Review of Meetings 2018 (contd.)


Romance, Heroism and Betrayal in Villerett

Jim Payne, the History Group’s Vice Chairman, took the stage for the Group’s July meeting. Jim turned the clock back to WW1 and a moving story of Romance, Heroism and Betrayal. The tale revolves around a small village of Villerett in France with a population of 600 people, 200 of which had gone to fight in the war.

As the Germans advanced the British army retreated, fighting as they went, and many soldiers found themselves cut off from their units. Over a few days in August 1914, several soldiers found themselves near the village of Villerett. They were helped by the local population, and those that were injured had their wounds treated. With the help of a local poacher they were led into a local wood where they would be reasonably safe. Jim described how it was while hiding here that they were discovered by the 29-year-old wife of a local landowner whose husband was away fighting. As the German army moved into the area she led the British soldiers to a disused fishing lodge and provided them with food, drink and blankets.

The tide of battle ebbed and flowed with the German army eventually occupying the area in which Villerett lay. The Germans forced the local population to work, helping them with their war effort. The villagers were aware of the handful of British troops hiding in the fishing lodge and, following a village meeting, decided it would be safer to put them up in the village and disguise them as locals. To help achieve this they grew moustaches and let their hair grow long. Over a period of time one of the disguised soldiers, Robert Digby, fell in love with Claire Dessene who bore him a daughter, Helene, but not all the villagers are happy with this event. Jim continued to relate the story which culminated in the German area commander issuing the directive that if all British soldiers in the area gave themselves up within three days they would be treated as POW’s, but any who were captured after the deadline would be shot as spies. Any local person who was caught helping them would be severely punished.

Several of the British soldiers tried to escape back to the British lines but were caught. The last four, including Robert Digby, also tried unsuccessfully to escape and decided to stay rather than surrender. But they were betrayed and caught by the Germans. They all were shot by a firing squad and buried in the local church. The French villagers who were arrested for helping them received long prison sentences and were transported to Germany.

Jim finished on a happier note by saying that Robert’s brother, Thomas, who was with the British Army and often fighting near Villerett, survived the war. He new nothing of the baby until he was sorting out his mother’s effects after her death in 1929. On reading a letter that Robert had sent, on the eve of his execution, to his mother saying goodbye and informing her about Helene, he travelled back to Villerett, located Helene and Claire and officially adopted Helene.

Clare and Helene Dessene

Allen Misselbrook
August 2018



Visit to Sidlesham

The re-arranged guided tour of the Land Settlement Association site at Sidlesham took place on Saturday July 21st. Visitors were treated to an informative walk around the historic area culminating in a cup of tea and piece of homemade cake at the home of Bill Martin, a former History Group guest speaker, who is an authority on Sidlesham's Land Settlement Association. Due to time restrictions the complete tour wasn't finished, but enough was seen for the visitors to appreciate the purpose of the site.

In the 1930s, a group of unemployed workers and their families were provided with smallholdings in Sidlesham to give them the opportunity to earn their own living. Keynor Farm House was bought along with 290 acres of land for the sum of £13,333.00. Each family was allocated land, house, battery for keeping chickens, and a piggery for rearing pigs. The buildings are all still there and planning permission has to be sought for any demolition of any of the buildings.

A lady who was a child when her family came to one of the small holdings was introduced to the visitors. She remembers it well and was able to talk about her memories. Another highlight of the tour was meeting Norman, whose father owned a smallholding. Four members of the Group were invited to view a very modern tomato growing greenhouse built on land that Norman sold to the tomato producing company. This company honoured Norman by naming it "Normans' Greenhouse" with the name prominently displayed on the door. His battery chicken house is now a wood store for a wood burning stove, and his piggery is now a workshop for all his hobbies. Norman gave a very interesting account of his life when his father worked on the smallholding – he is now over 90 years old and loves talking about his experiences.

Should any reader wish to follow the complete tour, it can be found on the sidleshamheritagetrail web-site

Allen Misselbrook
August 2018



Parish Churches

The History Group welcomed Jennifer Goldsmith to our September meeting who gave a talk on special features of some local Parish Churches.

Jennifer started her illustrated tour with St Peters in Westhampnett which lies just north of the Roman road, Stane Street. The Saxons built the first Christian church on the site and they used whatever materials were available locally. Because of its location, some of the material was Roman bricks and tiles which can be easily recognised in the external south wall of the chancel.

Roman tiles, St. Peter's, Westhampnett

The next stop was up the A286 to Didling, near Midhurst, and its little church of St. Andrews. Although the church is early English (13th century) Jennifer drew our attention to the Saxon font, an indication that an earlier Saxon church stood on the site. The font itself is hewn from a solid lump of Bracklesham stone. It is one of the oldest examples in the country.

The next church visited was that of St. Marys, a 900-year-old, Grade 1 listed church in Aldingbourne. Again, our attention was directed towards the fonts. This time there were two but it was the older, late Norman that was focused on. This one was circular in shape sitting on a large central pillar.

