‘Lubrication in Moderation’: Ye Ancient Order of Froth Blowers (A.O.F.B) in West Sussex

By Dr David Muggleton of the University of Chichester

PH 18626 shows a dray being pulled by a steam engine, with George Constable Brewery in Arundel staff including drayman, Mr Mates, standing in front. The photograph is dated c1900.

Sussex has a long history with brewing, as PH 18626 shows, with a dray being pulled by steam engine for the George Constable Brewery in Arundel, in the late 19th Century.

My introduction to the collected story of the A.O.F.B. was through the 2005 self-publication by David Woodhead entitled Of Fripp and Froth Blowers. David went on to become Chairman of the tribute organisation, Friends of the Froth Blowers, but had initially been sceptical as to the authenticity of the original Order. His book recalls how he first came across the A.O.F.B. through the unearthing in a second-hand bookshop of a membership booklet, number 371,296, date of issue 17 March 1927. It was not merely its whimsicality that suggested to him that it was a spoof. Surely any organisation of that period purporting to have a membership of that number with meeting places (humorously called ‘Vats’) established worldwide and who had by that point raised £10,000 (and would go onto raise ten times that amount) for charity could not have completely vanished from popular consciousness as this one had done.

Sepia photograph dating from around 1925 of the Ancient Order of Froth Blowers taken outside the Swan Inn in Fittleworth. Around 22 people are seated on a grassy bank. Written on the photograph with black ink is the phrase "The More We Are Together the Merrier We'll Be".

Photograph taken outside the Swan Inn of the A.O.F.B. in Fittleworth, courtesy of the F.O.F.B., copy made by Dr. Muggleton

David did eventually establish that the A.O.F.B. had been a genuine charitable organisation, founded in London and in existence from 1924-31. Yet aspects of its ‘roaring twenties’ jocularity – the lampooning of the proceedings of a Masonic Lodge, the cod-Medievalism of the membership booklet language, the elevation of beer-drinking to an almost jingoistic act of patriotism – rendered its story just too implausible for the ears of modern audiences. I discovered this to my cost after deciding to add some conceptual socio-historical analysis to what had so far been an anthology. And so it was that in February 2013, I gave my first talk on the A.O.F.B. – at a conference on historical aspects of drink hosted by the University of Warwick. Just as comedians can ‘die a death’ on stage, so can university lecturers. Looking back over my thirty years in this role, I can safely say that Warwick was not my finest twenty minutes.

Membership booklet for the Ancient Order of Froth Blowers. The membership card number is 279927, and includes a cartoon of a gentleman with a spilling glass of beer and a young girl. The caption reads "Ale fellow, well met!"

Add Mss 44698 – Ancient Order of Froth Blowers membership booklet, 1927

It did not help that I was allocated the closing Sunday afternoon ‘graveyard shift’, or that the auditorium was stiflingly hot and that many participants, including myself, had over-indulged at the Saturday-evening dinner. An American academic at my table with whom I had previously corresponded by email insisted on buying an extra bottle of wine or three on meeting me face-to-face for the first time. Well, it was a conference on drink, after all. A fresh blanket of snow had then fallen overnight across the West Midlands and when icy conditions persisted on the Sunday most delegates decided to leave early. It was therefore to the remaining handful of the most-hardened conference-attendees that I rose to my feet to address as the final speaker. Having fluffed my lines a few times along the way, I reached the end only to be met by blank stares and stupefied silence. After a few awkward seconds, a woman put to me the only question of the session, but phrased as an accusation – ‘you make it sound like the Froth Blowers were the forerunners of UKIP. Do you agree?’

Three safety pin badges from the Ancient Order of the Froth Blowers, one a bubbly tankard of beer, the second a red nosed and hat wearing man with a dazed look and a substantial beard, and thirdly a traditional pint glass filled with frothy beer.

