Although it is quite likely that there was a Roman settlement at Burwash, as it was on Roman Route IV from Hurst Green to Heathfield, and there are Roman ironworks nearby (and also, therefore, a Saxon community), no tangible evidence of either survives today. The oldest building in the village is St Bartholomew’s Church and parts of the Norman original (1090) can be seen today (a complete history is available in the church).
Burwash grew steadily in the 11th and 12th Centuries and its status as a local trading centre was recognised in 1252 when King Henry III authorised a weekly market and a three-day fair in May. These markets continued until the 20th Century and the tradition is perpetuated by the annual village fete on the August Bank Holiday following St Bartholomew’s day (August 24th). Although there are now no livestock for sale, the mediaeval inhabitants would recognise the music, food stalls and spirit of conviviality and fun which continues today.
An ancient mystery is the disappearance of the Manor House. It is known to have existed as there are official references to it from 1280 to 1334 but thereafter it was heard of no more. To add to the mystery there is no evidence of where it was sited. The origin of the name of the village is also a matter of debate as it evolved from Burherce in the 12th Century to Burghesse in the 13th, Burgherssh or Burwash in the 15th, Burrishe in the 16th and the modern Burwash in the 17th Century. It is said to mean, in old English, a stronghold, BURR, with a stubble field, ERSE, but there are other theories such as “town in the forest” or “fortified hill in the woods” using two different meanings of BURGH and HURST.
The current appearance of the village dates to the 18th Century when the rows of 15th and 16th Century cottages were upgraded and tile hung by the prosperous Georgians. Some larger houses were also built at this time including Rampyndene, Mount House, Burghurst and Denes House as a result of the local landowners moving into the High Street. The oldest house in the village is Pelham Hall (1375) but in most of the High Street the old buildings are hidden behind the Georgian tiles.
At one time there were at least seven public houses plus official and unofficial ale houses but gradually they have been reduced to two, the Rose and Crown and the Bear as well as The Wheel in Burwash Weald all of which retain many of their original features. Likewise in the 18th Century there were over 50 shops, traders and craftsmen but over the last 250 years these have shrunk. Now a village store and post office, a butcher, a hairdresser, flower shop and local petrol station meet most local needs
Smuggling was rife in Sussex and Burwash is rumoured to have been an important centre on the back route from the coast to London but no evidence can be found. However, Rudyard Kipling who lived at Bateman’s (1902 – 1936) wrote:
“Five and twenty ponies
Trotting through the dark
Brandy for the Parson
‘Baccy for the Clerk
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy
and watch the wall, my darling, whilst the Gentlemen go by”
He is popularly supposed to have been commenting on local events. Bateman’s is today owned by the National Trust and is preserved as a faithful monument to Kipling and his work.
In the 1914-18 war approximately 300 men from Burwash fought, with 56 killed. In the 1939-45 war a further 29 men died. All of them are commemorated on the war memorial near the church. The memorial is unusual in that was designed by Sir Charles Nicholson and has a lantern that is still lit on the anniversary of each death. In the 1939-45 war, over 900 bombs dropped on Burwash. A local Home Guard unit was formed; evacuees arrived from London, and local committees and groups were set up, supporting the war effort and providing assistance to local defence.
The C of E Primary School, which started as a Charity School in 1729, is thriving today having continuously provided education to the village for nearly 300 years.
Perhaps the greatest change to the village has been the occupations of its inhabitants. 800 years ago it was entirely based on agriculture and local crafts serving the villages and hamlets around. Very few ever travelled out of the area. With the growth of the markets in the 14th Century, travellers came to the village and over the next 500 years the range of traders and shops increased. Even in Victorian times, virtually the whole population worked locally. But with the arrival of the railway in 1851 and improved road transportation, the population became more mobile, travelled more and commuted to work in London and elsewhere. This process has continued until today when few work in agriculture and there are only a handful of shops. Most people work outside the village or are retired.
Bateman’s and Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling fell in love with Bateman’s from the moment he saw it. It was a home, he wrote later, “in which to settle down for keeps.” Tucked away in a wooded landscape of the Sussex Weald, this 17th century house with its mullioned windows and oak beams was untouched by modernisation and change. It would provide an idyllic sanctuary for a man who had endured a lonely and unhappy childhood and it was fondly remembered by all who came to know it.
