Helena Normanton – from Brighton classroom to King’s Counsel

31 January 2019

By Kate Elms

Christmas card from Helena Normanton, from Varndean School archives held by East Sussex Record Office

Christmas card from Helena Normanton, from the Varndean School archives held by East Sussex Record Office

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.

Exam results from York Place School's magazine, showing Helena at the top of her class in October 1898

Exam results from York Place School’s magazine, showing Helena at the top of her class in October 1898

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.

A photograph from our archives of Helena in her barrister's wig and gown

A photograph from our archives of Helena in her barrister’s wig and gown

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?’

An extract from Helena's obituary, published in the Brighton Herald, 19 October 1957

An extract from Helena’s obituary, published in the Brighton Herald, 19 October 1957

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.

Further reading:
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.







The Long Journey Home: Edith Cavell and the “Cavell” Van

27 November 2018

by Emily Manser

Cavell Van HER ref MES24717

The Recording Remembrance project is aiming to record all world war one memorials across East Sussex. Volunteers across the county can record the condition, physical nature and inscriptions of memorials and report them to the website: Recording Remembrance Website.
Memorials recorded by the project can be crosses, plaques or more unusual objects such as the Cavell Van found at Bodiam Railway Station, commemorating Nurse Edith Cavell.

On 15th May 1919, a South Eastern & Chatham Railway Van left Dover on its way to London, carrying a very important passenger. Her name was Edith Cavell and, after a long and arduous war, she was finally being brought home to be laid to rest.
Edith Cavell was an English nurse, working in Belgium at a Red Cross hospital. Between 1914 and when she was arrested on the 5th August 1915, she had helped over 200 allied soldiers escape. She was shot by firing squad on October 12th 1915. She was 49 years of age.
Following her journey home from Dover to London, railway vans of the same type became known as “Cavells”. The fully restored railway van now sits in a siding at the rear of Bodiam Station. Inside, a single coffin sits in the centre, an eerie reminder of the cost of war.

This memorial, along with many others, is recorded on the Recording Remembrance database. With the help of the public, we are working hard to ensure that these physical representations of the sacrifice of war are preserved for future generations.

For more information on this, or any other HER record, please contact county.her@eastsussex.gov.uk

The expansion of Hove: a house – and garage – for everyone

6 November 2018

By Lindsey Tydeman

A devastating war may have come and gone but through it the register of planning applications in the Borough of Hove Surveyor’s Office was maintained faultlessly, the only evidence of the national trauma being a 50 per cent decrease in planning applications between 1914-1918. After the war, although local industries and shops continued to grow and modernise, there was a very slow start to house-building despite the temporary subsidies available under the Housing (Additional Powers) Act 1919.

Plans for 45 houses to be built in Amherst Crescent and Aldrington Avenue, Hove, approved December 1928, DO/C/6/6924

Plans for 45 houses to be built in Amherst Crescent and Aldrington Avenue, Hove, approved December 1928, DO/C/6/6924

It was to take ten years before confidence in the building industry returned. 1928 seems to be the key year in Hove’s expansion northwards into Hangleton, Blatchington and the surrounding downland farms. The roads between the railway line and the Old Shoreham Road were filled with large-scale developments (ie ‘45 houses, Amherst Crescent and Aldrington Avenue’) and the success of this was the cue for huge projects of new roads, sewers and housing north of the Old Shoreham Road which was only interrupted by the outbreak of war in 1939. Braybons the builders cornered the market in Hangleton as they had done in Brighton; they began building 103 houses in Elm Drive, May Tree Walk and Rowan Avenue in spring 1933, and started again building 80 houses and 38 garages on Hangleton ‘Estate Road No 4’ in early 1936. A garage was now considered essential; everyone who had bought a house without one or builders who had started constructing houses without them remedied their errors in the 1930s. The value-for-money option was the pre-fabricated garage from Booths Portable Buildings Ltd.

Plans for a house, and garage, at 130 Woodland Drive, July 1936, DO/C/6/10096

Plans for a house, and garage, at 130 Woodland Drive, July 1936, DO/C/6/10096

There was obviously rapid profit to be made in large estates of smaller semi-detached houses, and, later, of semi-detached and detached bungalows. The impression from the register is of developers, individually or in groups, being determined to start building as soon as land became available, often putting plans before the Borough Surveyor and Improvements Committee even before a specific plot had been identified on a new road and necessitating a measurement from the nearest landmark or building in order to plot it on the office map. A handful of local architects and builders maintained a firm grip on the developing housing market and, by 1937, some of them had been there since the 1890s, handing on the business through the family. Several names – Marchant, Nye, Parsons and Sons, Braybons, Cook, Callaways, Denman and Draycott – are still associated with the building industry and working in Brighton and Hove today.

