1998 Balchin Family Gathering – Alfold, Surrey

The 1998 Gathering was held on Saturday September 12th and Sunday 13th. For the first time, it was based in a village hail, at Alfold in Surrey, near the border with Sussex.

On Saturday afternoon a coach trip took about 30 members to West Chiltington, where Jenny Dixon showed them round the picturesque village with details of the Balchin involvement with many of its houses.

On Sunday morning, the extensive displays put out on Saturday were supplemented by extra items brought by nearly ninety members attending for the main part of the Gathering. They left no spare wall-space, extending from the main hail into the entrance lobby. Noteworthy were extensive trees and the many wedding photographs showing the change in fashions over the years.

After some of the display had been tidied up to leave enough room to sit down, Pat Green described her recent research on behalf of the Society.
Roy Balchin then recounted how he came to work at Windsor Castle, and what it was like to have the responsibility and privilege of being in the magnificent surroundings of the buildings which had been recently re-opened after restoration from the devastating fire.

On Sunday afternoon, those who had not done so at the 1994 Gathering made the trip to Vanhurst, an ancient building with many Balchin connections. The remainder travelled in members’ cars, first stopping at Wildwood Farm, an old house formerly occupied by Balchins; the former farm is now a golf course, with a barn converted to an impressive clubhouse, but the house is little-changed. Then on to Alfold village church; after viewing the village stocks, and some Balchin gravestones in the churchyard, Treasurer Colin Balchin demonstrated the wide range of his skills by playing the organ. Other parts of this attractive village, including the village mini-museum were also visited.

On return to the Hall, tea provided a final chance to meet other members and exchange information. The majority then dispersed, but some 15 went to Sidney Wood where Alan Green led a walk. This is the site of a glassworks which was one of the first in England, and after being abandoned many centuries ago one of the furnaces was actually the subject of a current archaeological excavation.

West Chiltington 1998 – Mrs Jenny Dixon
On the Saturday of the Gathering thirty-one members of the Society set out for the West Sussex village of West Chiltington. Tucked well away from main roads, West Chiltington is not the easiest village to find, and certainly not a place you go through on the way to somewhere else! So why the expedition down narrow and sunken Sussex lanes?

The answer – to visit the village that had been the home of the ancestors of many of the Society’s members and to see some of the buildings in which they had lived and worked.

In the early 19th Century Thomas Balchin and his wife Susannah née Grevat moved to West Chiltington. Thomas originated from Wisborough Green; he moved south to Pulborough, where on 27th July 1786 he and Susannah were married. From Pulborough the couple moved to Bury (Sussex) where they lived certainly until 1801. Between 1801 and 1806 they moved to West Chiltington, where in 1806 their tenth child, Henry, was born.

Most of the property in West Chiltington was owned by the Marquis of Abergavenny, the senior member of the Neville family. The area consists of good agricultural land plus an number of quarries, and was, at that time, very prosperous.

The children of Thomas and Susannah Balchin were William, Thomas, John, George, James, Elizabeth, Sarah, Anne, Jane, Henry and Hannah. Of James the only trace to be found is his baptism, which suggests that he may have died in infancy. The Balchin family must have been extremely healthy; for ten out of eleven children to survive was not common. Not only did ten children survive, but they went on to marry and have families of their own. Thomas and Susannah had at least 66 grandchildren – a formidable Christmas present list by anyone’s standards! Today Thomas & Susannah’s descendants are the largest family group within the Balchin Society (30% of membership) and among Balchins generally. Some of those descendants were on the West Chiltington excursion.

Over a year before the Gathering, Pat Green and I spent a day in West Chiltington tracking down the houses of 19th century Balchins. We also spent time poring over census and other material. I returned several times to West Chiltington to check other information, and the 1998 excursion took shape.

The Balchins of West Chiltington lived mainly on the west side of the village, and it was here that we started our visit. The West Chiltington Parish Council had kindly agreed to our coach being parked in the village Recreation Ground car park; from here it was an easy stroll to several houses with Balchin links.

First we merely crossed the road to Daux, pronounced Docks. In 1841 John Balchin, son of Thomas and Susannah, lived at Daux, a beautiful old timber-framed house with an ancient barn. Also living with him were his son George, aged 25, George’s first wife Sophia and two of John’s younger children Elizabeth and Edward. John was a widower.

By 1861 John was living alone in one of the cottages on the common. A large number of the Balchins of West Chiltington lived in Common Lane or nearby; many of these houses still exist, but were not included in our visit because of the difficulties of definite identification.

Gentle Harry’s
Immediately across the road from Daux is a lovely old farmhouse with a wonderful name – Gentle Harry’s Farm. Next door is a much modernised and extended cottage, Gentle Harry’s Cottage. In 1861 John’s Balchin’s brother Thomas and his wife Charlotte née Wadey lived here.

