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I do not have a photo of great uncle Robert Hill, or any anecdotes about him. I know nothing of his character, his interests or his opinions. Was he known as Robert, Bob, or by another name? As a child I only knew of him because my uncle bore the same name. Since then I have inherited his ‘dead penny’. This, what has survived of his service record and the inscription of his name on various memorials are all that are left of his life.
When I became interested in finding out about Robert’s war, I assumed that he was one of the many thousands who rushed to join in at the outbreak. Fortunately, the World War I service records were being put onto the Ancestry website at the time and, by good luck, most of Robert’s had survived. It gave me a surprise. By 1914, Robert had completed eight years in the colours - his medal card should have alerted me, giving his date of entering France as 11 August 1914. The men sent out then were serving soldiers or reservists, ‘the old contemptibles’.
I like to think that the story of Robert’s war is that of many thousands of men whose bones lie in France and Belgium, who are not remembered by a photograph or family story. War correspondent Philip Gibbs wrote of the 2nd Royal Sussex Regiment at Pozieres on July 16th 1916: “On the right were the Sussex men – fair headed fellows from Burpham and Arundel and little old villages lying snug in the South Downs and quiet old market towns like Chichester – Lord! A world away from places like Pozieres." Robert was truly one of those men, born in Harting, one of the most beautiful of those villages lying snug in the South Downs.
Robert Edward Hill came into the world in the Deer Keepers Cottage of UpPark Harting on 6th January 1889 and was baptised in the church of St Mary and St Gabriel South Harting on 24th February 1889.There were no family connections with the names of Robert and Edward. This was a time when parents were starting to choose names they liked rather than naming their children after themselves or relatives. The Deer Keepers Cottage lies in the woods of the UpPark estate off the Harting to Compton Road. It has now been extended, but then consisted of five rooms, and was home to Henry and Bessie Hill and their older children Bessie (8), William (Bill) (5), Joseph (Joe) (4) and Rose (3). The cottage was isolated and reached from South Harting by the long climb up the steep Harting Hill. It was no wonder that Robert’s sister Bessie was withdrawn from Harting school and sent to the one at Compton.
Robert was born in the Deer Keepers Cottage because his father Henry Hill was a gamekeeper and eventually head deer-keeper on the UpPark estate. Henry came from a family of agricultural labourers living in Harting parish. In 1859, at the age of 19, Henry went to Portsmouth and enlisted in the Royal Marines. He served for 12 years before being invalided out in 1871. Ten years later, on 29 August 1881, he married Bessie Wild in Harting’s parish church. Bessie, then 24, was the daughter of John Wild, who, from what I have gathered, relished his role as ‘mine host’ at the Ship Inn South Harting. Bessie was born in The Ship and I would imagine she got to know Henry when she was serving behind the bar. The Wilds were a large family in Harting. They had been yeoman farmers or tradespeople in the parish for hundreds of years.
It would seem that Robert found himself in a loving and stable family. In the 1880s a head keeper generally earned about £90, a horse allowance of £30 and £6 to £7 per dog. This compared favourably with the average agricultural labourer who was earning between 13s and 14s a week. Unfortunately, all this was to soon change.
Loss of a father
The Reverend Gordon, incumbent at St Mary and St Gabriel was a great lover of Harting’s nature, history and people. He also regularly submitted items to the West Sussex Gazette. On the 17th October this appeared: "In the sunlit glades of UpPark slope never more beautiful than now under golden foliage the nuthatch was flitting (Oct 12th) near the head-keeper's (Mr Hill) lodge whose present illness commands wide sympathy." Sadly, the illness proved fatal. Henry Hill died on 13th December of, according to his death certificate, ‘spasmodic asthma synecope’. Syncope is the loss of consciousness due to lack of blood to the brain. The family story is that Henry became ill whilst on a hunting trip with his employer in the West Country. So far I have neither proved nor disapproved this.
