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19th century: 1970s Cuckfield Park owner on how the poor made ends meet

Sometimes the picture we have of country life in the Victorian era is coloured by the writings of those who could only see the sunshine days of summer, the cottage garden full of glorious colour, lovely, clean curly-headed children dancing round the Maypole, and the kitchen portrayed with all the family gathered round a table loaded with crusty bread and home-made food.

In this first of a series of items taken from an article by Margaret Holt shows us that local life was not like that for most of the time, if at all, and as we look back over a century of village life it is impossible not to be astounded at the determination of the labourer and his family to survive.

It is undeniable that the country labourer was very, very poor. His rent might only be a few shillings a week but that, taken out of a pay packet of about 13/- or less, left but a minimal amount for food, and families were often very large. The countryman appeared to exist on a totally inadequate diet; breakfast was a hunk of bread with a little cheese and a pint of weak, milk-less, sugared tea, but if he had the cows to milk he received a quart of beer after the milking.

Lunch was bread with a piece of very fat bacon, washed down with beer, and the evening meal consisted of coarse cooked cabbage and other vegetables, with the inevitable bacon if available, dry bread and tea.

There was seldom milk to add to the tea because so few labourers had a cow and even the small farmer rarely had more than four or five, the milk produced having to go for butter which sold at l/2d per lb. In fact butter was hardly ever used on bread for in addition to its expense and scarcity, pure lard was really preferred.

Tea was also expensive, hence the weakness, and it was a usual practice for the cottagers to go up to the 'Big House' and take home the used tea leaves which were carefully saved for them by the kitchen staff, as happened at Cuckfield Park house until the early years cf this century. In very poor households it was the custom to take turns with a neighbour to boil the kettle for tea, in order to save fuel.

Food for these large families was always a problem, sometimes almost insurmountable. Vegetables from the garden and allotment were the mainstay with cabbage the most important item.

Bread was usually baked at home in an oven built into the side of the open hearth. If there was no oven a space was cleared on the hot hearth-stone and bread or a pie set on it, covered with an iron pot.

In Devon the cottager said ‘if 'tes pies I put her under her on a dish … but it she be a loaf I set her down naked’. Sometimes on the larger farms a separate bake-house was built and there are excellent examples of this at Ardingly and Clayton.


Malcolm and Margaret Holt owned the property at Cuckfield Park in the 1970s. Margaret was a keen historian and actively researched the Cuckfield area and was very active in expanding the activities of the Cuckfield Museum.

Illustrations from Daguerreotypes by Beard in: London Labour and the London Poor, 1851, by Henry Mayhew.

The Kitchen, Fox Court, Gray’s Inn Lane.

The street seller of crockery ware, bartering for old clothes.

The Wallflower Girl.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison. From the Cuckfield Museum archives.



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