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09 March 2015

St Helen's Care Home

33 Mile Oak Road. Portslade

Judy Middleton 2015

 copyright © J.Middleton
This photograph of St Helen’s was taken on 15 February 2015.

The Old House

The original house was modest in size and it was built in 1831. It was part of Mile Oak Farm Estate and it was given the charming name of Garden Cottage. There was no change in its structure for over 70 years but then in 1913 nearby Portslade House became Windlesham House, a preparatory school for boys. It was necessary to have a sick bay for any boy who might come down with an infectious disease and Garden Cottage seemed the ideal place because it was near the school but in a separate building. To cater for this new use a single-storey extension was built on the south side facing Mile Oak Road. In 1915 a lounge was built at the south west end next to the 1831 dining room and there were steps between them. At the same time a bathroom was added and a bedroom was built north of the kitchen. In 1930 another bedroom was built on the ground floor.

At first Portslade, or Southern Cross, as the head Mrs Scott Malden liked to call it, seemed well-suited as a school location for young gentleman but as the 1930s progressed the spurt of house building led the owners to search for somewhere more rural and in 1935 Windlesham House moved to Highden, near Washington in West Sussex where it remains to this day.

Mr and Mrs Neild

Mrs Grace Dorothy Neild purchased the cottage and erstwhile sick bay on 16 October 1935 for £300. At the same time her husband Mr Neild bought a piece of land on the west side of the cottage for £50. The intention was to have a house built on it but that never happened. Instead the Neilds constructed a lovely sunken garden with a centrepiece pond in the shape of a cross, Mrs Neild being a devout lady.

 copyright © A.L. Shepherd
Mrs Neild built the sunken garden herself and she stands near the pond designed in the shape of a cross.

 Mrs Neild was very proud of the fact that she was the great grand-daughter of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) who became such a celebrated figure that when he died, he was buried in Westminster Abbey. Darwin loved his garden and conservatories at Downe, Kent and it seems Mrs Neild inherited those genes. She too created a beautiful garden; in the spring there were masses of daffodils and at Easter she used to present a bunch of them to people in the neighbouring houses of Mile Oak Road. There was also a magnificent conservatory containing a grapevine, a peach tree and a hundred tomato plants. The temperature in the conservatory during winter was kept constant by warm pipes, the heat coming from a large boiler underneath a shed in the garden.

  copyright © A.L. Shepherd
Mrs Neild smiles broadly for the camera in her magnificent conservatory, which boasted a grapevine, a peach tree
 and many tomato plants.

 Mrs Neild would invite two boys from Portslade Industrial School to spend Sundays with the family, which must have been a great treat for the boys. They arrived wearing their uncomfortable-looking uniforms and stayed for lunch and tea before Mrs Neild took them back.

Mrs Neild was something of a legend on her bicycle. She loved to travel that way to visit St Nicolas Church on Sundays. She used to whizz down High Street at full tilt and expected the momentum she generated to take her most of the way up the opposite hill without having to peddle. Neighbours would hold their breath but she did not come to harm.

She also possessed a Vauxhall car (number PO 5559) and one memorable day in 1949 while trying to manoeuvre it into the garage, she managed to drive straight through the back wall of the garage (an asbestos panel) and ended up in the twitten. She got out of the car unscathed but made sure someone else sorted out the problem.

copyright © A.L. Shepherd
This 1934 snow scene provides some idea of the scale of the building. The single-storey building on the right dates from the time Windlesham House School took over in 1913. Note the two dogs – The Neild family loved to keep dogs.

copyright © A.L. Shepherd 
St Helen’s was photographed in 1950 from a similar angle as the snow scene picture. But it looks completely different in the summer. There is a quince tree in front, reputed to date from when the cottage was built. The fruit made delicious quince jelly and quince jam.

In 1947 St Helen’s opened its doors as a rest home. Convalescent patients were referred there from London hospitals such as St Thomas’s Hospital, Guy’s Hospital and the Royal Free Hospital. Sometimes there were more patients than there were beds at St Helen’s. But that did not bother Mrs Neild who simply asked friends to help out. Thus Mrs Lloyd (a relative of the Blaker family) of Windlesham Close took one patient and others went to houses in Applesham Way and Mile Oak Gardens. But all the patients came back to St Helen’s for their meals where Miss Maud Baldwin reigned supreme in the kitchen. At that time there were fifteen beds at St Helen’s and eighteen patients. Of course not all the patients at St Helen’s had a bedroom to themselves and some of them were given a shared room. 

 copyright © A.L. Shepherd 
This wonderful old postcard shows Windlesham Close in the 1930s.

