D-Day: The West Sussex Story

By Alan Readman

“Okay, we’ll go!” With these words, spoken to his Chiefs of Staff at Southwick House, near Portsmouth, at 4.15 on the morning of 5 June 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, set in motion the greatest armada the world had ever seen. The day following came to be known as D-Day, the 75th anniversary of which we commemorate this year.

D-Day West Sussex cover

The new edition of D-Day West Sussex available at the Record Office and Local Libraries

To mark the occasion, a book published twenty-five years ago by West Sussex County Council titled D-Day West Sussex, written by Ian Greig, Kim Leslie and Alan Readman, has been reprinted. It was researched from local and national archives and from the recollections of people who had lived through those days. Through this book, the contribution of West Sussex to the D-Day story was told for the first time.

D-Day has been described as the most crucial single event of the Second World War. Success for the Allies would hasten the liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation; failure would give Hitler the freedom to launch his V1 and V2 attacks on England and strike back at Russia on the Eastern Front.

In West Sussex the build-up of the assault forces had become apparent early in 1944. In February, the 30th US Infantry Division arrived in the Chichester district. Its 120th Infantry Regiment was billeted in Bognor and Felpham, with its HQ in the Victoria Hotel at the Aldwick Road end of Victoria Drive.

The impact of the American presence on British society is well known.  “Over fed, over paid, over sexed and over here” was the quip of the day but in reality local people offered homely hospitality that was greatly appreciated by troops from overseas. In Chichester, Bishop Bell held receptions for American officers in the Bishop’s Palace and, elsewhere in the city, canteen facilities were opened for visiting troops.  At Middleton-on-Sea, they gathered at “Mom and Pops Canteen”, run by Mr & Mrs Vigur.

Visits and inspections by the D-Day Commanders took place. The Bracklesham Bay Hotel hosted Eisenhower, Montgomery and Churchill while they observed landing rehearsals at Bracklesham and Climping. King George VI visited Petworth Park. Its tented and hutted camp was home to over 4000 soldiers, including the 27th Armoured Brigade with its amphibious Sherman tanks, which a few weeks later would prove their value on Sword Beach.

Eisenhower also stayed at the Ship Hotel in North Street, Chichester, while inspecting the many airfields and advanced landing grounds in the area.  He was guest of honour at a formal dinner in the Officers Mess at RAF Tangmere, attended also by the legendary air ace, Johnnie Johnson, then Commander of a Wing of Canadian Spitfires at Funtington.

The Operations Room of RAF Tangmere was in Chichester at Bishop Otter College. A special Observation Gallery was erected from which senior officers could look down on plotting tables, manned round the clock by specially trained WAAFs. On D-Day this room was the nerve centre for the operation of 56 Squadrons from 18 airfields taking part in the invasion. That day, the three Czech Spitfire Squadrons based at the Advanced Landing Ground at Apuldram gave cover to landing forces on the beaches and, flying from dawn to dusk, carried out more sorties than any other RAF station.

The county’s aviation role was varied – including receipt of the wounded from the landing beaches, who were flown back to airfields at Ford and Bognor for treatment at hospitals in Chichester.

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Airborne assault glider being towed by an aircraft – Heading to France to take part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy (L’Alouette/A/1/22/1)

Of the county’s many associations with D-Day, perhaps the most extraordinary were the Mulberry Harbours, the pre-fabricated ports towed across the Channel on D-Day+1 to supply the invasion army. Their design owed much to the inventiveness of Lieutenant-Commander Robert Lochner, a young Admiralty scientist from Linchmere. Some of the principles came to him in his bath and were put into practice in his garden pond at Rats Castle.

The components of these artificial harbours were assembled off the coast at Pagham and Selsey prior to the towing operation. It was all top secret but that didn’t stop locals speculating as to what was going on. The consensus in Bognor was that they were prefab buildings for a new off-shore housing estate. In Bosham, they said they were the start of a cross-Channel concrete bridge. Only in October would they discover the truth, that the harbour when erected at Arromanches played a vital part in the invasion, earning Churchill’s accolade “this miraculous port”. Remnants of a wrecked section, that came adrift in a practice assembly, can still be seen at low tide, embedded in the sand at West Beach on the Aldwick foreshore, our own souvenir of the D-Day activity in West Sussex.

