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Outbreak of Riots in Cuckfield

Updated: Oct 18, 2020

Mid Sussex Times - Tuesday 01 May 1888


No. XI

Pilstye was formerly the home of the Homewoods, a family long resident there, but is now extinct, or nearly so, in this locality, having migrated years ago, although I believe a small modicum of their former inheritance is still owned by some of their successors.

It came by purchase into the hands of a Mr. Cherry*, and at his death fell to his son, Mr. John Peter, who resided there for years, a confirmed old bachelor, like myself. He was a Justice of the Peace, and for a long period Chairman of the Cuckfield Bench of Magistrates, well versed in civil law appertaining to their jurisdiction; just in his decisions, but sharp on poachers and the blades of the town when caught in their mid night revels; a good shot and a strict preserver of game, but beyond the use of the trigger never followed the chase.

He lived a sedentary and almost solitary life so far as visiting and being visited went, and suffering from an impediment in his speech, had no taste for society, yet with his intimates would carry on an instructive and at times amusing conversation. He took great interest in agriculture, farmed his own land, and was proud of his breed of Sussex stock, horses, and dogs, but had little faith in agricultural machinery, it being a settled opinion among farmers of the old school that half-swing and Sussex turnwrist ploughs were the pink of perfection, and could not be improved, or any old-fashioned implements, handed down from generation to generation, be superseded.

They had answered the purpose for which they were intended, and need not be supplanted by any new-fangled inventions. Even the labourers were imbued with the same ideas, and on the introduction of thrashing machines quite a social revolution occurred among them, and led to Cuckfield town being besieged.

It was about the second or beginning of the third decade of the present century that the large farmers on the Downs, and some few in the Weald, had in their barns machines worked by horses for thrashing their grain, and enterprising men, to wit, the Hobdens of Chailey, having purchased similar implements on wheels, moveable from farm to farm, and let on hire, it being previous to the introduction of steam, were worked in the same manner, a panic among the labourers arose, aided by the officiousness of rural agitators, that if these innovations were tolerated not only would the sound of the flail cease in the barns, but all kinds of manual labour be abolished, the only resource left them being the workhouse.

The price of grain, that had during the war risen at an alarming rate, as well as rent, poor rates, and wages, was beginning to find its level, consequently a hard time was pressing on the farmers, for peace instead of bringing them plenty acted adversely after a long spell of prosperity. The effect of course was felt by the labourers, for wages were lowered, and work getting scanty, improvements were abandoned on the land, farmers eagerly seized on the facilities afforded for getting the work done more rapidly and cheaply than by hand. In consequence the labourers rebelled, and forming into gangs visited the farms where the obnoxious machines were fixed, and if the owner would not guarantee to cease working them, in some instances they were destroyed, and this induces me to relate an event that occurred.

A Mr. Pagden, who used a farm somewhere near Hailsham having a machine in his barn received notice that if he did not cease from working it, it would be broken up. But Pagden was not a man to be intimidated by threats, and continued working it in defiance until one evening he was informed that a gang had assembled, and were on the road to put the threat into execution.

Seizing an unloaded gun he proceeded to the barn, threw the doors open, and mounted the machine, not having long to wait before a formidable body of men entered the yard, and going up to the open doors perceived him sitting aloft calmly smoking his pipe, looking like “Jupiter hight tonans in a cloud.” A short colloquy ensued, threats were issued, when Pagden, raising the gun exclaimed, “The first who steps over the sill will be a dead man.” The gang hesitated, retreated, and departed, and although his weapon was harmless,

Never did gun naval action

Do half such execution, for the whole of them

Dispersed to the four winds, and not soul of them

Ever returned to seek for satisfaction.

Although these temporary outbreaks caused a good deal of confusion, the worst was to come, for soon after the whole country was alarmed by the frequent incendiary fires that broke out in all directions, and not a night passed but that in some quarter a blazing flame, consuming corn and haystacks, barns and buildings, was visible.

Rioting labourers set fire to barns

At that period very few farmers thought of insuring from fire their crops or stock, and such was the alarm felt that the Insurance officers refused to insure either crops, corn, hay, or buildings in several agricultural districts, with the exception of the Sun fire office, to which the uninsured applied in numbers, and were relieved of the apprehension of being some night burned out and ruined.

And to add to this scare, letters signed 'Swing' were received in mysterious ways by numberless landowners and holders, containing dire threats of devastation by fire if certain conditions, mostly of an impossible nature, were not complied with, it being from this that the siege of Cuckfield emanated.

Several farmers of Cuckfield having had letters of this nature conveyed to them by being attached to or thrust under the door, or in at the window, including Best of the Talbot Hotel, who held Sydnye Farm, Webber of the Laines, Penfold of Bentley, Wood of Hanlye, Wileman of Brook-street, and others, it was found on comparing them that they were all written by the same hand on quarter sheets of foolscap paper bearing a peculiar watermark.

Threatening 'Swing' Letter

Accordingly search was made at all the shops in the town and neighbourhood where paper was sold, but for some days without finding any that corresponded, but at length a singular circumstance led to a discovery.

On a Sunday afternoon as Tom Jenner, butcher, was making out his weekly bills, it being his practice to go to church in the morning and clear his books in the afternoon, he found at the bottom of his desk a single sheet of foolscap bearing the same watermark, and as he invariably bought his paper of Last, a druggist, went to him to see if he had any in his possession of the same date, and after a long search they discovered a few corresponding sheets, that Last supposed from the date of the watermark purchased some months previously from a party he did not then deal with.

