A glimpse of life at Sennicotts during WWII

Victor & Mary Willis celebrating their Golden Wedding Anniversary
Victor & Mary Willis celebrating their Golden Wedding Anniversary
Victor & Mary Willis on their wedding day in October 1943
Victor & Mary Willis on their wedding day in October 1943

In the early years of the Second World War a Norfolk girl from Upwell by the name of Kathleen Mary Chapman (W/10633) was posted with the ATS first to the Mitcham Road Barracks in Croydon (1939), before moving further South to Walberton House, West Sussex (1940), then briefly at Fifehead Manor in Hampshire before arriving at Sennicotts in 1941.

What was to happen to Mary at Sennicotts would be life changing.

For in the same year 1615739 Gnr Victor Willis was also stationed at Sennicotts. Home for Victor had been Deptford and Dulwich.

A romance started at Sennicotts that year between Mary and Victor which was to survive being separated by subsequent postings and in October 1943 they were married in Beddington, Croydon.

In 1949 they moved from London to Portsmouth where they were to live for the rest of their lives. They had two sons Doug and Mick and the marriage lasted 55 years. Victor died 12 Feb 1998 aged 81 and Mary died 15 Jan 2011 aged 97.

The photographs below give a flavour of those months Mary spent at Sennicotts.

Our thanks go to Doug and Mick Willis who both researched their parents’s experiences during the war, made contact with us to share their family’s story, and gave us permission to share with you this wonderful piece of Sennicotts’ history. Thank you both.

Continue Reading

Time capsule – sadly empty

a time capsule - if only he had left us the contents
a time capsule – if only he had left us the contents

The joy of undertaking any work at Sennicotts is you never know what you will find.

This week while decorating a bedroom we discovered a builder in the 1960’s had been fuelled by Crosse & Blackwell Meat Soup (Beef). Only he hadn’t just enjoyed the contents but had instead carefully placed the empty tin under an old light shade and built this little time capsule into the base of a cupboard.

Nice to think he thought his workmanship would last long enough for his capsule to be of interest. This one survived over 50 years. Something tells me today’s builders of new homes finished with acres of cheap plastics don’t have quite as much hope in the future of their creations.

A little marketing note aside: Even though I find myself staring at an empty and rusty tin the ‘Ten O’Clock Tested’ logo remains reassuring and inviting. This very successful marketing campaign of the 1950’s and 60’s gave the consumer the guarantee that the product lines they were enjoying had been extensively taste tested at 10 o’clock as part of a daily routine. I find this reassuring to know that Crosse & Blackwell called quite a large number of staff in each morning to join the daily taste test.

That the product was good enough for its staff to consume each morning is somehow a lot more convincing than the image I have of a food plant of today bringing me my tinned soup coldly stared at by a load of computer probes.

Continue Reading

Helpless then saved

I’m not sure I can remember ever feeling so overwhelmingly helpless or for that matter the sense of total dependency as I did on Sunday morning, facing a fire at Sennicotts.

We had been camping overnight with friends in a garden in nearby East Ashling. It rained most of Saturday night and so on Sunday morning, totally against the spirit of a camping trip, we decided to sneak back home to change from our damp clothes and maybe grab an extra bowl of cereal for breakfast. To be honest we felt both naughty and spoilt leaving our friends in search of some creature comforts!

I had just poured a generous bowl of Frosties with the intention of rewarding myself for ‘camping endeavors’ with a break from the routine Bran Flakes. But before I could tuck in there was gasp of exclamation because sitting in the garden was a fox. This could only be one fox, the same fox in fact that has eaten all 13 Indian Runner ducks and 15 chickens over the recent weeks. Sensing a rare opportunity to rid ourselves of this pest I ran outside bare foot, weapon in hand, to head off the fox at the end of the garden.

However moments later, as I ran around the corner of the garage I was met with smoke billowing out above the garage door. For a second I carried on running, totally focused on my prey, before I had a chance to process what I had just seen. Fire – in a garage – with no obvious fire risks – there was probably a non-fire related explanation for the smoke. This was totally off the radar. Fire practices: yes, but a real fire, serious building fire, this had never been part of my 38 years of life experience, it happened in other people’s buildings, not ones I was responsible for. Anyway it would always be someone else who discovered a fire first, I would hear about it because I was told there was a serious fire, I would never be the one to discover a fire.