The Rev Gordon provided an obituary for Henry: ‘The funeral of Mr Hill who died of bronchitis on Sunday week, and was buried on Thursday, was the most numerously attended within the recollection of any here. Through the kindness of Miss Fetherstonhaugh, all those employed on the UpPark Estate were permitted to attend, and thus there were more than 200 who actually followed, besides a good many groups who joined at the Churchyard gate, in all we think about 200. Mr Frisby played 'O rest in the Lord' (Mendelssohn) and the 'Dead march in Saul' on the organ in our Church. This large concourse of people some being present from Compton and Petersfield, testified to the wide respect that faithful discharge of duty, English truthfulness of character, and kindly, manly bearing have commanded. It has been said locally that those who knew him best and longest held him in the greatest esteem. There is also widespread sympathy felt for his widow, a brave and devoted wife, who is left with five little children, the eldest being six years old ... the subject of this memoir passed into the marines (1860) in which force he served for 12 years and would tell his children that he had seen Jerusalem, Athens and “the burning mountain” (which probably means Vesuvius) and Naples. In 1871 having left the army with a remarkably good character, as shown by his parchment, and in 1872 became successively under keeper, head gamekeeper (1880) and deer keeper (1880) for Miss Fetherstonhaugh… Three brothers George, John and James Hill and George Harris, brother-in-law, lowered his brother into the grave’.
Henry had been telling his children the truth. Most of his career with the Royal Marines was spent in Malta patrolling the eastern Mediterranean, and Vesuvius did erupt during this time. One can only wonder how different Robert’s life might have been if his father hadn’t died at 48.
A new home
Following her husband's death, Bessie would have had to leave Deer Keepers Cottage before long. She and the children moved back to her old home, The Ship Inn. Changes had taken place there. Robert’s grandfather John Wild had died the year before and the inn was now being run by his widow Jane, Bessie’s stepmother, and her son, Bessie’s half-brother, Fred, aged 20. The Ship Inn stands in the centre of South Harting on the corner of the road leading to Petersfield. Instead of the birdsong of UpPark, Robert’s first memories may have been of the hustle and bustle of carts and horses along the main street, the noise of the children going to the school just further along on the other side of the road and of the men and women using the village shops, of which there were several. And then there would be the noise inside the Inn itself.
Jane Wild died in February 1891 and young Fred must have been pleased to have his sister on hand to run his home and help in the inn. However, that summer Fred married and it is understandable that his wife may not have wanted to share her home with a sister-in-law and five young children. In August Bessie made good use of the knowledge and experience she had gained as the daughter of an inn keeper and she took over the tenancy of The Royal Oak, Walberton. The Royal Oak stands on the corner of the Arundel to Chichester road (now the A27) and Yapton Lane which led down to Walberton village. The building dates from the early 19th century and was owned by George Henty & Sons, Chichester. The land valuation survey just before World War I recorded that it consisted of a ground floor bar, bar parlour, club room, tap room, kitchen, scullery, wood house, pantry, two WCs and cellar. On the first floor there were five bedrooms and a sitting room. Outside were five stall stables and coach house with loft over. During the period in which Henry Stanford was landlord 1885-1890 an advertisement said it had "choice wine and spirits, bottled beers of finest quality and in good condition; dinners, teas etc. on the shortest notice; first-class accommodation for picnics and breakfasts, upwards of 100 can dine in the large dining room. Charges moderate". Woods lay around the pub and Robert might have played in these with his siblings, including treasure hunting. Another family story is that a foreign gentleman was staying in the pub during the family’s occupancy and died in his bedroom. Before doing so he hid gold coins in the woods. If he did so, they might well have been dug up when the dual carriageway was driven through the woods.
