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1942: Women cut down 'gate of the curse'

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

Child drowned in the pond opposite Butler's Green House

Gate with a curse goes for scrap

BBC Mobile unit at Butler's Green. Demolition by ladies of HM Works Department

Butler's Green, Haywards Heath, was invaded on Wednesday afternoon by the BBC, representatives of his Majesty's Works and Buildings Department and of the Ministry of Information, plus Mr George Plummer. Surveyor to the Cuckfield Urban District Council, not to mention ‘the dauntless three’, armed with acetylene cutters and other gear.

They had come to witness the demolition of ‘the gate with a curse on it’, and out of the tragic need for iron scrap for tanks and other war weapons was woven a little Romance to brighten the otherwise humdrum affair of pulling down iron gates and fences to supply steel furnaces with their raw material.

The story ought to begin with ‘once upon a time', for there was an air of mystery about the method by which the great ones in the official world at Tunbridge Wells, and the still greater and almost super-human beings who patronise broadcasting house with their presence, became possessed of the information that a gate with a curse on it existed at Butler's Green. Possibly the Mid Sussex Times could ‘a tale unfold’ but it would spoil the romance and the paper's reputation for modesty. In any case, from information received, the officials of the Works and Buildings Department who are in charge of the drive for metal scrap in Sussex, Surrey and Kent determined that none of the workmen who usually demolish iron gates and railings should run the risk of the curse and any person who dared to open this gate they would demolish it themselves.

And so we saw the strange spectacle of two ladies, Mrs Wilkie and Miss JR Gunn, who are in charge of the scrap drive, attacking the gate hinges with an acetylene cutter and sledge hammers. It was not an easy job, for Sussex iron is proverbially tough. First Mrs Wilkie cut through the hinges, assisted by Miss Gunn, but still the gate, more than 100 years old, refused to budge. One of the workmen did, in fact, have to join in the attack, and with three mighty strokes of a heavy sledge hammer he deftly ‘defeated the gate’ and put an end to romance.

'So you stand away, and we will...' said Mrs Wilkie to the workman. ' the rest,' and with the help of Miss Gunn she pulled the gate over to the footpath and, without a sigh or a groan, it opened up a way to the house not used for many years.

The first to step through, side by side, were the two ladies. ‘We have broken the curse, ‘ they said. ‘Yes, and what happens next?’ asked one of the men. ‘Put the gate inside the fence,’ replied Mrs Wilkie. ‘You will be quite safe now.’ and so, amidst laughter and good-humoured sallies, the ‘cursed gate’ was dumped in most irreverent fashion inside the iron fence, which is also scheduled to come down.

The gate became a cursed gate in more senses than one before the afternoon ended. But more of that anon. What about the curse? Here is the story told in Mr AH Gregory's widely read book 'Mid Sussex through the ages'. In front of Butler's Green House is a small locked gate, and a 'story goes that in the dim and distant past a drunken owner of the house, returning home, saw a man leave the premises. He accused his wife of unfaithfulness, ordered her and her child out of the house under a threat to kill them both, put a curse on the gate, and chained it up so that she could never come through it again.

In the darkness, according to the story, mother and child fell into the pond opposite and were drowned: and a ghost is supposed to appear of the 'lady in grey' returning to see if the gate is open to her. The strange man was her brother. There was the gate, and there is still the pond, and what other evidence is needed? 'The lay-out of the garden rather suggests that at some time an owner had lost a child from drowning through toddling down the garden path, crossing the road to the banks of the pond, and falling into the water. In any case it is some decades since the gate was used, for the shrubs covering it from the garden side appear very old'. said the officials with the BBC mobile recording unit.

After the demolition, they adjourned to the stable yard, there to build up a story at the microphone of the gate with a curse. It is to be included in the forces programme at 5.15 pm. One Saturday. Mr Plummer made ‘positively his first appearance’ before the microphone, and this is what he said: 'Within the urban district of Haywards Heath, Cuckfield and Lindfield the work of collecting iron railings has gone very smoothly … The inhabitants, on the whole, yielded up their fences and gates in quite a cheerful way. Complaints have indeed been very few, and people generally recognise that the scheme does not involve any very great hardship'.

Any very great hardship..... then followed an example of patience and thoroughness in building up an ‘impromptu’ story for the BBC. Over and over again did Mrs. Wilkie and Miss Gunn rehearse the story of the gate. With the assistance of producer John Byrd, from Broadcasting House, and the recording engineer. Mr L Brooks all for one and-a-half minutes' talk in the series ‘Events of the week’. It was here the gate got its other curse, not recorded or decoded. For all that it was an interesting afternoon, and Mid Sussex provides the government with more propaganda and more publicity in the good cause of helping to defeat the enemy.

Among those present were Mr R Bostock. From H. M. Works and buildings department. Mr ER Morland (Regional Press Officer for the Ministry of Information for the south eastern area), Mrs. Wilkie (organiser for the salvage drive for iron in Sussex, Surrey and Kent), Miss JR Gunn (her assistant). Mrs. Bracken-Mays (sister of Mr Brendan Bracken, the minister of information), Mr RM Smith. Mr RH Smith and Mr RI Hillman (of the firm of Messrs. R Smith Ltd of Horley, the demolition contractors, otherwise the dauntless three and Mr HS Saver (tenant of the house).

Next day the Ministry of Information were on a further ‘war-path’ against Hitler, for they sent the story of the ‘shattered’ romance - with all the frills of journalistic imagination and enterprise to the press: and it should soften the heart of the most pig-iron retainer of gates, fences and scrap metal!

Mid SussexTimes, 17 June 1942

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.

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