The Gracie Fields Home and Orphanage, Peacehaven

7 October 2016

By Lindsey Tydeman

Earlier this year, Senior Archivist at The Keep Christopher Whittick received a phone call from a local postcard collector, who had been tipped off that a huge archive of plate glass negatives was about to be split up and sold. They were the working archive of the postcard publisher Alfred William ‘Bill’ Wardell, who was based in both Brighton and Worthing and operated between 1907 and the 1960s. Would East Sussex Record Office be interested in acquiring them and keeping them intact? The negatives were duly purchased for ESRO by the Friends of The Keep Archives and have now been sorted by our volunteers. They are currently awaiting digitisation, after which they will available for public viewing.

Children and staff at the Gracie Fields Orphanage in Peacehaven

Children and staff at the Gracie Fields Orphanage in Peacehaven

In the collection were images of children and staff at the Gracie Fields Home and Orphanage in Peacehaven. The building itself had been purchased in 1928 by Gracie Fields at a time when she had the British nation at her feet. Newly-rich, she was reaping the rewards of ten years’ hard work. For six years from 1918, she had toured the regions with her husband’s revue Mr Tower of London, followed by four years in the capital, including two in a straight play. She took her parents away from their home town of Rochdale and bought a new house for them, ‘Telford’, in Dorothy Avenue, Peacehaven. The South Downs were all around and the sea was a mile away at the bottom of the road. But it wasn’t long before Fred and Jenny Stansfield missed the nearby conviviality of neighbours, pubs and the fish and chip shop. They moved out of Dorothy Avenue into a house Gracie had bought for herself two miles away in Telscombe, ‘The Haven’. This was to become the permanent home of Gracie and her parents and their extended family.

Trust deed signed by Gracie Fields using her married name

Trust deed signed by Gracie Fields using her married name

‘Telford’ stood empty until 1931, when Gracie donated it to the Variety Artists Ladies Guild, signing the Trust Deed in her married name of Gracie Selinger (in August 2016 this Deed was donated to East Sussex Record Office by the Charity Commission). Much fund-raising and publicity followed and, by 1933, the large letters across the roof proclaimed it as ‘The Gracie Fields Home & Orphanage’. It was a home for children whose parents were in the theatrical or circus professions but who, for various reasons, were temporarily unable to provide for them.

The orphanage represented a serious commitment for the actress, comedienne and singer, who by now had pressed over four million recordings and made the first of several films. The lavish opening ceremony was attended by Gracie, her family and many music hall friends, after which everyone had tea in the dining room. Although the Theatrical Guild ran the home, Gracie financed it, donating repeat broadcasting fees and payments made for guest appearances. A promoter in Margate who in 1932 had fraudulently billed her as appearing at the Hippodrome and then claimed she was ‘unable to perform’, was made to donate to the orphanage as part of the court settlement. On opening a Harrogate cinema in 1934, reported The Era newspaper, the kiss which the owner received from Gracie on donating a cheque for £100 to the orphanage, ‘was nobody else’s business’; the crowds were delighted and only calmed down after Gracie had sung ‘Sally’. The public caught her enthusiasm, and collections and lotteries added to the funds.

The orphanage had a new wing by 1935 and the children and their patroness were rarely out of the newspapers. In August 1937, the children were taken to London’s Zoological Gardens and treated to tea. On Christmas Day that year, all 24 children were invited to a family party at The Haven, where Gracie’s father dressed as Father Christmas and handed out presents from under the Christmas tree. On Boxing Day, they were taken to the Pavilion Cinema, Peacehaven, where they saw their ‘Auntie Gracie’ in the film ‘Look Up and Laugh’. Gracie’s unofficial visits to the orphanage on her bicycle were many, and following her operation for cancer in 1939, 22 children were taken by coach to the Chelsea Women’s Hospital in London where they delivered cards and flowers. The Sunday Mirror on 25 June 1939 carried a full page photograph of the youngest child at the orphanage, four-year-old Doreen Hewlett, kneeling on her bed with hands together, praying, with the caption, ‘Please, God, Make Her Well.’

In January 1938, Gracie had been made a CBE for her services to entertainment. Further research among The Keep’s collections held by Brighton & Hove Museums revealed several scrapbooks (below) which had been compiled from a cuttings service, perhaps by Gracie herself or a close member of the family, specifically to celebrate this event.

During the Second World War, the orphanage children were evacuated away from the coast and the house became a Women’s Land Army Hostel. It reopened after the war, with Gracie as involved as ever. In 1949, she visited the Motor-Cycle and Cycle Show at Earl’s Court not only to be photographed riding a children’s tricycle, but also to choose ‘machines’ for the orphanage. Gracie Fields continued to finance the operation from her home in Capri until 1967, by which time the numbers of children needing support had declined. The house was eventually sold to Peacehaven Town Council and is now a care home. Apart from a small blue plaque, it is indistinguishable from the bungalows and houses which have grown up around it since 1928.


