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19th century: Kids in charge

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

Young children were an integral part of the countryman’s workforce and from a very early age they were trained to help. It was quite common for a girl of six or seven to be left at home all day in charge of smaller brothers and sisters, while the mother went out to work, leaving them a little bread for food but nothing else.

The child would be expected to nurse the baby, carrying it about in her arms, watch the pot, tidy the house, fetch water from the stream or village well, scour the hedges for sticks and be ready for her mother's return at 4.30pm with the fire burning and the kettle on.

Young boys helped their fathers with any farm duties and also worked in the fields, stone picking after the arable fields had been ploughed, and bird scaring when the seed was coming up. About the age of ten they would often start as full-time workers for a nearby farmer, usually as a carter’s boy.

Small boys of six or seven years were also employed in the local brickworks, of which there were many in Sussex, where they ‘puddled’ the clay with their bare feet, and so expert did they become that they could feel and reject even the smallest of stones. It was very hard and cold work, finally brought to an end at the Keymer brickworks by the efforts of Major Warden Sergison of Cuckfield Park.

Girls also helped in the fields, often alongside their mothers picking out couch grass behind the plough, singling turnips, or setting peas and beans. Sometimes these would be sown by a man with a pair of dibbers 3ft long, with sharp iron points, walking backwards over the ploughed field punching holes, and followed by five or six children who dropped the seeds, held in bags tied round their waists, into the holes.

There were also the seasonal jobs, pole shaving, helping with the bark harvest in early May, haymaking, harvesting, gleaning (where small deft hands could pick up and take home enough corn to see the family through the winter), potato picking and finally collecting acorns in the autumn for the fattening of the cottage pig.

For many children school was only a part-time arrangement, even after the Education Act of 1880 which made attendance compulsory up to the age of ten. They walked long distances to school, very often, in order to shorten the journey, along footpaths, through woods and across streams, arriving soaked through and muddy.

But even when the children did attend school many would take a few days off for a variety of reasons. School Log books are full of entries concerning unofficial ‘holidays ’, and comments about the small attendance numbers at fruit-picking times, times when the hops were late in ripening and when the harvest was prolonged, even the fact that the girls were away 'because their mothers want them’, usually to be 'Little Mothers’ to the younger ones.

In spite of the hard life children did have some happy times. If a few pennies could be spared they were thrilled to visit the fairs which were held twice a year in the towns, and sometimes there would be a circus which paraded through the street with the band playing and clowns running up and down. Even the 'Higgler' was a welcome visitor when he came to the cottages to buy eggs and poultry; he gave no money but exchanged the eggs for small goods purchased in the town.

Special occasions

And Mayday was a real holiday when small hoops were covered with spring flowers, which they called garlands, and little groups of children visited every house in the village for the garlands to be inspected and praised, and the traditional penny given. When the harvest was safely gathered in there was a little extra money for all, it was a time when villagers were able to pay off debts and the moment for buying the children’s shoes.

In fact the cobbler made great preparations for this moment and worked long hours through the summer in order to have the necessary shoes ready, for the most part heavy, hobnailed replicas of those worn by the parents.

The carol singers, including the children, went to the ‘Big House’ where sweet biscuits and even fruit would be handed round.


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.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison. From the Cuckfield Museum archives

Illustration 'The Judges Houses, East Grinstead' by Donald Maxwell from Coaching Days and Coaching Ways, by Outram Tristram, 1893



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