John Caffyn (1926-2017)

John was a multi-talented but modest, ‘gentle man’ with a strong intellect who was a life-long poet, a business entrepreneur, and an intrepid, meticulous local historian. These qualities made him an ideal editor for the Sussex Record Society. He was a long-standing member of the Sussex Archaeological Society and he joined the Sussex Record Society in 1994.

Born in Littlehampton, son of a well-established family butcher, John lived virtually his whole life in Sussex. He attended Hurstpierpoint College and then served in the army for three years, one of which was spent in India and another in Germany. On demobilisation he was able to take up his Exhibition to read Mathematics at Trinity College Cambridge, but within 24 hours had switched subjects to English Literature – a result of all the time spent reading on the long voyages to and from India. He was awarded further Trinity Exhibitions, and also won the Charles Grant Tennant Prize for humorous verse. Throughout his time at Cambridge he was a member of ‘Footlights’, writing lyrics for their shows. In his final year he was editor of Granta, when it was a completely humorous magazine – and he was proud of the fact that he managed to make it pay for itself by selling advertising whereas previous editors had had to subsidise it out of their own pocket!

On graduating, John began a successful career in advertising where he was able to use his creativity to develop new methods for the testing of advertisements. Later he set up his own market research company which continued to pioneer developments in the field. While working in the industry he published some 20 research papers and a monograph, Qualitative Aspects of Readership Data (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, 1964).

John never felt constrained by disciplinary boundaries whether in his career or multiple outside interests. In 1965 he registered as a part-time research student at the University of Sussex to pursue a thesis on An Experimental Inquiry into the Nature of Poetry. He hoped “to demonstrate the contribution that experimental studies can make towards a fuller understanding of the nature of poetry; and to derive a critical approach that utilizes the objective measurement of responses to literature rather than relying solely on subjective judgement.” He carried out a series of small scale studies in which he applied the techniques of commercial communication research to literary stimuli, and in the course of doing so developed a new technique for investigating emotional response to poetry. However, the interdisciplinary nature of this research created difficulties of its own, with academics in the English department thinking that the subject matter really belonged to Psychology rather than English, and vice versa. He had written up the first few sections of the work before the all-consuming task of setting up his new company in 1969 took over and he abandoned the DPhil.

However, John never lost his love of poetry. While attempting the research into the nature of poetry he had become fascinated by the problems and potential of very short poems. This led him to develop ABBA (or ‘mirror poems’), very short poems based on a new verse form, rooted in the traditions of English poetry. Over almost two decades he wrote a myriad of these poems, eventually collecting the best into a slim volume, 85 ABBA (Pentalpha Publishing, 1987).

In the years leading up to his retirement in 1986, John began to research his family history, taking advantage of working in central London to go during his lunch break to the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, before it moved out to Kew. He discovered that the Caffyns had been in Sussex since at least the thirteenth century, and had suffered religious persecution long before becoming involved with the General Baptists from their beginning until the middle of the eighteenth century. His research subsequently extended beyond the Caffyn family to the wider Baptist community, leading to the publication of Sussex Believers: Baptist Marriages in the 17th and 18th Centuries (Churchman Publishing, 1988). The comprehensive research he undertook to track down details of Baptist marriages yielded considerable information about the people involved, including their social achievements, wealth and literacy. One of his most significant conclusions was that, contrary to prevailing wisdom, the dissenting community studied was not alienated from society, but played a full role in the communities in which they lived.

It was this research that sparked John’s interest in Sussex schools and, as methodical and meticulous as ever, he proceeded to produce a blockbuster for the Sussex Record Society. In Sussex Schools in the 18th Century, SRS, Volume 81, 1998, John revealed over 600 schools, provided biographies of 700 known teachers, and details of over 2,000 pupils. It is a magnificent achievement and an important contribution to the history of education in this county. On the strength of this research it was obvious that John should contribute a map of schools in eighteenth century Sussex to An Historical Atlas of Sussex, edited by Kim Leslie and Brian Short as part of local Millennium celebrations, published by Phillimore in 1999.

John died in November 2017 at the age of 91, having lived in Newick for the previous 57 years. He was proud of his longevity and during the last few years of his life habitually informed visitors that he was the longest lived male Caffyn ever in his family – a note at the front of his genealogical records shows that he was as meticulous in verifying this fact as in all his other research! He is survived by his wife Phoebe and two of his four children.

Sarah Caffyn