Badges of rank, courtesy of the F.O.F.B., photograph taken by Dr. Muggleton

But it wasn’t me. I did the same talk in collaboration with the Lewes Octoberfeast of that year in the more congenial surroundings of the upstairs room at the John Harvey Tavern to an engrossed audience who even burst into an impromptu smattering of applause at the end. And yet – a few people at one table seemed reluctant to depart and one of them eventually and hesitantly approached me. ‘Do you know’, he said, ‘for the first ten minutes we thought you were making it all up’. But amongst those persuaded of the veracity of my talk, a Mr Bob Oliver and his associates were enthused to form their own Friends of the Froth Blowers Vat at their local pub in Burgess Hill. So if you are attending my talk on the A.O.F.B. at the West Sussex Record Office on Tuesday 26 November this year, please be reassured that however fanciful their story may appear, all is true. Please also note that a preview article on which the talk is based will appear in the forthcoming autumn, No. 87 issue of West Sussex History.

Our next Tuesday Talk will be on the 28 January 2020 – By Rail to Chichester, 1846-2016, by Alan Green.  To book tickets call 01243 753602.  Talks start at 7pm and cost £8.00 a ticket.

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Doodles, dragons, and pen trials

By Alice Millard, Research Assistant

Anyone who has ever had a long phone conversation, sat in a meeting, or attempted to put off doing homework will have whiled away some of that time doodling. But, have you ever thought of people doing the exact same thing hundreds of years ago?

The term ‘pen trial’ is essentially a collective way of describing those funny doodles, scribbles, or writing exercises that we find in old documents. If you wanted to be really fancy, you could call these by their Latin terminology probatio pennae. There are a myriad of types of pen markings that you can find hidden within documents. All giving a unique insight into the way in which a document or record was created and used, and reminding us that human nature hasn’t changed all that much!


Henry VIII Royal Charter 1526. (ChiCity/A/8)

It isn’t very common that we come across elaborate drawings in early documents. In the example image above, we can see that someone – we don’t know if it was drawn by the original scribe of the deed – has illustrated the parchment with a bird-like creature to the left, and a giant Tudor rose to the right. Unsurprisingly, the Tudor rose can be explained by the document dating from Henry VIII’s reign.

Sometimes we find even more creativity in the form of stains, blots, tears and imperfections in the parchment turned into creatures such as the tiger-like animal in the example below.

A stain drawn over to resemble an animal.
From Rudgwick burial register.
Par 106/1/5/1

Writing exercises and workings out

Pages of a commonplace book covered in handwritten alphabets and numbers.
Early 17th Century commonplace book of John Hames of Midhurst. (Add Mss 14874-14875)

Sometime we find handwritten notes which are more like quick writing exercises. As you can see from the example above, the sections of alphabet and the lines of numbers written in this book look as through they were written as a practice session. We can imagine all sorts of reasons for this, boredom being one! Other scribes may have required a inexpensive bit of paper to practice their handwriting technique, so they could refer back to it.

Page of a book with handwritten alphabet in.
Series of papers of William Hall of Burwash. (Add Mss 39854)
The back cover of Rudgwick burial register showing the vicar’s working out.
Par 106/1/5/1.

What we regularly see are numbers and sums hurriedly written in margins and on covers. As you can see on the above image of Rudgwick burial register, the vicar has quickly worked out the years of birth and death of various different parishioners which required when recording a burial. From these we get a glimpse of a sightly unorganised vicar, rushing to complete his work without bothering to find a piece of scrap paper to do his sums on.


A sheet of paper with doodled letters at the bottom of the page.
Pen trials scribbled at the bottom of a page

Other pen markings are evidence of the scribe testing the nib of their quill. Just as we check a new (or old) ball-point pen by a scribble, quills would need a quick check to see if you had cut or trimmed the nib properly. A scribe’s style of writing would be affected by the nib of a quill, and it was often important to maintain one style throughout a document. Also, testing a new quill would be required to figure out the best pressure to apply, and the best way in which to angle the nib. In the example you see above, the scribe has tested their quill by writing two ‘b’s’ side-by-side, and at another time also scribbled an unintelligible word.

Thanks for reading! All of these records are available to view at the Record Office. Come along and see what you can find!

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The Railway Card Project: ‘B’ surname cards

By Katherine Slay, Archives Assistant

In our latest blog post, Katherine Slay explains more about our on-going project to catalogue the tens of thousands of employee cards of the Southern England Railway company. These are gradually being made available whilst being indexed at the same time. Family historians will be able to find out more about their railway ancestors from this invaluable resource.

