Life and rather hard times at the Cuckfield Workhouse

An aerial view of the old Cuckfield Workhouse/Hospital plus the barracks used during the war years.
An aerial view of the old Cuckfield Workhouse/Hospital plus the barracks used during the war years.

The Mid Sussex Times archive of 1914 carried many reports of workhouse inmates being taken to court for failing to finish the tasks set for them. While it was a sanctuary for some poor souls, it was certainly not a holiday camp.

Cuckfield workhouse was added to the village landscape in 1845.

Children at Cuckfield Workhouse

Children at Cuckfield Workhouse

Designed by HW Parker and SO Fodeno – the former being assistant poor law commissioner and the latter an architect – it was one of a new generation of workhouse.

Rather than the building being hidden by high, overpowering walls, it had open fences. Its purpose was to accommodate the poor and the chronically sick when there was nowhere else for them – but the idea of having to resort to the workhouse held a stigma that was worse than poverty.

For some, though, it was their only salvation in the days before social security and a national health service.

Families were often split up and children were confined to the nursery while their parents worked, and those who complained were sent before the courts for punishment.

Injured Canadian troops at Cuckfield Hospital during the Second World War

Injured Canadian troops at Cuckfield Hospital during the Second World War

Articles in the Mid Sussex Times from 1914 included many unfortunate cases which came before the magistrates of the day – and today some of the treatment seems rather harsh.

Take John Green, Thomas Cook and Frederick Worley. They arrived at the workhouse on a miserable Friday evening in March, soaked to the skin and desperate for a bed for the night.

The trio found themselves in court after they refused to “pound one hundredweight of stones” – a regular task given to the ‘casual’ inmates.

After being turned in by labour master John Brazier, all three told magistrate Mr JJ Lister that they would have been willing to do “a reasonable day’s work” but were in no condition to pound stone.

Anyone for tennis? Two players outside the Cuckfield Workhouse/Hospital building

Anyone for tennis? Two players outside the Cuckfield Workhouse/Hospital building

Mr Lister clearly didn’t agree as he sentenced them all to 14 days’ hard labour.

Then there was Frederick Elton, who was brought before magistrate GF Mowatt, at Haywards Heath.

Frederick was described as a “habitual tramp” – though he vehemently declared to the court that he was a “working man” – and had been set the usual task of pounding stones after showing up at the workhouse door.

When he was spotted “loitering” in the work yard, his task unfinished, he told John Brazier that he felt ill.

The Second World War barracks at Cuckfield Hospital

The Second World War barracks at Cuckfield Hospital

A doctor was called and cleared him fit to work. Frederick took the news less than well, smashing six windows, leading John Brazier to lock him in a cell where he promptly smashed six more windows and damaged an iron pot.

Frederick told the court: “He challenged me to do what I liked and acted in a barbarous manner to me.

“He said he would have me locked up and I said he would not lock me up for nothing. I would have broken a lot more windows if there were any to break. We are not quite worms yet – they should use men in a reasonable manner.”

The court was also told that Frederick had been partially paralysed after being kicked in the head by a horse, and at times could hardly see. This was missed by the workhouse doctor, who only examined his chest.

There was little sympathy from the Bench, who sentenced him to 28 days’ hard labour for refusing to work, plus a fortnight for the damage.

The case of former army man Samuel Perkins brought questions from magistrate Mr H Plummer in February 1914. Samuel had been told to pick four pounds of oakum – loose fibre obtained by untwisting old rope – but had left 12 ounces unfinished.

Dismissing the case, Mr Plummer asked why so many cases from the workhouse were being brought, saying it was “a matter of notoriety” as “only rarely” did he see such cases elsewhere in the country.

The clerk, Mr EJ Waugh told the court that discipline had been “slack” at the workhouse in the past but in John Brazier they had a labour master who was “prepared to properly carry out his duties, which accounted for the number of cases brought before the Bench”.

The number of ‘casuals’ to check in at the workhouse was said to be down to 44 that month, compared to 106 the year before.

The workhouse was converted to a Canadian Military Hospital early in World War Two and became Cuckfield Hospital after the war. It was closed in 1991.