The absurdities of a Victorian archery party at Cuckfield Park

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

Although this is not an easy read, due to its archaic eccentric wording, this chapter from one of Twynihoe William Erle’s books ‘The Phenomenon’ delightfully brings to life a picture of gentile Cuckfield Victorian high society. The writer sees the humerous side of a summer party held in 1856 in the grounds of Cuckfield Park. The author, who lived at Mill Hall, Whitemans’ Green was 28 at the time and went on to become one of the country’s leading barristers and wrote 11 books.

Chapter heading: From “The Cuckfield Polite Intelligencer.”


We have much pleasure in recording the brilliant success which attended a meeting of the United Sussex Archers, held in the beautiful grounds of Warden Sergison, Esq., of Cuckfield Place, on Tuesday last, August the 30th.


The picturesque character of the scene was enhanced by the syren-like attractions of the Miss E—s [Probably the author’s sisters Jane and Jessie], and embellished by the graceful presence of their amiable mother [Mary daughter of a Cuckfield vicar].


Refreshments were spread at five o’clock in spacious tents, where the festive board was enlivened by the beaming smiles of the fair party we have mentioned, whose lustre shed a soft halo around a magnificent display of cold pigeon pie, and down an extended avenue of boiled legs of lamb.


The celebrated marksman Mr Horatio Plantagenet Alexander Gubbins Smith was not so successful as usual, in consequence of his bow being too strong for him, so that his performances were not striking, at least not of targets. We overheard a gentleman who had been watching his proceedings for some little time, inquire with apparent innocence 'Which target he was shooting at?' a question which, if intended to partake of pleasantry, conveyed a somewhat harsh inuendo on the skill of the party addressed.


An accident nearly occurred to ourselves from a gentleman passing across the path of our editorial arrow just as we were about to launch that projectile from the string, so that he was within an ace of receiving it in the small of his back. We could not help thinking that his appearance, so perforated, would have been forcibly suggestive of the model swains which adorn the corners of valentines.


Our readers are doubtless acquainted with the figures to which we allude; gentlemen profusely garnished with ambrosial whiskers and clustering hair, and elaborately got up to the very acme of fashion; that is to say, in unimpeachably glossy hats, very loud waistcoats, coats of imperceptible waists, trousers of violent patterns, very noisy neckcloths, acutely-pointed boots, and straps so tight as to render the entertainment of any wild projects of locomotion a chimerical absurdity.



Smiling blandly, however, over the feathers of an immense dart which projects from their bosoms at ladies in the opposite corner of the sheets, with an expression of tender interest.


Meanwhile a cannibalo-culinary operation progresses in the centre of the scene on two unutterably red human hearts of the conventional form of that organ, poised miraculously on their tips, on a gas stove in the foreground. We speak advisedly as to the fact of the stove being a gas stove, since these mysteries of Cupid’s cuisine are always represented as being conducted on two pink flames, emanating from no perceptible fuel.


A member of the Leamington Club was in attendance, and distinguished himself highly by his remarkable dress. He was attired completely in green, inspiring the beholder with the conviction that he must have been addicted to Vegetarianism, and that in course of time the vegetable element had so pervaded his system as to render even his coat and trousers of a cabbagey hue. We must own to having been possessed with a strong inclination to plant or graft him to ascertain whether anything so green could possibly fail to grow.

Ladies picking up their arrows at a Wimbledon archery event in 1901

We should have tried the experiment with little apprehension of an adverse result. The archery, we understand, was followed by a ball, but our correspondent having unfortunately fallen asleep after the very large tea which his exertions of the afternoon involved, we can only state the general report that the party was brilliantly successful.


And that Miss J—e E’s [Jane E Earle, age 26] achievements on her “light bombastic toe” (as Mrs Malaprop called it) eclipsed all her previous exploits on that illustrious member! We were concerned to hear of its being swelled next morning; the tumefaction, however, soon yielded to local applications prescribed by its medical man, and eventually subsided.

Source: The Phenomenon, or Millhall Miscellany, by Twynihoe William Erle, Chisman, 1856

Illustration from the frontispiece 'Drawing the Arrow' from: The witchery of archery: a complete manual of archery by Thompson, Maurice, 1878 [Enhanced].

Photos: Postcard of the south front Cuckfield Park 1906

Source of Wimbledon archery photo, unknown.


Contributed by Malcolm Davison.