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Seeking information on William Ward-Higgs

Sussex by the Sea, the famous anthem of Sussex, began life in 1907, in South Bersted. More than a century later, it's stronger than ever, loved by Sussex people everywhere. Yet the life of its composer, William Ward-Higgs, remains largely undocumented.

Many regard it as the best county song in England, by a country mile. It's certainly a venerable one. Since its publication in 1907, Sussex by the Sea has soundtracked a century of the county's triumphs, and its tragedies.

This is a piece of music whose precise origins remain clouded by ambiguity, and uncertainty. And over its long life, it has thrown up some bizarre connections: what else could link such diverse characters as Rudyard Kipling, Attila the Stockbroker, Norman Wisdom and King Hussein?

Though essentially a marching song, with quaint, archaic lyrics, the song explodes into life when performed by a band. Back in the 1950s and 60s you could occasionally turn up at Brighton and Hove Albion's Goldstone Ground to find the Royal Marines or Coldstream Guards bandsmen dazzling the crowd and these famous national bands would always be sure to conclude with a spine-tingling performance of Sussex by the Sea.

Fast forward half a century to April 2007, and you'd find our county song's centenary being celebrated at the Albion's temporary home, the Withdean Stadium. More than 100 young instrumentalists of the Christ's Hospital school band played it to great acclaim from 8,000 highly-appreciative spectators.

It's a piece of music that seems somehow timeless: it's both a military march and an uplifting song, with words that combine jaunty optimism and heartfelt poignancy in equal measure.

While the music is instantly recognisable and famous, the same cannot be said for its composer. Far from being some Sussex yeoman with roots predating the Domesday Book, William Ward-Higgs was actually born in Southport, Lancashire; he'd even lived for a while in Wales and London, where he established his legal practice, as a solicitor and mercantile litigator.

Ward-Higgs moved with his wife, Haydee, and three young daughters to Hollywood House, in South Bersted, sometime around 1902.

One version of the tune's origins goes that he grew to love his adopted county so much he produced a marching song in its praise. Another, that the piece was composed specifically to celebrate the wedding of his wife's youngest sister, Gladys, to Captain Roland Waithman, of the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Sussex Regiment. Perhaps both are true, for we shall never know.

Another twist to the story claims Waithman himself sang the song for the first time in 1908, in regimental concerts while billeted at Ballykinlar Camp in Ireland. That seems unlikely, given the wedding in question had already taken place, in 1905.

Sadly, Ward-Higgs left no documents that might confirm the inspiration behind his composition. And the regiment's pre-1910 diaries are no longer in existence to confirm the truth.

And this is where the story of Sussex by the Sea, and of William Ward-Higgs, starts to reveal its gaps, and inconsistencies. There is further confusion surrounding the composer's death, in 1936.

More than a few reputable sources and websites will tell you Ward-Higgs' grave is in South Bersted churchyard. Others continue to claim he and his wife are buried in Kingston Vale. Sadly, neither is true: there is no cemetery at Kingston Vale.

Moreover, Ward-Higgs died by his own hand at Roehampton, in tragic circumstances. There is no grave: he was in fact cremated, at Norwood, in South London. And his beloved wife, Haydee, died, equally tragically, a full 15 years later.

Thankfully, we do know a little more of his life, post-Bersted, which was spent entirely in the London area. With successive addresses in Bayswater, Kensington and Roehampton, he evidently lived comfortably. His thriving legal practice saw to that, and he appeared in several high-profile mercantile law cases at the High Court.

A keen chess enthusiast, he represented the Royal Automobile Club team and co-wrote a well-regarded book on the game. Haydee Ward-Higgs was one of the earliest suffragettes.

The couple were keen patrons of the arts, with their enthusiasm for the burgeoning arts and crafts movement leading to their commissioning several original furniture pieces from the designer CFA Voysey. Some of these were exhibited in the V&A Museum in London in 2005, and remain on permanent display at the Cheltenham Museum.

Ward-Higgs' musicianship, mostly self-taught, extended to other forms. He wrote many other, less famous songs, and set some of Kipling's Barrack-room Ballads to music. And while our county anthem's title does indeed come from Kipling's poem, Sussex, its words and music are all, authentically, Ward-Higgs' own.

Enthusiasm for the music goes far beyond Sussex. The late King Hussein of Jordan would always insist the tune be played whenever he visited the military academy at Sandhurst.

The march remains a favourite at band concerts all over the world and, despite the Royal Sussex's 1966 amalgamation into the 1st-4th Battalion Queen's Regiment, it is still played on ceremonial occasions.

Perhaps the most magnificent and emotionally-charged choral performances come from veterans and members of the Royal Sussex Regimental Association, when they gather every spring for their annual reunion dinner. Some 300 members traditionally conclude the Royal British Legion Band's concert of regimental music with a rousing rendition – sometimes all five verses, always with multiple encores.

The veterans have more reason than most to sing the song with such passion, and pride. Its adoption as the regiment's quick-march was soon followed by the first world war. And the last two lines of the chorus became heartbreakingly poignant soon afterwards, in thousands of Sussex households.

While William Ward-Higgs will be remembered principally for his most famous composition, this was a man who clearly enjoyed the simple pleasures of home life.

His daughter, Joan Bottard, tells how, after returning every Friday night to South Bersted from his London law practice, her father loved nothing more at the weekend than to play cricket or perhaps croquet on Bognor beach with his small daughters.

One would naturally imagine a man so well-regarded, capable, and prominent as this would have left behind much tangible evidence of his six years in Sussex. Surprisingly, virtually nothing has come to light.

Surely, this dedicated music lover must have taken some part in local concerts, or perhaps been involved in some other way with musicians and bands in the Bognor area.

There is of course the commemorative plaque on the wall of Hollywood House – which remains a private family home. Another plaque can be found in the nearby St Mary Magdalene church hall.

Beyond that the life of William Ward-Higgs, his wife, Haydee, and daughters Nathalie, Margery and Joan, has left no discernible local footprint.

Can you help?

If readers have any unpublished information: documents, photographs or other evidence relating to the Ward-Higgs family's time in South Bersted, or indeed know of any anecdotes that

have been passed down through their families, John Cowen would be delighted to hear from them.

He can be contacted at jc@wryangle.com

 
 
 

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