Strange Tales of Old Sussex: The Sheepshearers

An old Sussex shepherd

No reed, or pipe, or flute for him

To play sweet music on the hill,

Nor shepherd’s smock in idle whim,

The old poetic part to fill.


Just ragged clothes of sombre brown,

That were all stained with Sussex soil,

Wore that old shepherd on the down,

So busy there at patient toil.



Sussex sheep


In the 19th century, itinerant gangs of Sussex sheepshearers used to visit the farms for work. The gangs had a Captain, often with a gold-laced hat, and a Lieutenant with a silver-laced hat. Each gang had their own customs, and would often sing their own songs (Rosebuds in June, a Sussex folk song being one of them). There was often also a “Tarboy”, a young member of the gang in charge of the tar pot used for closing any wounds caused by the shears.

The shearing process involved turning the sheep on her back, and shearing from her head to her belly, before shearing her back and tail last. The fleece was folded left-hand side to middle, then right-hand side, and then wound from the head. With the tail end, you created a “winder” to wind the fleece up with before it was taken away.

During their work, the shearers were allowed to pause to “light up” which meant to have liquid refreshment or “small beer” provided by the farmer, and at the end of the day’s work, they would gather in the barn to eat, smoke and sing.

Rules for the boys

In 1933, a Mr White of Hove contacted Sussex County Magazine with a copy of some rules that had been adopted in 1828 at a meeting held in Falmer at the Swan Inn on the 21st May. The meeting had been presided over by a John Ellman, a famous sheep breeder and agriculturist. The rules had been provided by the son of an Edward Dodd (approx 1843 -1926) from Patcham and they make for interesting reading:

  1. Sheepshearers had to be at their place of work by 7 am when they were to have a breakfast of cold meat or meat pie and one quart of ale each.
  2. They were allowed to “light up twice in the forenoon” which meant having a pint of ale each, each time.
  3. Their dinner was boiled meat, meat puddings or pies, as much small beer as they liked and half a pint of strong beer for each man after their dinner.
  4. They were allowed to “light up twice in the afternoon”  when they could have a mixed beer, namely half ale and half strong beer the first time, and on the second occasion, just a pint of ale.
  5. They were allowed cold meat, bread and cheese for supper, one quart of ale each, and one pint of strong beer.  They were allowed to take an hour and a half for supper and drinking, but they were not allowed to smoke or sing at this stage.
  6. Their pay was: 10d(10pence) per score of ewes, lambs and tags, when the “whole are shorn”, or 18d per score of ewes and tags, and 14 per score of lambs when only part shorn. They got 20d per score for shearing a wether flock. The minimum requirement seems to have been that 40 sheep would be shorn per day and if the farmer limited that number to less, the shearers still got paid for 40. They also got 1s for winding, 3d for black lamb and 2/6 per day extra for the Captain and Id for the Tarboy.
  7. If it rained, they had breakfast as normal and then were to wait and see whether the shearing could go ahead.
  8. The Captain had the power to dismiss anyone not complying with the rules.
  9. The Captain was to keep a copy of the rules on him, and give them to the Master when he goes to work in the morning. If the Master deviated from the rules, he had to pay Mr. Ellman 5 guineas (just a little more than £5) who in turn would pay the shearers.

sussex shepherds

The photograph supplied shows the Patcham sheepshearing gang in approximately 1894, who worked farms at Patcham, Falmer, Stanmer, Westmeston, Saddlescombe, Blatchinton and Standean.  As stated, the average was 40 hilltop sheep but 50 on underhill farms.

It’s a rosebud in June
And the violets in full bloom
And the small birds are singing
Love songs on each spray

We’ll pipe and we’ll sing love
We’ll dance in a ring love
When each lad takes his lass
All on the green grass
And it’s oh to plough
Where the fat oxen graze low
And the lads and the lasses
Do sheep shearing go


When we have all sheared
Our jolly, jolly sheep
What joy can be greater
Than to talk of their increase


Their flesh it is good
It’s the best of all food
And their wool it will cloth us
And keep our backs from the cold

Credit to Sussex County Magazine 1933 for details and photo 

If you’ve enjoyed this strange tale of old Sussex you may also like:

Strange Tales of Old Sussex – Ghosts, Murder & Smugglers!

Strange Tales of Old Sussex – Turkeys and Tennyson

Strange Tales of Old Sussex – The Green Man

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