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Dr Annabelle Hughes of Horsham

Dr Annabelle Hughes

I was born in Penang, Malaysia, in 1941. My father was in the Malayan Civil Service and my mother worked for the Foreign Office there.

When I was only six months old, the Japanese invaded from the north, rather than by sea as everyone had anticipated. Everyone travelled down to Singapore to escape. My mother carried me on to one of the last boats that left before Singapore fell. My father stayed behind.

My mother thought we were heading to England, but we actually went to Melbourne, via Perth. She was most upset about that. We stayed there for nearly four years.

In Singapore, my father was accused in the notorious Double Tenth Trials. He was on the fringes of a group who were thought to be involved in a raid on Singapore Harbour. But they weren’t. They were heaved up in front of the Kempeitai and put on trial. He was sentenced to many years of hard labour but fortunately that was cut short by the end of the war.

My mother received pieces of information from him on Red Cross postcards. She knew he was alive and little else as you could only write a few words. Twitter is nothing new!

Eventually, we returned to England, via New Zealand, the Panama Canal and the Atlantic. I only have a children’s memory of it but we were in convoy as German U-Boats were still around. My father was repatriated, but it took him two years to recover as he was tortured and suffered Beriberi. He never really fully recovered.

However, he was determined to go back to Malaya and help rebuild the country, so we returned. My parents didn’t want me to go to boarding school, so we had a Governess who lived with us and taught me.

When I was 11, we returned to England on leave, and my parents bought a house in South London. My maternal grandmother moved in with us and I was left with her. I went to school nearby and afterwards decided to go to a teacher training college.
Back in those dim and distant days, most women simply married and raised a family. But my father was always insistent that his two daughters ensured they would be able to earn a living if they needed to.

I went to Salisbury. There was also a Theological College in Salisbury, and in my first year I met John Hughes, who was a late entrant to the Church. I fell for him but he was totally dedicated to pursuing a career in the Church so we remained just great friends.

However, in my second year I met another theological student, Douglas. When he left college we married and moved to Yorkshire. Sadly, six years later it proved to be a ghastly mistake. In those days, when you married a clergymen there was this general view that you have made your bed and should lie in it, even if everything was far from hunky dory.

Douglas was an Army Chaplain, and a psychiatrist there said ‘My dear, you’ll have to come to terms with the fact you’ve married a broken reed’. That was smashing at the age of 27. I did what was called constructive desertion, took the children and left him.

My parents had bought a small house in Croydon and we lived there for a time. Then John turned up at a parish in Purley. I thought ‘Bloody hell, first great friends and now I’m getting divorced!’ But this time John was struck. When he spoke to the Bishop about his involvement with a woman who was divorced with three children, the Bishop was understanding and offered to find John a Parish.

But John declined as he was interested in teaching RE. We married on a Saturday, at the end of August 1970, and moved to Rushams Road in Horsham the following Monday. He taught at Horsham Grammar School for Girls. A year later, John adopted the three children. He said he grew tired of people telling him how wonderful he was for taking on me and three children, as he always thought he was the lucky one to have a ready-made family.

My fourth child, Theo, was born in 1972. When he was 18-months-old, I decided to do an Open University degree.

It was around this time that I became embroiled in local matters. I was dragged into the Horsham Society as there was a campaign to save Prewetts Mill from being demolished. It was the first time that I had lived in a town that had real history.

From that point on, I spent a huge part of my life investigating Horsham’s History. If you don’t know where we’ve come from, how can we see where we’re going? That’s my policy entirely.

John was teaching, but he had digestive problems and wasn’t well. In 1980, it was clear he was very unwell, and I insisted he went to see the doctor again. We rang, and the doctor wasn’t there, so I cycled round to the surgery and hit the roof! The doctor rushed around, and John was immediately admitted to hospital.

John was given up to a year to live. He lasted seven weeks. I was left with four children under the age of 17 and Theo was only eight. He doesn’t remember his father much, but he has a lot of the same characteristics.

After a break, I returned to Open University and earned my BA Honours. Doing the Open University kept me sane after John died. I then studied at Sussex University for two years for my Master of Arts (MA) in History. My thesis was on Horsham Church Wardens Accounts, 1610-1641. It was based on one man’s incumbency at St Mary’s.

I also discovered accounts to do with property that belonged to the parish. I thought ‘if I knew a bit more about buildings, it would help with my research’. Through that I became involved with the Wealden Buildings Study Group. That was my downfall!