Bognor, Littlehampton and Worthing were directly under the flight path of the 6th Airborne Division as it headed for Normandy on the night of 5-6 June 1944. There was little sleep for residents of those towns. Next morning, the Army camps were empty and the streets clear of invasion vehicles. The people of West Sussex, who had observed the build-up at close quarters, now knew that the long-awaited liberation of Europe was underway.

Copies of the ‘D-Day West Sussex’ book, reprinted in 2019 (with minor amendments) for the 75th anniversary, is available at £7.95 from all West Sussex libraries and the Record Office, 3 Orchard Street, Chichester (e-mail record.office@westsussex.gov.uk with any queries).

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Bees, Falcons, Gothic Alterations and Collapsing Cathedrals – the Story of Chichester’s Fallen Spire

By Abigail Hartley, Searchroom Archivist

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PH 5283 – A postcard showing the cathedral spire during the mid 19th Century

I, like many others, watched heartbroken as the roof and spire burned during the recent fire at Notre Dame de Paris.  Thankfully, many of the artworks and relics were rescued, no visitors were harmed, and the facades and majestic bell towers are structurally stable.  I took this as a sign of how good medieval engineering can be (though we will get to when they were clearly just making it up as they went along).  I was also told that all of the 180,000 bees that apparently live in the roof of the Cathedral also survived, albeit quite ‘drunk’ from the smoke.  This fact led to a sigh of relief for the poor things followed by a sudden befuddled realisation that apparently there are genuine live actual bees living in the roof of Notre Dame.

All glib remarks aside, the image that will stick with me is seeing on twitter, as it happened, the collapse of the spire.  It was not the oldest part of the Cathedral, indeed it was part of the renovations during the 19th century, but it was deliberately designed to invoke the late medieval Gothic stylings of the 800 year old building.  It showed how good the Victorians were at incorporating then modern materials, tools and designs into much older foundations, and how even their efforts could not stop the extensive damage from occurring.

Regardless, this inevitably led to thinking of much closer to home.  Many comparisons have been drawn to York Minster, which has suffered horrendous fires in 1829, 1840 and most famously 1984 after a lightning strike.  Lesser known by the general public but closer still is Chichester Cathedral, whose own spire collapsed in 1861.  It is estimated to have cost somewhere between fifty and sixty thousand pounds to rebuild, and it remains the spire that you can see (under a substantial amount of scaffolding around its base) to this day.

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PH 7366 showing the void made by the spire collapsing straight down into the interior

Chichester Cathedral has the reputation of being (and I say this with the greatest affection possible) pretty standard as far as Cathedrals go.  The greatest things of note remain that it is the only Cathedral visible from the sea and it has a separate bell tower.  Otherwise the construction has been altered very little over the years in comparison to its cousins in Lincoln or Gloucester.  Part of the reason for this, and part of the reason for the dramatic tumbling of the spire in 1861, is the problem of subsidence.  In other words, it is slowly sinking into the ground.  This is due to the foundations upon which it was built being unable to support its weight.  A visible consequence of this is the bell tower.  Have you ever wondered why it is separate to the main structure?  It is simply too heavy to be included safely in the Cathedral proper.

As a consequence, various parts of the building have caved in at one point or another, with the South West tower collapsing in 1210, the North West in 1635, and of course, the ‘original’ spire in 1861, which had been partially restored in the 1600s by Christopher Wren.  Of course, to say that it was the ‘original’ spire is a bit too simple.  It was built in the 14th Century, around 200 years after the Cathedral had first been consecrated in 1108.  Some spires that we see today on our Cathedrals are later editions built on foundations that were most definitely not designed with the knowledge that someday someone would get the bright idea to put severe structural pressures on its walls.  Beautiful?  Yes.  Structurally sound?  Mmmmmm… This author is no architect but even she suspects that Gothic additions to Norman structures were often poorly thought out and executed.

Chichester Cathedral is not atypical of English Cathedrals in its architectural mishaps. Hereford’s western front has collapsed in the past, and many spires across the country have fallen at one point or another, usually during the construction stage in the eleven through fourteen hundreds.  Winchester, Ely, Gloucester, Lincoln… and indeed Chichester have all had parts fall off at one point or another, sometimes multiple times over their existence.

