Helena Normanton – from Brighton classroom to King’s Counsel
31 January 2019
By Kate Elms
Sifting through material at the end of last year for our archive-inspired Advent Calendar, we opened a box containing a Christmas card from Helena Normanton. We didn’t include it in the calendar (competition is fierce for those festive slots), but it piqued our curiosity. Who was Helena Normanton? The card was within the archives for Varndean School and it became apparent that at the end of the 19th century, she had been a pupil at Brighton’s York Place School, which later became Varndean School for Girls.
Among the papers there was also a photograph of her wearing a barrister’s wig and gown and some newspaper cuttings referring to a distinguished legal career. During last year’s Suffrage Centenary, we highlighted the lives and work of some of the pioneering women represented in our archives, but we’re delighted to start this year sharing Helena’s story, particularly as 2019 marks the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, a piece of legislation that allowed women to practise law, among other professions, for the first time. We discovered not only that Helena was quick to take advantage of this opportunity, but also that she broke new ground for other women and championed equal rights throughout her life.
Born in London in 1882, Helena moved to Brighton with her mother and younger sister a few years later, after the death of her father. She was admitted to York Place School of Science in October 1896. Records held at The Keep suggest she was a talented student, moving swiftly through the Standards in the class for the brightest pupils. Her achievements often popped up in the Girls Pages of the school magazine and in July 1900, she pursued a well-trodden path, becoming a pupil teacher at one of the local Board Schools.
From 1903-1905, Helena attended Edge Hill teacher training college for women in Liverpool, the first non-denominational college of its kind in the country. She followed this with a Diploma in French language, literature and history at University of Dijon (1907), and a first-class degree in History at the University of London (1912). A vocal supporter of many causes, including female suffrage and equal pay for men and women, she pursued a teaching career while also becoming known as a charismatic speaker.
She made her first application to the Middle Temple in 1918, immediately after the Equal Franchise Act gave some women the right to vote, but was refused. Although she immediately challenged the decision, the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed before her appeal could be heard, and the following day, 24 December 1919, she reapplied and became the first woman admitted as a student to the Bar.
In 1921, she married Gavin Bowman Watson Clark and, in keeping with her independent nature, retained her maiden name. Reflecting on the reasons many women changed their name on marriage, she was direct and unequivocal: ‘They seem to think they have got to. There is no got to about it. A woman only becomes Mrs Bill Jones by habit…’ When she was called to the Bar in 1922, the Lord Chancellor tried to persuade her to take her husband’s name but again she refused, stating in an article published in the Yorkshire Post, ‘I could see that if a Lord Chancellor was interested, I must have been exercising an important liberty.’ When invited to travel to America to give a series of lectures, she became the first married British woman to be issued a passport in her maiden name. News of her visit, and her uncompromising stance, was splashed across the New York papers: the New York Times described how she visited lawyers at the Foreign Office when her initial request was refused at the UK passport office, while the Evening Post described her as an ‘English Portia’, succeeding where her American counterparts had failed.
Helena was not the first woman to be called to the Bar but she was the first to practise as a barrister, and racked up a number of other ‘firsts’ in her career: she was the first female counsel in the High Court of Justice and the Old Bailey, the first woman to obtain a divorce for her client and the first to lead the prosecution in a murder trial. In 1949, she and Rose Heilbron were the first women in England to be appointed as King’s Counsel.
Despite the fact that she lived in London, Helena remained attached to her old school and to Brighton and the surrounding area. In 1947, she attended a special reunion of the Varndean Old Girls Association to mark 21 years since the school moved to new premises. She recalled the early days in York Place and, in school magazine The Varndean Chronicle, observed that ‘a school is not a building, a place or a staff, but the whole living, breathing texture that moves on through generations.’ She returned in 1950 to give the address and to hand out certificates at the school’s Speech Day, and the following year was guest of honour at a dinner held by the Hastings & District branch of the National Council of Women. At that event, she spoke of her fondness of Sussex, observing, ‘You can go and see the Alps and the Andes, but where do you see anything as sweet as the rolling Downs?’