After the First World War, the rich no longer came en masse to spend their summers in Hove. Some families sold their grand houses in Hove’s premier roads leading from Church Road and Western Road to the seafront, but others kept them, converting them into flats for rental income. Initially, each floor of a large house would become one flat, the architect’s plans rarely exceeding four in one building. However, in 1938 owners began to see the potential in ‘tenements’ (as the planning register called them), or ‘flatlets’ (in the words of the architect). Perhaps those at 9, 11 and 13 Holland Road were Hove’s first studios. The party walls separating the large terraced houses were demolished, making them ‘all intercommunicating’. The rooms were divided by a partition wall to create a living space with a ‘kitchenette’ in the corner. A shared bathroom was at the end of the landing or on the next floor. In August 1940, plans were submitted to make 16 flatlets and caretaker’s quarters out of the single house at 44 Brunswick Place.

Hove still remained the town of choice for wealthy individuals and retirees. The latter could move into one of the luxury, modern purpose-built flats occupying prominent positions on the Kingsway. In August 1936, Viceroy Lodge at the bottom of Hove Street was designed with its own servants’ quarters and every flat in St Aubyn’s Mansions had its own maid’s bedroom. In 1932, Hove’s first private swimming pool had been designed by the architect Mr S Clough. Designed for satisfying length swimming, it filled the entire back garden of number 8 Third Avenue and came with 2 diving boards, a terrace and, for privacy, a thick conifer screen at the back.

Plans for an air-raid shelter at Windyridge, Radinden Drive, by Messrs Rodee Ltd for the Misses Rowson, May 1939, DO/C/6/11722

Plans for an air-raid shelter at Windyridge, Radinden Drive, by Messrs Rodee Ltd for the Misses Rowson, May 1939, DO/C/6/11722

In 1939, Hove’s main industries were still those of 50 years previously and they were in the same place, banked up against the Brighton to Shoreham railway line. Dubarry’s had bought out the Standard Tablet Company in 1924 and was installed in the factories and warehouses south of Hove Park Villas. Brighton and Hove Omnibuses were still in Conway Street and the laundries in Arthur Street were expanding and updating; in 1922, dry cleaning was offered at Channel Laundry. The newly-created industrial estate to the west of Newtown Road was dominated by the head office of Clarks Bakery, whose delivery men on bicycles, and later vans, supplied the local shops. Improvements in 1933 placed woodblock-floored offices, a telephone booth and boardroom around the strongroom, with a three-bedroomed flat upstairs. Green’s, makers of dessert and cake mixes, had been on its site between Portland Road and the railway for over 20 years and had its own spur line to the factory. The machine tool factory CVA Jigs, Moulds and Tools lay on the north side of Portland Road opposite Glebe Villas and had expanded from its ‘temporary building’ in 1917 to a full iron foundry works in 1930. Smelting work was carried out there until the early 1970s.

Away from Hove’s many pubs or ‘hotels’ as the planning register termed them, entertainment came in the form of football, greyhound racing and cinema. The Goldstone football ground had a new North Stand in 1930, to be followed by a clubhouse, improved lavatories and two ‘temporary’ bars, owned by Tamplins, in 1937. The nearby greyhound stadium, new in 1929, went from strength to strength; improved and extended during the early 1930s, it received a ‘totalisator’ building for betting in April 1936, additions to the grandstand in late 1938 and extensions to the east stand in January 1939. Hove Ice Rink, which lay alongside the railway at the top of Denmark Villas, was a huge temple-like building with a high-ceilinged entrance hall, orchestra pit, restaurant, board room and tea lounge. However, it lost popularity soon after opening in 1929 and was reopened as the Hove Lido cinema in 1932.

Gas-proof door on air- raid shelter in Conway Street for Brighton Hove and District Omnibus Co, June 1939, DO/C/6/11725

Gas-proof door on air- raid shelter in Conway Street for Brighton Hove and District Omnibus Co, June 1939, DO/C/6/11725

Dr Hart of 47 Cromwell Road was the first civilian to apply for permission to build an air raid shelter in his garden in January 1939. This threw the Planning Committee into a dilemma; as it was ‘a structure not provided for in their Building Bylaws, the Borough Surveyor suggests that the Council accept no responsibility in respect of the proposals’. They didn’t have long to wait before instructions from the War Office took the responsibility away from them. Only two organisations, the Brighton and Hove Omnibus Company and Boots Chemists, were proactive when it came to protecting their employees in the months before war became official, the former building two air raid shelters in Conway Street, one with a gas-proof door, and the latter providing shelters at all three of its shops in Boundary Road, George Street and Church Road.

