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Exclusive - The Old King's Head in Cuckfield revealed

Updated: Jun 2, 2022

My father was host of the King's Head, which stood where Mr Langton's house now is, and many is the royal guest the old inn has welcomed ... The old Kings Head disappeared from Cuckfield's landscape, to, in 1858, when it was practically demolished, and the building erected in its place ceased to be an inn.

Impression of the old King's Head alongside Oddynes, with access to the stabling yard © Malcolm Davison

These, the words of King’s Head landlady’s daughter Amelia Dench (1804-1890), motivated me to find the original site of the inn, and to recreate the façade of the old building. Amelia’s father was Daniel Dench who regularly played host to the Prince Regent. His brother was the landlord of The George in Crawley.

The census for 1881 shows that Captain Langton lived at Hillrise - on the site of the recently closed Post Office and adjacent retail premises to the north. This confirms that the main building of the original King’s Head was in the High Street - and not where the King’s Mews is located, on the southern corner of the High Street.

Hubert Bates, village clockmaker and local historian, mentions this former location in a Middy article about the King's Head in March 1931.

Marcus Grimes, Cuckfield's High Street estate agent, confirms that there is unusually generous space (4ft 6in) under the floor of his estate agency premises at Hillrise. Could this be part of the former inn’s wine and beer cellar?

Later I give an abridged history of the former ‘Old King’s Head’ from c1840 to early 1900s, but first I’ll explain how I derived the visualisation above.

Clues for the visualisation

There were two photographs taken in the mid nineteenth century, that give us tantalising glimpses of the extreme far left of the old King’s Head in the High Street. We also have two artist’s street scenes that give us some clues of what the building may have looked like.

Albert Dumsday's photo c1855 showing part of the façade

The first photograph is looking down the high street and shows the Talbot Hotel and Posting House on the left (c1855). To the right, we get a glimpse of the far end of the frontage of King's Head, Hillrise is masked from view. This was probably taken by Albert Dumsday, son of Ambrose Dumsday, the proprietor of the Talbot Hotel.

The second photo is looking down the high street showing a 'Welcome Home' arch set up for Rev TA Maberley returning from convalescence abroad in 1877. Two bay windows of the far side of the old King’s Head can be seen, but the north part of the building has been demolished by this date. Hillrise, built on the old inn foundations, can be seen replacing this end. We can see a roof dormer window and a central chimney and two window bays.

The 1877 'welcome home' photo

It seems strange that while hundreds of contemporary etchings exist of coaching inns around the country one of Cuckfield’s King’s Head does not seem to exist. Even though this one was so well known and frequented by the Prince Regent. But two artist’s impressions do exist however.

Thomas Rowlandson watercolour, entitled ‘Cuckfield, Sussex, at Fair time’, is dated 1789. It is inaccurate in so many of its details, particularly the buildings and their positioning. This drawing suggests does not show the Odynnes (Coop building) and a building behind is on a different alignment. It shows a pub opposite, which we have to assume is the Talbot Inn. It shows so little of the King’s Head frontage that it has been unable to contibute anything to my visualisation.

Thomas Rowlandson watercolour, ‘Cuckfield, Sussex, at fair time’ 1789

John Nixon (c1755-1818) was one of the most notable amateur artists working in London in the late eighteenth century, and became best known for his caricatures of urban society. He caricatured the high street in 1790. Although only a quickly executed sketch it seems to be far more accurate with its detailing and positioning of the buildings.

Detail from John Nixon's impression of Cuckfield High Street 1790

Lintott’s name (the landlord of the Kings Head at the time) is shown on the ‘gallows’ inn sign that projects out onto the street. Again Odynnes has apparently not been built yet. But the two paintings may have excluded the building for artistic reasons, or was it under construction perhaps, or was it added much later? Historic England describes the building as late C17th or early C18th - before the paintings were done, on what evidence I wonder.

Above the front door is a portico supporting a bay window. Since the pub was visited by the Prince Regent, you can picture his majesty waving and addressing his subjects from this and perhaps watching staged events - such as bare knuckle prize fighting in the street below. The picture also shows a couple of bay windows on the inn’s façade something that's reinforced by the two photographs.

Frontage length and access to the stableyard

I decided to plot the likely plan dimensions from a map and incorporate the façade features into a cohesive symmetrical elevation that would make logical sense.

Early maps suggest that Ockenden Lane was straighter than today joining the High Street as much as three or four metres further north. The buildings today to the north of the lane were built in 1871 after the maps were drawn. So the inn façade is likely to have been a few metres longer than the site would suggest today.

The 1809 Sergison Estate map shows an entrance for stage coaches between the buildings on the High Street, while another suggests coaches approached from the High Street down Ockenden Lane, and then taking a gentle angled left turn into the stabling yard behind the inn. It's possible that both are correct, simply representing different phases of inn development.