In 1953 Mrs Neild fulfilled her ambition of building a Chapel or Quiet Room on the premises. She managed to raise revenue by writing to the various patients who had stayed there and asking them to donate money. Revd Ronald Adams, vicar of St Nicolas 1948-1962, was happy to present a fine, wooden cross for the altar. For many years the vicar of St Nicolas would visit to hold a service of Holy Communion there on Saturday mornings.

 copyright © A.L. Shepherd 
Mrs Neild and her friend relax in the garden. On the other side of the high white-washed back wall lies the twitten running between Mile Oak Road and Mile Oak Gardens; it once led to some stables.

Mrs Neild had a twin brother called Lance who also lived at St Helen’s. About the birth, he liked to say that he arrived first to make sure everything was all right for his sister. When his daughter was grown up, she took a great interest in transcendental meditation.

 copyright © A.L. Shepherd 
An old photograph of St Helen’s east frontage reveals the changes made to the old cottage.  
There is a William pear tree on the right

The Shepherd Family

During the war Mrs Neild was busy nursing at Chichester. In 1946 Mrs Patricia Shepherd arrived to help out and she also kept the books. Mrs Shepherd was familiar with Portslade because her husband Thomas Lewis Shepherd was owner of Shepherd’s Industries, which moved from its previous premises in Davigdor Road, Hove to Portslade Brewery on 28 August 1937. At one time the company employed almost 200 people and they made a variety of items from luxury shirts, castors, a special rubber thread that was woven into cloth and a food product called Frittles Crisps.

copyright © A.L. Shepherd  
This photograph of 
Thomas Lewis Shepherd 
appeared in publicity material for 
his new shirts, which were promoted 
heavily in the 1930s.
A new Shepherd Shirt was heavily advertised in the 1930s and the campaign started with the front page of the Daily Mail. The shirt was sold in a wide range of patterns plus two detachable collars. The collar was in fact an innovation. Whereas an ordinary shirt with detachable collar needed two studs to keep it in place, a Shepherd shirt boasted a special rim on the collar that automatically rested under a rim on the neck-band. There was thus no need to use a back stud although a back-stud hole was incorporated in case you needed to wear a different collar. The prices ranged from six shillings and sixpence to twelve shillings and sixpence.

T.L. Shepherd died suddenly at the early age of 39 in 1943. Mrs Shepherd struggled on with managing the firm until the end of the war. She had previously been employed as an accountant at Henley’s, London with a working day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Their son Antony was born in 1940. His parents made the decision to send him with his nanny to the United States of America for safety. They travelled with fourteen other youngsters plus Miss Margaret Leechman, head of a Sussex Nursery School and Miss Barbara Ravenscroft, a teacher at the school. The 20,000-ton liner in which they travelled contained some 1,600 British refugee children and there were six liners in the convoy attended by cruisers and destroyers. But Antony’s group seemed to be the only ones destined for the States.

Their arrival caused quite a stir, not least because Mr and Mrs Eugene Meyer were to be their hosts. Eugene Meyer was editor and publisher of The Washington Post and so of course that newspaper gave good coverage to the story. There was a large photo of Tony in his carrycot and an enchanting one of two five-year old girls clad in their Sunday best with becoming bonnets, and clutching large teddy bears. The newspaper stated ‘Antony Shepherd, a blue-eyed infant of 5 months arrived in what the English call a ‘carry-cart’, a basket affair with handles on either side.’ Their destination was Clover Croft, a 200-acres estate in Virginia horse country that Mr Meyer had leased for them.

The little evacuees received attention from distinguished visitors. Lord Lothian British Ambassador to the United States arrived in September 1940. He was pictured in formal suit, collar and tie, trying not to look uncomfortable seated on the grass with the children in front of a panoramic view of the peaceful Virginian countryside. In October 1941 the Duke and Duchess of Windsor came to visit the children. In the group photograph of this historic occasion, young Tony, who was at the toddler stage, seems about to run off while the others stand in formal pose. The Duchess smiles over her bouquet but the Duke looks rather grim. The children also visited the White House to take tea.   