It has been quite a while since the last blog about the project to gather information from 72 boxes of railway employee cards. Unfortunately the Record Office had a major problem with its cataloguing software earlier this year, and it could not be used. Luckily this didn’t affect the volunteers, who continued work on the cards using Excel spreadsheets.

The good news is that the problem has been solved, and the railway employment cards for employees whose surname begins with the letter ‘B’ are now online in the Record Office collection catalogue. When searching our catalogue, make sure to Click the ‘Advanced Search’ button, then type the surname you want in the Any Text field and ‘SEREC into the CatalogueNo field.

Railway employee crosses the track at Midhurst Station.
Midhurst (LB&SCR) station, looking eastward towards Pulborough, c1923. The west portal of the tunnel under Chichester Road is visible in the background. This image (Shephard/1/62/11) comes from the Ronald Shephard collection of railway photographs, held at West Sussex Record Office.

The railway employee cards contain not only a wealth of genealogical data but some also reveal fascinating stories about the individuals who worked on the railways and associated maritime services. Herbert Breuilly started work as a Deck Boy at Southampton in 1916, shortly before his 15th birthday. He was presented with the Royal Humane Society’s Certificate and a gold cigarette case for a ‘gallant rescue’ at Guernsey on 9 October 1931. Unfortunately the details of this rescue are not recorded.

By the start of WW2 he was alternating Acting Chief Officer and Acting Master. When he returned from his war service in 1945 he was Lieutenant-Commander, RNVR. He had been mentioned in dispatches for ‘duties performed in connection with landing on Normandy beaches’ during the D-Day operations.

Three railway employees stand in front of a huge steam engine.
Bodmin Wharf c 1899. Wharfinger, Sam Worth, stands in front of 2-4-0WT No.248 which was fitted with a cab in April 1893. (Shephard/1/7/3)

More generally, the earliest year of birth among the ‘B’ cards is 1858, and the most recent is 1952. The earliest start date of a ‘B’ card employee is 1875, and the most recent is 100 years later, in 1975.

Nationalities (where given) of the ‘B’ card employees are Jamaican (14), Indian (9), Anglo-Indian (7), Barbadian (5), Nigerian (4), Polish (4), Irish (3), West Indian (3), British West Indian (2), German (2), Guyanese (2), Italian (2), British Guianese (1), Canadian (1), Latvian (1), Pakistani (1), Spanish (1), Swiss (1), Yugoslav (1).

An early locomotive on display behind railings.
Old ‘Invicta’ Locomotive on plinth in Dane Johns Gardens, Canterbury. Now on display in Canterbury Heritage Museum. The loco was named after the motto on the Flag of Kent, ‘Invicta’ meaning undefeated. She hauled the inaugural train into Whitstable Harbour Station on 30 May 1830. (Shephard/1/10/6)

Although the railway cards are from the Southern Region, not all the employees began their railway employment with the obvious railway companies. The majority of the ‘B’ surnames started work with British Rail / British Railways, Southern Railway, or London, Brighton & South Coast Railway. The remainder are withLondon & South Western Railway;South Western Railway;South Eastern & Chatham Railway;London, Chatham & Dover Railway;London & North Eastern Railway; London, Midland & Scottish Railway;South Eastern Railway; or the company is unspecified.

Among the more distant places that the ‘B’ card employees started work are Scotland (Aberdeen, Kirkaldy, Glasgow), Wales (Cardiff, Merthyr), Jersey, and the northern half of England (Manchester, Wolverhampton, Loughborough, Birmingham, Darlington, Middlesbrough).

Follow us for new blogs about the railway employee cards – they’ll be posted once every month as more cards are added to the online catalogue.

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The monstrous serpent of St Leonard’s Forest

By Alice Millard, Research Assistant

Written accounts of serpent-like creatures, often referred to as dragons, appear throughout British history. They’re comparable to today’s sensationalist news stories about spooky big cat sightings. Both are creatures who normally cannot be accurately described – yet people have attempted to convince others of the existence of monsters for millennia. A combination of oral folklore, pitch-black nights, and the lack of knowledge of the world outside a town fueled the belief of other-worldly things.

