The Comport Family

The Comport family.

As readers of this blog will, by now, be aware my interest in Sheila Kaye-Smith’s writing has led me to look at Sussex, Northiam, hop growing and much more. In the village of Northiam (where Kaye-Smith lived for most of her later life) I came across the Unitarian Chapel – now a house – and in its grounds are the graves of several members of the Comport family. Kaye-Smith makes mention of this Northiam family along with others that she notes have surnames that indicate a French origin. Kaye-Smith suggests that the Comports, Poiles, Papillions, Hansons, Gassons and Perigoes were from families that originally came to England as Huguenot refugees. While she may well be right about some of these families – Hanson family members are recorded in the Rye records as being Huguenots who sought refuge in Britain – the Comports appear to have a history in this country that dates back into the Middle Ages, although they may still have a French ancestry. In Gallybird Kaye-Smith uses her own, slightly altered spelling, of the Perigoe and Comport surnames for two young French emigres. Perigoe becomes de Perigault and Comport is de Champfort.
However, Kaye-Smith is not the only novelist to use the Comport family as an inspiration for characters. There is some controversy over which set of Comport graves Charles Dickens used as the inspiration for the graves of Pip’s brothers and sisters in Great Expectations but it is most likely that the row of lozenge tombs in Cooling churchyard, that are ranged on either side of a large headstone commemorating Michael and Jane Comport, provided Dickens with the idea for the “five little stone lozenges each about a foot and a half long which were arranged in a neat row … and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine….” These graves commemorate infants who range in age from 3 months to 17 months at the time of their deaths. The oldest grave is that of Mary Comport, who died in infancy in 1767, and the latest is that of Thomas Comport, who died in 1800 at the age of 3 months. Dickens often used to walk from his house in Higham to Cooling and he particularly liked the church and the churchyard. He is supposed to have had family picnics in the churchyard, laying out the family meal on the large table tomb next to Pip’s Graves that also commemorates members of the Comport family. The author’s son, Charles, said that his father loved Cooling more than any other church.
Although Cooling is the excepted location for Pip’s graves, there are also similar Comport graves in High Halstow churchyard. Beside the entrance to the church there are six small lozenge tombs that commemorate Comport children who died in infancy. These are of a later date than those at Cooling, but the latest of them does predate Great Expectations by some two years. The extended Comport family were farmers on the Hoo Peninsula in the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth century.
Dickens makes a much more specific mention of the Comport name in The Uncommon Traveller Chapter lX – “City of London Churches”. On an unspecified Sunday Dickens records his visit to a “dim church” in the City. Occupying a family pew he curiously browsed through a heap of prayer books that he found in the corner. The books dated back to 1754 and seemed to have belonged to the Dowgate family. “Jane Comport must have married Young Dowgate” for he seems to have given her a prayer book and “recorded the presentation in the fly-leaf”. Dickens conjectures that “Comport, had taken him, Dowgate, in a flush of youthful hope and joy”.
It is certain, from the numerous graves for members of the Comport family, that Comports lived on the Hoo Peninsula and that other branches of the family lived in the nearby Kent parishes of Ryarsh, Shorne, and Cobham. It is more difficult to find specific proof for the early ancestry of these families. Hasted and Ireland, in their histories of Kent reference Ralph de Curva Spina, a Norman knight, is recorded in Domesday as residing at Comport or Comford in the parish of Birling. Perhaps, those living near this manor adopted its name or referred to themselves as de Comport. Hasted places this manor in the North East part of the parish approximately half a mile east of Birling Place. On Speed’s 1610 map the manor is marked as Camford while on Drury’s map of 1769 it is recorded as Comforts. Close