East Sussex Folk from John Freeland to Rudyard Kipling

A talk given by Brian Freeland on 11th May 2017

Brian Freeland described his family as long time residents of East Sussex (with lines also in West Sussex and Hampshire).  The name appears in records from the 13th century, but probably originated with the Normans, and the family historically were farm labourers, though some worked their way up to “higher stations”!  Co Sgt Major Albert Freeland was, of course, a Wadhurst man who died at the Battle of Aubers Ridge on 9th May 2015.

Batemans – National Trust

Brian wove tales of the iron industry in East Sussex with local folklore, with Batemans in Burwash and with the Freeland family over 400 years.  Going back to the 18th century, there were two brothers, Henry Freeland, a gamekeeper on the Ashburnham estate, and his brother John, a shopkeeper from Salehurst.  John married a rich widow, and in 1773 bought Batemans in Burwash, an ironmaster’s house, for £950.

In 1787, Batemans was bought by Robert Pattenden (John Freeland’s son-in-law), who lived there till 1821, with his three further wives and numerous children.  John Freeland’s will of 1803 included provision of a sum of £900 in trust for Charity Bread to be provided to people as they left church, and this trust survived until 1925.  It is probable that the funds derived from the sale proceeds of Batemans.

Iron was an important industry in the 16th century, and there were over 100 forges and furnaces in East Sussex.  Another John Freeland managed the forge at Robertsbridge.  Great fortunes could be made from iron, but, dependent on charcoal from local woodland, the processes became increasingly expensive as the woods were depleted, and in due course the industry moved up to the Midlands where coal supplies were plentiful.

After the demise of the iron industry in East Sussex in the 18th century, the county’s economy declined, the roads were poor, and Walpole, the Prime Minister, discouraged people from visiting it as the locals were “savages”, and he described Robertsbridge as a wretched village!

Brian Freeland had relied on parish records for much of his research; as well as recording births, marriages and deaths, these records also give a commentary on local and wider events.  En passant, he mentioned that the records disclosed that Wadhurst Church spire had been struck by lightning at least 5 times between 1575 and 1850!

He gave us a good review of the iron industry in East Sussex during the 16th to  18th centuries and told the stories of some of the characters involved, many of whom were his forebears.  Batemans, built in 1634, was the house of an ironmaster (John Brittan) and there was a foundry on the river Dudwell below the Batemans Mill, and as mentioned, in 1773 John Freeland bought it.  Some 130 years later, the house came on to the market.  Rudyard Kipling liked it, but missed the opportunity to acquire it.  However 3 years later it again came on to the market and Kipling took the train to Etchingham and a flier to the property, and bought it – even though he described it as being in a state of “peaceful filth”.  It was his last house and the place where he wrote all his late works.  It is now owned by the National Trust.

Kipling’s son, John, died in WWI, and is buried in Burwash church.  That church has only one iron grave slab, but it is the oldest known, belonging to John Collins, who died in 1537.   John Collins was an early ironmaster, with a furnace 2 miles away – and it is tempting to assume that this was the furnace on the river Dudwell at Batemans.

Mike Goolden