In the field close to the modern St Peter & St James Hospice & Continuing Care Centre visitors have seen donkeys grazing and enjoying their days over many years. The creatures have had a long association with the hospice and play an important part in its history because long ago the site where the hospice now stands was a welcoming sanctuary for rescued donkeys. Indeed, the association is such a strong one that, despite the fact that the sanctuary closed many years ago, some people still imagine it exists here.
The modern hospice that now stands in beautiful surroundings began life because of one woman’s determination to help people less fortunate than herself and developed into a centre of which everyone involved today is proud.
Such hard-earned progress to attain the outstanding services and support that the hospice offers today has only been achieved with the help, over many decades, of thousands of people, from all walks of life, whom it is impossible to acknowledge individually here.
Yet it all started with donkeys in the early days of fundraising.
Although the hospice has had no practical or financial responsibility for the donkeys on its doorstep it is appropriate that the hospice has had such an emotional link with the creatures. They have indeed, for many years, been a comforting presence for patients, staff and visitors set against the backdrop of the Sussex countryside. Of course, donkeys are historically well-known as beasts of burden. In the same way, everyone working for the patients at the hospice hopes to lighten the physical and psychological burden of everyone who seeks help here, with either inpatient care here or support at home.
Catching up with our unique history, the Second World War had only been ended for two years when the events that would later lead to St Peter & St James Hospice being established unfolded. At that time, communities were seeking to rebuild their lives and develop facilities after the disruption and deprivation brought about by the war. Jim Dinnage, of Wivelsfield parish, and Peter Bowring, of Cuckfield, were inspirational, local figures who helped people in the parish of Wivelsfield who believed they needed a large playing area. What they could not foresee then was that a much stranger kind of recreation, four-legged, was destined for that field they found at Green Park Farm, where the cricketers, footballers and stoolballers would play. In a few years, donkey racing would be the sensational novelty that would propel Wivelsfield Green into the national newspaper headlines and start a national craze. And it would provide the dramatic launching pad that would eventually lead to the hospice we see today.
Back in 1947, the down-to-earth Jim and Peter had to borrow £2,000, a considerable sum of money in those days, from Peter’s generous father, Harvey, to buy the field from Colin White of Green Park Farm. The land had been snapped up by them to safeguard it, but it was now up to the community to raise the money to buy it from Jim and Peter, so they could repay their debt to Harvey, and a fete was held on the green in 1949.
Only two years later, the story of how the humble donkey helped start the hospice began with a single act of kindness. On a February day in 1951, Jim, a local farmer, took pity on a sorry-looking donkey at Wivelsfield Green. Jim could have been excused for feeling sorry for himself because the rain that was soaking the bedraggled beast was also threatening to drown his harvest. The sight of the weak-looking, miserable and dripping animal labouring to pull an over-laden trap touched Jim’s heart as he enjoyed a pint in the warmth of The Cock Inn at Wivelsfield Green, less than a mile from where today’s hospice stands. According to a story proudly told some time later by Jim’s devoted wife, Susan Dinnage, it was about six pints of beer later that Jim surprised her by coming home with the donkey and the trap bought for £5. In Susan’s words, “He’d not only been sold the donkey, but had been sold the business as well”. Jim called the donkey Billy, but soon realised, after endless nights of Billy braying, that the creature was lonely and needed a mate. That decision was a huge stroke of luck for 13 donkeys that were destined for the slaughterhouse at Ponders End abattoir after being shipped from Ireland. Instead of just one, Jim bought them all and saved their lives.
The link of the donkeys with the story of St Peter & St James took an even more dramatic twist when 194 donkeys fled from a train that had been bound for a slaughterhouse. The donkeys were being moved from Eire to the Continent and their rescue and move to Wivelsfield hit headlines all over the world.
Lone Barn Farm quickly acquired a wide reputation for being a sanctuary for a large population of donkeys and Wivelsfield Green found itself featured on television, radio, and cinema newsreels seen by millions of people. The ailing donkeys were rescued, fed and watered, and kept until they could be found good homes. It is worth recalling that in the 1950s donkeys were truly low-grade citizens of the animal world, not only in the perception of their worth but in the cruel treatment they received both in being transported in appalling conditions and being worked to exhaustion. Jim and Susan Dinnage found an inspired way of giving the donkeys a remarkable role in people’s lives while at the same time retaining their innate dignity.