to Birling is the larger settlement of Cobham and from the early 1700s Comports were living in Cobham. Later in the Eighteenth century they appear in the church records of the nearby parishes of Shorne, Ryarsh and Offham. Comports had appeared in written records from the late fifteenth century with a John Comporte mentioned in a Deed in Addington in 1481. Comports also appear in Sussex – an Ambrose Comport appears to be a steward to Sir Anthony Browne on his Battle estates and is mentioned in documents that refer to the Sussex Iron industry in the Tudor period. More notorious is the John Comport accused of murder. In Crowhurst on Wednesday 28th August 1532 one Robert Grame was murdered and subsequently John Comport was accused, with his servant, of the murder. John was never convicted and seems to have disappeared from history. http://www.academia.edu/9942847/Murder_at_Crowhurst_A_Case_Study_in_Early_Tudor_Law_Enforcement recounts the details of the law case.
My particular interest, however, is in John Comport of Northiam. My research in census returns, death records and his Will indicate 1784 as the year of his birth and have led me to a John Comport who was born in Ryarsh in 1784. The son of a Glazier, George Comport, and his wife Martha nee Pawley, John was the eldest of seven children. However his subsequent appearances in written records raise a number of questions. By 1810 he was in Northiam, working as a Plumber and Glazier and marrying a local girl, Elizabeth Elliott. How, why and when he went from Ryarsh to Northiam is a mystery. In 1812 John and Elizabeth’s son William was born. William lived out his life in Northiam. By 1818 Elizabeth was dead and John married another local girl, Elizabeth Perigoe. The records indicate that she gave birth to two sons – Alfred (born 1821, died 1846 in Malling) and Frederick (born 1823, died 1878 in London). In 1826 the widowed John Comport married Ann Bredin. The marriage took place in Northiam although she had been born in Pevensey but was presumably living in Northiam. Ann gave birth to a daughter, Adelaide who died as a young girl, and a son George Pryor who eventually emigrated to Australia.
John is listed in the 1841 Census, is on the Poll returns as a voter in 1820, 1832 and 1837, worked as a Plumber and Glazier, and the Tithe return indicates that he was the owner of property and land as well as renting land in the village. The Tithe return indicates that he grew hops, had pasture land, owned more than one property as well as garden and orchard.
He died in 1846 leaving a detailed Will. This Will mentions that he has various businesses, among which was a business that made fine quality hop tokens for his own use but also for neighbouring hop growers. His goods and chattels, including his silver, is left to his wife but to be sold or divided between his living children after her death. I can find no record of his place of burial but as his family were committed Unitarians I strongly suspect he is buried in the graveyard at Northiam Unitarian Chapel in an unmarked grave.
He appears to have been a literate man – in 1826 he was a subscriber to a book of poetry. As this was the year of his marriage to Ann Bredin is it too fanciful to wonder if this was a marriage gift? Rural Lays by Mary Ann Plomley is a work of religious and nature poetry that makes a direct connection between the natural world and God as creator, but also touches upon more social and moral issues such as Slavery, which is heartily condemned, and philosophically explores the joys of solitude and the human contentment that is to be gained from communion with nature. Of variable quality as literary works, the poems are of interest because they give us an insight into the attitudes and concerns of a young woman in early nineteenth century rural England as she discusses the social, religious and moral issues of the time. As far as I can discover Mary Ann Plomley was a local young woman and probably a Unitarian. The scant official records that mention her, and her attitudes in the poetry, point to the often liberal and humanitarian views of the Unitarians.
Although it is impossible to know if John subscribed to Mary Ann Plomley’s views on slavery I very much like to think he was liberal and open minded enough to endorse her condemnation of the English who kept slaves.
Below is the last section of the poem entitled The Negro Slave.