It took only a few moments to process this before it hit me. This was a real fire, I had found it, it was my responsibility to do something and do it fast, very fast. My heart went from beating fast with apprehensive anticipation of finding my quarry to the adrenaline shot that comes with knowing you are about to have to do everything in your powers to stop something very serious happening and speed is the key to having any chance of success.

I turned and sprinted back inside. As I ran I tried to think what it was that could have caught fire in the garage. There was only one socket and it was turned off. It was a cold damp building at the best of times. My mind raced fruitlessly through the options while trying to simultaneously process the do’s and don’ts of tackling a fire.

I ran into the house and tried to calmly, loudly, clearly and with as much sense of urgency as possible tell Eloise, over the sound of a baby crying, she needed to call 999 now and tell them we had a fire in a garage, and to make sure they knew how to find us.

I grabbed a foam fire extinguisher from the house and realised I needed some footwear, I fumbled to put on my wellies (I managed some sort of association between firemen and wellies). The wellies twisted, turned and then buckled the faster I tried to put them on. I was aware it was taking me twice as long trying to do it fast but I couldn’t make myself do the job slowly – speed was everything but it didn’t help I was barefoot and still in my pyjamas.

I ran back to the garage fire extinguisher in hand but still with no idea where the fire was. Smoke was pouring out around the door and now through the roof slates the full length of the building. I tried to peer through the window but couldn’t see anything. I wanted to see the smoke inside, maybe get a clue what was burning. There was nothing to see. I knew the fire extinguisher needed to be at least aimed at the fire to be even worth letting off and the speed at which the smoke had built up told me this was a critical moment.

I needed to know where the fire was, but should I go in. Was this the moment to be a bit reckless with my safety? Was I looking at one of those moments you read about where a small amount of bravery averts a major disaster? I so wanted to open the door and give it a go. I was sure that there was just still time to tackle the fire with my foam extinguisher. I just needed access to it. And yet I knew if I opened the door and couldn’t identify the source of the fire for all the smoke, then I would have just gifted the flames with a massive intake of oxygen and there would be no stopping their destruction.

I decided I only had one choice. I discharged the foam extinguisher through the cracks at the bottom and top of the full width door. The wooden garage door was getting hot, the glass was even hotter.

I stood back and wiped some foam and the sweat off my face with my sleeve. It looked for a moment as if the flow of smoke slowed but it was only seconds before it was forcing its way out again. I knew enough to see the fire was continuing to build in intensity. The fire was making it’s way unchecked to that tipping point where it would consume everything in it’s path. I didn’t know how long I had but from the heat of the doors I knew how close we were.

There was nothing I could do. My only option was to run back inside and grab another foam extinguisher. I felt pretty hopless but doing something was better than watching the timbers in this grade II* listed building succuming to the ever increasing intensity of the heat.

Back in the house I checked with Eloise if she had got through to the emergency services. She had and they were on their way. Somehow this didn’t calm my fears and growing sense of helplessness. They needed to be here now if we had any chance of stopping the fire reaching its tipping point. It could be seconds it could be minutes. What we didn’t have was twenty minutes or half an hour. I knew where the fire station was and that was only minutes away, but how long it takes to mobilise a crew and engine on Sunday morning I didn’t know.

I ran back outside with the second extinguisher and round to the back of the garage. This was where the electrical socket was and maybe I could discharge this extinguisher through the small window at the back. The glass was hot but there was no opening to point the extinguisher through. I was faced with the dilemma again of whether to break the glass and make an opening but run the risk of feeding the fire with oxygen. Increasingly helpless and my heart now beating with panic I ran round to the front of the garage.

Instantly I knew the fire had increased in intensity in the moments I had been back to the house. The smoke billowing out had more energy and I could now hear occasional pops and cracks from inside. Standing closer to the door it had got much hotter to one side. Almost too hot to touch. I thought for a second whether at this heat the glass window in the door might explode in my face. I turned my head slightly to one side as I discharged the extinguisher into the crack at the top of the door, this served to protect my face from the heat of the door, the risk of the glass shattering, and the shower of extinguisher foam.

This extinguisher was making no difference. It was clear in the few minutes since I had discovered the smoke the intensity of the fire had raced well beyond anything I could fight. The panic remained but the overwhelming sense of my helplessness had taken over. Not a dejected, abandoned or crumpled feeling but the exact opposite: a racing, intense desire to do something, with every fibre of my being wanting to change the apparent outcome, but thwarted, facing a cliff face, an immoveable object, stuck ‘in irons’ and facing an opposing force equal to and ultimately greater than my greatest effort.