Regarding the book itself, 1939’s planning register, purchased in June 1937 from Combridge’s Stationers at 56 Church Road, is a duplicate of Hove Borough’s first planning register of 1885. Its layout and listing style were unchanged, reflecting, one suspects, the procedural continuity of the council committee meetings at which the Borough Surveyor approved new buildings. Ink pens were still used although the writing was no longer standard nineteenth-century copperplate and formalities were important. The word ‘Messrs’ always preceded a company’s name and two or more unmarried sisters living together were termed, ‘The Misses…’. It was business as usual in the Surveyor’s Office right up to 24 December and again after 26 December. It would be 35 years before 1 January became a public holiday.






Life in Postwar Hove – insights from the Borough Minute Books

15 October 2018

By Lindsey Tydeman

In 1914, Hove was a grand town. It had been a regular retreat of Edward VII, the front page of the local paper carrying the latest on ‘The King’, and where the King had walked, the wealthy London elite still followed. The Brunswick Estate, Hove Lawns and the wide roads surrounding Grand Avenue made a most elegant seaside environment, with the ‘working classes’ tucked firmly away in mews cottages or in terraced housing to the west. Today, we know that the 1914-18 War changed British society irrevocably but in 1918-19 the Mayor, Alderman and Burgesses of the Borough of Hove saw no such portents. The minutes of Hove Borough’s myriad Committees show how they coped with the challenges of the peace while attempting to maintain the status quo.

As with councils today, finance – the need to conserve money and curtail unnecessary spending – was a predominant issue on every committee, from Small-Holdings and Allotments to Town Hall and Entertainments. Wounded soldiers returning home and unable to recommence their work in Borough departments were a worry. Lance Corporal Emsley MM and Bar, discharged from the army as unfit for service and declared not fit to return to work ‘for a considerable time’, was receiving a war pension but also half-pay from his job as a cemetery worker. The Parks, Baths and Cemetery Committee reviewed his case every month, only granting him half-pay on regular evidence from a doctor. With no regular wage reviews, it was up to municipal employees to request wage rises or increased War Bonuses, and it was only after a certain amount of pressure, for example the mass meeting of the Municipal Employees Association in February 1919, that committees would agree to ‘confer’ over the issue. Wounded soldiers and their charities were given consideration but there were increasing limitations to compassion where finances were at stake. In 1919, shell-shocked soldiers were allowed individual free use of the swimming baths, but the previous year Sir Arthur Pearson only had exclusive use of the Swimming Bath on Sunday mornings from 10.30 to 12.30 ‘on the understanding that (he) pays to the man left in charge the sum of 5/- per Sunday’. In 1919, the Parks, Baths and Cemetery Committee was very concerned about how long it could continue waiving burial fees for soldiers and sailors. Hove War Memorial Fund, set up in June 1921 to assist families of former soldiers in extreme need with money or clothing for children, declined to help the family of W. Butcher as he ‘was not a Hove man within the definition given in the Trust Deeds, therefore ineligible for assistance’.

The minute books provide much information on women’s roles during the War and beyond. With men serving in the military, women were used as a labour source throughout the town’s municipal departments. They were particularly useful as labourers in Hove Cemetery, where they cut the grass and cleaned the walks. Always termed ‘temporary’, their pay went up from 4d to 5d per hour in March 1918 (they received no War Bonus) and in May an extra six were taken on. In the Rates Department, Miss Springer and Miss Winter had been doing the work of Messrs Cheverton and Bolton, but when these gentlemen returned from military service, the Town Clerk was instructed to ‘give one month’s notice to Miss Springer and Miss Winter to terminate their engagements’. In April 1919, following a Home Office circular which recommended that ‘women auxiliaries may be of great assistance to the Police when dealing with cases in which women and children are concerned’, the Watch Committee decided ‘to expend the sum of £15s’ on the appointment of two Policewomen, ‘and in addition the cost of necessary uniform, including boots’.

