Students help with Midhurst mystery

When my friend and colleague Jenny Mackness added a comment on my recent post detailing my difficulties finding Mr Byatt’s house in Midhurst, saying it would be useful to students, it occurred to me that my students could help. And as I mentioned in my last post, I did have them help me*. So here I’m sharing the results of their work.

It’s a small group, my class – changing the name of the course from Western Civilization to Western Culture helped not a jot. We will now be changing it again to European History and Culture, but the fact of the matter is that various courses in Italian, French, and Chinese Culture have been approved by the curriculum committee. These courses, taught by my wonderful colleagues in the foreign language department, are much less rigorous (and thus more fun) than a real History class. But, the students who show up for class want to be there, and there were seven present the day I brought in my work.

I had run off copies of the Census pages, not only the one with Horace Byatt’s house (record #89) showing H.G. Wells was there, but also the pages before and after (more gifts from the mysterious public librarian). I told them I needed those documents back, as they are officially records and I’m technically not supposed to reproduce them (this may have added an aura of importance, now that I think about it). I had also brought photocopies of the maps, especially the one that showed the house buildings:


Our first issue was to determine which way the census taker was walking. Since the last house before South Street was one on West Street, we decided s/he turned right. #86 was the Spread Eagle Hotel, but that’s several buildings, and it’s changed over time. I had discovered that the building on the island, now part of the Hotel, was the Market Hall then, so it wouldn’t count. Then the students compared the map with the census rows, and we came up with some possibilities, the most likely being this:


There are, of course, some problems. The house fronting the street is small, seemingly too small for that many people (though other families are crowded too). But the big problem is the buildings off the street. Might this have been an extension of Byatt’s house? or are they different houses entirely? Storehouses?


Old photos aren’t much help. The tiny building above the courtyard appears to be a storefront of some kind, as does the one on the other side of the courtyard, which we agreed was most likely for Byatt’s house. The best photo we have is of the visit of King Edward in 1906, when the Sanitarium was opened:


There is a shop sign over the courtyard entrance, and it’s unlikely that the house showing behind the boy sitting on the chimney pots is a house large enough for the whole Byatt family. If one assumes, then, that the Byatts were in one of the houses on the courtyard, that’s unfortunate, because here’s that area now:


You’ll notice there’s nothing there now. Just backyard garden, maybe a patio. Which means the hunt is on for Byatt’s lease or property documents, likely to be found at the West Sussex Record Office. But without my students, I’d know far less than that!


* Students, and my family (who were a huge help), and anyone else who would stand still long enough for me to show them!

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