Museum commemorates Cuckfield’s WWI effort with display

The  Red Cross 'Dorothy Bag'.
The Red Cross 'Dorothy Bag'.

Cuckfield Museum has been loaned some new objects to commemorate the centenary of WWI.

The objects have been used to create an exhibition entitled ‘A Small Town at War’ which looks at the effects of the First World War on those living in the village and how Cuckfield could be seen as a microcosm for the country as a whole.

German field glasses

German field glasses

The display’s title, ‘A Small Town at War’, comes from the book by Alan Miller, which examines Cuckfield in 1917 .

By March 1915 so many men in the village had volunteered that there was a shortage of labour on the land and parents could apply for labour certificates for their sons to leave school at 12 instead of 14. By April 1916, a creche was being set up to allow women to help with farm work.

Included in the display is a Red Cross ‘Dorothy Bag’ belonging to Fred Manvell.Fred enlisted in the Royal Sussex Pioneer Regt in September1914, at the age of 17, so that he could fight with his elder brother, Ern.

They were two of the eight children of Stephen Manvell, head gardener at Butler’s Green House, who lived at Steeple Cottage, Butler’s Green, near Haywards Heath.

Percy Brooker

Percy Brooker

Fred fought at the Battle of the Somme and was injured three times during the War.

On the third occasion in 1918, when he was gassed, his uniform was discarded because it was likely to have been contaminated but his buttons and regimental badges were removed and placed in his handkerchief, along with his notebooks containing diary entries and other personal possessions.

They were put in a drawstring bag, known popularly as a Dorothy bag, which was labelled and tied around his neck to prevent it being lost. The bag with its contents, kept intact by the family after the war, has been kindly loaned by his daughter Hazel Gubbin and is displayed with cards sent by the two brothers and family photographs, showing the very warm ties that bound the family. Although Fred survived the war, sadly Ern was killed in March 1918.

Five million ‘Dorothy bags’, named after the traditional drawstring bags carried by brides, were made by volunteers during WWI, organised by the Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild. They were sent to the Front where there was a problem with soldiers becoming separated from their belongings when they were being treated in dressing stations. To find one of these bags, in such good condition and still with its contents, is a treasure.

Fred Manvell

Fred Manvell

The museum also has items on display which relate to Percy Brooker, the father in law of Cuckfield resident Margaret Brooker.

Born at Stumbleholme Farm, Ifield in 1895, he joined the Royal Horse and Royal Field Artillery because he understood horses. He was sent to France in 1915 and served alongside an RAMC doctor, Dr. Purdy, witnessing the Battles of Ypres and the Somme.

When he returned from the war, Percy brought with him a pair of field glasses which he had taken from the body of a dead German soldier as a souvenir. Knowing this was forbidden, he concealed them in a piece of bread and hid them in his mess tin. His family used the glasses for many years and his grandchildren, Peter Brooker, Jose Gibbs and Mary Wyatt, who have kindly loaned them, remember playing with them as children and indeed they still work today!

Although both men survived the war and even retained the same horses throughout, Percy was gassed twice which led to his premature death in 1948.

The museum is displaying the glasses with a set of replica WWI mess tins.

The exhibition also includes photos from the album of Olive Turner, the daughter of a well known family, who became a nurse at the VAD hospital which was set up in the Queen’s Hall, Cuckfield. The photos show a hall entirely recognisable today but with beds down the side and tables in the centre. The reading room upstairs, which is now the museum, became a recreation room for the convalescing troops.

lThe display runs until December 2014. Information provided by Phillipa Malins.