The Centenary of the Death of ‘Petworth’s happy Scholar’

Source: Sturt, Nick. “The Centenary of the Death of  ‘Petworth’s happy Scholar’.” Sussex Botanical Recording Society Newsletter, no. 62 (May 2006).


Racton is no more than a few cottages scattered along the Ems near the western extremity of West Sussex.  It was this small rural parish that Rev. Dr Frederick Arnold served for some 30 years, walking the four miles to and from his home on the Sussex side of Emsworth to preach the Word and minister to his flock – and no doubt indulging in a bit of botany along the way.

It is worth standing in the small churchyard by Arnold’s grave in order to try to envisage how the landscape may have changed in a hundred years – certainly the Ems is not as voluminous as before, although it is still capable of swelling inconveniently in winters of abundant rain; likewise its margins are not so damp: Petasites hybridus still appreciates the moisture here at the road junction, and it is still just about possible to find Dipsacus pilosus, which was, however, plentiful in Arnold’s day.  Elms will have been and gone, hedges removed, meadows ‘improved’, arable weeds much reduced; but looking up to the woods above the church may not be so different, and Helleborus viridis persists where the Rector knew it at Brooksnap.

The church itself – which dates from the 13th Century – is described approvingly by Nairn and Pevsner as ‘humble’. In an age when architects were zealously eviscerating churches of what a modern estate agent would describe their ‘period features’, Arnold presided over a very sensitive restoration of the compact Racton building, the work being done at his own expense.  Arnold was, of course, an antiquarian as well as a botanical man: his first book was a history of his native Petworth; and it is said that he had an unrivalled knowledge of, and indeed collection of, Sussex tradesmen’s tokens.

Arnold published his Sussex Flora in 1887, well after he had moved into the white house on the hill in Hermitage.  His herbarium (now at the Booth Museum) testifies to his knowledge of the plants of this western edge of the twin counties; for further afield he relied largely upon correspondents. One of his concerns in compiling this book was size – to keep the price down to the affordable so that the maximum number of interested people should be able to purchase it.  It is clear that after its release he foresaw the need of a second edition for he was collating further records.  Much of the manuscript was in preparation when, on April 24th 1906, he was ‘seized with paralysis’.  Sensing the urgency of the situation, he dictated the preface of this second edition to his middle daughter Marian that same day and it was she who saw it into print.  In fact all three daughters (Frances, Marian, Ruth) are credited with records in this volume.   All three lie a little apart from their father in the churchyard.

Frederick Arnold died on Friday May 4th 1906 and the funeral took place on the afternoon of Tuesday 8th.   The account in the Chichester Diocesan Gazette is felicitous: ‘As the service at the graveside was taking place, the distant hills reverberated with thunder, and a cuckoo in a neighbouring copse gave expression to his ever-welcome note.  The greenery of the uplands was spangled with a profusion of flowers, of which he had made a particular study, and one could not but feel that no more fitting setting to the obsequies of this happy scholar could possibly be imagined or desired.’