And so I got to thinking about what we held at the record office.  My colleagues had made a post here and there about the collapse of the spire, and a quick search brings

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PH 7367 and the mass pile of rubble produced during the collapse

up a series of photographs showing the aftermath of the disaster shows how extensive the damage was. What follows is all information obtained from sources held at the West Sussex Record Office.

Half past one in the afternoon on the 21 of February 1861 was well documented by eye witnesses and local newspapers, with the Illustrated London News in particular making a series of beautiful (if slightly Romanticised) depictions of the ruined church and the restoration works.  George Braithwaite, the sub-Dean, described the event, ending with “…Silence was restored; and the debris rested like some soldier in the grave”.  It deeply affected the city, with the Dean himself described as “leaning over his table sobbing, his face buried in his hands”.

Poems were written and committees were held, affirming that restoration work would begin almost immediately.  Subscriptions for funding began, with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert giving £350, and the Duke of Richmond giving £1000.  £40,000 was the estimated cost, and initially around £20,000 had been received.  Much more would be needed to build a new tower.

The five foot cracks that were large enough to fit a man’s arm into were seen as such a drastic level of damage that many felt that it could not have been the result as something as simple as the long decay of time.  There had to be a more malicious cause surely?  Arguments continued back and forth, some blaming the weak medieval architecture, others blaming the storm the night before, others pointing to bungled restoration work which had begun when the large cracks were discovered.  It seems time did the damage, improper precautions and ill-informed consultants led to further structural weakness, finalising with one stormy night being enough to make the damage irreversible and the collapse inevitable.

The spire was rebuilt taller than before, and lead to papers and discussions on how best to preserve ancient buildings, building on what had been started in France, with the publishing of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Notre Dame de Paris had been left in a state of disrepair before Hugo’s famous novel emphasised that these buildings will outlast and oversee all of the conflicts created by humans if revered and cared for in the right way.  The book acted as a sort of wake-up call across France.  Indeed it is difficult today to imagine a France were historical preservation does not form a significant aspect of their cultural identity.  This impact of Hugo was felt across the channel, with many Cathedrals and Abbeys having work done to their edifices and interiors.  The Cathedrals were designed to outlast the people that would pray within them, and later dodgy additions to the main structures meant that greater care was needed when working on these grand buildings.  G.G. Scott, the man who would design the new spire, gave a paper on the conservation of ancient buildings in 1862, and would go on to sit at a committee for the conservation of monuments and remains.  One decade later SPAB (the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) would be founded by William Morris, which continues to this day.

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PH 116 Showing the early days of restoration work

The planning and rebuilding of the Cathedral spire took five years, with the first stone being laid by the Duke of Richmond in May 1865.  By the end of that year the spire was 60 feet high, and on an almost fittingly stormy June 28th 1866, the weather-vane was placed on the spire, crowning it at eight feet higher than it had been previously.  Internally, restoration work took a little longer, with the 14 November 1867 marking the first service held with all the work complete.

Moving forward to the here and now, the Cathedral is currently going through further restoration work (the roof.  Always the church roof…) that will take several years.  It will undoubtedly look beautiful and relatively solid once complete, and, as far as I know, will continue to not have bees (intentionally) living in the new lead roof.  We do, however, have peregrine falcons, which you can watch on a livestream here, more impressive than bees for sure?

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Faculties @ WSRO Continued…

By Katie Bishop, Searchroom Assistant

Along with my colleague Imogen, I am undertaking the task of box listing church Facilities 1947-2002 (Ep 1/98).This means going through parish by parish and making a list of all the facilities we hold. Imogen discusses this work in more details and, crucially, explains what a faculty is in on her blog: An Intro to Faculties @WSRO.  On a basic level a faculty has to be submitted every time a church wants to make a change. Whenever a grave space is reserved a faculty is needed, every time cremated remains are interred a faculty is needed, every time a memorial tablet is placed a faculty is needed…you get the idea.

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3rd Battalion of The Royal Sussex Regiment, marching down North Street, Chichester, led by Colonel, the Earl of March, and Colonel Godman, on their way to South Africa

Through this work I have been discovering that they can be a great resource for research and specifically for family history. Imogen briefly touched on this in her blog but I want to explore in more detail how family researches can use them.

