Celebrated soprano and co-founder of Glyndebourne Opera
The daughter of a clergyman, she was born at Herstmonceux and taken as a baby to Canada, where she later trained as a singer. In her 20s she studied in London, then toured Canada and the USA in 1927–8. A light, lyric soprano, she performed with the Carl Rosa company and was engaged by John Christie to sing in one of the operas he staged in the Organ Room of
his manor house on the Glyndebourne estate, inherited from his father. They married in 1931.
One day he suggested building a tiny theatre but she persuaded him to “do the thing properly”, so they built a 300-seat auditorium with an orchestra pit and the most up-to-date equipment. At the first Glyndebourne Festival in 1934 she sang
the lead in Le Nozze di Figaro (later issued on record). The productions drew international interest and Glyndebourne became one of the top musical venues in the world.
During the 1930s she performed and recorded in the UK and Europe until World War Two, when she took her two small children to Canada for safety. Her final operatic appearances were in Montreal in 1943. The following year she returned to Glyndebourne and is credited with first suggesting that Edinburgh have a festival. Her health declined rapidly and she died young; indeed, her father, who lived nearby at Little Manor, Ringmer, outlived her. Her son Sir George Christie CH was chairman of Glyndebourne Festival from 1958 until 1999, when his son Gus took over.
Joan Davies Cooper Cb
Child care reformer
Her birthplace was the Moravian religious settlement in Manchester, where she attended university. An atheist, she started her social work in the local slums, devoting herself to the needs of vulnerable and deprived youngsters. During World War Two she worked with evacuee children in Derbyshire, rising to assistant director of education by the age of 27 and setting up the first child guidance clinics.
In 1948 she became the first children’s officer for East Sussex. She spearheaded innovations borrowed from other parts of the world and transformed the way children in care were treated by retraining staff, closing all the large children’s homes and replacing them with more nurturing foster care and small homes.
She was elected president of the Association of Children’s Officers in 1954 and served on the National Advisory Council on Child Care at the Home Office. She also played a major role in setting up the National Children’s Bureau in 1955 and became president of the Association of Children’s Officers in 1965, the year she became chief inspector of the Children’s Department at the Home Office, which over six years she transformed beyond recognition. She was a major influence on the 1969 Children’s Act and served as director of the new social work service at the Department of Health and Social Security. The driving force behind most of the major developments in her chosen field over a period of nearly 30 years, The Queen appointed her a Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Bath (CB) in 1972.
After retiring in 1976 she worked for voluntary organisations and was an honorary research fellow at the University of Sussex (1979–99).
She wrote three books, including The Creation of the British Personal Social Services (1983) and countless learned articles for professional journals, was chairman of the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work (1984–86) and Parents for Children (1979–87), and vice-president of the National Children’s Bureau (1964–99).
From 1951 she lived in Lewes, firstly at 39 Gundreda Road, then Garden House, Painstwitten, then 2a Abinger Place. She died at Brighton General Hospital.
Cora Goffin Lady Littler
Musical comedy actress
Born in London, at the age of 10 she appeared at the London Palladium as a dancer with the Russian ballet, then she toured and played the West End in various breeches roles, notably Little Lord Fauntleroy. In her 20s she appeared in films, musical comedies and pantomimes, and spent her 30s playing a seemingly endless succession of principal boys. Noted for her exuberant thigh-slapping, she insured her legs for £20,000. Her’s was a household name and her image adorned chocolate boxes, cigarette cards and magazine covers.
After she appeared on radio she was so inundated with fan mail the BBC hired a secretary especially to deal with it. Her income supported her mother, grandmother and three maiden aunts, and enabled her to commission theatrical costumes from leading designers of the day.
Aged 35, she married theatrical impresario (later Sir) Emile Littler and ceased work in 1940.
In 1946 the couple purchased the Downmere estate at Poynings, where her name lives on in Cora’s Walk. Unable to have children of her own, she adopted two baby girls, Judy and Merrilee. They lived for a while at King’s Gardens, Hove, and in about 1972 moved to Lime Dykes, Lewes Road, Ditchling, where she died three decades later, having outlived Sir Emile by 19 years.
Phoebe Hessel Née Smith
One of Brighton’s most famous names, according to her unusually wordy tombstone in St Nicholas’ churchyard. She was born in London and served all over Europe for many years as a soldier in the 5th Regiment of Foot, receiving a bayonet wound in her arm while fighting at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745.
She is also notable for her extreme longevity (the veracity of her epitaph is disputed).
She lived at Woburn Place, Brighton, and Brighton bus 807 is named for her.
Zoë E. Brigden
The daughter of a Brighton tailor, she lived for at least 38 years in Mighell Street, firstly at no. 21 and from 1903 at no. 2. Between 1915 and 1924 she was famous for performing daredevil diving exhibitions, launching herself from a highboard on the West Pier, swimming from pier to pier and performing a unique “wooden soldier” dive, plunging headfirst into the sea with her arms straight by her sides.
She gave up performing and, although unwed, had a son in 1925 and opened a hairdressing salon in Whitehawk. In the late-1930s she heroically rescued a small girl who was being strangled in a murder attempt by her father on the Downs behind East Preston Park. In later years Miss Brigden lived awhile in Seaford, then with her younger sister Adelaide at 92 Roedale Road, Brighton.
Sussex Style readers can buy Helen Wojtczak’s Notable Sussex Women and Women of Victorian Sussex at a discount. Orders@hastingspress.co.uk