December 1976 Sussex Life
'Our little periodical'
Maisie Wright turns the pages of a Victorian parish magazine to reveal fascinating glimpses of Cuckfield village life. In the year 1861 the Reverend T. A. Maberley, vicar of Cuckfield, started a monthly magazine for his parish. He wrote: “Our first object will be to address all classes equally; and we expect to make our little periodical interesting to all by the introduction of information about the antiquities, natural history and other subjects connected with our church, parish and neighbourhood".
Before the days of popular magazines and journals the only cheap literature for those of the poorer people who were able to read was the penny dreadful. This was confined to bloodcurdling accounts of murders of the day.
So this little magazine, with short stories, pictures and articles by local people and selling for 2p, met a need for good reading and soon became very popular. It was read aloud to the many who had never been to school and was sent abroad.
Later numbers published letters from soldiers serving in India, who passed the magazine around among their fellows in the camp, and other letters written by emigrants from Cuckfield living on isolated farms in Australia and Canada, who described the eagerness with which they received this news of their homeland.
One enthusiastic reader contributed the following verses:
When tortures fire the fevered brain
And sorrow rings the aching brow;
What charm consumes the sufferer’s pain?
What power some short relief allow?
In vain their art physicians tried
To mitigate that anguish keen
Till one more wise in rapture cried,
‘Send for the Cuckfield Magazine!’
In high debate the council sate;
Russell and Palmerston were there;
Earl Granville with the well brushed hat
And Highland Argyle's sandy hair.
One problem baffled every head,
No skilful counsellor was seen;
Until at length the Premier said
‘Write to the Cuckfield magazine.’
‘Albert it's getting very late,
It's nearly two o'clock I fear’.
Alice you really must not wait;
It's time to go to bed, my dear;
What is this fascinating book
You’re reading? Said our gracious Queen;
And from the princesse’s hand she took
The Cuckfield Parish magazine.
The magazine reflects a society quite unlike that of today. A rigid class structure, dominated by the two peaks of the vicar and then lord of the manor with his lady, is taken for granted – ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high or lowly and ordered their estate’.
From his high vicarage in the centre of the town the vicar did match for the poor. He organised soup kitchens, savings clubs, blanket clubs and shoe clubs (‘The boots so purchased must, if required, be shown to the Vicar’). He reprimanded the Sunday boys who seem to have been a problem all over Sussex at this time. When they were free from their weekdays’ work and had nothing to do on Sundays, the farm lads would congregate in groups at street corners and molest females by staring and making loud remarks about them.
The vicar started a club for boys in a house in the High Street. He tried to tackle the drink problem of their fathers by forming a branch of the Temperance Society. In the magazine of December 1882 he reports a membership of 27 total abstainers, 14 moderation members and 43 children and writes, 'I should be glad to see a few more men come forward to join the moderate section, and to do what in us lies to check that vile, most hurtful and extra vagrant custom of drinking between meals'.
On another occasion he writes ‘I wish sincerely a few more of the gentry and tradesmen would join our ranks, even if they do not at present feel disposed to become total abstainers’.
When the vicar was unfortunately absent, the meetings of the Temperance Society did not go smoothly. The magazine reports that an excellent address on the evils of drink by a London Dustman was ‘interrupted by the noisy behaviour of certain boys’.
The lady of the manor appears in the magazines as a person of equal importance and influence with the vicar. From her Elizabethan mansion, she dispenses charity and provides entertainment. She organises ‘cottage lectures’, a lending library and amateur theatricals in which she plays leading parts.
In April 1882 she writes: ‘The great event after Easter in our quiet little town will be the Theatricals on April 18th and three following nights….On the 18th the performance ….. will be a dress rehearsal. This term, it may be well to explain, does not mean that the audience are expected to come in evening dress.
She also seems to have felt herself responsible for the more serious business of life. In the November 1883 issue she says, ‘The complaints everywhere are so numerous of girls taking places as general servants knowing nothing that I feel I must do what I can to save Cuckfield girls from this reproach’.
She gives notice of cookery classes intended only for girls just going into service or just going to be married. ‘They take place in the kitchen at the Park and the lessons are most kindly given by my cook under my superintendence. The girls must undertake to come quite regularly or I will not have them’.
The magazine of July 1879 describes a fete at the park: the great attraction was the band of the 4th Regiment. Added to this there were some capital performing dogs, Punch and Judy, dancing et cetera so that amusement was provided for all. The Union (the Workhouse) inmates aged and young were regaled with a substantial tea.
However, there are signs that the feudal attitudes of the past were beginning to give way under the influence of the railway age. Following a trip to the great exhibition of 1861, joined by most of the able-bodied people in the town, many travelling by train for the first time (in open trucks) the vicar wrote, ‘how the different classes of society bear themselves one towards another through the change which is in progress. In olden times owners of great properties gave large entertainment to their dependence; now it is a combination of many through which these amusements must be carried out’.
The harvest supper given by the landlord and farmers for their labourers had been an occasion for men only, with heavy drinking and some disorder. By the 1860s the church had taken over. After a procession of decorated farm wagons at the church service there was a mid day dinner, presided over by the lord of the manor and the vicar, which was followed by a daylong festival for all.
The magazines give accounts of the procession and of the races with appropriate prizes – cradles for the married women, bonnets and frocks for the girls, cheeses and live piglets for the men – and dancing after dark.
Since churchgoing had become fashionable, the custom of the church wardens allocating pews according to social status caused some controversy which is reflected in the magazines. While one wrote ‘the church doors should be open wide… All alike should be made to feel they are heartily welcome', another who signed himself 'a working man' expressed the opinion that 'the principal parishioners should have pews allotted to them'.
Later, a correspondent who gave seven reasons for the appropriation of pews wrote, with some sarcasm, 'it seems to add a little to my own importance and I hope other people think so'.
These old magazines report on all local matters, such as the public meeting in 1880 at which the ratepayers refused to pay for a proposed water supply, and carry correspondence and comments on the questions of the day. Strong emotions were aroused by a bill of 1883 to alter the marriage law to allow marriage with the deceased wife's sister. A letter signed R. F. concludes 'let us all then as churchmen and Christians, lift up our voices against the violations of a law intended to secure us the peace and purity of family life'.
On the subject of cremation, one in favour of the practice writes, ‘to most Christian people such an idea will add first appear most revolting to their feelings'.
This series of magazines comes to an end in 1887 when all were agog with plans for the celebration of Queen's Jubilee. Many suggestions were put forward in the magazine and all agreed on at least two projects – 'feeding the poor' (before the days of old-age pensions and the welfare state) and a 'fete with a feu de joie'.
The editor wrote, 'with this number, the present issue of the Cuckfield Parish magazine must close – I shall soon be no longer your vicar'.
He had borne the loss on it from his own pocket.