While box listing these faculties I came across one from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I have seen faculties for war memorials before but hadn’t come across one from the commission itself. It was in relation to St Margaret Church, Ifield, 13th March 1973. They were requesting that a privately placed headstone be removed in favour of a Commonwealth War Grave one, as well as 100 years exclusive right of burial for that soldier. The solider buried was C. E. M Thornton and reading through the faculty gave no more information about this man but it had intrigued me. The document mentioned that there were seven other WW1 soldiers buried at the churchyard, why focus on just one? I wondered if it was possible to find out more about the man, his life and service.

Because C. E. M Thornton was a WW1 burial, I assumed he had died in the war and so my first place to look for more information was the Commonwealth War Graves website. The website lists details of war memorials, cemeteries and has a casualty database of approx. 1.7 million men and women of the commonwealth forces who died during both World Wars. If there is a record for an individual, it will provide details of any grave or memorial. It often details battalion, regiment, service number and sometimes next of kin.

One result came up for a C. E. M Thornton! It told me that the soldiers full name was Private Crusier Eldred Moore Thornton, service number G/12997, died 19/03/1917, aged 41 and served in the 3rd Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment. He was born in Crawley, Sussex and was the son of Cruiser Thornton and Mary Ann Thornton and husband of Alice Thornton.

It also gave me details of where he was buried (although because of the faculty I already knew that) and links to information regarding the other soldiers buried in the churchyard.

This entry provided a wealth of information. Now knowing his date of death I could work out a date of birth. Also, knowing where he lived and parents’ names meant I could search censuses online and his service number would help in tracing him through military records, both online and at the Record Office.

Firstly I wanted to confirm his actual date of birth and so searched the genealogy site Ancestry.co.uk and found a registration entry which confirmed his birth being in Oct-Nov-Dec quarter of 1875. An entry also came up for his marriage in 1903.

RSR Catalogue - front cover imageOnce I had confirmed this basic information I wanted to see if I could trace him through the censuses. Having such an unusual name and knowing other family members would be a big help in knowing I was tracing the right person.

Using his name, date of birth and area he was living, I managed to find him and his family on the 1881 when he was 5 years old living in West Hoathly; the 1891 census as 15 years olds at Stanstead; the 1901 census at 25 years old, housepainter in Ifield and in the 1911 census now 35 years, housepainter in Ifield and married with a 4 year old son, Eldred.

Now that I had found out his family and background, I focused on his military career; the reason for the faculty in the first place. The Records Office holds the Royal Sussex Regiment (RSR) archive although it is still in the process of being catalogued. Knowing he was in the 3rd battalion, I knew that potentially it could be quite difficult to trace him. The 3rd battalion was a reserve battalion and not one of the two regular ones (1st and 2nd). Doing a quick Google search revealed that the battalion had remained in the UK throughout the war. They were mobilised to Dover and in May 1915 moved to Newhaven for duty (which becomes significant later). I searched his name (and variations) on our online catalogue but nothing came up. In the searchroom we have a series of indexes and RSR soldiers but we have almost nothing for 3rd battalion and again I could find no record of him.

I then went back to Ancestry.co.uk and used the military database but even with his unique name I was struggling to find any record of his military career. I didn’t find a service record but I wasn’t expecting to as 60% of the records don’t survive after heavy bombing in WW2 destroyed the building they were stored in. I did, however find small snippets of information. After his death a register of his effects were taken and it gives a date and place of death as 19th March 1917 at a military hospital in Newhaven (where I knew the 3rd battalion was stationed). Also on Ancestry were entries for Cruiser’s pension record and his place of burial.

From not even knowing the man’s full name, only ‘C E M Thornton’ listed in the faculty, I had gone on to discover; his full name, date of birth, marriage, death, where he grew up, the name of his family and aspects of his military career. This single faculty is just one example of many hundreds that relate to specific individuals. Hopefully this highlights how Facilities can be used alongside other resources in aiding those researching their family.

 

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Call for Participants: Chichester, the District & D-Day 75 years on

Chichester d_day 75th logoChichester and the District played an important role in D Day, with troops, aircraft, and supplies all moving through as part of the build-up for what became the largest amphibious assault in history. The 6th June 1944 would prove to be one of the most significant single days of the twentieth century; and preparations for it took place took place right on the doorsteps of those living in and near Chichester.

We would be delighted to speak to those with memories of D Day and the preparation for it, both those directly involved in the mobilisation and those who saw its effects on Chichester and the District.

