An Eastbourne Family Mystery

Family History is fascinating and all of us have a family with stories to tell. My own Great-Great Grandfather John Roberts had an unremarkable life but I have discovered some little nuggets of information about him. Although he spent most of his life in Hellingly and Eastbourne (where he had an unusual occupation) he died in poverty in West Sussex.

John was born in 1841 in Camberlot Road, Upper Dicker, Hellingly, East Sussex. His father George was a Cordwainer which is an old term for a shoemaker.  As a 20 year old he is shown on the census as a Bricklayers Assistant and four years later married Hannah Verrall from The Goffs in Eastbourne. They were married in Hailsham but settled in Eastbourne living at Pillory Bank close to St Mary’s Church.  This was probably on the site of the parish pillory and stocks.  The 1871 Census shows his address as ‘1, Pillory House’  Today there is no trace of Pillory House although it was surely close to Pillory Barn which still stands today in Bradford Street, Eastbourne.

John and Hannah had three children, John, Ebenezer (my grandfather) and Ruth. In the late 1870s he changed his occupation to that of the driver of a ‘Goat Chaise’. This was a small carriage that could be hired to take children on a ride along the seafront.     Later his occupation was shown as a Bathchair-man.  A bathchair was considered to be a ‘fourth-class’ Hackney Carriage. It cost one shilling to hire it for any time up to an hour with a charge of three pennies for every 15 minutes thereafter. 

If you look on the wall around the Wish Tower at Eastbourne  adjacent to the road you can several small metal plaques. You might just make out the letters ‘BCS’ on one and ‘GCS’ on another. These stand for ‘Bath Chair Stand’ and ‘Goat Chaise Stand’ and would have been where my great-great grandfather plied his vehicles for hire.

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John moved his family regularly but they always lived in either Church Street or High Street, Eastbourne, just a few yards away from were his wife Hannah was born. In 1911, aged 69 he was still employed as a bathchair-man.   Hannah died in 1915 and John died three years later, but there is a mystery regarding his death.  He died in the poor house, but not in Eastbourne, where he spent most of his adult life.

On 12th May 1918, Mr Chapman, the Master of the Steyning Union Workhouse in Shoreham by Sea, wrote to my grandfather Ebenezer to say that his father, John who was an inmate at the Workhouse was seriously ill.  The letter says that “Enquiries on the telephone as to the state of sick patients in the Infirmary will only be answered between 1 and 2pm.”

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Ebenezer never got to to visit his father at the Workhouse as he died later that day. Another letter (dated the same s the first) says “You are hereby informed that John Roberts, late an inmate of this institution died on 12th May and that the body will be removed to Eastbourne and arrangements for the funeral to be made there”   A short and stark letter with no expression of regret for the death and no explanation as to how he died.

The Steyning Union Workhouse was actually at Kingston by Sea, Shoreham, 10 miles from Steyning and 30 miles from Eastbourne.  It was built just a few years earlier in 1901 and could accommodate 480 people.  The building was demolished about 15 years ago and the land was later used to build the Southlands Hospital. I can’t fathom why my great-great grandfather would have been sent to the workhouse in Shoreham. Logically he would have been admitted to the Work-House in Eastbourne, on the East Dean read just a short distance up the road from where he lived all his life and where is family still lived. Can anyone throw any light on this?

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Ann Ashwell says:

    Did the Steyning workhouse cater for the poor of Hellingly as well? I think if someone became a charge on the parish where they lived, they were sent back to where they originally came from.

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  2. Linda Hayler says:

    My Great grandfather had the same sort of experience living in church street old town ending up in the workhouse in Thakeham West Sussex. I think the authorities took people who were on hard times and placed them in these big institutions for cheap labour.

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  3. Ian Everest says:

    On a similar theme, I often wonder why the old East Dean shepherd, Stephen Blackmore, was taken to the Steyning Workhouse by Kingston-by-Sea. I was led to believe that the military requisitioned the Eastbourne Workhouse during WW1, which is where Stephen was at the time. It would seem that an ‘arrangement’ existed between Eastbourne and Steyning.

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  4. hallbren says:

    Perhaps they had to find a Workhouse with a vacancy? You certainly worked till you dropped in those days if you did not have family to take you in.

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