Aristocracy, depression and riot
In 1688 Charles, sixth Duke of Somerset, began to rebuild an untidy country mansion he had acquired through his marriage to a member of the Percy family, the Earls of Northumberland. The result was a new symbol of aristocratic authority, Petworth House, whose very long and quite low facade looked away from Petworth across the tightly packed rural landscape to the Downs. Its interior used some of the finest craftsmen of the day, not least the woodcarver Grinling Gibbons who decorated one room with a welter of natural images. All in all, it was a fitting country seat for a magnate; even before the rebuilding it had needed 16o servants to run the house and grounds. But the new house signified something else, the powerful hold over Sussex life which a few very great landowners exercised for the next two centuries or so. Their dominance stood in clear contrast with the much more diffused influence of the county gentry in the earlier seventeenth century, yet it was an almost logical outcome of the steady pattern of estate aggrandisement and judicious marriages which the more prudent of the local squirearchy had pursued over several generations. The restoration of the monarchy and its patronage proved a particularly valuable source of wealth and position to those who had remained faithful or changed their allegiance with a careful eye to the future.
John Ashburnham, the friend of Charles I, had gone into exile on his patron’s death; at the Restoration he returned to be given several signs of royal favour, particularly in leases of valuable property. He died in 1671, but his son John, born in 1655, remained a royal favourite. He extended the family fortunes by marrying a Welsh heiress, and built up a considerable personal wealth by acting as a mortgage broker to less fortunate or less thrifty members of the gentry. He also served the Crown cause particularly as a Baron of the Cinque Ports and M P for Hastings The result was a peerage granted by William and Mary in 1689, when he had helped them through the troubles surrounding the deposition of James II. His descendant, John, the third baron Ashburnham, served as a soldier while following the family tradition of dynastic marriages; in his case, he excelled his inherited duties by outliving the three heiresses he married, bringing him £30,000 in dowries. It was for service to the monarchy, however, that he was made the first Earl Ashburnham in 1730; for a family that had begun as modest farmers in the medieval Weald, this was no mean achievement’
As spectacular was the rise of the Pelhams of Laughton and their relatives. One of these, Thomas, eldest son of the first baron Pelham, married a Hollis; the match eventually brought him £40,000 a year in landed income and in 1715 the title of Duke of Newcastle. Until his death in 1768 the Duke was the most powerful man in England, the monarch apart. It was a power used locally as well. On his death, his Sussex estates and titles passed to Thomas Pelham of Stanmer who changed his barony of Chichester for an earldom in 18or, another reward for royal service. Alongside Ashburnham and Pelham there stood other great Sussex families in the eighteenth century, particularly the Dukes of Richmond at Goodwood and the Earls of Egremont at Petworth. After Newcastle died in 1768 it was the latter who became the arbiters of the county’s taste and public behaviour.
Although these families rose further than any since the sixteenth century, many of the Sussex gentry were caugnt up in the process of aggrandisement. At Glynde the Trevor family built on a steady base of modest local prosperity, although not without incident and setbacks. John Trevor the fifth was M.P. for Lewes in 1741 as a nominee of the Duke of Newcastle; unfortunately the death of his wife the following year drove him mad and he died in 1743 after a series of suicide attempts. His cousin Richard inherited the Glynde property but made his fortune elsewhere, in the church. He ended up as Prince Bishop of Durham in 1752 where his saintliness (he was nicknamed ‘The Beauty of Holiness’) made him a rare figure amongst the lax Georgian episcopate, concerned largely as it was with political intrigue and careerism. Other local gentry families were less fortunate in overcoming the crisis produced by some of their members. In 1721, a London financier and speculator purchased the partly derelict Battle Abbey estate from the Montagues, 8000 acres in the area for £56,000. The purchaser, Sir Thomas Webster Bart, was the son of a ‘new man’, Sir Godfrey, whose commercial success masked his past. Although Battle had been brought to complement estates in Essex where Sir Thomas had been M.P. for Colchester, it soon became the family’s principal, indeed only, country seat. His passion for speculation in land and stocks overburdened him, and Sir Thomas’s good fortune turned rapidly downhill, a pattern that dogged the Websters until they sold the estate in the 185os. He died heavily indebted in 1751 and his two sons, Whistler and Godfrey, just managed to keep the estates solvent. What really marked the end of Webster fortunes was the policy pursued by the fourth and fifth baronets, both Godfreys. The former shot himself in 1800 after the disastrous breakdown of his marriage to Elizabeth Vassall, the daughter of a Jamaican planter whose wealth had done so much to preserve Webster ambitions. His son, Godfrey the fifth, was a gambler, friend-to the Prince Regent; given to grandiose building schemes and political adventurism, he ruined the estates and died abroad in 1836, having encumbered his property with an incredibly involved series of mortgages before fleeing from his creditors. Much of his downfall came from an over-zealous and extravagant interpretation of his role and duties as a landowner and grandee. Battle became unusual as a town whose squire ceased to have any effective local influence. As in so much of eighteenth-century Sussex local patterns depended on the experiences of one family, yet overall the role of the aristocracy and gentry remained more or less unquestioned.’
If this social ascendancy depended on land it was reinforced by the widespread rebuilding of country seats in the eighteenth century and the reordering of the ornamental parks which surrounded them; the symmetrical English formality of the grander Tudor houses and gardens gave way to a new Italianate classicism which combined with an image of the countryside often quite distinct from the comparative agricultural disorder which remained outside the pales of their civilised owners. Petworth epitomised the process particularly after its second rebuilding by George, Third Earl of Egremont, in the 178os. This patron of the arts, ‘ideal landlord, agriculturist and generous host’ as a recent historian has described him, seems to have found his greatest happiness away from the London circles to which his rank entitled him, in bringing a civilised, Renaissance quality to his estates.’ His Sculpture Gallery was the personal musuem of a connoisseur; for years J. M. W. Turner was the Earl’s ‘painter in residence’. Art extended outside the house; the Third Earl’s predecessor had hired ‘Capability’ Brown to landscape the park, and the subtle mixture of woodland, serpentines and neo-classical temples is possibly the finest created landscape in England. This was a sense of order that had to be worked hard for and was created with considerable effort. At Ashburnham, Brown created a late eighteenth-century sense of ‘wilderness’ that could only come from the utmost ingenuity; sudden ‘surprise’ views of the house replaced the structured avenues and rigid vistas of earlier occupants.
Not all Sussex landlords could afford, or even wished, to effect such a wholesale reordering of their immediate surroundings. At Glynde Place, Bishop Trevor modified his Tudor house by carefully inserting the new Italianate style alongside sixteenth-century English features; Tuscan columns in the Great Hall and a magnificent new entrance belied the fact that this was a small house. At Stanmer, the earlier Peihams created a well-balanced ‘Palladian’ house in the 1720s; in order to preserve a sense of proper grandeur, the village was moved further north in the downland valley to hide it from view. Despite such a use of power, the result was far from extravagant to behold: ‘it is a structure of considerable dimensions, auguring the residence of nobility, but at the same time laying no claim either to grandeur or antiquity . . . the park is pleasingly undulated’.’
