Hamlet Histories and Village Tales – Uncovering Rural Local History on The Archive – The British Newspaper Archive Blog

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Hamlet Histories and Village Tales – Uncovering Rural Local History on The Archive

So far this November we’ve been celebrating all things local history, and earlier this month we brought you a guide on how to discover more about the history of your street. But now we turn from urban to rural, as we take a look at how to uncover the history of those places where there might only be one street, the hamlets and the villages of the United Kingdom.

A view of the village of Fittleworth, West Sussex | West Sussex Gazette | 17 September 1953

This blog, therefore, will show you how to uncover local history in rural areas, and how you can discover the personalities who populated your village some hundred years ago and more. Discover how newspapers recorded important life events, such as marriages and deaths, in rural areas, and how our collection can be used to help you build up a vivid picture of what life was like in rural communities across Britain.

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Starting Your Research

Top tip: start by keeping your search broad – there is no need to limit your search geographically in the first instance, as news travels, and your search terms will return the most relevant results.

In order to inform this blog, we will be researching the history of Little Bognor, a hamlet in West Sussex, which overlooks the rolling South Downs. With a population today of perhaps 30, and classifying as a hamlet because the settlement lacks a church, Little Bognor represents a challenge to the potential researcher, and uncovers for us some useful research tips.

When searching for Little Bognor on The Archive, many of the results were conflated with Bognor, or Bognor Regis, a large seaside town also in West Sussex. Indeed, it is historically thought that the name Little Bognor came from its larger neighbour, as farmers from Bognor brought their pigs up from the coast to feed them in the woods of the hamlet. But how to weed out Little Bognor from big Bognor?

King George V and Queen Mary at Bognor Regis. George V often went to Bognor to convalesce | The Sphere | 13 July 1929

A good tip when searching for a smaller settlement is to add a nearby larger village or town to your search terms, much in the same way you might do when writing an address. And the nearest larger settlement to Little Bognor is Fittleworth, and so we tried searching with ‘Little Bognor, Fittleworth.’ We hit the jackpot here, without needing to refine our search geographically, either. We managed to find results that were relevant to Little Bognor, rather than its larger and more famous namesake, allowing us to illuminate the history of that hamlet, and the personalities who lived and worked there.

Local Personalities

When researching a hamlet or a village, you might find that certain personalities may pop up again and again, providing that important colour to your research. And this is true of Little Bognor, and one particular personality who often found her way into the newspapers of the time.

In February 1914, the West Sussex Gazette heralded the imminent arrival of two new important residents to Little Bognor:

Brigadier-General and the Hon. Mrs. Ivor Maxse will, it is understood, take up their residence permanently at Little Bognor, Fittleworth, on Saturday. The property is delightfully situated with fine views of the valley across to the South Downs, and is about two miles from Petworth. Since General Maxse purchased the property some few months ago it has undergone great improvement.

General Sir Ivor Maxse | Illustrated London News | 8 February 1958

You may think that it would be the Brigadier General himself, Ivor Maxse, a veteran of the Second Boer War and soon to be involved in the First World War, who would be making local headlines. But it was his wife, Lady Mary Maxse, who was featured in newspaper articles at the time.

Top tip: The Archive holds a large array of local newspapers from all across England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. You can explore all our newspaper titles here, or use our handy map to explore newspapers from your region.

Two years into the war, in February 1916, Lady Maxse penned this letter to the Chichester Observer, with its subject ‘Cigarettes for the Wounded,’ written from Little Bognor, Fittleworth:

Sir, – Will you allow me to express, through your columns, my great gratitude to those have assisted me in Bognor to make a cigarette collection for the wounded in Graylingwell…The collection is being made in various towns and villages in West Sussex, and 12,000 cigarettes have already been sent to Graylingwell, but the demands continues great.

This is a wonderful insight into Lady Maxse’s charitable personality, and also into the Home Front in wartime Britain. We perhaps do not think today of the need for cigarettes amongst wounded soldiers – with the 12,000 cigarettes collected for the hospital just outside of Chichester not being enough!

