Who shot the cock? The facts revealed ...


Postcard from 1912 showing the steeplejack with the weathercock pre-regilding (Colourised photo)

When you are practising to sharpshoot a rifle you need a fair sized target at a useful distance away. A cockerel on the top of a church spire might seem to offer a tempting challenge.


For a long time there has been a story handed down through the generations in the village that someone shot at the church weathercock and that a bullet mark was found when it was brought down for restoration.


Good news! We have now found the story that corroborates the myth and even identifies the culprits. The photo above completes the story as it marks the occasion of when an intrepid steeplejack brought the weathercock down for repair and regilding. We found two contemporary newspaper accounts to confirm this. First the Mid Sussex Times which broke the story on 8 February 1908:



Photo by Colin Davison

‘The steeplejack, just as the clock was striking three on Thursday afternoon, removed from the perch on which it has stood for the last 38 years, the “scrooping” [scraping noise] weathercock, and brought it safely to the ground, being eyed the while by parishioners young and old who marvelled greatly at the nerve displayed. The weathercock, which was at a height of 104ft [incorrect] from the ground, is to be re-gilded. It measures 3ft by 3ft, and in the bad old days more than one Cuckfield Volunteer, standing by the old Drill Hall, used it as a target.’


In a second account four days later the Sussex Express, Surrey Standard and Kent mail of 8 February 1908 confirmed:


‘There are those in Cuckfield who can remember some dare-devil Volunteers standing by the old Drill Hill and firing at the cock, but only one was ever known to hit it.’


From the drone photo taken by Colin Davison (no relation) you can see that they had a clear line of site of the church steeple. The buildings in the foreground and to the right of their line of fire were not there. Did their officers know what they were up to, surely they would have not been far away to lock up the guns. The sound of the discharge of the rifles would be quite distinct. Were they punished? Sadly we don't know.



Martini-Enfield rifles

The rifles may have been Martini-Enfield rifles (or another variant of the Lee-Enfield) which were widely used at the turn of the century. It fired the newly introduced .303 British cartridge and had an ‘effective’ range of 1000 yards (900m) and maximum range of 2000 yards (1800m) and had a useful fire rate of the time of 10 rounds a minute. The men probably rested their rifles on a wall or window ledge to steady their aim.


These rifles were fairly accurate but to get the best out of them at a distance you needed exceptionally good eyesight. But 400ft should have been straightforward as the weathercock was sizeable - but then the guns were in the untrained hands of part time volunteers - including Mr Jones the butcher and Private Frazer the undertaker perhaps!


The Drill Hall

The Drill Hall was located at the southern end of Ockenden Lane. Today you will find Beadles, Old Courthouse, Almoners and Ockenden Lane Flats but these were once all one building which initially had been the workhouse. After this was moved in 1845 - to what we know now as the Old Cuckfield Hospital - it became a Drill Hall and part (until 1888) became a County Court.


For a time it was also a working mens' club. The building had been built on the site of the Bull public house which served passing coach trade in the village square which was in front of it.


Why so many weathercocks on churches?

Weathercocks have become synonymous with weathervanes. Did you know that most early churches had weathercocks on them? I bet not many loyal Church of England members know the reason - which is:


It was intended to remind churchgoers of Peter's denial of his Lord, and as a warning to them not to do the same. To be more precise Jesus words in the Bible, Matthew 26, were: “This very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times." But Peter declared, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you." And all the other disciples said the same.


The timeline of Cuckfield Church's weathercock


The weathercock 2009

The Cuckfield Church weathercock has a long and chequered history - either being carried down or come crashing down several times. The following is as much as we know:


1620 Churchwardens' Accounts of 1620 show payments for the repair of the weathercock and taking down the old and putting up a new one. In 1818 a Cuckfield plumber named Thomas Knowles made a new weathercock to represent the bird on the crest of the Clutton family. It was erected by public subscription memory of William Clutton the churchwarden who died in 1821. Cuckfield in old postcards, by Maisie Wright, 1984. But this was when there was no spire - and access was simple.


1670 The square tower the beautiful shingled steeple was added on to the square tower which is a major landmark today. From ‘This is Cuckfield’ 1967


1776 We learn from Vol 59 of ‘The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure’ that Cuckfield Church spire suffered severe damage on 2 August 1776:


A letter from Cuckfield … dated August 3, says, that “last Friday [August 1776] on the afternoon they had a violent storm of thunder and lightning, which threw the inhabitants into great consternation. The spire of the church, which was almost destroyed by a violent storm the beginning of the hard weather last winter, being nearly repaired, the new work, was beat down, and the inside set on fire at three or four different places, and it was with great difficulty they extinguished the flames.”


1815 Weathercock put up at the time the steeple was shingled, in 1815. From West Sussex Gazette, 16 February 1939. See 1818 account below - probably the same event.


1818 The present weathercock was erected in the place of a cross which appears in earlier pictures; the particular form of cock was taken from the crest of Mr Clutton, who then lived at Ockenden. From History of Cuckfield , Rev James Hughes Cooper 1912. Phillipa Malins, curator of Cuckfield Museum adds that the weathercock was made by a local plumber, Thomas Knowles.


1869 After over half a century of flirting and coquetting with the winds, from all parts of the compass, the gilty [sic] old weathercock on the spire of Cuckfield Church, in England, has fallen down. It is well that vane things should cease to a-spire to the highest positions in the church. From Architectural Review and American Builders' Journal, Volume 1, 1869.


c1875 It is over 30 years ago since the weathercock was removed from its high position.

Sussex Express, Surrey Standard and Kent mail, 8 February 1908. However this reference may simply be the same as the next on in 1885.


1885 The person who placed it there was one Chippy Freeman, well known at the time, but since dead as a daring fellow in such jobs. Source see below West Sussex Gazette, 16 February 1939.



The weathercock falls 1 May 1980

1908 The steeplejack takes down the weathercock and returns in after regilding (see accounts above)


At the request of the Churchwardens, a London firm last week sent a steeplejack to examine the spire of Cuckfield Church, which was last re-shingled in 1870. From Cuckfield in old postcards, by Maisie Wright, 1984.


1939 The old weathercock at the top of the church spire came down from its elevated perch, 122 feet high, on Friday afternoon, during the gale, having weathered it for 54 years. It was made of copper and formerly gilt, being put up at the time the steeple was shingled. In 1815. The person who placed it there was one Chippy Freeman, well known at the time, but since dead, as a daring fellow In such jobs, and there Is not at present one person living in the parish who was then assessed to the parochial rates. West Sussex Gazette, 16 February 1939


1980 The weathervane fell to the ground when the spire caught ablaze on 1 May 1980. The steeple you see today is an almost exact replica of the original that burned down, but the frame was fabricated in steel in two parts in Littlehampton and lifted and reassembled on top of the tower by helicopter in February 1981. The weathervane was duly repaired and resumed its rightful home shortly afterwards.

Top photo: A postcard showing the cockerel after it was taken down for regilding in 1908. It is pictured with the steeplejack who would also return the bird back to its splendid perch.


The Martini-Enfield rifles photograph is from Wikimedia and is a public domain image.


We plan a future article to explain who the Cuckfield Volunteers were and who trained them.


The weathercock photo of November 2009 is from geograph.org.uk was taken by by Tristan Forward and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.


The remarkable photo of the weathervane falling to the ground in 1980 is courtesy Mid Sussex Times from an article 24 September 2015.


Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


39 views