Modesty belying considerable power was a similar keynote of the Duke of Newcastle’s manor house at Bishopstone. ‘The timber, in which the mansion was embosomed’ sheltered ‘The Duke’s Walk’ in a windswept valley; the house was eventually demolished by Lord Chichester in 1831. By no means all the Sussex hierarchy had such restrained tastes, however. Part of the Webster ruin was brought about by the fifth baronet’s attempts to reroof many of the derelict Battle Abbey buildings in 1812-13. Others indulged in more permanent fantasies. The first Earl of Sheffield, John Barker Holroyd, employed James Wyatt to create a new Wealden house for him in 1779; the result is a charming Gothick creation that served as one of the earliest positive reactions against the classical formality of much eighteenth-century building. Sir Bysshe Shelley went one better in the 1790S when he commissioned a new house at Castle Goring. The north face was Gothick, the south strictly Classical, and the interior was divided in the same way; the whole effort was a considerable visual pun on the pretensions of many of his neighbours. He also ‘Improved’ Chanctonbury Ring by planting the ring of trees within the hill-fort.
The houses and parks in Georgian Sussex represented leisured society at its peak; their owners lived essentially on the basic work of others but paid for their cultivated sensibilities and elegance with a carefully defined series of public responsibilities. The greater houses still served as general assembly rooms for a host of petitioners, relatives, friends and hangers-on. On great occasions the third Earl of Egremont would entertain 6000 people at Petworth and his 16o servants would be hard-pressed; by contrast Bishop Trevor managed his retreat at Glynde with a combined staff of 16, including a trainbearer, a French cook, and a ‘jolly old coachman’. Personal eccentricities apart, the exercise of public duty was defined by an increasingly sophisticated code of conventions. Apart from political intervention and law-giving, to which we shall return, a steadily more onerous pressure emerged in the form of military service. Repeated European hostilities in the eighteenth century reinforced the county’s particular vulnerability; with the revival of local militias after 1758, the aristocracy and gentry were expected to serve as officers. To be a colonel required an income of £i000 a year and a captain needed £200; the intermediate ranks were suitably graded. The whole operation was supervised from the 178os from Goodwood by the Duke of Richmond. A general in the regular army, he could only serve as lieutenant-colonel of the Sussex militia. This he did as a public duty until the early nineteenth century, despite the problems of growing age; his subordinates included the zealous Lord Pelham, later Home Secretary. The latter’s captaincy gave him some pleasant social summers at camps near Brighton but rather less desirable autumn duties elsewhere.
The responsibility which the aristocracy took most seriously was that of political life, and the eighteenth century saw the virtual elimination of the fierce independence shown by Stuart gentry and townsmen, particularly in East Sussex. What began as a logical extension of growing aristocratic authority became by 1800 a byword for jobbery, corruption and intimidation.’ Until the partial reforms of 1832, Sussex as a whole sent 24 representatives to the House of Commons. Two served for the county as a whole, the remainder came from eleven boroughs. With rare exceptions, they were nominated essentially by the local aristocracy, particularly by the Duke of Newcastle. Where more than one patron existed or disagreement looked probable every step was taken to ensure corn-promise. Contested elections were expensive, not merely in bribes or gifts to electors, but also in the distribution of largesse to the vast mass of the population whose frustrations could result in violence. The latter was usually given anyway, but became far more expensive if disagreement rose. One of the county M.P.s was always a Pelham nominee; for almost half the eighteenth century he was usually the eldest son. The other member was usually produced by an agreement between the Pelhams and the other magnates. Only in 1774 was this pattern questioned with the brief success of Sir Thomas Spencer Wilson; for a short period the independent part of the county exerted themselves. If authority in the country depended on the quiescence of almost 4000 qualified electors, then the towns represented the real fiefs of nobility and gentry, often returning members on the basis of a long-departed medieval splendour. Seaford, a Pelham town, was one example of this, and Bramber was perhaps even more notorious. That perceptive government spy, Daniel Defoe, said in the 1720s:
Bramber… hardly deserves the name of a town, having not above fifteen or sixteen families in it, and of them not many above asking you an alms as you ride by; the chiefest house in the town is a tavern, and hear, as I have been told the vintner, or ale-house keeper, rather, for he hardly deserved the name of a vintner, boasted, that upon an election, just then over, he had made £300, of one pipe of a canary.
Nearly two-thirds of the town’s 36 property qualifications were owned by a Warwickshire gentry family, the Goughs of Edgbaston. In Chichester, with 500 voters, nomination of one member remained in the hands of the Duke of Richmond. The Dorsets and Websters controlled East Grinstead and in Lewes, after the death of the all-powerful Duke of Newcastle, the Pelhams and the local oligarchy provided a representative each. For most voters, when an election was contested, it was a case of staying with the safest, and strongest, patron. By no means all were as enthusiastic as the song-writer who lauded the Peihams in 1741:
At Bishopstone Near to The Sea Upon the Sussex Coast As good a Duke as Duke can be lives there – the County’s Toast Then Fill your Glass. Full let it be Newcastle drink while you can see With Heart and Voice all Voters Sing Long live Great Hollis – Sussex King.
Newcastle’s death in 1768 merely removed the most accomplished practitioner of the system; the word ‘party’ only had political significance as far as it related to the following of great magnates. When voices were raised against scandal in Sussex electioneering, they actually reinforced the role of the aristocracy in defining the boundaries of permissible behaviour. When George III and his supporters questioned the local authority of the Duke of Richmond by attempting to remove him from the lord-lieutenancy in 1779, they were firmly repulsed by a well-organised but short-lived local movement for ‘reform’. The Duke presided over a county meeting in Lewes in January 1780, which prepared a petition for ‘Public Oeconomy’. He even went so far as to demand universal manhood suffrage and annually-elected parliaments. But Richmond was an unlikely precursor’ of the later Victorian socialists. When the government pulled back, his demands diminished and there was no sudden ‘democratisation’ of Chichester’s nomination procedures.
Only in the years after the Napoleonic Wars was there any threat to this pattern, and that came from a maverick member of the group. Sir Godfrey Webster, the fifth baronet, was elected as a Tory member for the county in 1812; almost immediately he voted against the government whose friends had put him in and became increasingly radical in his demands for electoral reform and the abolition of political sinecures for the supporters of ministers. In 1818, the outraged county magnates forced his withdrawal but he was swept back in by a temporary swing in support from the freehold voters. It was a short-lived success, and the principal landowners in both East and West Sussex forced him out in 1820 by putting up one of his neighbours, Curteis of Windmill Hill against him. Webster’s increasing debts pulled him back from a contest, but he again bounced back to contest the Chichester borough elections in 1823, 1826 and 1831. Although he dispensed hospitality lavishly to the townspeople, he had no success; political folly only compounded his incompetence as a landlord, and some Chichester tradesmen were still waiting for their bills to be settled ten years later. This was far from the last fling of the old system. Although the worst boroughs, including Bramber, Seaford and Midhurst, were disfranchised by the 1832 Reform Act and the county was given four M.P.s for its two halves, much of the old pattern continued until the 187os and 188os. Changes in political form could do little to erode the power of the local aristocracy.