A pen and ink drawing of a dragon's face on parchment.
Dragon iconography appear on all sorts of early documents, such as this 16th century indenture. (ChiCity/AH/4)

One particular account of a serpent creature can be read in the archive…

The text below is taken from a chapter within a book called ‘The Harleian Miscellany: A Collection of Scarce, Curious and Entertaining Pamphlets and Tracts…. Selected from the Library of Edward Harley, Second Earl of Oxford’ (Lib 16806) which we hold here in the archive.

True and Wonderfull. A Discourse relating a strange and monstrous Serpent (or Dragon) lately discovered, and yet living, to the great Annoyence and divers Slaughters both of Men and Cattell, by his strong and violent Poyson: In Sussex, two Miles from Horsam, in a Woode called St. Leonard’s Forrest, and thirtie Miles from London, this present Month of August, 1614. With the true Generation of Serpents.”

Opening text to ‘True and Wonderfull’, 1614.
The location of an original version is not known. (Lib 16806)

This chapter focuses on a full transcription of the 1614 pamphlet which describes in some detail a monster-type creature “most terrible and noisome to the inhabitants thereabouts.”. It was printed by John Trundle in London. Unfortunately, the true provenance of this pamphlet isn’t known.

These types of sensationalist publications were called chapbooks and were designed to be purchased cheaply and passed around friends and family (see images below for other examples). They usually aimed to shock and subjects would include murders, monsters, and the deviant behaviour of criminals. However, we’ll never know if this particular chapbook was just a publisher’s publicity stunt, or a creepy first-hand account!

According to this chapbook, the sightings of the serpent took place in St Leonard’s forest, an area which is described as a “vast and unfrequented place, heathie, vaultie, full of unwholesome shades, and over-growne hollowes”

The author of the 1614 pamphlet tells us that there were three witnesses that informed this written account, local residents named John Steele, Christopher Holder, and “a Widow Woman dwelling nere Faygate”.

According to these three people, “this serpent (or dragon, as some call it) is reputed to be nine feete, or rather more, in length, and shaped almost in the forme of an axletree of a cart” and it is “discovered to have large feete, but the eye may be there deceived; for some suppose that serpents have no feete, but glide upon certain ribbes and scales”.

Printed list of three witnesses who reportedly saw the serpent in St Leonard's Forest.
Witnesses to the serpent. (Lib 16806)

The narrator goes on to describe the destruction of this creature…

“He will cast his venome about four rode [rod] from him, as by woefull experience it was proved on that bodies of a man and a woman comming that way, who afterwards were found dead, being poisoned and very much swelled, but not prayed upon.”

Of course, it is impossible to substantiate any of the above claims of a monstrous serpent terrorising Horsham, but it isn’t unreasonable to believe that unfamiliar animals or unexplained events fueled the creation of these types of sightings. But for those living in Horsham, please, beware…

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Historic records and architectural histories: drawings and models

By Tim Hudson (guest blogger)

What types of historic documents do architectural historians use? Continuing with our guest written series, the once Editor of the Sussex Victoria County History and co author of the updated Pevsner guide to West Sussex, Tim Hudson, will be exploring the types of records used when researching built heritage. Each blog, Tim will look at a significant West Sussex building through a variety of historic documents available at the Record Office.

Today we look at architectural drawings and models.

Transverse drawing of a proposed structure for Goodwood House. Drawn in black and white, the structure has a large dome as a centre point, and classical doorways and columns, as well as a grand staircase to the front entrance of the house.
Unexecuted design for Goodwood, West Sussex: transverse section, courtesy of RIBA collections (reference RIBA65973)

Architectural historians are always eager to find original drawings for architects’ projects. These can reveal the stages of a design, sometimes including features that weren’t incorporated in the end result. They can also show schemes never carried out. The drawings for Goodwood House made in 1724 by the Scots architect Colen Campbell, one of the originators of the ultra-classical Palladian movement in English architecture, are an example.