It should come as no surprise that, when a fund was established in 1956 to create a new university in the county, Helena was the first to contribute. She supported the idea with great enthusiasm and conviction during her lifetime, and set up a trust fund to benefit the University after her death in 1957. The University of Sussex is one of The Keep’s partners, and it seems appropriate that its Special Collections are kept under the same roof as the local archives that have been used to research this blog. It is also fitting that, 100 years after Helena’s admission to the Inns of Court and the legislation that made it possible, 218 Strand Chambers in London will be renamed Normanton Chambers on 31 January, making Helena the first woman to have a Chambers named after her. Over 60 years after her death, she’s still a trailblazer.
Onward and Upward: York Place to Varndean, 1884-1975 by Tony Allt and Brian Robson
Helena Normanton and the Opening of the Bar to Women, Judith Bourne, 2017, Waterside Press
Papers of Helena Normanton, relating to her career and other interests are held at the Women’s Library at LSE, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE.
First 100 Years is a history project celebrating 100 years of women in law.
Pioneering women: Margaret Bondfield, 1873-1953
6 August 2018
By Kate Elms
Did you know that the UK’s first female cabinet minister started her working life in Sussex? Margaret Bondfield, elected Minster for Labour in 1929, was born in Somerset in 1873 but, at the age of 14, she moved to Hove where she was offered work at Mrs White’s ladies’ and juvenile outfitters in Church Road.
This seems initially to have been a positive experience. In a biography written by Mary Agnes Hamilton, a pioneering woman in her own right, Margaret is quoted as saying,’I was apprenticed to one of those old-fashioned businesses where the relations between customer and server were of the most courteous and friendly, and the assistants, of whom I was the youngest, were treated like members of the family.’
During this time, she was befriended by Louisa Martindale, a customer of Mrs White’s and a well-known local suffragist. Louisa had moved to Brighton to ensure her own daughters, Louisa, born in 1872, and Hilda, born 1875, received a good education and the opportunity to pursue fulfilling careers, and she opened up her home in Stanford Road to young working women on Saturday afternoons. Margaret had grown up in a family that valued social justice, and this chance to mix with like-minded people helped to develop her political ideas.
When Mrs White retired, Margaret moved to Hetherington’s, a much larger establishment in Western Road. There she had a different experience of working life, with long hours and cramped living conditions. In the 1891 census, she is listed as the youngest resident (aged 18) in a household of eight female draper’s assistants, none from the local area, in a small house owned by William Hetherington in Stone Street, Brighton. It has been said that the Victorians invented late-night shopping – premises were often open until 10pm at night and young staff worked up to 74 hours per week, while the ‘living-in’ system gave them no privacy or freedom.
Moving to London in 1894, Margaret seems to have drawn on her own experience, becoming active in the Shop Assistants’ Union, campaigning for equal pay and better conditions for workers. She joined the London District Council of the Union and began to contribute articles to Shop Assistant, a publication launched in 1896. In the same year, she was asked by the Women’s Industrial Council to investigate the pay and conditions of shop workers. Her subsequent report and elevation to Assistant Secretary of her Union meant that by the age of 25, her political potential was being noticed in wider circles. She was recognised as the leading authority on shop workers, giving evidence to parliamentary select committees and was often the only female delegate to speak at conferences.
In 1908, she turned her attention to the Independent Labour Party and some of the broader issues it faced, including healthcare and pensions. She was involved with numerous organisations, including the Women’s Co-operative Guild, the National Federation of Women Workers and the Women’s Peace Council; supported equal suffrage for men and women, which put her at odds with the Women’s Social and Political Union; and continued to campaign for equal pay.
In 1923, she was elected as MP for Northampton and became the first female chair of the TUC. And in 1929, she became Minister of Labour in Ramsey Macdonald’s government, the first woman to hold a cabinet post. It was a difficult time, defined by the depression following the Wall Street Crash, and Margaret became a controversial figure who was seen by some to have betrayed the principles of her own party. She retired in 1938 and died in 1953.
The Many Hats of Mass Observation
19 July 2018
By Lindsey Tydeman
A lady wearing a hat to complete her outfit is an unusual sight in 2018, unless she is on her way to Ascot or a high-end wedding. But in 1939, at the start of what would become World War 2, the subject of hats and their wearing were felt to be important by the people at Mass Observation. There was anxiety on the topic, and, although definite fears were unspecified, the interest of MO in women’s fashion in general showed that the subject was considered to be an indicator of, and an influence on, the state of female civilian morale. ‘What happiness for the millions, who in this way can escape from their sooty street so gardenless, by buying a hat with flowers in front, ‘as good as any lady in the land’,’ wrote MO’s founder Tom Harrisson. A woman could be, ‘a Duchess for 3/11.’
