2002 Balchin Family Gathering – University of Sussex, Brighton

The 2002 Family Society Gathering was held at the University of Sussex at Brighton on Saturday 7th to Sunday 8th September.

Jenny Goldsmith reports:

The sun really seems to shine on the Balchin Gatherings, the weather was absolutely perfect. A real Indian summer, just like the weather we enjoyed last year at The Royal Holloway. Wonderful for a leisurely drive through the autumn countryside to our venue, the University of Sussex. I happened to be working in Brighton the next day and, instead of Balchin weather, hit something akin to the start of Noah’s flood. The wind howled and a curtain of rain surrounded the car. Even with the wipers on full speed I could barely see beyond the end of the bonnet, a far cry from the beautiful sunny drive home from the Gathering only 24 hours earlier.

Up early the next morning I headed for the Bramber Building. The Bramber Building is the University’s conference centre and has a number of excellent rooms of all sizes. Our choice was the Terrace Room, a large sunlit room with huge windows opening onto a south-facing terrace, just the thing for a beautiful autumn day. The room was big enough to accommodate our meeting plus space to stand and chat over coffee and the biggest bonus of all, a huge display area. The Campus Conference Staff, led by Catherine Stead, had done a wonderful job of setting the room out to meet our needs. Down one side was a continuous run of tables, wide and long enough to accommodate two family trees fully unrolled, plus a massive amount of display material. Members who have not been able to attend recent Gatherings may not be aware of just how long the family tree has become. It is several years since we have had enough space to be able to unroll it fully so this was a real bonus.

I was just starting to unroll the family trees when Roy arrived. The previous day he and Iris had driven down from Rutland, their car groaning under the weight of the records that the Society has received from the Surrey History Centre. The last time I saw these records they were a jumble of miscellaneous papers shoved into boxes and bin bags. So when Roy e-mailed me to say that he would bring the whole collection to the Gathering I had no idea what to expect. What Roy & Iris produced was over 100 A4 ring binders, all neatly labelled and referenced, each one full of Balchin related documents. I was awe struck. Even having seen the papers before Roy and Iris started on them, I don’t think I am able to hazard a guess at how many days they had to spend sorting and cataloguing to produce such a wonderfully accessible archive. I am sure that everyone who saw the records would agree that they deserve our gratitude.

Well before 9.30 am the trees and displays were surrounded by people pouring over the details, exclaiming as they found information that they had been seeking, then breaking off for coffee and to greet friends old and new as more and more people arrived. A number of people had brought additional items for display so further space was created. Once again we could have spent the whole day browsing the tree and other documents but, with the promise of more browsing time later on, we got started.

After a welcome by Sir Robert Balchin I was down for a whole hour entitled “What have you found”. An anxious moment this, would anyone say anything? If they did not had I enough material to fill a whole hour?

It immediately became clear that I had absolutely no need to feel anxious. First up was Dorothy Balchin. Dorothy has recently moved to Hove, just west of Brighton. Within seconds she had the whole Gathering alternating between fascination, as she explained and showed pictures of the Balchin discoveries that she had made within a few weeks of moving to Hove, and roaring with laughter as she described how she made her discoveries. The Gathering was off to a swinging start. Next Susan Shafrir, recently back in the UK from Israel, produced a number of photographs found among her late Mother’s papers. “Were they Balchins and if so, who?” she asked.

“That’s your Great Uncle Jack” said Sir Robert. Within seconds he and Leslie Balchin had identified them all and moved on to telling stories about these members of the family, many of whom had lived in Banstead in Surrey. The characters in the photographs came to life before our eyes and once again the audience was enthralled.

Joan Beasley then showed us pictures of a building that she had recently identified as the old Runford Bakery, run in late Victorian/early Edwardian times by brothers George and James Balchin of the Shalford branch of the family. Joan related a moving story of how in 1907 one of the brothers had died, leaving his estate to his fiancée. Known to the family as Aunt Kitty, she never married. Kitty used the proceeds of the estate to build a row of seven cottages in Aldershot, which she named Myrtle Cottages. In the language of flowers the name myrtle means ‘love you forever’. The cottages still stand and still bear the name Kitty chose for them.

Ted Balchin updated the Gathering on his attempts to track down the “mystery submariner”. Amongst Pat Green’s papers were two photograph albums containing a large number of pictures taken in the Far East. There were no clues to the source of the albums others than a brown developer’s wallet marked in pencil with the name Balchin and a number of pictures of early 20th Century submarines. Ted explained that the photographs showed that our mystery submariner had travelled extensively, visiting what is now North Korea and even going to what would then have been the ‘forbidden city of Peking’. Despite Ted’s searches through Royal Naval and other records, the identity of the photographer still remains a mystery.

After a break for coffee Roy took the floor to tell us about another Balchin mystery. Over the last 6/9months Roy has been establishing links with a family of Balchins who live mainly in South Carolina and Georgia, USA. This family have had no previous contact with other Balchins and all descend from a common ancestor, Thomas Balchin of Surrey. In his wonderfully amusing and informative style Roy explained the complexities of the American census system and the difficulties that he was encountering finding where Thomas should fit into the family tree. The story that Roy related was a fascinating one. The family legend common among Thomas’ descendants is that he was born in Surrey around 1810. After working as a carpenter he joined one of the Guards regiments. While he was on Royal escort duty, possibly escorting Queen Adelaide wife of William IV, one of the carriage horses got out of control and Thomas shot it. To avoid the subsequent court martial he stowed away on a ship bound for New York.

Arriving in America sometime around 1830 he made his way to Elberton in Georgia. During the American Civil War he fought with the Southern Army, returning safely home to live a long life with his wife and family in Elberton. As yet Roy has not found where Thomas fits into our family tree, so he enlisted the aid of the entire group to scour the tree and list all the Thomas Balchins of the right period. No easy or small task.

Then back to the Terrace Room for more chat and browsing the displays before the AGM began. Under the direction of our Chairman Sir Robert, business affairs of the day were conducted at a cracking pace. Colin Balchin presented meticulous accounts, which were accepted by the meeting, who, appreciative of Colin’s care of our finances, lost no time in re-electing him to the post of Society Treasurer. All other members of the Committee were re-elected, plus the excellent addition of new committee member Diana Beamish.

The official business of the day completed, our President Professor William Balchin took the floor. William regaled us with an account of Admiral Sir John Balchen’s naval exploits including his involvement in the British attack on Vigo Bay in Northern Spain. An event, which, despite being a defeat for the Spanish, is this year being remembered in Vigo Bay with special Tercentenary Celebrations.

Dr. Tony Balchin then delivered a intriguing account of his search for what had started out as two Victorian William Balchins of Brighton. William the Nurseryman and William, Captain of the Fire Brigade. Tony had rapidly discovered not just two prominent William Balchins living in Brighton but five, or possibly six. To complicate matters even more two of the Williams had the second name Charles and several lived very close to one another. How Tony unravelled the complicated story of the many William Balchins of Brighton is a fascinating story and one that Tony will explain in more detail in the Newsletter.

Finally, after more coffee, chat and a quick dip into the Cumberland Letters, the 18th Century correspondence of young George Cumberland to, from and about many of his Balchin relatives, Professor William brought the day to a close.

Jenny Goldsmith