When the war with France broke out again in 1803, Napoleon assembled a large army at Boulogne to invade England. 300,000 volunteers assembled. Maisie Wright in 'A Chronicle of Cuckfield' gives a background of ths period of heightened tension as troops poured southwards through Cuckfield and an amusing diversion that took place:
In Cuckfield the volunteers appeared in the red coats and white breeches of the Sussex Light Dragoons. Barracks were built in Brook Street and soldiers billetted in local inns: 30 at The Talbot, 50 at the King’s Head, 18 at the White Hart, 17 at The Ship, 16 at The Rose and Crown, and 12 the Green Cross, Ansty.
In preparation for the expected invasion, and in order that the old infirm and children, if needs be, might be carried to safety, every farmer had to register the number and size of his available carts and beacons were built on the Downs to be lit when Napoleon's fleet was sighted. A watch was set in Cuckfield churchyard and there was great excitement when the watcher sighted a beacon, accidentally lit, and gave the alarm. Women and children, seizing what possessions they could, fled to St. Leonards Forest.
The Cuckfield Volunteers mustered, some with metal dish covers fastened to their chests for protection against enemy fire, and set off to meet the foe on the coast. Unfortunately they were overtaken by darkness and lost their way on Chailey Common. Here they were nearly routed by a band of smugglers, who mistook them for regular troops, but when they discovered their identity, sent them home with a keg of brandy. When they got back to Cuckfield they learnt of the false alarm.
The danger of invasion was averted by Nelson's victory in 1805 at the battle of Trafalgar, but the war continued until 1814. The Peace of Paris made that year was celebrated in Cuckfield on 21 June by a fête at Cuckfield Park when, according to the diary entry of Edward Bates, '1,200 of the poor sat down to dinner and were regaled with roast and boiled beef and plum pudding and plenty of good strong beer.'
NOTES: If you would like to know more about the Napoleonic Army Camps check this item on shorehambysea.com
A Chronicle of Cuckfield by Maisie Wright, P73 1971
Photograph: fire basket [Public Domain image, Wikimedia]
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.