Vicar’s ‘Sussex Hell’

The Rev. Edward Fitzgerald Synott, vicar of Rusper, didn’t exactly ingratiate himself with his parishioners with the publication of his book Five Years’ Hell in a Country Parish presumably after he’d lived there for five years.

He was the vicar of Rusper, near Crawley from 1914 until 1934, and his book, which was published in 1920, listed all the things he didn’t like about the village and its people (his parishioners!), asserting it was a centre for gossip, petty crime, drinking and other indulgences, all of which made his first five years at Rusper ‘a time of war.’

But allegations against him were venomous too. Before he wrote the book, anonymous letters claimed he was a gambler, he'd married the wrong people, put the wedding ring on a bride’s thumb once instead of the correct finger, that he rushed through services, even funerals, and often failed to give the bearers enough time to lower the coffin into the grave.

And when two local horse dealers sold him a bad mount, he chased and caught up with them and, by his own confession, proceeded to give them a five-minute lecture on their business methods after which, ‘I took off my coat and gave those two the soundest drubbing they had ever had.’

The complaints against him reached such a level he was summoned, in 1919, to an Ecclesiastical Court at Westminster to explain himself. Synnott must have put up a good case as the court decided he was ‘not guilty’ of any serious misdemeanor, concurred that Rusper was indeed, ‘a hotbed of scandal’ and he was to carry on dealing with it as he saw fit. The report only made a note that Synnott ‘was an excitable Irishman who was not likely to be attractive to all his parishioners.’

So, he returned to Rusper, but instead of adopting a ‘let’s put all this behind us and move on’ kind of attitude, he wrote his book. In it, he seemed to rebuke everyone. ‘The men of the village carry on the great gossiping craze daily. Gossip may go from house to house, wrapped in a case of whiskey or packed in a packet of tea. It is taken to the doctor, the baker the candlestick maker and undertaker. The women’s love of scandal is written plainly on their faces everywhere. Moreover if any modern artist is in need of a model to express the voice of the calumniator, he could do no better than a stroll down our village street.’

Our photograph - the only one there seems to be of him - shows him in quieter mood, at the unveiling of the church war memorial in 1921 (right, in cassock).

Pub Wars

Darts is the game most readily associated with pubs these days, but in the past, particularly in Sussex, it was quoits, with many village locals having their own team. Quoits was played with heavy metal rings, varying in weight from 5 to 8lbs, measuring nine inches in diameter, with a central hole some six inches across. It's thought that early quoits were horseshoes, hammered into circles. Each player would have two quoits and play would be between opposing pairs.

The quoits were tossed at a peg (usually called a pig, sometimes a hob) mounted in a bed of clay some 18ft away. If the quoit went over the peg, that was a 'ringer' and scored two points. If not, whoever's was closest to the peg, scored one point. The team that reached 21 points won the round, and the team who won the most rounds were the ultimate winners.

We know that prizes were casks of beer but cups and trophies, medals, clocks, even fruit bowls and crockery were often awarded, too.

Not all quoits pitches were in pub gardens. Some were on recreation grounds, common land, or in parks. In a small book published in 1978, Groombride Old and New, Barbara Lee recalls that quoits matches were often rough affairs, with fights breaking out between the teams. She also explained that it was the bodyweight of each contestant that determined the weight of the quoit they were allowed to use, to keep things fair and even.

Quoits survived into the mid-1980s at the Victory Inn, Staplefield - with a big match always held on Boxing Day each year - but then seemed to die out in Sussex. In Horsham Museum a number of old quoits are on show, somewhat battered, and clearly used for many matches.

Lost At Sea

A sad sight: Brighton's Chain Pier, literally on its last legs before being blown away by a storm in December 1896. It had opened in 1823, the same time the Royal Pavilion was finished, to huge admiration and approval, standing below New Steine and held together with massive suspension chains, a new, pioneering technique at the time.

But it wasn't really a seaside pier in the way we think of them today. At only 13 feet wide, it was really a jetty, albeit an extremely elegant one, for ships to and from the continent. Brighton was receiving a large number of fashionable visitors in the 1820s and many wanted to travel on to France or Belgium. Before the pier, steamers providing this service had to anchor in deep water off Brighton beach with passengers reaching them via rowing boats. The Chain Pier changed all this and at first business was good. However, in 1847 the railway reached Newhaven, further east, a much better and fully appointed port, meaning the Chain Pier lost out significantly. The opening of the West Pier, in 1866, also affected its fortunes and by the 1890s, when it had become structurally unsafe - as seen here -, it was decided to demolish it. A new pier was planned to replace it, on a site further west, to be named the Palace Pier, and that pier is still with us today. However, before the old pier could be dismantled, the storm got there first...

Chris Horlock’s Sussex book, Ruins, Remains and Relics; Sussex, published by Amberley, is full of quirky tales of the county, similar to those in his ‘An Eye on the Past’ column in Sussex Life. Available from local bookshops or online.