus ×Greenii (a Cape Primrose hybrid raised by Green ~1876 from S. saundersii - also named for Wilson Saunders - and S. rexii)
- Possible -
* Haworthia greenii (a succulent)
* Echeveria greenii (a succulent)
His story having been lost in shadow for all too long, Charles Green surely now deserves due credit for his two decades of work at Barrow Hill, the foundation of a career for a man whom the then Director of Kew Gardens, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, in 1869 called 'one of the most accomplished and skilful of English gardeners'.
Article by Robert S. Gordon, first published in the Henfield Parish Magazine 2019, amended Jan 2020.
Images of some of Green's plants
Anon, The Gardeners' Chronicle: a weekly illustrated journal of horticulture and allied subjects, Volume V, London, 1876, p. 118.
Anon, The Garden: an illustrated weekly journal of gardening in all its branches, Volume 30, London, 1886, p. 530
Gideon F. Smith, Estrela Figueiredo, Joachime Thiede, The elusive Mr Green and the eponymy of Aloe greenii Green ex Rob. and A. viridiana. Bradleya 37, 2019, pp. 41-45.
Driver, James, Charles Green(1826-86): Head Gardener to Sir George Macleay at Pendell Court, Surrey. Garden History, vol. 40, no. 2, 2012, pp. 199–213.
The photograph above is the only known of one of Henfield's most renowned figures, botanist William Borrer III (1781 - 1862). His stern expression belies what was said to have been a kind and gentle nature, although one astute in the management of his domestic affairs as local squire as in his study of plants.
William's father was a wealthy farmer and grain merchant from a family associated with the Brighton Union Bank, who supplied local army camps during the Napoleonic Wars. While a young man, Borrer assisted with these duties, taking every opportunity these travels around Sussex afforded to collect, record and begin to build his impressive expertise and passion for the natural world. Coming into the family wealth, he was able to dedicate himself in a high degree to his passion for flora and the natural world.
George Busk, like Borrer, a Fellow of the Royal and the Linnaean Societies, described Borrer's early inspiration:
'To this study he had, in fact, a bent from his earliest years, and his brother, John Borrer, Esq., of Portslade, who was about two years his junior, has stated that he did not remember the time when he was not enthusiastic in his love for flowers, and in his admiration of the vegetable world in general; so that there was no muddy ditch, no old wall, no stock of a tree, no rock or dell, no pool of water, or bay of the sea, that did not add to his delight, and open to him a wide field for investigation or enjoyment.'
Based at Barrow Hill in Henfield, his own noted garden held 6600 species on his death, as recorded by his head gardener Charles Green prior to the rarer plants' removal to Kew Gardens. The Gardener's Magazine stated in their description of 1838 that 'the number of species of rare herbaceous plants is so great, that we do not know any garden in the neighbourhood of London that can be compared with it.' Borrer travelled widely around Britain to collect samples and corroborate or disprove findings. One representative tale was reported in his obituary in the Journal of the Linnean Society: 'A Westmoreland "guide", in the Lake District, had represented the discovery...of a habitat for Cypripedium Calceolus; but Mr. Borrer, doubting the correctness of the statement, was at pains to visit the spot for three years successively, at the time of flowering of the plant, and was at length able to expose the attempted imposition.'
Corresponding with and providing an expert sounding board for both enthusiastic amateurs and the leading professional botanists and naturalists of his day, he was a leading figure in botany in this country, much credited by luminaries such as Charles Cardale Babington and both William and Joseph Hooker. His West Sussex Gazette obituary stated that 'there was not a work on British botany for the last 50 years that has not acknowledged his assistance', which literal or not, gives an idea of his activity. George Busk of the Linnean Society stated that 'Mr. Borrer's extensive and valuable collections of plants, as well as the ample stores of his exact knowledge, were always at the service of his friends and fellow-labourers.'
Sussex historian Mark Lower stated of Borrer, that 'I might from my own knowledge mention some to whom, when pecuniary means were wanting, this benevolent man and true friend of science made valuable presents of scientific apparatus'.
