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1914: Cuckfield's tramps' nursery

Inmates prefer stone-pounding to oakum picking

Stone pounding - notice the grids to grade the stone for different sizes (Workhouse Pontefract, c.1900)

Is stone-pounding a useless and senseless task? A magistrate at the Haywards Heath Bench last Tuesday stated that it was - and vagrants have not been slow to take up the statement and to pass it on to others, including the Labour Master at the Cuckfield Workhouse.

To the man who works with his brains and is unused to manual labour the mere thought of pounding stones is abhorrent, but the 'bounders' who frequent the casual ward neither work with their hands nor their brains, their one great aim being to get as much as they can for nothing, or, in other words, to live at other people's expense.

Now it is the duty of the Guardians, as the representatives of the ratepayers, not to give vagrants a soft time of it when they visit the Workhouse. They must make them do something for their night's lodging and keep ere they pass out next morning. If they were given tasks which interfered with the interests of tradesmen there would be numerous complaints, and so the Guardians fall back on stone-pounding. It may be news to some that there is a great demand for flint grit, it being highly prized by poultry farmers.

At one time the Guardians obtained 1s per cwt. for the flint grit, but the demand being greater than the supply the price was raised to 28s 6d per cwt, and for the powder (which is mixed with cement) 11s 1s charged per ton when five tons are taken. Thus it will be seen that stone-pounding is not altogether a useless and senseless task.

Oakum - old rope


What the public who are inclined to sympathise with vagrants should bear in mind is that they are the sufferers by being too lenient with the work-shiers. The latter must be given a task which will not make them fall in love with the Workhouse - a task which will act as a deterrent to the desire to live on others.

Again, it should not be overlooked that genuine working men pass out of the Workhouse without being called upon to do stone pounding, and the Labour Master never is hard upon those who make an earnest attempt to pound the quantity given them.

The workhouse quarry and footpath to it is top right - a detail from an OS map (surveyed 1896 published 1899),

The present Labour Master at Cuckfield is a keen man: he knows bis men. Many of those who seek the casual ward, says, pride themselves on the fact that they have for years walked to and from London to Brighton, and they know the Workhouses where they are best treated. These they seek and the others they shun.

Cuckfield Workhouse is known as 'The Tramps' Nursery' and that is why the number of vagrants is increasing in the Cuckfield Union, while at other places they are decreasing. Vagrants do not like stone pounding, and for that very reason it should be adopted as a task-and the Magistrates should back up the Guardians and Workhouse officials in their efforts to see that wastrels perform their allotted tasks.

We are assured that tramps would rather pound 1cwt of stone than pick 4lbs of oakum. Therefore let the Guardians stick to stone pounding, which the Vagrancy Commission in 1906 reported to be useful and not costly in working.

Mid Sussex Times, 20 January 1914

Notes: The preparation of oakum – a fibrous material used in shipbuilding, picked out strand-by-strand from old rope – was a common form of labour in the Victorian workhouse, as well as in Britain’s prisons.

Several reports from grandparents, long since passed on, recall how in the 1900s men used to walk to Cuckfield and be fed along the way by charitable householders before spending the night at the workhouse. They would travel from one workhouse to another and they had their preferences in the regimes and staff of the different establishments.


Photo: Pontefract, c.1900

Inset: Victorian Powys for schools from an early etching.

Stone pounding / breaking: Breaking down large stones was one of the most common forms of work given to men. It was physically hard, the amount performed could be readily measured, and the end-product could be sold for road-making.

Photo from the National Archive PRO 30/69/1663 (38) taken in 1906:

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.



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