In December 1939 an MO Observer was sent to a fashion gala at Grosvenor House attended by the wealthy and aristocratic. He reported that, ‘standards of fashion generally were quite up to pre-war standard’, with women ‘only too glad to go back to ultra-fashionable dress. Hats particularly take this turn.’ There was, ‘Obvious approval when told by the commentator that it is more patriotic to buy new clothes than not to.’
That was reassuring, but what about most women? Fewer seemed to be wearing hats as the war went on and observers were regularly sent into the West End and East End of London to note exact numbers. They also drew and described hats in shop windows. In 1944 a hat count taken by an observer standing at Whitechapel Station recorded that out of 300 women, 94 were hatless, 128 wore hats (nearly half of them in black felt), while the remaining women wore scarves and ‘pixies’.
By 1947 Harrisson was worried about scarves. He set out to discover ‘if the scarf has become a permanent menace to the hat trade’ and reported that women were willing to sacrifice two clothing coupons for a scarf although hats were coupon-free. An observer in London one Sunday in October 1947 found that out of 20 women, 7 wore hats, 5 wore scarves and 8 went bareheaded.
It was a sign of things to come. In the early days of the War, MO had noted that 82 per cent of women over 40 were wearing ‘a proper hat’ compared with only 45 per cent of the under 40s. As time went on it was the younger women who were the quickest to lay their ‘proper’ hats aside while the older group clung on to theirs the longest. Harrisson, beginning a survey designed to prompt the reawakening of the British hat industry in October 1947, stated that, ‘It must be of great interest to the hat manufacturers to find out the present day attitude of the general public.’ However, the ensuing MO survey was to reveal that the general public, especially women, didn’t care half as much about hats as Harrisson did and they were certainly not prepared to spend large amounts of hard-earned money on them. MO has been quiet on the subject ever since.
Mary Dring – an 18th-century businesswoman from Brighton
11 July 2018
By Madeleine Dickens
To mark the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which extended the franchise to some women, we have been looking at some of the extraordinary women represented in our archives, both before and after the suffrage campaign. Genealogist Madeleine Dickens discovered records relating to Sussex-born Mary Dring (née Widgett, later Kirby) while working collaboratively with one of her clients, Wayne Jackson from Canberra. Here, she tells her story.
Mary Dring was a successful businesswoman in 18th-century Brighton. Although remarkable in her own right, her success was not unprecedented; she was one of many enterprising, determined women with ambition to succeed. By her own assessment, ‘[she has] by her care and assiduity established a considerable share of custom by which she has been enabled to support herself and her three children by her late husband William Dring.’
Baptised in 1747 at West Tarring, Sussex, Mary married William Dring on 12 October 1770 at Finsbury St Luke, London. They had several children, including a son John, before moving to Brighton, where they ran a grocery business. They had several more children, of whom only two, William and David, survived infancy.
Mary was one of four siblings and the entrepreneurial spirit clearly ran in the family. Her sister Elizabeth ran Miss Widgett’s Library on the Steine up to about 1779, publishing a guide book to Brighton in 1778. Diarists of that era referred to her as ‘the milliner and library woman’. Another sister, Ann, was almost certainly the Miss Widgett who, in partnership with Miss Wayte, opened a Boarding School for young ladies in West Street in 1785.
William Dring died and was buried on 27 September 1779 at St Nicholas’ Church in Brighton. Despite her loss, a week later Mary advertised that she would continue to run her late husband’s grocery business. By 1784, she had added the running of a ‘house, coach-house and stables’ to her portfolio in North Street, Brighton’s principal trading street. According to rating valuations, her properties were among the most valuable in the town.
One of the documents held by East Sussex Record Office at The Keep details the debts incurred by William Dring that Mary settled following his death, and gives an idea of the standing of the family. The debts incurred and settled amounted to nearly £2,000 (modern day equivalent, at least £250,000). There are also several inventories of her possessions and stock (drawn up at the time of her husband’s death) which give an even clearer idea of her relative wealth.