Tony returned home in 1945; he never knew his father and his mother was a stranger who smoked. But he was used to being away and was quite happy to board at school. First he attended the Froebel School in Roman Crescent, Southwick and then he went to Keyes School (later Shoreham College), which was just starting out and had precisely five pupils. The head would drive these pupils in his Rover to eat their dinner at Sellaby House, Portslade. Lastly, he attended Montpelier College, Danny Park from 1948 to 1951.

After her husband’s death, Mrs Shepherd kept in touch with Stuart Millar who had backed Shepherd’s Industries. Mr Miller lived in Art Deco splendour in his grey-brick mansion at what was once known as 1 Prince’s Crescent and latterly as 157 Kingsway. Mr Miller was a millionaire who had made his money from iron and steel in the Newcastle area and subsequently became a tycoon and film director. He thought young Antony was photogenic enough to appear in Tom Brown’s Schooldays but unfortunately the idea was not taken up because the youngster had such a strong American accent. Mrs Shepherd did not like the accent either and despatched her son to elocution classes in order to get rid of it.

copyright © A.L. Shepherd 
Tony Shepherd’s birthday party was held at St Helen’s. 
The birthday boy is seated at the top of the table 
but he seems to be more interested in the 
food than smiling for the camera.
In 1947 there was a cold winter and one day the double-decker bus 15B coming down Mile Oak Road began sliding on the ice and ended up crashing into the wall at the top of High Street. Mrs Neild heard the noise and phoned Conway Street Depot to tell them what had happened. Then she set about making hot cups of tea for the stranded passengers. Unfortunately, she too slipped on the ice and the tea spilt everywhere.

In 1947 or 1948 the Co-op Bakery van pulled by a horse was making a delivery to Portslade Industrial School when something spooked the animal and off he shot with the van rattling behind him. The van overturned on the same corner of Mile Oak Road and High Street and all the bread fell off. The bread could not be sold and so it was all presented to St Helen’s where good use was made of it and when it got stale it could be used for such delicacies as bread and butter pudding.

In the summer the Girl Guides used to hold a fete in the grounds of St Helen’s. On these occasions Mrs Shepherd would don fancy dress and exercise her skills at palmistry. One year she wore a fetching Aladdin-like costume of bright yellow with a circular hat made out of a cut-down wicker basket base. Mrs Shepherd died in 1972.

Although the conservatory was heated, there was no central heating at St Helen’s but there were individual gas fires in the patients’ bedrooms. In 1960/1961 all this changed and central heating was installed; a large coal-fired Ideal boiler provided the heat. The coal was collected as necessary from a depot in Shelldale Road by means of a homemade wheelbarrow, in fact it was a box on small wheels. This boiler did sterling service and was only removed in 1988. The washing was despatched to nearby St Marye’s Laundry up at the Convent.  

Tony Shepherd left school at the age of fifteen and became a ledger clerk at Findlater’s off-licence. In 1958 he began training as a nurse and by 1971 he made arrangements with Mrs Neild to purchase St Helen’s from her. First of all the finance had to be sorted out. Mr Shepherd approached the National Westminster Bank in Boundary Road about a loan but they were not at all interested and showed him the door. He then went to the National Westminster’s branch near the Royal Pavilion and their attitude was completely different. He was welcomed with open arms and thus he managed to purchase St Helen’s for the sum of £5,000. There was however one proviso in the transaction and this was that Mrs Neild could remain at St Helen’s because she could not bear to leave; she wanted to stay on and hopefully die in her own bedroom upstairs. She lived to celebrate her centenary and the stairs became too much for her. But she stayed in her home, reached her centenary, and died peacefully in the Chapel / Quiet Room.

In 1973 Mr Shepherd turned St Helen’s into a Rest Home for local elderly folk and he continued to run it until 1990. Then he decided it was time to sell the property and move on. His wife died in 1995 and in the same year he became manager of the Bon Accord Nursing Home in New Church Road, Hove, a position he held until 2006.

copyright © A.L. Shepherd 
These two photographs date from the 1980s and show the gardens at St Helen’s in the spring.

