Thrillingly, the East Grinstead Museum opens with the fossilised foot print of an Iguanodon dinosaur. Dinosaurs, so I learned, would have roamed this area 140 million years ago, when it was a large, fresh water flood plain.
I was in this neck of the woods visiting my godfather, Ron, a lifelong resident. Despite all the time I’ve spent here, I know little about the local history; time, then, to put that right.
I was given the warmest of welcomes by the lovely lady volunteer in charge and we chatted for ages while she explained the Museum’s remit to me. Essentially, it’s divided into two halves; I’ll explain why in a moment, but let’s find out a little more about East Grinstead first.
This medium-size town lies in the middle of the Weald, half way between London and the south coast. Its prominent position and ancient trackways mean it has always been the focus of local settlements – and flint implements from the Mid Stone Age are its earliest evidence of human activity.
Certainly, the Domesday Book records 13 farms in the “hundred of Grenestede” – and we know that Grenestede was founded in the 13th century by Gilbert de Aquila, whose land was granted to him by William the Conqueror. Timber and framed houses were built along the town’s High Street – three of which stand there proudly to this day.
By the 16th century, East Grinstead had two MPs, a criminal court and a gallows. The High Street accommodated cattle at weekly markets and annual fairs and cattle were driven on hoof to the winter fair. Goods produced by local craftsmen were available to the townsfolk and people from the surrounding villages, who came to buy and sell. Gradually, East Grinstead became an important staging post; bad roads meant that Assize Courts were held here, with judges unwilling to venture further into Sussex.
In 1609 Robert Sackville, Earl of Dorset, established Sackville College as an almshouse for elderly residents and a townhouse for him. East Grinstead’s importance to travellers greatly improved its prosperity; even more so when, in 1717, the road to London was turnpiked and tolls charged for its upkeep. Twelve inns provided food, drink and accommodation for travellers and horses.
However, by the end of the 18th century, the town’s prosperity was fading as the growing popularity of the seaside drew traffic away to a more direct road through Cuckfield. East Grinstead became even more isolated with the 1841 opening of the London-Brighton railway.
Yet the town’s fortunes revived with the opening, in 1855, of a rail link to London. Wealthy business men, able to commute to the City, built large family houses around East Grinstead’s rural outskirts. East Grinstead residents were employed in domestic service and brick-making for these new houses, bringing more money into the area.
Thoroughout World War One and the Depression East Grinstead remained a quiet market town, recovering well from both events. The town’s darkest day to date came during World War II, when 108 people were killed in a single bomb raid, most of them in the Whitehall cinema. However, during the War, East Grinstead gained an international reputation thanks to the pioneering work of plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe – the focus of the second half of the Museum and something I’ll talk about in tomorrow’s post.
Post-War, East Grinstead continued to thrive, with housing estates replacing country houses and enabling more commuting. Expansion in other parts of the country, in particular Gatwick Airport, created even more employment.
My favourite exhibits in the Museum were those relating to local shops, churches, schools and leisure activities. There are some wonderful sepia photos, including the interior of F&E Tooth Bookstore & Stationer, taken in 1947. I was heartened to learn that many small businesses which have been in the same family for generations remain in the town centre.
As for leisure activities, today was the first time I’ve heard of stoolball – or, indeed, seen a stoolball bat and ball. Known as ‘Sussex’s national sport’, this blend of cricket and rounders dates back to the 15th century and was originally played by milkmaids who used their milking stools as wickets and their milk bowls as bats. I couldn’t believe it when, later on, Ron showed me my beloved godmother, Jean’s, stoolball bat from the 1950s: she was quite the player, apparently.
I can’t end this post without mentioning the section of the Museum dedicated to East Grinstead’s suffrage movement. It would be inaccurate, I feel, to describe the town as a hotbed of feminism – but there was strong support for women’s rights from the town’s Liberal MP, Charles Corbett, during the early 20th century and his wife, Marie, founded East Grinstead’s Women’s Suffrage Society; their daughters, Margaret and Cicely, were lifelong political activists, too.
Coming tomorrow: The Guinea Pig Club and the Town That Didn’t Stare.