The 1834 Poor Law Act resulted in the setting up of an enquiry into the conditions of employment of women and children in agriculture. Witnesses from 12 counties gave evidence probably in 1841/2.
Several worthy members of society in Cuckfield were called to testify under oath in 1843 on matters concerning the health, well-being, lifestyle and financial circumstances of the local community. Today this gives us a valuable insight into living in Cuckfield at the time of when Charles Dickens was annually churning out works such as the ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’.
The report from the Commissioners included an insight into life in Cuckfield from the village doctor, the vicar, a farmer, a publican and an apprentice and also gave a detailed account of how women and children were employed to do in agriculture.
Most significantly, nationally the new law resulted in further workhouses to be built. And while the story is more complex, the new wave of social reform was the first step towards a more considerate caring society and the first steps towards the modern day NHS.
Dr Byass's contribution to the enquiry is quite short. He was a much respected village doctor living in the High Street and must have had a very clear view of poverty in the village and the strenuous lives lead by the farming community. In those days his services would have been chargeable to his patients.
Lovel Byass died at the age of 80 in July 1865. His memorial stone can be found in Cuckfield Church and reads: ‘… for nearly 60 years practised in this town or neighbourhood. By his untiring attention to his professional duties and by his charitable disposition and ever active kindness by the integrity of his character and his blameless life he gained the respect and affection in no common measure of those among whom he lived and worked.’ His son continued the practice and together they served the village for nearly 100 years.
Dr Lovel Byass
I have practised as surgeon and apothecary between 30 and 40 years amongst the poor and other classes of society in the parish of Cuckfield. I have not been able to trace any disorders amongst the female part of the lower class to their occupation in agriculture.
Boys are more frequently called upon to labour in the fields between the age of nine and 12 years, and although their general health is good, yet I have frequently witnessed, in consequence of their being thus early employed, from the conjoint causes of wearing heavy nailed boots necessary for their occupation, and walking over rough and deep ground, great weakness about the ankle-joints, as is evinced by the great turning out of the feet.
I have rarely met with any instances where the constitution has been depressed or disordered by excess of labour. The men are often the subjects of chronic rheumatism late in life, which I attribute to their constant exposure to cold, as they are generally of temperate habits.
Reports of Special Assistant Poor Law. Commissioners on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture by Great Britain. Poor Law Commissioners, 1843
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.