A History of Mid Sussex in the 20th Century - Part 1 - 4


FOR a great many of its people, Sussex was in crisis. They mourned the rapidly changing face of a county they once knew and loved. The tranquil landscape of small towns and villages, set amid beautiful parks, undisturbed by the Industrial Revolution, was becoming a thing of the past.

In short, they cried, Sussex was being drawn in to the huge urban region of London, and this rapid growth threatened to engulf much of the coastal plain and downland areas.

These concerns come not from today (although they might) but from the final years of Victoria's reign, when both rural and urban life were undergoing enormous changes.

In 1851, Sussex agriculture still employed one in every six local people directly. The county did not, in fact, suffer from the farming recession of the later years as seriously as many other areas – farming still employed one in eight in 1901, when the national figure was one in 16.

Roy Armstrong, in A History of Mid Sussex, writes that the turning point seems to be about 1870 – from that time, cheaply produced corn from America, Poland and Russia forced down the price of English grain and land went out of cultivation.

He added: ''Between 1870 and the outbreak of the First World War, the character of the Sussex landscape was transformed from a checkerboard of fields, whose colour changed with the seasons, to one of unvaried meadowland...from corn growing to pasture and milk production."

By 1900, the menace of cheap corn, meat and wool from other countries had made downland farming so unprofitable that some land owners gave up the struggle and sold off their land to property companies.

At the end of the 19th century, however, agriculture remained the major industry. Sussex was dominated by the great estates of dukes, earls and other hierarchy who, in the west, owned some 500,000 acres between them.

The life of the common labourer was not such a happy one. Wages and living standards improved little throughout the 19th century and in 1874 a newspaper noted: ''A fear of their employers and a terrible amount of ignorance and lack of education prevails there."

But if the traditional, agricultural way of life was in gradual decline, then the coming of the railways was the great boom industry of the late 19th century.

In the 24 years between 1839 and 1863, the main lines in Sussex were completed. The basic network then grew. Of the secondary lines, the Mid Sussex, from Pulborough to Petersfield, opened in 1867; the Bluebell Line, linking East Grinstead and Lewes, in 1882; the Midhurst to Chichester line, in 1885; and so on.

The first golden age of the railway had a huge impact both upon the landscape and on local employment, as the rail companies offered many men security and a regular income, away from the land, for the first time.

James S. Gray writes, in Sussex In Old Photographs: ''Its tentacles spread across the whole of Sussex, opening up the county by improved communications, the growth of trade and the movement of population."

While the railways helped to kill off the coach trade and the turnpike trusts, they led to a boom in other industries.

Seaside resorts and other beauty spots, such as the various pleasure gardens, began to profit from the hordes of middle-class holidaymakers who were able to travel down from the towns at weekends and bank holidays.

Road traffic began to flourish as omnibuses and horse-drawn taxis started appearing to serve railway travellers once they arrived at their chosen resort.

As travel became more popular and affordable, there was a growth in industries such as building, inns and hotels.

The market towns also began to benefit from opportunities for trade which the railways offered, and of course one new member emerged, Haywards Heath.

Its expansion keeps pace with that of the railways. In the 1860s, the Sussex antiquary Mark Antony Lower commented: ''Haywards Heath...has become a centre of civilisation and commercial activity."

In fact, it was still largely rough heathland between Cuckfield and Lindfield, but due to the London to Brighton railway, the town began to grow in to a residential and commercial area.

Its population grew slowly, from 1,814 in 1881 to 2,452 in 1894. After that, many additional houses were built by private enterprise in Mill Green, Wivelsfield Road, Church Road and South Road.

By comparison, the population in Burgess Hill stood at 3,140 in 1881, while new buildings and improvements in public health in the 1880s saw this increase to 4,410 in 1891 and 4,800 by 1901.

By 1900, Haywards Heath had the county's largest cattle market, and was home to the Middy, the popular weekly newspaper founded in 1881, which published on Tuesdays to coincide with the market.

As well as the stream of day trippers arriving at this time, there were a growing number of 'outsiders' choosing for the first time to live in Sussex but work in the capital. As faster and more frequent train services developed, London came within daily reach.

Commercial prosperity also produced an entirely new group, living on returns from their investments – the 'rentiers'.

By 1900, more than 23,000 people in Sussex (the vast majority women) were in this category. They were the major source of employment for Sussex's largest single occupational group at the turn of the century – domestic servants, who by then outnumbered agricultural workers.

It is old photographs which really bring the period to life. We see an industrious, hard-working people; as James S. Gray writes: ''Dressed in shabby solemnity, taking life seriously, for there is scarcely a smile to be seen on any face, and disciplined...they appeared to relax only on the rare occasion of a trip to the seaside or village fair."

