It still retains the huge open fireplace in front of which a vestry meeting was held in 1820 to which poor parents of children of 11 years of age or more were summoned to order the putting out of such children to service.’
There’s a benevolent ghost who replaces blazing logs if they fall out of the fire, and strange things happened when the funeral of a former landlady was held here. All the lights suddenly went out in the kitchen, where she had spent much of her time, and then they came on and off again in a steady, pulsing rhythm.
Fanny Louise Penn started work as headmistress of the village school in 1913, and made a lasting impression on generations of pupils. She was notoriously strict and misdemeanours were punished with a rap across the knuckles with a two foot ruler or, worse, a taste of the cane which she could lay on strong’.Occasionally a defiant boy would grab the weapon as it reached his hand and break it over his knee, but there was always one to replace it for Miss Penn seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of canes. She ruled with the iron discipline of a sergeant major but is remembered with affection in the village as an excellent teacher.
The Royal Oak was the scene of a celebrated murder on 26 May 1734. Money was the motive behind the dark deed, because a Jewish pedlar called Jacob Harris overheard the landlord Richard Miles boasting that the inn had made a profit of £20 that week, a small fortune to a wanderer like Harris.
The pedlar murdered the landlord, his wife and a serving wench but the authorities soon caught up with him. He had hidden in a chimney at The Cat, West Hoathly, but tumbled out when someone lit the fire to dry their clothes. Harris was hanged on 31 August and his body left to hang on the gibbet near the pub as a practical warning to others. The area is still known as Jacob’s Post.
A piece of the gibbet was held by country people for years afterwards to be a good luck charm and a defence against, amongst other things, an attack of toothache. The last remaining piece of this much picked-at gibbet still hangs in the bar at The Royal Oak.
From foul deeds to fair. Three brothers from Lincolnshire established Allwood’s Carnation Nurseries at Wivelsfield Green in 1910 and achieved worldwide fame. A species of the Sweet
William raised in the 1930s is named the Sweet Wivelsfield. The nurseries moved in 1960; the land was sold and is now a housing estate.
Great Ote Hall, a 15th century manor house acclaimed as one of the finest of that era in the county, was once the home of Selina Shirley, Countess of Huntingdon. This remarkable and determined woman was converted to the cause of evangelical Methodism by her sister-in-law and gave her chaplain the specific job of proclaiming her views to the world. When she came here in the middle of the 18th century one of the rooms was supplied with a pulpit from which her chaplain, the Rev W. Romaine, would preach. This was not enough for Selina and in 1778 she built Wivelsfield’s Ote Hall Chapel, one of several churches in the county she used her wealth to build and which were known as the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connection.
She seems to have run into a little religious rivalry in Wivelsfield. Two years after the construction of her chapel the Baptists built their own nearby. So together with the Norman church, what is essentially still a small farming community has three places of worship.
Another resident of Great Ote Hall was General Shirley, who became Commander-in-Chief of the forces in North America when it was still a British colony. He was either a proud man or a heavy one: it is said he never left home without six horses to his carriage.
Anglo Saxon Wifel’s field had a grander title, though a sarcastic one, when the London to Brighton railway line was being built in the early years of Victoria’s reign. It was boom time for the post office and shop, which used to be in a cottage next to the church, because the navvies would walk across the fields from the line to spend all their hard-earned cash. They called it going up to the city.’
Donkey derbies are now an established British tradition. The first one in the country was held here in 1951 and the story behind it is a fascinating one.
It was a wet day in the hay-making season and farmer Jim Dinnage was drowning his sorrows at The Royal Oak. Outside the window he saw a donkey, forlorn and bedraggled in the rain. Mr Dinnage felt so sorry for the beast that he bought it on the spot from the local rag and bone man which meant taking on the business ‘lock, stock and barrel’. He arrived home with the donkey and a cartful of junk.
The donkey, a jack christened Billy, grew lonely for a mate in a way which upset the neighbours. He would bray at 3 am and wander off into people’s gardens. On one occasion he was brought back to Lone Barn Farm handcuffed to the irate local constable. So farmer Dinnage travelled to an abattoir in London where 13 donkeys were awaiting slaughter, part of a cruel trade in which the animals were exported from Ireland under terrible conditions and sold as veal during the post-war meat shortage. The farmer bought the lot and Billy got a new name – Lone Barn Farouk because of his harem of 13 wives.
He persuaded 12 of his friends at Wivelsfield to each take a moke, they jokingly called themselves The Donkey Club and hit on the bright idea of staging a donkey race meeting to help raise funds to pay for the purchase of the playing field. It was a great success, but it was felt more donkeys were needed. Soon afterwards Mr Dinnage saw a newspaper report which said 194 of the animals were running loose at Ashford after breaking out of a train bound for the slaughterhouse.
The International League for the Protection of Horses said it would buy the donkeys but desperately needed somewhere to keep them. They came to Lone Barn Farm amid a blaze of publicity and offers to adopt a donkey and become members of The Donkey Club (at five shillings for life). It became a charity and at the second donkey derby a staggering 23,000 people poured into the village.
A host of celebrities started to give their support to the annual races, among them in the early years Laurel and Hardy, Gert and Daisy and Charlie Chaplin. A special coach used to take the distinguished visitors around the playing field to allow the crowd to get a good look and proceeds went to local charities.
Tragedy struck the Dinnage family in 1956 when their son Peter died of cancer at the age of 13. This prompted them to establish a holiday home by the sea at Lancing for the shortterm care of the severely handicapped, and donkey derby profits were channelled into this. But when Jim Dinnage died in 1963 his widow Susan was forced to sell the holiday home. She put the proceeds into the building of a hospice at Lone Barn Farm, a caring place which can accommodate 25 residents and named St Peter’s and St James’s after her late son and husband. There are still donkeys there, a delight for residents and visitors alike.
The donkey derbies, too, are a well established part of village life every Spring Bank Holiday Monday. They are run now by Burgess Hill Round Table, the proceeds being shared equally by the hospice and the Table’s charities.