West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service tackling the fire at Sennicotts.
West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service tackling the fire at Sennicotts.

I turned around to seek out my only solution. Where were they? I strained to hear the sound of sirens but could hear nothing. I strained my eyes and ears to try and catch a faint impression they were coming so I could lock on to will them in faster to the scene of the fire. I hardly dared glance at the garage. I knew the smoke would be getting more intense each time I looked. My fear was hearing the roar of flames, knowing the fire had broken out of its oxygen starved furnace and was freely gulping oxygen while feeding ferociousness on this old building. We weren’t there yet but I sensed how close we were.

Then I was sure I saw a flicker from the silent road, somewhere through the trees. It disappeared. I waited a moment longer and then a moment of relief. We might just be able to do this. I don’t know how fast the fire engine was coming but I willed it to go faster, and the second engine too.

Almost before they had stopped there were two full fire crews on the ground, each member assuming his or her role. It was at this point and only at this point that I realised the helplessness had faded away. To see the fire engines gives a little hope but to see the professionalism and teamwork of a trained fire crew arriving on site and setting about tackling a fire is the point at which you begin to believe you have been saved.

Within minutes they had the garage door open and the fire under control.

The blaze was centred on an Audi parked in the garage, the engine bay consumed. How close were we to the timber of the building catching fire? From the heat alone one joist, the other side of the garage to the car, had burnt through and was glowing. The fire officer’s estimate was 10 more minutes before the roof was consumed and the fire spread through the whole building.

Audi A3 fire damage
The source of the fire.

The above is a personal account and record of the experience I faced. In the cold light of day several questions remain which you didn’t have to be present to find yourself asking:

  • Why did a well maintained Audi A3 parked in a garage and not used for 12 days catch fire? Audi UK have refused to comment. Offering nothing more than ‘we’re not liable’.
  • What would have happened if we hadn’t sneaked home from camping?
  • What do we do about the fox? If it hadn’t killed the chickens and been in the garden I would not have gone after it, on the other hand we have managed to hatch out three ducklings from eggs collected after the ducks were killed and these will need a safe home in the garden.

We may never know the answers to the above, or may disagree, but one question I do know the answer to is ‘where would we be without the professionalism of the West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service?’ Helpless.

Continue Reading

The Red Arrows

For someone who grew up under the flight path of the Red Arrows when they were stationed at RAF Kemble, Gloucestershire there is always something magical about watching this world class display team. The heart beats a little faster and metaphorically I am back in shorts dreaming that one day when I am grown up I might be a Red Arrows pilot.

So one seriously good spin off of living near to Goodwood is coming under the flight path of the Red Arrows Festival of Speed display. On Friday the ‘Arrows proved too much of a distraction at the school sports day, causing the boys race to stop in its tracks as eyes turned skywards. On Saturday we had the perfect sky and I couldn’t resist taking a few photographs of the Red Arrows doing what for me was as good as a private display over our house.

Continue Reading

Dredging the rain water tanks

The Smaller Tank
Climbing down into the smallest of the underground reservoirs
The small reservoir
The first tank is clean - three trailer loads of composted deposit later

There are some jobs for which there is never a good time to tackle them. Today we started a job we have been discussing for at least two years – and putting off.

Once upon a time all the rainwater from the house and outbuildings was collected in underwater reservoirs around the house. Over the years not all have been maintained but the largest are still collecting water from the majority of the roof and some large areas of run-off.

Over the years, and in this case probably decades, the tanks collect silt and debris despite grids and traps over their inlets.

We decided today was finally the day to climb down inside them and dredge out the silt.

We tackled the smallest but dirtiest first. Collecting rainwater directly off approximately 2/3 of the house roof this tank holds a significant amount of water but also acts as a trap. So when full the separated water from here drains to the large reservoir. This tank is located right next to the house foundations and must have been built at the same time. It also has a pipe appearing to run towards the kitchen which presumably allowed water to be drawn alongside water from the well. Although with at least one rotting rodent and a large bone we were unlikely to be drinking it today.

The larger reservoir 6.8m long with original brick roof
We're hoping the sea of silt is going to make good compost

Sadly only one of us had small enough hips to get into this tank and armed with bucket and shovel three trailer loads of silt (and other rotting debris) were lifted out.

This was completed by mid morning and now covered in black muck we decided to tackle the second larger reservoir. Measuring 6.8m long, by 2.3m wide and 2m high this reservoir holds over 31,000 ltrs (6,800 gallons) of rainwater which would have originally been drawn up by hand inside the walled garden.