In February 1920 Miss Basden, Honorary Secretary of the Joint Housing Committee of the Brighton and Hove Branch of the National Council for Women, asked for two women to be co-opted on the Housing Committee. The Committee’s reply was abrupt: there were already two ladies on the Committee. In May, Miss Basden wrote again, this time using the term ‘working women’ and referring to the recent Circular of the Ministry of Health, which recommended that ‘where women are co-opted upon a Housing Committee, the claims of working women who have had experience of bringing up a family and doing all the work of their home should be specially considered’. She gave the names of Mrs Aldridge of 21 Shakespeare Street and Mrs Standing of 22 Molesworth Street, as recommended for co-option and the Committee resolved that the Council be recommended to co-opt them ‘to hold office until 9 Nov next’.

Extract from the Housing Committee Minutes, 1920

Extract from the Housing Committee Minutes, 1920

The provision of affordable rented housing for working people was a huge issue and Councillors felt the pressure of expectation from both central Government and individuals in the Borough. A new estate fronting Portland Road had been earmarked for development and Housing Committee minutes chart its slow progress, with discussion of various house types and arguments over sizes of kitchens and sculleries – the women had a voice here. Costs were regularly restructured, with expenditure shaved from kerbs (replaced by boundary stones), roads (gravel instead of macadam in some areas) and economies on roadside planting. The cottages were estimated to cost £1000 each, with an ‘economic’ rent working out at about 35/- per week. The Housing Committee had been set up in 1919 and one of its first tasks was to read a circular from the Local Government Board asking for a survey of the town’s empty houses ‘which might be converted into flats or tenements for the working classes’. There was such a list, submitted by the Assistant Borough Surveyor, which he had obtained from the Rate Collector. ‘It appeared that most of the empty premises were the larger residential houses, situated in Palmeira Square, or localities of that character. The Committee are of the opinion that in view of the position of the empty houses… it would not be advantageous to the Borough for such premises to be converted into flats or tenements.’ They duly replied to the Local Government Board ‘that there are no houses in the Borough at the present time which would be suitable for conversion’.

The dry bureaucracy of Hove’s collection of Committee Minutes provides an unexpected insight into the local human cost of the War. In March 1918, the Parks, Baths and Cemetery Committee heard from the Town Clerk that ‘questions had arisen’ regarding the portion of Hove Cemetery which had been reserved for the burial of those ‘whose deaths had occurred in connection with the war’. Now it appeared that relatives wished to be buried in the same grave as those they had lost … ‘the Committee agreed that permission be granted’. In September 1919, a Mrs Oliver wrote to the Committee asking if she could pay to have the path from the Cemetery Chapel to her son’s grave asphalted at her own expense, as it was in a bad state of repair. The Committee replied that this work was in hand along with other paths in the Cemetery. Two months later, Mrs Oliver wrote again; she wanted to leave £1,000 in her will to the Borough ‘for the perpetual upkeep of her son’s grave’. The Committee replied that it would be much better if the money be paid over now and a Trust created during her lifetime.

The minute books give a sense of daily life in Hove in 1919, and also of the changing face of the town at the end of the War. Large sections of Hove Park, Hove Recreation Ground and Aldrington Recreation Ground (Wish Park) had been turned into allotments and notice was given in January 1920 to the allotment holders that their tenancy would be terminated the following December. Flag days, collections and fairs in the parks had been almost weekly events during the War, all on behalf of the military; even after the Armistice the Committee was loath to give other charities permission to make collections without permission from the Government. There were still military camps at Shoreham and Portslade, so buses from Brighton to Portslade were continually overcrowded. This caused general ill-feeling and, particularly, anxiety during the influenza outbreak in 1918; however, after an equal vote the Watch Committee decided against asking the bus company to keep to its licensed number. Similarly, they decided they did not have the powers to ask cinemas to stop admitting children under 14, despite the fears that back-to-back performances and lack of ventilation increased children’s susceptibility to infection. Local Government Board regulations would soon limit entertainments to a maximum of three hours with a requirement for ventilation.

The Minute Books from the Borough of Hove’s scores of Committees and Sub-Committees are a resource in waiting, not only for the local historian and researcher but also for those interested in the broader context, how a community and its individuals fitted into the national framework of post-war Britain in 1919.

For more information about Hove Borough Council and the records held at The Keep go www.thekeep/info and search the catalogue under DO/A.





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.

An account of payments to be made by Mary Dring as administrator for her late husband, ref ACC 2409/2/851

An account of payments to be made by Mary Dring as administrator for her late husband, ref ACC 2409/2/851

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).