The Donkey Club was formed with the dual purpose of saving donkeys and giving them useful employment in some way that would raise money to improve facilities for people in the village of Wivelsfield Green. Their idea of running donkeys in races proved a stroke of genius that also later generated thousands of pounds for charity. The races attracted national fame and became a craze across the country. The first derby at Wivelsfield Green on 27 October 1951 raised money to buy what is now the village green from Jim with some money left over for other improvements. When the committee of only six decided to run the second Donkey Derby on Whit Monday in 1952 it really hit the jackpot, with a massive crowd of more than 20,000 packing into the village. While the crowds seem huge to us nowadays, it must be remembered that television was still in its infancy compared to today’s saturation coverage and people were seeking new amusements after the austerity of the early post-war years. Although relatively few people owned cars, they either shared with others or those that did not have transport simply walked or cycled from surrounding towns and villages. It was not unusual for some longer-distance visitors to be surprised after taking a train to the races to find themselves having to walk about three miles from Wivelsfield Station, which they discovered was actually in the northern district of Burgess Hill and not in Wivelsfield.
Then, amidst all the glow of success after so much hard work, the tragedy that Jim and Susan Dinnage would somehow later turn into something positive came into their lives. In 1954, their beloved son Peter was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a fatal disease in those days, and although Peter fought with moving and inspiring courage, he died two years later at only 13. Peter’s death indirectly led to money from the donkey races being used to provide care for people.
Jim and Susan later reacted to their grief at watching Peter’s heartbreaking plight by converting a seaside house at Lancing into a holiday centre for disabled children and adults.
The Lancing centre was funded by being underwritten by a life insurance policy on Jim and with profits being used from the races. Susan was inspired in her work at Lancing by the conviction that somewhere was needed to relieve the enormous stress of families who lovingly cared for relatives who were seriously ill, perhaps even suffering from terminal illness. The centre was called St Peter’s and was to prove the forerunner to St Peter & St James Hospice.
The home at Lancing gave more than 800 disabled and handicapped people the opportunity of staying at the seaside each year, but it was a hard struggle financially and a heavy workload. Something of the huge drive that Susan and Jim possessed was summed up when Susan frankly admitted later in life that with rooms “ill-designed” for the severely disabled and limited resources, only sheer determination kept them going at Lancing.
The road that led Susan back to Wivelsfield and the forming of what would later be the St Peter & St James Hospice began when she suffered the tragic loss of Jim, in 1963, at 59 from a heart attack.
Susan and Jim had previously discussed the possibility of building a new home at Lone Barn Farm, and the farm was left in Jim’s will to the Donkey Club. Susan was now left running the Lancing home and the complex affairs of the Donkey Club alone. Susan decided to close the Lancing centre and start a new one at Wivelsfield, funding it by selling the Lancing home and receiving public donations. Income for the Lancing home had also been hit by other charitable organisations deciding to run donkey races at Wivelsfield. But reorganisation led to the Donkey Club, as Susan put it “reclaiming our Wivelsfield Green donkey race meeting”, with proceeds once again supporting her care work.
By 1973, work had started on a field where nearly 200 donkeys that had started the story once contentedly munched grass. In 1975, there was a proud day for Susan, a State Registered Nurse, when St Peter and St James Holiday Home for the Disabled received its first residents. The progress towards what we now know as the hospice continued when the home was registered as a nursing home in 1977. The donkey symbol became closely associated with the home, including being featured on its letter heading. The much-needed new home took 18 adults, cost £180,000 to build and by 1985 its day centre chapel had been dedicated.
Early in 1989, Susan died, at 78, her own tremendous life’s work complete. Susan’s work was taken up by others as the centre developed as a hospice and continuing care centre. Susan had said in 1975: “We were not a group of high-minded people who sat down and decided to form a charity. The whole thing just grew out of a respect for donkeys and a desire to help handicapped people and their families.”
New management took up the challenge of maintaining the spirit of Susan’s work while preparing the centre for the challenges of meeting modern-day demands and standards on care services. That philosophy of helping people in their hour of need remained as the hospice adapted to changes.
The first day centre patient arrived in 1992 and in the same year a highly successful day centre appeal was launched that was backed by great generosity from public fundraising. One of the highlights of the history of St Peter & St James was the visit of Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Gloucester, in June 1993, during which the Duchess chatted to residents and staff.
In February 1994, there was a topping out ceremony by Richard Maile in the presence of Dame Vera Lynn, patron of the hospice, who travelled from her home just outside Ditchling. The progress and modernisation continued in January 1995 when the first patients visited a new day centre, which was officially opened in the presence of Dame Vera Lynn in 1995.
