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Reflections in Holy Trinity Churchyard: 1888

Updated: Oct 18, 2020

Mid Sussex Times - Tuesday 22 May 1888


I have heard of a man who tried to please everybody, but failing in his endeavour, relinquished the task, and confined his exertions to doing no more than please himself. I have never aspired in my sketches to please everyone, or even cared whether what I had written pleased anyone, but am told that I have been guilty of most atrocious blundering in my relation of the siege of Cuckfield, the most egregious of which was that the weapon with which Mr. Best cowed the mob was not a candlestick but an old pocket pistol, minus the lock.

This is serious, for “as such statements require to be made with regard to historical truth,” it may at some future time give rise to a controversy among the savants of the age as to its identity, should by accident any metal tube be discovered, hid away among lot of old rubbish. But historians sometimes differ in their version of a fact, according to the point in which they observe, and it may be that from the cursory view I had of the weapon I might have been mistaken, and supposed the barrel of a superannuated pistol to have been the shaft of a rusty candlestick; or memory, that is at times treacherous, may have distorted the fact.

In writing for the public press it must be remembered that you are furnishing food for the critic and the sceptic, who eagerly devour it, but it ought not to discourage the writer, but put him in the position of the navvy, who when remonstrated with for not retaliating when his wife nagged him, coolly observed, “It amuses her and does not hurt me,” therefore, for consolation, although not harassed in mind by the circumstance, and admitting the error, I will take a saunter among the tombstones of our old churchyard.

A visit to the habitations of the dead, if not inspiring, is at least instructive, for I consider a country churchyard a history, in which every family tomb is a chapter, and the headstones and grave-rails pages that may be read with interest, while the epitaphs on them are instructive, descriptive, and some entertaining, so that an hour passed among them cannot be said to be thrown away, for it brings on a contemplative mood that weans the mind from the hurry, care, and frivolities of the outer world, and leads a man to ponder upon the past and the future, and vividly raises reminiscences and occurrences that, although long hidden and thrown aside in the lumber room of memory, recur in imagination as freshly as if they were but the events of yesterday.

Cuckfield Churchyard

I can find among these records of past generations in our old churchyard, the names of numerous families who once flourished here that are lost and forgotten, whose descendants have emigrated to other climes, or removed to other scenes, and are perhaps flourishing in lands their ancestors never heard of, or dreamt of seeking, and whose ashes lie mouldering beneath the sod, neglected and uncared for, even the inscription on the stone that marks the spot where they were laid by sorrowing friends having become indistinct, and in many instances illegible.

But shaking off the sombre feelings that a study of the tombstones gives rise to, there is much to be learned, for a retrospective view of former days induces a comparison with the present, not much, perhaps, in favour of the latter, but it gives an idea of what our forefathers, who died a century since, would think, should they visit their old haunts again, of the alterations they were to witness in customs and usages from what they had been used to, and like Rip Von Winkle, would find it difficult to conform to the change. And would it not be the same with us, who in the ripeness of age are now approaching the end of the present century were we to return from our inevitable transition into another state at the same date in the next?

I knew an old carpenter who worked for a Cuckfield tradesman for half a century, and who died 50 years ago, at each Christmas assert that scientific inventions and methods were progressing too rapidly to continue, and prophesied every year that change would come, and things back to what they had been before another Christmas arrived, and yet the old man died, and left progression still progressing.

I find on a tombstone in the old churchyard, to the memory of Mr. Thomas Pockney, coach master, who died in 1804, aged 55, on the obverse, the following characteristic inscription :

He was kind husband, an affectionate parent,

And a warm friend.

He journeyed life through all its stages,

As became a man and a Christian.

Whilst Earth’s smooth he drove

he thanked his God.

Rough and uneven paths he patient trod,

He felt afflictions and kissed the rod.

Pockney was said to have been an experienced coachman, and drove between London and Brighton at the time when the direct road through Cuckfield was the only one in use, and when the journey either way was a day’s work for him with his slow team and lumbering vehicle crawling up the long hills at Clayton, Handcross, and Reigate, where the passengers alighted and walked forward to ease the horses, and in cold weather warm themselves.

Little he thought that in less than a quarter of a century after his death there would be seen strongly-built and lightly running traps, equally safe and commodious, with teams of well-bred nags, tooled by the aristocratic and most noted whips of those palmy “days of the road,” doing the distance up and down in a day, and performing the double journey in two-thirds of the time it took him to do him to do it either way.

