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The Old Cuckfield Fair

Updated: Oct 18, 2020

Mid Sussex Times - Tuesday 16 September 1930



Fairs in their origin are an ecclesiastical institution, and the charter was generally granted to the prior, or the head of religious house. Doubtless the prior appropriated the fees and dues!

The fair was usually held on the feast of the saint to whom of the abbey or church was dedicated.

In Canon Cooper’s writings it appears that two charters for holding an affair have been granted in Cuckfield. The first was a charter to Earl Warren in 1255 for a yearly fair on the feast and morrow of the nativity of St Mary (September 8 and 9). The other charter was granted in 1313 for an annual fair to be held for three days, on the eve, day and morrow of the Holy Trinity.

From this we may assume that by 1313 our church was the Church of the Holy Trinity; but was the little early English Church of 1255, about this period enlarged and the tower completed, dedicated to St Mary?

Mr W. E. Mitchell kindly informs me, amongst other things, that it was always known that Cuckfield had two fairs, and according to his old Gazetteer of 1808, Cuckfield had two fairs held on the Thursday in Whitsun week and on September 16


as scents of lavender and rose linger in time worn drawers and little treasure boxes, and we have to go back to open the little elusive memory box on September 16 – old Cuckfield Fair Day – when recollections, fragrant of youth and hope, happy fair days and nights of long ago, come streaming out.

We see the old town in an uproar of horses and caravans. A giant gypsy with a hare lip and a great crowbar is punching such holes in the road opposite the “Talbot” for his booth that would drive Mr Croucher and the County surveyor raving mad. Right opposite the town clock we see a roundabout, ground round by a huge winch and two sweating men– a very uncomfortable stand for a roundabout– and there is another down at the stocks, where the horse trough is now situated.

Over in the “King's Head” yard are “Simpson’s marionettes” and a great bloodhound that has been used to hunt and drag down the poor negro slaves. There is also a boxing booth here, where local sports can, for a small fee, have a few rounds with the professional proprietor. They often emerge sadder, as well as poorer from that show!


stands a raucous-voiced cheapjack selling everything under the sun and warranting that what his “saws would it not cut through they would jump over”.

Another vendor is proclaiming that “dandelion pills will cure all ills” - except poverty. And we see the High Street shining in the Autumn sun like a sea of white canvas. The whole of the footpath is lined with stalls, and where from Mr Knights workshop to the Ockenden Corner there is only a stone wall, the canvas awning is carried right across the path, making an arcade.

The Talbot

The stalls are selling all the delights of childhood– Brandy snaps, sweets, Ginger nuts and almond rock. There is a tall, old lady at the Ockenden corner, with a table covered with sweets, where, for a halfpenny, you may spin a long hand, and if lucky, win a stick of almond rock as long as the church steeple!

I remember, alas! once spending my very last halfpenny with that old lady.

But the stalls, where are displayed wonderful ornaments–Gold rings, brooches and combs– Then tier upon tier, like fairy caves, the china vases, jugs, castles and dogs, are never to be forgotten


and while the first day was devoted to business and the real pleasures of the fair, the second day led to a lot of drinking and quarrelling and ended in fighting.

I have learned that it was the custom to adjourn to the Vicarage Field “to see which was the best man”, and as many as a dozen fights were known to have been proceeding at the same time.

Fighting was a recognised sport in those days, and my father told me the Cuckfield boys looked forward to having a good set-to with the pikies.

On one particular occasion they had four months trained one of the Jenners to fight young Gipsy Lee, and the result was a most desperate fight, which they never forgot. Eventually the Cuckfield boy won, but not before Gipsy Lee had half killed him and vowed he would quite do so at the next Cuckfield fair.

I am not sure which Jenner it was, but I think my father said it was Tom Jenner, whom we, as boys, remember as a rather irascible old gentleman who kept a butcher's shop where Mr Hobden now sells fruit.

Another and more inviting custom was that of selling beer on the fair day without a license. This usage had prevailed in England for a number of years. It was kept up Cuckfield into the 19th century and held out in Worcestershire until 1863.

This right could only be claimed by


during the day or days of a chartered fair, and it was nearly always an ivy bush.

From the very earliest times in England the ivy bush had - independent of any sign board - been a sign to all and sundry that, when displayed, liquor could be purchased at the house. Hence the old saying - “Good wine needs no bush”.

My father told me the last place in Cuckfield to continue this custom was the quaint old house in South Street now known by the undignified title of “No. 27.” The house is timber framed and full of old oak beams - well preserved and still exposed. In a curious little room looking south there is some extremely interesting oak panelling over the fireplace with mouldings of

South Street - No. 27 on the right

the Elizabethan period and shallow carvings of conventional trees, in the same style, which is continued along one side of the room. On the stairs behind the great chimney is a very deep


with an oak panel door carved in the same design as above, and still retaining its hand-wrought iron hinges. There are fine timbers in the roof and a good roof room, making practically four stories. The cellar, which was no doubt well stocked with “Home brewed” at fair time, has a two-light window looking on the street, with a moulded stone mullion and frame

The steep flagged steps by which the entrance is reached is quite a feature of the South Street, and, altogether the cottage is one of the most interesting and, perhaps oldest in the town. Long may it remain untouched –a monument of where a Cuckfield man could get a cheap glass of good, Sussex ale, free from the plunder of the hated Excise man.

But the fair and the home brewed have both gone for ever! In the light of modern events the fair was declared to be intolerable in the town and in 1871 it was banished to the Rose and Crown Field. After a few years it became a ‘nuisance’ there and was swept away altogether again. I suppose in light of modern criteria ... That ‘light’, for many of us, has become a painful glare!


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