 

Oh England! England! Why so vainly boast
Thy tarnish’d laurels and polluted fame!
Remember you art offspring of the dust…
Thy deeds enshrined in characters of flame!

Shall commerce prosper on thy pejur’d coast,
While still thou dost thy brother man enslave?
Shall thy proud sons, – so cruel, – so unjust,
Be ranked among the great, the truly brave?
Oh think that human-kind, though black or brown,
Have minds as great, and feelings like your own!

If anyone reading this blog has any information about the early life of John Comport I would love to hear from you. Is he the John Comport born in Ryarsh? When did he move to Northiam? Why did he move to Northiam? How did he manage to amass a variety of businesses and become a man of some substance?

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Burmarsh – Romney Marsh

The history of Burmarsh is an ancient one – although there is little evidence of a settlement in Burmarsh in Roman times there is some evidence on the northern side of present day Burmarsh that the Romans established salt pans. Between Burmarsh and the cliffs and shore line that housed Portus Lemanis was the sea water estuary of the river Limen and the marsh side of this might well have housed salt pans. Another element of possible evidence to indicate some association with the Romans is the inclusion of a number of Roman bricks in the structure of the church and the discovery of fragments of Roman pottery. However, this may just indicate the removal of building materials from the Roman fort once the Romans had abandoned it.
There is much stronger evidence for the Anglo-Saxon occupation of Burmarsh. Again fragments of Saxon pottery have been found and although it is difficult to date the true inning of the land here we do have documentary evidence of occupation in the form of Saxon Charters that mention the land at Burmarsh. In a charter of approx 850 King Aedbald gave, for payment, a portion of land to Winemund. This land was located in Burwaramers Halfsaeta and was subsequently gifted to the Abbot of St Augustine’s abbey (Canterbury) and presumably formed the nucleus of the manor of Abbot’s Court also known as the manor of Burmarsh. The northern border of the land was the river Limen just as the same area forms the parish boundary today. The second charter is known as the Gamdanwyrthe Charter of 946 in which King Eadmund grants land to Ordhelm and Alfwold. Possibly the present Gammon’s Farm. A later reference to Burmarsh appears in a marriage settlement when (Earl) Godwine made an agreement with Brihtria in approx 1016/20. In this agreement he gave his bride to be 150 acres of land in Burmarsh, 30 oxen, 20 cows, 10 horses and 10 slaves. A further indication of the early use of the land for agriculture is the highly irregular shaped field systems within the parish that indicate a piecemeal enclosure and drainage of land, unlike the more regulated field systems that can be seen in Walland Marsh for example.
From 1066 onwards and throughout the Norman period there is both visible and written evidence of occupation. The clearest visible evidence of occupation of Burmarsh is to be seen in some elements of the church building. It is probable that there was some kind of place of worship in Burmarsh in Saxon times given the Charter references to the place but the present day building’s earliest visible work dates to the Norman period. The door within the porch has a rounded Norman arch and the chevron carving is similar to that around the door in New Romney. There is also a Norman window in the North Wall as well as crudely carvedGargoyle heads from this period over the door in the porch and a rather badly eroded one over the window above the west door. Ferocious in appearance, these heads were designed to frighten away any forms of evil. The Norman areas of the building are constructed from Caen stone that was brought from Normandy probably by the monks from Canterbury who commissioned the extension and enlargement or replacement of an existing Saxon church. Later work from the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries is constructed of Ragstone. The tower and nave were rebuilt in the 14th century and it was then that the walls were given crenellations and the buttresses were added to strengthen the building and prevent subsidence. Three of the bells date from the medieval period with the cracked bell that is kept on the floor of the church dated to 1375. Although there is little if any documentary evidence for the habitation of Burmarsh after Domesday, in the later medieval period the church and the changes that took place to the building attest to the continuing importance of the village to the monks of St Augustine’s in Canterbury.
While the church demonstrates occupation during Norman times the Domesday Book gives us further evidence of what this occupation looked like. Burmarsh was held by the Abbot of St. Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, and is taxed for 2 Sulungs and 3 yokes with land for 12 ploughs. Both of these measurements were used for assessing the tax rather than a measurement of acreage. In Burmarsh there were 44 villagers and 5 smallholders. Valued at £20 before 1066, later at £10, and by 1086 £30. As at the present time it would appear that the majority of land within the parish was under cultivation. There is no mention of a church in Domesday, and therefore it seems logical to suppose the monks were instrumental in re building a stone church. In the reign of Richard II the manor was estimated to have 204 acres with the Abbot granted free warren over his lands.

 