Mary married for a second time to John Kirby, in St Nicholas’ Church on 20 July 1784. It was the Deed of Settlement she had drawn up prior to this marriage that marked her out as an unusually independent and determined woman. It could best be described as an 18th century pre-nuptial agreement, and suggests that Mary was aware that the law at that time would not allow her to retain control of her business on remarriage (it was only with the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870 that married women were granted any legal rights to their own property).
The extract below gives an idea of the strictures imposed on Mary’s second husband: she had two main objectives – to ensure he met with her exacting standards and to generate the necessary returns to protect her own and her children’s futures.
‘…that the said trade or business during the continuance thereof shall be managed and carried on and all purchases, sales, bill, notes dealings and transactions which shall be made, given or taken for any matter concerning the same to be taken, exercised and entered in the joint names Kirby and Dring and also that the said John Kirby shall bestow his whole time and attention on the said Trade or Business and endeavour by his utmost skill, care, diligence and attendance to advance and promote the same; shall not deal or trade with any other than that of grocer or enter into co-partnerships or engagements in the business or any other with other person/s whomsoever; and that all goods, wares and merchandise monies payments and securities and all dealings relating to the business shall be daily charged and entered by him in proper books to be provided for that purpose in such manner as other persons of the same Business usually do or ought to do whereby the fair and clear amount of the said trade and the true state thereof may appear and in particular that a book may be kept for the said William Gifford, Thomas Hudson and Edward Widgett [the carefully selected trustees] or the survivor/s of them, their executors and ads and administrators, shall be at liberty to resort at all times have the sight, perusal and examination of and to take copies or extracts without any Let or Denial whatsoever. And also that the said John Kirby shall not nor will at any time or times during the time or term of aforesaid without such consent and approbation and so testified become Bail or security for with or to any person by Bond Bill Note promise or otherwise….’
Mary may have had another pressing motivation to have such a document drawn up – it’s likely that she was pregnant prior to her marriage. The couple were married on 20 July 1784 and their first child was baptised on 12 March 1785. A woman who valued her standing in society, however independent, would not have risked the consequences of having the child on her own.
There are many surviving documents relating to Mary’s life and business, but unfortunately the document trail dries up after her second marriage. We know more about her three sons from her first marriage, whose interests she had done so much to protect. Aged 14, John went up to Oxford University (a possibility only the wealthy could consider). He completed his MA in 1794 and took up a series of ‘livings’ as a vicar. William and David went into the grocery business together but were declared insolvent in 1802.
Tragically, all Mary’s sons predeceased her by some years – John was the first to die in France in 1804, William in Brighton in 1806, and David, who had travelled to the West Indies, in 1807. A very sad end to all Mary’s driving enterprise and maternal force. Her only grandchild, David Dring junior, appears to have inherited his grandmother’s formidable character. He became a master mariner who traversed most of the globe, making a particular contribution to the early development of Western Australia and the West Coast of America, both on sea and land.
Sadly, no will for Mary has been located so we have no idea of the estate she might have left behind or the outcome of her efforts to preserve her and her children’s independence.
Untold stories of refugees working in Brighton and Hove’s restaurants come to The Keep
19 June 2018
To mark Refugee Week 2018, Stephen Silverwood of Brighton-based charity Refugee Radio writes about the Takeaway Heritage Project, a fascinating collection of photographs, transcripts and recordings which are now archived at The Keep
‘This was a unique project to capture the untold stories of ordinary refugees and migrants working in the food industry in our local area: the ways in which food became a conduit for social exchange with their new community, and the ways in which they built new lives in the UK. This is an area that has never been properly researched, with the exception of a few investigations of Indian fusion cuisine and the informal adoption of Chicken Tikka Masala as the national dish. Kebab shops and restaurants in particular have been overlooked by academics and researchers as perhaps too frivolous, but they represent a significant change in our high streets, our diets and our demographics.
‘Brighton and Hove has a special zone of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and North African food along Western Road that embodies the ways in which our area has changed because of immigration and the ways that people from very different backgrounds come together, and it was important to us to record the history of that area as it continues to evolve.
