My name is Dr Butler F. Temple and I am the Reader in Remembered Histories in the School of Local Memory at the Hastings Institute. I have held this post since 1972. The post itself was created through the generosity of a local hotelier who bequeathed an endowment to the Institute in 1957 for the ‘hearing, telling and sharing of stories that mean something to someone and may in the future mean something else to someone else’. My areas of specialism include the memories of structures, spectral cartography, local legends and their reporting, and local occult geography, especially marshland, caravan parks and road signs. I have published several books including Local Holiday Camps, Their Position and Significance To The Romney Marshes (Lewes, Huntley Memorial Press, 1971),The Supposed and The Hinted-At (Battle, Battle Abbey Press, 1975), and Marshland and Memory (Crowhurst, Lockesley & Sons, 1979). I am currently working on an history of Hastings spiritualism and other occult activities, as well as annotating a new version of Cecil Mepham’s seminal self-published 1952 Oral History of the Hastings and District Amateur Association Football Leagues Between the Wars.
I am also the Editor-in-Chief of Intermediate Frequency, a barely-read academic journal devoted to what its founder, E.F. Turner, called ‘the serious study of ramblings and remembrances’. Critics, of which there is only a bare but hostile few, dismiss the journal and its occasional articles – being that the journal is a listing, limping annual publication – as time wasted spent trying to give a voice to the pointless and the pathetic. I prefer to think of the journal, and my field, as the ear that strains to hear the half-heard and the soon-forgotten.
My office is a small one but it does offer a splendid view of Hastings Station and the tunnel that runs through the hill. I am half-way through a monthly supervision with one of my few doctoral students.
‘Replace ‘esoteric’ with ‘less-considered’ and add a paragraph outlining the origin of this map.’ I look out to see the 12.34 heading out towards Bexhill and then onward to Eastbourne. We are trying to trace the provenance of three hand-drawn maps that detail the disputed route of a stream that used to empty into the smallest of the ponds in Alexandra Park. Once this is established, we should then be able to ascertain the truth about an argument that took place in 1956. Further, and should we manage this, we would then find ourselves closer to establishing the identity of one more of the customers who frequented a now-closed public house called The Welcome Stranger between 1951 and 1957. I am hopeful, as I always am, that this will eventually become an article in Intermediate Frequency. Not that its possible publication will be a guarantee of anything but at least it will help to fill another edition.
Lewis, my student, starts outlining his intentions for the chapter that will follow this one and as he does I recall something that someone told a reporter from the Hastings Observer in the aftermath of the Great Storm of 1987. High winds ripped huge trees from the ground and caused enormous damage across the area. A junior reporter was sent out to vox-pop the town and one Eleanor Smith, of Boscobel Road, St. Leonard’s-on-Sea, told him that she was woken by the gale ripping the roof off of her extension.
Thinking that the rest of her house would soon be destroyed she got dressed again and then went back to bed. ‘Just in case the Fire Brigade would need to rescue me,’ she told him. ‘I just thought it would be easier.’
My plan is to somehow link this to the report of a séance I uncovered in a newsletter published by the Hastings League of Spiritualists in January 1934. I found this newsletter in a larger pile of old papers that had been left in a suitcase I bought at a jumble sale in 1983. According to the report, Miss Dorothy Taylor, aged 68, held a regular gathering in her front room at 12 Alma Villas. On the occasion reported in the newsletter, Miss Taylor made contact with 8 year-old Lottie Harrison. Lottie had drowned in the rapid currents off of Hastings Pier in 1903 and told Miss Taylor that she still felt ‘cold and wet.’ The assembled members of the League reported their delight at the ‘childish’ tone of voice they heard coming Miss Taylor’s mouth. Sadly, however, Lottie had nothing else to tell the séance.
Eventually Lewis leaves. I hurry out of my office and down the stairs. Past the common room on the landing and out the side entrance onto Cambridge Road. I hurry up the hill towards the station. It begins to rain as I walk past the Harlequin Tearooms and wait before crossing the road. The traffic is quiet for a Wednesday lunchtime and for a moment I wonder whether there might have been an accident in the Budget-Saver car-park. They happen fairly often and tend to result in the single lane that leads off of the Memorial Roundabout becoming blocked. When this does happen, the number 14 and 32 buses cannot make their way across the junction between Station Road and Helenswood Way. This, in turn, means that the traffic lights on White Rock Hill will work through their programmed cycle without anyone being able to turn left.
