This year Chester Funnell was proud to receive the Lewes Civic Award for services to the community, an extremely well-deserved honour recognising his tireless efforts for a diverse range of groups and organisations.
But although his good works began when he was just a young man, this energetic 80-year-old is still playing an active part in the causes he has supported ever since, especially as he continues to put his best foot forward with high energy and enthusiasm on the local dancing scene.
Chester is a Lewesian through and through – his roots in the town go back several generations, and South Street holds a special place in his heart. Born at St John’s Terrace on September 2, 1939, the day before the start of World War II, in 1944 he and his parents moved to 97 South Street which was to be the family home for the next 60 years.
Chester’s father, Leslie, was born in Lewes, as was his father, and he grew up in 24 South Street, living in that same street for 87 years apart from wartime. For almost 93 years, Chester’s mother lived in Lewes, 60 of those years in South Street.
“Dad worked for the electricity supply companies before and after nationalisation, from the end of the war until his retirement,” Chester says. “He was a quiet, likeable man who loved to paint and play the piano and was a great dancer.
“Mum was the driving force in the family, she worked full-time during the war at Beards Brewery and Manns Cleaners and was a barmaid at the Gardeners Arms and the Dorset Arms in the evenings and weekends. She found the house in South Street and paid the deposit so that when Dad was demobbed, he had a home to go to.
“Mum was also a skilled dressmaker, and she liked to dance as well. My sister Sandy and I have inherited a lot of our parents’ skills, and I think that’s where my love of dancing comes from. My sister sews beautifully.”
Chester was called up for National Service, one of the last batches of men to be called up for this – he had schoolmates just three weeks younger than him who did not have to do National Service.
His first day in the British Army was his 21st birthday. Army life suited him, and he signed on to become a regular soldier, joining the Royal Corps of Signals and developing skills which saw him become an instructor at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst for three years. He left the Army after four-and-a-half years to get married.
He met his wife Angela in 1960 at a dance in Crowborough, dancing to the Lewes group, The Rebels, and together the couple stepped out on a lifetime of community service, embracing not just dancing but the Scouting movement and several other organisations.
“I have danced nearly all my life, my mother started me off by taking me to tea dances at Wades department store in Brighton when I was four,” Chester recalls. “When I was 11, I became a member of Gloria Allan’s Dancettes, a well-known troupe of tap dancers attached to the Odeon Cinema.
“We used to take part in variety shows and pantos at the Town Hall on behalf of Lewes Rotary Club. The whole family was involved – Sandy was also a dancer, mum the dressmaker for the costumes and dad the scenery painter.
“As I was leaving school, I was offered a position with a professional dance troupe but decided against it. Along came the rock and roll years, and I quickly adapted to this style of dance. Together with my dance partner, I entered several competitions with reasonable success.
“My daughter Sarah took up ballroom dancing in her early teens and Dad was her partner for exams at the Brighton Centre. After retiring from the Scouts, Angela and I looked to do something together, and as we have always loved country music, we took up line dancing. I became a qualified dance instructor and adjudicator in 2002.
“Also, in that year, we started the Steps Dance Club in the Lewes area. Together with a friend, Lesley, the club continues today in East and West Sussex. I also teach Western partner dance with our friend Jac. Over the years we have been called upon to give displays and teaching sessions for various organisations such as WI Rodmell, the Brighton Belles, numerous charity fetes, Fourth of July celebrations, hen nights and birthday parties.
“We have run regular dance/ movement sessions at the Phoenix Centre in Lewes and currently at a dementia club in Eastbourne for the past three years. Recently we did three sessions at Lewes Tesco’s Dance Beat in aid of the Heart Foundation, Cancer Research and Dementia Research.”
Chester’s other great passion came to the fore in 1974 when, wanting to help young people reach their full potential, he joined the 1st Lewes Scout Group. Two years later he formed a new section, the 1st Lewes Venture Scout Unit for the age range 15 -20. The unit was the first to include girls.
“My wife Angela then joined me as an assistant leader and this unit was to take up all my spare time and more for the next 21 years,” Chester says. “Nearly 200 young people from all walks of life became Venture Scouts with us, and most stayed the full five years allowed.
“Forty per cent gained the Queen’s Scout Award – this is on a par with the Duke of Edinburgh award, in fact, it’s higher as it is the Queen’s. Jenny Plimmer was the first female recipient in the area.
“Service is a significant part of the Scout Movement, and part of my task was to find rewarding and worthwhile projects. These included being lifeguards at Ringmer swimming pool, canoe instructors, the Red Cross, helping the elderly, all kinds of things too many to mention.
“In 1978, I assisted the late Paul Millmore with the Volunteer South Down Rangers by giving some map and compass training – there was no GPS then.
“We had many major overseas adventures, in Canada, Norway, France, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, Austria, Yugoslavia, Scotland and Wales. For most of these, I was the bus driver as the group owned its coach.”
Chester became Assistant District Commissioner for Venture Scouts and was awarded the Scout Service Medal.
“One of the most rewarding times of my life was when I was so proud to see the Queen’s Scouts on parade at Windsor Castle, especially my son and daughter. Many of our Venture Scouts are still in touch although now spread out all over the world.”
In 1978, Chester left his work as an electrician because he felt he wanted to help unemployed young school-leavers, so he joined the Lewes District Youth Opportunity Programme to train them in various skills such as painting, bricklaying and gardening as well as how to handle job interviews etc.
“This was a government scheme for which the youngsters were paid a nominal sum, but although it was good for them while they were taking part for six to 12 months, in the end, they became disillusioned as they were still unemployed. During this time, with the support of the Venture Scouts, we took the group on a camp in the Brecon Beacons where the Venture Scouts took them canoeing, hiking and pioneering as well as helping them with cooking. This was a good example of service the VS unit carried out as a group.”
As a true Lewesian, the annual bonfire event is another of Chester’s longstanding passions.
“Bonfire is an integral part of Lewes, it’s what we do,” he says proudly. “Although there have been changes over the years, what a Lewes Bonfire Boy feels on November 5 remains the same, it’s in the air.
“My mother paid for my first bonfire subs to Aubrey Taylor in the bar of the Gardeners Arms in 1945, and I have been a Lewes Bonfire Boy ever since, mainly as a member of the Cliffe Bonfire Society, except for a few years after leaving the Army. God willing, I will be marching again this year with the Cliffe, remembering. That’s what it’s really about in my eyes, remembering events, old friends and family.”
Earlier this year, Chester was surprised but delighted to hear he had been awarded the 2019 Lewes Civic Award in the Community category.
“Out of the blue came a letter from my town council, the watchdogs of the place I hold dear,” he says. “I had been nominated by two ladies, Diana Commber and Olivia Standon, mainly with Scout and dancing associations. The council had then selected me from the other nominations. “There was a presentation by the mayor in the Town Hall together with three different winners of other categories – it was a very proud occasion for me to be honoured by the town I love. None of this would have happened if I had not had the love and support of my family, principally my wife for 56 years, Angela.
“As a Lewesian, I am still able to live in the county town of Sussex and despite the changes over the years, I love my home town and the places in Lewes which are especially close to my heart – South Street, Cliffe Church, the Jireh Chapel, the River Ouse and the War Memorial.
“I am a Christian, a patriot, a traditionalist and a people person – I bounce off other people. I am lucky enough to be still in good health, and I still dance for eight to ten hours every week. It’s been a full life, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”