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From the Archives: 1951- A local resident's memories of Old Cuckfield

Updated: Sep 27, 2020


(taken from The Sussex County Magazine 1951 - written by Stanley Ebdale)

The grand old man of Cuckfield, Mr William Edward Mitchell, of Annandale, Broad Street, who recently died in his 93rd year, was a remarkable Sussex worthy. He have lived all his life in the little Sussex town, and was full of stories of bygone days. Through the reminiscences told him when a youth, Mr Mitchell made a human link between modern England and other times when this country was threatened with the Napoleonic invasion.

The associations of the Mitchell family with Cuckfield can be traced back to 1746. Mr Mitchell's grandfather was postmaster there and, when a Sergeant in the Sussex Yeomanry, was embodied in the troops assembling to repel the threatened invasion by Napoleon from Boulogne in 1803. Responding to an alarm, he galloped to Ditchling Common, the spot previously agreed to as the assembly point for the Yeomanry, only to find that the alarm was false. On the way home he came across a band of smugglers with a load of silk and gloves. His scarlet uniform betrayed him, and the smugglers thought him to be one of the Preventative men. They challenged him, and he had a very narrow escape. Fortunately he was recognised by one of the smugglers – but they insisted on taking him prisoner and compelling him to ride with them beyond East Mascalls, Lindfield, where are they released him.

The Mitchell family had a long association with the Postal Service, linking with the time when letters would be charged for according to the mileage to be covered for delivery and the subsequent introduction of the penny post. Mr Mitchell had many boyhood memories of the old time postmen. They wore no uniform, and came to the post office about six in the morning to take the letters round on foot. The job was regarded as part-time, and the pay was poor. After the one-day delivery, most of the postmen carried on business as shoemakers. The London to Brighton coach used to bring letters to Cuckfield for delivery, and collect those for dispatch from the town. After the mail coaches had ceased to run, they were revived in another form to take the then new parcel post. These parcel coaches were run by contract, and at Cuckfield the horses were put up at the Ship Inn. This was about 1882, but the practice lasted only a few years and parcels, like letters, were then sent by train.

From the financial point of view Mr Mitchell had happy memories of 1870, when an epidemic of fever broke out at Ardingly College and all telegrams had to be sent over from Cuckfield. As a boy of 10 he took some of these by road, being paid two shillings for each telegram! For a time he felt like a millionaire.

In Mr Mitchell’s early days there were no Christmas or Easter cards. The great day for deliveries was St. Valentine's Day.

Among his memories of the Cuckfield of former days was also the old fair, the charter for which was believed to have been originally granted in the 13th century and renewed by Charles the second. The booths used to stretch from opposite the Cuckfield Clock down the street as far as Hoadley's Corner. Originally for cattle, it later resolved into purely a pleasure fair. The boothkeepers, by digging holes in the road with crowbars and restricting the traffic, became such a nuisance that by petition the charter was revoked about the year 1874. One site near the Kings Head was always reserved for a boxing booth, and Mr Mitchell remembered seeing the famous Tom thumb exhibited in a booth opposite the bank.

Old industries at Cuckfield included a tallow chandler’s business in South Street, where tallow dips and rush lights were made. Mr Mitchell used to light himself upstairs to bed with a rush candle about 15 inches long. There was also a Tannery at Staplefield, the site being marked by Tanyard Lane, with ropemaking in the Spinney Field and Cemetery Lane.

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.

For nearly 50 years from 1882 to 1929 Mr Mitchell was a conscientious public official in Mid Sussex. Succeeding his father as Relieving Officer in 1882, he served the Cuckfield Board of Guardians for 47 years. He was also Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths and Inspector of Nuisances, and for a time was Vaccination Officer and School Attendance Officer. What a contrast was his official life to that of the modern public official! The district of which he had charge comprised some 35,000 acres, spread over eight parishes. In the beginning, Mr Mitchell had to walk most of his journeys in all weathers, visiting each parish once a week on a fixed day. After a time, however he started riding a tricycle and later a bicycle. He believed he was one of the first to ride a safety bicycle with solid tyres, before the diamond frame came out. When he retired in June, 1929, at the age of 69, he was still riding a bicycle.

Except for church charities, the Relieving Officer in the late Victorian era was the only one to whom the poor could turn. Among his duties was finding nurses for the sick, who more often than not were cottage women and not trained nurses. No isolation hospitals were in existence, and in cases of infectious diseases the sufferers were shut up in their own homes. It was the duty of the relieving officer to visit and order food for these sick people, and often to take it to the infected house. During the smallpox epidemic of 1885 Mr Mitchell contracted the disease in this way.

What could a Relieving Officer order for patients in those far-off days? Milk was ordered only in very small quantities, Poor people generally being allowed a pint of porter or a certain amount of port or brandy weekly. At several villages Mr Mitchell kept 2 gallons of brandy always in stock for distribution! In confinement cases that guardians allow the mother the doctors fee and 2 pounds of mutton a week for a fortnight. During the 47 years Mr Mitchell serve the Guardians he travelled 235,000 miles.

We bid farewell to this conscientious servant of the people and kindly recorder of old Sussex, who also served his parish as churchwarden for nearly 40 years.


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