I stayed at University to do a Doctorate.  I said ‘I would like to do it on timber framed buildings’. They all fell about laughing, but I wanted to establish it as an academic pursuit. I was tired of being patted on the head and being told ‘what a nice little hobby you have.’

The nicest bit was the fieldwork as I needed to see all the old buildings in Horsham, out to a six mile radius. Once I had reached 150 houses I decided that was enough. It took me six years.

For a lot of houses, I was simply knocking on doors. People would initially look a little bemused. But I was known as ‘the lady who climbs in roofs’ and they would often say ‘Oh yes, we’ve heard about you!’

One of the first jobs I had to do, and one that made me realise that I could keep body and soul together doing something I loved doing, was at Field Place in Warnham. It is a Grade I Listed house as Shelley lived there, but it deserves the status for its structure. It is a four-sided house of which the latest side is about 1680 and the other three sides are pre-1500.

Key to my work is discovering the building’s structure, but to me the enthralling thing is matching that with the stories of who lived in them, and why and when did they live there. I came across some fascinating stories and continue to do so.

I knew that the study group had identified that one of the oldest buildings in Sussex is in Horsham, and that’s
Chennells Brook Farmhouse. I was teaching one evening and, lo and behold, the occupants came to one of my classes. They let me see the house and I did a lot of ferreting around.

I was fairly sure I knew who built it and that would put it at about 1295/96. Some people were sceptical about that as there is not meant to be any buildings from that time in the Weald. It was only recenlty that Dendrochronology (a scientific method of dating) proved it was built in that very winter.

Now I have about 1400 houses on my database, of which 1100 are in West Sussex. I also do heritage statements when people in listed buildings apply for building consent, reports for architects and surveyors, and private commissions. This is what I love the most, as you’re working for people who want to know as much as I can find out about the structure and the history of a building.

I put together a book, Horsham Houses, in 1986. I saw what was coming to Horsham, and felt I should set down in black and white what there is here so we did not lose any more historic buildings. The last truly historic building that Horsham did lose was Bornes, in front of the old Capital theatre sited on to what is now Medwin Walk.

My other books include Bygone Horsham, which I worked on with Anthony Windrum, West Sussex Barns and Farm Buildings, with photographer David Johnston, and I also spent two years researching for the book Amberley Castle, A Celebration of 900 Years, by David Ascott.

You may not like some of what happens in Horsham, but where the town scores is that a chap from 500 years ago could be parachuted into the middle of the Carfax, as it is now, and he would still be able to find his way around the core of the town. His jaw would hit the deck at motor vehicles and things like that, but the mediaeval plan of the town is still intact. Considering its close proximity to London and Gatwick Airport, that’s quite an achievement.

I love all of the buildings I study, but one of the more significant buildings, which is somewhat buried, is along East Street. It is the old Scott & Sargeant building, which is now Steamer Trading, and includes Beer Essentials. There are eight bays that go all the way to the end of the street. I have crawled through the roof all the way along. It is a high class development of the late 1300s and it was developed by Fécamp Abbey, which had its headquarters in Steyning. The details are fantastic!

I’m still with the Horsham Society. I’ve been secretary, newsletter editor, chairman, and for quite a long time the President. It’s about conserving the best of the town and trying to do what is best for its future.

I was Chairman during the major Sun Alliance development. There was a time when the relationship between the Society and the Council was very confrontational. It was very much them and us. But when Martin Pearson was Chief Executive, he was a very forward-looking leader. We were lucky to have a man like that at the helm. He helped change things and now we work in co-operation with the council.
I still do heritage reports for local authorities. I am strictly objective and I don’t side one way or another, as if I did it would jeopardise my opportunities to be asked. I think that, as a town, Horsham is more considerate now to our history than it was in the 1960s.

I have two children in Australia, one in Chelmsford and one round the corner. I have seven grandchildren, but six are in Australia.

As long as I can stagger down to the Record Office in Chichester and inch my way up to the top of a stepladder, I will carry on. The only thing that worries me is that I can’t see anyone coming up behind me. I would love to be able to mentor somebody. Although there are University courses, there is nothing to compare with field work. You’ll only get that experience if you have someone to guide you. I can do that, but I can’t see anybody to help.

This is why I keep all my old recordings. My children have strict instructions as to what to do with it once I pop my clogs! I want my work to remain for someone else to develop. I don’t want the next person to have to reinvent the wheel.