Deed of Settlement signed on the day of Mary Dring's marriage to her second husband John Kirby, which includes provision for her children by her first marriage, Ref, SAS-N/15/557

Extract from the Deed of Settlement signed on the day of Mary Dring’s marriage to her second husband John Kirby, which includes provision for her children by her first marriage, Ref, SAS-N/15/557

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.

When living on benefits meant wearing a pauper’s badge

2 July 2018

By Lindsey Tydeman

Inskipp, Maplesden, Langridge, Harriott, Muggridge… these are just a few of the Sussex names which feature in two parchment-bound books recently acquired by East Sussex Record Office (ESRO). They are parish record books and contain details of payments and benefits given to the poor in East Sussex over 250 years ago. Archivists at ESRO consider themselves fortunate to have bought them through two private sales, before going to public auction. The books come from the parishes of Catsfield and Battle and were kept by the small group of men who had been nominated to the two-year post of parish overseer, a time-consuming and often difficult role which involved doling out cash and assistance to the parish’s poorest individuals as well as monitoring their welfare and behaviour.

An extract from the Catsfield Overseers' Account Book

An extract from the Catsfield Overseers’ Account Book, AMS 7267

James Markwick and Thomas May, the Overseers of the Poor of Catsfield parish, began their Account Book in April 1764. A heavyweight affair, it was to last the parish until 1809 and its cost, 12 shillings, roughly the equivalent of 12 weeks benefit for an individual pauper, can be seen on the fifth page. Typical entries are, ‘one month’s rent’, ‘four weeks’ pay’, cash to individuals ‘in need’, faggots for fuel or clothing for children. As well as distributing funds and services, Markwick and May had to collect regular payments from everyone in the parish who paid rates and balance the books annually. The overseers would give out work such as spinning and mending to those who could do it, organise doctors’ visits and even arrange fostering placements for children and young people with nowhere to live. Understandably, parish overseers went to great lengths to confine benefits to those already settled in their parish. Paupers were given the parish’s ‘P’ pauper badge which had to be sewn onto their outer clothing to identify them as dependent solely on their particular parish for subsistence.

An example of a pauper's badge from the parish of Fletching, c1815-16, SPK/P/14

An example of a pauper’s badge from the parish of Fletching, c1815-16, SPK/P/14

Battle’s Small Vestry Book covers the shorter time period of the ten years between 1778 and 1788, but completes a series which runs from 1757 to 1835. It records the decisions made at regular meetings in Battle church vestry to distribute ad hoc cash payments, benefits or services to families and individuals who must have been on the verge of starvation or destitution. On 9 October 1782, for example, seven of the overseers agreed to allow Martha Pins ‘one upper coat, one under coat, a pair of stays and an apron’. Pauper women received an extra allowance during their ‘lying-in’ – when they gave birth – and bastard children were provided for. The overseers had also to rein in those who perhaps liked the perks of their job too much. In February 1784, it was agreed that ‘John Skeath the Governor of the Workhouse do pay to the overseers the sum of six pounds and nine shillings and fourpence being a deficiency in his account of spinning and other things… And also that the said John Skeath shall not sell any garden stuff or other things without the express leave of the parishioners…’

Taken together, the Overseers’ Account Book and the Small Vestry Book reveal how two Sussex parishes managed their sick, destitute and aged members. Every parishioner would have been known to the overseers, and, while it may have been humiliating to be identified as dependant on the parish for subsistence, it was also highly unlikely that an individual would have been left wholly without food or shelter, while there was enough food and resources to go round.

An extract from the Battle Small Vestry Book, AMS 7281/1

An extract from the Battle Small Vestry Book, AMS 7281/1

County Archivist Christopher Whittick commented, ‘These documents are wonderful finds. They chronicle almost half a century of assistance given to the poor and helpless people of two rural parishes. Every aspect of their lives, and of the suppliers, tradesmen and professionals who provided the services, is recorded in minute detail. Whether your interest lies in family history, Sussex in the 18th century or the parishes of Catsfield or Battle and its important market town, this volume will be of huge interest. We are most grateful to Bellmans of Wisborough Green and to Eastbourne Auctions for withdrawing these long-lost parish records from sale and arranging for us to buy them for preservation with the other papers of these two parishes at the County Record Office.

