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Tragic deaths and teaching Cuckfield children to swim

Updated: Oct 18, 2020

Mid Sussex Times - Tuesday 29 May 1888


No. XIV.

Leaving the mansions of the dead for a space—but ‘space’ is undefinable and no one knows what space of time may elapse before they may be called on to take their permanent lodging among them, at least so far as regards their earthly remains—it is my intention (D. V.) again to recur, in a future letter, to the subject; but passing through the wicket gate at the south-east corner of the burial ground, other thoughts arise, and on the lower side of the lane I recognise the spot where formerly stood the old hawthorn bush, a melancholy memento of the fate of a suicide.

During the war with France in the early part of the present century, the volunteers of England were as numerous, and as earnest in the cause of defence, as now, and while our regular army were engaged in foreign lands, and a considerable portion of the militia in service at Malta, in Ireland, and other dependencies, or embodied near the coast, while beacons were established from the Downs to the Welsh and Scotch hills, and an invasion of England seemed imminent, the army of volunteers were looked on as a safeguard ready to be called out at a moment’s notice to take a prominent part in securing property and harassing the enemy should they come.

As far as I remember the Cuckfield corps of infantry were mostly composed of farmers, tradesmen, their sons, and workmen, and imposing they looked in their red swallow-tail coats, white trousers, and shako, they marched to church on Sunday afternoon commanded by Captains Morfee and Best, with their fife and drum band, piling arms in the churchyard, and after Divine service being drilled in the meadow, now the joint burial ground.

Their arms consisted of the old smooth-bored flint-and-steel Brown Bess musket, heavy and cumbrous, and not likely to make sure of hitting a target at ten yards, and very uncertain in damp weather of going off at all.

There was of course the bayonet to be used when at close quarters with the enemy, but the only close-quarter fighting they were ever called upon to encounter was an attack on the beef and besieging the bowl on gala days.

Then there were the yeomanry cavalry and mounted fencibles, “with their long swords, saddle, bridle," famous in song, with chargers of all sizes, from the pony of 13 hands up to the “ high mettled hunter of 16, the members choosing their steeds according to the size of their haystacks, a formidable body no doubt, and equally famed for their deeds, if the many anecdotes of their Bacchanalian feats that used to be related were matters of fact.

No one can doubt that had "Boneypart the Corsican” come over as he threatened to do they would have given “his troops, half starved with eating frog soup, our oxen to devour, our poultry and our pigs up,” as the song says, a warm reception, for the volunteers of those days, if not so well armed or so smart looking as our riflemen of the present, were as plucky, and as ready to defend.

“That little spot of land John Bull had clapped his hand on,

Their beef and pudding to protect,

’Twas an object and a grand one."

It was during these stirring times that Peter Lewry, one of the volunteer corps, having been crossed in love, took it so much to heart that one evening, after drill, loaded his musket and blew his brains out in the lane beneath the old bush, it being said that having been jilted it "broke his heart.” If so, it must have been formed of very brittle material, and not so tough that of an old acquaintance of mine, who having been jilted by a young woman he bad been paying his addresses to moped and sobbed and appeared so utterly disconsolate for two or three days, but meeting with some of his old companions, he got laughed at, joined in carouse, and in the chorus of the song that says:

“The loss of one is the choice of two and the chance of twenty more,”

shook off his melancholy and became completely cured, and in the course of time became the happy husband of another.

Passing along into the Court Mead there stands the ash tree, beneath the shade of which was found the body of a murdered man few years since, in a ditch. The body, after few days, was recognised, but the murder still remains a mystery, like some few other mysterious affairs that have from time to time occurred in the locality, or near it, for instance the death of Griffiths, the Brighton brewer, who was shot on his journey home near Pyecombe; the identification of the decomposed remains of a man discovered in a wood near Scaynes Hill; or the body found under the bridge at Staplefield; or of the dead newly-born infants found at different times at Haywards Heath, in Balcombe lake, and Polestub pond, Cuckfield.

Such must ever remain a mystery, and I pass on to old Newbury pond, not the deep, dangerous sheet of water it formerly was, but merely a drinking pool for cattle. Some years since a young man named Tyler was drowned there, from whose sad fate a lesson in “the art of swimming” may be learned by the young. Tyler had been taught how to swim in baths while in London, and coming into the country went with a companion to the pond to show his proficiency in the art, but on getting into deep water, lost his equilibrium, sunk, and was drowned. It occurred on a Sunday afternoon, while Divine service was proceeding, but the alarm being given the congregation soon repaired to the pond, and every exertion was used by several expert swimmers to save Tyler, but recovering the body it was too late.

