Tributes to Hylda Rawlings, our President, who recently died, aged 104 years, by Anne Drewery, secretary and Jill Rolfe, former secretary of the DPHS and Roger Davy (on a small screen Jill's tribute may follow on from Anne's)
The Last Rose of Summer,
Hylda Rawlings, President of the Danehill Parish Historical Society, died on 23 January 2023, just two months short of her 105th birthday.
Sometime in the early 1960s Hylda and her husband, Derek, made the decision to move from Crouch End, London, to the countryside of Sussex with their young daughter, Leonie. By chance they found a small cottage just south of the village of Danehill. Hylda immediately fell in love with it, they bought it and she remained there for the remainder of her long life.
While Derek travelled up to The City daily to work at The Bank of England, Hylda threw herself whole-heartedly into country life. Both became part of the congregation of the Church of All Saints, Danehill. They kept horses for her and Leonie to ride. Hylda helped with the local pony club, kept hens and ducks and in later years she cared for two donkeys. When Phil Lucas was asked to found a village history society, Hylda became its first secretary.
Having found that, to her, Tudor, Medieval and Victorian handwriting was not difficult to read Hylda started on a new hobby: transcribing old documents. This leads me to recite a tale that Hylda loved to tell with a twinkle in her eye. [She was a great teller of tales.] She discovered that the parish registers of births, deaths and marriages were to be transferred to East Sussex Record Office so one day, after morning prayers, she asked the then vicar for permission to transcribe them before their removal. Permission was readily granted but, thinking that she must be lonely, he suggested that she might instead prefer to join the group of church flower arrangers. She continued to transcribe old deeds and papers for Mrs Hardy, the Radfords of Sheffield Park and the Lancasters of Wapsbourne.
However, Hylda’s greatest interest became the history of Sheffield Park and its past owners, including the three Lord Sheffields. She taught herself, with help from Judy Brent of the record office, to read Latin so that she could translate the early deeds and manorial records of that manor. It was Hylda who discovered boxes containing documents relating to Sheffield Park in the attic of a fifteenth century house in Fletching. Hylda and Derek were for many years supporters of the record office and it was a chance encounter while she was volunteering as the receptionist there that she made contact with a researcher which led to the return to England and the record office from the United States of a lost Sheffield Court Book.
In later years Hylda became the society archivist. She kept the society’s research papers, her own transcriptions and translations, maps of the locality collected by Derek and his collection of slides, in her office. She also had an excellent memory for places, events and people; so it was to Hylda that anyone with a query relating to local history was sent. All were welcomed into her home and always offered tea and biscuits. She always gave her full support to the society and attended each evening lecture until poor health prevented her.
Hylda was the last rose of summer, left blooming alone when all her lovely companions are faded and gone. Now she has gone and will be greatly missed by family and friends.
A Tribute To Hylda Rawlings
If Hylda asked you to do something it was nigh on impossible to refuse, as many will testify.
One year I was sitting quietly at the back of the hall during a talk, longing for the break when I could stop fidgeting and stretch my legs, whereupon Hylda approached me and said that Penny Peerless had had a major stroke and they urgently needed a secretary. Would I do it? Of course, Hylda said, there is not much to do, just deliver a few letters to either Phil or myself. Well, I thought, I can manage that - little did I know.
One of my first experiences as secretary was really as a result of a major coup for Hylda. She had arranged for 4 flat owners at the Sheffield Park mansion to open their homes to the Historical Society. Clearly they too were powerless to say no. A very rare privilege indeed. The Society had about 90 members and I reckon that evening they all turned up.
Hylda needed committee members to be stationed at the properties to make sure everything was in order. My knees were shaking at the prospect of such responsibility but with Tony Helme by my side I thought I would be ok. There were a lot of members I didn’t recognise so, full of false security, I approached one group and said “I don’t believe you are members of the Society, this is for members only”. The gentleman in question replied that he was one of the owners who was opening their flats to us. Oh dear!!
