Obituary: Vernon Jennings BEM

Vernon Jennings, former Chairman of Run Barns Green and village stalwart has died after a long illness, he was 78.

Vernon was born on the 18th February 1943 and grew up in Cheam in Surrey. He suffered poor health all his life, he had very bad asthma from a young child which led to a series of chest problems over the years and he had to contend with a debilitating eczema condition throughout his life which resulted in several stays in hospital. Indeed, it was on one of his stays in hospital in 1966 that he met his wife Annie who was a staff nurse at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London at the time. They were married at Crowthorne in Berkshire in 1968 and their early married life was spent in Chestnut Gardens off Pondtail Road in Horsham before moving to Barns Green in 1972 where they made their home and very soon became an integral part of the village and its activities. Despite his health issues, Vernon never complained and he never let illness get in the way of things that needed to be done or dissuade him from getting involved in a whole range of varied activities and hobbies.

Vernon was a surveyor by trade and after working for various different companies he set up his own business Vernon L. Jennings and Co. in 1974 carrying out building and topographical surveys covering everything from small extensions to large developments which he ran very successfully for nearly 50 years. Indeed he never really retired and continued working well into his 70s on a variety of design projects and throughout Barns Green and beyond, there are hundreds of houses and commercial buildings that Vernon was involved in designing, surveying or overseeing their development.

One of his real hobbies and passions was sailing, and some of Vernon’s happiest times were spent at sea. He particularly enjoyed competitive dinghy sailing and racing his Contessa 32 yacht with the family. Vernon would enter Cowes Week and would go on adventurous trips to places such as Cork, Saint-Malo and the Channel Islands. He loved the peace and tranquillity of sailing and his health benefitted enormously from spending an entire day breathing in the fresh sea air.

In his younger days, Vernon was an outstanding badminton player. In 1956 at the age of 12, he was the youngest player to take part in the All England Junior Badminton Tournament at Wimbledon. Unfortunately, his health interrupted his highly promising International badminton career, but that didn’t stop him and he still went on to play for Surrey and Sussex. He was chairman for many years of Horsham Arun Badminton Club and was instrumental in making it a highly successful club. One of the ingenious fundraising efforts he did with the help of club members was to create and enter a float each year for the Horsham Festival and the HABC Float became regular prize winners at the Festival in the ’70s. For decades he was passionate about the sport and many aspiring young badminton players were taught and encouraged by Vernon.

Vernon was something of a showman, a natural entertainer, never afraid of having a go at anything and all the guests at the Run Barns Green post-race party would look on in amazement as he led his committee in an impromptu rendition of “My old man’s a dustman”.

He always loved dancing and when he was 12 his parents thought that it would be a good idea for him to learn ballroom dancing. He would cycle 5 miles to Epsom for dancing lessons which he didn’t mind at all because there were about 20 girls and only 4 boys. He enjoyed dancing ever since those days and always said that it made a great impression on him and was something he would always recommend to youngsters. He and Annie always cut fine figures on the dance floor as they jived the night away.

He was also a very active member of Barns Green players and famously played Fagin in the 1994 performance of Oliver. In the 1980s and early 90s, he regularly played the Dame in the annual pantomime, a role he threw himself into with huge energy and commitment. His wife who is a qualified theatre designer would very often be Directing these pantomimes and together they were both members of Barns Green Players for over 40 years. He was also a member of Horsham Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society (HAODS) for many years.

In recent times, Vernon became a member of the newly formed choir in Barns Green, the Local Yokels. The choir put on two shows a year as well as several church performances and provided endless fun and entertainment for all those involved with Vernon taking his fair share of “stick” from his fellow choristers but always in a wonderfully self-deprecating way.

Vernon embraced village life and his beloved Barns Green. Muntham House School in the village, which supports boys with challenging behaviour, was a big part of Vernon’s life. In 1986 he became a school governor and for 36 years Vernon served the school on the Estates Committee and for several years as Chairman of Governors. Until recently he remained on the Estates Committee looking after the buildings and land and in 2018 a plaque with Vernon’s name on it was unveiled on the completion of the new Sports Hall. He was also a major supporter of St Nicolas Church in Itchingfield. In the early 1970s, Vernon took on the organisation of “It’s a Knockout” on the Village Green as part of the three Barns Green Bonanzas raising money for the re-shingling of St Nicolas Church spire.

However, Vernon’s major contribution to Barns Green was through his involvement in Run Barns Green. He had been involved with the event since it began back in October 1982. Initially, he was in charge of the end of race “funnel” coordinating the finish of the race, and as the race recorder, a key role supplying information to the runners before the advent of electronic timing. Vernon took over as Race Director and Chairman of the organising committee of the then Barns Green Half Marathon in 1998. It was a critical time for the race. New competing events were starting up and several of the original committee members were retiring from their roles. A new leader was needed and a new team had to be established to take the Barns Green Half Marathon forward.

Vernon was instrumental in the growth and development of Run Barns Green over the past two decades. Part of that growth included the establishment of a 10k race to run in conjunction with the half marathon. There was a lot of resistance to the addition of a new race but Vernon was convinced that it was necessary and in the six years since the introduction of the 10k, it has flourished and provided competing opportunities for many new runners who do not yet feel confident enough to take on the half marathon distance.

Over a period of 22 years, he acted as Chairman of the organising Committee and Race Director. He was passionate about Run Barns Green and put his heart and soul into every aspect of it always cajoling his committee to do more but selflessly the buck always stopped with Vernon and if he sensed that something wasn’t being done, he would do it. His easy manner smoothed over many tricky situations and most elements of the race ran very well although he definitely had a steely side when it was required.

The other members of the Jennings family were always a great support to Vernon. His wife Annie made a huge contribution to the event as did his three sons. When he stepped down as Chairman last year, he was given the title Life President of Run Barns Green in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to the event which has raised tens of thousands of pounds for charity over the years. His presence, his encouragement and his unbridled enthusiasm will be sorely missed and it is certainly true that Run Barns Green would not be where it is today, or indeed be here at all, if it wasn’t for Vernon. It is just so very sad that he won’t be there to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the event this September.

In 2015 Vernon was awarded the British Empire Medal for his work with the Barns Green Half Marathon and in the community, an award that was both very well deserved and hugely popular with all who knew Vernon and who have worked with him.

Vernon is survived by his wife Annie, three sons Mark, Philip and Luke and 5 grandchildren, Sophie, Ruby, Sadie, Issy and Ivy who all worshipped their beloved “Pops”.

Vernon L. Jennings B.E.M. 18th February 1943 – 31st January 2022