‘Whether you are staggering home with a post-pub kebab or sitting down to dine on a Persian banquet, you are taking part in an ongoing process of cultural exchange. We felt that the personal histories of the people behind that exchange would make for a good story, but we learnt a lot more during the project that we didn’t expect, especially about how welcoming and multicultural people found Brighton to be, and about how important family was to the story. We hope that the photographs, transcripts and recordings that we collected will be of interest to researchers and are really excited to know that the stories will be preserved for future generations.’
Alongside the interviews and photographs donated to The Keep by Refugee Radio are other documents that shed light on the experiences of refugees living in Brighton and Hove and East Sussex. We hold minutes and papers of the Brighton and Hove Refugee Forum, which includes publications regarding refugee women in East Sussex and the experience of Ethiopian refugees resettled to Brighton and Hove under the Gateway Protection Programme 2006 to 2007. We also hold the archive of the Pestalozzi International Village Trust (ACC 10461) which was established at Sedlescombe after the Second World War to house displaced children from eastern Europe. It went on to provide for children from Tibet, Nigeria, Vietnam and Palestine, and still continues to educate children from under-privileged countries www.pestalozzi.org.uk/
Celebrating Greater Brighton, 90 years ago today!
30 May 2018
By Kate Elms
Ninety years ago this week, Brighton was in party mood. On the 1 April 1928, thanks to growth that had made the town one of the most densely populated in the country outside London, the borough was enlarged to incorporate the parishes of Preston, Rottingdean and Ovingdean, plus parts of Falmer, Patcham and West Blatchington. To mark the creation of ‘Greater Brighton’, a week of celebration was arranged, starting on Tuesday 29 May. The mayors and town clerks of all the county boroughs in Great Britain and Northern Ireland were invited, plus a delegation from Paris, and a dazzling programme of events was put together for guests and local people. There were grand banquets, sporting contests, firework displays and a pageant involving one thousand performers, to name just a few of the highlights. The culmination of the week was a visit from the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth), who laid the foundation stones for the pylons to be erected at the new borough boundary and unveiled a carved stone seat at Devil’s Dyke, which had recently been acquired by Brighton Corporation.
These celebratory events have been recorded with great care in a scrapbook held in our archives. We can’t be sure of its provenance, but it’s possible that it was compiled by Henry Roberts, who moved to Brighton in 1906 to take up a post at the public library. He subsequently became director not just of that institution but of the town’s museums and art galleries and, after the war, was appointed the first director of the Royal Pavilion Estate. He later added director of the Publicity Department to his cv, and an excellent publicist he was, too. Our collections include a number of scrapbooks that document Roberts’ activities – mounting art exhibitions, attending library conferences, contributing to the local war effort – and this one shows the same meticulous attention to detail. Starting with a series of articles written by the town’s departmental chiefs and published in The Municipal Journal & Public Works Engineer, it includes newspaper cuttings about the Greater Brighton celebrations, correspondence, draft speeches, menus and invitations to luncheons and dinners, and other documents and ephemera that bring the occasion and the era to life.
Clearly this was a moment of great civic pride. The Royal Pavilion, the Dome and the grand seafront hotels all played a prominent role, as did the local piers, theatres, cinemas and dance halls, which laid on gala performances and entertainment for the whole town. Preston Park hosted athletics, horse shows, dancing, a fire brigade display and more, while guests were taken on official visits to Rottingdean, Moulsecoomb and Falmer, part of the newly created Greater Brighton. The proceedings were captured in a wonderful series of photographs, many of which appeared in the local papers. Although much of the focus was on the distinguished guests, the images also capture the carnival atmosphere in the streets and the crowds of local people either taking part in or watching the displays or processions.
It was reported that a time capsule was buried with the foundation stones of the Pylons, containing coins, a copies of two local papers, the Brighton Herald and the Sussex Daily News, and a book recording the ceremony itself. We don’t keep coins in our archives but we have a wonderful collection of newspapers that includes both titles, and you couldn’t wish for a better account of the celebrations than this scrapbook, which can be ordered by registered members and viewed in our Reading Room. It also contains detailed, visual coverage of the reopening of Brighton’s Aquarium in 1929, but that’s another story!
A second, smaller scrapbook containing programmes and ephemera relating to the celebrations (including an illustrated description of the Pageant) is also available to order and view in the Reading Room.