Now Last was a methodical man, and as his business was not very extensive, booked every article he sold, whether for ready money or otherwise, and on referring to his books found that about the time he received the paper, a young man named Pagden, apprentice to Leney, shoemaker, purchased half-a-quire of foolscap for the purpose of making a book.

Upon this Leney was sent for, and said the lad was in the habit of writing at spare time in the shop, keeping his writing materials in a box on a top shelf, and on examination the box was found, containing the book with a number of leaves missing, corresponding with the letters, those remaining having the identical date, on one of which a letter of the same nature was commenced, addressed to Mr. Sergison, of Cuckfield Place.

This was conclusive. The lad was arrested and at a meeting of the magistrates the next day committed for trial. We had no police then, and Bennet, the parish constable, having to convey the lad to Horsham gaol in a cart, was informed that the men employed in the stone pits at Whiteman’s Green, a formidable and resolute set, had, over their beer at The Ship, agreed to fore-lay the cart on its arrival at the Green, release the lad, and thrash the constable, and representing this to the magistrates, the day being advanced, they directed the lad to be confined, with a watcher, in an upper room at the Talbot, it being before there was a lock-up, or even a cage, to hold prisoners, in the town, until the morning, and then sent off well guarded.

Lock up at the Talbot

In the evening a party of farmers and tradesmen were assembled in the smoking room at the Talbot, when an alarm was given that a mob were about attack the house, and of course it was necessary to reconnoitre, it being found that some 40 or 50 men had assembled and were about to enter the house, loudly proclaiming their intention to release the prisoner or pull the house down.

Mr. Best at once led the van, and catching up a tin candlestick met the besiegers as they were about to enter, and merely displaying the candlestick, that shone bright in the lamp light, and was not a bad resemblance of a pistol barrel, told them in a few words that he would blow out the brains of the first who dared try to enter.

Several women were among them, and one, whose husband was a leader, and had been urging them on, now rushed forward, and seizing him by the arm exclaimed—“Come away, you old fool ; do you want to be shot?” As he, or any of the gang, did not feel inclined to be made a target of, they all backed out into the road as promptly as the Hailsham revolutionists did at the sight of Mr. Pagden’s gun, and assembling under an opposite wall held a consultation.

While this was going on, two young blades, slipping round to the other side of the wall, discovered their scheme, which was to go at once to Pilstye, and coerce Mr. Cherry into granting an order for the release of the lad, then return and bear him off in triumph. But the two scouts were too fast for them, and taking through the fields were in advance on reaching Whiteman's Green, and being overtaken by a shower of rain at Brook-street took shelter in a carthouse.

They had, however, been there but a few minutes before the invading army arrived, who also availed themselves of the same, and creeping under a waggon, the scouts lay quietly listening to their conversation, which was to the effect that knowing Mr. Cherry to be a nervous man, and that no male servants lodged in the house, he would at once comply with their request, and the prisoner safely placed out of the reach of the prosecutors, for in their opinion he had committed no crime, but merely frightened a few hardhearted tyrants by way of a lark.

The rain ceasing, they departed on their errand, and the scouts crawling out of their hiding-place, and knowing the country, took to the fields, fore-laying them before they reached their destination, meeting in the lane a person on horseback, bound for Cuckfield, who they induced to ride back and inform Mr. Cherry of what was going on, following him as fast as possible, and on their arrival, being admitted, the horseman was sent by another road to Cuckfield to summon reinforcements, the party thus besieged expressing their determination to hold out until their arrival.

It was not long, however, before the invaders were heard flocking into a small yard, surrounded by a wall at the rear of the house, but the women were ordered to their bedrooms, guns were loaded and other weapons at hand, lights extinguished, and Mr Cherry, accompanied by the scouts, repaired to a room, the window of which looked down on the yard, from which the defenders could ascertain the amount of the forces they had to encounter, and recognise the leaders, but the hen-pecked bravo, who was silenced by his wife, was absent.

Mr. Cherry cautioning his supporters not to draw a trigger until he gave the order, and receiving a reply that they had each selected his man for the first volley, raised the sash on the window, the besiegers beginning impatiently to batter the door, and demanded their business. Little dreaming of the warm reception they would have if they persisted in forcing an entrance, they gave an audacious answer, which, being checked, some few who were more reasonable, a parley ensued, in which Mr. Cherry assured them that the lad should be fairly dealt with, but nothing further could be done until the next day at noon, when they departed, saying that they would go to town and see that it was so.

Mr. Cherry and the scouts, after watching them fairly off the premises, went down into the hall, and stirring up the fire discussed the proceedings of the evening over a glass of grog and a smoke, intending to keep watch until the farm labourers came to work in the morning.

But in course of time a rap at the door alarmed them, and each catching up the first weapon that came to hand, it was demanded to know who was there, and their business, which was replied to by a friendly and well known voice, and the door being opened in walked two tradesmen from the town, announcing that the party at the Talbot, having received information from the horseman, had despatched them to keep watch and ward, that the rioters had dispersed to their homes, and the scouts might safely return and report progress.

* Mr Cherry's home still stands at the end of Cherry Lane



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