History of a Mystery
The books ‘Ladies of Class’ and ‘The Poison Pen’ written by Marjorie Owen are set in the town of ‘Burshill, Sussex’. Marjorie lived in Burgess Hill, Sussex for many years and we believe she used the location for the settings of both books. In ‘Ladies of Class’, Marjorie’s first murder mystery novel, the initial murder happened on St.John’s Common or Park, located off Lower Church Road. Marjorie lived in a flat on Lower Church Road over looking St. John’s Common. We can only surmise that her inspiration for writing ‘Ladies of Class’ came from her location and view of the Common.
Laura Clayton was one of the key ‘Ladies’ in Marjorie’s book and as history shows Clayton was one of the parishes where Burgess Hill originated. Perhaps Marjorie was aware of this when choosing Laura’s last name. Detective Sergeant Findon from Burshill Police is Detective Chief Inspector Richard Hayward’s second in command. It is told in history that: “From the fourteenth century or earlier the annual Midsummer Fair was held on this common land on 24 June: the feast of the birth of St John the Baptist. The last such sheep and lamb fair was held in 1913. This sheep and lamb fair was the first of the year in Sussex, and there was much interest. It is said that farmers from as far afield as Hastings to the east and Findon to the west visited, and at its peak, more than 9000 lambs were sold at the fair, together with numerous horses, cattle and sheep.
According to the history below Burgess Hill town was known as St. John’s Common until the nineteenth century. Burgess Hill originated in the parishes of Clayton, Keymer and Ditchling - all of them mentioned in the Doomsday Book. The town's name comes from the Burgeys family when the name John Burgeys appeared in the tax rolls. The name of Burgeys stood for 'bourgeois', the inhabitant of a borough. By the Elizabethan period a community had established itself and many buildings dating from this era still stand.
Marjorie travelled daily on the London to Brighton Railway line from her home in Burgess Hill to her place of employment in central London. Her career as a buyer for a large department store was long and interesting. She specialized in clothing and many of her clients were famous, some of whom were members of the English Royal Family.
‘The Poison Pen’, Marjorie’s second and last book in the Detective Chief Inspector Richard Hayward series, is set in a department store called ‘Wall’s’. According to the history of the area one of the most important early residents was Frederick Hoadley. In 1857, in an area now known as either 'the top of the town', or Hoadley's Corner, the Hoadley family of Heathfield established a large department store, of which the original building still stands, on the corner of Station Road and Junction Road. This successful business also had branches at nearby Ditchling, and Seaford too, but it was in Burgess Hill that the head offices were based. Perhaps Hoadley’s department store was Marjorie’s inspiration for ‘Wall’s’, the store in her story. The history of Hoadley’s and her own experience working in a department store in London could have been a major influence in the writing of ‘The Poison Pen’.
We can see some significant correlations between Marjorie’s life history and that of the area she spent a significant number of years of her life. Although she was married with a son, Marjorie had an ‘attachment’ to the Royal Air Force. She had romantic meetings with one or two members of the RAF. Although details of these assignations are a little sketchy, one, of note, was Guy Gibson of the famous “Dam Busters Raid” in May of 1943. Marjorie had been given a beautiful diamond pin of RAF wings from one of her lovers and a cigarette case that may even have been Guy Gibson’s.
The history tells that on 12 July 1944 a Royal Air Force Supermarine Spitfire fighter crashed at Greenlands Farm, off the Keymer Road, killing the Belgian pilot. Keymer is identified as one of the parishes of St John's Common. Perhaps we are stretching the connections to the history of the area a little far here. But Marjorie wrote of her relationships and loves of the RAF pilots in her diary, which was discovered on her death.
Marjorie’s life is a mystery. She was a very private person as evidenced by not telling anyone of her writings, not even her son. She had made a promise to her son she would write about her life on his last visit before she passed away. Unfortunately she was taken into hospital and died the day after his visit and had not recorded her life history.All historical references regarding the town and details of the area are taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Providence_Strict_Baptist_Chapel,_Burgess_Hill
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