Jessie Challacombe née Worsfold, children’s author, was born in Dover the daughter of Christopher and Martha Worsfold. Her father was a chartered accountant and the borough treasurer and her grandfather was twice mayor of Dover and had been friends with the late Duke of Wellington.1 The family lived at 23, Maison Dieu Road but later moved to 33, Liverpool Street next to Kilvington House, a Preparatory School for Boys run by Jessie’s aunts Emily and Lucy.
By 1891, the Worsfolds had moved to 1, Christ Church Villa, St Martin’s Hill (Folkestone Road) opposite Christ Church. Christ Church was one of the newer churches in Dover, having been consecrated in 1844. The condition of its establishment had been that it should include seating reserved for about 160 soldiers and that its incumbents should be low church.2 It rapidly attracted a large congregation and within seven years of its opening, two additional galleries were added. Jessie’s father became church warden and a parishioner recalls that he used to '...give account of the financial state of the parish and he generally wound by saying : "I want two or three good door mats,"' and generally asked in such way that one felt ashamed to go to Church next Sunday unless they were forthcoming'.3 Jessie's mother was involved in the charitable work of the town including raising funds for the Dover orphan home.
Jessie and her siblings received a good education. Her sister Lucy studied at Bedford College in 1886 and applied to become a lady computer at the Royal Observatory in the summer of 1890, although she was rejected on the grounds that the Astronomer Royal, had already appointed four women and felt that if he appointed any more, they would need to be recognised by the Civil Service Commissioners and paid more.4 Lucy went on to attain an MA in mathematics from the University of London in 1891. Jessie’s youngest sister Constance obtained a position at St Leonard’s School St Andrews before later becoming headteacher of St Margaret’s School, Polmont, Stirlingshire.
Like her parents, Jessie contributed to the life of the church. She was a member of the church’s young ladies’ working party and in 1890, gave a talk to the parents of the Sunday School scholars on the best way to bring up children: 'Prayer, home-teaching, training, and the power of example were suggested as the four great means for directing the children aright.'5 This advice was later evidenced in her fiction, through her tales of Christian life.
It was not only children and parents to whom Jessie turned her attentions. She ran a class for young Christian men and was involved in running the Christ Church Institute. The institute held lectures in the Christ Church Mission Hall and was one of the first young men's clubs with a gymnasium and cricket team connected to a Church in Dover. Christ Church Institute played matches both in the valley and on the heights,6 including at Northfall Meadow where Louis Bleriot would land his plane in 1909.
On 30 July 1891, Jessie married Reverend William Challacombe, a curate at Christ Church. William, who was lodging with a mariner and his family at 44, Clarendon Road, was an Oxford graduate who had moved to Dover in 1888. William was keen to be accepted in the community, saying 'when I meet you in the street, do not pull a long face and say ' here comes the Parson,' but come up and shake hands, and get acquainted.'7 On their wedding day, the church was 'crowded to excess' with well-wishers overflowing onto the street. Reverend George Everard advised them that the secrets of a happy home was one in which Christianity was the guiding principle. The married couple received gifts from the Band of Hope, the Children’s Orphan Home, the Boy’s Day School, the Young Ladies’ Working Party, the Young Men’s Christian Institute and bible class and members of the choir, revealing the extent of their good works in the parish.8
After the ceremony, the wedding breakfast was served at Chaldercot, Leyburn-road, the residence of the bride's aunt, followed by an "At Home." In the evening the poor of the parish were entertained at the Mission Hall on the Folkestone-road.
Two years after their marriage, the Challacombes moved to New Malden, where they lived and worked for the next 28 years. Jessie began writing stories for children which were published by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK). Her first book The Brother’s Promise was published in 1897 followed by Little Christopher’s Cross a year later, about a small boy named Christopher, no doubt inspired by her own son Christopher who had been born in 1893. Each chapter was prefaced by words from hymns by the former Dean of Canterbury, Henry Alford.
Jessie wrote at least 12 novels and many short stories, drawing on her knowledge of church life. In Wait and Win (1912) her character Jem is 'very keen on the gymnasium at the Boy’s Club Battersea, and this had been a very good thing for his own development… It was in the Club gymnasium that he made his good influence to be felt among them quite as much as in the church, where he was now a member of the evening choir.'9 Although the novel is not set in Kent, Jessie’s memories of the boys who attended the Christ Church gymnasium may have influenced the story.
This type of muscular Christianity in which athleticism was highly valued was very popular up until the first world war. Jessie’s son Christopher was in his early twenties when the war broke out. He joined the 1st batallion of the East Surrey Regiment and it is likely saw action at the Somme and Ypres . He suffered shell-shock as a result of his war-time experiences.10
Jessie was not the only Kent writer producing stories and novels to promote Christian values at this period. Baptist writers Bessie Marchant and Grace Pettman both wrote popular evangelical stories for girls and boys, as did O.F. Walton and Edith Farmiloe.
Jessie died in Farnborough at the age of 61 years. Her body was brought by rail to Dover, and buried at St. James' Cemetery, by lamplight.11
To find out more, watch this video about Little Christopher’s Cross created by Christ Church, New Malden.
This article was published: 11 February 2023.
Jones, John Barrington (1916) Annals of Dover. ↩
Dover Express - Friday 10 December 1920. ↩
'Christie's Lady Computers' RGO7/140/63. ↩
Dover Chronicle - Saturday 08 February 1890. ↩
Paske, C. (1894) Sunny Dover. ↩
Dover Express - Friday 10 December 1920. ↩
Dover Express - Friday 31 July 1891 ↩
Challacombe, Jessie (1912) Wait and Win. ↩
Dover Express - Friday 16 January 1925. ↩