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Something Sussex: The Keep – the next step

2 Dec

Plans for The Keep moved another step forward with the submission of a planning application to Brighton & Hove City Council in October 2010.

The Keep is destined to be the new home for the collections of the East Sussex Record Office and the Brighton History Centre among others, and if all goes according to plan (and funding is forthcoming) it should be opened to the public in 2013.

The hope is that a decision will be reached by the 14th January 2011 and all the documentation about the application can be found on the Brighton & Hove City Council website in their planning register (application number BH2010/03259).

The application itself is described as being for the “Construction of an archive centre comprising lecture and educational facilities, reading room, conservation laboratories, archivist study areas, offices, cleaning and repair facilities for archives, repository block and refreshment area. Associated energy centre, car, coach and cycle parking, waste and recycling storage, landscaping including public open space and access.”

Delving into the documentation provides some interesting reading. The first document on the list is the application form and this includes opening hours which it gives as 9am to 5pm Monday to Saturday, with two evenings during the week and one Sunday a month. I fully expect these to change by the time it opens, but being able to visit on a Sunday would be a great advantage for me.

There is still much consultation and discussion to be done, but at least the plans have moved another step closer to completion.

Something Sussex: Mae West’s lips – the Sussex connection

25 Nov

It was something of a surprise to discover that the tiny rural village of West Dean (near Chichester), Sussex has a connection with such a famous and iconic piece of furniture.

The sofa is inspired by the lips of actress and sex symbol Mae West, and was the result of a collaboration between surrealist artist Salvador Dalí and Edward James (of West Dean Estate). I don’t know what exactly that collaboration involved or whether it took place in West Dean itself or elsewhere.

apparently there were five sofas made originally, although I suspect there have been many more copies made since the late 1930s when it was designed. The one pictured above is one of those five and is to be found on display behind glass in the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.

I have long been an admirer of Dalí’s work, and have visited exhibitions of his work in both London and Paris and it seems almost inconceivable that there could be a connection with the tiny ancestral village nestling at the foot of the South Downs. I really am going to have to find out more about his connection with West Dean. I can’t help but wonder if any of my ancestors bumped into Dalí whilst working in the gardens or West Dean House itself?

Something Sussex: West Dean Church destroyed by fire

28 Oct

The interior of St. Andrew’s Church, West Dean (near Chichester), Sussex seems modern and light, which is not what you would expect from the outside. A memorial stone set into the wall not far from the door explains why.

On the 26th November 1934 the church was almost completely destroyed by fire. According to a report in The Times newspaper the following day the Fire Brigade “were practically helpless owing to lack of water, West Dean being in an area which has suffered severely from a deficiency of water owing to the droughts of the last two summers.”

The same report records that a “very fine Elizabethan full-sized recumbant figure is badly damaged, and a life-size recumbent figure of the late Mr. Willie James [a former owner of West Dean Park]by Sir Goscombe John has been destroyed.”

In the article the Vicar (Rev. H.E. Lyne) described how the fire was first spotted, “Miss V. Smith, of West Drayton, saw smoke and flames when she was practising at the organ in the church. She immediately dashed for help, but the roof and everything was ablaze in about 20 minutes. I was out at the time, and did not get back till the roof had fallen in.”

As should be obvious from the memorial stone the church was restored, according to the Chichester Observer (Wedenesday, 15th April 1936), “The restoration of St. Andrew’s Parish Church, West Dean, which was destroyed by fire in November, 1934, was completed last week and the dedication of the new building took place on Saturday morning in time for the Easter services.”

The Bishop appears to have used the dedication to encourage the continued attendance of the parishioners every week:

It was a house of God worthy of the God they came to worship, and he urged them to come there Sunday by Sunday to worship Him. There was no reason why the Church should not be as full every Sunday as it was on this occasion. “If it is not to be a witness of our work,” he said, “it might almost as well never have been rebuilt”

For the family historian one concern would be the survival of parish registers in such a devastating fire. Fortunately in this case it appears that the registers were safely stored in a fireproof safe and they are now held at the West Sussex Record Office.

Inside West Dean Church (16 June 2010)

Which West Dean?

12 Oct

One hazard that has the potential to trip up unwary family historians (and postcard collectors) is the presence of two West Deans in the county of Sussex. There is one in the present day East Sussex and another in the present day West Sussex, but family historians will be mostly dealing with a time when the two halves of the county were considered as one.

The potential for confusion is described in Black’s Guide to Sussex and its Watering-places (published by Adam and Charles Black, London in 1898):

This West Dean and its neighbour East Dean are likely to be confused with a pair of villages of the same names in the other division of the county, discriminated in ecclesiastical forms as orientalis and occidentalis; we shall come to that West Dean farther on. Dean of course is a valley or ravine, otherwise written dene or den.

In terms of Sussex family history research, it is important to make sure you have identified the correct West Dean. It could mean the difference between having to visit the East Sussex Record Office (in Lewes, East Sussex) or the West Sussex Record Office (in Chichester, West Sussex) to find your ancestors.

I have a large number of ancestors from the western West Dean (near Chichester) and things were nice and straightforward until a couple of months ago when I ran across a distant relation who married someone from the eastern West Dean (near Seaford). Then I was faced with making a decision on how to record this other West Dean.

I certainly didn’t consider using the words orientalis or occidentalis, instead I chose to record the eastern West Dean as West Dean (near Seaford), Sussex, England, because although I consider it to look a little untidy it is quite possibly going to be the only occurrence of this place name in my database, and I should try not to lose too much sleep over how to record it.

An Apple Affair at West Dean Gardens

2 Oct

I was fortunate to have the chance to visit West Dean, West Sussex today. My wife, my mother and I went down to West Dean to visit the Apple Affair at West Dean Gardens. West Dean has strong ancestral connections and I am sure that the West Dean Estate has played a huge part in many of my ancestor’s lives.

West Dean House

The gardens are normally open to the public, but the house is not usually accessible (it is now a college), so this weekend was a rare opportunity to have a look around inside just a small part of the house.

Sadly photography is not permitted inside the house, which is a real shame because it contains pretty bizarre mix of furnishings and decorations. The walls are lined with paintings and tapestries, and adorned with stuffed animals and mounted heads (including that of a giraffe!), there were pieces of armour and weapons (more at home in a medieval castle) and many artworks and sculptures.

There were of course the normal features you would associate with a country house, like the old library (with floor to ceiling bookshelves) and the dining room with an incredible table decoration made of apples (presumably made specially for the occasion). Even amongst the more traditional elements there were still surreal touches, but it was still surprising to learn that Salvador Dali had once stayed there.

It is hard to reconcile the bizarre world inside the house with the beautiful surroundings outside. West Dean sits within the rolling slopes of the South Downs, and the views from the front of the house are quite superb, even under grey skies.

View from West Dean House

To be honest the gardens were probably past their best at this time of the year, but there was still plenty to see, especially in the glasshouses in the walled gardens. I was particularly taken by the glasshouses, with their elegant white paint wood and iron frameworks. I couldn’t help wondering if any of my relatives tended plants in those glasshouses and gardens.

Inside the greenhouse

The Apple Affair itself was pretty busy, lots of people trying different food and drink, not just apple based, although obviously there were apples almost everywhere. In the end however the weather beat us, the rain began as light drizzle but became progressively heavier and we ran out of places to shelter.

Of course every time I visit somewhere like this that has ancestral connections it makes me want to find out more, and try and prove some connections. I am not sure what records of the estate survive and where, but it ought to be worth having a look for them, to see if any lists of employees survive or rent books.

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