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19th century: The tough farming life

In this article by Margaret Holt she looks back at how local farmers took pride in building their herds of cattle - and the extent that they went to achieve this.

Most small farms concentrated on young beef stock and the local dealers went each year to Wales to buy cattle for them, and on their return journey any surplus went to the local market.

In the diary of the farmer and auctioneer Mr Henry J Smith, who was born at Southwater in 1827 and covers in his book a period of fifty years, he says that ‘Cattle came up on the hoof’ from Wales and that the cattle dealers drove them slowly along the ways allowing them to graze the wastes and verges of the drove ways as they came.

He also adds that ‘Despite the small quantity and poor quality of the milk (but excellent beef), the Sussex man will always stick to his Red cows and the Surrey man will always have his Spotted ones’.

He also records the saying attributed to a Southwater farmer that ‘There is no music equal to two flails and a cuckoo’, explaining that the farmer who could hold back his corn until the spring would be very prosperous as wheat at that time was at its highest price.

Harvest time

Harvest time was a family affair with everyone drawn in to help, even the babies came, settled under a hedge or corn stock in the charge of one competent child.

Fathers usually did the reaping, using the sickle as the scythe only took over in the late years of the century, with mothers and children stooking and binding. AJ Mumby, poet, barrister and social worker, who travelled widely throughout England in the 19th century, records in his diary that in Sussex women as well as men did the reaping although that tradition was soon to die out.

Wages of children at harvest time were about three shillings a week, a very useful addition towards the family budget.

The harsh life of the labourer, rising at five or even earlier in the morning - perhaps walk four or five miles to their work each day - and working very long hours in every kind of weather, tended to blunt and even erase all feelings of sensitivity, and the effect was often felt by the children.

They were continually shouted at by the mother and disciplined by the father with a rough oath and a hard slap, a kick with hob-nailed boot on the ankle, or a vicious caning. Field work was considered to be demoralising for young girls and if possible a domestic situation was found for them at the age of 12 or 13.

This was usually in a farmer's house and was a great relief to the parents, for one thing it gave a little more room in the cottage, and although the pay was only four pounds a year the young girl would now be fed and clothed to a far higher standard than at home, and in many instances the children were enabled to send part of their money home to their parents, or bring it on their half-yearly visits.


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 Lunnon Coach' by Donald Maxwell from Coaching Days and Coaching Ways, by Outram Tristram, 1893.



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