In 1912 hundreds of Eastbourne children were treated to a party by William Washington King. A telegram was sent to George V at Balmoral Castle which read “Six hundred happy little children in meeting assembled, send your Majesty loyal greetings!” the answer was received and read out “His Majesty thanks the children assembled at the seaside for their loyal greeting. He hopes they are having fine weather and are enjoying themselves together”
So who was the generous Mr King? The story was widely reported across the country but Washington Wood (as he preferred to be called) was no millionaire – he was an aged newsvendor who lived in a small terraced house at 13, Commercial Road, Eastbourne. He had been selling newspapers from his stand (a large old pram) in Terminus Road since 1900. As well as newspapers he sold matches but always had a jar of sweets to hand out to passing children.
He had started ten years earlier by providing a party for sixteen children in the Leaf Hall in Seaside. He provided each child with a bag of sweets and an orange.
The 1912 entertainment was clearly successful so the following year he decided to have another ‘treat’ however he was to be thwarted by the council who were clearly not impressed. His letter to the Town Council for use of Hampden Park as a venue met with a curt refusal. He also tried to get use of a field at Horsey Bank (close to Lottbridge Drove) but that was also declined. As a result he called an open air meeting near the fountain in Seaside during which a field off Kings Drive was offered.
As well as finding a location, funds were needed for the food and drink but his methods of collecting caused him to appear in court at the Town Hall. At 3.50pm on 22ndAugust 1913 PC Herbert Laurence of the Eastbourne Borough Police was on patrol on the seafront when he saw four shoe-less children collecting for the treat. One of them, nine-year-old Nellie Field, had a collecting box. Washington King was summonsed for the serious of offence of “Procuring a child for the purposes of begging”
Washington pleaded ‘not guilty’ when he appeared before the Eastbourne Magistrates on 1stSeptember 1913 and gave a good account for himself. The magistrates clerk suggested that the method of collection was open to abuse as the children were using an old cigar-box to collect the money but Washington replied that the box was sealed by a label and he ensured that the boxes were opened in the presence of a witness. He said that his treats were supported by both the Eastbourne Gazette and the Brighton Argus and had attracted over 1,500 children (rather an exaggeration from the 600 reported in the press!)
Two important witnesses were called; little Nellie (aged 9) and the Chief Constable Major Edward John Jenkins Teale (age uncertain). Nellie gave her evidence clearly, saying that she had obtained the sealed box from Mr King. She was cross-examined (!) and revealed that she had been on the streets collecting for charity before – for the Salvation Army and the police did not stop her then!
The Chief Constable told the magistrate that Mr King had written to him for permission for a street collection but he had refused the application. However when cross-examined by the defence other charities such as the Hospital Fund and Lifeboat charity had been given permission. And what about the Salvation Army? The Court were told that they used children as young as five to collect in the streets! The Chief Constable curtly replied “They don’t apply!”.
The bench retired to consider the case and when they returned the Chairman announced that it was wrong for children to be used for street collections and they would act if a similar prosecution came before them again. He asked the Police in this case however to withdraw the prosecution which they did.
The annual treats continued for many years. Maybe the heavy-handed prosecution did some good as from that time Washington was assisted by many willing volunteers. The generous old man became known as ‘Daddy King’. The treats were held at various locations including fields adjacent to Victoria Drive.
Every year a loyal greeting was sent to Buckingham Palace and every year a telegram from King was received. He was not adverse to writing to the Palace for support. During the Great War in May 1916 he found that the wife of Private A Wickham of the Royal Sussex Regiment had died leaving 10 children in the custody of her sister. Washington King collected money to support the children including a donation from Queen Alexandra. The boys of the Summerdown Camp were impressed and for the next couple of years provided clowns to entertain the children at the annual treat.
By the late 1920s Washington was also collecting funds to provide presents to the poorest Eastbourne children at Christmas. By the 1930s he was also arranging annual outings too. Most Eastbourne pubs had collecting boxes for the annual ‘King’s Treat’ and a silver cup was awarded to the place that collected most.
A short notice appeared in the Eastbourne Gazette in November 1935. “Daddy King is Ill” ‘Daddy’ King writes as follows: “A brief notice I feel is due with regard to my absence from my stand, this being due through illness. I feel that my patrons would like to know this” William Washington King, 2, Monceux Road.”
Washington recovered and the following year his name came to the attention of the BBC and millions heard him speak about his charity work on the ‘In Town Tonight’ programme. It seems that the whole town was talking about it but one person complained to the Eastbourne Gazette saying that he did not want to hurt the old man’s feelings but was it wise to let the whole world know that Eastbourne was full of poor children. In the next edition the anonymous writer was roundly denounced as a snob.
In August 1937 ‘Daddy King” attended his last ‘treat’ when over 1,000 Eastbourne kids were treated at his party. The parents of most of the children remembered the same occasion when they themselves were young. By this time ‘Daddy’ was in his 90s. No one seemed quite sure of his true age or where he came from. He would talk about sailing around the world when he was young, about being a lumberjack in Canada, and before he came to Eastbourne, being homeless on the streets of London.
My great-grandfather Ebenezer Roberts was an amateur poet and knew Washington King. He wrote this acrostic: (note how the first letters of the poem spell his name)
With pleasing gait and piercing eye
Aman well known to passers by
Soft is his heart and very warm
He knows the poorest and forlorn.
In deeds not words his motto runs
Nor scorns the tiniest little one.
Gifts to their hands he doth bestow
To make their eager faces glow
Oft will you see the little throng
Near to his pockets as he walks along
Kindness to children is his aim
In seeking for no earthly gain.
Name that will live after he dies
Gone is our ‘King’ the poor will cry.
Washington was clearly a popular figure and when he became ill in the 1920s, local people paid for his stay at St Mary’s Hospital. (this being before the NHS). Following his death in May 1938, the Eastbourne Gazette described him as one of Eastbourne’s most remarkable and picturesque characters.
My great-grandfather was right. The poor did mourn this poor but generous philanthropist and huge crowds, including hundreds of Eastbourne children, followed his coffin from the funeral in Holy Trinity Church. In Terminus Road the crowds were six-deep to watch the procession and hundreds lined the streets all the way to Ocklynge Cemetery where tearful children lined up to throw bluebells, daisies and buttercups into his grave.
“Daddy King’ never married. Today people would question his relationship with so many children but there was never any suggestion of impropriety. If there was, would so many parents who had benefitted from his kindness themselves have allowed their own children to be associated with him?
I am sure that Washington King was just a thoroughly good man and as such he should still be remembered as someone who devoted his life to the poor of Eastbourne. Washington really was the King of Eastbourne.