From the January 1929 edition of The Sussex County Magazine
Smugglers & Poachers of Sussex
By Mrs Eves
In old days along the coast of East Sussex smuggling played a great part in the life of its people. All classes, even the Church, were involved. Life was made almost impossible, or certainly very unpleasant, for those who stood out against "free trade."
Sir John Ashburnham, both squire and parson of the parish of Guestling (near Hastings), was a prominent figure in the early 1820s. Threatening letters sent to his reverence demanding the keys of the church generally resulted in a keg of brandy being found in the vestry or crypt of the church a few days later. He would be waked on a dark night by a stone thrown against his window. On looking out, a few shrouded figures would be seen and a disguised voice would call out to him to throw down the key of the stables. Not daring to refuse he would comply with the request. Next morning his horses would be found all of a lather [as if they had been ridden hard and far] and the usual illicit gift stored away in a corner!
Standing on a lonely hill close to the cliff with its big caves, our own old farmhouse at Fairlight was a great smuggling centre. A local tradition of an underground passage from the cellar to the cliffs still exists, and certainly when my husband’s grandparent’s were living there and alterations were being made in the house, a walled-up cupboard was found containing a complete smuggler’s disguise of a poke bonnet and cloak. With these garments was a small keg of brandy. A remnant of those times came to light the other day in the finding of a George 1 penny among the leaves-sweepings on the lawn.
Labourers’ wages were only 14/- a week, and it was not to be wondered at that other means, not always legitimate, were resorted to to augment this. I have been told that the people of Iden, near Rye, could earn as much as 15/- in one night, two or three times a week, by bringing kegs of brandy up from Camber and hiding them in various smugglers' holes in the village. They received 5/- a keg.
Poaching was as common as smuggling, and like it, not always confined to the more needy classes. A neighbouring parson, with pronounced sporting instincts but minus the land on which to produce the desired game, had for long made nightly inroads into my father’s woods. Though the fact was generally known, and winked at, no actual proof was forthcoming until, walking one day in his woods, my father picked up a clerical collar with the reverend gentleman’s initials upon it. My father had the collar laundered and returned with his compliments and a note to say where he had found it. Mr H --, who had unlimited cheek, replied thanking my father for so kindly having his collar washed and adding, "Yes, he had dropped it a few nights before in the Forewood Wood, which he always found most admirably stocked with game!"
As a rule Squire and men were on very good terms and a certain amount of poaching was allowed to pass unnoticed. Not far from the coast there lived, in those days, a certain peer who, whether rightly or wrongly, was always suspecting his keepers of taking the game. Spring-guns and mantraps [objects now seen only in museums] were common. Lord --- would set his traps himself and sally forth at night to see whom he might have caught, and the tale goes that one dark night he got caught himself and that a deaf ear was turned to his cries for help. He was left a prisoner in his agony until next morning, when his butler went in search and found him.
This wish to find out if the men were doing their duty was approached in rather a different manner in the case of an eccentric forbear of my own. He must have been a born actor, for on several occasions he successfully disguised himself. He played the role of stone-breaker outside his own park gates to see if the men broke the stone for mending the roads, small enough to pass through the prescribed ring. The park roads were, and still are, made of the iron-ore left in the old iron quarries, and are dark in colour and very hard. On another occasion he masqueraded as a drover to see if his butler gave the man the whole of the money he had given him for the tip. Once, he actually borrowed a dancing bear of a travelling company and, dressing up as a keeper, went to his own house to see if the servants gave the money he had this time expressly forbidden them to. But the tale I like best, I think, relates how one night he went into one of his woods and fired off his gun to see if the keepers were on the alert. He was promptly seized by them and dragged up to the house. There he was, of course, recognised, and the men were, as they quaintly put it, "in an awful fantigue," expecting to be dismissed. The next morning they received double wages for doing their duty! A stickler for duty, he had queer means for punishing delinquents. His valet, who had annoyed him in some way, was told to follow him to some place on the continent; when the man arrived he found a message telling him to go to another place. This went on indefinitely for some months!
These eccentricities nearly ended in disaster for this amusing gentleman. The busybodies got to work and an effort was made to put him under control. When, however, the Commissioners in Lunacy arrived to question him, his answers were so amazingly apt that they left disconcerted. One of the questions has come down to us: "How many legs has a sheep?" Answer: "It depends whether it is dead or alive." This same John Pelham drove his coach and four, and where now the railway goes, ran the old coach road to the sea, down which he drove to take his summer bathe. The well, which still exists, is noted for its pre water with a slight iron taste. From it was daily fetched the special water for his tea. The end of this quaint figure remains shrouded in mystery. Dressed in his hunting coat, in his coach and four with the barrel of good English beer, that always accompanied him on his foreign trips, he left for the Lake of Geneva. A charming old water-colour depicting him leaning on a wall and looking over the lake has come down to his descendants, but of his fate nothing is known. He did not return, and after a while his death was presumed.
In those days highwaymen were still a menace to the traveller. A tale which might have ended in even greater disaster than it did comes down to us from my grandparents. Married at the ages of 22 and 20 respectively, their wedding tour was made on the continent in their own large and cumbersome travelling carriage, complete with the rumble behind in which rode their man and maid, and under which was the old skin-covered trunk which contained their luggage. After three months’ travelling a great reception was to be given them on their return to the ancestral home. A thoughtless and rather wild young cousin considered this an occasion for one of his practical jokes. He dressed up as a highwayman and, mounted on his horse, waylaid the bridal couple on a lonely piece of road. Demanding their money or their lives, he produced his pistols and barred their way. Having successfully secured their purses he galloped home and by a short cut reached the house and met the couple on the doorstep as if nothing had happened. The joke, however, had gone too far, and the youthful bride’s pretty curly hair had turned white next morning. The perpetrator of this untimely joke never confessed his identity until many years had passed.
The old days of organised smuggling, poaching and highwaymen have passed away, and with them alas! are passing many pleasant institutions and industries.
The making of an early form of food-safe was an industry. I believe, only met with in Sussex. We have on our own dairy a large double cupboard, the doors of which are made of rather thick tin-sheeting pierced with holes made by a hand-tool to give ventilation. The holes follow various symmetrical forms of classical pattern, varying according to the artist’s own ideas. The owner of the cupboard always had his own initials and the date included; these indeed formed the most important part of the pattern. The cupboard in our house has the initials M.D. and the date 1818. A neighbouring farm has one even earlier, 1798. A few years ago I came across a very old man in a village near by who was in the act of finishing a brand new pair of cupboard-safe doors for an aged customer. He told me he "reckoned" he was the last survivor of his trade. I watched him for some time working with his hammer and pointed tool. His pattern evolved as he worked and, I suppose, as fancy moved him, for he made no preliminary drawing or spacing out of the work. I praised his skill and design and he answered he was glad I liked it as his customer was "mighty particular."
The old-time Sussex farmer is a type dying out – the man content to remain all his life on the little square of earth on which grew all his interests, and who could say of his thoroughness and knowledge, as one said to me a few years ago, "There’s not much I don’t know about cows. I’ve sat forty years under a cow."