The plaque on the front of our venue, Forest Row Village Hall, can easily be missed. It commemorates the day when American president John F. Kennedy came to the village. That was on Sunday 30 June 1963, only a few months before he was assassinated. Fortunately, a number of short films exist of that visit, and are detailed below. The local photo agency TopFoto also has a great collection of pictures of his two days in England, thumbnails of which are viewable on their website.
13 July 2013: After the initial posting of this piece, I was delighted to receive copies of the four pictures taken by Harold Waters on the day of the visit, and have now added them. Many thanks to James Waters for making them available. You can just see the corner of our venue peeping behind Kennedy in the main picture.
The president was the guest of prime minister Harold Macmillan, who lived nearby at Birch Grove, the big house tucked away roughly opposite the Red Lion at Chelwood Gate, and came to Forest Row on the Sunday because that was the location of the nearest Catholic church.
It was in fact a very brief visit, staying with Macmillan only for 24 hours, during which time nuclear test ban treaty discussions figured high on the agenda. Even for so short a stay, after Kennedy arrived at Gatwick he was accompanied by a large number of American security personnel, and hundreds of policemen also descended on Forest Row.
Having apparently arrived by helicopter from Gatwick, and with supplies of blood matching Kennedy’s blood group stored at the Queen Victoria hospital, the visit was minutely planned. It certainly wasn’t secret, though, since there were also vast numbers of journalists, locals, and anti-nuclear protesters who all came to get a glimpse of the president. A few undercover policemen were despatched here too, to keep an eye on the protesters. (In fact, test ban discussions continued with Khrushchev later that month, and the Partial Test-Ban Treaty was signed in Moscow on 1 August 1963.)
The report in The Times the following day gives a good sense of the circus surrounding Kennedy as he travelled the four miles from Birch Grove to go to church. To keep the visit brief, the service lasted only 40 minutes and the sermon was omitted. However, as was often the case, Kennedy did stop to shake hands and talk, much to the consternation of his minders. It did not last long, though, and he was soon gone, and heading to Italy, the next leg of his European tour.
Further details about the visit can be found in a short book about it which was published last year. Kennedy at Birch Grove by Paul Elgood draws on sources at the National Archives, East Sussex Record Office and the JFK Library in Boston to create a detailed account of those June days. He notes how the Red Lion at Chelwood Gate was the communications centre for the US security services, and that Kennedy and Macmillan even had a drink there. A letter to the Mid Sussex Times also noted that part of the organisational support for the visit was down in Brighton, and gives a sense of the enormous scale of the planning that would have been involved for the president’s trip.
The visit of the American president was a great news story, and film crews were sent down to cover it. Most of the currently available material is from British Pathé, who produced large numbers of newsreels, most of which can now be previewed online.
This first colour film was the newsreel that was released 4 July 1963, and shows Kennedy’s arrival at Gatwick, Birch Grove and the Forest Row Catholic church:
President Kennedy Meets Macmillan
The Pathé collection also includes rushes before they were edited down for the newsreels, and this longer (mostly silent) film contains the material familiar from the previous item, as well as a number of other shots. The Forest Row material starts at 7:02 and lasts for about a minute:
Kennedy Visits Macmillan
A second newsreel was produced the following year drawing on some of the same footage. This was to report the unveiling of the commemorative plaque on 23 September 1964, in which we can briefly see the huge numbers of people outside the village hall:
Mac Pays Tribute to Kennedy
Finally, this is another short film from a slightly different angle outside the church:
In addition to the plaque on the village hall, the visit was also remembered by the creation of the John F. Kennedy Charitable Trust (Forest Row and Chelwood Gate) in August 1964. This was set up to support young people’s education and for poor relief in the parish. It was disbanded in 1992.
There is also the Kennedy Clump, a group of Scots pines which was planted just off the road as it crosses Ashdown Forest towards Chelwood Gate from Forest Row.
The church, Our Lady of the Forest, closed at Christmas 2009.
- ‘President Kennedy Slept in Our Parish!’ Horsted Keynes parish website. <http://www.horstedkeynes.com/kennedy.html>
- ‘President Kennedy’s visit to Horsted Keynes 50 years ago.’ Diary of a Country Priest blog. 19 May 2013. <http://twisleton.co.uk/home/?p=254>
- ‘Former East Grinstead policeman joined in 1960 Ban the Bomb protests.’ East Grinstead Observer. 21 April 2011. <http://www.thisissussex.co.uk/East-Grinstead-policeman-joined-1960-Ban-Bomb-protests/story-12600725-detail/story.html>
- ‘Test-Ban Treaties.’ Encyclopaedic Dictionary of International Law. Eds. Grant, John P., and J. Craig Barker. : Oxford University Press, 2009. Oxford Reference. 2009. <http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195389777.001.0001/acref-9780195389777-e-2263>
- Quoted extensively in: ‘The JFK Memorial.’ Forest Row Village Hall web site. <http://forestrowvillagehall.org/jfk.html>
- Nick Woodroof. ‘When President Kennedy visited Forest Row, East Sussex.’ SO Magazine. 5 May 2011. <http://tunbridgewells.so/my-town/1115>
- Paul Elgood. Kennedy at Birch Grove. CreateSpace. 2012. Available from Amazon. The author’s blog about the book also contains some interesting nuggets: <http://kennedyatbirchgrove.tumblr.com/>. There is also a short piece about the book in a local paper: ‘A moment in history before Kennedy tragedy.’ Mid Sussex Times. 28 June 2012. <http://www.midsussextimes.co.uk/news/local/a-moment-in-history-before-kennedy-tragedy-1-3998576>. The letter about the Brighton telecomms hub is from: Don McBeth ‘Memories of Kennedy’s visit.’ Mid Sussex Times. 8 July 2012. <http://www.midsussextimes.co.uk/community/your-letters/memories-of-kennedy-s-visit-1-4021129>
- ‘John F. Kennedy Charitable Trust (Forest Row and Chelwood Gate).’ Charity Commission website. <http://apps.charitycommission.gov.uk/Showcharity/RegisterOfCharities/RemovedCharityMain.aspx?RegisteredCharityNumber=236268&SubsidiaryNumber=0>
- Martin Beckford. ‘Village church visited by JFK and Harold Macmillan to close on Christmas Day.’ The Telegraph. 21 December 2009. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/6840761/Village-church-visited-by-JFK-and-Harold-Macmillan-to-close-on-Christmas-Day.html>
- Sam Satchell. ‘Rare images unearthed of JFK’s historic trip to Forest Row.’ East Grinstead Courier and Observer. 8 July 2013. <http://www.thisissussex.co.uk/Rare-images-unearthed-JFK-s-historic-trip-Forest/story-19474921-detail/story.html>