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South Downs History: Life in the 1860s

Saddlescombe Farm

In 1934, Maude Robinson published a series of articles in the Sussex County Magazine about her childhood on the South Downs history at Saddlescombe Farm. She subsequently went on to write her memoirs The Quiet Valley: Memories of a South Down Farm in the 1860s. Her father was Martin Robinson who became a tenant farmer at Saddlescombe in 1853. Maude was born in  1859, the youngest of eight surviving children. One of Maude’s brothers was Louis Robinson (1857–1928), a physician, paediatrician and author who helped pioneer modern child medicine during the later Victorian era. Saddlescombe Farm is now a National Trust property that you can visit.

Sussex Life
Maude, and her parents.

Maude’s story

The following is an edited version of one of Maude’s Sussex Magazine’s contributions.

Maude describes being allowed to roam freely on the Downs after school (except for the chalk pit which was forbidden). No one much took to the Downs in those days except for the local hunt the Brighton Harriers or the Southdown Foxhounds. Saddlescombe housed some 900 sheep which could be shorn in a single day by gangs of sheepshearers. She describes that in order to shoe the team of oxen, the animal was rolled on its back on soft soil, and its feet tied, while a small boy sat on its neck to keep it still while its feet were shod. They still had a team of oxen.

The harvest was cut and tied by hand and couldn’t be managed by just the ordinary farmhands. Teams of Irish labourers would come to help out, sleeping in the outbuildings with the hop pickers and cooking their meals by campfires. Maude recalls tea being made in a back can while the can lid was turned upside down and used to cook bacon in the fire. At the time, the parish was a prohibition area but inevitably the labourers would return from nearby Poynings worse for wear. Maude recalls her father’s concerns that the labourers candles might catch fire but doesn’t mention the conflict any drinking would have caused owing to her father’s strict beliefs about sobriety.

The children would pick up corn in the fields and give bunches to the women and children from the cottages, and some women could collect 11 bushels which would be flailed by the husband, sent to the windmill as “grists” and returned as 11 bushels of flour. A welcome contribution to the family cupboards when money was much needed for winter clothing.

The hay crop was also cut by hand, with four or five skilled labourers, working the acres with a scythe. The swathes were turned by a line of women in “tidy print sunbonnets” who were greatly fearful of slow worms which they called death adders. But indeed, adders were a thing to be feared as they could kill a sheep by causing suffocation due to inflammation, so much so that in the 1850s, Maude’s father set a price of 6p an adder.

The children themselves would earn money from finding adders, snails, or collecting wool, by which means they earned half the £3 needed for a new saddle for their pony. Homelife doesn’t sound too dissimilar to life now, with a garden that had a swing and a see-saw, and when croquet came into fashion, Maude’s father made them a croquet set, first with stumpy mallets and then longer ones when the fashion changed. They also had homemade ice skates for the winter and some old inherited Dutch skates with a long hook but their pond was so small that on one occasion they broke through and touched the bottom.

Young Maude also remembers an occasion when a famous hot air ballooner who had set off from Crystal Place had to bring his balloon down, and with the anchor caught on a hedge, he tumbled into the soft hay.

south downs walks

Grandmother Robinson

The big treat for Maude was a trip to see her grandmother at Crawley Manor House. The journey was 18 miles and took 2 hrs with a strong horse and a light dog cart. They had to pass through four or five tollgates where the horses were impatient at the white locked barriers and the gatekeepers always seemed slow, old and grumpy, The journey up the London Road (the now A23) went passed “green bears” cut in the yew trees at Hickstead Place and the jawbones of a whale covered in ivy at Handcross. A stream crossed the road where they admired the new invention of a hydraulic ram.

The village of Crawley was described as dormant. The arrival of the railway in the 1840s had brought an end to the town’s coaching trade, but it had made Crawley more accessible and Crawley prospered during Victorian times. Maude describes grandmother as a farmer’s wife who had 10 children and started a number of institutions. In fact, a little research reveals grandmother was Sarah Robinson (1787 – 1875), a Quaker who lived in Manor Farm House, County Oak. The house was demolished after the war and the grounds are now part of the Manor Royal industrial estate. Sarah was responsible, amongst other things, for raising funds for and establishing Crawley and Ifield Cottage Hospital, and she founded a charity school in 1827. There’s a commemoration plaque on a house in Victoria Mews, West Green. She was also responsible for appealing for a subscription towards the building of a British School in Crawley. Maude describes how the boys up to 5 or 6 years wore frocks and pinafores and were distinguished from the girls only by whether they curtsied or pulled their forelock.

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