We were able to get down inside this tank through a slightly larger opening and spent the rest of the day removing silt and sludge, still by bucket. We lost count of the number of trailer loads taken from here but we are looking forward to returning this to the garden in due course.

We have left ourselves the largest tank of the three still to do. This is holding our last rainwater supplies for the garden – probably enough to run the sprinkler for 3-4 hours. Once this ‘gold dust’ has gone there will be no more excuses I guess!

Continue Reading

This looks like trouble

Water frozen in the downpipe
"I can't remember the last time I saw the water in the downpipes freeze."

I was going to post a nice white snowy scene however I thought this photograph was more indicative of this very unusual cold spell.

Like many, I’ve been saying, “I can’t remember the last time …” etc. (With so many of us saying the same thing I can already hear a Michael McIntyre sketch in the making!) but I really can’t remember the combination of heavy snow and the continuing cold conditions like this.

I do fear the attached photo is the sign of some real problems. We already have water coming through the roof which should have been sorted before Christmas except the roofer doesn’t like the cold. The ice initially gives us a break but if the snow on the roof starts to melt before the ice in the downpipe (our loft insulation is good but not perfect) I’m not sure where the water in the valleys is going to go?

UPDATE (16:35) I’ve just come down from the roof. It turns out that my fears about the downpipe being blocked wasn’t really a problem. Why? because the valleys are all full of ice so melt water can’t even get to the top of the downpipe! Sure enough the water has found another place to get in although only in very small quantities thankfully. So I’ve just cleared the main valley but even as I was working the water was starting to freeze again so no doubt they will be full of ice again tomorrow.

This game does tend to take the joy out of these beautiful conditions.

Continue Reading

The flagpole is restored

the snapped flagpole in March 2007
the snapped flagpole in March 2007

In Spring 2006 we redecorated the wooden flagpole and at the same time repaired the pole where damp had got in around the bolt holes. It was obviously too late because in March 2007, after a slightly windy night the flagpole snapped and was found lying on the drive.

For some reason I took it upon myself to make a new flagpole.

The aim was to make a wooden flagpole that would last forever. Impossible I know, but you have to start somewhere! However the first challenge was where to find a pole. Generally timber merchants don’t stock 9m trees so, with some help, I contacted Mike Cameron a Forester in the Plashett Park Wood, East Sussex which is run for charitable purposes. Mike very kindly agreed to select a suitable Larch and prepare it.

two pieces of oak were selected for the flagpole base
two pieces of oak were selected for the flagpole base

Things were going well and by Oct 2007 the flagpole was ready for collection. The only problem was how to transport it. Although not ideal, the only method at my disposal of creating a 9m long vehicle was to take a boat on its trailer over to the wood and to return with the flagpole strapped down (6m in the boat and 3 over the towing vehicle). This made for a nerve-racking journey so much so that it never occurred to me to take a photograph.

preparing the Larch pole required filling and hours of sanding
preparing the Larch pole required filling and hours of sanding

As I looked at the tree, now back home, I did get a sinking feeling when I realised just how much work was going to be required to get this rough wood down to a paintable surface, despite Mike’s preparation work.

We needed to let the Larch age and so the flagpole project was put on one side with the exception of sourcing two pieces of oak for the base.

The other dilemma which needed solving in the meantime was where to put a flagpole. By the time the old one broke it was sandwiched between two fully grown trees meaning the flag never really flew. Several places were explored but none appeared right : too far from the house, too close to the house etc. Thankfully the problem resolved itself when a tree died in 2009 in what was to become the obvious place.

bolt holes in the Larch pole had stainless steel pipe lining bonded in place with epoxy resin
bolt holes in the Larch pole had stainless steel pipe lining bonded in place with epoxy resin

With the dead tree needing to come out it was time to get the flag pole prepared and the base constructed. Sadly the pole had dried too quickly and there was a significant amount of filling required, not to mention several days of sanding. Wood glue was drizzled into the bottom of the cracks and then a two-pack filler was used to fill and build up the surface.

each part of the base was fully decorated before assembly
each part of the base was fully decorated before assembly

The rough sawn oak also required a lot of sanding and I had the words of my school woodwork teacher ringing in my head about the importance of sanding right down to a fine grit and needing to do it again and again to seal the wood. So that is what we did.

Then each section of the base was decorated fully with Dulux Weathershield 8-year protection system – except instead of one coat of each the base received two coats of each. The base was then assembled leaving the hardest bit to last – drilling the holes!

