A few lines on a tombstone in the churchyard tell the story of a Victorian tragedy. Thomas Jeffery was a butcher by trade and on 18 October 1851 his knife slipped and severed the main artery of his thigh. Poor Thomas bled to death within the hour. He was only 18.
Beating the bounds of one of the largest parishes in the county requires more than a little ingenuity (not to mention stamina) from those taking part. Chailey’s border stretches for 24 miles and the bound-beaters do the job as teams in relay, and treat it as a race to boot.
On foot, horseback, bicycle, canoe and even wheelbarrow the teams race against the clock each May raising money for good causes along the way in the form of sponsorship. Not surprisingly, it takes all day so the village makes the most of it with stalls and sideshows, a market, exhibitions and a barn dance in the evening to round off the occasion.
Chailey owes its size to the fact that it is really three villages in one: the old community, or Chailey Green, South Common and North Common. Chailey Green, gathered about the church, was once the hub of village life. Within living memory it boasted a village shop, a butcher’s, a tailor’s, a post office and a smithy. All these have now disappeared.
Nearby is Chailey Moat, better known in the past as The Parsonage, a centuries-old building surrounded, strangely, by a moat which is said to have been dug singlehanded by a parson in the reign of Queen Anne.
South Common is renowned today for its brickworks and in former times for its potteries. The Sussex clay belt runs through here and as early as 1740 Mr Norman established a business which remained in the hands of his descendants for 200 years. The kilns of the Chailey Potteries turned out bricks and tiles, drainpipes, flowerpots and various terracotta articles.
North Common, a breezy nature reserve of gorse and bracken, is in total contrast to the more traditional rural landscape of its brother to the south. Its windmill has for generations been held to mark the exact centre of Sussex and nearby is the world-famous Chailey Heritage, home to some 160 physically handicapped residential and day pupils on three sites. This is a little community in its own right and was born in 1903 when Dame Grace Kimmins and her friend Alice Rennis gave a home at what had once been a workhouse to seven physically handicapped boys from London’s East End.
Bogbean flourished on the common and was welcomed locally as a preventive of rheumatism, though it was regarded in many districts as a purifier of the blood. Gipsies were always eager to stop and gather many wild plants for medicinal purposes; juice from the berries of honeysuckle was valued as a cure for sore throats and the young shoots of broom were thought to be a useful antidote to kidney complaints.
Horsfield’s History of the Environs of Lewes, published in 1827, devotes much space to one of Chailey’s more eccentric characters. John Kember had all the characteristics of a miser or a plain and meanly dressed farmer’ yet he spent vast sums on expensive books. Horsfield recorded that whilst some of his neighbours regarded him as a slave of avarice, others not more justly considered him as one of those whom much learning had rendered mad.’
He kept all his books neatly packed in boxes, taking them out occasionally to admire them, and also built up a sizeable collection of old maps and scientific instruments. After his death ‘his books and philosophical apparatus were disposed of by auction in Lewes, and the competition was such as to turn to good account the taste of the worthy bibliomaniac.’
During the First World War the Rev T.H.L. Jellicoe listed the names of the village men serving in the Forces every month. In 1917 he wrote that Chailey was the first village to come under the East Sussex Health Association scheme for mothers schools’, commenting that while nine soldiers died every hour in 1915, 12 babies died in Britain. In November 1918, when the national ‘flu epidemic took its toll in Chailey, he wrote: ‘I trust that the measures which I have adopted for supplying nourishment to the invalids may tend towards their recovery.’
It was young Basil Jellicoe, going to church for the first time, who let out a cry of alarm (or disappointment) when his father entered the pulpit: ‘Why it’s not God, only Daddy.’
The Five Bells inn took its name from the number of bells in the church, though it did not bother to change its name when a sixth was added in 1810. The portrait of local magistrate Lord Tuppen (1658-1739) smiles down on the clientele in the main bar. The benign countenance belies a steely nature, for when he was the beak’ Lord Tuppen believed in the motto ‘steal and you will hang’. He carried it through to the letter – according to local records more than 500 men were sent to the gallows for anything from pinching bread to murder.
It was at the inn that the Chailey Friendly Society, the oldest in the county, was formed and held its meetings in 1793. Its object was to raise fa fund by subscription of the Members to be applied to their relief and maintenance in Sickness, Old Age and Infirmity also to the relief of their widows.’
The annual meeting of the society on 4 June was combined with a feast day which appears to have been celebrated by the whole parish with a day’s holiday.
A landlord of The Swan in the 19th century was noted for his delicious stews, cooked in a great cauldron over the fire in the bar. One cold day a particularly fine smelling stew was being served up by the landlord when something strange appeared wrapped around the ladle. “Well I’ll be danged,” he said. I wondered where that ole sock had got to.’
Author and poet Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Mad Jack’ of the Great War, was frequently put up here when he went hunting with the Shiffner family at Bevern Bridge House. His recollections of The Swan formed pieces for his Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man.