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Education in Georgian and Victorian Cuckfield

Updated: Oct 18, 2020


No. XV


One or two clerical mistakes occur in my last letter. The name of the suicide was Leney, not Lewry, and the price quoted for tobacco should be eight shillings not eight pence per pound. But it is of no material consequence, and the latter too palpable to be misunderstood. Therefore, passing on in my saunter across the Split Oak pasture field, so named from the lifeless trunk of an old oak that had been shivered by lightning which formerly stood in the top hedge, and proceeding ...

I come to Bedlam pond and the Pest houses. In former days every solitary house, low barn or hovel, and even the lanes and pieces of water away from the daily resorts of mankind had attached to them something uncanny, and at night were avoided; and it was said of this old pond that on a certain night at the witching hour of midnight an apparition in the shape of haggard old woman might be seen seated on the surface busily plying a spinning wheel, and that at times goblins of hideous shape would waylay the traveller as he was passing by, but not molest him, and so strong was superstition implanted among the people that such tales were implicitly believed in, not only by the lower class, but by many in a higher sphere of life.

This train of ideas must not be ascribed to positive ignorance or deficiency of intellect in the masses, or to the system of education, weak as it was, pursued, but to a want of it practically, as well as a wide spread of intelligence, society, except in towns, being limited, and in some instances almost isolated in country districts at a distance from the main roads. Schools were not then conducted in country parishes as they have been since, the younger branches of a family being sent to one kept by some superannuated widow woman, whose learning reached no further than Mavor’s spelling book

furnished, not to learn anything but to get them out of the way during school hours, after which they were transferred to the village pedagogue, generally parish clerk, who acted as clerk to the vestry, said Amen at church, led the choir, and fulfilled other duties.

Farmer’s sons were not supposed to require any further education than the three R’s—reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic and this in a limited degree. The sons of tradesmen were made more proficient in figures, or they would be useless behind the counter. There were certainly liberal-minded men who advocated the extension of learning to the lower class, but so strongly bigoted were the opponents that for years it made but little progress.

I can remember when it was first proposed to establish a National, or, as it was termed, Charity school at Cuckfield. It was bitterly opposed, a leading farmer observing that it was enough to teach the labourers' children how to work with their hands. Book learning, he said, was of no benefit to them;

it would only make them useless and idle, and they would be constantly prying into their master’s and mistress's bills and letters that might be lying about. But in spite of this, through the exertions of a few spirited individuals the plan was adopted, and the school built on piece of waste land by the roadside above the “Rose and Crown,” where it remained until, as the old Grammar school in the churchyard was deserted, the endowment was diverted and the National school established on its site, having been since largely added to. Schools in country places were then more mixed, and attended alike by girls and boys, who were of course educated separately, and I have heard old teachers of that day say that the girls were much more apt and ready in learning than the boys.

This may be easily accounted from their domestic and sedentary habits being more conducive to application than the active life led by their brothers, who preferred roaming in the fields, and the games they indulged in to the drudgery of the schools; and when they became settled in life it was found that the old adage, “The grey mare is the better horse,” was fulfilled to the letter.

But this is going out of route, and has nothing to do with Bedlam pond or the Pest House, so treating the story of the old woman and the spinning wheel as an imaginary tale, and merely stating that the Pest house was so named being selected when the road to Haywards Heath was a deep, miry, and narrow lane as a depot in which young persons were domiciled for a time while undergoing the operation of inoculation when the small pox was raging, it being before vaccination was in vogue, and the house as it were “out of the world,”

I shall turn off at Tyler’s Green and saunter down Isaac’s lane. I cannot account for how this little green came by its title. It might have been named after that Irish worthy—Teddy the tiler - as palpable a surmise as the tale so long accredited at Haywards Heath that Dick Turpin, the celebrated highwayman resided in the old cottage that stood until lately on the spot now occupied by the Sessions House; and as to the road, our Sussex phraseology rarely pronounces a word or the name of a place as it is spelt, therefore the natives call it Hisick’s lane, but that is no matter: it is a good sound road, and leads down to the Iron Pear Tree cottage, formerly a favourite resort of smugglers and poachers.

The cottage, and some small plots of land attached, formerly belonged to a person named Goldsmith, and are called to this day Goldsmith’s fields. He was said to have been another eccentric, of whom there appears to have flourished a rare crop in his day, and owned the little estate, it might be nearly or quite two centuries since, and the tale of his eccentricity says that in his will he provided that his remains should be buried in certain spot on his own land. His request complied with, and he rested quietly for years.