Chichester Observer | 2 February 1916

Fast forward nearly twenty years, and we again find mention of Lady Maxse in our newspapers, in relation to Little Bognor. This is from the West Sussex Gazette, July 1933:

The July meeting of the Women’s Institute was held in Lady Maxse’s garden at Little Bognor in lovely weather.

Lady Maxse was hosting the Fittleworth branch of the W.I. (the nearest W.I. branch today survives at the nearby town of Pulborough), in which the gathering was treated to a demonstration by Miss Farley on ‘How to make a meat safe for 3s 6d,’ using ‘an old sugar box and pieces of wood’ to keep meat ‘free from dust and flies.’ The article gives a wonderful sense of rural life in between the wars, describing how:

After tea members took part in a treasure hunt, each taking a portion of a picture postcard and hunting for the corresponding portion in the bushes of the garden. The winner thus put together 18 postcards! After a tour of the garden the meeting ended, everybody having enjoyed themselves.

The Tatler | 9 May 1928

But what about the more everyday inhabitants of rural areas? Lady Maxse, due to her social class and position, was reported on in our newspapers, but what about the regular people of the area? Do they feature in our newspapers too?

Petty Crimes

Unfortunately, we most often get to peak at the ordinary characters of the past through their misdemeanours. Our newspapers are a wonderful source for crime records throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, featuring accounts of the petty sessions and magistrates’ meetings, and on a more serious level, accounts of assizes and other court proceedings.

Whilst conducting our research for Little Bognor, we found this entry from August 1889 detailing the happenings at the Petworth Bench of Magistrates, taken from the Sussex Agricultural Express:

Pilfering – Henry Cooper, of Egdean, and Albert Lucas, of Byworth, were summoned for stealing growing apples at Little Bognor, Fittleworth, on Sunday, the 11th inst. Defendants were caught in the act by P.C. Neale, and the apples were the property of Thomas Carn. Both defendants pleaded guilty, and were fined 6s 6d each, including costs.

Sussex Agricultural Express | 24 August 1889

We find it wonderful today how Cooper and Lucas, from local villages, were actually caught in the act by local law enforcement, and their fines equate to £26 in today’s money, a lot more than the cost of some ‘growing apples!’

Meanwhile, we uncovered this account from the Petworth Petty Sessions in August 1891, which was also reported in the Sussex Agricultural Express:

School Offences – Andrew Paddock, of Westburton, was fined 5s for not sending his child to school. The child had not been to school for two years. For a similar offence, Thomas Town, of Little Bognor, Fittleworth, was fined 5s. This, however, is not to be enforced if the child is sent regularly for the future.

Sussex Agricultural Express | 18 August 1891

It looks like Thomas Town had not been as remiss as Andrew Paddock in sending his child to school, but it is only these minor misdemeanours that residents of Little Bognor seem to have committed.

Top tip: try searching for the names of those people you uncover in our newspapers on our sister site Findmypast. Have a look at the censuses to see which houses they were living in, who they were living with, and what jobs they were undertaking.

Flora and Fauna

And as well as building up a picture of the characters who lived in your hamlet or village, our newspapers also provide descriptions of the landscape, featuring reports on the weather perhaps, or even the flowers that grew in the area.

Whilst researching Little Bognor, we also looked up the nearby village of Fittleworth. We filtered our results by ‘Earliest’ to find early mentions of the village on The Archive, and found this remarkable little entry from Saunders’s News-Letter, a London paper (a reminder to keep your search geographically broad), from 1785:

We are credibly informed by a farmer at Fittleworth, that the hail-stones lay between two or three feet deep against the pales of his fences on Saturday after the storm.

Saunders’s News Letter | 16 July 1785

Typical of the newspapers of the day, this little snippet runs to just the one sentence, but provides a vivid sense of place to us today. And building on that sense of place are discussions over a ‘proposed new footpath’ in August 1893, which was reported on by the West Sussex County Times:

The proposed new footpath from Little Bognor to Fittleworth church, parish schools, police and railway stations, recreations ground, &., recently approved at a vestry meeting on the motion of Mr R. Mounteney Jephson, was visited on Friday by Captain Barwell and Mr R.G. Wilberforce, two justices acting for the Petworth bench of magistrates. After inspection of the old and the new footpaths, they declined to grant the certificate for the new path, as being less commodious and convenient than the old.

