Francis Norton holds the distinction of being the longest serving Vicar of Ditchling – 1883-1921. He was a somewhat eccentric and controversial Vicar. Some of his parishioners found him to be ‘very generous and hardworking’ while others found him an ‘odd man… who expected respect and obedience’. His arrival in the village was entirely due to the generosity of his younger brothers. They bought the right to appoint the Vicar and, in 1883, they did just that for their brother. Later, he showed his gratitude to them by providing, in their name, two new bells for the belfry.
Norton's eccentricity was shown by his celebrated aversion to illness. If there was an epidemic in the village he immediately took his wife and family away until the emergency was over. If his wife indicated that she was not feeling well she was immediately dispatched to bed and told to stay there. Village children who saw him coming in the street were known to pretend to be ill just to see him immediately cross the road to avoid them! Care for his daughters also preoccupied the Vicar. This he solved by keeping them firmly at home in the Vicarage.
In those days, the Vicarage was a large house in East End Lane and the girls were rarely allowed out of their father’s sight. They became so frustrated by the lack of excitement in their lives that they made up fantastic stories of what they had got up to out in the world. As day girls, they then poured details of their adventures into the eager ears of the boarders at Dumbrells School. This resulted in the boarders becoming more difficult for the Misses Dumbrell to handle and so the Vicar had to be asked to remove his daughters from the School.
Whether or not he was as difficult a father as his daughters claimed is hard for us to judge, but he certainly was prepared to provide the facilities for them to serve the community. Thus, during the First World War, the daughters did sterling work in charge of the nursing home, set up by Francis Norton, at ‘Meadowcroft’, Lewes Road, where wounded soldiers were given tender care under the supervision of the Misses Norton.
In the 1890s the normal Sunday services at St Margaret’s were Morning Prayer at 11.00 am, a Children’s Service at 3.00 pm and Evening Prayer at 6.30 pm. The average attendance at each service was 100. The Eucharist was celebrated every other Sunday with an average attendance of 30 although Francis Norton reported to the Archdeacon of Lewes that there were 300 communicants in the village. His report of 1890 reveals that over 100 children attended the Sunday School, but that, once these children had left the village school, they did not stay on at the Sunday School. Cryptic comments are a hallmark of Mr Norton’s returns and, of the nine teachers at the Sunday School, his description is ‘a few ladies and others of the middle class’. He was asked whether he thought that the morals of his parishioners had improved during his incumbency, and to this he replied ‘some would say yes, others would say no, I am unable to judge’. He was scathing of how well nonconformist villagers attended their churches, ‘very badly – small shopkeepers.’ Perhaps such contempt of those who were non Anglican helps to explain the view of him by Frank Buffard whose family abandoned St Margaret’s for the Congregational Mission Chapel in Hassocks. Of Francis Norton, he wrote, ‘the Vicar was an odd man. He was of the old school and an ardent Tory who expected respect and obedience from his parishioners. His principal interest was Egyptology, and when he preached, which was not often, there was usually more about Egyptology than religion ... the general result was a half empty church, with nothing there for children and youth.’
The interest in archaeology was confirmed by Penelope Hale, Mr Norton’s granddaughter; she believes that the Vicar was often absent from the parish on his archaeological expeditions, but the parish registers indicate very few baptisms, marriages or burials not conducted by the Vicar – so there is little evidence of reliance on curates. Certainly, the antiquarian interest spread further than Egypt for Henry Cheal in his The History of Ditchling in the County of Sussex, published in 1901, paid tribute to Francis Norton ‘whose antiquarian researches have added much to the interest of the work [the history].’
Without doubt, Norton was generous towards the village. I n addition to providing the Nursing Home run by his daughters, he also he made a significant contribution towards funds for the 1887 extension of the School (now the site of Ditchling Museum) and he was fully involved in the running of the Working Men’s Club in Chichester House in the High Street. Here members could play cards or billiards, they could read in the Library and the younger members could enjoy what was called the Lads Recreative Room. The connection between St Margaret’s Church and the Club was strengthened by a Cricket Section for the junior members of the church choir and there was a Glee Club run by Peter Parsons who was the Parish Clerk. But it was after the First World War that controversy reared its head. Norton was opposed to the erection of the War Memorial on land to the west of what is now the Village Green and he refused to subscribe to any fund raising. It is not clear whether this was because he felt that the memorial should have been located within the churchyard or because he felt that money raised could have been put to a more practical benefit for the village. But what really upset the villagers was that he refused to dedicate the new memorial. In fairness to Norton, as his memorial to those who had died in the War he did provide the Church Room at the end of Boddington’s Lane – a facility which was to serve the parish for the next 50 years.
Even his last moments arouse speculation! He died in his son-in-law’s car on the way back to Ditchling from Brighton Station – medically from a heart attack, but, according to family tradition, from the shock of the news that, at last, a boy had been born into the Norton family!