Medieval occupation of the land is attested to by the deserted medieval village of Eastbridge and a number of archeological finds. A medieval stirrup, the remains of a cooking pot, various other items of pottery and a lead pilgrim flask and the alteration and extension of the church attest to a thriving small community. The Abbot continued to have possession of the Manor of Burmarsh – it also became known as Abbot’s Court – until the dissolution of the Monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII. In the case of St Augustine’s this was in July 1538. The land in Burmarsh passed to the crown but was then granted to Walter Hensley who subsequently passed it to Sir William Finch. By the reign of Charles II the manor of Abbots Court was in the possession of the Dering family who continued to own the land into the nineteenth century. A second manor is recorded in the parish of Burmarsh – Trienstone. Located on the Eastbridge side of Burmarsh this manor and its land was in the possession of Hugh de Montfort after the Conquest but subsequently passed into the possession of St. John’s College, Cambridge in Henry VIII reign. By 1844 much of this land was owned by St. John’s College , Oxford.
Throughout history Burmarsh has always been a small community. In the later sixteenth century 36 communicants were recorded in the parish. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries Burmarsh was a purely agricultural village in which the land was devoted to sheep, cattle and arable farming. The marsh as a whole was sparsely populated, and some would argue still is, but by the seventeenth century many communities had almost disappeared. There were a number of abandoned churches, including those of Eastbridge and Orgarswick. By the eighteenth century the rich, educated and gentry no longer lived on the Marsh and Burmarsh was no exception. The majority of the population was made up of Lookers, Shepherds, agricultural workers – most of whom are likely to have taken some part in smuggling activities. The Marsh was considered to be an unhealthy place to live and in 1797 Hasted described Burmarsh as being a place where the “air and water make dreadful havoc on the health of the inhabitants” which in turn led to “short lives”. However the monetary rewards of working on the Marsh were higher than in the rest of Kent. An agricultural labourers wage was 2 shillings a week whereas in other areas it was, on average, 1s 6d. Smuggling, however, was very lucrative with the average earnings per night around 10s 6d. In addition most families on the Marsh received quantities of Gin and Tea. Visitors to the area recorded that even in the most humble homes tea was offered to visitors. In the rest of the country tea was a luxury item only drunk by those who had a wealthy life style. Likewise rumour had it that there was so much Gin available that it was used to clean cottage windows.
Burmarsh residents are recorded as taking part in the smuggling activities in the early nineteenth century although it is likely that many were never caught and that such activity had been riff in the area for many years. In 1824 two Excise Officers (Edward Rayner and John Weston) laid a deposition against the landlord of the Shepherd and Crook (James Seal) for selling foreign liquor without a permit and he was convicted of receiving smuggled goods. The license of the Shepherd and Crook passed to Edward Austen in 1825 and in the same year the same John Weston (Excise Officer) laid a deposition against Austen for hiding smuggled goods. Austen’s other job was as a Looker. Both of these incidents took place when the Aldington Gang, headed by George Ransley, where running the smuggling activities on Romney Marsh. There seems to be no record of the court case but by 1827 Austen is still recorded as the licensee. By 1830 public sympathy was beginning to waning for the smugglers and the leaders of the Aldington Gang had been caught, convicted and transported by mid 1827. Once the Napoleonic threat was passed the government enforced a coastal blockade with the officers stationed in Martello towers as well as on ships of the line in the Channel. One such ship of the line, HMS Talavera, patrolled the local waters in the 1830s. Men and officers from this ship, and the landlord of the Shepherd and Crook, accused one John Day of Burmarsh of involvement in smuggling in August 1830. Of those mentioned above James Seal and his wife are buried in Burmarsh churchyard, John Weston ended his days living in Hythe, Edward Austen lived out his life in Brookland and died aged 82, while members of the Rayner family are recorded living in Rothschild farmhouse, Burmarsh.