Thomas and Charlotte had three surviving children, all of whom were born in West Chiltington, as was Charlotte herself. It is likely that Thomas and Charlotte moved away from the village for a while, as they do not appear on the earlier census. Thomas seems to have been more prosperous than other members of his family. His is the only Balchin gravestone in West Chiltington churchyard (on the left just after the church gate); a very religious man, he named his two sons Isaac and Esau! His daughter Harriet married into the Wilmer family. Another difference between his family and that of his brothers is the names; Isaac and Esau stand out as the only Old Testament names among the rapidly growing number of young Balchins in the village. The Balchins all seem to have been Church of England, but there is a strong non-conformist  tradition in the area.

Another puzzle emerged during our walk around the village. Pat and Anita had both been researching this family, Anita being a direct descendant. Their research into the lives of Isaac and Esau threw up some interesting questions including a debate as to whether Esau was indeed the son of Thomas and Charlotte!

Windmill & Mill House
Our next stop was the home of Thomas and Charlotte’s daughter Harriet. In the early years of her marriage Harriet, her husband John, and their four young children Harriet, John, Henry and Eleanor lived in Common Lane. Between 1851 and 1861 huge changes were to occur in Harriet’s not uneventful life. John took over West Chiltington Mill, and the family moved to the substantial ‘The Mill House’, a property which reflects the prosperity and status of a busy miller employing 3/4 men. Harriet had two more children Elizabeth and Charlotte. Her eldest son John died, and so did her husband John! She was left with five children between the ages of 16 and 2.

The decision Harriet made must have caused considerable comment in West Chiltington and the surrounding area – she chose to ruin the mill in her own right. Although many women ran businesses it was certainly not the norm, and there must have amazement and possibly opposition from people who had seen John’s death as an opportunity to obtain a prosperous business. Even as late as 1861 women had very few rights, and the Married Womens Property Act was not passed until 1882. As a 42 year old widow with a business Harriet would certainly have attracted suitors. Accepting any suitor would however have meant that rights to the business passed from Harriet and her children to the new husband, which may have influenced Harriet’s decision not to re-marry. As the miller she continued to live in the Mill House until the 1880’s when she and three of her unmarried children Henry, Eleanor and Elizabeth moved to another substantial property on the opposite side of the road from The Mill House, Lakers Lodge. Even after the move she continued to run the mill, employing 3/4 men.

The picture of Harriet Wilmer née Balchin which emerges is of a redoubtable woman who ran her own business for over thirty years. In doing so she no doubt had the support of some members of the Balchin family. Equally there were no doubt those members of the family who felt that if she failed there would be an opportunity to take on the business. Does any member have more details of this interesting woman?

Lakers Farm and The Malt House
Opposite the Mill we paused outside another Balchin house, the home of Harriet’s cousin Allen, son of George. Born in 1833, he was one of 8 children, originally living in the Balchin enclave around Chiltington Common. After the death of his father, Allen and his brother Maurice  moved with their mother Charlotte, née Cooper, to a more isolated cottage at Monkmead Pond.

Allen married Jane Stringer, and had three sons Albert, Percy and Frank. He prospered, first taking on a small farm of 10 acres, and then in 1870’s moving to Lakers Farm, a large old property with 30 acres. The Vestry Meeting Minutes of 1.3.1883 record Allen’s nomination to the position of Parish Constable and re-election in 1884. By 1891 Allen, his wife and two unmarried sons Percy and Frank had moved to another house we were able to see The Malt House. Allen died in 1918.
Boarding the coach again, we travelled up a deep and narrow lane towards the Church, passing several other houses with Balchin connections. Meers Cottage was, in 1881, home to James and Anne and their six children, incomers from a rival Wisborough Green Balchin clan.
Finally our patient coach driver brilliantly negotiated the ninety-degree bend to the Church, parking outside the Old School House, where from 1870 many small Balchins studied.

Welcomed to the church by one of the churchwardens, we paused to admire some of the finest mediaeval wall paintings in Sussex, and visited Balchin and Wilmer graves. Then on to West Chiltington’s delightful little museum which houses many fascinating 19th century domestic and agricultural items.

The West Chiltington Balchins saw great changes in England. The agricultural prosperity of the early 19th century. Then the desperation of the 1820s to 1850s, when thousands of Sussex agricultural workers gathers gathered to protest against their conditions, Captain Swing riots swept the county, and work and food were so scarce that parish overseers often found the bodies of the destitute in hedges and ditches.
They witnessed the decline of the great smuggling gangs who had held Sussex and Kent in their grip, running the area with methods not dissimilar to those of the Mafia or Colombian drug barons. Their lives, as an almost self-contained group within the wider Balchin family, cry out for further more detailed study. If any member has more information, photographs etc. I would love to hear from them – or if you missed the visit, and would like to go to West Chiltington, please contact me.

Jenny Dixon