KEVIN GORDON - Thoughts of conflict were far away

War ships off Eastbourne
War ships off Eastbourne

In July 1914 the Sussex Express announced that it had a new owner and would be modernised, but promised to continue to ‘mirror the life of the district and record fully, faithfully and attractively the social, commercial, religious, political and municipal activities of the county’.

It is fascinating to read the Express in the weeks leading up to the Great War although it is clear that thoughts of conflict were far away.

Britain was of course at war in July 1914 – at war with women! At a meeting of the Central Sussex Women’s Suffrage Society speakers called for men to assist them with their campaign to get the vote.

At Lewes the National Union of Railwaymen met and for the first time a number of women attended the meeting. Women were not happy – a few weeks earlier, suffragettes had set fire to a church in Eastbourne and fake bombs had been left outside the chief constable’s office at the Town Hall.

Also in July 1914 Broncho Bill’s Wild West Circus visited Race Hill, Lewes. Elsie Moore of Southover School was rewarded for never having missed a day’s school in seven years. Rural life continued and there were reports of the Bat & Ball Fair which was held in Chiddingly and said to be one of the oldest in Sussex. (It was named after the nearby Bat & Ball Inn which closed in the early 1900s) It was primarily a sheep fair and in its heyday in the 1860s about 16,000 sheep were sold. In 1914 however there were less than 2,000.

The great attraction of July 1914 was the Fleet which anchored about a mile off the Eastbourne coast. People travelled from all over Sussex to see this special event (there were even trains chartered from as far as Exeter).

The ships that visited were the two-year-old battleship, HMS Marlborough, the battleships HMS St Vincent, HMS Hercules, HMS Superb and HMS Vanguard the dreadnoughts HMS Colossus, HMS Collingwood and HMS Neptune.

These eight ships were due to have been joined by the cruiser HMS Bellona, but it was unable to attend due to ‘special duties.

‘The public were able to row to the ships to look around them. The fleet was brilliantly illuminated at night. In all, there were 1,250 sailors on the ships and it was noted in the local press that HMS Collingwood had an important member of the crew; Prince Albert who was to be the future George VI, the father of Elizabeth II.

Life (and death) went on. Just a week before the declaration of war 32-year-old Herbert Brooker was executed at Lewes Prison for the murder of his girlfriend on a railway train at Three Bridges. Brooker , who had served with distinction in the Royal Navy, had stabbed the woman when they were both drunk. The press were not present but the Sussex Express reported that ‘at the stroke of eight, a faint rumble was heard from the prison yard indicating that the prisoner had passed to his doom’.

The only mentions of war were frivolous. Lewes Town Council was described as warlike after it became very heated during a debate on whether the town fire engine should have been used to clear ivy from the walls of St John’s church.

Alderman Savage called the council meeting ‘a load of twaddle’ and others threatened to walk out. When only 13 of the 17 contenders in a walking race at Heathfield finished it was suggested that the missing four runners had ‘gone to war’. This was just two days after the declaration of hostilities.

In July, the only hint of what was to come was a report that the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the Red Cross had held an exercise in the fields around Battle. A number of ‘casualties’ from the Sussex Yeomanry had been distributed around the area with labels attached to them describing their injuries. The men’s detachment of the VAD went into the field to recover the wounded and carried them back to Normanhusrt Court at Catsfield. A room was set aside for use as a hospital ward which was inspected by Colonal Robinson of the Royal Army Medical Corps who congratulated all who took part.

Later in the war, Normanhurst Court was indeed used as a military hospital the only difference being that the casualties had real wounds.