If it depended for government on the whims of its grandees, Georgian Sussex owed even more to their changing habits as members of leisured society, the relatively small but wealthy group whose fashions determined large areas of the economy in preindustrial Eng‑land. Between the formalised rigours of the Court and the relative torpor of much estate living, the European aristocracy in the seventeenth century had generally developed another pattern of diver‑sion, combining pleasure with a certain degree of purpose. The latter was served by the pursuit of health through drinking or bathing in natural mineral waters at inland spas. In England these varied in scale from the magnificence of eighteenth-century Bath to quiet Tunbridge Wells on the Sussex borders, ‘a place in which a lady however virtuous, yet for want of good conduct may as soon shipwreck her character as in any part of England’.1° The obsession with health in a disease-ridden society explains part of their attractions, but equally important were the opportunities for social and sexual intercourse, flirtation, gaming and marriage-broking which were essential to the more ambitious and less well-established members of the landed orders and their imitators. Sussex became involved when Royal and aristocratic interest shifted in the mid-eighteenth century from inland to coastal pleasure resorts, largely as the result of a new series of health fads. Prominent in this development was a Lewes-born doctor who had studied at the University of Leyden and returned home to marry into the local gentry, combining estate management with medical speculations, and systematic enquiry. He was Richard Russell who published in
1750 his A Dissertation concerning the use of Sea-Water in the Diseases of the Glands, originally in Latin. By drinking and bathing in the sea, he claimed, tuberculosis, tooth decay and intestinal disorders could be prevented or largely cured. Unlike many of those who followed him and profited from pirated editions of his works, Russell was not a quack and his treatments were not to be taken lightly, the firm physical and mental regimen he prescribed being not far from the modern practices of hydropathic establishments or the health clubs beloved of overweight executives. Russell’s fame grew and so did his practice; in 1754 he moved permanently to the nearest local sea-town, Brighthelmstone, to encourage its development as a major treatment centre until his death in 1759 when others, less scrupulous, followed. He found a ‘poor fishing town’ which had retreated on to the cliffs to avoid the winter storms; but it was far better situated than Daniel Defoe allowed when he visited the coast in the 1720S. It was a town of about 2000 people which in the 1750s served a wide inland area, with a deep-sea fishing fleet and a reasonable coastal trade, considering that it lacked a harbour. The old town clustered untidily round its market and the inns, shops and professionals’ houses which any flourishing centre required. On the east, an open stream ran down the Steine to the sea, an area where the fishermen dried their nets and the inhabitants dumped their refuse; it was near the outlet that Russell built his house, now the site of the Albion Hotel. The fame of his treatment spread, bringing four hundred visitors or so a year to swell the local income. But, despite the fact that it has capitalised on an unproven reputation ever since, it was not so much health which eventually transformed Brighton as royal patronage and high fashion in which the exercises of the spa served largely as a formal excuse for other, equally demanding, pleasures. George, Prince of Wales, liked the climate and the local ambience much more than that of London, Windsor or Weymouth. When the Prince moved to a small lodge on the edge of the Steine in the 17805 fashion followed, and Brighton over the next fifty years provided perhaps the ultimate example of the marked contrast between attempts at a classical social order and a barely restrained chaos whose uneasy juxtaposition opened wider chasms in late Georgian society.
The 400 yearly visitors of 1760 increased to around 11,000 by 1821, the 2000 inhabitants to nearly 25,000 in the same period. To accommodate the former a whole range of speculative buildings appeared, largely the product of individual estimates of need and attempts at a quick profit. While Brighton has a superficial symmetry of appearance when viewed from the beach, or in early nineteenth-century engravings, close examination shows almost the exact opposite. There was practically none of the systematic planning and oversight which so characterised Bath and many other spas: that could only come from the implementation of a single plan by a great landowner and architect, and Brighton had a few of these.
Its available agricultural land, the Tenantry Lames spread out along the downland valleys, was largely in the form of scattered individual strips and, although attempts were made to consolidate holdings in the 1780s, these were still on a small scale. The buildings of the years of expansion reflect the wholesale exploitation of a myriad of individual properties; only in recent years has the preservation of the medieval field pattern by direct overbuilding been removed as ‘urban renewal’ has occurred. The result was urban chaos but a richness of building styles which redeemed Brighton from the overbearing formality of its more classical contemporaries. Its jewel, albeit a controversial one, was the Prince Regent’s reconstruction of his modest coastal seat and its metamorphosis into the Royal Pavilion at the hands of John Nash in the decade after 1815. As a monument to extravagance of taste it has few equals in England, although it may not entirely justify the descriptions of a series of upended turnips stuck on boxes or St Pauls’ pups which two irreverent contemporaries, William Cobbett and Dean Smith, bestowed on it. Around it and along the sea-front the more fashion-conscious or sycophantic aristocracy and gentry provided their own residences, usually in a much more restrained classical idiom, such as that of Royal Crescent. Only in the latter days of the town’s life as a centre of county magnificence were any real attempts made to establish an overall urban form and both resulted in failure, at least as financial ventures.
By the 18205 Brighton had sprawled along several miles of cliff top, almost to the edge of its parish boundaries. Charles Augustus Busby of the Busby and Wilds partnership that had already provided a number of distinguished buildings in Brighton laid out a plan on the west side for a new, almost self-contained, estate with its own church and markets, to be called Brunswick Square. It was built successfully but two attempts to emulate and balance it soon ran into difficulties. At the town’s eastern extremity the idiosyncratic Thomas Read Kemp began in 1823 to create another self-contained unit, Kemp Town, to centre round a magnificent crescent. Wilds and Busby laid out the general design and the facades of the houses;
others were left to finish the interiors and tidy up the edges. The
facades of io6 houses were rapidly built, but it was another twenty years or more before many of the interiors were begun and Kemp Town stayed for some time rather like a giant film set with the image of grandeur propped up by heavy wooden beams. Kemp went bankrupt, and there were insufficient purchasers to complete the grand design. A similar fate befell Adelaide Crescent, begun in the west in 1830 to complement Kemp Town by Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmith on his Hove estate. For all their mock grandeur, Regency Brighton’s buildings were poorly executed and when George IV (as ‘Prinny’ had become) died in 1830 he left a rather tatty urban memorial on the Sussex coast.
Yet the facade of high fashion was highly developed by the time of his death; there were over three miles of carriage road along the cliff top and a promenade at the foot for the elegant and aspiring to see and be seen during the height of Brighton’s mild winter and spring seasons. Conduct at the round of balls and concerts was highly regulated by a master of ceremonies, the fashionable chapels were packed by elegant preachers, quieter walks could be had amongst the groves of Queens Park, opened in 1829. To service this phenomenal demand, however, another Brighton emerged. Such an economy was highly dependent on a vast mass of skilled labour and a greater horde of the lesser skilled. In the depressed countryside there was a considerable fund of labour to be tapped and people flowed from the uncertainties of seasonal rural poverty to the equally depressing conditions of the Brighton back streets. Cramped into the narrow property boundaries of the old farming strips, the alternative Brighton was built rapidly with little or no conscious design or realisation of the longer-term implications. Simple cottages of compacted chalk and flint with front walls the depth of a single brick were flung up in rows of squalid terraces with neither drains nor water supplies; what had been normal in rural Sussex soon became a trap of disease and hopelessness. Little is still known of the designers and speculators of this part of the town’s growth, save that they were often little more than smallholders or jobbing builders who saw the possibility of some quick profits on their small capital. The most notorious of these streets, Pimlico off Church Street, was a derelict slum within ten years of its building around 1820, and by the 1870s it had to be demolished. The cumulative effect was to make Brighton the fastest growing town in England between 181 11 and 1821; the new inhabitants soon gave the resort an ‘artificial’ unhealthy climate to add to its more ‘natural’ freshness. A principal sea-side town had become a large and squalid town by the sea; not only did fashion begin to desert it by the later 18205, but medical opinion could no longer treat it with the blind enthusiasm of earlier decades.