Throughout the Victorian period Burmarsh remained a small rural haven where very little of note happened. In the summer of 1831, at the height of the Swing riots in Kent, a gang of approximately 25 men came from the hills above Burmarsh and set fire to a threshing machine in the village. Tithes were collected at the Shepherd and Crook, land described as “rich pasture” was sold and bought, weddings and funerals took place at the church, in summer 1877 lightning damaged the rectory roof, the church was subject to renovation and restoration as only the Victorians could do such work, and in the Spring of 1900 after a great gale and storm a large French kite was found in a field in Burmarsh – it was 3 feet wide and 9 feet long.
Throughout its history Burmarsh had been little touched by war. Momentarily touched by the Napoleonic Wars -with the building of the Military Canal on the borders of the parish and the construction of the Martello Towers at Dymchurch , it is probably fair to say that the resulting influx of personnel probably made little difference to the lives of villagers. Although there had been the ever present threat of Napoleon landing on the coast, that war had provided advantages for the pursuit of smuggling. In the twentieth century Burmarsh residents would feel the effects of war more directly.
Like all small communities Burmarsh was affected by the First World War. The inhabitants and those working on the land would have had there tranquility disturbed by the dull and continual rumble of the guns in France and Belgium to remind them of the conflict. On Friday May 25th 1917, in the late afternoon, at the start of the Whitsun weekend the peace was disturbed by the sound of aircraft. Across the hills at Lympne and heading for Hythe and Folkestone the inhabitants heard and saw a flight of around 20 German Gotha bombers. Although the bombing of Folkestone was the most devastating, the RFC airfield at Lympne was also bombed and Burmarsh residents would have heard the resulting explosions. Before these events however the effects of the war came home to Burmarsh with the deaths of two young men from the village. Simeon Beale was a Private in The Buffs who died on Sunday 25th October 1914 and is buried at Lavantie Cemetery. He had fought in the Boer War and was discharged in 1913 but recalled at the start of the War. At the time he was living at Abbotts Court Cottages. Albert Butcher was a Lance Corporal in The Buffs who died on 15th September 1916 on the Somme. He is commemorated at Thiepval – his parents lived at Pain’s Cottages Burmarsh. It is likely that he was mown down by machine gun fire in the action at Morval when The Buffs attacked a heavily fortified enemy redoubt on the edge of a wood. But these were not the only casualties from the village – Ernest Rayner, a Burmarsh boy, and a Private in the Northampton Regiment died on 10th November 1917 – probably at Passchendaele – he is commemorated at Tyne Cot, Zonnebeke. Roland Wratten, a Private in the Middlesex Regiment, died on 21st August 1917 and is buried in Burmarsh churchyard. He probably died as result of his wounds having been shipped back to Britain.
In the more recent Second World War Burmarsh was in the thick of the defence of the Home Front, and today we have a number of visible reminders of this. Dotted around the village are a number of pillboxes and gun emplacements. At Forty Acre Farm there was a search light and an anti aircraft gun and the metal remains of a German plane are still embedded in the ground. Near Rothschild Farmhouse there are the remains of a large Vickers machine gun post. The remains look like an extended pillbox. Part way down the Burmarsh Road, set in to the side of the verge, is the last remaining vestige of a line of anti tank traps – sometimes known as Dragon’s Teeth – with one large concrete block all that remains. As well as these very visible signs of defence Burmarsh had two underground secret Operational Posts. One – below ground in a field just off the Burmarsh Road – was used by the Royal Observation Corps as an operational centre that acted as a set of eyes and ears for the RAF. The other was an Underground Operational Post for what became known as the Secret Army. These men were local men – shepherds etc – who knew the terrain well and who were trained to become a lethal resistance force should the Germans land. The post is near Eastbridge. A small underground building that would house 6 men and an officer and consisted of 2 shafts, brick walls and a concrete floor. Rudimentary inside, the auxiliary hide has seen little disturbance since the Second World War and is believed to retain its original fittings such as two double-decker bunk beds, a wooden seat, shelves and a water tank. The Burmarsh branch of this Auxiliary Unit had the code name Toadstool.
Those in the unit are listed below.
Sergeant Charles “Don” Symonds, 7.12.1921, Eastbridge House
David Symonds, 24.9.1916, Buckhurst, Dymchurch
Albert J Ovenden, 29.12.1913, North Fording Farm, St Mary in the Marsh
Alfred G Ovenden, 6.12.1905, Westend Villa, Dymchurch
Cecil Watts, 1.11.1910, The Bungalow, Burmarsh
Frank J Watts, 26.12.1906, The Bungalow, Burmarsh
Edward V “Ted” Piddock, 27.8.1904, Orgaswick, Burmarsh

