The day in 1938 when a burning van rolled away


Some things never change.

It will always rain in Britain during the summer, football supporters will always question the parentage of the referee, and when something catches fire in the high street everyone will run to have a look.

One such fire broke out in a goods van in March 1938. The Mid Sussex Times reported the blaze “attracted a large number of people” to Lindfield High Street.

Let’s face it, if that happened today, those bystanders would have their phones out and would be posting the action to Facebook and Twitter accompanied by ‘amusing’ hashtags.

The bystanders, said the report, became more than a little worried when said van started rolling down the street like a fiery battering ram, heading straight for shop fronts and “several stationary motor vehicles”.

The report didn’t say how the potential disaster was averted, just that the only casualty of the incident was the van and the “many pounds worth” of goods it contained.

Another thing which hasn’t changed over the years is the repeating of rumours until they begin to fester into fact. These days those rumours tend to centre around which virus will ravage your computer if you look up pictures of cats doing entertaining things.

In 1938, the main Mid Sussex rumour centred around a five pound note and a gentleman called Mr Preece.

Under the heading ‘Dame rumour strikes again’, The Mid Sussex Times reported: “Have you heard this one? Last week a man, so the story went, called on Mr GP Preece at the Sussex Hotel and asked him to change a note for £5, which he did.

“Later, another man went to the hotel and asked to look at the note. Having scanned it closely, he suggested to Mr Preece that he should get his hat and coat and accompany him to the police station. While the licensee had gone, both the man and the note vanished.

“Certainly a thrilling tale but unfortunately the person who started it overlooked two facts – one, its age, and two, that Mr Preece is far too wily a bird to be caught napping.”

Ah, the “can you swap this dodgy fiver for some change” scam – something else that never changes.

Over in Slaugham, the big issue of 1938 was not burning vans or dubious currency but whether or not to bring newfangled electric street lights to four villages in the parish. The villages in question were Handcross, Pease Pottage, Slaugham itself and Warninglid, whose residents had no doubt been enjoying amazing views of the night sky.

A meeting was held at Handcross parish hall where, according to the report “41 of the 43 government electors present voted in favour of adopting the Lighting and Watching Act of 1883”.

It’s easy to mock in these days of light pollution but you have to wonder why the two objectors didn’t want to make things easier for those who ventured out and about at night.

A similar question could have been asked of members of the Haywards Heath Local Board who, in the 1880s, refused to allow the village’s footpaths to be paved. Their reasoning? Footpaths would “destroy the rustic beauty of the place and keep away visitors”.

In 1888, though, with the paving about to be laid, the Mid Sussex Times rather gloomily reported: “Rustic beauty has given way to rustic ugliness”.

And less mud on the feet.

Incidentally, the picture shows horses outside JJ Luckens, Scaynes Hill, in the early 1900s.

The shop, which, according to the caption on the picture, sold just about everything, was known as the Cyclist’s Rest.

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