Episode Five: A Rural Town

Richard Vobes is the Bald Explorer, dashing about Britain discovering the history of its towns and villages. In this episode he is off to Petworth in the heart of West Sussex, close to Chichester and not too far from London. It is a very rural town renown for the beautiful mansion-house, upon land that once belonged to the Roger de Montgomery and later the de Percy family.

It was the third Earl of Egremont who had a vested interested in the town of Petworth. He supplied the money to build the boys school, which was later destroyed by a stray German bomber during the second World War. It was the Earl who brought water from the near by Rover Rother into the town centre and whose land it was the grim House of Correction was built on for convicted offenders from all over Sussex.

One of the prettiest streets in Sussex can be found in Petworth, complete with old shop fronts and cobbles on the ground and the Bald Explorer reveals that he once lived there.

Back in the 19th century, many of the poor were assisted out of poverty and given the chance of a new life in Canada thanks to the local rector. Also, many do not realise that a special kind of stone, Petworth Marble was mined from this area and made into all sorts of wonderful objects.

Of course, most visitors , if not travelling to see Petworth House, go to hunt around the abundance of antique shops that flank the roads or take refreshment inside the independent tea rooms. And lets not forget the beautifully restored old railway station that is now a fabulous bed and breakfast establishment with genuine Pullman Carriages to stay the night in.

Building a Virtual Prison

Building a prison in computer graphics..
It is early days, but work has started on a computer graphics version of the House of Correction which is to be featured in one of the next Bald Explorer episodes. If you have been reading recent posts you will have seen mention of this grim place and the fact that there is little left to see now. I aim to recreate it, albeit virtually, so that we can see the grim building for what it was and appreciate how dominant it must have looked on the top of its hill bearing down on the inhabitants of Petworth towards the end of the 18th Century.

Where possible I always like to gather as much information about the subject I am making in computer graphics. One of the first pieces of luck was noticing that the prison is clearly marked in precise terms on the planning maps for Petworth in 1875. Not only was the building’s shell accurately drawn up, but also the cells and ancillary buildings, such as the treadmill block and handcrank shed.

From there I can extrude upwards the walls and produce a skeleton of the old prison. What one does still require are the real measurements of widths of walls, heights of buildings and detail of roofs, etc. Luckily, there was an inspection of prisons made in the 1840’s and it included the Petworth one, giving not just a written description, but accurate measurements and dimensions in feet and inches. What is lacking, however, are drawings or photographs of the House of Correction. That said, I do have an old sketch of the place and one scratchy early photo which gives us the rear detail and roof.

I do not intend to make an all singing and dancing model, that would take too long, but fair representation of the austere nature of the place will do. Besides my cg skills are very sparse, so I will do what I can. I am not sure if anyone has done any work in this area before, so it could be a valuable contribution to the knowledge we have on the Georgian/Victorian building, who knows? There are plans to rebuild on the site, so all that is there is likely to be lost for ever, so I must work quickly before all my references are gone.

Podcast: Petworth Explored

The Stonemansons Inn, a little long North Street, Petworth.

As part of our research into a video episode of the Bald Explorer I always like to visit a place and get a feel for the location. I love to take photographs and look for the unusual. I took Jimmy with me to Petworth in West Sussex this time and we tramped the streets impressed by the old houses and wonderful architecture.  This recording was the second podcast we made that day and towards the end we are in search of the rather grim sounding Petworth House of Correction, the local prison.

I used to live in Petworth some thirty years ago. I wasn’t interested in history then being only a young man of eighteen. I was a member of the local youth theatre and was lodged in one of the oldest streets in Petworth, Lombard Street. It is a beautifully preserved cobbled street leading down from the parish church, St Mary’s, to the market square.

Little really has changed in Petworth I am pleased to say. Perhaps there are a few more antique shops than I remember and a couple of the businesses have changed, pubs closed and now I see they charge for parking in the main car park. (Only a pound for the whole day, so it doesn’t break the bank I suppose.)

There are some lovely public houses, Inns and drinking places in the old town, but one that I had never visited in my youth was the Stonemansons Inn along North Street a little out of town. It stands close to where the old boy’s school once stood, before a stray bomb destroyed it during World War two. (See our other podcast about Petworth).

One of the remaining buildings of the Petworth House of Correction.

The Stonemasons Inn is made up from a small row of 17th Century timber framed cottages with each room named after previous owners. It is a fabulously atmospheric building, complete with low beams,  charming fire places and plenty of character. Better than all that they also sell local real ale and produce rather lovely food.

Close by was where the old Petworth Toll House would have stood and collected the money from travellers coming and going to the market town.  Luckily, these days, you can drove your sheep or heard your cattle along this busy road for free.

One of the notorious places in Petworth and not generally known about is the old House of Correction. It was opened in 1788 and mainly used to house petty criminals, but its treatment was harsh and draconian. The prisoners were given forced hard labour, including many hours on a treadmill (1o hours in the Summer and 7 hours in the Winter) and it was known ‘grinding the wind’ for it achieved in practical terms, absolutely nothing. There was also a handcrank which was turned against pressure for another period of 10 hours.  I hope to explore more about this cruel institution in the Bald Explorer episode.

An overlay showing where the old prison used to stand in 1875, thanks to Jimmy for this.

Meanwhile do have a listen to preliminary exploration of this delightful town.

Download as Podcast