Chosen by Richard Childs, former member of staff
My favourite document is the map of the Manors of East Dean, Graffham and East Lavington, 1597 (Add Mss 48838). My reason for choosing it is not simply because it is the oldest manuscript estate map in the Record Office, nor that being drawn on paper, it might only be a draft version of a lost map. As an archivist, my interest was piqued by the history of its provenance (ownership), linking it with some very remarkable people. The back story of its owners and those associated with them includes an actress and a bishop, a cardinal, a doctor and sometime county councillor, and a most extraordinary suicide.
The map was surveyed by Richard Allin of Robertsbridge. The lands described in the map had been part of the Earl of Arundel’s estate but were sold by him to Giles Garton of London for £4,000 in 1578, and upon his death in 1592 it was inherited by his son, Peter, who probably commissioned the making of the map. It is most likely that the map remained at Lavington Park for the following three hundred years until the estate was sold by Reginald Garton Wilberforce in 1903 to James Buchanan, later Baron Woolavington. Since 1946 the mansion at Lavington Park has been occupied by Seaford College.
The map itself was inherited by Dr. Octavia Wilberforce, daughter of Reginald Garton Wilberforce. Octavia was the granddaughter of Samuel Wilberforce, sometime Bishop of Winchester, who was known by the nickname Soapy Sam after comments made by Disraeli. He was the son of William Wilberforce, the leader of the campaign against the slave trade.
A further link to notable Victorian clergy through this story was that the onetime rector of Graffham and East Lavington was Henry Manning, who married Caroline Sargent, daughter of John Sargent. The marriage ceremony was performed by Caroline’s brother-in-law, Samuel Wilberforce. Henry Manning rose to become Archdeacon of Chichester in 1841, however ten years later he converted to Roman Catholicism. He again rose through the ranks, becoming Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, head of the Catholic Church in England.
Octavia Wilberforce was born in 1888. In her early twenties she determined that she wanted to become a doctor. This was much against her father’s wishes. When Elizabeth Robins, the American actress and campaigner for women’s rights, heard of Octavia’s problems, she offered to help fund her studies. Octavia went to live with Elizabeth in her 15th century farmhouse at Backsettown, Henfield. In 1913 she was able to start her course at the London School of Medicine for Women and qualified as a doctor in 1920. Eventually she became the head physician at the New Sussex Hospital for Women in Brighton. In 1927, together with Elizabeth, she founded the Backsettown Rest Home for overworked professional women, where she herself lived until her death in 1963.
Elizabeth Robins was born in 1862 in Louisville, Kentucky. At the age of 18 she ran away from home to become an actress. In 1885 she married an actor, George Richmond Parks. Although Elizabeth was in high demand, George apparently struggled to get parts, and he committed suicide on 31st May 1887 by jumping into a river wearing a suit of theatrical armour, his suicide note stating, ‘I will not stand in your light any longer’. Following her husband’s death, Elizabeth moved to England and became one of the most popular actresses on the West End stage. She was a strong feminist and supported suffragette causes. After women gained the vote, Robins took a growing interest in women’s health care.
Octavia Wilberforce also served on West Sussex County Council representing Steyning in the 1950s. Through her good agencies the Lavington and Wilberforce Archives were deposited with the Record Office in the 1950s and 1960s. However, the map remained in her possession and upon her death was bequeathed to the Backsettown Trust. In 1989 the map was placed on temporary deposit with the Record Office whilst the Backsettown Trust was absorbed into the Royal United Kingdom Beneficent Association (RUKBA). In May 1996 RUKBA sold the map to the Record Office for £5,000.
In 2012, two minutes books relating to the foundation and management of Backsettown were presented to the Record Office (AM 561); in addition, we hold a number of publications and other items about Backsettown, all of which can be viewed in our public searchroom.
If you would like to find out more about the lives and careers of both Octavia Wilberforce and Elizabeth Robins, please visit the Spartacus Educational website (http://spartacus-educational.com/Wwilberforce.htm and http://spartacus-educational.com/Wrobins.htm).