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President Kennedy Slept in our Parish!

Kennedy and Macmillan
AP From the BBC History site

It's a pity that there is no sign commemorating the fact but less than 5 months before he was assassinated President Kennedy actually slept in our parish! The Prime Minister at the time was Harold Macmillan and his private home (as opposed to his the British prime Ministers' official residence) was situated on the northern edge of our Parish at Birch Grove. As Kennedy wanted to see something of the British countryside it was suggested that this might be a suitable place for an "overnighter" during his European tour.

As it was the weekend Kennedy was required to be seen attending church on the Sunday morning and at that time the nearest Catholic church was just over 4 miles away in Forest Row. Just after 10.30 Kennedy swept out of Birch Grove gates followed by a car with four secret service agents standing on the running boards clinging to the sides. Those on the right were trained to shoot with their right hands, those on the left able to shoot left handed (so that they could hold on and shoot at the same time!) Nobody had considered assassins concealed in tall buildings at the time of course! Anyway because of a few (very friendly) demonstrators on the route Kennedy travelled in a hard top Cadillac! He smiled and waved all the way and the demonstrators smiled and waved back - very British.

Other secret agents spent the night up trees and every local car number plate was recorded if it even thought of travelling down Birch Grove road. Sussex Police sent along a couple constables on their bikes to offer help which the Americans politely declined as they had sufficient numbers already. In all there were more than 200 security staff and a similar number of journalists in the group. Hotels as far away as Brighton were booked up  for the duration and had a field day!

One of the bases for Secret Service operations was the Lounge Bar of the Crown Inn (another was the bar in the Chelwood Gate pub which Kennedy visited to drink a couple of beers on the Saturday evening). It is documented that local televisions refused to work during the visit such was the power of the Secret Service security transmitters! A special helicopter landing pad was laid out and lit all night nearby (a fire crew spent the entire time there on stand by, just in case) and extra supplies of Kennedy's blood group  were delivered to the nearest hospital, the Queen Vic in East Grinstead. One 8 year old child was arrested after being nearly shot for carrying a plastic toy cowboy rifle, and the whole area generally ground to a halt!

As a schoolboy your webmaster (standing just to the right of the demonstrators in photograph below) took a couple of pictures on the events on Sunday morning as Kennedy went to church but unfortunately these have been lost over time. However that square jawed, smooth shaved, tanned American face is etched in my memory. If you have any suitable photos of the visit we would be delighted to copy them to reproduce here.

There is some information on the internet about the visit but also some obviously recently rewritten reports which are shall we say "exaggerated" if not just made up.

If you are interested in reading facts about the visit then we recommend you consult the archives of the local newspapers "The East Grinstead Observer" and "The East Grinstead Courier" which are contemporaneous and accurate. Their front page lead the following week was the arrest of the 8 year old boy for carrying a plastic gun (he was apparently locked up and his parents interrogated for several hours)!

The information in "The Evening Argus" archive seems to have been written from accounts that are less accurate than many and disagree with the recollections of many locals who experienced events at the time.

All very friendly and smiling.
Protesters waiting for Kennedy to go to church.
10.30 a.m. Sunday morning on the corner of Birch Grove Road.
From The East Grinstead Observer

Extract from the 1963 White House Diary

12:00 p.m. G.M.T.

Small luncheon in honor (sic) of President Kennedy given by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Birch Grove House, Sussex, England.

More Events

President Kennedy attends Mass at a nearby Catholic church.

President Kennedy and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan issue a joint statement following their discussions at the Prime Minister's country home. Both agree that a nuclear test ban treaty is essential.

President Kennedy departs from Gatwick Airport and arrives in Milan, Italy where he spends the night at the Villa Serbelloni on Lake Como.


November 22, 1963

12:30 p.m. C.S.T.

President Kennedy assassinated in Dallas, Texas.



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