23rd March 1943 – 10th September 2000
Jennifer Dixon pays this tribute to her sister Pat
My sister Pat was born at Horsham in March 1943. I was born three years later in 1946. At that time, we lived at Rudgwick in a bungalow with an apple orchard, chickens and my Mother’s many beehives. Like so many Balchins, Pat had wonderful deep red hair. From the Goldsmith side she inherited a mop of curls – my Father’s nickname was Curly. As a child she was painfully thin, a source of concern to my Mother. In fact, we must have looked a looked a strange pair, Pat very thin with red curls and me plump with white blond curls. Another source of concern for my parents was the fact that Pat was very slow to learn to speak. She would invent words rather than use actual names – a light bulb was a ‘boo-boo-ab’. I can remember her using her ‘words’ but was never sure how they came about. It was a family joke that once Pat learned to speak, she never stopped. In these early days we all called her Tricia, not Pat. I don’t think she actually became known as Pat until she started senior school, and then not usually at home. School life began for Pat at Mrs Aspley’s. Mrs Aspley was a kindly Swiss lady who ran a little school near Rudgwick church. When I was three I joined Pat there, and can remember us sitting on the window seat in the big bay window learning to count in French. Pat was an attentive, if mischievous pupil. One day she hid holly in her friend David’s cushion. Like all schoolboys he was wearing shorts, how he cried when he sat down. His Mother later came and told our Mother what someone, she did not know who, had done. Mother never ‘let on’; this was to be the first of many scrapes, and the first of many times that Mother pacified parents, angry over our individual or joint scrapes, but never ‘told on us’. Many scrapes and family memories, like the day Pat sat on a large stag beetle. There were lots of them among the oak trees so common on the Surrey/Sussex border, and they were big.
In Coronation Year we moved from Rudgwick to Mitchmere Farm in Stoughton. The small village in a valley of the South Downs, 7 miles north of Chichester was Pat’s home until she and Alan married. There were very few children in Stoughton when we arrived. So, with Pat as ringleader and me tagging on behind, she started to make her presence felt. The first thing she organised was making a tunnel between a haystack and the roadside hedge. There we lurked and as people cycled by, Pat, wrapped in one of Mother’s sheets, would leap out making blood curdling ghost-like noises, then disappear back down the tunnel. This went well until she leapt out at the Headmistress of the village school. We did not know who she was, but we soon found out. Shortly afterwards another girl of Pat’s age arrived in the village. Marion Parkhouse was welcomed with open arms and again, with little sister tagging on, more dark deeds were planned. One of Pat and Marion’s favourite pastimes was writing and acting plays. Halloween was always a popular time of the year. One year we were asked to put on a play for the smaller children of the village at a party in the back room of the Hare & Hounds pub. Pat and Marion set to work with relish. Songs were written, ghostly costumes made and a great deal of time spent practising the most scary scenes they could think of. In the mid – 1980s I bumped into the publican’s wife, and she told me that we had so frightened some of the younger children that several mothers had complained to Mother that their children were unable to sleep for nights. How Pat laughed when I told her. She was only sorry that she had lost touch with Marion, so she was unable to share the joke.
On another occasion Pat and Marion masterminded a kidnap plot. Marion, disguised as a gypsy, hid in the woods behind Stoughton church. Pat very kindly allowed two rather timid girls, with whom we did not normally play, to come for a walk with us. Halfway up the lane 9-year-old Marion, sporting a moustache drawn with burnt cork, curtain ring earrings and with a spotted scarf tied over her hair, leapt out and carried Pat off. The girls fled in terror and we collapsed laughing. We laughed rather less when, giggling back down the lane we came face to face with a large group of angry fathers, some armed with pitchforks, determined to rescue Pat. After this Pat and Marion’s activities were somewhat curtailed. Stoughton residents no doubt heaved a sigh of relief as the demands of preparation for the 11+ and then senior school meant vivid imaginations had less time to run riot. Who was to blame for the vivid imaginations? Certainly, our parents in part, both Mum and Pop had a fund of stories about the things that they had got up to as children, and they certainly did not discourage us from mucking about. When Pat had a bicycle for Christmas it appeared from the barn covered in balloons and in the early hours of Christmas morning she was to be seen riding up and down the road in her nightie. Another Christmas we each had a pogo stick. We could not get the hang of pogo’ing so Mum and Pop demonstrated by pogo’ing up and down the road. Another great influence was Enid Blyton and a now forgotten writer M. Pardoe. Their books were devoured. Even as a child Pat spent hours in the library and in second-hand bookshops searching out new things to read. Then of course the activities of the characters were incorporated into the plans and schemes. It was not long before every word written by the favoured authors had been read. A new big influence came into Pat’s life, she discovered historical novels and then introduced me to them. The works of Jean Plaidy, Margaret Campbell Barnes and Anya Seton were rapidly completely devoured, then a succession of other authors fuelled the growing love of history. This paid off, as at school history was always Pat’s favourite and top subject. School was sometimes difficult. Even at school Pat was always forthright in her views. Speaking your mind to the school toughie is not usually the course taken by others, but it was for Pat. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it did not! Even then Pat had a way of persuading people to do what she wanted, or to get on and do things faster than they might otherwise have intended. Now, two months after she has gone, I have still left messages on my answerphone chasing me up about things I was meant to be doing – somehow, I still cannot bring myself to delete them.
