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.
Rev. Thomas Astley Maberley
I am vicar of the parish of Cuckfield, and as such I superintend the National school of the town and parish.
It is the custom now to give leave of absence from the school to any scholar who may require it, in order to take advantage of any offer or opportunity to obtain work. On my first entering on the living, I thought that the scanty attendance, apparently consequent on leaves of absence, were so prejudicial to the advancement of the scholars, that I introduced a rule to the effect that illness should be the only allowed plea of absence.
I found the enforcement of the rule impracticable, and abandoned it immediately. At the present time many are in the habit of absenting themselves for the sake of employment. I find some difficulty in properly maintaining the school, owing to the slack encouragement given by the farmers resident in the parish, who generally refuse their support to it, and sometimes express their disfavour of education in general.
It has been urged that education does not contribute to make the young good servants. I consider that the lower orders in this neighbourhood are not in an instructed state, nor intelligent. I remark also a particular deficiency in the feelings of the women as to chastity; in many instances they seem hardly to comprehend or value it as a virtue.
I have not been struck by any prevailing habits of excessive drinking. The cottages are not neatly kept, and are not furnished with any books but the Bible sometimes, and strictly religious works.
There is a society now in existence for the encouragement of horticulture, at which prizes are given for the best show of vegetables, and flowers, and fruits, produced by cottagers; the show is generally considered good.
During the last year prizes have been given by me to cottagers, and to male and female servants for continuance in the same service for the longest period. Till within the last year, a prize had been awarded by the Horticultural Society for the neatness of cottage gardens. This has been recently discontinued, from the doubts entertained of its permanent efficacy in producing neatness.
In addition to the National school, there is an establishment where the same system of education is adopted, but it is not supported by any public assistance. The master conducts it for his own benefit, and at his own risk.
Another comment (not clear which of the witnesses made it) - but maybe the vicar: In the neighbourhood of Cuckfield, in Sussex, it is said to be common for children of both sexes to use the same sleeping-room and bed, up to the age of 12, and even 14.
Notes: 1 shilling = £11, one pence = 4 pence today
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.