While Borrer was debatably Britain's foremost botanist for a period in the early 19th century, this was certainly the case for lichens and certain other specific genera such as willows (salix), roses and succulents. Regarding salix - or willow - on August the 12th, Borrer's friend and fellow botanist Charles Cardale Babington sent an illuminating reply to a younger correspondent who had apparently been defensive about referring to Borrer and another's opinion on willows:
'I am rather amused at your defending yourself for mentioning to me the opinions formed by Messrs. Borrer and Watson concerning the Willow. The opinion of the former upon any plants and more especially the Willows, has very great weight with me. I always feel doubtful of an opinion when I find that he has arrived at a different one concerning any species.'
Borrer married Elizabeth Hall, the daughter of one of the partners at the Brighton Union Bank, and they had 13 children - 3 sons and 5 daughters survived to adulthood. Their elegant new home of Barrow Hill house was built upon their marriage in 1810. In William's case, although he was appointed J.P. and active in village life as required of man of his position, he was of a personally modest and fairly retiring nature. The family were nonetheless well known benefactors to Henfield. Projects included those in support of the church and local schools, with funding for an extension to St. Peter's Church for the use of local children (removed during the drastic remodelling of the church later in the century) and a donation of £2000 made to the Vicar's stipend - so encouraging the resumption of full time services. Indeed, the new Vicar Charles Dunlop was to marry Borrer's daughter Fanny - they moved into the newly built Red Oaks, the land and house having been given by Borrer and named after the American Red Oaks he had planted there.
When it came to education, as well as providing funding, he constructed local schools on his own land (including the Infant School at Nep Town), and furthermore personally taught several boys at Barrow Hill, subsequently finding them appropriate employment. Perhaps it was symbolic that Borrer was to die from a cold caught while attending the annual prize giving at Christmas 1861, at 'the National School which was established principally by his exertions'. Such was the level of respect to 'William Borrer, Friend of Henfield', that all shops closed on the day of his funeral, with over 300 attendees, many from out of town. Borrer's probate came to just under £70,000, over £8 million today.
Perhaps the most striking commendation of Borrer's unrivalled breadth of knowledge comes from the famous Hooker botanical family. Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, twenty year director of Kew Gardens, described Borrer as 'long the Nestor of British botanists'. (Nestor, the wise king of Pylos in Homer's Odyssey). As a stark illustration, his father, Borrer's good friend and earlier twenty four year Kew Director, Sir William Jackson Hooker, received from Borrer for the year of 1823 alone 145 letters on botany. In 1855 Sir William dedicated the 7th edition of his and George Walker Arnott's seminal work, The British Flora, to Borrer with the following words:
'No one, we formerly remarked, has a critical knowledge of British plants superior, and scarcely any equal, to your own; and we desire thus again to testify how much, on many occasions, we have profited by the numerous notes and observations you have kindly communicated to us. That the uninterrupted friendship which has subsisted for so many years between us, may continue during the remainder of our lives, is the sincere wish of, Dear Sir, Your faithful and affectionate Fellow-labourers, The Authors.'
Article by R. S. Gordon, 2020
George Busk, The Journal of the Linnean Society: Zoology, Volume 6, London, Linnean Society, 1862, pp. lxxxix, lxxxviii.
Loudon J.C. (ed), The Gardener's Magazine and Register of Rural and Domestic Improvement etc., Volume IV , London, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1838, pp. 501-503
Anon, The Journal of the Linnean Society: Zoology, Volume 6, London, Linnean Society, 1862, pp. lxxxix-xc.
Sir William Jackson Hooker, George A. Walker Arnott, The British Flora etc., London, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1855.
Mark Antony Lower, The Worthies of Sussex: Biographical Sketches of the Most Eminent Natives etc., by subscription, 1865.
Joseph Dalton Hooker, A Sketch of the Life and Labours of Sir William Jackson Hooker etc., Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1903, p. lxxxi.
H.C.P. Smail, Watsonia, Volume 10, 1974, pp. 55-60.
We hope you enjoy the variety of blog articles on the people and places of Henfield past!
Articles the copyright of their respective authors.