Meet the Volunteers: Emily Manser on Recording Remembrance and the Brighton War Memorial
3 April 2018
I have been volunteering at The Keep since November 2017. I wanted to volunteer was because I have always loved learning about history and believe that in order to understand our present, we must learn about our past. At The Keep I have the opportunity to help preserve that history so it is available for years to come.
The project I have been working on is Recording Remembrance, which focuses on locating and recording war memorials in and around East Sussex. While looking through copies of the Brighton Herald on the Royal Pavilion & Museums Digital Media Bank for mentions of war memorials, I came across an interesting article (pictured right). It described how the parents of a fallen soldier received correspondence from a lady in Occupied Belgium, four months after his death. The parents were Reverend William Teesdale Mackintosh and Ethel Lawrence Mackintosh of Alfred Road, Brighton; their son was Second-Lieutenant Douglas Fraser Mackintosh of the Royal Field Artillery, attached Royal Flying Corps, and the Belgian lady provided a detailed account of his heroic, yet tragic, death. The following is a partial transcription of the text published in the Herald on 23 February 1918;
‘Two British airmen were brought down in Occupied Belgium,
after a gallant fight with seven of the enemy. The German
aviator who claimed the victory descended close to the spot
and said: “What a pity! They were such heroes! They could have
escaped but preferred to die fighting. Never have I met with
such resistance before.” The Two heroes were buried with
The other soldier mentioned was Second-Lieutenant W R Bishop (pilot); they died on 2 October 1917. Second-Lieutenant Douglas Fraser Mackintosh was 27 years of age.
If the story tells us anything, it’s that even in a time of great suffering and horror, there were acts of compassion and respect, even between enemy and ally. At the end of it all, no matter what side they were on, they were all just men thrown into a war that no one fully understood.
Our aim with the Recording Remembrance project is to link people with memorials and fortunately, upon further research, I was able to do this for Second-Lieutenant Douglas F. Mackintosh. His name, along with 2,599 others, 3 of which were women, is inscribed on the Brighton Memorial on the Old Steine. The memorial stands at the north end of the gardens. Built in the style of a Roman water garden, it features a large memorial pool. A fountain in the centre of the pool provides a sense of calm, something that would have been severely lacking on the battlefields of France and beyond.
At one end of the pool stands a U-shaped colonnade made from Portland stone. In the centre of the colonnade there is a semi-enclosed space and within that space there is a stone altar table; a place for remembrance and contemplation. This area is crowned with a small stone dome.
At the north-west and north-east corners of the colonnade, standing like guards at their post, there are two bronze pylons. It is here where the names of 2,600 servicemen and women of Brighton who fell during the First World War are inscribed. Their names forever etched in history. It is memorials like these that stand as a testament to all those who fought and all those who fell in service to their country. That is why we, with the help of the public, are working to find and record all the war memorials in East Sussex; to ensure that the names of those who served and their sacrifice is never forgotten.
We will remember them.
The Recording Remembrance project was established in 2014 to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War. Its purpose is to record all of the memorials located in East Sussex and Brighton & Hove. Currently there are 832 memorials listed by the Imperial War Museum on the website, however many of these have missing information. We are asking members of the public and local history groups to record information on war memorials in their area, including the location, condition, form and inscription. Once the data has been collated, it will be added to the county’s Historic Environment Record.
Information relating to people named on war memorials, such as name, age, regiment and burial place, can also be added to the Recording Remembrance website. Person records can then be linked to their respective memorials, allowing researchers to find out more about individuals.
With the centenary of the end of the First World War fast approaching, we are asking as many people as possible to get involved with recording the county’s memorial heritage.
Further information can be found at http://www.recordingremembrance.org.uk/help
Abandoned! Secrets of a mystery house in Ditchling
31 January 2018
By Eleanor King
Working with archival material often requires time and patience, but rarely is it a fruitless endeavour. What is most rewarding is the journey it can lead you on; you never quite know what you are going find, or where you are going to end up. And so it was for a couple who visited The Keep in December endeavouring to find out some information about a house in Ditchling.