  • Perhaps you remember being a child seeing troops moving through the city, seeing changes made to buildings and the landscape, or even remember the sights and sounds of it all?
  • Did you know the military personnel stationed at Bishop Otter College, or were you involved with the College yourself?
  • Do you have interesting photographs or documents of the period relating to Chichester and the District?
  • Do you have objects from the period that hold important memories for you?
  • Did you purchase any of the collections of Shoreham D-Day Aviation Museum on its closure?
No 44 RAF Ford briefing for blog

Briefing at RAF Ford © IWM

As part of a series of events taking place to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D Day, a series of oral history interviews are to be undertaken by historians from the Humanities Department at the University of Chichester, working closely with the West Sussex Records Office, and Tangmere Military Aviation Museum. We would be delighted to hear your stories and memories, and to scan any photographs or documents that you wanted to share with us (great care will be taken with any original material and copies taken to ensure that originals remain with their owners). Participants will have the opportunity to contribute their memories and stories to an evolving record of the area’s social history. We are planning a range of events in the run up to the anniversary, including a programme of scheduled public talks to be announced closer to the time.

If you are interested in taking part, please contact:

Dr Andrew WM Smith
Department of Humanities
University of Chichester
Chichester
PO19 6PE
01243 816499
a.smith@chi.ac.uk

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An intro to Faculties @ WSRO

By Imogen Russell, Searchroom Assistant

Though it is more the norm to write blogs on individual documents, I thought I’d talk about a series of records listed under our Episcopal collection, known as faculties. Faculties are permissions from the Diocese for parish churches to alter the fabric of their buildings. As the Diocesan Record Office, we not only hold faculties for West Sussex but also for East Sussex and some Kent and Surrey border parishes as well. Most will relate to internal and external repairs, redecoration and various other alterations to the building itself, including the movement or sale of furniture, the creation of side chapels and electrical or heating installation. But they can also include reservation of grave spaces and the installation of memorial tablets.

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There are several runs of Faculties in WSRO strong rooms.

This series of documents can contain other items of interest including ephemera relating to the companies involved with providing equipment or services and deeds relating to the transfer of lands involving the parish church.

I first encountered this series during closed fortnight in about 2012 when we’d taken a delivery of faculties from the Diocesan Registrar. The searchroom team began boxing them by parish (but not listing them). Largely under used, this series was mainly consulted by NADFAS or the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies (otherwise the Arts Society) who would look through the papers and create a report on what sort of decorations and artwork each church had. Indeed, a few parishes have faculties relating to designs by sculptors, stained glass makers and the restoration of medieval wall paintings. A collection of the Arts Society reports have been deposited within the Record Office and references can be searched for using our online catalogue.

To provide greater access to this undervalued resource in 2017, during our closed fortnight myself and a colleague began listing uncatalogued faculties.  We are only a fraction of the way through listing the ones from 1947 – 2002 but they have already proved to be a fascinating collection to explore, not only from a church building and administrative history point of view, but also as a stepping stone for exploring family and social history.

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For the family historian little gems such as reservations of grave spaces, internments of cremated remains and memorial tables can help to identify where an ancestor may have been buried. These in turn can confirm exact dates of birth and death as well as familial relationships or even the occasional character profiles of the person being memorialised such as Charles Cousens of Coldwaltham, who was described by the Churchwarden as a “Good Caretaker” looking after both the church hall and two churchyards, never missing a day for thirty years except when his wife died.

From a social history point of view it can be an intriguing exploration of events that impacted the parish or the UK as a whole. For example, the restoration of a stained glass window at Brighton St Pauls was designed as a memorial to those who lost their lives during the 1984 Brighton bombing.  The Compton war memorial references a particular incident in Irish and UK National history when it features the name of Herbert Richard Westmacott who was shot on 2nd May 1980 during an encounter with the IRA.

Sometimes faculties can be a springboard to research other historical topics for example a memorial tablet in Heathfield mentions Reverend Robert Hunt, who was the chaplain to the first colony set up in 1607 at Jamestown Virginia.

It can also be nice to see which parishes are inclusive in remembering their war casualties such as the war memorials in Battle St Marys, Boxgrove or Colgate, who mention both the men and women of the parish who lost their lives during the war. Colgate not only includes the active service personnel but also those on civil defence.

