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1930: Historic Riot at The Talbot recalled

Updated: Dec 28, 2022

Mid Sussex Times – Tuesday 18 November 1930


The Cuckfield riot: by Hubert Bates.

The history of the Cuckfield riot appears to be rather obscure, but so far as memories can be trusted it took place in the early fifties. (editor - they actually happened in the 1830s). The cause may not have been simple, as many grievances were rankling in the minds of the poorer labouring classes. The hungry 40s may well have been responsible for the troubled fifties.

That there should have been bad blood between master and man is not to be wondered when we read that even down here in good old Sussex (in the hungry forties) the farm workers were paid as little as 9 to 10s per week. When work was scarce and they were compelled to take to road mending or stone breaking, 8d a day was often as much as they could earn.

Against these pitiful wages, a half quartern loaf of bread cost 7d, or 8d., sugar was 8d per pound, tea 4s to 5s per pound, and it was quite a common custom for the poor to beg the used tea leaves from the kitchen doors of the more favoured people.

In consequence, the whole of


were half starved and embittered. Perhaps the last straw on the patient camel's back was the introduction of agricultural machines. These were looked upon by ignorant country people as almost of satanic origin. The threshing machine was especially an object of hatred as being the one thing that would deprive them of so much of the winter work in the barns, just at the time when food and fuel was so dear and appetites so keen.

The first serious intimation that the people’s unrest was coming to a head in Cuckfield was the receiving by many farmers in the parish of anonymous letters threatening to burn down the risks and the farmhouses unless the machinery was destroyed or sent away. Ominous night meetings were held, and eventually rick burning commenced. Old Cuckfield people used to tell that a rick was actually burnt on Mr Cherry's Farm at Pilstye and a rick ladder was destroyed at Borde Hill.

Mob burning a hayrick in Kent c1830


And brought before the Cuckfield magistrates at the Talbot, where the court sat. On being committed for trial they were held up at the Talbot awaiting an escort to Lewes gaol, and it was at this moment that the affair became a Cuckfield riot.

A large and angry mob surged about the town for some hours, and eventually gathered in front of the Talbot in an attempt to release their fellow conspirators. The story goes that when the attack threatened to become serious and the angry men swarmed up the steps with the intention of rushing the doors, the landlord, Faulkner Best, snatched from their hooks a pair of obsolete and quite harmless horse pistols and, appearing at the door, shouted his determination to let daylight through the first man that came on.

This somewhat sobered the rioters, and before further plans could be laid a cavalry detachment from Brighton, which had been sent for earlier in the day, was heard galloping up place walk. On their appearance round the King’s head corner the rioters promptly melted away, and the prisoners were hauled off to Lewes.

The ringleader of these riots and rick burnings is unknown to Cuckfield history, but the method by which he was traced is interesting. Collecting a number of the intimidating letters, the local ‘Sherlock Holmes’ found they were all written on one make of note paper. The Cuckfield stationer in those days was a Mr Albery, who had a shop in what had originally been a part of the old King’s head, where Mr Pace has just built a fine new Post Office. Our ‘Sherlock Holmes’ examined his stock, and having found the identical paper, appealed to Mr Albery to disclose the person who had been purchasing it. The name given led him straight to the ringleader he was tried and sentenced to twelve months imprisonment, but, so it is related, after serving two or three months, his enemies, the farmers, thinking he had suffered enough, got up a petition, which eventually secured his release.

Threatening letter from 'Captain Swing' in 1830

So ended the Cuckfield riot, with a real neighbourly action such as one might expect from the old Cuckfield people. That these riotous proceedings were directed against the Talbot suggests that Cuckfield had not yet acquired a lock up. In fact, the care of prisoners appears to have exercised the public mind in Cuckfield very considerably for a long time. As far back as 1813 I found there was trouble in this direction. When a certain James Ockendon, who had been misbehaving himself in some way, and had been committed, Edward Bates, the Cuckfield Headborough, writes in his diary:

‘1 man with him all night, 2s and 6d,’ but no mention is made of a lock up.

The full entry of this incident is as follows:


March 4 - serving a warrant on James Ockendon and having him before a magistrate 7s and 6d

March 4th - one man to assist me 2s 6d

March 5th - bringing him before T. C. Granger Esquire, at Mr Wallace’s office where he was committed to the Lewes House of correction 7s

One man with him all night 2s 6d

March 8 carrying James Ockendon to the Lewes House of correction 7s

Expenses of keeping horse, gates, etcetera 7s 6d

It is a pity he does not say where the one man and James spent the night. Was it at the Ship Inn?

I have seen in an old Cuckfield notebook that there was a room with iron bars at the top of the old Ship Inn, where prisoners slept under guard before being taken to gaol.

I wonder if host Tom set still has that upper room with iron bars?

Further there is a minute in a Parish book of a meeting in September, 1829, when it was resolved that a cage for detaining prisoners should be erected in the town. It is bitterly disappointing to posterity that they do not state where in the town the cage should be erected.

10 years later at a similar meeting in February, 1839, it was resolved that a black hole should be built, and it was decided that a grant of the wasteland adjoining the Churchfield and Laines Farm should be applied for to build this black hole. Whether the cage or the black hole was ever built history does not say, and I cannot find in the old Headborough’s diary any reference to this or where he incarcerated his prisoners, but I do find that on another occasion he paid a P. Gard 9s 5 ½ d for subsistence while keeping a man in hold in April, 1813 and one wonders if at this time the Ship Inn was kept by a P. Gard.

for more on The Swing Riots please follow the links:-



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