‘A force to be reckoned with’* aptly describes Dr Annabelle Hughes and the impact that she had on local history in Sussex.
Annabelle’s life had a traumatic start. She was born in Penang, Malaysia to Lionel and Joan Earl in August 1941. Early in her life she and her mother were evacuated to Australia just before Singapore fell. From there they came to the UK in 1944, and her parents were eventually reunited, her father having been a prisoner of war with the Japanese.
Annabelle was educated in Streatham and Clapham, and then did her teacher-training at Sarum St Michael College of Education in Salisbury. She married straight afterwards and three children, Ben, Sam and Jo, followed in quick succession. Following her divorce in 1969, she married the Rev John Hughes in 1970 and it was then that they moved to Horsham. John was a popular teacher at the High School for girls and Annabelle did some teaching there as well. Another child, Theo, followed, but Annabelle was widowed in 1980, and John was much missed by family and friends alike.
From then on, Annabelle became the force Jeremy Knight alluded to. Not only was she a single parent and a teacher, but she also took an Open University degree, followed by a research MA at Sussex University on probate inventories. A Sussex Record Society volume, no. 91, Sussex Clergy Inventories (2009) came out of this.
Annabelle became very involved in the life and heritage of Horsham. Her interest started with the campaign to save Prewett’s Mill from demolition. She was President of the Horsham Society for a number of years and was instrumental in calming down the huge changes that were taking place to the town’s buildings and roads. Bygone Horsham, written together with Anthony Windrum from Horsham Museum in 1982, was followed by Horsham Houses, also published by Phillimore, in 1986. In succeeding years, these were joined by many more, large comb-bound booklets on thematic aspects of Horsham’s history, which were illustrated profusely with documents from the West Sussex Record Office. Later, she was a trustee of Horsham Museum and a frequent contributor to the Horsham Heritage journal.
By the early 1980s, she was studying timber-framed buildings and connecting them with the probate inventories and other documents available at both Record Offices in Sussex. That interest and her involvement in the Wealden Buildings Study Group led her to undertake a PhD on timber-framed buildings in their historical setting, which was completed in 1989. By that time her expertise was well-known and she formed a career from it, writing heritage statements and researching house histories for clients. She was also generous with her time mentoring people in the study of timber-framing, for example, Janet Pennington and Pam Bruce, now authorities in their own right, and some of the planning officers for Horsham District. By the 2000s Annabelle had visited literally hundreds of houses and farm buildings in the south-east, and freely gave her reports and lists of documents to other researchers. Unusually, she eschewed email, but was happy to explore the internet and make use of digital resources. She was at her happiest hands-on in her work, crawling through roof spaces and attics with her torch, and tying up dating timbers with medieval records at the Record Office.
Annabelle was associated with the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum and became President of the Wealden Buildings Study Group. In 1992 she took up the Chairmanship of West Sussex Archives Society, bringing her mother to many meetings, and she was a member of the Council of the Sussex Record Society until 2015. She was a contributor to the Sussex Historical Atlas in 2000 and frequently wrote articles for the Petworth Society Magazine and West Sussex History. Her contribution to Sussex: West, The Buildings of England (the Pevsner 1965 re-write) (2019) is acknowledged for Cuckfield, Horsham, Midhurst, Petworth and timber-framed domestic buildings generally. In 2002 she wrote West Sussex Barns and Farm Buildings with David Johnston.
With Janet Aidin she was involved with the history of St Mary the Virgin Church, North Stoke, and in 2019 she gave a talk there with Ptolemy Dean. Together with Pam Bruce she worked on parish studies of buildings in Harting, Tillington parish in 2015, then Lodsworth and lastly on the Hampshire parish of Buriton 2018/19. Her last publication was Traditional Homes of the South Downs National Park, published by the Sussex Archaeological Society in 2017.
During 2019 she curbed her activities as she became increasingly unwell but was still encouraging others in long phone calls. Her last months at home were exacerbated by the long lockdown of 2020, which she would have hated had she been fit enough to resume her activities. As it was her outings were only to various hospitals, but she died peacefully at home, surrounded by her family at the end of November 2020.
* Jeremy Knight in his obituary, WSCT, 2/12/2020