By the start of the 21st century, the site of the hospice and home had matured into a tranquil setting, with its own soothing woodland walk. The work the donkeys inspired many years before continued, with facilities continually being updated to help the sadly rising number of people with cancer and other life-threatening conditions.
The accommodation that so many people strived so hard to create to meet a desperate need served people well for many years, but as even higher standards were set and new approaches to hospice care were introduced they prompted a demand for improved facilities, both for patients and staff. In what was really a new era for St Peter & St James, from 2007, facilities at the hospice were transformed in several phases so that the modern requirements of patients needing palliative care and support could be met.
The accent was put on improving the quality of rooms for patients and facilities to make their stays more comfortable rather than increasing the number of rooms. As part of this gradual but vital update, six new en-suite rooms with the latest facilities were created in an extension. The internal layout of the hospice changed so that staff and visitors could have better contact with patients, for example, placing the patient lounge in the middle of the hospice and moving the nurses’ office.
Practical and important improvements made for the convenience and safety of both patients and staff included incorporating fixed hoists in each room instead of relying on mobile hoists. As part of the improvement programme, three patient rooms became two consulting rooms and a much-needed family room. Five outdated patient rooms were converted into three modern rooms with much improved space and facilities. Facilities for visiting relatives were also improved, for example, providing a kitchenette for visitors.
Other improved or new facilities introduced along with a new extension were wider doorways in the continuing care section, equipment store, a new education room and a far larger dispensary. A welfare room for chaplains met a more spiritual need, while a practical and much appreciated improvement was the first dedicated physiotherapy room.
The hospice is especially proud of its Beacon View Wellbeing Centre, which transformed the day hospice. Opened by the Duke of Gloucester, in November 2014, it enabled activities such as art classes, music therapy, exercise and complimentary therapy to be offered in comfortable surroundings.
The four phases that brought huge improvements to the hospice were paid for by more than £1m from NHS capital grants, matched by other grants and money from the community.
The daily challenge being met by the hospice is raising the routine day-to-day running costs of the hospice, known as revenue cost. Figures change from year to year but the hospice has to raise about £8 out of every £10 of its daily running costs, from its own funding and charitable institutions. Countless community events from small coffee mornings to glittering charity balls and sponsored walks remain crucial to the everyday financial support of the hospice, and the generous support of people who give money in memory of loved ones or leave legacies is always greatly appreciated by the hospice.
To maintain the highest standards demanded nowadays running a donkey derby once a year, as happened so long ago, would no longer suffice! The hospice runs a busy fundraising and marketing department arranging various money-making events that are well supported by the public, which shows immense goodwill towards the centre.
Hundreds of volunteers play a huge and highly valued role, alongside the hospice professionals, not only fundraising by helping in the hospice shops but by doing unpaid work to maintain the hospice, such as gardening and helping to look after visitors. This largely unheralded small army with big hearts provides a vital service to the hospice.
The nature of the work of the hospice has changed dramatically since it received its first person needing support as St Peter and St James Holiday Home in 1975 to serve people in the Mid Sussex area. The early years of the 21st century saw another huge challenge for the hospice with increased demand for support beyond the rooms of St Peters & St James.
More members of staff have been employed to help with counselling, welfare, advice on entitlements and other personal issues encountered. A team of clinical nurse specialists supported by consultants and specialist doctors works in the community, focusing on symptom control and psychological or emotional support.
As part of their treatment, patients may attend the hospice for periods of treatment for symptom control and respite, and also use the day hospice. While many people come to the hospice after being diagnosed with cancer, other rooms are dedicated, in the long-established Continuing Care Centre, to many other life-limiting conditions, such as serious heart failure, chronic lung disease, Parkinson’s Disease and Motor Neurone Disease.
In its first 40 years, it is estimated that about 40,000 patients and family members have been helped by the hospice. The demand grows each year in a way that no one could have predicted when comedian Arthur Askey dug the first piece of turf in 1974, the year before the doors opened.
As the 21st century brings fresh challenges, St Peter & St James Hospice steps forward with the same faith and purpose that long ago started its mission of dedication to helping others.
Our Mission –
We will support you and those important to you to live well towards the end of life by giving compassion, hope and quality care.
Our Vision –
We want to make a positive difference to the experience of everybody in our community who faces death or bereavement, by offering choice and support through our expert care, knowledge and understanding.
Our Values –
Nurturing – care for whole families and each other
Professional – strive for excellence, learn from our mistakes and celebrate success
Unified – work as one team with one vision
Transparent – act with integrity and honesty at all times
Empowering – encourage innovation, support personal and organisational development.