Delving into the history of Copthorne

PUBLISHED: 06:22 22 November 2019

An aerial view of the West Sussex village of Cophthorne

An aerial view of the West Sussex village of Cophthorne

Credit: Commission Air/Alamy Stock Photo

From boxing bouts to golfing tensions, via celebrity weddings, here’s an in-depth look into the history of Copthorne

The golf courseThe golf course

If, like me, you don't really know Copthorne but have only ever driven through it on the way to and from Gatwick Airport, you could be forgiven for thinking it's a fairly modern creation that has sprung up with the advent of air travel. But William the Conqueror, who came by sea not easyJet, had it recorded in the Domesday Book as Copedorne, the place of the pollarded thorn tree. Not until 1617 is it spelt with a 'th', which is around the time the iron industry was becoming increasingly important in the area. When that dwindled, apart from a sustained spell of smuggling and a fair amount of poaching, outside of agriculture, there wasn't a great deal going on.

Partly because prize fighting was banned in Surrey but not in Sussex, in the early 19th century Copthorne developed as a popular venue for some big boxing bouts and huge crowds would gather on the common near the Abergavenny Arms to witness the contests. On an altogether more civilised note, in 1892 a number of local gentlemen met together to form Copthorne Golf Club. In allowing women members from the outset, they deserve credit for being so progressive in a sport not generally regarded as being particularly modern in its outlook. However, lady members weren't allowed in the bar until 1952 and so perhaps the club wasn't quite as forward in its thinking as we might have imagined. Indeed, a resolution passed by the committee in 1922 that, "No application for membership would be accepted from people in the retail trade," suggests a monumentally snobby attitude that will have further antagonised a local population already unhappy about what they saw as appropriation of common land. Possibly in an attempt to win hearts and minds, the club tolerated the formation of the Copthorne Village Golf Club, a sort of artisan section with its own clubhouse but playing on their course at restricted times.

Relations between villagers and the club reached a particularly low point in the mid-1930s when Colonel Cartwright Reid was club captain and fences were erected around the James Braid-designed course to keep the public from wandering onto it. Incensed by this, the locals implemented their own peculiar brand of justice and Colonel Cartwright Reid was 'rough musicked'. A well-established form of local punishment reserved for individuals who had offended against traditional values, it involved the populace marching up and down outside the miscreant's house banging all sorts of noisy implements such as trays, kettles and clackers for at least an hour. This would continue for three consecutive nights and proceedings would be concluded with all the implements used to make the noise being thrown into the victim's garden and a bonfire lit. In the case of Colonel Reid, things got a bit out of hand and the police were called.

Monty is perhaps one of the most famous visitors to Copthorne golf course; that's not Colin Mongomerie, the Scottish golfer who topped the European Tour Order of Merit no fewer than eight times, but Field Marshal Montgomery, 1st Viscount of Alamein, who inspected the troops assembled on the 17th fairway prior to D-Day.

St John the EvangelistSt John the Evangelist

Copthorne escaped comparatively lightly from German bombing during World War II. There were a few alarms, however, when a couple of intercepted doodlebugs crashed near the village, a land-mine landed on the allotments and a line of incendiary bombs fell nearby but did no serious damage. The blackout meant the awful glow to the north when London suffered the Blitz was all too apparent and a number of evacuees from the capital were housed in the village, some of whom settled there permanently after the war.

Housing development in Copthorne is overwhelmingly post-war, much of it from the '70s, '80s and '90s when homes were built on what was previously farmland. "We don't have very many old buildings, I'm afraid," explains Gwyn Cheesmur, chairman of Copthorne Village Millennium Group. There was a manor house that became a convent and is now a care home but most of the old houses have been demolished to make way for new homes.

Even the lovely church of St John the Evangelist isn't that old. Built in the 1870s on a disused gravel pit and the most northerly Anglican church in Sussex, it has a stone exterior but a red, black and white brick interior. It was built thanks to the generosity of Lady Jane Lampson and her husband, 
Sir Curtis Lampson.

There have been a number of notable celebrity weddings in St John's. The famous broadcaster Sir Richard Dimbleby married Dilys Thomas there in 1936. Neither of them lived locally but Dilys' sister was a church warden at St John's at the time. In 1982, Norman Wisdom gave away his daughter Jaqueline at her wedding there and apparently walked up the aisle wearing his trademark cap. And in 1997, former world javelin champion and two-time Olympic medallist Fatima Whitbread married her promoter and agent, Andrew Norman, in St John's. What makes Copthorne such a great place to live, according to Gwyn, is less the fabric of the village than the great sense of community that exists. There is an enormous number of thriving clubs and societies covering everything from stoolball to marbles. Although Copthorne is nowhere near a colliery, there is a very accomplished Silver Band. Founded in 1902, the musicians used to stand in a ring to practise and it wasn't until 1936 that they were permitted to sit down!

Marbles has been very popular in this corner of the county for hundreds of years. Several world champions have come from around here and in 1946 the British Championship final was between the Copthorne Sharpshooters and the Copthorne Spitfires. The former edged it 25-24, the event generated enormous media interest and both BBC TV and Pathé News sent crews to cover it.

Copthorne Cricket Club enjoyed their best season ever in 1991 when competing in Division Three of the Slazenger Surrey League. They won all 15 matches and comfortably topped the league. Copthorne Rovers FC can trace their history back to 1905. Although they enjoyed their best years immediately prior to World War II, they won both the Mid-Sussex League and Cup in 1956.

The football team, like the villagers at Copthorne, are nicknamed the 'yellow-bellies'. Quite why is uncertain but the most appealing explanation I heard was that poachers, of which there were plenty, used to crawl across the fields in pursuit of their prey and the buttercups left their mark on their stomachs.

Latest from the Sussex Life