The interest in the Balchin family started early. Mother had three brothers, our Uncles Percy, Doug & Norman, and one sister, Auntie Anne, living in Brockham Green, near Dorking. A fourth brother, Uncle Arthur, was a Vicar in Australia. Our Grandparents Arthur and Edith Balchin also lived in Brockham and we were regular visitors. They also visited us regularly, particularly Auntie Anne. My Grandparents knew masses of other Balchin relatives living in the Dorking area. Grandmother. known as Nan-nan, was a keen letter writer as were Mother and Auntie Anne. They kept in regular touch with Balchin cousins all ever the world. Pat was always fascinated by the Balchins, and would ask Grandad to toll her all about them. I was more interested in going down the garden to look at Uncle Doug’s ferrets, particularly as we had been told never to touch them because they would bite. John Walker, known to everyone as Jack, was Mother’s first cousin. His research was a regular topic of conversation. We first met him when we were quite little, and certainly knew of and saw the family tree as it developed. At Brockham there were photographs of our great-grandparents, and a painting of Grandad as a very little boy standing with his with brothers and sisters outside the Balchin butchers shop on Brockham Green. The conversation often included people and events that had occurred in what was then the previous century. The seeds of Pat’s fascination for family history were being sown. Initially Pat wanted to farm. First she worked at home and then went to work at a farm near Brockham. She spent many evenings with Grandad and Nan-nan finding out more about the Balchins.
It was at this time that she really got to know Jack Walker. She found his research fascinating, and he was clearly absolutely delighted to meet a young cousin who was genuinely interested in his work. I think even at that early stage, Pat was only 17, he knew that he had found the person who would continue his work. Jack Walker kept a log book, recording his findings and dates of birth, marriages etc. Each entry has a reference number. Pat’s birth is reference 0.5. As with all his entries, it was updated to show first her marriage and then record the births of Paul, Ian and Duncan. Reference 0.5 differs from all the other entries, clearly written some years after the original entry. Jack Walker wrote ‘a very lovely woman’ – the only personal comment in a 185-page log book. Pat left the farm and returned to Chichester. She changed her plans and took up office work. Teenage pursuits mixed with continued reading of history. Then she met Alan in the EL Bolero coffee bar in Chichester. Now it is called Cafe Coco, but I can still see the Pyrex cups of frothy coffee and the Spanish bullfight posters on the walls. It soon became clear that Pat and Alan were ‘an item’ and they were married in Stoughton church. For some bizarre reason the Highways Department chose that day to conduct a traffic census on the normally quiet road to Stoughton. Every driver had to stop and answer questions about their journey, even me driving Pat back from the hairdressers in dressing gown and wedding veil. By the end of the day the unfortunate census takers had accepted that their figures would bear no relation to normal traffic through the village and entered into the spirit of the wedding celebrations instead. Alan and Pat set up business as market gardeners, living and working in the very Surrey villages where she was later to spend so much time researching the Balchin homelands. In 1967 Paul and Ian were born, and in 1970 Duncan.
The demands of work and family meant that history, although still a keen and continuing interest, was not yet a research passion. This did not mean that places with Balchin connections went unvisited. Pat and Alan were already steadily building up an encyclopaedic knowledge of Surrey and its churches and historic buildings. Then came the move to High Ham in Somerset, a glorious old bakery on a hill. In typical Pat manner she became interested in Somerset and its history, finding out about the Battle of Sedgemoor and other events. By then I was living in Norwich, and on visits to Somerset was taken to sites that had captured Pat’s imagination or to events that reflected Pat’s involvement in the local community. Links with Surrey were not broken however, and as well as our Aunts and Uncles in Brockham, Pat maintained her regular contact with Jack Walker and he continued to update her on the progress of his research. Surprisingly it was not Jack Walker who really got Pat started on family history but Uncle Nornie. Mother’s younger brother Norman was called Uncle Nornie because his first little niece, Pat, could not say Norman, she said Nornie, and it stuck. Uncle Nornie worked for the Bank of England. He was frighteningly clever, soaked up information like a sponge and learnt new languages for fun. He decided to do some research into the family.
