When we think of the connotations of the word ‘workhouse’ we might recall the film Oliver and the grim prison environment and surly staff with the young Oliver Twist asking for more gruel.
Likewise, the Cuckfield Workhouse was the location of harrowing scenes. Staff dealt out forced labour and offered mean food rations. However the workhouse system also saved lives by taking in the desperate, providing shelter for the mentally ill and caring for the sick, destitute and elderly.
But Cuckfield could be kind and generous and it’s heartening to read about one nineteenth century Christmas in the workhouse in Brighton Gazette of 25 December 1845:
Through the kindness of our worthy vicar, the Rev. TA Maberly, a subscription has been raised and ample funds provided, for giving the poor in the Union House a good substantial dinner from the good old English fare of roast beef and plum pudding, on Christmas day, with an allowance of beer to comfort them at this season of the year.
We are happy to add that the number of paupers in the house is less than usual at this period of the winter, a fact that augers well, and proves that although farmers still remain uncertain as to their future condition with regard to the Corn Laws, they are not niggardly in finding employment, or in laying their money out on the land.
There are many less happy tales though. The Mid Sussex Times archive of 1914 carried many reports of workhouse inmates being taken to court for failing to finish the tasks set for them.
While it proved a life saver for some - the regime was unquestionably harsh. An article in the paper in June 2018 brings to life the severe discipline imposed on its often reluctant inmates:
Take John Green, Thomas Cook and Frederick Worley. They arrived at the workhouse on a miserable Friday evening in March, soaked to the skin and desperate for a bed for the night.
The trio found themselves in court after they refused to ‘pound one hundredweight of stones’ - a regular task given to the ‘casual’ inmates.
After being turned in by labour master John Brazier, all three told magistrate Mr JJ Lister that they would have been willing to do ‘a reasonable day’s work’ but were in no condition to pound stone.
Mr Lister clearly didn’t agree as he sentenced them all to 14 days’ hard labour.
The website ‘The Workhouse - the story of an institution’ gives some useful data about the workhouse in Cuckfield and others in the local area.
Up to 1834
A parliamentary report of 1777 listed the parish workhouses in the Mid Sussex area and their capacity. Cuckfield (accommodation for 60 inmates), Ardingly (20), Bolney (15), Cowfold (15), Horsted Keynes (60), Hurstpierpoint (25), Lindfield (32), New Timber (9) and Slaugham (24).
A house known as Beadles, which had formerly been the ‘Bull Inn’ in Ockenden Lane was once used as the local workhouse.
The Cuckfield Poor Law Union was formed on 26th March 1835. Its management was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 18 in number, representing its 15 constituent parishes as listed below (figures in brackets indicate numbers of Guardians if more than one):
County of Sussex: Albourne, Ardingly, Balcombe, Bolney, Clayton, Cowfold, Cuckfield (2), Horsted Keynes, Hurstpierpoint (2), Keymer, Lindfield (2), Newtimber, Pyecombe, Slaugham, Twineham. Later addition from 1894: Haywards Heath.
The area population served by the union had been 12,017 at the 1831 census, the Cuckfield population was 2,586 at the time. The average annual poor rate expenditure for the period 1831-34 had been £17,139 or £1.8s.6d per head of the population.
Initially, the Cuckfield Union coped with the expansion in numbers and the Poor Law Commissioners met the total bill of £1,375 in 1837. In 1843 a new building was built west of the Ardingly Road which some will know better as the old Cuckfield Hospital building. It was designed by SO Foden in collaboration with Assistant Poor Law Commissioner HW Parker.
Cuckfield Union Workhouse was converted to a Canadian Military Hospital early in the Second World War. Mrs Emily Wells in the WI archives recalls that the local children were entertained each Christmas by the Staff. After the war, the building became Cuckfield Hospital. That was until 1991 when the main health treatment facilities transferred to Princess Royal Hospital in Haywards Heath.
As for the later Ardingly Road Cuckfield Workhouse only the Victorian main block and chapel remain, and the former grounds became incorporated into a housing estate.
Based on sources: www.workhouses.org.uk/Cuckfield
Top photo: The old Cuckfield Hospital and former Cuckfield Union Workhouse before its conversion to housing. [Public Domain image from Wikimedia]
Lower photo: Beadles, which had formerly been the ‘Bull Inn’ located in Ockenden Lane, was once used as the local workhouse. [Photograph by Malcolm Davison ]
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.