Five women uncover a house’s fascinating past through a family’s letters. Emily Jessica Turner finds out more
[This story was originally published in the May 2018 edition of etc magazine.]
“We never imagined we could do something like this,” says Janine Harvey.
The Steyning based typist is a member of a five-strong team of ladies, all of whom are from the area.
Janine, along with Jane Goring, Joyce Slight, Jill Turner, and Janet Pennington – known collectively as the ‘FiveJays’ – have been working to reveal the hidden histories of Wiston House.
Located under Chanctonbury Ring and currently leased to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Wiston House is a place with a fascinating history, dating back to 1086 when the manor appeared in the Domesday book.
A new house, which started construction in 1573, was occupied during the English Civil War and was later remodelled by a fashionable architect during the nineteenth century.
The FiveJays have been focusing on the more recent era of the house’s past, thanks to a fascinating discovery. Nearly 400 letters, mostly written between 1745 and 1905 and unseen since the time they were received by the Goring family at the Elizabethan mansion, were unearthed in 2004. “The letters are incredibly descriptive and lively,” explained Janine.
Along with some personal diaries, original watercolours, portraits, photographs and family trees, these letters were unearthed, tied in bundles with pink ribbon, in a wooden Wiston Estate box.
Jane, a direct descendant of the Gorings of Wiston and sister of the estate’s owner, was originally passed the box of letters by her brother Harry. She then invited three friends to help – Jill, who was Wiston Estate secretary for many years, and Joyce and Janet, who are both qualified historians with skills in palaeography. After fifth member Janine joined the group, with her expert IT skills, a prototype of the eventual book began to take shape. “The letters were all painstakingly transcribed by the four other Steyning ladies, and when I came on board in 2012 to ‘type them up and keep them secure’, this led to the idea that they tell a fascinating story that could possibly become a book,” Janine continued.
A project went underway to unravel the story told by these documents, leading the team of writers from the reign of King George III, through the Victorian age, and into Edwardian times.
Janine, along with co-authors Joyce, Jill, Janet, and Jane, realised that they had hit upon a treasure trove, which interweaved true tales of travel, adventure, and romance. Many letters had traveled by ship to Wiston from Malta; some show holes where the ink has run through the paper, other are criss-crossed with lines of writing.
During the hours spent transcribing the documents and unravelling the stories that the letters reveal, the FiveJays, whose ages range from 50s to 90s, followed the conversations between generations of the family, and their relationships to their friends and servants. Mostly written by Jane’s great-great-grandfather Charles Goring, his family and their descendants, the letters tell of Mediterranean voyages, wild boar hunting in Morocco, railway journeys in Scotland, celebrations, courtships, marriages, births of children, ailments, tragedies and romance.
This project, which took the FiveJays 13 years of researching and writing, became Lives, Loves and Letters – The Goring Family of Wiston (1743-1905).
“Years on – here we are!” exclaimed Janine. “I am incredibly proud to say that the book that I, along with the other ladies, have had the pleasure of producing and self-publishing is now in print.”
The book follows the story of the Goring family of Wiston from the reign of George III through to the Edwardian era, starting with Charles, who, in 1744, was the first Goring to be born at Wiston. As a young man he planted the beech trees on the prehistoric earthwork now known as Chanctonbury Ring. A classical scholar and MP for Shoreham, Charles married three times, and the book explores the history of his third wife, Mary Ballad, including her connections to the Austen family and her work running the estate after her husband’s death. The family’s story continues through the Victorian era, as told by letters from Charles’s eldest daughter Elizabeth, as well as her younger brother, the Revd John Goring. Lives, Loves and Letters also explores tales told by their cousin John Ballard’s letters, which feature adventurous travels through Scotland and from Portugal to Spain.
The letters open a window into the lives of the Goring family, and the eras through which they lived, revealing, as the FiveJays demonstrate in Lives, Loves, and Letters, a fascinating portrait of the past and the people who inhabited it.
For more information, visit www.liveslovesandletters.co.uk. The book contains more than 100 illustrations, including portraits, watercolour paintings – two of which are in Tate Britain – pencil sketches, and photographs. Lives, Loves and Letters costs £20 (postage and packaging is £3.40), and is available for order on the website via PayPal.