1800s: The great stink of Cuckfield


Some people must relocate to the rural idyll of Cuckfield, with its delightful and quaint village centre, perhaps imagining that, long ago, that local life reflected 'Darling buds of May'. But was the real history as rosy as the TV charming nostalgic series set in the 1950s depicted?


And if the clock was turned back would we really have wanted to be transported back to the days of the the Regency romantic novel, when Cuckfield villagers rubbing shoulders with princes and high society passing through?


For the locals, they were mostly working on the land with onorous working hours, they received subsistence pay, if through no fault of their own they couldn't make ends meet there was always the terrors of the workhouse. Then there were the rich landowners exploiting the poor, the violence and petty crime, the occasional murder, the threat of ridicule in the stocks, the very basic and over-crowded existence-living standards. There were doctors - that's if you could afford their attentions - and no hospitals at all - and that’s just the start of it.


In the early c19th, Cuckfield the burgeoning demand for accommodation and travellers’ refreshment was met by the expansion of both the King's Head and The Talbot hotels in the late eighteenth century. Stage coaches would set off from the high street at 8am to arrive in London by 4pm. In 1823, 48 coaches were passing between London and Brighton through Cuckfield. This continued until the opening of the railway when the coach traffic plummeted almost overnight to just one by 1843.


The bustling stable yards

In the heyday of coaching, traveller’s horses and coach horse teams would be changed over in the inn’s yards - this would happen several times an hour throughout the day. The last change would have been for the night mail coach just after midnight.


A post horn would have been sounded as a coach was passing Cuckfield Park heading north or heading down Cuckfield Hill to alert the inn’s ostlers that a mail coach was approaching - its dramatic and hurried arrival in the yard.


For those stopping for refreshment - passengers would be climbing down in some haste for the comforts of the inn, and not long after climbing back onboard.


According to the book ‘The Coaching Era’ by Violet Wilson 1900, if the mail coach was delayed by a few minutes the innkeeper could risk losing his licence - so the stress and urgency would be palpable as orders were barked out to the ostlers who would already be leading out replacement horses that were champing at the bit and ready for the off.


At its best, the speed of the ostlers’ team would have mirrored that of a formula one pitstop today. Some express coaches would pause just four minutes before departing full tilt with fresh horses. When in 1888 James Selby, the most famous of coachman, did his famous London to Brighton return record run the King's Head achieved this switchover in 1 min 8 secs on the London-bound leg and precisely one minute on its return.


Daniel Dench (1775-1826), who was the King's Head landlord in 1798, was said to have kept 30 to 40 pairs of horses in the stables. Yes that’s 80 horses plus having to accommodate passing travellers’ own steeds. The hotel was the largest single business in the town at the time. As a hostelry it was favoured by courtiers and royalty - so this had to be the best and slickest operation in town.


smelly facts

Perhaps you are a concerned environmentalist and you would like to know the real damage that coaching brought upon the village. The blunt fact is that horses each produce eight piles of manure a day - about 50lbs (23kg), most of which would be deposited in the stable area.


With several inns around the village and passing traffic, that’s probably over 2,000 tons that would have had to be removed from the village area every year. Human effluent from the inns need to be factored into the clearance problem most appreciatively left by passing visitors and the locals.


Horses also deliver four gallons (15.6 litres) of urine a day. Of course there would be some local human sourced contributions that would flow down the high street. When not managed properly, horse manure (faeces and urine) can cause ground and surface water pollution with nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon (organic matter). Fresh water, if we can call it that, was regularly drawn from nearby wells, usually close to the inn, for human consumption for hotel guests and locals.


A funeral procession in Berkeley Street, Dublin, Ireland - with added fragrance

catering for visitors

But let's consider the positive side. The two principal inns each owned a smallholding close on the village outskirts that supplied fresh vegetables, milk and eggs. Local fresh meat would have been in good supply for those that could afford it. But would you really like to have eaten in the hostelries so devoid of hygiene?


A bill from landlord Daniel Dench at the King's Head read in 1812 lists: 23 dinners, £3 9s; beer and porter, 10s; negus[hot drink of port, sugar, lemon and spice], £1 3s; punch, £5; tobacco, 5s; waiter, 10s; boots and servants, 6s; chambermaid, 2s. 6d.


catering for the animals

Carts would have to deliver fodder for the horses - over a ton of hay every day. So the inn courtyards would have had a permanent fragrant stench of horses, with carts manoeuvring around the coaches, and stable lads regularly cleaning out the stalls.


Large volumes of straw and wood shavings for bedding will have been brought in. Straw was also used on the floor of the coaches to help keep the passengers’ feet warm in the winter. Metal lined foot warmers were used by the gentry containing hot coals or charcoal.


Throughout the daylight hours the blacksmiths in two forges would be busy hammering iron to re-shoe horses and repairing damaged coach wheels. One forge was located behind the Court House in Back Lane (from c1874 OS map), the other ‘the Old Forge’ - the name still to be found in the shade of the umbrella tree, next to Crundens in South Street.


summing up

So the village would have had a permanent stench, there would be hazardous horse and coach movements - not always in full control, a cacophony of noise would have been evident from early hours until late at night from hungry travellers, ostlers, horses and farriers. As a villager you would have had to have tolerance in spades - spades being the operative word!


So what would you prefer? The noise and unpleasantries of yesteryear - or maybe the annoyance of traffic rumbling past today?


Top illustration: 'Uncle Sam' from Harper's Weekly, November 2, 1872, p. 845. Public domain Image.


Author: Malcolm Davison.