I’m on the 12.33 train to Battle heading for the Senlac Book Fair and Pamphlet Auction. According to the catalogue, a first-edition of C.L. Chambers’s 1901 A Concise History of Snuffing and Other Local Tallowcentric Traditions (Oxford, Precise Knowledge Publishers) has appeared. This was a limited print-run of only 100 copies and most of this run has disappeared. I am so keen to get a copy that I forgo my regular lunchtime routine.
I am reading more Mepham. ‘The history of Hastings Wanderers is an interesting one. Formed in 1929 when Reginald Darvill left Bohemia Road Rangers after an argument at half-time regarding team selection. The Wanderers only managed three full seasons in Division VII before illness and emigration caused the club to not fulfill its remaining fixtures. As a result of this the club was expelled from all competitions. Darvill never managed another football team but when pressed was happy to admit that the Wanderers had been extremely unlucky to go out of the East Sussex Challenge Cup at the quarter-final stage.’
I stop reading. There is something about Mepham’s account that has always troubled me. The scores, league tables, final positions, team names, referees and sundry players all seem to tally with the information to be found in the archives of The Hastings Observer. So it isn’t an accuracy issue. Cecil Mepham himself was a respected League secretary who served with distinction. He was also Acting-Treasurer between 1935 and 1938. Nevertheless, there is something that doesn’t quite ring true about his account. I feel that I need to take this further and will have to take another look in the Observer archives. The train arrives at Battle and I start my walk up the hill to the town.
I have always found Battle to be an unfriendly place. Not in a direct and hostile way. More in the way where people will step out of your way only at the very last minute, just before they bump into you. Or the door of a shop almost closes in your face as someone enters before you. A creeping, universal and yet definitely local sense of almost-conflict. With the Senlac Tearooms on the right and the Abbey on my left, I head up the High Street. I have always fancied that the Battle of Hastings – which took place on the hill where the Abbey was built – should really be known as the Battle of Battle. Of course, this doesn’t account for anything other than personal whimsy. Nevertheless, the thought sustains me until I reach the Battle Auction Rooms.
The auction is taking place in the Douglas Douglas Room, named after another of the many local dignitaries who make a contribution to their community compelling enough to have a drafty room named after them. D. W. Douglas, the gentleman in question, owned some farmland in the area and was a founding member of the Battle Union for the Provision of Common Sense in Local Agriculture. He served as the President of this august institution from 1885 to 1904. By all the accounts that I have read, he was a bad-tempered snob who found it impossible to talk to his immediate neighbors and only made trips into Battle when he wanted to lodge another suit with the offices of his solicitor. I have also read that his death in 1919 literally divided the town, with mourners filing out of St. Martin’s Church on one side of the High Street as his many enemies were gathering at The Plough, an inn that can still be found opposite the church.
The auction is already underway and I have to stand right at the very back of the room. I lose the Chambers to a bid lodged by telephone which, in turn, our-bid another bidder on another telephone. The Chambers finally went for £300 even it was only expected to fetch £50 at the most. I was stunned by the fight and the price and decided to head back home.
‘After the Chambers, weren’t you?’ said a voice in my ear. ‘I fancied it also but couldn’t pay the price. Now I don’t have it you could say that I’m paying a further price.’
I turned to see an elderly lady leaning heavily on a walking frame. She smiled. ‘Couldn’t pay the price – now there’s a thing to say and mean’.
I smiled but didn’t reply. She continued to talk, as if this was the chance she had been waiting for. ‘Daphne Rogers is my name. I’m always looking for postcards and pamphlets, with the occasional leaflet thrown in for good measure.’
I smile again and offered my card. ‘Dr Butler F. Temple, Reader in Remembered Histories at the Hastings Institute.’
‘Ah, yes’, Daphne said. ‘You are also the editor of that never-read journal, aren’t you? Whatever is it called? Something Infrequently?’
‘That is perhaps what it ought to be called.’ I replied.
‘Indeterminate Tendency?’ Daphne continued, clearly warming to the task. I straightened slightly.
‘I’m sorry but I think you’ll find that journal is called Intermediate Frequency,’ I offered.
‘Well it would be, wouldn’t it,’ Daphne countered. ‘And what does it really matter anyway?’ I tried to not appear annoyed. ‘Anyway,’ Daphne smiled, ‘buy me a coffee and I’ll tell you how I can get you another copy of the Chambers.’
