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42 Local History

Pulborough’s Wartime Spy Scandal

By local historian Martin Dale


It was this month exactly 100 years ago that a series of events in Eastern Europe would quickly lead to a global conflict that lasted four years and affected every town and village in Sussex. I think that most of us are aware of Pulborough’s contri- bution to the war effort, but I wonder how many know that the village was also the centre of a spy scandal that shook right to the heart of Govern- ment.

As I sit writing this article ready for the July edition of Sussex Local Magazine, the D-Day 70th Anniver- sary commemorations are being broadcast live from Normandy and it has set a rather fitting atmos- phere of remembrance for the subject of this article.

As War broke out between Britain and Germany, a profound hysteria spread across much of the country, with stories of spies lurking around every corner, saboteurs waiting in the shadows and cor- rupt authorities. The focus of all this attention was placed upon those persons with a foreign sound- ing name, or of non-British origin. Even those with a proven British track record were not safe from suspicion. One example was the notable resident of Goring-by-Sea, Paul Schweder, who was on a number of occasions accused by the Worthing Coastguard to signalling enemy ships in the Chan- nel from his house and made out to be an enemy spy by the prosecutors in court. In reality, Mr Schweder had a distinguished career in the Royal Navy and the Army, had sent two sons to fight in France and was in fact of neutral Swiss origin on his paternal ancestry. Then there was Mrs Drum- mond Koubanin of Billingshurst, who allegedly had her land destroyed by soldiers in 1917 on the ba- sis that she was married to a Turk. Even the Royal Family were forced to change their surname from the Germanic Saxe-Coburg-Gothe to the now fa- miliar Windsor.

To the north of Pulborough lies Toat Farm, and in 1914 this was under the ownership of Ernest Seh- mer – a naturalised German and active member of the Pulborough community. Shortly before War was declared on 4th August 1914, Mr Sehmer had converted an old barn near his home into a chapel – dedicated to St Wilfred by the Bishop of Chich- ester on 26th July – for use by up to 80 people living in the area who were unable to undertake the 7 mile round trip to the Parish Church. How- ever, within a matter of weeks, this generosity was not enough to save him from the rumours of the newly found intolerance of foreign persons in Brit- ain.

Amongst the standard accusations of being a Ger- man spy was the claim that he used the Toat Monument to observe activities at Portsmouth Dockyard and of maintaining a close relationship with the famous German munitions and arma- ments factory owned by the Krupp family. Neither of these were true – Mr Sehmer had no involve-

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