King's Mews converted from the King's Head c2005

In a 1913 account ‘A retrospect by a Cuckfield native’ by the son of the local schoolmaster a Mr McNorris, in Cuckfield Museum, we learn that this part of the High Street looked quite different: ‘At the corner of the lane leading to Ockenden House is the gateway of the Old King's Head yard and opposite to the Talbot Hotel - a garden above the level of the street.’ We may be able to see the front of this in the 'Welcome Home' photo.

If the access for stagecoaches was via Ockenden Lane. Then we can shift the inn to the left in the visualisation - the gap between the inn and Oddynes may just be a metre or less.

You will notice that the adjacent Oddynes / Coop building was about the same size as the inn building. That might suggest that the buildings were designed to complement each other - maybe Oddynes was part of the old inn - a southern bedroom extension perhaps?

The White Lion

The inn had to constantly adapt over its 200+ years and between 1790 and 1813 as the ‘favourite inn’ expanded to cope with the burgeoning overnight passing trade. It became a sprawling complex of buildings and mutually dependent businesses.

We know that a former pub ‘the White Lion’ existed within the inn complex - just behind the inn. This is called Ockenden Cottage today. Author Robert Thurston Hopkins gave details in the 1930s of when Albert Burtenshaw's was the owner, ‘Mr Burtenshaw drew us into a cottage with heavily timbered rooms. Ockenden Cottage was once the White Horse Inn ... The old bottle-glass windows in the interior doors, which date from the 17th century, and the deep hewn cellars suggest its former career.’

In her 1986 book, ‘Slightly Foxed’, former actress Angela Fox who lived in both Ockenden Cottage and Buntings in the grounds from 1939 until she died in 1999, recalled:

‘The cottage was attached to an old-fashioned bakery which later we bought and converted; there was always the smell of yeast, which visitors loved and Robin (her business tycoon husband) hated.’

In 1812/13 Cuckfield clockmaker Hubert Bates records in his journal the number of soldiers that had been billeted in local inns in the area. The King's Head took 50, with The Talbot taking 30. Maybe soldiers would have been expected less space than the average paying traveller, but clearly the inn was quite spacious.

Sprawling complex

The bay windows of the Old Kings Head seen on extreme left - and its gardens behind the wall

So what facilities would the King's Head incorporate? Sufficient sleeping accommodation, a large kitchen, large dining room, a bar and there is a mention of ‘The Great Room’ - a meeting room. There was a nearby farrier / blacksmith, but the ‘King’s Tap’ was probably a much later addition.

Richard Hodd, yeoman of Ansty, took over the King's Head about this time just before the turn of the nineteenth century and on his death, in 1800, the inn comprised ‘three buildings, and other property’.

In Dench’s time there was stabling for 30 or more horses. There was accommodation for grooms and ostlers, who worked into the early hours to attend to the mail coaches. The stabling yard - now private gardens - was a noisy hive of activity from dawn to late at night.

Could the Royal accommodation have had a view of the Downs, and made the Prince Regents’ visits even more welcoming? is it possible that the ‘first class’ accommodation was located in what is now ‘King’s Mews’? Records show that this building was the home of a later landlord, so maybe the royals stayed in the same building as Daniel Dench, and well apart from the rest of travellers in the main inn building over the road. It would have been much quieter and was also further from the stableyard and away from boisterous customers.

In Brighton the Prince Regent was able to cross to the nearby Brighton Theatre Royal and the Royal stables from the Royal Pavilion by discrete underground passages. There is a report of a tunnel connecting the King’s Head with Ockenden House which sadly collapsed on a servant girl. Is it possible that there was also a tunnel connecting the King’s Mews building to Odynnes - so that inn staff and the King could freely move between buildings? A flight of fancy maybe.

Both The Talbot and the King’s Head were significant businesses, the latter was probably the largest in town. Both farmed nearby land and self-catered to furnish large volumes of fresh meat and 'home grown' vegetables needed for their guests. In 1765 the lease for the King’s Head tells us that it had three acres of land at Broad Street Meadows, this is where today we find Courtmead Road.

Does anything survive of the old inn?

The old brewery buildings, now two houses, behind the old inn and parallel with the High Street, may have simply been part of the old inn repurposed. Perhaps this block was accommodation / kitchens or the dining area. Many of the outbuildings do exist and now been turned into houses or flats.

Could the portico on the King’s Mews have come from the old inn? It is the right date and it looks like the one in Nixon’s painting. It does intrude into the street space - as if, when they were modifying the new King's Head complex in the mid 1850s, that they decided that, despite the positioning, they would reuse it from the demolition material.