The Record Office holds photographs of the originals, which are in the Royal Institute of British Architects’ collection. Campbell’s design alludes to Palladio’s Villa Rotonda near Vicenza in Italy, including a central circular and domed hall with other rooms around it.

Colour photograph of the front entrance to the stables, with a neo-classical design of columns and an archway. Fauna grows up the walls either side of the main arch entrance.
Goodwood House, stables, by William Chambers, 17575-1763, image copyright James O Davies

The architectural history of Goodwood is complicated, and is fully explained in the revised edition of Pevsner’s guidebook for West Sussex, by Elizabeth Williamson and others (2019). A greater architect than Campbell who later worked at the house was Sir William Chambers, best known for Somerset House by Waterloo Bridge in London. His contribution at Goodwood was the Stables of 1757-63, which to some visitors at least seem much grander than the house itself.

A prolific architect in the early 20th century in Mid Sussex was Leonard Kier Hett (1887-1978), described in the revised Pevsner as sometimes ‘cautiously progressive’ in style. His working papers have recently been deposited at WSRO (AM 818). Much of Hett’s work involved the restoration and enlargement of 16th- and 17th-century houses, for instance Broadhurst Manor in Horsted Keynes.

Broadhurst Manor, Horsted Keynes, perspective and plan by L. Keir Hett, 1930. Taken from the Pevsner page 453

More exciting survivals than drawings, though rarer, are architectural models. Two famous ones for buildings outside Sussex are Sir Christopher Wren’s ‘Great Model’ for St Paul’s Cathedral in London (viewable there by appointment) and Lutyens’s for Liverpool Roman Catholic Cathedral, described as ‘the greatest cathedral never built’ (to be seen at the Walker Art Gallery in that city).

The Record Office is lucky to have two models relating to the Chichester Festival Theatre, built in 1961-2; they form part of the large collection of the Theatre’s archives given from 1994 onwards. Both illustrate planning applications. One, by the building’s original architects Powell & Moya, shows early alterations to be made in 1967. The other shows extensions proposed in 2011 by the firm of Haworth Tompkins, which were carried out in 2012-14. The new West Sussex Pevsner describes the ingenious construction of the theatre, its account illustrated by a plan and cross section taken from a contemporary architectural magazine.

For anyone interested to see more architects’ drawings and models, the two best national repositories, both in London, are the V & A Architecture Department (which incorporates the RIBA collection) and the quirky Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Both are free to enter and well worth the visit.

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Rationing and West Sussex

By Abigail Hartley, Searchroom Archivist

Go easy with the butter,
Be careful with the jam.
And here’s a word remember,
That it’s 16 points for spam.
Just bear in mind that Allied ships,
We need for war’s equipment,
Must pass through many danger zones,
To bring us every shipment.

Rationing, from ‘Rhymes of those Times’ By Gwen Jones, 1945, WSRO, AM 1190/1
A black and white image showing a line of woman queuing to collect rationed fish supplies
L’Alouette/A/1/16 – Queuing for fish at J.W Woodford’s in Bognor Regis

Earlier last month I wrote a blog about the arrival of children to West Sussex as part of the Evacuation Scheme successfully cobbled together by central government, and London and West Sussex schools. This month we continue with the commemoration the 80th anniversary of the start of the Second World War.

The Record Office holds a multitude of items that show how people lived whilst having their clothes, petrol, food and drink rationed.

If we start with Add Mss 54087 – Letters to Molly Chandler in Canada from her father Fred Chandler in Tillington, in which he describes how stingy the petrol rationing was in 1939.

Six booklets held by a member of the public during the rationing period, including a blue National Savings Certificates booklet, a Ration book, a Petrol Ration book, a red Clothing Ration book, a slim National Savings Stamp Book, and a blue National Registration Identity Card
MP 5329 – Books for rations, stamps, clothing, petrol…

“We have had however complete blackout over the whole country, and the most strangest regulations for cars and cycles, making night driving very dangerous. I shall not go out after sunset as I understand the petrol ration will be 5 gals only per month. There is not much hope in getting anywhere.”

