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2008: A State of Independence are we! History reviewed

Updated: Dec 4, 2023


by Carolyn Robertson

When the council said no to donkey racing, the villagers said……

a state of independence are we!

In the 1950s the pitch is now used by Haywards Heath rugby club were the grazing pastures of a prized herd of jersey cows.

Once a year from 1954 onwards their owner, a Miss Turner, handed the land over to the late Peter Bowring and his wife, Phyl, to hold their donkey Grand National.

Scores of donkeys and their owners arrived for the event, as well as anything from 10,000 to 20,000 spectators and bookmakers.

Whiteman's Green was a gridlock; vehicles that made the organisers less than popular with local residents, as the present users are when their teams play at home.

Like rugby matches, however, the donkey Grand National was a sporting fixture that gripped the community despite the commotion.

"People loved it," said Phyl, "I think after the war they were absolutely starved of things to do. And the donkeys went like smoke!"

Pearly King and Queen at the Donkey Derby

The Bowrings had begun the local custom of donkey racing on the green at Wivelsfield in 1951 after being pivotal in a campaign to save the green from a housing threat.

And they already had the main ingredients - 150 willing donkeys they had taken in for the RSPCA after the train they were being transported in derailed on its way to Belgium.

The donkey racing at Wivelsfield on Whitsun bank holidays was for charity and spawned one at Whiteman's Green on August bank holidays.

The Bowrings went on to organise donkey racing at the county cricket ground in Hove, in Worthing, Lewes, Turners Hill and Chailey, all to raise money for charities.

They acquired such followings that national newspapers sent their reporters down to cover the events as well as writers from esteemed journals including Punch and The Times Educational Supplement.

When the Whiteman's Green event was forced to close in 1965, and you an altogether different force to be reckoned with rose like a phoenix from its ashes.

Phil Bowring remembers clearly the sequence of events that led to the formation in 1966 of the Independent state of Cuckfield whose fame has now spread far and wide.

Placing bets at the races

"We used to have the Donkey Grand National at Whiteman's Green until 1965 when the council compulsorily purchased the farm for playing fields," said Phil, who turns 90 next month.

"When we asked them if we could have it for one day a year for the Donkey Grand National they said no, so we decided to declare independence just like Rhodesia with UDI.

It was great fun! We issued our own passports and currency with five cuckoos equalling a shilling, and we printed our own postage stamps which were used locally throughout the postal strike".

Now in its 40th anniversary year, the Independent state of Cuckfield has much to celebrate including more than £200,000 which Phyl estimates has been raised for local causes.

It's run-in with the local council over the donkey Grand National was the first of several the State and its patrons have had over the years.

The two most acrimonious in the 70s seem inconceivable today.

One saw the council become a hated parish while it granted itself permission for a leisure park on land at Beech Farm at Whiteman's Green including holiday chalets and a site for 300 touring caravans.

A competitor leaps over the fance

"We fought them tooth and nail, we mobilised everybody," Phyl said with typical efficiency. Then they decided to put the land on the open market with all the planning approvals intact".

With a value estimated at £350,000, Phil scoured the village, extracting promises of money from all and sundry so the independent state could bid at the public auction.

The well-off and the not so well off, and a few exceptions in both cases, guaranteed what they could until the entire amount was found.

It was a close call but people power won the day and the Independent State found itself the owner of a swathe of land that, apart from resurrecting the Donkey Grand National once a year, it could think of very little use for.

The land was eventually sold back to the farmers and everyone who had guaranteed finance got their money back with the exception of former Lloyds under writer Peter Bowring who was a few thousand out.

The independent State also took upon itself to fight another civil proposal to turn 35 acres of prime high Weald landscape into a rubbish tip.

It became a golf course instead and, to this day, the view across the Ouse valley from the B2114 to Staplefield It's a stunning as nature intended.

The Independent State of Cuckfield has become less fiery in recent times and is on good terms with the other authorities.

"They absolutely loathed us, but we are on better terms now which is probably a good thing!" Phil said.

The Independent State of Cuckfield stamps

Today the Independent State concentrates its energies on fund raising for local good causes.

Peter Bowring, who died in 1990, is remembered as its founder, but it is Phyl who has been its backbone for much of its 39 years.

Phyl, who brought up five children in between donkey grand nationals and fighting injustices, handed over the chairmanship to Jim Ayling three years ago but she's still honorary president.

"It's kept me out of mischief and it's been a lot of fun," Phyl said at home in Cleaver's Lane.

"It's also been very worrying at times and we did get fairly desperate when we were fighting the rubbish tip.

"There were springs that drained into the Ouse which then went into the reservoir to feed our drinking water and there was a North Sea gas pipeline under the ground.

"Eventually we managed to get nationwide, the old BBC News programme to come down and they spent three days filming."

Television viewers were treated to not only the thrill of an "independent state" battling it out against authority but also the local regiment of the Society of the Sealed Knot marching across the threatened land with bayonets fixed.

The re-enactment Cavaliers and Roundheads of the White Plumes Regiment sang a specially written war anthem to the tune of Sussex by the Sea with pupils from the school for the deaf at Mill Hall marching behind them.

The rubbish tip plan was beaten decisively into touch and the Independent State decorated the town in bunting before celebrating en masse.

"it was pretty grim at the time so we didn't really enjoy the fun," Phyl recalled. "If the tip had happened it would have been ghastly."

Phyl, who was once asked by inhabitants of the Virgin Islands to send donkeys to race on their beaches, received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Bright 106.4 Christmas Awards last year.

She was unable to attend the presentation due to Independent State duties - preparing the old folk's Christmas lunch.

For more information on the history of The Independent State of Cuckfield please follow the link:

Visit Cuckfield Museum for ‘Horsepower – Before machines altered the pace of life forever’ display and much, much more. Follow the link for details


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