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John Snelling: A Lifetime in Horsham

John Snelling

Published 5th May 2015


I was born in 1931 at my maternal grandparents' house in Nelson Road. My grandfather was John Gumbrill, from a rustic Billingshurst family, who became a stonemason and worked on building Roedean School and later Holy Trinity Church Horsham (1899-1901) before setting up his own stonemason's business in 1910.

His wife was from a Horsham family of Dinnage who lived in a cottage in London Road. A brother was the first man In Horsham to ride a penny-farthing bicycle bicycle and a younger brother in the Royal Flying Corps was killed in 1916. My father was Harold Snelling, whose father and grandfather also happened to be stonemasons. His mother when widowed in 1914 later married Herbert Francis of Hop Oast Farm.

When I was a child removing children's tonsils and adenoids almost seemed a rite of passage. They suggested it for me when I was five, but as my parents wished to spare me my first hospital experience the operation was to be done at home. I vividly remember the day. The anaesthetist was my mother's (and my) GP, Dr Alice Owen. The surgeon was Dr Geoffrey Sparrow, famed as a hunting man, artist and writer. The anaesthetic was a gauze pad sprinkled with chloroform from a medicine bottle and held over my nose and mouth.

When my father looked into the room he was a bit shaken to see me snoring loudly on a bed of bloody towels. For some nights afterwards I was kept awake by earache and pains in the neck. But my reward for it all was a Hornby train set!

My first school was Victory Road Horsham and I vividly remember it burning down on 10 January 1940, not, as it happens, through bombing. It was a terribly cold winter's day and it is thought that the caretaker stoked the boilers up but an electrical problem caused the fire. From my bedroom, I could see the school well alight. The thing that struck me most was the noise. You wouldn't think of fire as being loud but everything was crashing down and you could hear the flames crackling. It was quite menacing.

In those days, the police didn't have telephones or radios so they knocked on our door and asked if they could use our phone. We had one because of my father's business. Our first number was Horsham 134.

I recall the blitz in Horsham and later the flying bombs and then the allied invasion and finally victory. I do have souvenirs from the war, including shrapnel from a bomb that exploded in Orchard Road, killing several people. I
suspect that my dad picked it up for me. However, I do recall going to the site of the bombing shortly afterwards, where the houses were reduced to a pile of rubble and splintered wood.

Owing to a genetic fluke I was always short. I have a condition which means that I am a bit short in the leg, and it was feared that I might be bullied at school. Well, it never happened anywhere. Wherever I have gone I have found nothing but kindness and friendship. I started at Collyer's (grammar) School in 1942, and the bigger lads would say 'We'll look after Johnny." There was a great spirit there.

Owing to that great institution I left with a state scholarship to Cambridge, where I read English. I had a very good English Master at Collyer's, Vernon Davies. Also, my mother was very keen on literature and would learn verses by heart. My mother died when she was 97, but even in later life, she was able to recite work by the great romantic poets that she had learnt at school. I may have inherited some of that from her.

At Cambridge, I became familiar with, among many others, the towering personality of Tam Dalyell, at the time a Tory but soon to become a pillar of the Labour Party and often a thorn in the Establishment's flesh. I became a life member of the Union Society and though I regularly attended the debates I never found the courage to speak. But I did see some of the officers in action, including Douglas Hurd, Brian Redhead and one Greville Janner, who 60+ years ago struck me as a thoroughly nice chap.

Of all the guest speakers I found Lady Astor memorable and I still dine out on one of her jokes. The hours that I spent browsing in the Fitzwilliam Museum and the University Library really should have been more targeted. My
degree in the end was a 2:2, not brilliant but not the worst either. Between them Collyer's and Cambridge shaped my life.

When it came to finding work, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I placed an advert in The Bookseller and was offered work by a man who produced joke books, but I turned him down. Instead, I wrote six letters to different publishers, one of which was London publisher Cassell and Company. I still have the letter they sent confirming my appointment.