WSRO – Add Mss 54087

This collection as a whole is filled with gems. Fred makes drawings of where bombings occurred in the first years of the war, and describes how rationing affected local businesses. His daughter, who was stationed in Canada at the time, received letters on a near weekly basis.

The records of MP 5329 show what the assorted books and cards people now had to carry on their person. The coupon system could get complicated, and inevitably led to the queues so famous in so many images at the time.

A notice to the public regarding the rationing of clothing was published in 1941, which stated the 66 coupons would have to do per person until May 1942. Exempt goods included baby and toddler clothing, boiler suits, hats, caps, hair nets, sewing thread, mending wool, shoe laces, 3 inches thick or less fabric, elastic, lace, sanitary towels, braces, garters, clogs (of all things), blackout cloth and all secondhand clothing. Is it any wonder where the “make do and mend” mentality came from?

Image shows ten or so leaflets and notes regarding the supply of food to the school, including scale of rationed foods allowed, orders of margarine and cooking fat needed each month, requests for more allowances and notices on rationing portions
Yapton National School – E/225/19/10 – circulars from the Ministry of Food and WSCC for food orders and supplies during WWII

But it is not just in personal collections that we see the impact of rationing. It’s also in county records. You can read in Council minutes about the establishment of allotment committees and the purchasing of land to grow more food in WOC/CC1/22. Moreover, local schools, now with even more mouths to feed due to evacuation, had to be extraordinarily careful in what products they used as well as portion size.

E/255/19/10 contains many circulars advising portion sizing, with meat being equivalent of 2d per meal, 1/7 oz of bacon per meal, and 1/5 oz for preserves per meal. Interestingly, tea was not rationed initially. One circular notes:

“There is no permitted quantity of tea at the moment, but all calculations are made on the basis of 1lb of tea equals 200 beverages”

WSRO – E/255/19/10

Which just goes to show how tea was too precious to ration. It was only in 1940 when it was rationed for the general public, and even then it was enough to make three cups a day, much less stringent then other rationed goods for sure!

The Ministry of Food recommended 2,500 calories per child at the time (as much as an adult requires nowadays) and suggested that a hot school dinner should account for 1,000 of those calories. The Labour Research Department reported that by 1942 around 700,000 children were having school dinners – a good way to reduce pressure on parents at home whilst ensuring malnutrition was avoided during particular shortages.

7 day menu for breakfast (bacon, porridge, fish cakes), mid-morning (orange or swede juice), dinner (jacket potatoes, scrambled eggs, mutton, liver, cod, oat pudding, jam or dried fruit) and tea (cheese and raw grated cabbage sandwiches, lemon curd, flapjacks, milk, mashed veggies on toast)... very appealing?
AM 621/9 – Ministry of Food suggested war-time weekly menu for a child… yummy

AM621/9 contains a brilliant little advisory menu for children’s meals from the Ministry of Food. It includes such appetising things as cheese and raw grated cabbage sandwiches, swede juice, creamed cod or mashed veggies on toast, all of which seems to be awfully optimistic of children’s eating habits.

Notice from the Ministry of Food noting the prohibition of service of turkey's in catering any day from the 19th to the 27th of December except Christmas Day (and leftovers for Boxing Day onwards) or Christmas Eve if closed on Christmas Day itself
MP 2064 – Controlling the turkey supplies

The Home Guard also had similar restrictions. Placing orders for food could be tricky, and often requests for extra rations could be nigh impossible to receive a positive response. MP 2064 shows what it took to obtain a turkey in a catering establishment during Christmas. In the case of cheese, we have one circular from the Food Control Committee for the Food Area of the Rural District of Chichester from the 18th August 1940, which notes that:

“While every endeavour will be made to meet your wishes in regard to the types of cheese supplied, no guarantee can be given that your requirements in this respect will be met.”

WSRO – AM 686/1
Notice from the Ministry of Food regarding the ending of rationing for sugar confectionery and chocolate after the 4th of February 1953
AM 686/11 – Sweeties and chocolate were not un-rationed until 1953! Cue the rejoicing of children across the nation…

It is a bit surreal reading these notices now, and tricky to imagine in today’s world being denied cheese or tea or turkey on the 23rd of December… but it was the reality for 1940s and early 1950s Britain.

