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19th century: Pig's life and poaching

In this article by Margaret Holt, she looks back at the role of the pig and how poaching helped sustain the local community two centuries ago.

It was the pig who took pride of place in any labouring family as Flora Thompson wrote in her classic book of the countryside, 'Lark Rise to Candleford’; "The pig was everybody's pride and everyone's business. Every scrap of leftovers, potato peelings, acorns and over-ripe fruit would be put in the pig tub at the back door, with any cooking liquor, to form a swill. The children, on their way home from school would fill their arms with sow thistles, dandelions and choice long grass, or roam among the hedgerows on wet evenings collecting snails in a pail for the pig’s supper".

During the last two weeks of life the pig was given as much to eat as possible; if he could not stand because of the weight he would be propped up or fed while sitting. Flora Thompson also describes the horrific details of the killing which, by tradition, had to take place within the first two quarters of the moon.

Sometimes a travelling pork-butcher came to do the killing, often at night when his own work was done, and the macabre and savage business was watched by the whole family. The ritual was considered necessary because the pig must bleed to death as slowly as possible, in order to keep the quality of the meat, and months of hard work and self-denial were on that night brought to a successful conclusion. It was a time to rejoice and so they did, with beer flowing and the first delicate dish of pigs-fry sizzling in the pan".

Poaching was another way of life and rabbits, pigeons, or occasionally game found their way into the family pot. Valter Starley, the Nurseryman of Albourne, and grandson of the famous James Starley who invented the differential gear, described to me how the young men of the village went out to the woods at night-time and 'drew' pheasants from the trees where they were roosting, then to be quickly sold around the village.


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: Rural scene, pig butchering, in France 1847. Paris, musée d'Orsay. Public Domain image.

Lower picture: 'The Thirteen Little Black Pigs and other stories' by Mary Louisa Molesworth c1870, Illustrator: WJ Morgan



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