Brighton set a pace which was copied all over Britain, usually, as in Kent at Margate, with more popular results. Elsewhere in Sussex other attempts were made at resort development, not so much to provide rivals but to offer alternatives to those who preferred either greater seclusion or a more systematic consideration of health. The earliest and most disastrous of these emulations took place in the isolated village of Bognor. A London speculator of great fortune, Sir Richard Hotham, began work in the 17805, ‘to render it a select and quiet abode, distinguished from all other places of a similar description’. He invested £6o,000 in his obsession with a venture which broke his health and gave him only £12,000 back. 12 Apart from the Dome, built as the focal point for Hothampton (a name rapidly forgotten) little else remains, for little was built. Few came to share Hotham’s enthusiasm. Hastings was more successful in its entrepreneur; to accommodate a growing number of visitors, the Earl of Chichester had Pelham Crescent built below the cliffs, with the church of St Mary as its centre. The contrast with the squalor of the old Cinque Port provided a rather romantic paradox. But most noticeable was Hastings’ neighbour, the new town of St Leonards, built by another London speculator, James Burton, a builder. His son was Decimus Burton whose designs gave to the scheme a wholeness much more successful than any of the other attempts in the county. It worked because it offered the combination of style and leisure which more refined sensibilities found coarsened in Brighton. For the smaller group who wanted a Romantic wildness for their seaside interludes, one other place made provision: Seaford began in a modest way around 18io to house less well-off visitors in its one sizeable inn. An unknown speculator built a small terrace of classical elegance, but it was a good hundred yards from the sea, separated by the old harbour site, wild with grass, the home of grazing cattle and the dump for local refuse. All in all, the grandiose hopes of the 1760s had petered out in the Sussex of the 1820s. Apart from Brighton and St Leonards, Jane Austen’s ‘Sanditon’, set in Sussex, was probably more common, observed as it was with the author’s customary bite:
The village contained little more than cottages, but the spirit of the day had been caught. . . and two or three of the best of them were smartened up with a white curtain and ‘lodgings to let’ – and further on in the little green court of an old farm house, two females in elegant white were actually to be seen with their books and camp-stools – and in turning the corner of the baker’s shop, the sound of a harp might be heard through the upper casement.
If the resorts brought fashion and income to a small part of Sussex they were partly instrumental in the steady opening-up of the county to outside influences. Problems of access and transport remained until the 17505 much as they had for centuries, the roads miry and troublesome in winter, the tidal river valleys well-nigh impassable. But the almost perverse acceptance of this backwardness began to wilt before the spirit of improvement which gripped much of English society after mid-century, although Sussex gave up its secrets only with a hard battle. The growing number of learned topographies produced by the Georgian gentry’s taste for travel rarely had much praise for the Sussex roads, however beautiful they found its landscape. Daniel Defoe ‘came to Lewes, through the deepest, dirtiest, but many ways the richest, and most profitable country in all that part of England’. It was Dr John Burton, however, who left the classic example of outside prejudice when he observed that the local roads bred two memorable creatures, ungainly spindle-shaped oxen and beautiful long-legged women.
Major changes in these conditions came with the ‘turnpiking’ of many of the major roads in the later eighteenth century, the creation of metalled highways by local trusts who paid the costs from tolls exacted on the users. Most turnpiking was done on the north to south roads, although some cross-country in-filling occurred later; they were less new roads than improvements on old ones, designed particularly to ease the movements of goods and the aristocracy to their country estates. Much of the initial capital was probably raised by local grandees like the Duke of Somerset at Petworth from the profits of estate management. One side effect was, of course, an increase in the traffic to the new resorts; from the 1760s a number of local coach firms competed on the London to Brighton run, with fares from 16s (8op) for an inside seat. The early coaches went via Lewes but a new turnpike through Cuckfield in the later 1770s speeded up the journey considerably and the trip was down to six hours by 1820. The new roads gave a fresh life to the old towns on their routes, with a considerable demand for labour, horses and fodder. Coaches on the way to Hastings made their last stop for horses at Battle’s George Hotel, where the ostler lived in a tiny cottage which still stands in the yard, to be roused by the bell outside his front door. At the height of the turnpikes’ use in the 1830s, 36 coaches plied the Brighton run, needing 1200 horses en route, and a comprehensive system had emerged from essentially local perceptions of changing need.
The resorts gave an undoubted boost to the opening up of Georgian Sussex but their importance is easily exaggerated and the turnpikes were probably more important in servicing and emphasising the continued status of the network of local market towns. There were few changes in any of them as obvious as those which overtook Brighthelmstone, and their populations remained quite small, Chichester, the largest, having only about half Brighton’s in 18oi. Nor was there a considerable shift in the direction of the services, economic, administrative and professional, which they provided for their territories. Instead, most of them saw a steady confirmation of their existing position. Defoe said of Chichester:
This city is not a place of much trade, nor is it very populous; but they are lately fallen into a very particular way of managing the corn trade here, which it is said turns very well to account.
Defoe was much more impressed with the vitality of Lewes, or even Petworth, ‘a large and handsome country market town, and very populous, and as it stands upon an ascent and is dry and healthy, it is full of gentlemens families, and good well built houses both in the town and the neighbourhood’. It was this latter comment which indicates the most obvious external change in most of the Sussex market towns, their ‘gentrification’ both in buildings and in style of life. Not only the peerage but many of the more prosperous country squires in the eighteenth century came to maintain houses in their local market towns, to serve both the needs of trade and of society; as Joseph Seagrave remarked in 1804, ‘the domestic building in every part of the kingdom, is greatly improved within the last forty or fifty years; but in few places more than Chichester’. Many still survive, the pedimented Marriott House in Westgate, and, best of all, almost the entirety of North Street with Nash’s Doric Market House of 1807 as its focus. In Lewes, the Pelhams built Newcastle House, now buried in the reconstructed facade of County Hall, and Amon Wilds designed Castle Place in 18io, sealing it with his Ammonite motifs, so familiar in his Brighton houses. But refinement did not stop with the genteel residences, it extended to the social life of the towns they inhabited – a pattern of change and influence in considerable contrast to the more widely held image of the Georgian squire as a wine-swilling glutton intent largely on the pleasures of the chase. Chichester was provided with a rebuilt theatre in 1791, patronised by gentry and officers, and served with a round of melodrama and comedy by Mr Collins’s touring company. This and other theatres elsewhere were at their peak when the gentry came in for the Quarter Sessions; for wives and marriageable daughters, there were the balls and concerts of the Assembly Rooms specially built at the back of the George Hotel.
‘Gentrification’ only went so far in most of the Sussex towns. In few cases in the later eighteenth century did it extend to improving the housing of the urban poor, crammed in their squalid suburbs in Chichester and Lewes or in the back yards, behind the better houses, in Battle. For the fortunate almshouses were occasionally provided, as in the six Percy houses in Brighton, built in 1795 in the Lewes Road, then well outside the town. More emphatic and repeated was the steady attempt to refine the habits of the lower orders by repressing the more brutal of their popular recreations, an uphill battle in which many Sussex gentry were involved from mid-century onwards. The Chichester antiquary and Baptist pastor, James Sparshott, left a powerful description of the more common pastimes:
On Shrove Tuesday the most unmanly and cruel exercise of ‘cock scailing’ was in vogue everywhere . . . Scarcely a churchyard was to be found but a number of those poor inocent birds were thus barberously treated. Tying them by the leg with a string about 4 or 5 feet long fastened to the ground, and, when he is made to stand fair, a great ignorant merciless fellow at a distance agreed upon and at two pence three throws, flings a 4scail’ at him till he is quite dead.