Meanwhile Mr and Mrs Sparkes had purchased St Helen’s and continued to run the business. In 1995 they sold St Helen’s to Mr R. Pinsent who ran St Helen’s Rest Home until 1999. By this time there were eight residents aged between 70 and 93 and there were nine staff. Mr Pinsent decided to close it down for a number of reasons including the under-funding of residents. Then there were new Government guidelines concerning room size, lifts and wheelchair access, which would be virtually impossible to implement in such an old building with narrow passageways, stairs and awkward corners. Five of the staff were made redundant and others went to work in Mr Pinsent’s other care home Carlton House in St Aubyns, Hove. In 2001 St Helen’s became a private family house for the Pinsents and their three children.

 copyright © A.L. Shepherd 
In this view you can clearly see how the grounds of St Helen’s 
present such a problem for nervous pedestrians because 
there is no pavement at this point, either on this side or opposite.
The Pinsents then endeavoured to make use of the spare land at St Helen’s by redeveloping the site. On 10 June 2009 planning permission was granted to set back the flint wall, remove the extensions and build five new homes.

This caused uproar with their neighbours who felt it would be a gross over-development of the site besides all the upset that would occur when building work started and the twitten, an old right-of-way, would be blocked off. There were also questions about the possibility of applying for listed building status. But the experts concluded that although the kernel of the house dated back to 1831, it had been so altered and extended that it no longer had the integrity of an original cottage. It seems the flint wall, although old, was expendable too. In the event the redevelopment never took place. Perhaps another factor in the collapse of the plan was the necessity for the developers to do something about the dangerous corner. At the very least, the flint wall would have to be set back and pavements created with the inevitable road works and extra expense incurred. 

Some Residents at St Helen’s

Mrs Hart was once a stalwart of St Nicolas Church choir, and in later years, the only alto. She insisted on climbing the steep spiral staircase to the choir gallery wearing her choir uniform of a depressing black robe and black mortarboard-style hat until she was at an advanced age. Her husband Frank Hart had been a long-serving churchwarden and they lived in Windlesham Close.

Mrs Winifred Field, formerly of Cosy Cot, North Road, was a well-know figure full of energy, an inveterate walker and interested in everything. When she was living at St Helen’s she suddenly decided she must read Darwin’s The Origin of Species. A library copy was duly provided for her but she had to admit she found it hard going. She had a lovely double-aspect bedroom at St Helen’s, which enabled her to keep an eye on the passing scene. Mrs Field was also a fund of memories concerning Portslade in times past. She never forgot helping out at some event on Portslade Village Green when her emerald ring slipped off her finger and was lost. Perhaps she always hoped it might turn up one day.

Ethel Chandler was famous in local annals for joining the Women’s Legion in 1915 (it was renamed the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps in 1917). She lived in the same house in Trafalgar Road from 1912 until she came to live at St Helen’s. In June 1991 Ethel Chandler was aged 96 when the Royal British Legion presented her with a Certificate of Appreciation for her work during the Great War at a special ceremony. Also present was fellow service veteran Elizabeth Dacre aged 90. Ethel Chandler was still at St Helen’s when she celebrated her 100th birthday.

                 copyright © E. Chandler                                                       copyright © A.L. Shepherd 
Ethel Chandler and her sister Hilda stand out side 79 Trafalgar Road, Portslade where they lived for so many years. 
Tony Shepherd congratulates Ethel Chandler on her 100th birthday.

William Grinyer was born in 1909 and he could remember when there were peacocks in the garden of Portslade Grange, which was opposite the George Inn. Grinyer was present when an interesting discovery was made on the 14th hole of West Hove Golf Course; it was the last resting place of an Anglo-Saxon warrior. Grinyer also helped to build the clubhouse.

Another resident was Joyce, daughter of Cecil Renshaw Blaker, and the last of the once extensive Blaker family to live at Portslade. She died at the age of seventy-nine.

Thanks to Tony Shepherd for his valuable recollections
Middleton Judy Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade
Middleton, Judy Hove and Portslade in the Great War (2014)
Middleton, Judy Portslade: Britain in Old Photographs (1997)
The Washington Post 24 August 1940
The Washington Post 15 September 1940
The Washington Post 20 October 1941

Copyright © J.Middleton 2015
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