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A visitor from the Carolinas

We were given the opportunity to talk about our project recently at the St. Mary's Festival celebrating 900 years of the church's history. It proved to be quite a success with a scramble for more chairs to seat an unexpectedly large but very welcome audience.

In that audience was Barry Watcyn Sylvester who now lives with his wife in Hickory, North Carolina. Barry was in Denham specifically to visit his daughter Samantha Carter, who serves as a Churchwarden at St. Mary's. He had taken the opportunity to renew former friendships here as well as making some new acquaintances - before heading off elsewhere to visit other long-time friends.

Barry Sylvester was born 29 March 1940. He lived and went to school in Staffordshire in the West Midlands on the fringe of the region which came to be known as the Black Country because of all the heavy industry and mining there following the industrial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th century.

Barry's father, Samantha's grandfather, was a Special Constable during the years of World War II. Barry’s Welsh mother was a postwoman who delivered the mail in Staffordshire. It is from his mother that Barry acquired his Welsh middle name.

Barry left school at 15 years of age and worked for three years as an apprentice electrician. He joined the army as soon as he could do so at 18 years of age and, as his father had done before becoming a special constable, Barry qualified for the Grenadier Guards, the most senior, infantry regiment of the British Army at the top of the Infantry Order of Precedence. It can trace its lineage back to 1656. It is this regiment that protects the royals.

“In the military, I served in the Grenadier Guards, 1st Division, from 1958-1961. The 1st then deployed to Libya, in North Africa where we participated in an exercise re-enacting Rommel’s campaign – tactical training for three months in 1960.”

Following these weeks of training, Barry was sent to London, to the Chelsea Barracks for public duty outside the gates at Buckingham Palace, where he marched up and down wearing full uniform including bearskin and rifle. When his Grenadier Guards regiment reached its 350 year anniversary in 2006, Queen Elizabeth II hosted the first of many garden party celebrations during which the Queen honours men and women for extraordinary contributions to their communities and to the military. Samantha joined her father at the 2006 Garden Party. She remembers: “It was a very hot June day and the palace handed out cool water drinks to all the guests on their way in.”

From Barry himself we learned of his links to Denham, “When I finished the regiment, an inspector came from Bucks (Buckinghamshire County) to recruit trainees to become policemen. My father had always advised me to become a constable/policeman and I signed up. I had always enjoyed the discipline of the military and my father’s experiences were that ‘the constabulary’ also had pride in the discipline of their roles.”

“Then in July 1961, I joined the Buckinghamshire Constabulary, and I returned to Staffordshire for three months of training at Eynsham Hall in Oxfordshire for training. The training was intense and included a lot of writing: names, terminology, protocols, and procedures.”

“My training was successful and I became a constable. After my training I was assigned to Tatling End Police Station, a station outside of Gerrards Cross where I was living. I was single at the time and was in lodgings at Gaviots Green in Gerrards Cross.”

“At the time, there were three beats available: one was in GX and area, another was in Denham, and another in the Denham suburbs. I chose the Denham beat as my policing area.”

So Barry came to be at Denham, providing his own bicycle, wearing his helmet and armed with his truncheon.

There were three 8 hour time schedules to cover the Denham beat throughout the days and nights. On a cycle down from Tatling End early morning 5:45 a.m. – 2:00 p.m., the 2:00 pm – 10:00 p.m. shift or the one which Barry preferred, the 10 pm to

6 a.m. schedule with 7 days on and 2 days off. Part of his compensation was reimbursement for using his own bicycle.

At the time, there was only one red telephone box in Denham for public use. It stood on the Village Green. Barry had no radio communication with the police station in Tatling End, so he operated with a schedule of calls from the public call box to see if he was needed. He would ride his bicycle to the telephone box to check in 5 minutes before the hour and stay there until 5 minutes after to receive any emergency orders. In all his years of checking in, he was never called.

Barry remembers his earliest days as a police officer in Denham which included a shocking introduction to the job. “When I first came to GX, another officer was with me for just two weeks. When I had been on the beat for only three weeks, I arrived for the 2 pm shift and I was asked: ‘Have you dealt with a sudden death yet? No? I was told, ‘Wilcox will take you down there and you can deal with it; it’s in New Denham, house at the end of a cul-de-sac.' "

"When I got there, a woman was waiting to tell me that she had reported she believed her lodger was dead in suspicious circumstances."

Barry found that at first he couldn't get into the lodger's room because a chair had been braced under the door handle. Then when the door was finally opened, he was shocked to find the body of a woman, face down, a rope around her neck.

The head of the Criminal Investigations Department was called from Aylesbury. He, a pathologist and his secretary were soon on the scene.