It had always been a family tradition that we had two Prime Ministers in the family, Attlee on Grandad’s side and William Pitt on Nan-nan’s. We knew that Attlee was fact, as Grandad knew him and actually looked very like him. Uncle Nornie had a mischievous and sceptical streak. One of the things that he was sceptical about was the link to William Pitt. So he decided to find out and discovered that, yes, we were descended from a William Pitt, but not ‘the’ William Pitt. He and Pat talked of his research and he introduced her to family history research techniques. She was fascinated and began researching into Grandmother’s family, the Cleggs from Macclesfield in Cheshire. By now Uncle Nornie had achieved what he had set out to do and stopped researching, but Pat did not. She found out more about the Cleggs, and of course was discussing her findings with Jack Walker. She was fascinated, the bug had bit. Jack Walker was delighted; soon Pat was busy researching into the Balchins. Her love of Surrey, her interest in the Balchins, evident from such an early age, and her life-long interest in history all came together. With Alan’s support, patience and unflagging help, she went everywhere. Wherever they went and for whatever the reason, Balchin background kept popping up. I have sometimes thought that Pat really ought to have been a detective. When she wanted to do something or find out something, she left no stone unturned. Sometimes those stones did not want to turned and it got her into difficulties, but always she overcame them and, by her enthusiasm, talked people around, enthusing people who might previously have been indifferent, with her love of history and the Balchin Family history in particular. In more recent years family history research has been one of the driving forces in Pat’s life. She was always excited by each and every new discovery, and the amount that she discovered was amazing. Meeting up with Robert, William, Adrian and Paul, and finding that they too shared her interest in and were actively researching the Balchins was marvellous. Soon they were contacting Balchins all over the world. Making those phone calls and sending letters which were to result in cousins and even long-lost brothers and sisters coming together, first as the Balchin Family Society and then as friends. The first Gathering was planned and arranged for Guildford. Originally, I was not planning to go, but Pat persuaded me as I suspect she persuaded many others, and I am very glad that I succumbed to her persuasion.
It was that summer, just before the Gathering, that she learnt that she had stomach cancer. I was with her in Yeovil hospital when the Doctor told her that they thought that she had six months. To this day I remain convinced that it was a combination of her love of her family and her sheer determination to be at the first Balchin Gathering and to see the Society get started that carried her through those early grim months. She was thrilled by the standing ovation all you Balchins gave her at that Gathering. 1 was crying quietly in the back row and I don’t think that I was the only one. After that a miracle occurred. Pat seemed to go from strength to strength and she looked so wonderfully healthy that we put her illness to the back of our minds. She was constantly out and about travelling miles in the course of her research, meeting, in those six years, more Balchins from all over the world than most of us will meet in sixty years. Information flooded in, and her research and contacts constantly generated more. I was constantly surprised by the size of her Balchin archive as it overflowed from her study into the rest of the house. Then this summer disaster hit. She had suspected it for some time, but the secondary cancer was not confirmed until mid-August. Again she looked so healthy that I could not believe it. But in typical Pat manner things moved swiftly on – for Pat speed was always the essence of everything. I am very glad for her that, in this aspect of her life, things also happened quickly, she would have hated to linger and not be able to do anything. There was so much more that she wanted to do. One evening sitting quietly, she said to me “I have been lucky, I have had six good years more than I expected, but I am greedy, I wanted more.”
On the day she died I was going down to Somerset, just for a normal visit first to Mother, and then on to Pat and Alan’s. Usually I set out about between 9 and 10 a.m. For some reason that morning I found myself propelled out of bed at 6 a.m. By 7 a.m. I had done the chores, walked the dog and was already driving west down the M27. I don’t know why, perhaps it was the invisible hand of Pat, chiding me and pushing me on, out of my normal lateness. (Another family joke, both Pop and I were always late for everything). I was already sitting with Mother having a cup of tea when Ian and Paul came quietly in and said that they thought I should come quickly with them to Yeovil hospital. So once again there we were, a group of six of us sitting with Pat in Yeovil hospital, hoping for a miracle that this time we knew would not happen. Some time ago Pat said that there were so many questions that she wished she had asked Grandad. Now there are so many questions that I wish I had asked her – her knowledge of the Balchins was beyond compare. Being two fairly strong characters, we did not always see eye-to-eye, but somehow, she always had a way of getting me to do things. I was sitting regretting some of the times that we had not seen eye-to-eye when my daughter said ‘That doesn’t matter, you were sisters and family; you didn’t have to, sisters and family do that, but they are still always there to help.’ That was Pat, she valued her immediate and her vast extended family hugely. After her funeral I drove over to Somerton to stay with Mother. As I crested the hill coming out of Yeovil I looked across the flood plain to the hills around Somerton. It was raining and I felt miserable. At that moment the clouds broke, a terrific streak of lightning hit the hill opposite. At the same time the sun broke through and for a split second the lightning was at the centre of a rainbow. Maybe it was Pat saying goodbye or maybe, as Michael suggests, it was her ‘greeting all those old friends that were alive for her through their dusty old documents’. I bet she is still bombarding them with questions now.