Cock-scailing, bull-baiting, and the disguised gang warfare of street football, all came under attack from local justices of the peace. In an essentially aggressive society the boundaries within which public violence were restrained became steadily narrower. In Lewes, as in many other Sussex towns, the patriotism of the Bonfire displays, heightened during the wars with France, could spill easily over into a week of repeated apprentice riots, with the participants throwing bricks through the windows of unpopular employers or threatening personal violence and arson. By the 1820s this concern for public behaviour had become less an attempt Ito refine the sensibilities of a ‘swinish multitude’ than an increasingly desperate fear of social upheaval produced by major threats to local economic life.
The agricultural base that had offered wealth and apparent stability to Sussex life was steadily weakened in the course of the eighteenth century. It was the county’s misfortune to have few real alternatives, holiday-making apart, to its dependence on an increasingly inadequate farming structure. The iron industry was effectively dead by mid-century as England’s economic centre of gravity shifted north‑wards to the textile and iron towns of the Industrial Revolution. The bulk of the iron-making sites fell derelict, offering a romantic landscape but little else. Battle and a handful of the Wealden centres managed to develop a small-scale alternative: making the finest gunpowder, perhaps the best in Europe. It imported saltpetre from Sicily, used local charcoal and exported its produce over the bumpy roads to Maidstone, a rather hair-raising journey. The industry lasted until the 1870s when more efficient technology elsewhere replaced it; the great millstones now form part of the garage walls and garden decorations of Powdermill House and Peppering Eye Farm, south-west of the town. It left very few records and, even at its height, seems to have employed no more than a handful of men. Those who had previously found part of their income from ironmaking were thrown back on the less adequate resources of Wealden farming, although a small number of nomads continued to burn charcoal for the London market, camping in branch and sod hovels as they migrated from wood to wood.
The broad regional divisions with the county’s agricultural structure remained more or less unaltered through the period and the local differences in prosperity grew even more acute. Exact patterns of change will remain a matter of controversy for historians, as they were for contemporaries, but what emerges from the inadequate farm records and welter of subjective comment by biased and often condescending outside observers. is a marked contrast between the fortunes of a few well-organised and prosperous landowners and the general backwardness of their counterparts and tenants. In the later eighteenth century the problem appeared particularly serious because of the wholesale adaptation of arable farming in the Midlands and East Anglia to meet the demands of a rapidly growing population and the food-supply problems caused by the wars. This was largely done by the process of ‘enclosure’, the breaking-down of the medieval strip-farming system and its replacement by relatively compact holdings of almost rectangular fields; it was not so much dependent on new farming techniques as on the more intensive use of ploughland and labour. Enclosure proved profitable, but needed capital and organisation. With a few exceptions along the coast (such as Seaford in the 17705) it proved more or less impossible in Sussex where the land was largely enclosed already and the soil of much of the county ill-suited to highly profitable wheat farming; so there was little of the trauma produced elsewhere by the restructuring of the rural landscape. One outstanding local example was the Broyle in Ringmer, 2000 acres of scrub and clay mire, an old deer park. It was enclosed after 1767 at the behest of the Duke of Dorset who acquired 700 acres as a result. It was not quite the act of immediate robbery it may sound; rather than dispossessing local people of much-cherished common rights, it merely reinforced the long-drawn-out process of their gradual erosion. As a local observer remarked before the event, ‘They seem to have now become totally disused’. The enclosure turned the Broyle into the landscape of ploughland bisected by long straight roads that it still remains.16 Much more frequent was the enclosure of waste land in the Weald by local landlords which, in the long term, displaced a number of squatters. Where men like Bradford ofPippingford Warren attempted to enclose the remaining wastes of Ashdown Forest and succeeded, it was a comparitively rare event; unlike the Midlands enclosure, which frequently redistributed arable land, the sand and clay of Wealden waste required wholesale draining and massive injections of capital before they could be used for profitable corn-growing. The few who tried and succeeded stand out; most were defeated by the land itself, their lack of funds and deep local resistance to change.
One crop that seems to have flourished in the late eighteenth-century Weald was hops; the rapid expansion of the Georgian population produced an urgent demand for more beer, not only to escape the worst features of contemporary living but as a very basic foodstuff for the poor. The oasthouses dotting the north-eastern part of the county are a tribute to this thirst, although, since hops usually paid a dividend only every third year, it was an uneasy base for an agricultural fortune. The plants needed up to 3000 poles an acre to grow, a fairly intensive demand in itself on the exploitation of Wealden underwood. When the government, concerned to organise all its resources against the risk of a Napoleonic invasion in 1801, organised a survey of the crop acreages throughout the country, Sussex produced very sparse and inadequate returns. Battle and a whole belt of Wealden parishes produced no response at all; since the data were collected by the local parish clergy, the low level of response is hardly surprising, farmers as a rule having a dim view of requests for information which might lead to a rise in taxes or tithes. Generally, the small Wealden farmers seem to have had little incentive or commitment to improvement. If they were landowners, they had insufficient capital, if they were tenants the local practice of yearly verbal agreements with landlords offered them little security for a return on any considerable investment. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Sussex yeoman had become less of a symbol of traditional English independence than of a recalcitrant inbred backwardness, perverse in his outlook. He had cause to be; a number of the clergy who compiled the 18oi Returns saw the improving larger farmer as a mixed blessing, likely to be more interested in maximising his profits than in keeping prices reasonable, ‘the cause of the dearness of Butcher’s meat, cheese, etc. etc. . . . it destroys the comforts of the lower class of society’.
Against this gloom a few heroic individuals stood out, both for their ingenuity and their concern for agricultural well-being. The Third Earl of Egremont, like Lord Ashburnham, took an almost daily part in the detailed management of his estates, building model dairies, attracting his tenants with favourable long leases and using, by 18io, one of the first threshing machines in Sussex, although this was to cause trouble later. It was John Ellman of Glynde, however, who was responsible for the most significant advance in local farming. Inadequate as its arable was, Sussex managed to build a considerable eighteenth-century prosperity on stock- and sheep-breeding, with an intensive use of downland and marshland grazing to complement the smaller Wealden pastures; the beasts were moved from one to another as seasons changed. John Eliman, born in 1753, was largely self-taught, but he developed a technique of selective sheep-breeding, boosting the inadequate grass stocks in winter with artificial food. The result was the meaty and woolly Southdown sheep, whose extensive use kept the local downiand primarily as pasture, unlike chalkland elsewhere, which was largely given over to the plough in the later eighteenth century. The great flocks of sheep and herds of cattle on their way to grazing or market locally, or in London, proved a marked contrast to the apparent poverty of many Wealden fields and Lewes, in particular, built a steady prosperity on them. Another government survey in 18oi listed almost 350,000 sheep in Sussex (over twice the number of people), nearly 60,000 cattle, 63,000 pigs and 22,000 horses; in one area at least, the county’s more progressive farmers had few external rivals.