What is also striking in the photos is the complete absence of litter. Money was scarce, food, drink and clothing were precious, and nothing was wasted. The litter on the streets today displays our affluence, compared to theirs.

Electronic wizardry shows what our cyclist of long ago would have faced at Muster Green todayPart 2 - COMING OF THE COUNCIL

ONE of the major advances in Sussex near the end of the 19th century was the creation of the county council.

Principles of democracy had gradually been extended in national and local institutions across the country, and the fact that county government was in the hands of non-elected magistrates was increasingly seen to be out of keeping with the times.

The Local Government Act of 1888 gave rise to elected county councils, which then took over the administrative functions of the 'Quarter Sessions', the traditional system of local government.

The first elections to the new West Sussex County Council took place in January 1889. One keenly fought contest gave an indication of the changing times, when Admiral Sir Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, a magistrate and leading light of the Quarter Sessions, was defeated by one of the newcomers, a Mr R.B. Willis.

It took some years, however, for local elections to gain credibility among either council or electors, and in late Victorian or early Edwardian times the county council remained firmly under aristocratic management.

It was presided over by some of the most powerful landowners in the country – indeed, between them, they actually owned most of the land in Sussex.

One of the first problems facing the new county council, which first met in April 1889, was ''the development of motor transport and its effects on the roads".

Roads in Sussex had long had a notorious reputation – the term ''the Sussex bit of the road" was often used to describe any potholed or muddy section of highway.

The only form of mechanical transport on the roads in 1889, however, was the steam locomotive or traction engine, used for haulage. The rest of the road traffic was on foot, horseback, horse-drawn or on bicycles, which were becoming a popular form of transport and leisure.

Until 1896, the growth in road traffic had been held back by the Locomotives Act, which applied a speed limit of 4mph to all vehicles, except in built-up areas where the limit was 2mph.

A new Act in 1896, however, allowed speeds up to 12mph and did away with the need for an attendant to walk in front of the vehicle.

From this time, motor traffic increased by leaps and bounds. The poor road surfaces were often unable to cope; punctures were common and the faster-moving traffic caused clouds of dust in summer and thick mud in winter.

In an effort to control the dust, the council used to water its main roads, finding sea water most effective. The problem was not solved, though, until the innovation of tar, which was first used in Sussex in 1902.

In 1890, the county surveyor produced a detailed report on the highways of Sussex. He had to carry out most of the inspection himself, which involved a combination of travel by rail and horseback – a formidable task which must have taken several months.

Even at the turn of the century, the motor car proved a headache for the council. In 1900, during a debate on vehicle registration, Colonel St John said: ''A great difficulty now experienced is that the police and others find it perfectly impossible to identify the drivers of motor cars. They come down on Sunday from London at the rate of 20 to 30 miles an hour and the drivers wear masks so that they cannot be identified."

By 1904, number plates and licences were introduced, the national speed limit was set at 20mph and road traffic signs first appeared in the county (at Horsham).

The late 19th century saw the beginning of the modern age in other respects. Local government began to take responsibility for major issues such as education, health and unemployment relief.

The local police force had their first uniform – a serge tunic with high collar, eight buttons at the front, a leather belt, a helmet (replacing the top hat) and a cutlass.

Fire brigades in Sussex, however, were not so well organised, and were usually made up of volunteers, such as the brigade formed in Haywards Heath in 1889. Most towns had a large bell outside the fire station to call men when there was a fire – messengers would be sent to summon the firemen who could not hear it.

The fire engines were horse-drawn and often relied on hiring horses from local traders. Steam engines did not come in until the new century and though some parishes provided fire-fighting equipment for use by the local people, most towns were ill-prepared to deal with an emergency.

Certain complaints about society at that time have an echo a hundred years later.

The establishment thought drinking was a major problem – on average, every inhabitant of Sussex drank 34 gallons of beer a year, though drinking was as socially segregated as any other activity, with distinctions between the 'respectable' pubs and others.

In 1900 a newspaper observed: ''The barrel is still many laps ahead of the Bible in the estimation of the majority of young men."

Many churches were built in the last century but a census taken in 1851 showed organised religion was in slow decline – nearly half the population never went to church, in Sussex or elsewhere.

More evident is the patriotic fervour of the late Victorian age, as witnessed in the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of 1897 in almost every town and village, and in the excitement of royal visits.

On June 29 1897, the Middy wrote: ''The street decorations by day, and the beacon fires and illuminations by night, were on a scale never equalled in the district . . . Queen's Day was marked by general good feeling and enthusiasm."


THE countryside might not have been strewn with casualties but in the battle for Mid Sussex the loser was the land itself.

According to Dr Peter Brandon, chairman of the Sussex branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, until the mid-19th Century "man and nature in Sussex maintained a harmonious relationship".