As well as a new home Robert soon acquired a new father. On 23 December 1891 Bessie married John Hughes. John was born in Walberton in 1871 the son of James Hughes a woodsman and Margaret Hughes. Earlier in 1891 the census had recorded him as a general labourer living in The Street, Walberton. Five months after the marriage Robert had another brother John and in March 1894 when he was five brother Leonard (Len) was born. Robert’s first school would have been the infants' class of Walberton school. The school inspector’s report of 1894 said ‘The Infants read, write and sum work creditably. Varied occupations are fair but might with a little thought on the teacher’s part be made more interesting. Object lessons are poor. Miss Alexander can no longer be called a needlework teacher’. Miss Alexander resigned 26/10/1894 and was replaced by Miss Bertha Bates. On the 3rd December 1894 there was entertainment in the school for the dedication of the Church’s chancel. To reach the school on The Street the children would have walked down Payton Lane past several buildings to interest them, including Walkerton brewery owned for well over a century by the Ellis family, and a blacksmith’s on the corner of Yapton Lane and The Street
Just over six months after Len’s birth Bessie gave up the tenancy, perhaps with seven children it proved too much. An indication of this is given on 2 March 1895 when the head of the school recorded in the School Log book that the attendance of the Hills (and the children of two other families)’ is as bad as ever’. From July 1895 to January 1896 the family lived in Westergate and the children attended Eastergate School. On the 7th January they left to go to Yapton school and it was in Yapton that Robert spent the rest of his childhood. On the 13th December 1897 his youngest sibling Ethel was born. Times were hard. The children often went to school hungry according to Robert’s sister Rosa (why oh why didn’t I ever ask her about Robert?). I have never heard that John Hughes was a bad stepfather but finding a steady job may have been a problem as went through a series of different occupations; general labourer, woodman and dealer, agricultural labourer, horseman, threshing machine attendant and bricklayer. In 1901 the family was living in Bilsham, Yapton. John and Robert’s brother Joe were threshing machine attendants, probably working for Sparks whose business in Yapton included several steam machines. The family was dispersing by now. Sister Bessie went to help Aunt Ellen Terry. Bessie’s sister, in her family’s bakery in Odiham Hanpshire and sister Rosa spent some time with Uncle Fred in The Ship Inn Harting and attended school there. A great impression must have been made on the young Robert when his eldest brother Bill joined the Royal Navy in February 1900 as a boy sailor. On reaching 18 in 1902 he signed on for further 12 years. Bill was the only one of the five Hill children to take his stepfather’s surname of Hughes.
Bilsham was the part of Yapton from the centre of the village up to Bilsham Farm. The road then went onto Middleton and a turning to the south was then the main road from Yapton to Littlehampton. From the 1901 census I have not been able to work out exactly where along Bilsham Road the family lived, though I believe it to be between the Lamb and the village. It was a working class area and the Hughes’s near neighbours included a retired policeman, an agricultural labourer, a grocer, team engine fitter and bricklayer. As a boy in Yapton the family lived along Bilsham Lane, before Bilsham stores was reached. By 1911 it appears where they had lived was one of the properties demolished to make way for Claremont, Beaumont and Ullswater villas.
Robert would have walked to school in North End Road. The school was built in 1864 and enlarged in the 1880s when it had three teachers. In 1893-4 129 children attended, and by 1900-1901 this had risen to 152.
Robert would have left school in 1901 or 1902. We know that by the time he joined the army at the end of 1905 he was a bricklayer’s labourer. This was a physically hard job so when he left school at 12 or 13 he might well have first been an errand boy or similar. Robert’s stepfather and brothers Joe Hill, John and Len Hughes all became bricklayers around this time. This reflected the building boom along this part of the Sussex coast. What made Robert take a different path and where did that path lead him?
Robert may have been influenced by the patriotism and focus on the military by the Boer War. Would he have been excited by the Relief of Ladysmith and the Relief of Mafeking? July 1901 saw the return of ‘the survivors of the Chichester detachment of Volunteers numbering over 90. The Chichester Diocesan Gazette noted ‘The animated scene, with the colour of the decorations overhead was one which will not easily be forgotten, and citizens of all ranks and conditions trudged by the side or at the rear of the column as it made its way to the Cross’