Their prosperity depended, however, not so much on their skill as on a distinctly artificial market situation in the years around 1800 which even made Sussex corn-growing profitable. The twenty years or so of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars produced a very rapid rise indeed in food prices. It was a situation whose benefits went largely to the richer tenant-farmers and the landowners rather than to the ordinary yeoman or labourer. Many of the gentry and aristocracy revised their rentals at the peak of this prosperity around 18io and land values almost doubled as a result. The Earls of Egremont and Ashburnham wisely ploughed much of the new profits back into estate improvement; others, particularly Sir Godfrey Webster of Battle, spent it on a round of pleasure that meant disaster when the boom eventually ended. Even for the more careful managers, their decade or so of good fortune had far too weak a base to survive. When agricultural improvers visited Sussex in the war years they had little favourable to say about the situation in general and the Weald came in for wholesale condemnation, although there was some disagreement about the details. The Reverend Arthur Young was by far the strongest critic, particularly of the retention of ‘shaws’ of natural woodland as field boundaries, not surprising since they took almost an eighth of a field acreage of the Weald:
A system, of greater barbarity can hardly be imagined; the country being generally so wet, the means to air and dry it here used are, to exclude the sun and wind by the tall screens of underwood and forest around every field, and these being so small, a great number are so wood-locked, that it is a little surprising how the corn can ever be ripened. At the same time that this mischief is done, the wood itself is (timber excepted) but of a miserable account, as any one may suppose, when he is informed, that these shaws have a fence only on one side, and consequently are exposed to be eaten by the cattle that graze in the fields; hence there is an imperfect system of wood, an injured one of corn, and wretched fences; by aiming at too much, nothing arrives at perfection.
Men like Young, ‘a sycophantic admirer of Egremont, had little to say that was favourable about anywhere they visited. It was not Sussex backwardness alone that brought trouble but the collapse of the artificial prosperity across England when the wars ended in 1815 and were followed by a series of disastrous harvests. Improvers and locals were plunged into a confusion both economic and wider. As John Ellman described it:
General complaints are made by blacksmiths, wheelwrights, collar-makers and indeed of all trades that are much dependant on agriculture of the great difficulties of getting their last years bill paid. . . . I consider the distress of the farmers so great that nothing can be done to save many from absolute ruin.
The crisis of confidence in the future went far deeper than the economic agonies of a restricted prosperity in society’s upper ranks. It combined with a pattern of events that rocked local life for the next twenty years and reiterated a strong belief in Sussex’s particular backwardness. The troubles had deep roots in the previous hundred years and represented a breakdown in much of the aristocratic social order which the classical forms of houses and estates concealed rather than coerced. Social control depended for respect on agencies which proved increasingly inadequate. One concomitant of the close link between landed patrons and Anglican clergy was a growing divorce between the church and people which was made worse by the generally lax state of the eighteenth-century diocese of Chichester. When Bishop Bowyer conducted a visitation in 1724 he found widespread non-residence, poor and ruinous churches and an inadequate performance of formal services, by under-paid curates. There were some individual exceptions but the state of the Church of England seems to have changed little in Sussex over the next ninety years. Occasionally some provision was made for local needs, as when Bishop Trevor rebuilt Glynde parish church in 1763, but he was possibly a rare exception. The expansion of Brighton provided a number of new churches but they depended for the clergy’s livelihood on rented pews and the poor were virtually excluded. The clergy were not so much wicked or immodest as bound up too closely in the social hierarchy to have much direct contact with their parishioners. Nor did the Nonconformity which had survived the later Stuart period serve much as a form of social control, except for the small numbers it served. When John Wesley visited the county in 173 he found support at Rye, as might have been expected, but little elsewhere: the locals were too fond of the smuggling and intemperance he preached so strongly against. Where Methodism succeeded locally it tended to be of the brand, Lady Huntingdon’s, which appealed most to middling townsfolk. The revival of Evangelicalism in the later part of the eighteenth century was taken up by the groups whose passion for reform, restricting drunkenness and violent sports, were opposed to the whole basis of the Sussex labourers’ principal recreations; simple religious faith in fundamentals among ordinary people may not have been much affected, but organised religion was probably largely irrelevant to the pattern of daily life. Where the church impinged it was as the representative of property and coercion rather than as a meaningful organisation.
Less widely organised but feared rather more was the operation of the machinery of justice. The powerful position in which the landed gentry had established themselves on the Commission of the Peace served to deal with the obviously unacceptable infringements of the law, provided that wrongdoers could be apprehended. In individual cases catching criminals depended on the usually less than willing readiness of the village constables to act; since they were chosen by vote annually from middling tradesmen and farmers they had little hope of dealing with many common incidents unless the rest of the community felt sufficiently outraged to support them. In many areas even organised crime went unaffected, and the seasonal recreations of local people could pose a major threat only to be dealt with by the wholesale swearing-in of special constables, as the magistrates pointed out to the Home Secretary in 1835:
The inhabitants of the village … are annoyed and their property and persons endangered by a practice which has prevailed of late years of great numbers of persons resorting from Brighton to Patcham under pretence of a holiday on Palm Sunday filling the Ale Houses and Beer Shop, getting intoxicated, becoming riotous and creating disturbances in the village street. In a contest which arose from such proceedings about five years ago a Man was killed.
The only resort in such cases was to the severity of High Court proceedings. One major problem occurred repeatedly, that of smuggling. The romantic charm of so much Sussex folklore has concealed the basic violence of smuggling, its support through many levels of society, and the fact that it was possibly the largest single local industry after agriculture until the repeal of protective tariffs in the 1840s killed the need for it almost immediately. Sussex smugglers traded in luxury goods, particularly wine and tea, essential to the maintenance of genteel civility and it took rare, almost obsessive, members of the landed hierarchy to take a consistently firm line against it. One such was the Duke of Richmond who found Sussex in the 17405 in the midst of what a number of local historians have rightly described as a ‘guerilla war’. The authority or aristocracy and armed excise officers came face to face with the fact that a substantial part of the rural and urban population alike either connived at, or were intimidated by, the activities of well-organised armed gangs. Policing the extended coastline all the time was well-nigh impossible, and few of the upper classes were prepared to face the tax loads an efficient preventive service would require. Customs officers were shot dead in open conflict or ambush, an armed gang openly terrorised Rye in August 1747 and informers were beaten up or kidnapped. A West Sussex gang, led by William Carter, kidnapped, to and murdered a revenue officer, William Galley, and his informer, David Chater, in February 1748, throwing the latter’s body in a well in Harting. The Duke did all he could to track down the miscreants, using his great wealth to bribe informers. When the ringleaders were captured they were tried by a special Assize Commission in Chichester in January 1749; judges and witnesses were protected by troops of soldiers who were also detailed to prevent a feared rescue attempt by large bands of smugglers which did not materialise. Six smugglers, including William Carter, were hanged together on the Broyle outside Chichester on ig January 1749 and their bodies gibbeted in chains around the county as a grim warning to other would-be smugglers.
The Duke’s success achieved a temporary lull in the violence of local smuggling activity but the enterprise continued more or less unabated. The law reports and local press for the next century made repeated references to armed affrays, and a large armed and mounted coastguard became a regular feature of coastal life, a ready source of special constables for panic-stricken magistrates in years of depression. It came to be seen as yet another instance of the depravity of the Sussex poor, firmly pointed out in 1834 Labourers have acquired the habit of acting in large gangs by night and of systematic resistance to authority. High living is become essential to them, and they cannot reconcile themselves to the moderate pay of lawful industry.
