Chailey Heritage School is an educational establishment located in North Chailey, East Sussex. Owned and operated by the Chailey Heritage Foundation, the school is for children and young adults, aged between three and 19, with complex physical disabilities and learning difficulties.
How the school came about makes for a fascinating story. It begins with Grace Thyrza Hannam who was born in Lewes in 1870, the eldest child of cloth merchant James Hannam and his wife, Thyrza Rogers. Incidentally, though a name not much seen today, Thyrza has a Biblical origin and is pronounced with the “T” silent as “Hirizza”.
Grace had a good education and from an early age became firmly committed to Christian principles of helping the poor and needy. Upon leaving school, Grace went to work with assisting underprivileged families in London’s East End. She was particularly drawn to the plight of disabled children.
In 1894 she came across a book by Juliana Horatia Ewing that was to set the course of the rest of her career. “The Story of a Short Life” recounted the tale of Leonard, a crippled boy who lived in the capital’s slums. Despite his handicap, Leonard displayed great courage and lived with his condition in the same spirit that a brave soldier would live with grievous wounds sustained in battle.
Juliana was a famous writer in her day. Admirers of her work included Rudyard Kipling who claimed to know one of her books - “Jan of the Windmill” - off by heart. Another of her stories was “The Brownies”, a title that gave Robert Baden-Powell and his wife the inspiration and name for the youngest level of the Girl Guides.
Likewise, Leonard’s story inspired Grace Hannam. That same year of 1894 saw her establish The Guild of the Brave Poor Things. With the motto “Happy In My Lot”, the organization began with regular meetings in London where people with all kinds of disabilities could attend and enjoy a plethora of activities.
The initiative was a great success and The Guild of the Brave Poor Things quickly spread to other parts of the country.
In 1897, Grace married Dr. Charles Kimmins, a child psychologist who was also an inspector of schools in London. Her husband became an invaluable support to Grace. The couple went on to have two sons.
At the time, tuberculosis, polio and rickets were endemic in the London slums. Grace concluded that a residential home was much needed in the countryside where children could go and enjoy clean air and a complete change of scenery. Perhaps because of her childhood in Lewes, her attention was drawn to an old workhouse on Chailey Common. In 1903 Chailey Heritage was founded on the site with £5 in the funds and primitive accommodation for seven disabled boys.
In the beginning there was no gas or electricity and no mains water supply. The nearest telephone was several miles away in Plumpton. However, Mrs. Kimmins had a prodigious talent for fundraising that she now put to good use. In a few years she had collected enough money to begin work on rebuilding and extending the Heritage. It would become the first purpose-built school for disabled boys in Britain. In 1908 the first girls were admitted. Children didn’t come just for a break; they became full-time residents.
During the Great War, nearly 600 children suffering from trauma brought on by German air raids were welcomed at Chailey and almost as many wounded servicemen received rehabilitation treatment there. In the Second World War, child victims of the Blitz were taken in.
By all accounts, Grace Kimmins was indefatigable in her efforts to help disadvantaged youngsters. One observer wrote that she “never suffered from too much common sense”. This was actually a complimentary comment on a case where she determined to find a space for a handicapped baby even though there really wasn’t any room available. When the baby duly arrived there was an envelope containing a cheque for £1,000 with a note saying it was from a “grateful well-wisher”. In 40 years she collected more than £1,500,000 for her school.
Grace was a familiar sight to locals around Chailey. She would often stride across the common looking for all the world like a Continental nun in her mauve or purple frock and white muslin cap with “wings”. She was also a regular traveler on the old Bluebell and Primrose line trains that ran between Lewes and East Grinstead.
During her last years, the now Dame Grace Kimmins D.B.E had a worldwide circle of famous friends and she particularly valued the support of the Royal Family. She died in 1954.
Whilst researching this story I learnt of an extended family connection with Chailey Heritage. My sister-in-law Gill Huxley’s mother, Mrs Ida Stobart, worked there for many years. Following her death in 1986, Gill’s brother Eric wrote a tribute to Ida that appeared in the spring 1987 “Heritage News”. Of her time at Chailey he said: “Starting as a staff nurse on Rennie Ward in 1963, she then moved on to a similar position at Tidemills before becoming sister on Coxen House. In those days Coxen House was home to many chronically ill thalidomide and spina bifida babies and she felt the problems of the children deeply. She became Senior Nursing Officer in 1976, finally retiring from the Heritage in 1982.”
Tidemills was an outstation for Chailey Heritage and was designated as a Marine Hospital. The buildings were demolished early in the Second World War.