Jennifer then transported us eastwards to St. Botolph’s, Hardham near Horsham. This time the subject was the 12th century wall painting which, unusually, cover the whole of the inside of the church. In the 13th century, for some reason, they were whitewashed over and were only discovered again in 1866.

Wall Paintings, St Botolphs, Hardham

Our tour moved on to Trotton and St George’s church where there are some monumental brasses as well as more wall paintings followed by St Mary’s at Slindon. Here lies a rare wooden effigy, the only one of its kind in Sussex. It is five feet long, made of oak and is of a man in Tudor armour.

Wooden Effigy, St. Mary's, Slindon


Jennifer finished in the hamlet of Woodmancote in Westbourne parish. Here there is a corrugated church erected in 1892 and affectionately known as a 'tin tabernacle'.

'Tin Tabernacle', Woodmancote

Allen Misselbrook
October 2018



Towards a Women's History of Yapton

The guest speaker was History Group member, Andrew Foster, who posed the question to the audience, "Who, Where, When and How" did women first start to play major roles in village life as well as in business and the professions?

Andrew gave a few facts and figures about the picture nationally. In 1870 the State began providing schools for girls and boys. Though for further education women could attend university lectures and sit examinations in their chosen subjects but they were not allowed to become a member of a University or Graduate, until 1920.

Andrew challenged the Group to discover the history of women in the villages of Yapton and Ford by studying Census Returns, Church Records and various other documents, many of which are available in the West Sussex Records Office in Chichester. The internet has a mine of information to help discover when women started to appear in key positions and have the same rights as men. For instance: when did a mother’s name first appear on birth certificates; when could a woman have a bank account in her own right; or take out a loan without her husband’s consent?

If you would like to help us answer some of these questions please get in touch.

Allen Misselbrook
October 2018



The Penfolds of Barnham

We welcomed back Sandra Lowton for our November meeting. She gave an illustrated talk about a local family, the Penfolds of Barnham.

Their family business originated in Arundel in 1833 providing a service to agriculture, initially with their traction engines. Sandra started her talk by giving details of the family and how they expanded and diversified their operation. James Lear Penfold left the family business several years after the death of his father, James senior, who had founded the business. He moved to Barnham and set up is own business with one traction engine and one driver. He concentrated initially on threshing, eventually expanding into other areas of trade. These included Penfold Haulage and a Motor Garage with workshop. His machines were used for threshing during the day, and heavy goods haulage by night, using his steam engines. During  the 1920s the company extracted and transported aggregates, owning sand-pits in Washington, Slindon and Eartham. The aggregate operation wasn’t only confined to dry land as they had a fleet of dredgers, whose names included Pen-Dart and Pen-Yarr, unloading at their wharfs in Littlehampton and Shoreham.

Penfold Family (c. 1900)

Sandra continued by describing how the Penfold 'brand' diversified further becoming a major producer of ready-mixed concrete. Eventually the company’s fleet of vehicles totalled 50 or more.

Another branch of the business involved metal spraying and shot-blasting and traded under the name of Penfold Metallising Company, a company which is still trading today.

Allen Misselbrook
December 2018



The Third Battle of the Atlantic

To end 2018’s programme of talks, we invited back Commander John Ford (Retd.) who had spoken at the Group’s Ford Centenary Exhibition. John had been a Fleet Air Arm pilot and had spent some time stationed at HMS Peregrine, Ford.

John made a spectacular entrance into the meeting wearing his flying suit complete with helmet and commenced his talk by giving a resume of his career in the Fleet Air Arm. He joined the Royal Navy in 1948, straight from school and shortly thereafter he volunteered to become a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm. After completing a flying course in Florida, John was posted to RNAS Ford which, as with all shore based Naval Air Stations, was commissioned with the name of a bird. In the case of Ford, it was HMS Peregrine. One of his responsibilities was to train new pilots.

The main theme of John’s talk was the North Atlantic Ocean and its importance during the 'Cold War'. His audience were given a short history on the origins of the cold war between the eastern and western (NATO) powers. A situation that became critical once the Soviet Union had developed their own nuclear and hydrogen bombs. The situation that existed between the East and West was given the initials MAD standing for Mutually Assured Destruction.

John continued by describing the equipment and expertise that was available to the two protagonists. On the West’s side there were an array of warships, aircraft carriers, airborne radar aircraft all crewed by professional sailors. A major advantage was a string of acoustic listening devices positioned across the North Atlantic from Nova Scotia to the UK which could pick up the movement of any Eastern Units moving down from the Soviet ports into the Atlantic. The Soviets had long distance surveillance aircraft known as 'Bears', fighter aircraft known as 'Badgers' and Missile Carriers. They also had submarines which could travel at 30 knots underwater, but they were so noisy traveling at that speed their positions could be easily tracked by the West’s listening devices.

Russian 'Bear'

Eventually the Soviets could not keep pace with the West’s seemingly endless supply of funding, with the result the Soviet Union came apart and that particular Cold War thawed. One of the highlights of John’s talk was a 10-minute video, commentated on by Raymond Baxter, of Phantoms, Buccaneers and Gannets taking off and landing on HMS Ark Royal in the 1980s.

Allen Misselbrook
December 2018