‘In 1972 two brothers, Joseph and Jeremiah Wisby were banished from their local parish church, St Bartholomew’s in Crowhurst village. It seems that they had fallen out with the congregation over an issue relating to tithes and the authenticity of hymnbooks. In a fit of radical pique, they formed a breakaway gathering that they christened the Chapel of the Blessed Happening. For the first two years, the Chapel gathered in an outbuilding behind Joseph’s farmhouse and the congregation comprised of themselves, their two wives, Jane and Millicent, and their elderly father, James. Joseph chose to ordain himself as the Chapel’s leader and their services stretched long into the afternoon. Joseph would give a weekly sermon which was often known to last for more than three hours. The sermons themselves were a dreary combination of fearful proselytizing laced with highly personal assaults on many of the local dignitaries and, indeed, anyone who had happened to upset Joseph. Needless to say, the Wisbys led a very solitary life and had little to do with anyone on the area.’ Daphne looked up from behind her coffee cup.
‘Then something very unusual happened. In September 1794 the Chapel of the Blessed Happening acquired new premises. It appears that one of the very few people who would actually speak to Joseph Wisby, a local publican named Mahoney, gave the brothers a large empty house on the edge of the marshland between Bexhill and Hastings. Nobody knows why Mahoney made such a strange but generous gesture to two of the most odious men in the area. Joseph sold his farm, both brothers moved into the house with their wives and the Chapel began to flourish. Joseph still delivered his by now-legendary sermons but the congregation steadily increased in size. Again, this was due in no small part to Mahoney who managed to convince a great many of his regulars that they should turn towards the teachings of the Chapel even though by doing so they were turning their back upon Mahoney himself.’
‘The same Mahoney who it was eventually discovered was having an affair with both of the Wisby wives’, I interrupted. ‘The Chapel ceased to exist when the house was destroyed by fire in 1803. Both brothers perished in the fire, along with Jane and Mahoney himself. Though Millicent survived, she was badly burned and spent the rest of her days in Bexhill.’
‘Of course’, said Daphne. ‘Everyone knows the story of the Wisbys and their Chapel but the question that you need to ask yourself, and I’m sure you already have, is what does my telling you the story of the Wisby brothers have to do with the other copy of the Chambers that I have located?’
Daphne placed her empty cup on the table and looked around. I think she was pausing for dramatic effect. It may have been because she was tired from the walk from the Auction Room down to the Battle Abbey Tearoom as well as the telling of the story. In any case, she didn’t let me reply. ‘One of the many things that Mahoney’s generosity allowed Joseph Wisby to do was to commission a series of paintings, scenes to be hung in the rooms of the house that Joseph used for his services. A local painter by the name of George Jenkins was commissioned to produce a series of scenes which, and I quote, ‘shall show the fearsomeness of the Devil and the meddle of his mischief on those who choose to sin.’
I smiled. ‘I’ve read about this in Osgood’s Lists of the Local and the Surrounding’, I said.
‘I should hope that you have’, Daphne replied. ‘Otherwise you wouldn’t be much of a reader, would you?’ I thought about replying but didn’t.‘What everybody seems to have overlooked is the way in which Joseph Wisby died.’
‘He perished in the fire trying to save his wife, didn’t he?’
‘That is how Osgood tells it.’ Daphne looked up.
‘However, a different source suggests that Joseph had died whilst entering the house for the third time. The first time he pulled his wife free but she was already dying. Then, he fought his way back inside to try and save his benefactor, Mahoney. Again, Mahoney died on the driveway. Despite the fact that Joseph was himself in a very bad way, our odious preacher fought his way into the burning house for a third and final time. This time, however, he didn’t come back. The following day the remains of his body were discovered in the ruins of the house.’
‘Yes, yes’, I said, beginning to get a trifle irritated. ‘It was all a tragic accident but the brothers were soon largely forgotten and the remains of the house were left as they were. Osgood outlines all this in his account. The Hastings Observer also supports this story. Trapped in the burning house, Joseph perished.’ I shrugged but Daphne wasn’t finished.
‘For someone who supposedly is interested in whispers and local secrets, you are being very narrow-minded. Joseph went back into the house for the third time to try and rescue the paintings he had commissioned. When the remains of the house were examined the next day it was discovered that despite the odds, two interior walls were relatively intact, enough for anyone to notice that they had once had five paintings hanging on them. Traces of three of the frames were found close by but nobody could account for the other two. In the general way that these local people behaved, nobody at the time gave it much thought. Even Osgood only devotes a sentence to their destruction.’
‘The five paintings ordered from Jenkins and hung on the walls of Wisby House perished along with their patron,’ I recited.
‘But what if they weren’t all destroyed? What if two of them survived the fire? Or, more to the point, were somehow saved from destruction by the dying Joseph?’ Clearly relishing the telling, Daphne smiled. ‘Wouldn’t that be a story?’ she declared. ‘And wouldn’t that be something for you to investigate?’
I cleared my throat. ‘But I am an academic, Madam. I’m not a detective.’
‘Is there really a difference?’ Daphne replied.