This circumstance leads me to a similar one many years previous, when I was boy. A young man named Goddard having stripped and ventured into the mill pond at Highbridge, in order to drive back some docks that had strayed from the park above, got out of his depth, and being unable to swim, sank. This was also on a Sunday, and numbers flocked out of the town to the spot, but it was a long time before the body was recovered, and not until a pleasure boat was brought over from the boat-house in the park, when it was caught hold of by the boat hook and got out.

This led to a consultation between the Rev. R. Prosser, master of the Grammar and Boarding Schools, Mr. Lovel Byass, surgeon, and others, as to the advisability of boys learning to swim, a system strongly urged by the doctor and adopted.

Mr. George Cameron, a senior scholar, Frank Jenner, and some others, being good swimmers, were appointed to learn the junior lads of the schools and town, Newbury pond being the scene of our first lessons in the art. Nor was it long before, of an evening, it might be seen covered with a score or two of little naked bodies, swimming, diving, and playing all manner of antics, like so many young ducks, in the water, and not a lad in the town but had learned to swim.

Now it was Tyler’s misfortune that he having practised in water of a known depth, and in which there was no danger, he had no thought of the unevenness of the pond he was swimming in, as to depth, and feeling tired he lowered his legs seeking for the bottom, and becoming immersed arose again half suffocated and bewildered, struggled, and again sinking was lost. This shows that learning to swim in artificial waters is an unsafe method. Young men and lads who wish to learn the art should be taught by an experienced tutor, who by the aid of his hand will teach them how to float and strike out with arms and legs, until they begin to feel confidence, which having attained they will soon fearlessly venture into deep water and become proficient, it being this want of confidence in one who has merely learned by practising in a swimming bath, when he ventures in water of an unknown depth, that leads to fatal accidents of this description.

But an essay on the art of swimming is out of place here, and I continue my saunter by the narrow, and after rain dirty and slippery footpath by the side of the plough field beyond, which gives rise to thoughts of a different nature. It was said that Mr. Potter, who farmed the land about fourscore years since, grew that field (ten acres) 15 loads of thrashed wheat—60 bushels per acre—one summer, at the time when wheat was fetching £40 per load, 160 shillings per quarter.

This was during "the war time,” when every article of consumption was dearer than at any time before or since, and taxation enormous, every article consumed or used being subject to a duty, except wheat and such grain as we grew at home.

But owing to the war and the risk of our merchant vessels being seized by foreign or piratical coasters, and the immense consumption required for the support of the contending armies on the continent, as well as the obstruction put on the cultivation of the land in corn-growing countries, overrun as they were by them, importation was out of the question, and foreign supply at nil.

Besides, America was not sufficiently advanced in agriculture to find a surplus, and although every exertion was used to increase our home growth, the draft made on our labourers by supplementing the army and navy made the country short of hands, and improvement in agricultural machinery was in its infancy. At that period flour was 3s. 6d. per gallon, meat, cheese, and butter equally dear, tea from 10s. to 15s. per lb., and moist sugar from 1s. 6d. to 1s. 8d., making a cup of it quite a luxury ; tobacco, 8d. per lb; clothing of all kinds, and shoes, very high in price.

Even daylight was taxed, all manner of subterfuges being practised to evade the Window Duty, it being nothing uncommon to see a respectable house, or even a gentleman’s mansion, with a portion of the windows boarded up in order to reduce them down to the maximum allowed free of duty. There was no tax certainly on the corn we grew, but the land was burdened heavily on which we grew it, and poor rates in many Wealden parishes equalled the amount paid for rent, or at least that at which property was assessed, the grants given to the workpeople in the shape of rent, corn to fat the pig, firing, flour, shoes, and other necessaries, swelling the rates enormously, and parochial affairs being managed in “smoke-a-pipe" vestries were very loosely conducted, reduction in the rate not being considered of so much consequence as a rise in wages.

Every cottager was certainly allowed to keep a pig, and assisted in purchasing as well as fattening it, but even the price of salt, at one time a guinea per bushel, obliged him to sell a portion of the meat to purchase salt for pickling the remainder.

Such was the state of the country in what is called "the good old times,” yet the people were more contented, merrier, and happier, in their homely manner, than the artificial state of society has brought the present and rising generation to now, and how would they act in weathering through the difficulties our forefathers had to face, and which they so bravely surmounted? We live in a different state of society—more polished, perhaps, but more helpless. Glasses are more distinct and there is not the geniality, conviviality, or good feeling existing between them as once characterised the people of England. It is not now that the welfare of others as well as your own is considered. A degree of selfishness, aided by false pride, has risen up among us, and like couch grass in a garden, is so deeply rooted as to spoil the crop.

But Mr. Potter’s wheat crop has detained me, and like a false bound I have been running counter, therefore I must defer progress until my next saunter.


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