Knowing the footpaths of the area today, is it possible that back in the late Victorian era Little Bognor might have been blessed with a different one, albeit being ‘less commodious and convenient than the old?’ And in July 1912 Little Bognor was blessed with an unusual floral visitor – Plantain Bugloss, also known as ‘Viper’s Bugloss’ – which, as the West Sussex Gazette relates, is usually only found ‘in Cornwall and Jersey.’

Westminster Gazette | 30 May 1925

But the writer at the Gazette had been sent an example of Viper’s Bugloss from Mr. A.E. Message, of Little Bognor, Fittleworth, who said that the plant ‘had come up in a garden path at that place.’ The Gazette expert concludes that the plant was probably a ‘casual visitor,’ having ‘easily travelled with other seeds, as it forms quite an ornamental plant.’

And Little Bognor’s gardens were of such importance that they were even mentioned in popular national weekly journal The Sphere in May 1939. Gardens are described in the piece as a ‘pleasant antidote to European politics,’ as war clouds gathered on the horizon:

On Saturday 13th, West Sussex afforded some pleasant opportunities. Petworth House gardens were open, and close by at Little Bognor, Fittleworth, Lord Leconfield’s sister, Lady Maxse, showed her most attractive sunk garden.

Lady Leconfield examines the ‘experimental garden’ at Petworth House | The Tatler | 27 November 1940
Household Effects

So with our newspapers painting a picture of the historical environment of rural areas – the weather, the plants, and gardens – it also possible through them to discover more about how the people of such areas lived, and the belongings that they owned.

In June 1762 a notice appeared in the Sussex Advertiser, appealing for the return of two horses to James Tilly. From the detail that he provides, and the reward he offers (two guineas, or about £215 today), it is clear how much these horses mean to him:

STOLEN or strayed, the 28th of May last, out of the Parish of Fittleworth near Petworth in the County of Sussex, Two MARES, One Black, the other SORREL. The Black about 14 Hands and a half high, with a little star on her Forehead, some Spots of the Saddle, some white upon her two hind Feet, and a Switch Tail, when lost. The Sorrel 14 Hands high, with a white Snip down her Face, the off Leg behind white, and a Cut Tail.

Sussex Advertiser | 14 June 1762

Whoever brings the said Mares, or causes them to be brought to James Tilly, shall receive two Guineas Reward, and have all reasonable Charges born.

Meanwhile, as well as containing such notices as these, our newspapers also feature adverts for auctions of houses and household effects, offering a wonderful snapshot into how people from the past lived, and what they owned.

We found this example of an auction in Little Bognor from October 1864, which was advertised in the Surrey Gazette:

HOUSEHOLD FURNITURE, Brewing and Dairy Utensils, handsome Bay Pony, good and perfectly quiet in harness, aged six years, four-wheel chaise, harness, cart, &c., two excellent young dairy cows, a fat hog, poultry, &c., the property of Mr. White, of Little Bognor, who is leaving the neighbourhood. TO BE SOLD AT AUCTION BY Mr. Charles Hunt, on THURSDAY, 27th October, 1864, commencing at one o’clock precisely

Surrey Gazette | 25 October 1864

Mr. White, by the sounds of his effects, must have been reasonably well off, and as a side note, this is one of the earliest mentions of Little Bognor we came across in our newspapers. And our newspapers also went into further detail regarding the inventories of such auctions, as can be found in an advert for an auction to be held at Holts, a historic property that was lived in by General Maxse’s son during the first half of the twentieth century.

This notice appeared in the Worthing Gazette in August 1948, and listed for sale, amongst other effects:

…mahogany and other washstands, pedestal cupboards, one double and two single divan beds with intersprung and other mattresses, mahogany bedspread with boxspring mattress. Other bedsteads and mattresses, painted bedroom furniture. 3 mahogany chests of drawers. 3 antique mahogany commodes. Walnut kneehole dressing table. Mahogany framed cheval glass. Mahogany dressing table and washstand. Box ottoman, draught screens, good quality curtains, a few engravings, etchings and other pictures.

