19th Century Sussex

The Cooch Memorial Lecture
19th Century Sussex – continuity and change

Chris Hare – 14th November 2006

Following a few words in commemoration of our Founder, Herbert Cooch, the President, Richard Norton introduced Chris Hare, a well-known local Historian and former County Councillor.

A picture of Sussex in the early 19th century, pre and early Victorian, was presented. This showed a picture of a sparsely populated, rural county that, in 1800, had a population of approx. 200,000. Change was slow, as it had been for centuries. Superstition and belief in witchcraft were rife. This period contained much poverty, with a working class life expectancy of less than 50 years. Generally people travelled little from their home village, moving 20 to30 miles at most, throughout their lifetime, mainly for reasons of employment or marriage. ‘Foreigners’ were regarded as those who came from outside the local area and certainly from beyond the County. The few roads were in poor state, depending on the season, vehicles being drawn by horses or oxen. Daniel Defoe, who travelled to Lewes, wrote of the bad roads in Sussex where transport was slow, and dangerous due to highwaymen. Where practical, use was made of the rivers as a means of transport.

Employment came from agriculture and fishing, and a brisk trade in smuggling. Piddinghoe was a well-known smuggling village. Sussex is geologically rich in chalk, the basis of the lime industry. There were limekilns in Washington and Amberley. Iron making had taken place since the 16th century, mainly in the east of the County where there were deposits of iron ore and trees for charcoal. Limestone was used as the flux.

During the first half of the 19th century there was high unemployment and much poverty throughout Sussex, rural life was far from idyllic. Reasons such as the poor roads are noted above. Additionally, though the Industrial Revolution had commenced in the previous century, the benefits did not reach Southern Counties until long after. In the early stages, competition from Northern England added to the hardship in Sussex. During the 1830’s, there was mass emigration, mainly to the USA and Canada. Farms were sold cheaply. Mobs burnt threshing machines and hayricks, this developing into the Swing Riots, with much violence. The authorities reacted by hanging, and transportation to Australia of offenders.

The benefits of the Industrial Revolution reached Sussex in mid 19th century in the form of the railways. These provided rapid transport to and from London, created rail towns such as Haywards Heath and Burgess Hill and caused expansion of the coastal towns. Goods and food were supplied to the capital, permitting farms to flourish and create businesses such as chickens and eggs. The South Downs breed of sheep was introduced. People from London increasingly moved to Sussex and commuted, leading to a demand for housing, hence bricks and brickworks. County landowners made much profit and were powerful in their influence on the rail network, such as the diversion away from Cuckfield, and the distance of the rail station of Arundel from the town.

The close of the 19th century saw Sussex far more prosperous than at the opening of the period, leading to the developments in the following century including a modern population of approx. 1.5 million.

This most interesting talk by Chris Hare was followed by a well-deserved vote of thanks proposed by Brian Buckroyd.

C Harrison