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  • James Stewart

Jim and Elsie Lee, tenants at South Stoke Farm 1941 to 1969

Updated: May 8

As we approach our forthcoming exhibition South Stoke Idyll from 23 to 27 May 2024, it seems appropriate to look back at farming life with the previous incumbents, before the Hayden's took over the farm in 1969, Jim and Elsie Lee.

This is an interesting, first hand record of life on the farm in the 1940's, during WWII.

Written by Elsie Lee, April 1974. [source Ron Stillwell]

We moved to South Stoke Farm from a farm near Petworth in October, 1941.  We found a man called Mr. Baker running the farm.  He had no official status as a tenant.  When we arrived he was picking all the grapes off the front of the house and said kindly, “I’ll leave you two bunches.”  It took about a fortnight to get him really moved out.

There was no electricity and we had lamps and candles and open fires.  There was a large stove in the basement which heated the water and we never ran out of fuel.  We had big shutters for the downstairs rooms but had to make blackout curtains for all the upstairs rooms.

There was a bathroom and an oil cooker and we installed an Esse cooker  almost immediately.  The house was extraordinary cold in winter.  The farm and the garden had been very much let go.  There were a few sheep there, and we bought in some cows (and we went to Somerset for our honeymoon and bought some cows).

We bought in ducks and hens and had one riding horse.   Then there were Nobby and Betsy – working horses.  Nobby was very good.  Betsy was very bad.  There was an orange old Fordson tractor.  Canon Ball came later, another working horse.  He bolted when the trains went by.

‘Widler’ Ayling worked for us, biking from Offham.   He was a carter, but he did drive the tractor too.  It was a petrol/TVO engine, started by cranking.  He was rather deaf and smoked a pipe.  He once stopped a train having somehow got the tractor and wagon across the line, stopped on the crossing.  He then paused to light his pipe.  When reproached for this he said, “I thought I heard something.”

Later, help came from an Italian Prisoners Camp near Pulborough. Mario Borolo was with us for many years.  He lived in the basement where the stove was and was always falling in love with people.  We thought he was affected by the full moon when he would burst into song and go moody.  He spoke some English, such as, “why you no speak to me.”

When Jim was escaping an unwelcome traveller by slipping out through the basement, Mario said, “Mr. Lee simile rabbit.”

He became so difficult with me that we had to put his meals on a tray for him to eat in the basement.  He ate a lot.

We were only four miles from the coast (as the crow, or aeroplane, fly) and the government ordered that no prisoners or visitors must come within ten miles of the coast.  We would have lost Mario, but on our behalf the Duke of Norfolk got him excluded from the order.  The Duke travelled to London in the bombing to do this.  We had three more prisoners at one time in a cottage but they didn’t stay long.

Our friends were smuggled in by pretending that they were carrying out research for the pigs etc.

Petrol was very short but we once had a 200 gallon tank of it buried in the hay, beep in the barn.  This was a deal with the army.  When we wanted to go out by car we put farm machinery in the back with a convincing story.  At the Black Rabbit one evening a Special Constable came and said, “What were we doing there wasting petrol?”

Jim said we were cashing the wages cheque.  Next morning we despatched a worker to the Rabbit on his bike to warn Fred and May Chamberlain to bear out this story.

For many years we kept a horse and a room for Cyril Joad [1], and a rare nuisance he was.  He needed so much attention – good cooking, conversation, someone to ride and bathe with, etc. etc.  He and Jim were friends and played tennis in the Amberley days.  Cyril Joad really loved South Stoke and would have like to farm.  His son Ralph worked with Jim for many years, built up the herd by artificial insemination and tried out many an expensive Reading University ideas on it!  But he became a good farmer and has his own place at Shere.

We ate well. A two pint jug came in every morning of nearly all cream, complete with a manury thumb mark, for our porridge.  We killed our own pigs and shared with the Amberley farm.  Once, when steam was pouring up the basement steps while the pig was being dealt with in the coppers down there, to our horror a policeman suddenly appeared at the front door.  He seemed to have only come to sign the cattle book, but the children were sent after him on bikes to be sure he had really pedalled away and wasn’t looking back from the top of the hill.

The odd deer came our way and pheasants hung on the back of the kitchen door.  Jim shot them from the windows.  He never wasted time walking if he could help it.

To get to Amberley in the evenings Jim used to walk on the railway line through the tunnel where there are man-high hollows in the walls for the gangers to shelter when trains come.  The Germans used to unload before going back over the channel.  One field near the line was always known as “Bombs ‘ole”; there was a big crater there.

West Sussex Scout Section in the garden of the Old Rectory at South Stoke. Next to the gate appears to be a .22 shooting target board surrounded by sandbags
West Sussex Scout Section in the garden of the Old Rectory at South Stoke, circa 1943. Next to the gate appears to be a .22 shooting target board surrounded by sandbags

The group photograph above shows; 

Rear L-R; Reg Vidler, Bert Lebbiter (RASC), Pat Darcy, Sidney Gaston, Ron Dodds, Bill Muschin, Gerald Savage (RASC), Jock Paul.