The old flagpole had rotted where the pole’s bolt holes had been drilled. Inevitably moisture had crept in here. In an attempt to prevent this happening on the new flagpole a system was devised to line the hole and therefore fully seal the wood.

finally the new flag pole was ready and enthusiastic flag flying could begin
finally the new flag pole was ready and enthusiastic flag flying could begin

To do this, a larger diameter stainless steel pipe was inserted into the holes which was then bonded in place with epoxy resin. This was repeated for holes in both the pole and the base and had the added benefit of giving enough free play for the bolts to allow for minor inaccuracies in the hole alignment.

the original flagpole top and rope was salvaged, prepared and fitted to the new pole
the original flagpole top and rope was salvaged, prepared and fitted to the new pole

Despite taking the full force of the fall it was possible to salvage the original flagpole top with rope and pulley wheel. This was added to the Larch pole using the original coach screw and the alignment with the base planned.

The base was then set in concrete in the ground on a bed of gravel. A drainage pipe was set in the bottom of the concrete to prevent water getting trapped against the wood. The base was then left to set.

Finally on 2 Dec the pole was installed in the base and the flag flown again. It stands 8.9m tall.

Having not exactly been a ‘flag man’ I was never very interested in flying a flag except on occasional special events. However I now find myself wanting to fly a flag all the time. This has led to a great deal of research into what flag protocol is. My research seems to suggest that on the whole the British have a somewhat indifferent approach to flags and ‘flag flying’ in particular. This seems a shame but then I wouldn’t be in a hurry to adopt the slightly obsessive approach of some countries.

What we need is a flag we can be proud of and get excited about flying – any suggestions?

Continue Reading

Campaign to give a tax break for domestic PAYE employers.

Before I go any further I need to acknowledge that this is not an issue facing the majority of the population. However if addressed, I believe it could bring benefits to the wider society.

Listed Buildings need labour intensive care.

This concerns the issue of private individuals becoming employers to help them in private affairs and in particular maintaining privately owned Listed Buildings.

Currently the owner of the Listed building or garden earns income on which they pay Income Tax at various rates. If they choose to employ someone to help maintain the building or garden (domestic staff) they then have to pay those employees out of net income (that is left after tax has been paid), and then undertake the same Pay As You Earn administration (collecting the income tax from that employee and paying the employers share of the National Insurance) as would any other employer.

Here’s the issue: any employer running a business is able to set their employment costs against their income to reduce their tax, so why can’t owners of Listed Buildings or for that matter employers of domestic staff (nannies etc), whose employees are paid through the PAYE scheme get some sort of tax relief on their income for doing so.

It would be easy to administer because HMRC has records of both the employers and employees tax affairs. It should only work where employees are paid through PAYE. There are loads of benefits:

  1. This would encourage employment by making it more affordable for private individuals to employ staff in domestic, childcare, gardening, and property maintenance jobs.
  2. It would encourage employers to pay staff currently paid cash in hand into the PAYE system and probably increase tax revenues.
  3. It would be easy to administer as HMRC has all the records it needs to cross check claims by private employers.
  4. By encouraging individuals to employ domestic staff it would free up their time and encourage them to spend in the local economy.
  5. Owners of our heritage would be able to employ sufficient help to make it possible and desirable to open their properties/gardens on an occasional basis to the public.
  6. With more manpower employed in upkeep our heritage stock would be kept in a better state of repair.

There is a reason for mentioning the listed building element. Presumably the main case against such tax relief is that it lines the pockets of the already wealthy and is an unfair tax break. The Listed Building element addresses this. Owners of Listed Buildings provide a service of national benefit by maintaining the Nation’s Cultural Heritage. While they often get the benefit of living in attractive properties they are essentially unpaid private guardians, restricted in what they can do to reduce the costly maintenance of their properties because as a Nation we want them to preserve our past. As they get little or no financial assistance for this role and their properties usually require the most labour intensive form of upkeep it would appear not that unfair to assist them in the labour element of looking after our heritage.

And this is the shift in thinking proposed. To see this role in the same light as small businesses. To see the owners of these Listed Buildings as operating in the business of maintaining our heritage. So just as every other business in the country gets a tax break for encouraging employment and employing individuals to help it go about its business, then these private individuals should be given similar treatment and some form of reduction in their income tax liability where that income is going towards the employment of individuals to assist them in the maintenance of our Heritage.

Your comments would be appreciated in this debate.

Continue Reading