Much of the above is conjecture, and there is precious little written or visual evidence to go on. If you have any information that might be helpful in our researches, please do get in touch.

A brief history of the site

The earliest recorded mention of the King’s Head, Cuckfield can be found in the East Sussex Record Office (SAS/BR 26) the date is 23 June 1756 a one year lease to Richard Jarvis who we seems to have been the first King's Head landlord, by Richard Cardine of Lewes. The documents, and there are several leases at ESRC, and all refer to the previous name of the inn as ‘Goldings’.

The Old King’s Head was part demolished c1858 and a small brewery and shops were built by the landlord of The Talbot, Thomas Best, when he set up a brewing business at the age of 25. The Talbot Inn (previously run by his father Faulkner Best) transferred to Albert Dumsday. The King's Head business moved to the site now occupied by King’s Mews on the western corner of Church Lane, and records for the building confirm that it was altered and extended in the mid 19th century.

The current high street frontage buildings were built on the site of the former inn and the area behind became the ‘Cuckfield Brewery’. This was set up by the Best, who, in 1806, had saved the King’s Head from bankruptcy. The situation may well have been brought on by extensive construction or acquisition - could this have been a cashflow problem due to the building of Oddynes? The debt was repaid within the year.

Thomas Best built the house on the northern end, adjacent to Ockenden Lane, called ‘Hillrise’ which became his home by 1861. It’s still there today. The brewery was successful and soon employed six men. By 1879, and at the age of 61, Best handed over the operation of the brewery to 24-years old (Captain) Joseph Langton from Wandsworth. He offered a range of nine beers with ‘terms cash’.

In the Sussex County Magazine 1951 about well known Cuckfield resident William Mitchell we learn, ‘When Mr Mitchell was a young man the brewery in the Ockenden Lane was a flourishing concern, supplying beer to hotels at Haywards Heath and in other parts of the neighbourhood. He recalled seeing the pumping done at the Brewery from a deep well by one of the dray horses walking round in a circle, working the machine geared to pump. The brewery was converted into private houses about half a century ago.’

About this time the rest of the old inn frontage was demolished and access for brewery lorries was made adjacent to Odynnes. By 1882 the property was owned by Warden Sergison of Cuckfield Park the high street properties had previously been owned by the Burrells.

By 1891 Joseph Langton was living in Hillrise with his wife Emma and his three daughters. TW Best, now a wealthy man, lived at the large country house 'Harvest Hill', in Ansty. In 1898 Southdown Brewery took over the renamed ‘Dolphin Brewery’ in Cuckfield. Best died in 1906 at the age 88. His wife paid for the building of St John’s Church in Burgess Hill, yes, the proceeds of booze funded a church!

The Southdown and East Grinstead Breweries, sold out to Tamplins who closed Cuckfield's brewery down in 1923 and the whole business went into liquidation in 1924. The brewery building would then have been sold and converted and divided into the two properties in Ockenden Lane. So essentially the Dolphin Brewery building, which might have formed part of the old inn, is still present today.

At the same time Hillrise was converted into a retail and residential premises. the corner retail unit, in the early 1900s, was Pace the drapers and outfitters.



Closure date of Old Kings Head from Daniel Dench’s daughter: ‘Picturesque West Sussex and its borders No.7’, West Sussex County Times, 22 July 1938 (Quoting Herbert Bates account)

Historic England, Oddynes:

Sussex Extensive Urban Survey (EUS), Historic Character Assessment Report, Roland B Harris Mid Sussex District Council October 2005

Cuckfield Conservation Area Appraisal, May 2006, Mid Sussex District Council

Sergison Estate Map, 1906, West Sussex County Archive

The Lure of Sussex, by Thurston Hopkins, 1931


High Street King's Head visualisation © Malcolm Davison

Rowlandson's c1790 drawing of ‘Cuckfield Town on a Market Day’, which was published towards the close of the 18th century. Although the drawing is open to some criticism, the old King's Head is correctly placed at the corner of Ockenden Lane, and there its sign hung for another fifty years.

‘Peeps Into The Past’, The Old King’s Head, Cuckfield, by Hubert Bates, Mid Sussex Times - Tuesday 10 March 1931.

The Kings Head Inn c1790 by John Nixon to be seen in Sussex Depicted: Views and Descriptions, 1600-1800, Volume 85, Sussex Record Society, 2001. p199.

Photo street scene on Reverend TA Maberley’s return in 1877 in ‘ Cuckfield in old postcards’ by Maisie Wright, 1984, P18

A view of the High Street prominently showing the Talbot Hotel.. This was probably taken by Albert Dumsday, son of Ambrose Dumsday, the proprietor of the Talbot Hotel.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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