The Keep News: Palaeography Workshop

This example of 16th-century handwriting was featured in the workshop

This example of 16th-century handwriting (RAF/F 13/1) was featured in the workshop

Our final event of 2015 was a hands-on palaeography workshop led by senior archivist Christopher Whittick. Working with a small group of students, many of whom brought in their own material to decipher, Christopher introduced the writing and language of documents such as wills, deeds and bonds written in England and Wales since about 1550. Among other things, the group learned about the idiosyncracies of Secretary hand, the different methods of dating old documents – and when they were applicable – and some of the words and phrases that were commonly used by the lawyers who would have drawn up the original material.

Numbers were limited to a maximum of 10 to ensure each person got the most out of the session, but if you missed out this time, we will be running further workshops in 2016. Watch this space!



New to the website – ESRO annual accessions, 2014

Until the end of 2013, lists of the many hundreds of documents accepted by East Sussex Record Office (ESRO) every year have appeared in the Annual Report. In order to the information the widest possible currency, accessions received from January 2014, our first year at The Keep, will now appear as separate documents on the website in The Keep Leaflets and Guidance Notes section.


Highlights from 2014 include:

St Mary’s Hall Brighton; a former school for governesses

The school, established in 1836 to train the daughters of poor clergy as governesses, was thought to be the oldest girls’ school in the country before its closure in 2009. The founder, the Revd Henry Venn Elliott, based it on the clergy daughters’ school at Cowan Bridge, which Charlotte Bronte depicted as the harsh Lowood School in Jane Eyre. But there is no evidence that the regime at St Mary’s Hall was in any way similar, apart from being targeted at girls from a similar background. The intake was later broadened to take other pupils.

SMH 8-1-1-6


George Murray Levick’s Letter to his Father in Law

For more details, see our recent Letter from the Archive post.


Away with the fairies: the Telscombe Pageant, 1925

This fine album was deposited with us recently by a relation of some of the fairy children. Pageants were extremely popular in the 1920s and 1930s, and this one was organised by Ambrose Gorham the local village benefactor. Gorham, many of whose photographs are already held by East Sussex Record Office, was so keen to preserve the character of the village that before his death in 1933, he bequeathed his Telscombe property and rights to Brighton Corporation for retention in perpetuity, in order that the village should remain unspoiled.

AMS 07087_1_1

Volunteering Opportunities

20th February 2015

By Emma Johnson

glass plate negativesOne of the days that I especially look forward to during my week is Thursday: volunteer day in the Conservation studio.  We currently have 8 volunteers of different ages and backgrounds, from former colleagues to recent graduates who are looking to gain experience in the heritage sector. The volunteers are currently undertaking a long-term project of cleaning and repackaging glass plate negatives from the Evening Argus. The negatives have already been scanned, so digital copies are available to look at, ensuring that the originals can be conserved and stored away safely here at The Keep. There are hundreds of boxes of negatives, so this project could not be completed without the time and support of our dedicated volunteers.

I begin the day by setting up the tables and equipment for the volunteers, ensuring that the work surfaces are clean and the brushes, cloths and cotton wool are to hand, as are the documentation sheets that must be filled in to record any damages or other conservation issues that Melissa should be made aware of. The process of cleaning the negatives firstly requires the negatives and boxes to be gently brushed to remove any surface dirt. Then only the shiny side of the negative is wiped with cotton wool and water; the negative side can only be brushed to ensure the image is preserved.   The glass plate negatives are counted and repackaged with pieces of archive paper in between each one to protect them, and then either returned to their original box or placed in a new one. The glass plate negatives need to be handled very carefully as they are breakable. One volunteer specified that a key reason why she wanted to volunteer in Conservation was to develop her object handling skills- and working with the glass plate negatives certainly does that! If boxes are damaged, they need to be replaced and this often falls to our chief box maker, Brian, who will happily spend his day making boxes.  Melissa and I are always on hand to answer any queries and offer assistance. For me, this experience has also allowed me to develop and improve my leadership and management skills, by ensuring that the volunteers are happy and confident in their work.

Work station ready to goMelissa is very good at helping the volunteers get the most out of their volunteering experience as well as allowing us to progress with the project. One volunteer who has excellent IT skills has now moved onto cataloguing the glass plate negatives onto CALM, as he also wants to gain cataloguing experience. However, not all the volunteers are here to gain new skills – Jennifer is a former colleague, who used to manage the search room for ESRO at the Maltings. Now that she is retired, she said that she enjoys volunteering because ‘I like to give back to the services I used as a researcher. It gives me a sense of belonging to the profession I enjoyed.’

Volunteering is not all work, work, work; it is also a great way to meet new people. Our newest addition, who wants to learn how to conserve her personal collections, also remarked that ‘the people are so nice.’  It is lovely to hear the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ from the volunteers as they carry out their work, marvelling over the variety of images from circus acts, to sports days and even the occasional wedding picture.

