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2021: What writers said about Cuckfield (4)

Updated: Dec 27, 2022

Sussex Live June 22 2021

Cuckfield: The quaint Mid Sussex village which used to host annual donkey races

By Multimedia Journalist Yasmin Syed

The unassuming village in the heart of Mid Sussex has an entertaining past to say the least, as it was once famous for holding annual donkey races.

For 15 years, the event dubbed the 'Donkey Grand National' was held on Whitemans Green.

On every August bank holiday between 1951 and 1965, donkeys would race on the field, often drawing carriages of people behind them.

A donkey drawn carriage conveys Windmill girls around the race circuit c1958

Groups in the village used the event as a way to obtain much-needed funds to redistribute into Cuckfield and benefit the wider community. Locals set up stalls for the 10,000 racegoers who would come to Cuckfield especially for the event. As well as the thousands who would attend the races, around 20 bookmakers also made their way down to place bets on the animals as they competed on the field.

Betting at the donkey derby c1958

It wasn't always a huge attraction though, in the early years the donkey race started out on the land now home to Warden Park School, but it moved to the Whitemans Green site by Mill Hill Farm for its third annual event in 1953.

When the race, also previously dubbed the 'Donkey Derby' did pick up steam, it was so famous that it made it into a British tourist brochure advertising the country that was distributed to those abroad.

The much-loved Donkey Grand National came to an end after a successful 15-year stint when the local council purchased the fields at Whitemans Green and turned them into football and rugby pitches now seen there today.

The council refused to allow the race to continue over concerns that the donkey's hooves would damage the new pitches, and residents took the news hard.

With the Donkey Derby bringing so much money to the village, locals had to rally together to find a new way to raise funds for the local community and it sparked a movement perhaps even more bizarre than the mule competition.

In response to the council's decision to get rid of the donkey race, Cuckfield declared independence and became the 'Independent State of Cuckfield' in 1966, after signing the Unilateral Declaration of Independence.

The Mayor of Cuckfield in a triumphal procession down the High Street c1969

Peter Bowring was the man behind the movement, founding the Independent State with his wife Phyl and a group of volunteers.

To this day, the local charitable organisation continues to run their annual mayoral election to raise money for the village, in place of the money previously raised at the bank holiday races.

Residents pay a penny to vote in the election but can vote for each candidate as many times as they like, so long as they pay one pence per vote.

It's known as the country's 'most corrupt' election, with its 'election night' held in the local pub or village hall with the winner announced at 11pm.

The title of mayor is of course nothing but a name, with the fun election held purely to support local charities and give back to the local community.

The Independent State of Cuckfield's website says their aims today "are achieved mainly by supporting the wide and varied groups and organisations, based in Cuckfield and the locale, through the distribution of the money raised at the Mayor’s Election."

Who knows, one day we could see the return of donkey racing as a method to raise money for the village again.

Article courtesy of Sussex LIve; pictures one and two courtesy of Pathe News c1958



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