Albert Ovenden, a looker, remembered how he was recruited to this unit.
“Don Symonds came to see me and asked me to join him and he explained as much as he knew or could. He told me it was secret and I was to tell no one. At the time I lived at Sankey Farm, I was looker foreman for Mr Hobbs. My brother Alfred was also recruited by Don Symonds, but we kept it quiet, not even my sister knew until you made the enquiry” [November 1994].
There was only one casualty from the village during World War II – Alma Baker, from Burmarsh, died 21st August 1942 as the result of an air raid on Hythe. While Alma was walking along Prospect Road two German planes dropped bombs and flew low straffing the town with machine gun fire. In September, two years earlier, Burmarsh experienced its own air raids. Mercifully there were no casualties but on September 3rd, 4th and 5th 1940, between 9.00pm and midnight incendiary bombs were dropped in different parts of the village.

Burmarsh is not renowned for its famous residents but there have been a couple who are worthy of note. Edward Coleman (1766 – 1839) born and brought up in Burmarsh , the son of Edward Coleman the Common Expenditor (Treasurer) of the Corporation of Romney Marsh, became the Head of the London Veterinary College. A rather more famous Burmarsh land owner, William Harvey, the scientist who discovered the circulation of the blood, inherited land in Burmarsh from his father and subsequently left it to the Royal College of Surgeons in his Will.

Today Burmarsh is a small, quiet, sleepy Romney Marsh village with an ancient church and a village pub. Surrounded by fields and wide views across the Marsh to the hills the silence is only broken by the call of birds, the gentle chug of a distant tractor, the bleating of sheep and the croaking of marsh frogs in the ditches.

 

Hop Picking and Growing

Hops

When I look at my two hop plants at this time of the year, covered in great bunches of green hops hanging in huge clusters just ready for picking, I am reminded of the fact that hops have always been important in my life. My father and grandfathers all grew hops at some time in their lives. As a small child our lives were regulated by the seasons, the weather and the jobs that needed to be done in the cultivation of the hops. In winter my father would do “hop dressing” – the pruning of the root stock so that only good healthy growth would result. In Spring once the hop plants began to send out shoots the skilled hop stringer would walk along each row with a long pole connecting the coarse string from the metal “screw hook” in the ground to the hooks on the wire work high over head. Four strings were connected to each hook to form an inverted triangle of strings from each plant. The finished hop garden was a complex cat’s cradle upon which the hops would grow. After the ‘stringing’ came the ‘banding in’ when women would connect the four strings with a band of string at roughly shoulder height. Hops would be ‘twiddled’ on to the strings and once they were well above the ‘band’ the lower leaves would be removed. My father and grandfather would spend long hours not just working in the hop garden but also walking among the plants. Checking progress, looking for pests, assessing the possible crop – would it be a good year or a poor one? As August approached I would be woken by a loud whoomping noise below my bedroom window, at about five in the morning, as my father drove a powdering machine down the alleys between the hops puffing great clouds of insecticide powder up through the leaves. The highlight of the year was hop picking. As a small child I lived on a farm that employed hop pickers who came to live on the farm in ‘hoppers huts’ for the harvest time. Considered rough and ready by the locals they gave a certain alien glamour to the countryside with their singing and racousness. My father was the hop dryer – an aristocrat among those who work on a hop farm because of his skill in drying the hops so that they were neither under cooked nor ruined by over drying. Upon the hop dryers shoulders rested the ultimate responsibility for the year’s revenue. He would stay in the oast for most of the week – working through the night, snatching sleep on an old iron bed with a straw mattress when time and hops allowed – only returning home on Saturday afternoon to sleep round until late Sunday morning. On Sunday evening he would return to the oast to prepare for Monday morning. The greatest treat of all was to be able to go and play on Dad’s ‘bed’ in the oast and as a vey special treat eat a rasher of bacon that had been cooked in a dirty looking frying pan over the oast fire. Flavoured with the vapour of dried hops and the sulphur that hung in the air there has never been such tasty bacon.
Hop growing and harvesting has its own language – many of the words are dialect related and differ from region to region. In Sussex we had “hop gardens” where the hops grew, “oasts” for drying, the hops grew on a “hill”, the frame upon which they grew was constructed of “wire work”, poles and “stringing”, the root pruning was “dressing”, hops were picked into “bins”, measured out in wicker “bushel baskets”, tipped in to sacks called “pokes”, hops were dried on a “air” (a cloth made of horse hair) in a “roundel” with a “cowl” on the top. When dried the hops would be carried from the roundel on the “air” and then pushed into a pile with a “scubitt” (a large wooden framed shovel covered in sacking). When cool the hops were “scubbitted” into a large suspended sack called a “pocket” and then pressed tight until the “pocket” was solid with the pressed hops. The top of the pocket was stitched up with a large curved “copeing” needle and two ears are made at the corners so that the lowered pocket could be lifted.
These words were the words of my childhood. Handed down for generations and understood without explanation. They constitute the magic of childhood; the bitter heady evocative scent of the hops when rubbed between the fingers, the sight of a low mist across the fields that will burn off with the heat of the sun, so redolent of September but always to this day referred to as “hop picking mornings”.

 

Literally, for this.