Also available were an ‘antique Dutch bureau,’ ‘Persian and Oriental Rugs and Runners,’ and a set of ‘Chippendale mahogany dining chairs.’ Such was the import of the sale (perhaps the Maxse family were feeling the post-war pinch?) that catalogues were being sold for it at the cost of 2d each.

Worthing Gazette | 25 August 1948

Meanwhile, an auction some five years later provides a window on what one of the more regular cottages of Little Bognor would have contained. In May 1953 the ‘valuable household furniture and effects’ of 1 Little Bognor, a cottage in the hamlet, were to be sold at auction, as reports the West Sussex Gazette. These included:

…carpets, rugs, oak and other bedsteads, set dining chairs, oak coffer, wardrobes, mahogany sideboard, drawing-room suite, grandfather clock, chests of drawers, wireless set, engravings, kitchen cabinet, outside effects and other items.

Unlike the sale at Holts, the catalogue for this sale could be obtained for free.

Life Events

Finally, the newspapers on The Archive are a wonderful repository of the important life events that people in rural communities celebrated and endured – from the tragic, to the joyful.

One such tragic event in Fittleworth was recorded in the Hampshire Chronicle from September 1773:

One day last week a cart with four women and a child, returning from Fittleworth to Bursam, in the same county, the horses took fright, ran away, and overturned the cart into a pond. One of the women was drowned; the other three and the child were all taken out. It’s remarkable the child floated on the water near a quarter of an hour.

River Rother at Fittleworth | West Sussex Gazette | 11 May 1939

But on a happier note, our newspapers often provide detailed descriptions of the marriages that occurred across Britain’s towns and villages. We found an account of the ‘pretty wedding’ of Margaret Edith Camp, from Little Bognor, to Walter Frederick Sayers, of nearby Stopham, which was held at Fittleworth Church in August 1936, and was reported in the Worthing Herald:

The bride was attractively gowned in white satin; her veil was held by a halo of pearls. She carried a bouquet of gladioli. Her two bridesmaids, Miss Margery Summers (friend) and Miss Irene Sayers (bridegroom’s sister) wore frocks of blue silk crepe, with bandeaux and and silver shoes. Their rings were the bridegroom’s gifts. Their bouquets were of blue and pink hydrangeas. 

The bride’s father gave her away, and Mr. W. Hersey was the bridegroom’s best man. A reception was held at the bride’s home, and afterwards Mr and Mrs Sayers left for a motoring honeymoon. Among the many useful presents received was a striking clock from General Sir Ivor and Lady Maxse.

Worthing Herald | 15 August 1936

We love the detail of this report – from what the bride and her bridesmaids wore, to who gave the bride away, and the presents they received. And mentioned are the General and his wife Lady Maxse, important figures in the community, and when Lady Maxse passed away in 1944, the West Sussex Gazette printed its tribute to her:

Many people in West Sussex will greatly miss the Hon. Lady Maxse, wife of General Sir Ivor Maxse, of Little Bognor, Fittleworth, and sister of Lord Leconfield, who has died after a month’s illness, for she was an able participant in activities that specially appealed to her – notably, in recent years, those of the Women’s Institutes and similar organisations – and a familiar figure in the social life of the county.

The newspaper describes her ‘marked character,’ and her ‘amusing’ nature, as well as her:

…numerous interests related to country life which she shared with many friends. Some years ago she published a little book on the history of Fittleworth – one of the best books, as we think, on any Sussex village published for many years. This will long keep her memory green, for it fittingly represents not only her ability, but her life-long affection for the district, where she had so long her home.

A view of Fittleworth village | West Sussex Gazette | 27 June 1957

For Lady Maxse was also a passionate local historian, and we are sure she would have enjoyed these snapshots of her home, for which she held a ‘life-long affection.’ So why not follow in the footsteps of Lady Maxse, and start your research into your local village or hamlet? Begin your research here with us today.

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