The Steyning Poem
Chance memory

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Mouse Lane Plaque

Above: The poem carved in stone at Mouse Lane, Steyning

John Stanley Purvis was second in command of a trench mortar battery and an acting Lieutenant when he suffered another tragedy in June 1917. His brother George Bell Purvis was killed in action. Probably on compassionate grounds, he was seconded to the Bomb and Trench Mortar School as an assistant instructor, where he was promoted to Lieutenant in September 1917. He returned to his regiment in March 1918 and relinquished his commission on account of ill-health the day after Armistice Day. Lieutenant Purvis was fortunate to have survived the war. He faced great danger from March 1916 when he became a newly assigned Second Lieutenant. This is commonly said to have been the rank least likely to survive.

A mystery surrounds the Steyning poem. Purvis reached the Western Front after the date on which he wrote it. On December 2nd, 1915 he was, it seems, still a teacher at Cranleigh School, Surrey and a Second Lieutenant for the Junior Division of the Officers Training Corps. The record of  Purvis’ service medals confirms that he was not in active service in December 1915, since he did not receive the 1914-15 Star. This medal was issued to everyone who saw service in a theatre of war between 5th August 1914 and 31st December 1915. In addition, his school magazine, The Cranleighan, recorded in March 1916 that "2nd Lieut J S Purvis, who left us at the end of last term, is about to be attached to the 3/5th Yorks Regiment". The end of term before Christmas 1915 was 17th December.

The story has been confirmed by the marvellous discovery, in 2009, of more poems by Purvis, hand-written in a notebook. One of these poems is dated December 1st, 1915 and the location is specified as Cranleigh. Nonetheless, Chance Memory has rightly taken its place alongside the work of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and others still known as the War Poets. Steyning Museum hopes to reveal more about the additional fifty or so poems when the copyright issues have been clarified. Significantly, High Wood appears in this collection, and so the authorship of this poem is no longer in doubt.

Purvis returned to Cranleigh School after the war. His job as a teacher of history was still there for him. He had joined the school in September, 1913 after studying at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge. There is even today a thriving Purvis Society at Cranleigh. He had gained his MA in Classics and History and, pursuing a lifelong enthusiasm for his subject, he became an active member and Honorary Archivist of the Surrey Archaeological Society. The Cranleigh School archive records that Purvis’ hobbies included sketching and water colour painting, and he was a keen horseman. This may provide a further clue as to why he adopted the pen name Philip, originally a Greek name meaning ‘lover of horses’.

The school teacher and amateur historian had a further career in mind, however. He was ordained in 1933. Leaving Cranleigh in 1938, he returned to his native Yorkshire where his career in the Church soon presented him with marvellous opportunities for an historian. He was appointed as the Archivist to the Archbishop and Diocese of York in 1939 and rose to become a Canon of York Minster. Here he was the founder and first Director of the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, entrusted to collect together and catalogue the vast, chaotic archives of the diocese. The Yorkshire Post of May 11th, 2007 reported that these two million documents were about to be placed on an online database:

Basic indexes were created by the institute's former head, Canon John Purvis, but much of his work was done as he leafed through papers high up on top of York Minster while he was on fire-watch duty during World War Two - making his efforts necessarily incomplete.

This was a very different experience of war for the author of the Steyning poem. He published a large quantity of historical research. Much of this is recorded by the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, of which he became President. He was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and of the Royal Historical Society. But John Stanley Purvis is best remembered for his invaluable translation of the York Mystery Plays, for which he won the OBE in 1958.

Canon Purvis was living with his sister Hilda when he died on 20th December, 1968 aged 78. Hilda passed his vast collection of personal papers to those who had a special interest in his work. Her contact with Ernest Raymond identified the author of the Steyning poem for posterity. Ultimately, this contact also enabled Steyning Museum to gain the original hand-written version thanks to the kindness of Peter Raymond, Ernest’s son.

Canon Purvis

Above: Canon Purvis, from the Yorkshire Evening Press.
He was born in Bridlington in 1890 and buried there in 1968.


Our article about Chanctonbury Ring is HERE.

There are 43 truly remarkable photographs taken by John Stanley Purvis during his World War I service, preserved in an album now held by the Green Howards Museum. See a BBC report HERE .

An account of the battle for High Wood is given at the World War One Battlefields website HERE. A discussion of battlefield tourism, prompted by the Purvis poem appears on the Heritage of the Great War website HERE. Actor Damian Lewis reads the poem High Wood on YouTube HERE.

Cranleigh School has produced a memorial website for both World Wars, including online copies of The Cranleighan school magazine which recorded many events HERE.

Graham Hine has recorded a YouTube video of his cycle ride along Mouse Lane HERE.

See our WWI article about The Day Sussex Died HERE.



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Page last updated
16th August 2021