In common with many other people I watched the Passchendaele centenary ceremonies at Ypres and Tyne Cot. As I listened to the various tributes, readings and speeches I was reminded of what the poets Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon had said motivated them to join the fight. When Thomas was asked why he choose to risk his life he replied by picking up a handful of earth and stating that it was “Literally, for this”. Sassoon related his own reason for volunteering in Weald of Youth when he explained that after riding a bicycle across the Kent and Sussex countryside he realised that “The Weald had been the world of my youngness, and while I gazed across it now I felt prepared to do what I could to defend it”. Like Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon Tom in Sheila Kaye-Smith’s Little England comes to realise that his “country was only a little field-corner that held his wife and his home, but as he sat under the stars, he felt in his vague, humble way, that it was a country a man would choose to fight for, and for which perhaps he would not be unwilling to die”.

As the War ragged on Sassoon and others, in both the armed forces and on the Home Front, became rather less enthusiastic about the conflict. After watching the TV coverage I was drawn back to a little known work of Sassoon’s published in 1945 – Siegfried’s Journey – in which Sassoon sets out to tell of his journey through the latter part of the War on into the aftermath. The slim volume covers his experiences from 1916-1920. My first surprise in my rereading was when I found that Sassoon had made several visits to Rye, it seems, primarily to play golf. In November 1916 Sassoon records that he was staying at the Dormy House and that his games of golf had been “something snatched from a circumvention of the War”. In late 1918, or perhaps more likely in early 1919, Sassoon was again back in Rye, and again playing golf. Tired of the fuss being made of him as a ‘war poet’ and eager to escape from post-armistice parties, he found a “sense of escape” in his few days in Rye. He found that with his companion, a man he had known from his youth, he was able to revert to the unaffected individual he remembered he once had been. Although acknowledged as an illusion, he felt that Rye “had ceased to concern itself with the agitations of the outer world”.

It is in this volume that Sassoon records his many encounters with the various writers of the time. He notes that after the Armistice he made a number of “excursions to the homes of celebrated authors”. One of these was John Galsworthy. Along with being asked by Galsworthy to contribute a poem to the magazine Reveille, Sassoon had received an invitation to dine at Galsworthy’s home. Apart from Galsworthy and his wife the only other guest was a “shyly uncommunicative young lady writer” who may well have been Sheila Kaye-Smith. In 1916 Kaye-Smith had written a short text on the life and work of Galsworthy and he in turn had commented on Sussex Gorse. On February 24th Galsworthy was reading Sussex Gorse and noted that it was “striking and very good”, however in March, when writing to Edward Garnett, he stated that the novel “has very good things in it – though its marred all through by the romantic conception of the central figure – a great pity”.

Whilst reading Sassoon and other writers of the First World War that the remembrances of Passchendaele had taken me too, I also began to wonder where my grandfathers had been in 1917. My paternal grandfather, Edward, a non-commissioned officer in the Horse Division of the Army Service Corps, was married in June 1917 but I expect returned to active duty shortly afterwards. By the end of 1917, or early in 1918, he was in Italy so perhaps he had missed the awful events of Passchendaele. My maternal grandfather, Albert, was a Private in the Royal Sussex Regiment, and although some of this regiment seem to have been involved at Passchendaele I have, as yet, to find out if he was there. Regardless of their involvement in that particular battle they did both see active service in France and Belgium and it is to such as they that we all owe a debt of gratitude. For their generation the First World War was forever present and it left a scar that was never erased. Like most other survivors neither of my grandfathers spoke of the war but it remains a constant amazement to me that they could come back and take up life, raise families, work hard and live into their nineties. Perhaps they both coped because they both spent the rest of their lives working the land and, as Kaye-Smith characterises such men, they were contemplative countryman in solitary communion with their land and their God, much as Maas Vuggle is in Susan Spray. “Every Sunday he would take his dog and walk up to the gate in the Hill field, where he would stay for an hour or more, leaning over the gate and gazing at the earth, the spaniel crouched beside him, both of them as still as earth itself. Then at last he would straighten his back, light his pipe, call to his dog and walk off home”. It was not unusual to see either of them walking across the land, deep in thought. As Kaye-Smith observed, in Three Ways Home, such a man would stand “on a Sunday evening [and] lean(s) over a gate and gazing down at the earth feel(s) more than he can think”.