‘Hythe’s Greatest Benefactor’

Wakefield Walk in Hythe is a delightful formal promenade alongside the sports field. Another, more prosaic, residential street, Wakefield Way is not far away. There is a Wakefield  function room at the Hythe Imperial Hotel and a Wakefield of Hythe Chapter of the local Freemasons. A charity, the Wakefield Bequest, supports ‘persons in need’ in Hythe. All are named for Charles Cheers Wakefield.

His  career is well chronicled elsewhere: the rise from office boy in Liverpool to manager of an American petroleum company; the creation of his own business, Castrol; the knighthood; the Mayoralty of London; the baronetcy and the CBE; and finally the title Viscount Wakefield of Hythe.  Along the way there were many excursions into other interests, charities and, his passion, aviation.

But what of the Hythe connection?

In 1912,  Charles and his wife Sarah bought land next to the golf club off Blackhouse Hill in Hythe, with panoramic views across the town to the Romney Marsh and the sea. They proceeded to construct what the local press described as ‘a palatial mansion’, which, it was estimated, cost between £15,000 and £16,000 to build. Charles bought, to furnish it, the contents of a demolished house in Botolph’s Lane, London, which was reputed to have been owned by Sir Christopher Wren. These included a staircase, wood panelling, doorways with carved pediments and fine mouldings and an elaborate landing. The new house was called ‘The Links’.  During the ensuing war, it was placed at the disposal of the military but when the couple regained it after 1918, they found it suitable for entertaining but too grand for everyday life and usually spent their time in Hythe in the nearby ‘White Cottage’.

It was during the war, in 1916, that Charles was appointed Lord Mayor of London and soon afterwards entertained the members of Hythe Town Council to luncheon at his official residence, Mansion House.

Charles Wakefield as Lord Mayor of London

In peacetime, Charles’s concern was for the men who came home. In 1922 he opened the Hythe British Legion club and donated £200 towards it. He also supported the Hythe Association of ex-Servicemen.  His attention then turned to Toc H. Founded by Rev. Phillip ‘Tubby’ Clayton in 1915, the social club and rest hostel for all ranks opened at Talbot House in Poperinge in a former hop merchant’s residence.  After the end of hostilities, the merchant reclaimed his home, but in 1929 put it on the market. Charles bought it for £9,200 and donated it to the Talbot House Association. It is now a visitor centre and houses a permanent exhibition. This link between Hythe and Poperinge was later cemented by a formal twinning arrangement and the Poperinge Saint Cecilia Band often visits Hythe to play at festivals and festivities.

Talbot House in Poperinge

[Incidentally, at this point it is worth noting that while Rev. Clayton’s name ‘Tubby’ was a soubriquet, Charles’s name ‘Cheers’ was not. It was his mother’s maiden name]

Charles also liked to encourage sport. He was president of Hythe Football Club, attended home matches whenever he could and always bought the ball after the cup final. He donated prizes to the lawn tennis, golf and bowls clubs (on one occasion a pair of gold cufflinks). Other recipients of his largesse included the local St John’s Ambulance Brigade, the Hythe Cancer Clinic Fund and the Royal Victoria Hospital in Folkestone, to whom he gave a brand new motor cycle as a tombola prize.

Later in the 1920s, the vicar of St Leonard’s church in Hythe made an appeal to his parishioners for funds to recast and re-hang the church bells. Within days, Charles had donated the full amount. The local salvation Army benefitted, too, when in 1937. he provided new instruments for their band.

That was the year of the coronation of George VI. To mark the occasion, Charles presented the town of Hythe with a new recreation ground, off Horn Street at the eastern end of the borough. It is still in use today.

The Horn Street recreation ground today

Possibly his most significant gift was that of a new lifeboat for Hythe. Named for his wife the Viscountess Wakefield was launched in 1934, equipped with a ‘tiny’ (ie 18 inches by 12 inches) wireless set made by four local amateurs. Unfortunately, the lifeboat was too big to fit in the lifeboat station, so another was hastily constructed and remains in situ today, though it now houses a fishmonger and beach restaurant.  Sadly, the Viscountess Wakefield was lost at Dunkirk in 1940, under controversial circumstances – but that is another story.  She was Hythe’s last lifeboat.

The ‘Viscountess Wakefield’….

…and her lifeboat station

Charles was made a Freeman of Hythe in 1930 and invited to become Mayor, but declined as he could not devote the necessary time to the job. Probably his last act of generosity to the town was made at the end of 1940, when he made a donation to the town council to send to each head teacher the money to provide boots and clothing for needy schoolchildren evacuated to Wales.

He died on 15 January 1941. A funeral service, conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury,  was held at St Leonard’s church, Hythe and he was buried in Spring Lane cemetery – St Leonard’s churchyard had been closed for burials for many years.  It was snowing during the burial and ‘Tubby’ Clayton reportedly said that each snowflake was a ‘thank you’ from a London child  – the two men had worked together to relieve poverty in the East End

Charles’s grave                                                             www.findagrave.com

His wife, Sarah, outlived him by nine years, dying in Hythe in February 1950

In her will, she left £100,000 to her bank, to be distributed according to instructions she had put in a letter. Hythe Town Council received £10,000 to set up a charity for ‘persons in need’. It still operates today.

Sarah, Viscountess Wakefield with her only child, Freda

Then in 1957, Mackeson’s Brewery and Kent Newspapers Ltd  decided to inaugurate an annual ‘Wakefield Day’ to celebrate the life of the town’s benefactor. There was a great deal of civic ceremonial on the planned first day, 6 May. The Lord Mayor of London arrived by special train and the other Cinque Port mayors came too. There was a procession through the town; an assembly in the town hall, a luncheon at the Hotel Imperial and a service in St Leonard’s church. There were a lot of speeches and the ATC, the Girl Guides, the Boy Scouts and soldiers from the School of Musketry were drafted in to line the streets.  The event was never repeated, despite a few attempts to revive it right up until the 1990s. The interest was just not there.

The official programme for Wakefield Day 1957

Charles had, by 1957, been dead for sixteen years and memories were short.  If Wakefield Day had concentrated more on ordinary people rather than civic dignitaries, it might have survived. As it was, the local press was more excited that film stars John Mills and Richard Attenborough were at nearby Camber Sands making  a motion picture, ‘Dunkirk’

Today, even the Wakefields’ grand house is gone. ‘The Links’ became the headquarters of Portex, manufacturers of single-use medical equipment and was re-named Bassett House. It was accidentally burnt to the ground in 1960

But one tradition remains. Each year at the town’s Mayor Making, a few moments of silence are observed in the Town Hall as the new Mayor hangs a wreath by the portrait of Charles, 1st Viscount Wakefield of Hythe.