Whilst bread was restored in 1948, other foods and goods remained restricted. Clothes rationing ended in 1949, and petrol in 1950. Sweets and chocolate were once more allowed to be endlessly consumed on the 4th of February 1953, with sugar in general following that September, where finally, on the 4 July 1954, restrictions on the sale and purchase of meat and all remaining items were lifted. The impact of the war was continually felt on so many levels, fifteen years after it had started and nearly a decade after it had ended.

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Looking back at the Women’s Institute in West Sussex

By Alison Merriman, Archivist to the West Sussex Federation of Women’s Institutes

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the West Sussex Federation of Women’s Institutes, Alison delves deeper into the origins of the WI – an organisation that has been present in West Sussex ever since its arrival in England in 1914. To illustrate her words, we have added images from just a few of the many local WI collections held here at the Record Office.

Group of women sitting outside at a Petworth WI meeting.
Photograph of the Petworth WI, taken from a scrapbook entitled ‘Petworth Through The Ages’ by Miss G B Mayne, c1935. (AM 44-3-3)

Women’s Institutes had their origins in Canada and a lady called Adelaide Hoodless. Their creation was prompted by a very sad event –  her son died of gastroenteritis, probably caused by contaminated milk.

The movement came to England and more particularly Sussex with another indomitable lady and another tragic event. Madge Watt was active in the WI movement in Canada. Her husband was the subject of a Royal Commission investigation into a complaint. The stress of the enquiry affected his mental state and he committed suicide, just before the commission cleared him of all charges.

As you can imagine, Madge was devastated and wanted to get away with her two young boys. She was invited to take refuge in England by a lady called Josephine Godman who lived in Little Ote Hall near Wivelsfield. She and Madge had become friends when they were both living in Canada.  So that is how two ladies who both knew about the WI in Canada came to be living in Sussex.

Cross-stitched scrapbook by Lavant WI. Making scrapbooks was a popular activity for the WI.
Lavant WI Jubilee Year scrapbook, 1965 (AM 872-3-1)

When war broke out in 1914 Madge saw that the WI could be a very powerful way to mobilise women to help in the war effort. She spoke at a number of meetings and eventually came to the notice of John Nugent Harris, Secretary of the Agricultural Organisation Society. He could see the potential and convinced his fellow members to employ Madge on a six month contract to set up WIs in England and Wales and the rest, as they say, is history.

The first WI in Britain was formed in Wales, on Anglesey and is affectionately known as Llanfair PG as no one can pronounce the full Welsh name. Two WIs lay claim to the title of the first WI in England but most agree it is Singleton and East Dean which is most appropriate given the founders lived in Sussex at the time.

Madge did a great job starting WIs (only in small rural communities of less than 4,000 at that time) and soon ladies from WIs wanted to meet ladies from other WIs. The first Sussex meeting was held in Little Ote Hall to “confer with a view to comparing experience and to see whether there were any points on which they could usefully combine”. Out of this meeting came The Sussex Conference of Women’s Institutes. It was the first such conference in the country and was the forerunner of all the county federations, even predating the National Federation itself. 

Log book created by Camelsdale WI to record the making and collecting of produce.
Camelsdale WI Log Book of ‘Operation Produce’, 1948 (Add Mss 52493)

It remained the Sussex Conference covering East Sussex and West Sussex until December 1919 when a resolution was debated “That it is the opinion of this meeting that the time has arrived when it is desirable to form two separate Federations for East Sussex and West Sussex”.  So the West Sussex Federation of WIs (WSFWI) came into being and it is its creation a century ago that we are celebrating this year.

To help to celebrate the centenary of WSFWI, West Sussex Record Office is inviting WI members in for a special behind the scenes tour of the Record Office, where the WSFWI and other local WI records are held.

This will take place on Monday 21st October starting at 2.00pm and finishing at 3.30pm. Tickets are £3.50 and can be booked by calling reception on 01243 753602.

WSRO also has a display up showcasing some of the wonderful items from the WI archives which can be seen at any time when the Record Office is open.

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