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The project to list these Faculties is an extensive one, but will ultimately help to provide researchers with a valuable resource for all kinds of historical topics.

Of all the faculties listed so far, the Bosham Second World War memorial faculty is the most interesting as it highlights the idea that not all war memorials were welcomed. This particular memorial (a clock on the tower) was objected to on the grounds of its position and its relation to being viewed from the ground as well as the impact it would have had on the fabric of the Norman church. What’s interesting is not just the idea that a war memorial was objected to but that the names of the objectors were not representative of the parish as a whole, and also seems to reflect the issues that a few of the First World War memorials had; as illustrated in Keith Grieves’ chapter in Great War West Sussex (Lib 18,554).

Objections made against a parish’s faculty can tell you a lot about the way a faculty was considered. Two lever arch files for Arundel relate to one man’s objections to the churches iconography being too Catholic. The argument put forward by the parish is that the church was established in the 13th century and bound to have Catholic iconography. The objector felt he had to defend the Church of England faith as his ancestors had done before. While this seems an unusual thing to be objecting to, the seriousness considered by both parties regarding the objection gives us an insight into the process behind the churches administration. The objection would have been treated like a law case with the Chancellor, as a Judge of the Consistory Court, hearing both sides of the argument from various witnesses and eventually providing his decision regarding the outcome.

Our project is still on-going, but whether it’s family, social or church administrative history, faculties can be a useful source of information and worth considering for future reference. However, it is also worth noting that each faculty application is unique and will not always provide the same detail as the previous parish, paperwork may be missing and names may be omitted. But we can at least guarantee that they will always follow the same procedure.

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The anti-slavery movement in West Sussex

Independence and Sergison. An excellent new Song. Tune – The Dying Slave, 1807 (Add Mss 29679)

“Father came, in a great bustle for some slavery papers which he has to distribute,” wrote Rhoda Hack, from Chichester, in April 1824. This domestic update in her surroundings came as she penned the latest letter in her regular correspondence with her sister-in-law, Priscila Tuke (nee Hack). “What are you doing with this subject at York?” she asked, referring to Priscila’s adopted home, where she moved after she married the tea-dealer Samuel Tuke.

I look forward to discussing how Chichester women – and men – contributed to campaigns against slavery and the slave trade, placing the local records in the context of a national campaign against colonial sin (from 1787-1838). 50 years of popular pressure on Parliament forged new norms for political campaigning, but only belatedly transformed Britain from the leading slave empire in the Atlantic world. Before abolition triumphed, British ships transported 3 million enslaved people to the Americas and many families in Chichester profited from slavery and slave-grown goods.

The ongoing correspondence between Rhoda Hack and Priscila Tuke – now held in West Sussex Record Office – was typical of the ways letters shared family news and reflections on wider events across the whole of Great Britain. Since the role of Quakers, such as the Hacks and Tukes, in the campaigns to end British slave trading and British slave ownership, is well-known, we might think there is something unremarkable about their interest in this question.

Letter to Priscilla Tuke from Rhoda Hack, 6 May 1824

But their exchanges illuminate three of the themes I will highlight in a talk at the Record Office. Firstly, they demonstrate the ways in which anti-slavery campaigners built a national network to coordinate highly local activism to pressure an unwilling Parliament. News passed through the press, but also family missives – such as Rhoda’s reports that a public meeting at Southampton had been hijacked by pro-slavery crowds, who voted down a proposal to send a petition to Parliament.

Secondly, they show the importance of these local gatherings and assemblies in building the grassroots pressure that added up to a coordinated national movement. Petitions, left available to sign in municipal buildings such as Chichester Town Hall, allowed citizens to demonstrate their anti-slavery virtue and discharge their sense of responsibility for ending a national evil. The local meetings and provision of sign-places rested on changing ideas of the relationship between popular opinion and government.

Thirdly, Priscila and Rhoda’s correspondence provides a rare understanding of the ideas and emotions in those reading anti-slavery literature and discussing the campaign with their families. Rhoda and Priscila discuss their reading of a recent pamphlet, for example, encouraging Britons, especially women, to boycott the use of sugar in their tea. Yet, they found the female author of that work “too strong” in her language and apparent sanction for slave resistance in the 1823 Demerara rising.

I will be pleased if readers of this blog can join me for the talk on 26 March, to discuss what we can learn from the records in West Sussex Record Office.

