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19th century: All the shops you need

In this article by Margaret Holt, she looks back at how people fared in Cuckfield and the local area two centuries ago.

Local history can only portray its story against national events, and it is from the records, written and vocal, of those who toiled for such little reward, that the feeling of the countryside can be comprehended.

After 1830/31 when the great agricultural disturbances of the ‘Swing Riots’ had subsided, village life in Sussex gradually assumed its even tenor. Agriculture was the main occupation in the middle years of Victoria’s reign and in Sussex nearly three quarters of the population derived their existence from the country, even small towns such as Horsham, Steyning and East Grinstead were rural in character. Nevertheless a great variety of small craftsmen worked at their trades within those villages.

Henfield in 1874, with a large population of 1763, had a watchmaker, brewer, blacksmith, wheelwright, saddler, miller, baker, shoe-maker, and maltster in addition to the butcher, grocer and dress-maker and this, is typical of many other villages of that size.

Later, village bake-houses took 'over and as the baker made local deliveries around the countryside home baking almost stopped. People on their way to church on Sunday would leave their joints in the village bake-house to be cooked, collecting them on the way home. The bake-house for the village of Ashington, which was used in this way, still stood near the main road until a few years ago.

At Ifield in the late 1880s Rosa Harding, daughter of the publican at The Plough Inn, had to rise at 5am, in order to be ready to serve the men when they arrived about six o'clock on their way to work, and to fill their bottles or wooden casks with beer for the mid-day meal.

She worked all day, there were no prescribed hours so they never closed, and in the evening it was only when the last customer 'elected' to leave that she could clear up and go wearily to bed.

Population rose dramatically after 1730 and continued to rise throughout the 19th century, with a vast peasantry living on the land.


Transport in Sussex had always been difficult until the construction of turnpike roads in the late 18th century, and before the improvement of such roads mud and deep ruts were but one of the hazards of travel. Many people travelled by horse, occasionally by cart pulled by a team of oxen, with extra pack horses, their panniers filled to capacity, carrying everything needed for the journey.

Stage coaches linked London and the Sussex coast, stopping frequently at small towns in order to change horses and pick up passengers. In the country there were already many small carriers working between villages and towns, and these would sometimes accommodate passengers, but in the main, country people walked.

Dr. John Burton, an inveterate traveller, coming into Sussex in 1751 declared; ‘I fell immediately upon all that was most bad, upon a land desolate and muddy ... whether by men or beasts a stranger could not easily distinguish, and upon roads which were, to explain concisely what is most abominable, Sussexian’.

William Marshall, the great agricultural surveyor in 1798 describes the High Weald area of Ashdown Forest ‘as black and barren as the moorland of York and Westmorland’, and in the 19th. century William Cobbett damns it still harder with comments on the forest, ‘which is a heath, with here and there a few birch scrub upon it, verily the most villainously ugly spot I ever saw in England’.

Roads away from the turnpikes were appalling and although the upkeep was supposed to be the responsibility of farmers, each taking a section of the road to maintain, such maintenance consisted in taking a cart to the Downs for a load of chalk or stones, and tipping it straight out onto the lane where passing carts would eventually bed it in. Flints were also collected and piled by the side of the road where old men spent the day knapping the stones into pieces suitable for repairs to the highway.


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.

Illustration from Daguerreotypes by Beard in: London Labour and the London Poor, 1851, by Henry Mayhew. 'Orange Mart, Duke’s Place.'

Contributed by Malcolm Davison. From the Cuckfield Museum archives

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