George Forrester Scott: Writer and Pioneering Conservationist

by

Even in Lindfield the village he regarded as home for many years, John Halsham is a forgotten author and pioneer of a literary genre.  His best known book has also been largely forgotten.  However, perhaps as a writer he has an even greater claim to fame.

John Halsham was the pseudonym of George Forrester Scott.  Born in Yorkshire in 1863, George attended St Mary Hall, Oxford, during the 1880s and then studied art in London.  His father had died several years earlier and in 1886, George’s mother moved the family home from London to the Manor House in the High Street.  It was here in the 1890s, he wrote, Idlehurst: A Journal Kept In The Country.

The book is written as a journal that focuses on life in and around a village called Arnington; however Arnington is a pseudonym for Lindfield.  Lindfield can be recognised by topographical features, such as the long village street widening at the old market place, the pond, the lime trees, and Jolland’s corner at the top of the hill which descends into the village.

The book describes in great detail life in the village and low Weald at the end of the 19th century and paints vivid portraits of the inhabitants.

‘I come on a very old labourer standing up to shelter, a ragged sack on his shoulders, the rain trickling from hat-brim and nose. …… the old man is David Walder, eight-four next birthday, doing a full labourer’s work on Sacketts farm.  He is crippled by rheumatism, and has to walk two miles to his work every day; is looking forward with dread to the haying which begins next week ……’

Such is the details that individuals were no doubt identifiable and probably still can be; to illustrate this, Mr Eliab Blaber was the name given to the village builder, carpenter, and undertaker who employed many men in his yard.

On publication the book received favourable reviews, for example, The Sphere wrote ‘Simply the most beautiful book about the country that has been produced for years and years’ while the editor of the Sunday Review commented ‘I do not think any living man’s writing more entirely delights me’.

Although well received by the critics, the book did less well commercially and went out of print in 1919.  However a facsimile version was republished in 2008 by Amazon.

After Idlehurst, he wrote Lonewood Corner which was based on his then home village of Ardingly.  Despite having left Lindfield around 1900, he retained a strong connection with the village.  He was a prolific writer of novels, books and articles until his death in 1937.

Peter Brandon writing in the Sussex archaeological Collections commented that ‘as a countryman through and through, he should be accounted a pioneer of the rich genre in English literary tradition that followed, fed on the nostalgic notion that earlier, the countryside was somehow better, more beautiful and less spoilt, which produced, for example, Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows [1908], Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford [19450, and Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie [1959]’.

However, perhaps a greater contribution through his writing was his advocacy for the safeguarding of the countryside from development for future generations.  He was a pioneering conservationist at the vanguard of rural protection, calling for the national care of ancient monuments to be extended to the protection of the landscape.  His ideas, as early as 1898 when residing in Lindfield, included the creation of ‘natural museums’ for rural areas.  this thinking, years ahead of others, was the concept for the creation of National Parks and Ares of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  The High Weald AONB and South Downs National Park perhaps could been seen as his most significant legacy.

 

Acknowledgements: ‘John Halsham’ The Perfect Countryman, Peter Brandon, Sussex Archaeological Collections Volume 148 – 2010

 

 

 

 

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