Book tickets for Dr Richard Huzzey’s talk ‘The anti-slavery movement in West Sussex’ at the Record Office on Tuesday 26th March at 7pm. Tickets are £8 including refreshments, and must be booked in advance by calling our reception on 01243 753602.

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International Women’s Day: The story of Nancy B. Birkett; an early Aviatrix in Shoreham

The 1920s and 1930s saw a huge advancement in flight engineering. With that, aviation mania swept Europe and America. Usually thought of as a male pursuit, flying planes quickly garnered fresh attention from the media as increasing numbers of women took to the skies. Amy Johnson and Amelia Earhart were just two of a number of celebrated pilots who became household names due to their daring journeys.

With International Women’s Day approaching, this had us wondering; were there any records of early female pilots in the archive?

This is the story of West Sussex’s very own early female pilot, Nancy B. Birkett.

Nancy Birkett’s aviator’s certificate, 1931.

From Chichester to Shoreham

Born Edith Nancy Beynon Birkett in Chichester in 1901, Nancy grew up in a devoutly Christian household. Her father, the Reverend F. J. Birkett, served as Rector of All Saints and St. Andrews, Chichester, between 1890 – 1921. The family lived in Summersdale House, a large Georgian property on the outskirts of Chichester. With her uncle, Reverend L. B. Birkett, just a few miles away in Westbourne, the Birkett family were well settled in the area.

Yet, Nancy went on to lead a less-than-serene life.

Between 1926 and 1933 she served as Honorary Secretary of the then brand new Southern Aero Club, based at Shoreham. The club was founded in 1925 by pioneering British aviator Cecil Pashley and his then student F. G. Miles. According to the 1933 edition of Who’s Who in British Aviation, the politician and businessman Sir Cooper Rawson served as president and Pashley acted as the club’s flight instructor, tutoring its members in an Avro Avian plane.

Aged 25 when she commenced her position as hon. secretary, Nancy was part of a growing number of women post-WWI who pursued career work prior to marriage. She even took up lodgings nearer to the club for ease. As her title suggests, “Honorary” most likely meant that she didn’t receive a wage.

Many early aviation enthusiasts, male and female, came from more privileged backgrounds in the years approaching the Depression. After all, it was an expensive hobby. Nevertheless, the freedoms that developed from partial emancipation for women in 1918, and the increase in women entering the workplace, gave many the confidence to pursue traditionally male activities.

Licensed to fly

Nancy not only did work for the club, as a member she regularly partook in flights under the instruction of Pashley and Miles. Nancy worked hard to obtain her aviator’s certificate, a goal which she achieved in 1931.Two months after receiving her certificate, Nancy acquired her private pilot’s license, which allowed her to fly “all types of flying machine”. She was the first female member of Shoreham Aero Club to receive her license.

Newspaper article reporting on the event of Nancy sucessfully obtaining her pilot’s license, 1931.

A peek into her official log book, issued to her on receipt of her pilot’s license, shows that in the two years that Nancy could legally fly (prior to her marriage in 1933) she clocked up almost 97 hours of flight time. This time-capsule of a document shows that most of these numerous flights were from Shoreham airspace, with the occasional starting position elsewhere such as Croydon.

Nancy Birkett’s flight log book, 1931 – 1933.

During Nancy’s time working with the Southern Aero Club, she maintained several wonderful albums of photographs, each one filled with images of different types of aircraft and members of the club. It is within one of these albums that a photograph of Colonel Lindberg appears. Nancy has written below the image that it was taken on occasion of his celebrated flight to Paris from New York in 1927. That Nancy may have been there to take this photo tells us of her passion for aviation.

Back on the ground

In 1933, Nancy married Captain W.P.H. Gorringe, who was then serving with the 13th Punjab Regiment in India. Following her marriage, Nancy travelled extensively, perhaps as part of her husband’s career. Her passport is stamped from visits to Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iraq, and Italy, to name a few. Her enthusiam for travel is evident, her experience as a pilot having developed an adventurous disposition.

It isn’t known if Nancy continued flying. Yet this fantastic collection of records from her aviation days still offers an insight into the opportunities available to many women after WWI. Even small collections such as these help to preserve unique stories, which in turn contribute to a wider and more balanced social history of women’s lives.

By Alice Millard, Research Assistant

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