The colleagues, both writers from America, one an ex-pat living in Sussex, came in to do some research for a novel they were planning to write on a house in Ditchling that had been ‘abandoned’ 20 years prior to its sale at auction in 1993. They were assisted in their research by Keep archive assistant Drew Boulton and, in January, emailed us to praise Drew for his help and to tell us their story.
It was through a conversation with the developer who purchased the house that the writers were alerted to its curious history. What was unusual about it was that it was still full of personal effects and everyday items, including toiletries, when it was sold; it seemed as if the occupants had simply disappeared. Who were they? What had happened to them? Moreover, why had they seemingly abandoned their home?
Always relishing a challenge, Drew was instantly engaged when the couple told him what they were investigating. ‘I really wanted to get my teeth into this as it was such a good mystery!’ he remembers. ‘They had done a preliminary search for the property on our website and had some plans on order, but they turned out not to be for the “mystery house”.’ After conducting some further research on developments in the area, Drew discovered that the house had been renumbered, and renamed. By looking up the address in our street directories and cross-referencing it with the electoral register, Drew was able, through a process of elimination, to find the right property. ‘Sadly,’ says Drew, ‘There are no surviving plans of the house in question, so we moved the search on to finding out more about the owners.’
The writers had done some research of their own; a neighbour had told them the couple who had lived in the house ran a health foods shop in Brighton. ‘I suggested they look through the Kelly’s street directories to find out more about this shop, which did indeed exist in Brighton in the 1950s, something I was surprised about,’ said Drew. ‘After ordering up the plans for alterations to the shop front, we concluded that the business had probably been fairly successful as they were able to make several alterations to expand their signage.’
Alongside this, Drew suggested they seek the assistance of the Sussex Family History Group, based at The Keep, to seek further information about the mystery couple. Death records confirmed that the couple had not disappeared entirely into the ether; their deaths were registered in separate locations in the early and mid-1990s, 20 years after leaving the house in Ditchling. This, however, did not shed any further light on why they left.
It was on further investigation into the couple’s background that another key detail was discovered, the wife’s maiden name, which came as a particular shock to one of our intrepid researchers; it was the same as her brother-in-law. ‘You can imagine my surprise,’ she says in her email, given her American heritage. After conducting further research, it was discovered that this was not mere coincidence and that there was a family link. ‘I still can’t believe that the couple we wanted to find is a familial relation,’ she says, and goes on to note, ‘our big world is often so small’.
So, a family connection made, but still a mystery remains: why did this couple, who ran a seemingly successful business, abandon their home in the 1970s? Whilst Drew was able to assist in finding information about the property, the couple who lived there, and their business, as well as helping to make a surprising family connection, this final question may forever remain unanswered. Drew, however, is keeping an eye and an ear out for other leads. ‘Some visitors to The Keep, and the stories they bring with them, stay with you and this is definitely one of them.’
If you are interested in exploring the history of your house or local area, why not take advantage of our free drop-in surgeries, which take place on alternate Wednesday mornings. The next session takes place on Wednesday 7 February, 11am-1pm. More details on the events pages of our website.
Pubs in the archive – do we hold architectural plans for your local?
25 January 2018
East Sussex Record Office holds an extensive collection of architectural drawings and plans of pubs in Brighton and Hove (and across East Sussex). Some of these were originally sent to the Planning Department for approval; others were submitted to the Brighton Petty Sessions, which dealt with licensing issues. We displayed a small selection of the plans before our recent talk on alcohol and temperance but, for those not able to get here that night, we are showing a few here too.
Some are plans for an entirely new building; others illustrate proposed alterations, reminding us that the most familiar features now were perhaps not part of the original design. In some cases, names have been changed – The Greys in Southover Street was once called The Bricklayer’s Arms, while The Islingword in Queen’s Park Road was known as The Beaufort Hotel. The Open House in Springfield was also designed as a hotel and, although the exterior of the building will look familiar to anyone who knows it, the floor plan includes stalls and loose boxes for horses and an inner courtyard area, a clear reflection of another era.
Although we cannot claim to have plans for every pub in the city, this is a substantial and fascinating collection which shows how some of the Brighton’s best-loved pubs have changed through time. If you’d like to find out if we hold any plans for your local in our archives, why not pay us a visit? Plans can be scanned by registered users in our Reading Room, or ordered via our Reprographic Service (charges apply). Cheers!