The lawlessness inherent in such a situation was only one contribution to a scene of increasing social and political disorder which made a poignant contrast with the sensitive order of genteel life in Georgian Sussex. Reaction to the overt corruption of much aristocratic politicking in the form of organised Radicalism had little consistent support in the area but its presence contributed both to the increasing strength of popular protest and to the fierceness of the gentry’s reaction to any form of mass criticism. It is perhaps only incidental that one of the most distinguished fathers of modern political thought, Tom Paine, spent a turbulent six years in Lewes; he came to the town in 1768 as an excise officer, a job he combined with a local tobacco business. One of the numerous tradesmen’s debating clubs of market-town life, the White Hart Evening Club, provided the first forum for what became an increasingly devastating critique of the corruption of English government, and Paine was the most frequent recipient of the Headstrong Book, given to the most obstinate debater at each meeting. When the local excise officers, oppressed by smugglers and low pay, persuaded him to present their case for improvement he was dismissed and left for America. As the apostle of revolution against unjust government he became the bête noire of the Sussex establishment, burnt in effigy by the very groups whose conditions he hoped to improve in a series of loyalist demonstrations in local market towns during the 1790s.
There was virtually no support in Sussex for the French Revolution when it broke out in 1789, and the wars which followed produced a widespread patriotic fervour which was matched by an equal growth in exploitation and popular desperation as the twenty years of conflict had deeper affects on local economic life. The most obvious impact was in directly military terms since the county stood yet again in a front line of European conflict and this led to a growing strain on the traditional method of local defence, the county militia. The European Wars of the mid-eighteenth century had seen the militia revived from its moribund state, but the quota of men and equipment on each Sussex village became a heavy strain. Patriotic fervour expressed by burning effigies tended to stop short of much deeper involvement and although 14,102 men were liable to be called up by 180, another 9630 claimed exemption. Some discounted themselves by obvious self-mutilation, such as chopping off the top joint of a finger, while others managed to find substitutes by bribing members of the lower orders. This was understandable in the fear of being sent for service abroad, and there were riots in 1778 when enforced recruitment was tried. Even in the peak of recruiting in 1800, a substantial number of men were sent home at the behest of the Duke of Richmond, to stop the harvest from being spoilt.
Equally ambivalent were local attitudes to the wholesale billeting in Sussex of regular troops and other county militias during invasion scares. When the Surrey militia descended on Rye and Winchelsea in 1793 the local publicans promptly went on strike and the only answer was the construction of special barracks. These buildings became a common feature of the market towns as the numbers of soldiers increased; at one stage there were 15,000 troops in Brighton alone and large contingents in most of the other towns. Apart from the problems of provisioning they brought additional difficulties. Although as far as can be established they were not as licentious as myth has claimed, their presence increased the risk of drunkenness and brawling. Worse still, the camps were breeding grounds for fever, and Battle in 1809 suffered severely from a typhoid outbreak which began in its barracks. The most controversial feature was the building of new fortifications at considerable cost and, as it proved, an almost total waste of money and effort. On the eastern extremity of the county, the Royal Military Canal was built in 1804 from Rye to Shorncliffe in Kent; its function was not for transport but to provide a moat across the flat marshlands where invasion was most expected. Similar fears led to the construction across Pevensey Levels and eastwards of the Martello Towers (an anglicisation of the Italian ‘Mortella’). Work commenced in 1805 and continued long after the massive French defeat at Trafalgar. Sussex had forty-seven of the 103 built in England, spaced at 600-yard intervals to provide a cross-fire from the cannon mounted on top. Only ten of them now survive, the rest having succumbed to the sea.24 When the wars finished in 1815, the greater part of the military presence in Sussex was soon withdrawn; the towers were left to crumble and much smaller garrisons of troops remained in the principal towns, both for ceremonial duties and as a deterrent to the possibility of physical violence among the growing population.
For reasons still unclear to historians, the population of England began to increase rapidly after 1750. The 6o,000 or so people” living in Sussex in the sixteenth century had become 16o,000 by 18oi and 260,000 by 1831. The rise in overall population was actually lower than it might have been. For all the increase, over 2 I ,000 people left Sussex altogether in the first thirty years of the nineteenth century. Although the growth of Brighton accounted for some of this expansion, most of the burden fell on an economic base too narrow to cope adequately, there being few alternatives to agriculture. Since 16oi there had been a system of parochial poor relief designed to cope with a small residue of the aged and unfortunate, financed by occasional and relatively infrequent rates on the principal landowners, and given sometimes in cash, frequently in kind. Some parishes with a larger problem maintained workhouses or poorhouses, ranging from relatively well-run institutions to vermin-ridden dumps for the poor and insane. The system worked well enough in a society where ‘poor’ meant eighty per cent of the population and harshness was common. It began to break down by the 1790s when the pressure of a growing population and insufficient work meant that over a fifth of the labour force was virtually permanently unemployed. Every Sussex parish adopted its own temporary expedients, gradually to be woven into a complex ‘system’ of permanent relief with 37,000 regular recipients by i8oi. The county had the highest poor rates in England, the highest per capita expenditure and the lowest proportion of aged and infirm amongst its paupers.26 An agricultural labourer in full employment earned about £28 a year in 1797, which bought a diet of bread and not much else. More or less universal was the practice of allowing cash or kind allowances to married men with children, to bring their basic earnings up to a bare living; in return they could be hired out in angs, work on the roads, or if the critics are to be believed, do nothing. When the end of the wars deflated the artificial boom the general situation deteriorated rapidly, with a steady series of bad harvests after 1815. Poor rates mounted, and many magistrates and overseers continued their moral obligations but-in a spirit of growng hopelessness. The labourers were drawn into a pattern of early marriages, large families and demoralisation which expressed itself n a growing surliness and a readiness to explode into violent, but contained, protest. When Stephen Shoesmith and the labourers of Bexhill were refused additional payments by the Battle justices in 1821, they stormed the George Hotel to press their demands. The ‘riot’ was easily dispersed by the local gentry but it was one of a growing number of incidents. It is easy at this distance in time to explain the pattern away as an inevitable feature of the wider transition from one form of economy to another, but there can have been little pleasure for families like the Eldridges or Mepkins of Battle whose members appeared regularly in the poor-relief accounts over several generations.
Discontent simmered and a new element, political Radicalism, appeared in the shape of peripatetic agitators, critics like William obbett who spoke to crowded meetings on his ‘rural rides’ through Sussex in 1825. In many ways the movement was a distant bogey but It worried many landowners whose rent rolls were hit by the heavy load of poor rates, now a quarterly impost almost everywhere. Some tried specific local remedies; the Earl of Chichester reformed Falmer in the 1820s, denying relief to all but the infirm and forcing the labourers to work or leave. At Petworth, Lord Egremont instituted a ‘voluntary’ emigration policy, ‘shovelling out paupers’ which set people up in a new life in Canada, 1456 of them in five years. But these were local efforts and as landlords, tenants and labourers were locked in a situation whose extent was only just becoming apparent, endemic poverty came to be seen less as the will of God than as a widespread indication of human failure.
