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Strange Tales of Old Sussex – The Sussex Dialect

Written by W. Victor Cook in 1914, the below is both an example of some Sussex dialect and also draws on what is the motto of Sussex “We wunt be druv” – in itself an embodiment of the Sussex spirit that we will not be bullied, cajoled or persuaded to do something we do not wish to do!

Sussex Won’t be Druv

Sussex dialect

Some folks as come to Sussex,
They reckons as they know –
A durn sight better what to do
Than simple folks, like me and you,
Could possibly suppose.

But them as comes to Sussex,
They mustn’t push and shove,
For Sussex will be Sussex,
And Sussex won’t be druv!

Mus Wilfred come to Sussex,
Us heaved a stone at he,
Because he reckoned he could teach
Our Sussex fishers how to reach
The fishes in the sea.

But when he dwelt among us,
Us gave un land and luv,
For Sussex will be Sussex,
And Sussex won’t be druv!

All folks as come to Sussex
Must follow Sussex ways –
And when they’ve larned to know us well,
There’s no place else they’ll wish to dwell
In all their blessed days –

There ant no place like Sussex,
Until ye goos above,
For Sussex will be Sussex,
And Sussex won’t be druv.

If you’re ever in doubt about just how rich and colourful our Sussex dialect was, here are just a handful of examples of words lost that you’ll find in “A Dictionary Of The Sussex Dialect” (see below). The dictionary brings alive the people of Sussex yesterday and a few forays into its pages is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in the “old ways”.

AdleSlightly unwell. “My little girl seemed rather adle this morning, so I kep’ her at home from school.”

ArgifyTo signify; to import. “I do’ant know as it argifies much whether I goos to-day or whether I goos to-morrow.”

Bly. A resemblance; a general likeness. “I can see a bly of your father about you.”

BuntTo rock a cradle with the foot; to push or butt.

Skice.  To run quickly and slyly, so as to avoid detection.

SnigglerA slight frost.

SnudgeTo hold down the head; to walk with a stoop looking on the ground as if in deep thought.

Snuffy. Angry. A common nickname for a testy person.

With this diversity of language and determination of spirit in mind, I caught up with Peter Benner last week to tap into his memories of the Sussex dialect:

It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it!

“A recent comment on the revived TV production of The Larkins, the series based on H.E. Bates’ The Darling Buds of May was that it did not feature any genuine Kentish accents. The same is sometimes said of Sussex these days, which always used to have a rich local dialect.

Up to the last century this survived throughout most of rural Sussex, although it got diluted by the coming of the railways: the mainline to Brighton was opened in 1841, and the branch from Three Bridges to Bognor five years later. I have always felt that near the stations, the true Sussex dialect got a little modified by Cockney. The coaches on excursion trains from London were open-sided like the original charabancs and exuberant tourists tended to fall out and inter-breed with the natives giving us “Railway Sussex”.

Sussex dialect

I do recall some years ago being in a crowded pub in the middle of Devon midway between Exmoor and Dartmoor in a place that had little habitation for miles. Standing next to me was someone ordering drinks and I couldn’t resist saying, “I don’t think you come from more than five miles from Haywards Heath station.”

“You’re right bouy, oi come from Wivelsfield.” he replied and of course, Wivelsfield is in fact three miles from Haywards Heath.

The pure Sussex dialect does still survive in the more remote areas – in the hinterland of Pevensey Levels, for example, and in the area south and west of Petworth and Midhurst. I also recall a lovely old boy who did some gardening for my father in Balcombe in the 1950s. I think he had been a forester on a big estate but we only knew him as “Shepherd” (or in my case Mr Shepherd). We had felled a fir tree and cut it in lengths. When we came to the last and largest length, Shepherd pushed his cap back on his head and opined, “Bouy, I’low us’d better let’er bide where her be, coz there ain’t no use us strainin’ we, be thur.” When you say it out loud, it has an almost lyrical quality about it.

Sussex Dialect

The Sussex dialect has been preserved in a number of the older books on Sussex. In the 19th century, The Reverend W D Parish published his “Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect” which was updated and edited in the last century by Helena Hall, local historian of Lindfield. And a number of the old authors (many of them clergies like E Boys Ellman and K Coker Egerton) and others like Barclay Wills, chronicler of “The Shepherds of Sussex” and Bob Copper, the greatest songster of the South Downs kept dialect alive.

So there’s still some as can still understand us, buoy!”

Contributed by Peter Benner 

If you like this post about old Sussex and the Sussex dialect, you may also like:

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

Strange Tails of Old Sussex – Heroic Hounds

Strange Tales of Old Sussex – The Green Man

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