Kipling moved to the house with his American wife Carrie and their children Elsie and John. He was thirty-six and the most famous writer in the world. Their eldest daughter, six-year-old Josephine, had died of pneumonia – a tragedy from which they never fully recovered. Yet Kipling was determined that this new home should be a happy place – especially for children – and an oasis of calm in which to work. Despite the further despair to come at the death of their only son John in the First World War, Kipling always found serenity at Bateman’s.
Born to British parents in India, Kipling was sent to school in England and to a lodging house where he was often beaten. They were times of great loneliness for him. His only joyful moments were spent during holidays with his uncle, the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Edward Burne-Jones and his wife in their London home. It was such a refuge that years later he brought the wrought-iron bell-pull from his uncle’s house to hang in the porch at Bateman’s. He hoped that other children would feel the same sense of happiness when they rang it.
A house full of history
Despite his fame, he was a modest man, for whom Bateman’s was a place of peace, away from the trappings of fame. Nevertheless, the house was often filled with friends and guests, from Stanley Baldwin (who was his cousin) to the writer Rider Haggard. The visitors’ book, still at the house, notes all the guests across the thirty-four years that Kipling was there.
The rooms, which he described as “untouched and unfaked”, still evoke a rich period atmosphere and most are exactly as he left them, giving a detailed insight into his character. A sense of fun was instilled from the moment a visitor stepped into the porch and saw the initials of Kipling, Carrie and the two children, that had been carved into the stonework one rainy afternoon. The large oak table in the entrance hall would be the setting for afternoon teas, piled high with bread and jam and hot-buttered scones. A painting showing a cosy room in Burne-Jones’ house was hung just inside the hall, a further reminder for Kipling of those days spent with his uncle.
The delightful oak-panelled parlour was the location for after-dinner games or was where the rug would be rolled back to play ball with the family dogs. Here, Kipling would also read extracts from his latest poems and stories to his enraptured children and guests. Like other rooms in the house, there is an Eastern flavour from displays of treasured possessions, mementoes of travels or from his time in India as a young journalist. There are blue and white dishes and vases, decorated boxes and his collection of miniature Indian, Chinese and Japanese deities that he called his “household gods”.
In the dining-room, the walls are decorated with striking 18th century Cordoba leather hangings depicting tropical birds and entwining foliage that Kipling and Carrie bought on the Isle of Wight. He was thrilled to have acquired them, saying they were “lovelier than our wildest dreams,” and they gave the room a luxuriant backdrop for the jovial entertaining the family so enjoyed. Kipling suffered from stomach ulcers in his later life and the menus were often plain and simple, but guests would always be offered good wine as compensation.
The study is a fascinating record of a writer and his work. It is just as Kipling left it, only tidier. According to his family, he was extraordinarily messy, especially when he was mulling over many drafts for a book on his ink-stained desk. The tools of his trade are all here: the ‘Good Companion’ typewriter, of which he often complained “the beastly thing simply won’t spell,” boxes of pen nibs, rubber bands and clips. In the corner is his day-bed, where he would sit and wait for inspiration. The room contains his library, an eclectic mix from poetry to Pepys, naval history to bee-keeping. Guests sometimes remarked that the books by the bed seemed carefully chosen for them.
Bateman’s is filled with mementoes and evidence of the family’s importance to Kipling. The series of bronze and plaster plaques of Mowgli from the ‘Jungle Book’ and characters from ‘Kim’ were made by Kipling’s father and intended as illustrations for the books. There are photographs of Burne-Jones at work, while other items of memorabilia show how Kipling’s children influenced him; it was for Josephine that he devised the ‘Just So’ stories. Elsie and John appear as characters in the tales ‘Rewards and Fairies’.
The Kipling Society
Kipling died in 1936 and his wife, Carrie, three years later, having bequeathed Bateman’s to the National Trust as a memorial to her husband. But it’s far from just an historic house depicting the life of its owner. Special events offer behind-the-scenes glimpses of a home that meant so much to him, performances of his prose and poetry in the garden on summer evenings, and simply the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere of period rooms in a perfect rural setting.
For those who would like to discover more about Kipling and his work please visit The Kipling Society’s website. It contains a wealth of information on his literary output together with recordings and memorabilia.