Middle L-R; Jack Duffield, Les Kennard, Les Hawkins.

Front L-R; Jack Dempsey (RASC), Jimmy Waite, Peter (the dog), George Collis.

The Rectory was requisitioned by the Army in the war and occupied by about ten commandos under Lieutenant Fazan .  Our telephone often was out of order with trees and swans etc. hitting the overhead wires.  We would then go to the Rectory to see if their line was alright so we could report our trouble.

There wasn’t much furniture and they must have been very cold.  They were bored and lonely and used to lie down between the railway lines and let the trains run over them for kicks.  They were in training and used the farm buildings and out-houses for their mock battles, when they were supposed to use blind ammunition.  It was best to keep out of the way as they got very excited and the animals got upset.  One appeared at the front door and asked if he could shoot from our top windows which was a good vantage point overlooking the yard.  We said yes.

St Leonard's Church, South Stoke, weathervane showing damage from target practice.
St Leonard's Church, South Stoke, weathervane showing damage from target practice.

Another called one day for something when Jim was out and it was lucky he said where he was from as in those days I carried a revolver in my pocket.

One cold, cold day they were learning to cross the river on wires and one fell in.  Of course it was to us they came to be warmed up and dried out, and Marise Hobdell coped with him.

Lieutenant Fazan was killed when England went to the aid of France[2].

I was Fire Warden for South Stoke and had a very fine helmet.  The only trouble was that unless the wind was in the right direction we couldn’t hear the siren telling us there was an air raid on.  The air raid warning was on the Police Station in Arundel, three miles away.  The lights on the pylons at Poling also went out in an air raid but unless it was a clear night we couldn’t see them anyway.  However, if I did know there was a raid on I was supposed to patrol the village with my helmet on.  One night I saw incendiary bombs burning near the railway line (Tangmere and Ford aerodromes were nearby for targets too) and I walked round the village trying to tell people of possible danger.  Not one person would answer the door!

Jim and my nephew, John Le Marchand, who worked for us, were in the Home Guard.[3] 

Mr. Pitts of North Stoke Farm was in charge.  They went out on night operations and did a lot of training.  They were taught to kill people with knives, quite silently.  John Le Marchand enjoyed all this but Jim hated it, was shocked at the training, and was really totally unsuitable.  Had we been invaded, they had their orders, and Jim would certainly not have carried his out.  They were being taught to throw hand grenades at the Black Rabbit chalk pit one day and Jim completely refused to do it.  In the Park there was a tunnel built as part of the scheme to hide troops all round the south coast who would let the enemy pass over then, and then get up and trap them between the North and South Downs.  The keeper at the time who I think lived at Blue Doors, not the Lion and Horse Lodge, happened to find the Park entrance to the tunnel.  One of the Home Guard was detailed to shoot the keeper should invasion occur.  This was the kind of thing that utterly revolted Jim.

On a night operation they were creeping along a path, learning to walk silently.  Jim was shuffling along at the back, wishing he was in bed.  He trod on a stick.  The line stopped.  Mr. Pitts said, “Who the bloody hell was that?”  “Jim Lee.”  “It bloody well would be you wouldn’t it?”

Both unforgiving men, they were never really friends again after their Home Guard experiences.

I was never told anything by Jim which could have been divulged under torture.  That rule he did keep, though it would not have stopped those left above ground from being tortured if invasion had been successful.

Jim listened to every news bulletin through the day, and was excellently informed on current affairs.  One night the children and I walked to the cinema (Where the Texaco garage is now) and on the way back we found a convoy of army lorries had taken the turning along the Lime Avenue (where lorries were parked between the trees always at this time, grinding deep in the mud) instead of crossing the River to the coast.  They asked me how to turn, having the front of the convoy at the Lion and Horse Lodge.  I suggested turning in the Park, and this they did, one by one; it took most of the rest of the night to get them facing the right way again.'


[1] Cyril Joad is philosopher and author CEM Joad, who ‘escaped’ from London to South Sotke during WWII . He appeared on The Brains Trust, a BBC Radio wartime discussion programme. He popularised philosophy and became a celebrity, before his downfall in a scandal over an unpaid train fare in 1948. He loved South Stoke farm, where he wrote many a book, his posthumous novel ‘Folly Farm’ (see above) is based on it. The 'Joadian Trail' is a 5.3km walk from Amberley station to South Stoke, often walked on the anniversary of his death, on 8 April by the Joadian Society.

[2] - Lieutenant  Roy Gilbert Fazan of the Royal Sussex Regiment.  Killed on 7 June, 1944.  Buried in Ramville.

[3] - Home Guard turns out to relate to the 'Secret Army' Auxiliary Patrol


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