The Shoe-maker poet

A humble Chichester shoe-maker, who left school at 11, went on to become a poet of some renown, as well as becoming sexton and verger of Chichester Cathedral. Charles Crocker was born in Chichester in 1797 of poor parents. At the age of seven he was fortunate enough to win a place at the city’s Grey Coat Charity School (not to be confused with the more famous Blue Coat school). Here he learned “those religious principles which have rendered my condition more than commonly blest”. At the age of eleven, Crocker was apprenticed to a Chichester shoemaker and remained in that employment until he was 47, latterly at a premises in Little London.

John Thelwall

John Thelwall

During these years, Crocker began to write poetry. He wrote of the landscape about him, including the trees and beauty spots he came to know and love so well. His two best received poems were ‘The British Oak’ and ‘Kingley Vale’. He found his inspiration in the poetry of Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper, and the Chichester poet, William Collins. Crocker was hugely influenced by a lecture given in Chichester by the polymath and political reformer, John Thelwall, on the life and work of John Milton. This one lecture, Crocker later claimed, inspired him to write verse more than any book he ever read.

A Chichester doctor, John Forbes, befriended Crocker, and encouraged him to publish some of his poems. Crocker’s collection, ‘Kingley Vale and other Poems’, appeared in 1830, to much acclaim. In one poem, ‘Labour and the Muse’, Crocker described how verse came to his mind as he worked –

How sweetly pass the solitary hours,
When prison’d here with toil I sit and muse
My fancy roving ‘mong poetic flowers,
Delighted with their beauteous forms and hues.

John Forbes

John Forbes

Forbes went on to become Physician to the Queen’s Household and was knighted by Queen Victoria. It was perhaps through Forbes’ London connections that Crocker was introduced to Robert Southey, who declared that Crocker’s ‘The British Oak’, was “the finest, if not the finest [poem], in the English language”. Crocker was now earning a good living as a poet and in 1844 he finally gave up shoe-making.

Crocker did not leave his beloved Chichester for the bright lights of London, but actually rooted himself more deeply in the city and its history. He became both sexton and verger of Chichester Cathedral. In 1848 he published ‘Visit to Chichester Cathedral’, the first ever guide book to the cathedral. As he grew older, Crocker delighted in taking visitors around the cathedral and telling them of its history and showing them the shrines and ornaments of that ancient place of worship.

Collapsed_spireOn 21st February 1861, during restoration works, the spire of Chichester Cathedral collapsed – crashing into the nave. The scene of destruction made a deep impression on Crocker, who believed the spire to be the crowing glory of ‘his’ cathedral – superior even to Salisbury’s. The Sussex antiquarian, Mark Anthony Lower, who visited Crocker shortly afterwards, found his friend distraught by the calamity that had overtaken his beloved cathedral. He did not recover from the shock and died six months later on 6th October. Crocker’s funeral was an impressive sight. The great and the good of the city followed the cortege in silent tribute. One friend noted, “the fall of Chichester spire killed but one man and that man was Charles Crocker”.

In March 2014, a blue plaque to Charles Crocker was placed on Kim’s Bookshop in South Street, Chichester, where the poet died in 1861.

When the Civil War came to Chichester

Exterior view of Cawley Almshouse

It is said there is no war worse than a civil war, with communities and even families being divided against each other.

In December 1642, civil war came to Chichester. As King Charles I sought to wrest control of his kingdom from a rebellious parliament, armed conflict broke out across the country.

Chichester was a city divided, with prominent citizens taking up the cause of king and parliament respectively. One of the city’s MPs, William Cawley, well known in Chichester for establishing almshouses for the poor, was a stern critic of the king. Henry Chitty was another parliament man and Captain of the Trained Band of Chichester – a seventeenth century version of the Home Guard. Ranged against them were Sir William Morley, who lived in the Cathedral Close, and Sir Edward Ford, the High Sheriff of Sussex, who had only recently being elevated to his position by King Charles.

An uneasy truce between the two factions broke out into armed conflict and lead to the city being besieged and under bombardment for several weeks. Sir Edward Ford, who lived at Uppark, raised the county militia, in an effort to dislodge the parliamentary forces in Chichester. Although he was initially successful, his victory was short lived, as a superior force under General William Waller laid siege to the city.

The story of those frantic days in December 1642 will form the basis of our next Chichester Heritage Trail. Volunteer researchers have revealed information from the archives that sheds new light on those turbulent days and shows how the scars of conflict took many decades to heal.

We hope to publish the Civil War Trail – the sixth in the Chichester Heritage Trail series – in the autumn.

Chris Hare, Chichester Heritage Trails Project Manager.

Somerstown map of 1896

Somerstown

Somerstown was transformed beyond recognition in the 1960s, with a new estate replacing the old houses and cottages. A newspaper report in 1962 explained that a total of 160 old properties were due for demolition. It was also reported that the leading lights of stage and screen had lent their support to the campaign led by the Chichester Civic Society to retain and preserve the old Somerstown.

Those speaking out included Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Michael Redgrave, and Dame Sybil Thorndike. However, the council, persisted and insisted that the old properties were too dilapidated to be saved. They commended the scheme of their architect, Stanley Roth, to build a new suburb of houses, flats and open spaces, that would create “a sense of charm and interest.”

New Heritage Trail launched – Inns, pubs and hotels

Trail5-CoverThe Chichester Society was delighted to launch the fifth Chichester Heritage Trail on 1st July. This trail covers inns, pubs and hotels.

Sadly, the city has seen many of its hostelries close in recent years and this trail includes some of these. The Swan, The Royal Arms, and The Fleece, are three prominent inns that have closed in East Street alone. Fortunately, many others still survive, including, The Fountain, The Hole-in-the Wall, and The Old Cross. The trail also includes descriptions of Chichester some 130 years ago, when the city boasted some seventy drinking establishments. The naturalist, W.H.Hudson, was horrified to find ‘drink-degraded wretches’ sprawling on the street corners in sight of the cathedral spire – a sight that appalled him.

This trail, along with the four previously published, are available from Chichester Library, The Novium, West Sussex Record Office, and Chichester City Council. It can also be downloaded from the project’s website www.chichesterheritagetrails.org.uk.

The White Horse Inn, Northgate


The White Horse Inn at Northgate closed many years ago, but it is known to have dated back to the mid-seventeenth century.

Rose Ruffle, who was born in 1916, remembered working at the White Horse when she was fourteen. She worked long hours for little pay, just four shillings (20p) a week.

Mr and Mrs Price ran the pub and treated their staff with some disdain, as Rose recalled: “I was the servant, they were the owners and that was that, and I would be there washing the glasses and cleaning up. They had their fish and chips after closing, while I was cleaning. They didn’t let me join them. It was like that in those days.

Rose’s father had died in the First World War, so she had to try and earn money to help her mother who was struggling on a meagre war pension.