The spot where he lay—there being no grave rail or stone to commemorate event—in course of time became unheeded and forgotten, although it was recorded in memory and fireside chat, until the trustees of the turnpike took the old lane in hand and made a hard road of it, putting up a gate-house and toll gate. But it was necessary to procure stone as handy as possible, Goldsmith’s fields were dug over, and the men in doing so came across the grave and unearthed his bones, which I have heard they carefully collected and privately interred in churchyard mould.

Such was the tale, and I have strange reasons to believe it to be veracious, with all my doubts about Dick Turpin. Having strayed thus far out of my road to the Heath, I turn back, not for Tyler’s but Butler’s Green, having some remarks to make on Bolnore, before reaching there.

This estate, in our local vernacular pronounced Bounour. formerly belonged a gentleman named Cook, who seems have been noted for his peculiarities. He was one of firm who carried extensive business in the leather trade at Bermondsey, but in the country, where he resided principally, was a country gentleman, kept hounds and was reputed to hold extensive manorial privileges that gave the right to hunt far and wide, from the foot of the Downs to the borders of Surrey, and I believe owned some forest land above Balcombe, as the roadside public house, The Norfolk Arms, at the junction of the Horley and Turner’s Hill roads, belonging to him, he christened it “The Half Smock,” and had a most indecent sign painted and placed in front, but the magistrates interfered, and it was removed; yet the house is still locally known by the title he gave it.

Among his numerous vagaries it was related of him that he selected an oak tree on his ground, had it felled and sawn into planks, from which had a coffin manufactured, polished and placed in the hall, intending to receive his remains at his death and burial, a use which I understand it was applied. It was said also to have been his custom on the anniversary of his birthday to invite a large party of his friends and neighbours, and filling the coffin with punch kept them together until they had emptied it.

After his death the estate passed into the hands of Mr. Joseph Baker, a magistrate, who had filled some high office in India. Mr. Baker, with one exception, was the last person who sported a pigtail, and profusely used hair powder, about this locality, the exception being an old pensioner who taught the inmates of the Workhouse shoemaking, and was very particular in arranging his hair so as to form a natty pigtail. Nor would the ex-Indian judge be outdone in ceremonious politeness, it being related of him that passing along the street with a friend they met a poor man who took off his hat and made a low bow, which Mr. Baker, raising his hat, returned.

"What!" said his friend, “bow to such people?”

“Certainly,” replied the old gentleman. “No one should allow himself to be beaten in polite behaviour, even by a beggar.”

His many freaks and experiments in the farming line were a fruitful fund of amusement to his neighbours, who admitted, however, that although not one was successful they did much good by furnishing employment to numerous hands, so that if he added nothing to the store of agricultural knowledge he at least aided reducing the burden of Poor Rates.

He was succeeded by Admiral Sir John Wells, who having previously resided at Butler’s Green purchased the Bolnore estate, enlarged the mansion, and made numberless improvements, completely changing its appearance. Sir John was said to have a portion of royal blood in his veins, but whether so or not he claimed to be “brother tar” with the sailor king, William the Fourth, they having been middies together, and sailed with Rodney at the time of his great naval victory in 1780, and subsequently - Whether it was on that or subsequent engagement that Sir John, then lieutenant, was sent home with dispatches is not certain, but for his celerity in bringing the news he was said to be rewarded by being promoted, and for his spirited conduct at the mutiny of the fleet in 1797 rated the post of Captain.

It is singular how modern houses and grounds change with each change of ownership, but it is not so with our old solidly built mansions and manor-houses. If Cook was to return he would not find a single feature correspond with what he contrived, but if the Mr. Warden, who is said to have built Butler’s Green house, were to revisit it he would find it pretty near as he left it.

The heronry has been long deserted and the rooks have changed their quarters, finding the old trees by the pond shaky and unsafe, but there stands the old square-built house, looking about as we may suppose it did when its owner planted tho old oaks in front of the “Sergison Arms," reared from plants he was said to have raised from acorns he procured from the Royal Oak in the New Forest; or at the time when Admiral Warren left it to convey Wolfe and his brave little army by sea on his fatal journey to Quebec. In next letter I shall refer to these events and conclude.


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