A new urgency came when the depressed labourers exploded into protest in the autumn of 1830, part of troubles that swept much of England in a few months. The ‘Captain Swing’ riots began in Kent and spread to Sussex in November. In two months Sussex saw 103 separate incidents, two-thirds of them in the eastern half where the restrictive paternalism of the great landowners was less pervasive than in the west 27 The most common form of protest was arson, particularly damaging in view of the rich and dry stacks of the harvest just gathered. Only in rare cases was there personal violence, although not a few farmers received threatening notes, often from illiterates with individual grievances. Many of the actions were symbolically linked with older rituals, often used in the past to give the demands of the participants an acceptable face. On 5 November the labourers of Brede, where the Sussex riots began, demanded an increase in their wages, to which the farmers agreed, and then carried Abel, the overseer of the poor, out of the parish in a cart followed by 300 men. Apart from his injured feelings, little harm was done but subsequent protests became more violent and many landowners panicked. The landowners’ letters to the Home Secretary revealed the extent to which they were initially unable to accept that their labourers were more than usually discontented; according to the more alarmist gentry, ‘travelling incendiaries respectably attired’ were racing round the area in fast carriages, firing incendiary pellets from slings or crossbows into haystacks. It was one of the more bizarre pieces of colouring but the spread of the riots indicated that the problem was even more fundamental. While the Duke of Richmond and a few others remained calm, seeing the essentially limited nature of the outbreaks, some landowners, like Sir Godfrey Webster, temporarily returned from exile, thoroughly enjoyed themselves galloping around the country at night with troops of dragoons or coastguards to hunt down troublemakers.
Despite claims of outside political intervention and an inflammatory speech by Cobbett at Battle the riots were essentially spontaneous local outbreaks with distinct objectives, particulary the modest raising of wages, which was largely successful, with many labourers receiving another 2S a week. Repression followed, in the form of a special Winter Assizes at Lewes; fifty-two men and women were tried, one was executed, seventeen transported to Australia, sixteen jailed and eighteen acquitted, sentences rather less severe than in many other counties. The crisis had wider effects, and the old techniques of social control had to be revised for rural England. The next few years saw a number of sporadic attempts by the gentry to defuse the situation, with a limited provision of allotments to enhance the self-sufficiency of the more respectable labourers. An agricultural commune was established at Lindfield but seems to have been short-lived, and Lord Chichester helped 300 people to emigrate. But these were only partially successful and a much more systematic assault on the question of poverty came from the capital, with a mixed reception from the local gentry. The new Whig government of 1832 instituted a Royal Commission on the Poor Laws whose agents pieced together the first really comprehensive picture of the situation and a single answer to it. Eighty-five Sussex parishes received a questionnaire with a number of queries specifically aimed at the 1830 troubles. Strong among the answers from the Rape of Hastings was blame for infiltration from Kent and the continued presence of ‘wantonness, spleen or illwill’. Particular opprobrium fell on the new Beer Shops (inaugurated in 1830) which were:
resorted to by the most abandoned characters – poachers, smugglers and night depredators who pass their time in playing at cards for the-expenses of the night, in raffling for game and poultry, and concocting plans for future mischief. . . and not one in ten sells home-brewed beer.
These radical discussions during gang labour on the roads, and smuggling paled into insignificance when compared with the worst of all seen by the investigators, the widespread encouragement of idleness and vice by regular poor relief in cash. 1834 saw the legal end to this practice (at least in theory) when Edwin Chadwick drafted, and Parliament passed, the Poor Law Amendment Act. Henceforth, unreformed parishes were to be grouped into Unions, with Boards of Guardians directing policy, and relief was to be refused outside the workhouse. Despite the myths which surround the Act, it turned out in the long term to be quite efficient and reasonably humane, but the threat of transition sparked off another series of troubles in Sussex, the last concerted fling of desperation. Despite the trials of 1830 trouble had continued, particularly in the east where labourers trades unions had met in Lewes Uckfleld Seaford and Rye to keep up pressure for higher wages, placarding the towns with posters. But this activity was less influential than the rumours which began to circulate about the New Poor Law. What little the labourers often had they sought to preserve, Isupported frequently by local tradesmen and small farmers who feared the end of their contracts with the parish overseers.
Matters came to a head when the central government began to form the Unions, a process more important in the east of the county than the west where much reform had already taken place The assistant commissioner reported troubles with the farmers, but much more with the labourers. In May 1835, the relieving officer of the new Chailey Union was set on by thirty men in Ringmer, demanding ‘money or blood’; they got their relief in cash instead of the food tickets he offered. In July, Tilden Barham, the Battle relieving officer, was carried out of the parish as his Brede counterpart had been in 1830, a fate shared with the officer at Willingdon, who was led out by jeering women and children. Although there were some other demonstrations and arson, particularly at Seaford, the scale of these new troubles was much more confined. The most serious was at Steyning where the real hopelessness of the labourers became apparent. When the guardians proposed moving some families to Henfield, a few miles away, a fight broke out which could only be stopped by troops from Brighton. At his subsequent trial, Benjamin Hayler, a 23 year old labourer, married with two children, gave one of the rare insights historians have into the individual perceptions of the poor:
We were in our own parish and had never been to Henfield at all . . . we said we would obey the law, if they would show us any part that empowered them to take a man from his own poorhouse and put him into one of another parish
He and the others got six months hard labour –the repression in 1835 was much gentler than in 1830 because the problem was so limited The scale of poverty in Sussex meant that the new poor law had to be introduced slowly although the ‘transition was no less painful. For a short while, the threat drove some Sussex labourers to pull free of the restrictive local consciousness and join the mainstream of English social protest in the 18305. In 1835, a year after the persecution of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in Dorset, the ‘United Brothers of Industry’ or ‘Agricultural Labourers’ Conjunction Union Friendly Society’ appeared in the east of the county. With headquarters at Sedlescombe it claimed a string of branches stretching from Seaford to Dover, although it was strongest inili the triangle bounded by Battle, Rye and Lydd. For a while it organised mass meetings outside Eastbourne and Rye and sought to push up wages during the harvest season. The movement collapsed, however, when the local farmers threatened to lock out any labourer who joined it and the leadership split between the militants and the more timid:
We invoke the name of Omnipotence, humbly imploring his power and approbation; to our countrymen we say, cease from your ribbons and banners; support party struggles no more; leave them to die, to exhaust themselves; support those men of all parties who will espouse and maintain the good old rule of Christianity . . . we must ourselves be the great instrument of our regeneration.
For a while, Sussex men were linked in spirit and organisation with the radicals of Birmingham and London, a pattern which continued into the 1840s with Chartist marches in Brighton. But the wider appeal failed, largely because local men were still too rooted in the past. Some individual protests continued when the mass subsided. At Icklesham in 1838 a disgruntled individual, never caught, shot at the local magistrates and sporadic arson continued throughout the 1840s. Sheep-stealing swelled in spurts – over fifty disappeared from Hurstmonceux alone in a couple of weeks in 1838. There was one deterrent, the formation of a new rural police force in 1839. But this was limited to the eastern half of the county since the Lord Lieutenant, the Duke of Richmond, felt that it would interfere with the traditional authority of the magnates, and local opinion in the west deferred to this view until 1856. Sussex labour lost its collective voice, submerging into the sullen secretiveness, ‘We wunt be druv’, which amazed and entranced late Victorian writers. The last fling came when the Lewes Bonfire Boys fought a pitched battle in 1847 with troops and the Metropolitan Police after Lord Chichester had read the Riot Act. The following year, the local middle classes organised the new Bonfire Societies and controlled popular effervescence became a tourist attraction.