Westham – St. Mary the Virgin Churchyard

Just a mile inland from Pevensey Bay and the English Channel, this is St. Mary’s church in Westham, on the Sussex coast.

Where we find another locked church, I’m afraid,…

…although the churchyard would make the visit worthwhile.  To refresh your memory, the war memorial now at Stone Cross that we visited last post is actually inscribed with the dead from Westham parish, which once included Stone Cross.

Private Alfred Miller’s name appears on the war memorial…

…and on both the Roll of Honour and the engraved altar in the church at Stone Cross.

The grave on the left,…

…although not, on closer inspection, a CWGC headstone,…

…is most certainly a war grave.  The emblem adorning this headstone is that of the Girl Guides Gold Cross for Fortitude, the highest award given to the guides for gallantry, because beneath this sad and unusual headstone lies the body of Peggy Harland, whose name we also saw last post on the war memorial at Stone Cross.

On the afternoon of 28th September 1940, seventeen-year-old Peggy (pictured here – identified with an ‘x’ – along with her Girl Guide troop) was having tea with a friend at a house in Eastbourne when a German bomber dropped six bombs on the town…

…one of which resulted in the destruction you see above.  The three-storey house basically disappeared.  Her friend, thirty-two-year-old Myrtle Wilkinson, was killed instantly (her name now also to be found on the war memorial at Stone Cross), but Peggy, alive and conscious, was trapped in the collapsed cellar beneath a steel girder lying across her ankles – presumably she is lying trapped beneath the rubble at the moment this photograph was taken.  Despite every effort, it proved necessary to amputate both her legs in order to release her, and once in hospital it was discovered that her back was broken.  Peggy died on the morning of 30th September, one of her rescuers saying ‘She had more pluck than any person I have ever known’.  Amazingly, a number of others in the house, including Myrtle’s husband Karl & his aunt, were still alive, although trapped, and would survive.  The rescue proved the most complex in Eastbourne’s Second World War experience; an unexploded bomb lay just two hundred yards away throughout, and two bombs containing delayed action fuses would explode during the rescue, injuring some of the rescuers, four of whom would subsequently receive the George Medal (the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross), with the chief fire officer getting an MBE.

The following year Peggy was posthumously awarded the Girl Guides Gold Cross for Fortitude, her citation reading ‘Gallantry in face of danger and great suffering before her death after an air raid’.  The Daily Mirror reported on 2nd August 1941, beneath the heading ‘Dead Girl Guides V.C.’,  ‘For gallantry when she lost her life after being buried for twenty-four hours, Girl Guide Peggy Harland, of the 1st Stone Cross Company, Sussex, has been posthumously awarded the Guides’ Gilt Cross. Peggy was in Eastbourne visiting friends when a bomb fell on the building and she and six other people were entombed. When extricated after twenty-four hours one foot and one leg had to be amputated on the spot with a raid and a dog-fight in progress. Peggy’s courage and cheerfulness were magnificent. She was taken to hospital, where she died from shock. It was later found that her spine was broken’.  Two off-duty air raid wardens, Stanley & Olive Giles, were also killed during the raid, along with fourteen others who were injured.  Peggy’s brother, Robert, who is also mentioned on her headstone, had been among those reported missing during the retreat to Dunkirk in May 1940; his name can be found on the Dunkirk Memorial.

Sapper Harold Howell can be found among the Second World War names on the war memorial at Stone Cross.

There’s an interesting tale associated with the centre of the three little plaques fixed to this wooden bench.

Five of the church bellringers – George Burgess, Harry Burgess, Albert Hazelden, William Hobden and Robert Marchant – died during the Great War, and the tenor bell, the largest of the church’s bells, is today a memorial to them, upon which their names are inscribed.

Quite recently, an eagle-eyed researcher (take a bow) spotted that one of the bell-ringers, Albert Hazelden, was named on some local memorials but not on others, and that the name of Albert Burgess appeared only on those without Hazelden*.  Subsequent investigation revealed them to be one and the same, the family using both Burgess, their legal name, as well as Hazeldon, down through the generations.  Good work, that.

*such as on the Roll of Honour (main picture) and war memorial (inset) at Stone Cross.

This entry was posted in Sussex East, U.K. Churches, Memorials & Cemeteries - Back in Blighty. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Westham – St. Mary the Virgin Churchyard

  1. Sandra says:

    Peggy Harland – remarkable and courageous – thanks for sharing her story.

  2. Nick Kilner says:

    Moved me to tears that one mate.

  3. Alan Bond says:

    Thank you got something in my eye reading the account of Peggy so sad if every grave needs adopted by CWCG it is hers.

  4. Magicfingers says:

    Thanks for your comments folks. I have nothing more to add.

  5. Tom says:

    I read about Peggy Harland on the memorial on Eastbourne seafront recently and it’s such a sad story I felt moved enough to visit the Stonecross memorial and her grave earlier this month. The loss of her brother in action a few months earlier just adds to the tragedy. I had to wipe away a few tears while I was standing by the grave.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Indeed Tom. Good for you for visiting her. And of course – and I don’t know for sure – but as Robert was posted as missing, the family may have been waiting for news on whether he was a POW when Peggy was killed. Either way, it ain’t fair.

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