The lodger was turned over. It was in fact a man, dressed as a woman and wearing a wig. A 31 year old man tragically had strangled himself with the rope around his feet and neck.

It was 1961. With remarkable understatement Barry recalls: "That incident was quite a harsh introduction to my beat.”

Barry has another memory of a local tragedy that some of our older readers may recall: “During my time on my beat in Denham, I had to deal with a fatal accident at the traffic lights on the A40 and North Orbital Road. In the early hours of the morning, a car carrying four American servicemen who were stationed at High Wycombe, collided with a large lorry. All four men subsequently died from their injuries. This whole incident was of course especially sad and difficult.”

Barry does have some more pleasant memories of his time in Denham. From 1955 to December 1961, the former Denham Films Studios, which had closed to film production in 1951, were rented out as an American Air Force Base. Barry remembers that “An especially friendly coffee stop on my beat was at the film studios in Denham which was an American Airforce Base at the time - without planes going and coming - but a base of American servicemen - no women.” Well, again it was 1961.

Barry also has a recollection of a brush with one of Denham past celebrities. His recollection has confirmed a story we have come across before, but which does not appear in the star's biographies and which until now we have not been able to verify. When Barry was on duty one evening in 1961, he noticed that an occupied car was outside The Green Man without any lights on. He was suspicious and then when he saw the singer Dusty Springfield go into the pub, he went in to check she was okay. (Dusty and her brother Tom were at the time top line stars in the three member vocal group The Springfields). Although Dusty invited Barry to have a drink, he dutifully declined because he was in uniform.

Dusty Springfield later carved out a stellar career as a solo artist. Barry remembers her as living in Pyghtle Cottage - though we've since been told that the cottage was actually owned by her brother Tom.

Barry's Denham beat extended all the way to Pinewood Studios where he brushed shoulders with acting royalty. There he watched when Sophia Loren, Deborah Kerr, and Charlie Chaplin’s son were filming The Spanish Countess.

It was in Denham too that Barry's own family life began: “While serving in Denham, I met my wife Viviane Derbyshire, from Knighton Way Lane in New Denham We were married by the Vicar Ernest Corr in St. Mary’s Church on 29th September, 1962.”

St. Mary's Churchwarden, Samantha Carter is their daughter.

But the newly married Sylvesters did not stay long in Denham after their marriage “Soon after, I was transferred to Slough, because the police provided us with a house after we were married. I served there for four years, in three of which I served as a detective."

And though it's not a Denham memory it's still a significant memory of Barry's about a role he played in a unique series of events which have become part of the country's history, indeed it's folk history: The Great Train Robbery. “I did Court duty at the trial in Aylesbury of the Great Train Robbery in 1963, as guard of one of the prisoners.”

A footnote on Churchwardens

As mentioned, Samantha Carter is a Churchwarden in the Denham Parish Church, where she is carrying on the 700 year old tradition of helping the people of the parish – or disciplining parishioners with an official “wand”, if required.

The office of Churchwarden dates from the 13th Century, and is thus one of the earliest forms of recognised lay ministry. The primary function of the office at that time seems to have been that of taking care of the Church building and its contents, including the responsibility of providing for the repairs of the nave, and of furnishing the utensils for divine service. The Churchwardens had custody or guardianship of the fabric and furniture of the church, and even today, they are the legal guardians of the church’s moveable goods, such as moveable furniture, plates and ornaments. They are required to keep an accurate up-to-date inventory of these items.

In the course of time other duties were added, and Churchwardens became regarded in some respects as the local officers of the Bishop of the diocese, responsible to him for the proper carrying out of their responsibilities. Throughout their long history, Churchwardens have provided an excellent example of the advantages of lay participation in the life and work of a parish.

Wardens could remove unruly parishioners and fine them for their unsavoury behaviour. They had powers of arrest on church property and would patrol the inside and outside of the church during services, and this is where the wand comes in.

The wand is usually a long wooden pole topped with a final of some sort, often silver or brass. The wand was a symbol of the office and would be carried by the Wardens in the procession ahead of the bishop and used for the protection of the bishop. The wands were also used as a way to move large groups of people in and out of the church, for self-protection during the exercise of their duties, and to keep people awake during services, especially the sermon. 18th-century church services could last several hours, and sometimes the preacher was not very skilled in his oration, so people might nod off a little. The warden would come by and poke them with the end of their wand to bring them back to consciousness. There was an additional, much gentler wand with a feather on the end of it that was used to wake the ladies in the congregation.

So, members of the congregation of St. Mary's, beware Samantha and her wand.


Telephone box by Simon Burchell, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Dusty Springfield - Philips Records, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

"The Churchwardens" by Lucien J. Simon 1897 Collection UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum. Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Stanley I. Talpis

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