The volunteers are very efficient and can easily clean 5-10 boxes of negatives each in a day – but we also like a chat and a cup of tea and biscuit (or two!) We could not complete this project without their time and support, so, as always, a big thank-you to them!

If you would like to join our team of volunteers and help us with this project, please get in touch. Training will be given. Please fill in the expression of interest form and return to us by email or by post at: The Keep, Woollards Way, Brighton, BN1 9BP.

Keep Events: Tony Robinson Talk

28th August  2014

By Jo Baines  –  Special Collections Archive Assistant

Sir Tony Robeinson gives talk at The KeepThe red carpet was rolled out again at The Keep this Tuesday (26th August) to welcome a very special visitor – Sir Tony Robinson.

Sir Tony was visiting The Keep to give a talk about family history and the impact of the First World War on genealogy, sponsored by He arrived earlier in the day and met with Keep staff for tea and cake which was, of course, excellently received.

The event began at 6.30pm and Sir Tony’s talk was preceded by short speeches from Brad Argent, who works for Ancestry, and our own County Archivist Elizabeth Hughes. Elizabeth gave the audience a 5 minute introduction to the resources held at The Keep, the partners working together here and some images of the documents relating to East Sussex’s history. The room was packed out with visitors from near and far to hear Sir Tony’s talk, which began shortly after.

People are now able to take ownership of their own history, and consequently their own lives, in a way which no humans have ever done before.”

Sir Tony spoke animatedly for over an hour, giving us a fascinating insight into his work as a freelance presenter, his own family history and the impact of World War One on both genealogy studies and the wider world. He  explained how important the growth in popularity of family history is, and how programmes such as ‘Time Team’ and ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ have helped bring archives back into the public consciousness.

“War … takes away memories in so many different ways.”

Sir Tony shared some personal stories from his father and grandfather. He described how his grandfather never spoke of his experiences of the First World War after returning home, and how this silence was common amongst that generation of soldiers – but how, in turn, this has impacted our knowledge of the First World War, as many stories are now ‘missing’. Sir Tony discussed some of the research undertaken by Ancestry, including a study into the number of surnames lost between the Twentieth and Twenty-First centuries. He then discussed his recent experiences uncovering stories of the First World War in Australia and New Zealand.

“War is about social change. Wars are revolutions … wars are when maps are redrawn.”

In one of the most fascinating parts of the talk, Sir Tony discussed the long term impact of the First World War. He noted how archives show that, particularly in the Middle East, the causes of intense conflict today are very similar to the causes of conflict over 100 years ago. Sir Tony also discussed the Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided up the Ottoman Empire, and showed how it was still affecting regions and wars to this day.

“Medals are the roll-call of the British Army.”


Finally, Sir Tony discussed what happens when archives get destroyed – such as records from the First World War, many of which were lost during the bombings of the Second World War. He explained the importance of Silver War Badge Records; Silver War badges were given out to men who fought in the First World War but were injured and could not return to duty. The badges have a 6 digit figure on the back of them, which enables us to identify who they were given to.

Sir Tony then displayed one of the items held by East Sussex Record Office (ESRO) here at The Keep – an autograph book belonging to Nurse Marjorie Wallis, signed by the soldiers she cared for during the First World War. Sir Tony described the fantastic work of archivists at ESRO to trace the book’s original owner and her descendants, who now live in Canada. You can read more about the autograph book here:


It was a real pleasure to host Sir Tony Robinson at The Keep, and his lively, animated speech kept everybody in the audience interested. By demonstrating the importance of archives to both genealogists and historians, Sir Tony’s talk certainly inspired all of us to get researching – in the archives and in our attics!


The Keep News: Bevendean Fun Day and Book Launch

1st August 2014

The sun was out and Bevendean Primary School was buzzing on Saturday, with a bouncy castle, slides, a barbeque, and displays focusing on Bevendean’s past. Visitors to this year’s Family Fun Day were given the chance to step back in time, as Bevendean History Group joined forces with Glad Rags, to host a stall with historic costumes for people to dress up in.

Bevendean History Group has had a busy year. Action for Bevendean Community received £10,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for an exciting project, ‘The History of Lower Bevendean Farm’. Led by volunteers from the Bevendean History Group, the project concentrated on engaging the local community in discovering the history of the land on which the modern housing estate and school now stands (see the Bevendean History Project website for further details).

The results of this research have recently been published in a detailed book – The History of Bevendean Farm – which follows the history of the farm from 1086 to 1959, when it was demolished. Maps, photographs and other original material from East Sussex Record Office’s archives and Royal Pavilion & Museums collections, which are held at The Keep, have been used to illustrate this fascinating story. A copy of the book is now available to consult in our Reference room.

The book can also be ordered for from the Bevendean History Project website. The group are asking for a nominal donation of £3, to maintain their website. For further details, fill out their contact form.