The Catsfield Overseers Book and the Battle Small Vestry Book are available for members of the public to order and view at The Keep. For more information, visit www.thekeep.info







Meet the Volunteers: Diana Hansen, Secretary and Trustee of the Friends of The Keep Archives (FoTKA)

1 June 2018

‘Volunteering at The Keep is completely different from what I normally do. It’s intellectually challenging, absorbing, personally rewarding – and very worthwhile as well.’

‘I completed a History degree at Sussex University in the 1960s and went on to work for the Civil Service in the Treasury and then the Ministry of Defence. After retirement, we came back to Brighton and I decided to do an MA in History. This included a course on palaeography taught by Christopher Whittick, now County Archivist at East Sussex Record Office (ESRO), which is based at The Keep. Naturally I became interested in archives, and Christopher, well, he’s a very persuasive man! Before long I became one of his volunteers at ESRO in Lewes. I’m currently working on the archives of the Ashburnham Estate. I especially enjoyed cataloguing sketchbooks of a Grand Tour to Italy, Greece and the Middle East, with fine portraits of exotic warriors and elders enjoying a shisha. Before that, I worked on letters from Louisa, a daughter of the Elphinstone family of Ore Place, and her quarrelsome husband Robert, finding out much about the family in the process – how their fortunes went up and down and how they ended up living cheaply in Europe like many poverty-stricken aristocrats of the time. It was entertaining stuff!

‘I joined the Friends of East Sussex Record Office as a trustee ten years ago. Now my roles at FoTKA have changed slightly. I’m Secretary and Trustee – it sounds onerous but it isn’t. I inherited from the late Pam Combes the editorship of the six-monthly newsletter, which is something I can do from home, while being a Trustee involves attending four meetings a year, ensuring agendas are relevant and that minutes are written up.

‘Friends of The Keep pay a moderate membership fee and this goes towards financing new acquisitions for the archive – they might be postcards, documents, letters, maps – costing anything from £10 to £1,000. Recently, the unique collection of lantern slides detailing the construction of Beachy Head lighthouse between 1900 and 1902 was purchased with funding from the Friends, together with contributions from other grant-giving bodies and residents of Eastbourne – it was a good example of a community working together. If you’re interested in East Sussex and its historic buildings, becoming a Friend brings excellent benefits. We organise privileged visits to houses and places of interest which are often not open to the general public, accompanied by speakers with unrivalled knowledge of the area.

‘Much of my volunteering is done in the autumn and winter; I try to come to The Keep every other week for a morning or so. I also love sailing so I’m usually doing that for six weeks in the summer – my FoTKA colleagues have been known to panic when I haven’t answered an email for several days! When I was at the Treasury and MOD, I loved working with the army and meeting all sorts of different people and this happens here, too. Friends of The Keep come from many different backgrounds but we all share a love of the history and buildings of East Sussex. I hope more people join us!’

Interview by Lindsey Tydeman

For more information about the Friends of The Keep Archives, including details of how to join, please visit the FoTKA website.

Cataloguing Social Services records – putting archive principles into practice

2 May 2018

By Rosemary Lynch

I completed my master’s degree in archives and records management at the University of Liverpool in September 2017. Before that, I had gained experience in the sector by volunteering at The Keep on a variety of small cataloguing projects. I also volunteered as an archives assistant at the Brighton College Archive and in a records management project at the National Maritime Museum. I was delighted to be able to come back to work at The Keep last October for a six-month project arranging and listing a complex collection of modern East Sussex County Council records. The files had been selected for permanent preservation in the archives between 1977 and 2004 but never fully catalogued. Some had been listed over the years, but the 1,500-box-strong collection had never been tackled in a comprehensive fashion.

Christopher and Margaret Whittick sorting County Council files at The Maltings in Lewes, c1985

Christopher and Margaret Whittick sorting County Council files at The Maltings in Lewes, c1985

Some urgency had been lent to the project by concerns about various ongoing national inquiries and investigations which require the use of Social Services records. We needed to make such material accessible to the relevant parties through sorting, identification and cataloguing.

My first task was to work my way through various existing lists and spreadsheets to identify which boxes might contain Social Services material. I also found some clues in the notes of previous managers and archivists, which were written on the physical boxes in the repository. I then began systematically listing the Social Services records, adding the title, covering dates and a brief description to the catalogue. In the end, I catalogued records from 238 boxes, totalling around 1,800 files. The mass of files covered a wide variety of topics, but I was able to make sense of the information by following the archival principle of provenance, always referring back to the individual or organisation which created the items. I traced reference numbers and old handwritten lists to understand the complex and varied administrative history of the Social Services Department and its seemingly endless restructurings and reorganisations, so that I could pinpoint from which person or department the files had originated and categorise them accordingly.

