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1989: Remembering the glory days of Cuckfield Part 2

..following on from the Part 1 and Cuckfield's reluctant participation in the English Civil War....

Village Life by Chris Somersett - 'Onlooker' - December 1989

......And so the good people of Cuckfield, there are about 800 of them at this time, were left in tranquility for another while. They had their ups and downs of course, including times of unemployment and poverty. In 1709 for example, there was a bad harvest and the price of wheat was high, causing so much hunger that the vicar, Timothy Burrell, went through a period of giving out food to all those who called at the door of his residence. Much later, in 1814, when Cuckfield had a population of nearly 1700, 1,200 of these were receiving free dinners from parish funds. 

However we have jumped a bit of the town's history. Its citizens responded splendidly to the call of duty in the early 1800s when the odious Napoleon Bonaparte and his Frenchman threatened to invade the fair fields of England.

Cuckfield men volunteered in their dozens to don the redcoats and white breeches of the Sussex Light dragoons, and they watched assiduously for the lighting of beacons on the Downs which would signal Napoleon's fleet being sighted.

A beacon in fact was lit one night, (accidentally as it turned out), and Cuckfield swung into action. 

The town’s women and children were shepherded off to the safety of St. Leonard’s Forest, and the Dragoons set out for the coast to meet the French in battle.

But they lost their way in the darkness, and at Chailey Common a few miles away they were routed by a band of smugglers who thought they were regular troops come to interfere with their business of defrauding the Excise people. 

The smugglers cannot have been bad fellows, because when they discovered they had been skirmishing with a troop of volunteer Dragoons they sent them back to Cuckfield with a keg of brandy. 

Shades of Captain Mainwaring and his merry men? A light-hearted glimpse into history, perhaps, but history nevertheless, and Cuckfield unlike its near and much bigger neighbouring town of today, Haywards Heath, has plenty of it. 

You see Haywards Heath, now a very sizeable and bustling place, and headquarters of Mid Sussex District Council, was quite literally not there except as heathland until the middle of the 1800s. 


It came into being only because Cuckfield and nearby Lindfield both refused to have railway stations, and a station had to be put somewhere in the area. The authorities chose the barren heath and a town grew round it.

Cuckfield didn't want to railway station because it was already a lively and prosperous town, the last staging post for coaches flying between London and Brighton. 

With a population now more than 1,700, it had some dozen shops and plenty of work for ostlers, postilions, and grooms, saddlers, blacksmiths, chambermaids and many others. What would it want with the railway? 

The earliest stage coach from London to Brighton had been in 1780, called the Brighthelmstone and Cuckfield machine, and the fare to Cuckfield was 10 shillings and sixpence. It was the beginning of Cuckfield’s re-emergence as a place of importance for the first time since the iron industry. 

The Prince Regent loved visiting Brighton and so it became a fashionable resort for the nobility. By 1828 there were 50 coaches going through Cuckfield every day. The clatter of horses hooves approaching along the London Road followed by their appearance between the shafts of the coaches at the top of the hill leading down to the High Street to the town centre; the drivers shouting and heaving at the range to keep their animals in check; the faces of the lords and ladies peering out from the coach windows as they arrived at this final stopping place before reaching the coast, all this was an excitement that never seemed to lose its novelty. 

Daniel Dench, landlord of the King’s Head at the bottom of the hill, was said to keep between 30 and 40 pairs of horses for changing the coaches, and the nearby Talbot Inn was famous not only for supplying horses but also for accommodation. Both inns are still there. 

In 1813 a local man's diary recorded that the Prince of Orange and the Russian ambassador passed through the town. In the same year, the Prince Regent and the Earl of Fife stopped briefly, delivering the important news to the local folk that the Austrians had joined the Russians in the war against Napoleon.

Another stop was made by a coach carrying Her Imperial Highness the Grand Duchess of Oldenburgh, sister of the Empress of Russia. 

Oh yes, these were heady days for the little town, but of course the railways began winning the battle for the passengers. By the early 1840s, Cuckfield’s era as a major transport stop was over forever. 

Today it is just a little village. Well, an independent state. It issues passports to anyone who wants to buy them; it has its own money, it's currency is the Cuckoo, and a five-cuckoo note, worth 5p, is accepted in local shops, and it even has its own postage stamps but you must use ordinary stamps as well when posting letters or parcels. 


The big thing about all this is the amount of money it raises. Thousands of pounds are handed over each year for such things as essential equipment in schools, providing Christmas dinners for elderly people, buying furniture for for the folk who can't afford it, helping hospitals and giving large amounts to medical research, assisting youth organisations and sports clubs, and lots of other things.

It all makes the Independent State of Cuckfield much more than just a gesture of annoyance against the local council. And now about this bypass to which I referred earlier. 

As I said, the traffic through Cuckfield Street is only 10% of what it was. But what I didn't say was that trade in the village has dropped off somewhat alarmingly. 

There seems, to me, to be too many For Sale and To Let signs outside deserted business premises for Cuckfield’s economy to be healthy. 

It had an iron mongers shop for 150 years before the bypass was built, but no longer has one. It used to have a  men's and women's clothes shop, but it hasn't now. It had a delicatessen, and a green grocer. No longer.

Some people say that this situation has been course not so much by the provision of a bypass, as by rising rents and by county council refusal to ease the yellow line parking restrictions and allow people to do their shopping in comfort. The council is now under pressure to change its mind. 

By the way, about 300 years ago Cuckfield was grossly insulted when a guidebook entitled Blome’s Britannia had this to say about it: “Cuckfield is seated in the dirty part of the county; an indifferent town”. 

Exhibiting commendable restraint, the local citizenry responded to this unwarranted slur with a dignified silence. Well, perhaps they hadn't read it - it is on record that in the 17th century fewer than half the people in Cuckfield could read or write, despite having a grammar school. 

But Cuckfield cannot be dismissed today as ‘an indifferent town’, since it recently won this year's prize as best kept village in West Sussex. Eat your heart out Mr Blome. whoever you were. 

I express gratitude to Miss Maisie Wright for permission to use historical information gleaned from two books written by her: ‘Cuckfield, an old Sussex Town’, and ‘Cuckfield in old picture postcards’.



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