London to Brighton Coach

But in his time people were not in such a violent hurry, and a journey to London an event not occurring twice in a lifetime with the natives who rusticated among the flints and acorns of the Downs and Weald, many of whom never ventured on ordinary occasions far beyond the parish church or the nearest market town, except some extraordinary affair called them to visit the metropolis, or they undertook the pilgrimage in order to have a theme to dilate upon after years, and relate the wonderful things they had seen to their wondering listeners, whereby they escaped the penalty of “dying a fool if you had never bin to Lunnon.”

As time was not, as it is now, an object, it mattered but little how much time was spent on the journey, and a good space was given both up and down at every change of horses, that invariably took place at a public house on the road, for the passengers to procure refreshments, and at some particular house of call time allowed for dinner and a smoke before starting.

But when competition arose and Brighton was rising into importance, fast travelling became the order of the day, and there was no more walking up the hills, or running forward while the horses were changing, and scrambling up on the roof when overtaken by the coach. No lingering at the inn while hot grogs were being imbibed, or lounging for an hour over a dinner. What was done must be done quickly, or be left behind, the time allowed being no more than sufficient to swallow a glass of sherry and bolt off munching a biscuit, the coachman scarcely leaving his seat more than a couple of minutes from end to end.

But even then, although locomotion was so much improved, and the man of business could breakfast at his home in Brighton, take the coach and arrive London, transact his business and get back to his home early in the evening, a feat that took his father three days, viz., a day up and a day down, the intermediate day being devoted to business, they had no idea that in a few years all this could be done between meals, and although measurable distance was not reduced, the metropolis could be more easily reached than Haywards Heath was then.

No doubt Mr. Pockney and his compeers would have treated a prediction that such would be the case then, by the time the century had reached halfway as an idle chimera, and pooh-poohed it as a gentleman did at a meeting held at Cuckfield, at the time the railway from London to Brighton was proposed, to oppose the scheme, terming it impossible to construct a level road over such an undulating district, saying the project would “end in smoke” but found after that although the engine chimney vomits forth smoke, the train keeps moving. The epitaph on Mr. Pockney’s tomb is characteristic of his calling, and, as I have heard, the eulogy bestowed on his character deserving. Not far from it is the grave of one James Cook, schoolmaster, on the rail over which was:

Farewell, vain world. I've seen enough thee,

And now am careless what thou say'st of me;

Thy smiles I court not, nor thy frown need fear.

I’m now at rest, my head lies quiet here.

What faults you’ve found in me take care and shun.

And look at home, enough is to be done.

This was supposed to be original, but that is erroneous, yet I have heard from those old folks who knew him that it was an epitome of his character, that was described by them eccentric and cynical, and, to a degree, egotistical. There is certainly something bordering closely on cynicism and egotism in the epitaph if you analyse it, and in that sense might have been illustrative of the man's propensities while living, but his earthly career having been long closed, and his eccentricities and opinions forgotten, we will leave him to rest in peace and consider a brief memento inscribed on the tombstone of Joshua Fuller, who died in 1764. aged 85, who is pithily, and doubtless worthily, described as:

‘An indulgent husband and friend sincere,

And a neighbourly man lies under here.’

What can more simple or pathetic? It sums up in few words qualities that would grace a lofty sphere, but what Joshua Fuller might have been, or who were the family of Hunt who by the inscription on the same tomb share with him and his wife the vault below, I know not; but they were evidently, from the solidity and finish on the tombstone, persons in a good situation and of means.

But to return to the poetry. What can be more explanatory and precise in describing the good qualities of the man? There is no exaggeration or boastful recounting of his virtues, or suppositious bewailings at his loss. It merely tells us what was thought of him by those he left behind, and what a contrast to the epitaph over the schoolmaster I have quoted above, and which was said to have been chosen by himself during his lifetime, and if so displays the vanity and egotism of the man and his contempt of the world’s opinion of him.

There are many remarkable mementoes to be found among the old moss-covered tombs in this ancient receptacle of former ages, but I shall at present only quote a charming little couplet over three children— Edmond Marlow, aged 7, Martha. 6, and Ann, 4 years, who all died within a few days of each other in the spring of 1759, most probably of some epidemic prevailing at the time—

that quaintly and modestly says:

Our lives were short, the longer is our rest—

God calls to him whom he loves best.

No doubt some carping critic will condemn this simple elegy as unpoetical and wanting in measure, but let him indulge in his criticism. Nearly 130 years have elapsed since it may be supposed to have been carved on the stone, and the author is far out of his reach and in spite of his diction the words convey feeling and sentiment that cannot be despised or commented on.



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