Some of the social services publications that have now been catalogued

Some of the social services publications that have now been catalogued (R/S 123)

Once listed, some documents that were in particularly damaged file folders were packaged in acid-free cardboard, and the collection was packed into 285 new archives boxes, filling almost a whole row of shelves in the repository.

As was expected, many of the files related to children’s homes, residential and day care establishments, mental health and adoption. The majority of these which mentioned individual clients will remain under data protection rules: their most important function at the moment will be to aid the County Council with investigations and subject access requests from the individuals themselves.

The files also contained a great deal of material relating to the social history of Brighton and East Sussex. The Social Services Department interacted with several voluntary organisations across this period, including the Brighton Rights Centre, Women’s Aid Brighton, Age Concern, playgroups, housing trusts, and helped to organise summer and community projects in Brunswick, Hangleton and Portslade. There are also files on the production of Access Guides for disabled people across East Sussex, which was part of a larger initiative to coincide with the International Year of the Disabled in 1981 (see R/S 114/6/55-56 and R/S 104/2/17-25).

One of the more unusual and interesting series in the collection was the files of ESCATA (the East Sussex Consultancy and Training Agency). ESCATA began as an extension of the Media Unit of the Social Services Department, producing low-budget training videos and resources for internal use. It was incorporated as a private company in 1986 but lost £250,000 in only a few years. The operation was scaled back, the company was reabsorbed back into the County Council, and the Director of Social Services was forced to resign. The ESCATA files were transferred to the East Sussex Record Office at a later point.

Adopting a Kirkian attitude to management training, R/S 58/2/14

Adopting a Kirkian attitude to management training (R/S 58/2/14)

There were evidently some keen sci-fi fans in the company in the 1980s; one Star Trek-themed management development video was titled ‘Managing Into The Future: a space opera in five parts.’ Sadly, the video itself has not survived, but the production files can be found at R/S 58/5/12 and R/S 58/5/15. Another video set on a space station, which aimed to teach staff about ‘Unique Selling Propositions’ and change management is at R/S 58/6/18.

The project has been successful in making the records of the Social Services Department more accessible to members of staff and the public. The rest of the County Council boxes have also been categorised by the department from which they originated. This will make approaching any future cataloguing easier.

I have enjoyed the opportunity to work on my own substantial project at The Keep. It has allowed me to employ principles which I studied on my archives course and apply them in a practical setting, including data protection rules, provenance and project management, and has increased my confidence in my knowledge and skills as an archives professional. My next role will be in records management, giving me a wider view of the sector as a whole and an opportunity to expand my skills even further.






Women of Sussex – Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891)


Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Collotype, 1861, after Samuel Laurence © National Portrait Gallery, London

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Collotype, 1861, after Samuel Laurence © National Portrait Gallery, London

8 March 2018

By Lindsey Tydeman

When one thinks of 19th-century feminist pioneers, the name Barbara Bodichon does not spring to mind. History associates her neither with medicine (Elizabeth Blackwell), the vote (Millicent Fawcett), health and hospitals (Florence Nightingale), secondary education (the Misses Beale and Buss) or higher education (Emily Davis). Yet at different stages of her life she committed time, energy and huge amounts of money to all of these in the name of the ‘freedom and justice we English women struggle for’.

Born in 1827 in Whatlington, near Robertsbridge in East Sussex, Barbara Leigh Smith was always going to experience the chill of social exclusion as well as the freedom and privilege of wealth. Her father Benjamin Smith was the son of William Smith, the abolitionist and Unitarian spokesman in parliament. Benjamin inherited the family’s commitment to social improvement, particularly education, and founded an infant school in Westminster which also provided food, sewing lessons and baths. Although Ben Smith was committed to Barbara’s mother, a milliner called Anne Longden, they never married and his children were not publicly acknowledged by his married siblings and their families. After Anne Longden’s early death in August 1834, Benjamin Smith rented a house in Pelham Crescent, Hastings, and provided tutors, governesses and riding masters in a free-thinking environment where the girls enjoyed early independence, received drawing lessons and mixed with visiting and local artists. Art and ‘the sisterhood’ would the dominating themes of Barbara’s life, often intertwining but sometimes pulling her in different ways. In 1862, she acknowledged the temptation of art; it was much more enjoyable than these, ‘dusty dirty attempts to help one’s fellow creatures’ with, ‘long sojourns in stifling rooms with miserable people’.

