When a photographic exhibition began at Michelham Priory, staff had no idea it would generate a surprise donation from a member of the public.
The exhibition at the Hailsham property explores the changes made to the priory in the 20th century before and after a major fire tore through the Tudor wing in 1927.
Carol Cope, from Middlesex, saw details of the exhibition on the internet and travelled to Hailsham, bringing along with her a fireman’s helmet and medal that once belonged to her grandfather Hedley Charles Gosden.
Mr Gosden was Hailsham’s chief fire officer at the time of the Michelham fire. He was known for his heroic attempts to rescue the building when he jumped into the priory’s moat to break the ice and get to the water.
Mrs Cope said the family were proud Mr Gosden played such a pivotal role in saving the building and wanted the priory to have his helmet.
She said: “Our family have always been very proud that my grandfather and his team helped to save this beautiful building.”
Both Mr Gosden’s sons, Norman and Reginald, followed in their father’s footsteps and became volunteer firemen for Hailsham Brigade in the 1930s.
Jo Grocott, marketing officer at the priory, said they were thrilled with the donation. She said: “Michelham Priory has been somewhere local people have visited, worked at and lived in for 800 years, and we love it when visitors tell us about their personal connections to the property. The helmet makes a fantastic addition to the exhibition and we thank the family for their kind donation.”
Michelham Priory was founded in 1229 by Gilbert de l’Aigle, a Norman.
In 1537 it was one of the first properties to suffer under Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, and the estate was awarded to Cromwell. For the remainder of the Tudor period, the house belonged to a Tudor gentleman, and then was occupied by tenant farmers until 1896. In 1896 James Gwynne bought the priory and, although he never lived here, instituted an important programme of renovation and restoration.
In 1925 it passed to the Wright family. During World War II Michelham was home to evacuee children from London and then to British and Canadian troops and finally the Home Guard. In 1959 the Priory was bought by Stella Hotblack and in 1960 she made a gift of it to Sussex Archaeological Society.