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1902: Cuckfield Baker Samuel Willett - music, smugglers and dishonest nightwatchmen

Smugglers by George Morland

This item appeared in Mid Sussex Times on 10 June 1902, and gives an interesting snapshot of the village life in both Cuckfield and Fulking in the nineteenth century.

Cuckfield had just lost another of its old and much-respected inhabitants Samuel Willett at the age of 71. He had been the Secretary for the Oddfellows for 27 years [a non-political and non-sectarian international fraternity set up in 1810]. Samuel was described as an 'upright and honourable in all his business dealings' . There was a large funeral and shops drew their blinds and closed as a mark of respect.

Samuel was born in Fulking in 1831 and was not only a well known bootmaker but also a talented and popular musician. 'He was fiddler for village parties and dances within a radius of several miles, and his conscientiousness maybe gauged from the fact that he would never accept more than five shillings for fiddling all night, even though he'd walk five or six miles to the place of entertainment'.

His father taught him bootmaking after leaving the Free School in Henfield. In his spare time he learned to play the trombone, fiddle and cello - and the latter he played at church services.

Smuggling 'a legitimate calling'

A good deal of smuggling was carried on at Fulking when Mr Willett was a lad, and many an exciting tale he could tell concerning the smugglers. These men were not the bloodthirsty ruffians that story writers frequently depict, but respectable villagers, some of whom were to be seen on the Sabbath singing in the village choir.

The smugglers were never referred to by their surnames, but by their nicknames. Their chief was known as Merryhop. He was a well-to-do farmer and a regular communicant. He firmly believed, with Shakespeare, that "it is no sin for a man to labour in his vocation". Smuggling, to him, was a legitimate calling, and he gave, those associated with him to understand, that dishonesty on their part would bring about dismissal.

'The Shepherd and Dog', which is still in existence, was made the smugglers' headquarters. Merryhop used frequently to visit France and make the necessary arrangements for the boat to come over. The smugglers would go over the Downs and watch for the boat (rowed by three men all the way from France) and signal if the coast was clear.

'The boat would then pull hard for the shore and throw the tubs of spirit (the tubs sometimes totalled 36, and each contained 4.5 gallons of spirit) on to the beach at some gap and immediately row off again. The smugglers would then come, and placing two tubs before them and two behind, march back to Fulking and hide the spirit where directed by the receiver.

The reason why the villages engaged in smuggling, according to Mr. Willett, was because it made a most acceptable addition to their wages, which only amounted to about 10 shillings a week. Each time the smugglers brought home a load they received half-a-sovereign [another 10 shillings], while a shilling was the reward for a lost journey.

Provisions in the thirties [1830s] were very much dearer than they are to-day. Tea was 8 shillings per lb., raisins 1s. and lump sugar 11 pence. A half-quartern loaf was 6.5 pence. Potatoes, however, were cheap - 2 shillings a sack. Cabbage and potatoes were what the people mostly had for dinner. Meat was considered a great luxury. "Tory dinners" was what a poor meal was known as, and the reverse as a "Whig dinner".

Samuel Willett, 'the singing baker', is seen in the doorway behind at Diamond House

Not caring much for cobbling Mr Willett went to Ditchling to learn baking. After a time, owing to his health breaking down, he had to return home. His ability to write music becoming known to the late Mr. Ambrose Dumsday, Bandmaster of the Cuckfield Old Band, he invited him to join the Band, which he did, and played the tenor trombone. This was in 1850.

The Band was composed of eight members, and they practised once a week at what was then known as the Talbot Tap. Finding the walk from Fulking to Cuckfield too long and tiring a journey [10 miles each way, a 3 hour walk], Mr. Willett had serious thoughts of leaving the Band. Mr Dumsday [also landlord of the Talbot], loathe to lose his services, looked about to see if be could get him something to do in Cuckfield, the result being that Mr Willett took over the baker’s business carried on by a man named Taylor, and by sheer hard work and perseverance got a good deal of patronage.


Cuckfield was guarded in those days by a night watchman. People used to leave their gates unlocked for him to inspect their gardens. He did as he was required. The people slept - the watchman plundered! This presumably is a reminsicence and we assume that Samuel was not involved!

A musician who could not sing

The circumstance which led to Mr. Willett leaving church for chapel is somewhat interesting. He had been invited to join the choir at the Parish Church, and his first appearance in the singing gallery, which was where the bell ropes are now, was hit last. A prominent member of the choir had so little opinion of Mr. Willett’s vocal powers that he threatened to leave if he remained a member.

After Samuel died people observed that, while he gave so much pleasure to others, he also had, at times, a difficult life. His wife, Sarah, whom he had been married to for 57 years had tragically died just a month before him - after falling down stairs. But Cuckfield clearly appreciated his contribution to village life.

Additional notes: Samuel Willett was born with dwarfism, which may explain the health issues mentioned in the article. He was known as the 'Singing Baker' of Cuckfield - despite the negative feedback of the church choir! He was a keen researcher of traditional songs of Sussex and some became part of The English Folk Song and Dance Society's collection. He was capable of writing musical notation accurately. Perhaps his best known discovery was the The Farmer's Boy which was published in Lucy Broadwood's book, 'English County Songs' published in 1893:

''Can you tell me if any there be

That will give me employ,

To plough and sow, and reap and mow,

And be a farmer's boy?'

Here is one of the songs he passed on: Mistress' Health on the website 'a Folk Song a Week'. Others are listed here on the SussexTraditions website.


Bribed by the smugglers in Cuckfield?

January 8, 1798. A few nights since a private soldier belonging to the Derby Regiment of Militia, whilst on duty as a sentinel near Cuckfield drank so inordinately out of a tub of contraband spirits, with which a smuggler was going past his post that - on being relieved about ten minutes after, he laid himself down and almost instantly expired. The Coroner’s jury returned a verdict of “Accidental death.”

From an article archive piece, Worthing Herald 5 December 1931

Smugglers were reported to have used Deaks Lane to discretely move their illicit contraband.



Mid Sussex Times, Tuesday 10 June 1902

and Worthing Herald, 5 December 1931

Painting: 'Smugglers'; by George Morland, 1793, Royal Museums Greenwich [A public domain image]

Photo of Samuel Willett 'the singing baker' at Diamond House, opposite and a few yards south of Queens Hall which was then a baker's shop.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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