I slunk back to Tony and then immediately recognised another group of unknown persons. Again I approached and said the words “I don’t believe you are members of the Society. Whoops! He too was an owner.
I should have learnt my lesson by now, but oh no. I expect you can guess what’s going to happen. I approached a 3rd group, and then a 4th group - yes, that’s right, they were all owners!
Not one to give up I spotted a lone woman and - more gently this time - uttered the immortal words only to be told she was Lady Noel Collum. Gulp! She had opened her property, Clinton Lodge, to the Society the previous year. I hurriedly backtracked and welcomed her warmly, to my relief she later joined the society.
Hylda meanwhile was as cool as a cucumber and throughly enjoying the evening, quite unaware of the chaos I had caused.
Hylda had asked me to research my house - Sun House - for a Society project, and upon visiting the Maltings [prior to the Keep] I saw Hylda and Derek leaving, smiling broadly, they had just discovered the planning irregularities with my house - it does make for more interesting research when it all goes wrong. When I did the Society’s 2012 exhibition I leaned heavily on work Hylda had done for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and Hylda freely loaned me all her photos and display boards, which made such a difference.
If you were to ask Hylda a question she could instantly refer you to one of the Society’s magazines, the year, and which edition, without faltering or hesitating, such were her powers of memory.
I am not a ‘huggy, kissy’ person, and will always proffer a hand to shake. Hylda was having none of that stand-offish business, you had to have a kiss on entering, and on leaving, it was no good protesting. Another example of not being able to say no to Hylda.
Hylda will leave a huge void but there is no doubt her historical research will continue to be read and enjoyed for many years to come.
Hylda Rawlings and the East Sussex Record Office Hylda and Derek came to Danehill in 1961, while Derek was still working in London, and Hylda soon became enthused with the local history of the area - notably its people and their houses. This inevitably took her to the county archives at Lewes, initially based at Pelham House, where she explored a wide range of early sources to complement the material she was finding at Danehill (including that for Sheffield Park and the Earls of Sheffield). Apart from having to learn to read early forms of handwriting, she enlisted the help of staff to help her negotiate documents in Latin.
Derek joined her on retirement, with his own enthusiasms, and they soon settled down to a routine of weekly research visits to Lewes, which only ended when Derek became unwell. Their interests led in 1972 to the foundation (with the late Philip Lucas and others) of the Danehill Parish Historical Society, whose excellent magazine published many of the results.
In 1980 a Friends organisation was set up to support the work of the Record Office, of which Hylda and Derek became tireless supporters. Derek was Treasurer 1980-8, and Chairman 1990-2004, but they worked as a team. I arrived as County Archivist in 1982 (to 2000), and we rapidly developed a partnership and friendship, especially after the Record Office moved to The Maltings at Lewes in 1983. Volunteer help was sought for various things, and one of Hylda’s pleasures was to preside at the main reception desk to provide cover for lunch, welcoming visitors, and sharing her expertise with them. Visitors seeking ancestors from the Danehill area could be quite startled to find that Hylda was already familiar with their history and could explain in detail where they lived. Other activities of the Friends included visits to historic houses, and the running of a bookstall, but in 1983 we set up evening workshop sessions to index particular sources, in order to make them more accessible to the public. These included the county land tax assessments for 1785 (published as a volume), the details of those sentenced locally to transportation to Australia, obituaries in local newspapers, and the property valuation records of local estate agents. Hylda and Derek (and the Lucases) were major and faithful contributors to all this work.
Hylda’s memory for the details of her historical and other interests was exceptional, and enlivened the regular visits I paid to her (and to Derek before his death in 2014) until less than a year ago. They showed me particular kindness after the death of my wife in 2004, and I owe them both a considerable debt of gratitude.
Mrs Turner and her daughter, Nellie (Randall) outside the Bakery. Then called Turner’s Bakery. A date of about 1940 has been suggested