On reaching the age of 21, Barbara received an investment portfolio from her father which gave her financial independence. It may have been a mixed blessing; while she could now afford to spend time painting, writing and organising projects of political and social reform, the need to earn a living, which was acting as an impetus for several women who would later be at the forefront of feminist initiatives, had been removed. She also learned that her father had a second illegitimate family with a woman he had met after her mother’s death. These children were not acknowledged by Barbara and her siblings.

Letter written by Barbara from her family home in Hastings about a donation to a local hospital building fund; AMS 7031/1

Letter written by Barbara from her family home in Hastings about a donation to a local hospital building fund; AMS 7031/1

In 1848, Barbara had her first article published in the Hastings and St Leonards News. ‘An Appeal to the Inhabitants of Hastings’ wished that reformers would give the same energy to social health issues as the Church of England did to the distribution of Bibles. This was followed by pieces denouncing the enforced ignorance of middle-class women, the foolishness of feminine fashion (particularly tight corsets) and ‘The Education of Women’, pleading with parents to let their daughters follow their interests in art or politics ‘unmolested’. The following year she attended drawing classes at the new Ladies College in Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, and enjoyed unchaperoned art trips with friends through Germany and Europe.

Barbara’s A Brief Summary, in Plain Language, of the Most Important Laws concerning Women of 1854 was her summary of Wharton’s 550-page Exposition of the Laws relating to the Women of England, published in 1853. The short book was meant to be read in a single sitting, with salient points highlighting the propertied single woman’s inability to vote and the married woman’s legal state of being ‘absorbed’ by her husband. In November the same year, her much-cherished project, that of a progressive infant school where social classes mixed together, Portman Hall School, opened near the Edgware Road in London.

In 1856, Barbara drafted a petition for the reform of laws affecting women which secured 3,000 signatures and was presented in parliament the same year. She produced the pamphlet Women and Work, an argument for the right of middle-class women to have professions without losing gentility or perceived ‘femininity’, and became a founding member of The Society of Female Artists, creating a space in which women could display and sell their works. She was instrumental in securing lecture halls and local receptions for Elizabeth Blackwell’s first lectures on ‘Medicine as a Profession for the ladies’. The same year, having narrowly escaped a sexual liaison with her publisher Chapman – which would have undoubtedly ruined her socially – her father took his daughters to Algiers for the winter where Barbara met and soon married the eccentric and philanthropic French doctor Eugène Bodichon. Future years would be divided between Britain and Algiers. In Sussex she would paint; in London, from her home and political base in Blandford Square, she would organise reforming committees; and from Algiers, in-between art expeditions, she would direct funds and instructions back to London.

Census return showing Barbara living at Scalands Gate, near Brightling, just before her death in 1891

Census return showing Barbara living at Scalands Gate, near Brightling, just before her death in 1891

In 1858, Barbara and her childhood friend Bessie Parkes established a new magazine, The Englishwoman’s Journal. Its headquarters in Langham Place had a ladies reading room, a luncheon room, and, briefly, a women’s employment exchange. She was at the height of her campaigning energy. In 1859 she headed a petition of 39 women artists to force the Royal Academy to admit women students to its schools; in 1866, she was instrumental in the campaign for extending the franchise to female householders. In 1872, she put down the first £1000 towards what would eventually become Girton College, Cambridge.

Photograph of a book cover from the Bodichon Lending Library, AMS 7031/2

Photograph of a book cover from the Bodichon Lending Library, AMS 7031/2

In later years, Barbara Bodichon drew fulfilment from more personal projects which brought immediate results. She supported several women through higher education, assisting their families financially to free them to attend university colleges. After retirement to her house at Scalands Gate in Sussex following a stroke, she asked Gertrude Jekyll to design an addition to the house which would serve as a reading room, library and night school for young working men who could not read or write. She donated liberally to local hospitals and charities. After her death in June 1891, the Sussex Agricultural Express reported that around 50 members of the night school preceded her funeral cortege on its journey from Scalands Gate to the church at Brightling. ‘The basis of Madame’s character,’ wrote J Piper in his History of Robertsbridge (1906), ‘was a sense of abstract justice.’

Further reading

Pam Hirsch, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon 1827-1891: Feminist, Artist and Rebel (1998)




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.

Some of the sources of information for house historians at The Keep

Some of the sources of information for house historians at The Keep

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.