The very first book I edited was a Western called Tall Wheels to Oregon and gradually the work became more varied. You either respected the author or you didn't. Some authors could be slapdash and you felt weren't really trying, but if an author was meticulous you wouldn't willingly edit anything at all.

Cassell and Company were publishing Winston Churchill, amongst many others, and I once found myself in the same room as the great man. I was getting an interesting variety of authors to see through the press, ranging from Nicholas Monsarrat, the author of The Cruel Sea, Alec Waugh (Island in the Sun), Frank Richards (Billy Bunter) and Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher.

I loved being in the city. We were in a lane between Queen Victoria Street and Ludgate Hill and from the front office you could see St Paul's Cathedral. But it was a long day, and eventually the journey got me down, especially in hot weather.

I chucked the job in and had a brief spell in Arundel in antiquarian books with the late Alexander Jameson-Benbrook, quite a toff complete with monocle and vintage Rolls-Royce. The first time I saw him he was driving down East Street in an open 4 ½ litre dark green Bentley, the model with a leather strap around the bonnet. He had clearly just driven straight off the pages of P.G. Wodehouse via Brooklands.

Travelling to Arundel was a more pleasant journey. I would take my lunch by the river, often eating a pork pasty from Pages Perfect Pork Sausages in the Carfax.

I was looking at Horsham jobs in the West Sussex County Times, and swapped a career in the Arts for one in Science with CIBA Laboratories, the Swiss pharmaceutical company. Does that make me a 'polymath'? The Horsham management was humane and paternal and it may be a cliché but it felt like being part of a family.

As a training experience, at one stage I became P.A. to the M.D., the great Philip Mair. He was a close relative of Lord Beveridge, credited with being the founder of the Welfare State. It gave me quite a kick when the firm's gleaming Daimler slid into Nelson Road to pick up little me for a London meeting. After a merger with another of the historic Basel companies CIBA Labs became CIBA-Geigy, but I had retired before a third merger transformed it into Novartis.

After retiring as a manager in Technical Operations I was delighted to be asked to research and write the history of CIBA in Horsham, and it was published by the company in 1989 as 'Makers of Medicine'. The Library and the Museum have copies.

During my working life, I spent a few years as a member of The Round Table in Horsham, and in the 1960's followed in the steps of my father as a member of Rotary and after 40 happy years retired. They made me an honorary member, bless 'em.

I bought my home in Warnham Road in 1974. The idea was that my parents would move from Nelson Road and live with me. Unfortunately, my father was not very healthy and died in 1975, before they could move. My mother moved here with me and mentally she was sharp and was very good company until she died in 2001.

My mother first took me to Holy Trinity Church in the womb, and I still attend the place my grandfather helped to build, but now rather less assiduously than once upon a time when I was its warden some fifty years ago. For 20 years the late Revd Michael Cochrane was priest there and he and I became firm friends. His undoubted piety never cooled the warmth of his personality and he is still remembered with affection by older people in the Common area.

I am no stranger to the inside of hospitals, with umpteen eye operations, the last two being last year. Most people with a pension book now seem to be issued with two new hips to go with it, and I am no exception. In my case they also threw in two spinal operations, one of which lasted eight hours.

Many people are horrified at the thought of having to use a wheelchair. Well, it's a bugger, of course, but it may not be as bad as you think. There are an awful lot of worse things that can befall one. Depending on where you are on life's inner journey, either pray or keep your fingers crossed that they don't befall you.

Today, I still enjoy collecting and listening to music. Music can touch the heart more surely than words. Just listen to the Elgar 'Cello Concerto or the 3rd movement of Brahms's Third Symphony and try not to be moved to tears. I can't manage it myself. This is why I am a Sponsor of the Shipley Arts Festival commissioning a new setting of the Agnus Dei from James Whitbourn in 2013, first performed at Lancing College Chapel.

What about marriage?, you ask. Well, it didn't interest me as I seemed to have a good enough life without it, though for some time now I have appreciated the closeness of a lady friend.

I've never been tempted to move away from Horsham. Today it is very different from the place I grew up in. However, I often think that if I had visited Horsham from somewhere else, I would think that it was a nice place to be in.