The coming of the railway and parallel growth of Brighton put Mid Sussex on the map as the place to live; no longer the place to farm.

And an inevitable shift from rural to urban began.

In 1900 Mid Sussex was still largely countryside; the land farmed by tenants of a handful of large estate owners such as Danny near Hurstpierpoint, Borde Hill, Balcombe and Heaselands.

Former district council chief executive Bernard Grimshaw describes how this changed. Victorian and Edwardian London's "bourgeoisie" leapfrogged the shabbier suburbs south of the river and opted for grand homes in Haywards Heath and Burgess Hill.

These urban villages began on commons enclosed by parliamentary act and owed their very existence to increased mobility provided by the railway.

From Lewes, the Rev Lower in his Compendious History of Sussex wrote approvingly of Haywards Heath as "the abode of civilisation, many villas and pleasure residences having sprung up almost by magic."

Gardeners tended the sandy soil wreathing substantial gabled houses in Tylers Green, Butlers Green, the Lewes Road and Lindfield in fashionable shrubberies of rhododendrons.

Maids prepared breakfast in time for their employers to catch the 8.15 steam train to London Bridge.

Homes of the old-established gentry – yeoman and former ironmasters – passed gradually into the hands of city financiers.

Newcomers to the Sussex Weald colonised great stretches of countryside, building neo-Tudor, Georgian or Gothic mansions.

Some created splendidly ostentatious gardens and the Sussex country gentleman began to change the look of entire parishes such as Ardingly, Horsted Keynes and West Hoathly.

Gravetye, Borde Hill, Leonardslee, Wakehurst Place and Sheffield Park were the earliest of modern gardens, famous for exotic conifers and seedlings imported by adventurers penetrating the foothills of the Andes and Himalayas.

At the beginning of the 21st century, nearly half of the economically active residents work outside the district and Mid Sussex numbers far more managers, professionals and generalised ''high rollers" than elsewhere in Britain.

Research undertaken for the set-up of a local radio station revealed the area within a 15 mile radius of Crawley was the wealthiest per capita in Europe.

In 1938 Middy editor Albert Gregory was writing: "Many Mid Sussex people 'wunt to be druv' by dictators who come from the cities and towns with big ideas and want to revolutionise everything instantly."

But the image of evil developers steamrollering innocent cottage dwellers is false; life on the land – particularly for farmworkers and tenants – was harsh, uncertain and physically exhausting.

Farming began in Sussex in Neolithic times around 4000BC when people settled on the Downs rather than the thickly-wooded Weald.

When forests were cleared, land was laid to pasture to graze the red Sussex breed of beef cattle.

Small domestic farmhouse dairies produced milk and cheese for local families who lived the good life with a pig, few chickens, beehives, garden fruit trees and small crops of vegetables.

By the end of the 18th century early Weald industry had declined driving former workers to seek seasonal work – the Downland cereal harvest, hop picking and work in the extensive orchards which flourished on the southern slopes of the Ashdown Forest.

First grain imports from Canada and the USA triggered falling home prices; effectively ending the prosperity of Sussex farming as cereal production became uneconomic.

By the early 1900s the introduction of refrigeration brought cheap imports of meat and many Mid Sussex farmers went bankrupt.

No wonder farmworkers encouraged their children into "safe" jobs manning the railway and labouring on road and house construction.

Hall and Russell's report on "The Agriculture of Kent, Surrey and Sussex" written in 1911 described a Wealden clay plain – "at one time much under the plough is now all covered with poor grass of little value".

Bernard Grimshaw describes the almost feudal "paternalism" of former big farmers and estate owners who literally held the lives of their workers and tenants in the palms of their hands.

By the outbreak of World War I much of Mid Sussex was still thickly wooded – like Lincoln Wood, Foxwarren and Blunts Wood in Haywards Heath; coppiced commercially during the first few years of the century.

In a chilling foretaste of what was to come 30 years later, World War I triggered huge advances in mechanisation.

Government edicts encouraged ploughing of traditional downland to make the country self-sufficient in food production to withstand a long Atlantic siege.

The development of the tractor allowed steep slopes to be cultivated for the first time and water was supplied to formerly inaccessible areas making it possible to rear cattle.

Areas of previously open downland were fenced with barbed wire.

Minutes of the County's Wartime Agricultural Committee poignantly chronicle the shift in manpower and land use that changed the face of Sussex countryside for ever.

Formerly infertile soil was enriched with newly-developed chemical fertilisers.

As men who worked on the land volunteered to go to the Western Front, landowners and farmers lodged desperate appeals with the military for the temporary release of their pigmen, cattlemen and ploughmen. Some were heeded but most were not, although in August 1916 27,000 soldiers were released for the local harvest.

Children of 14 were press-ganged to help out in these desperate times and women "were to be instructed into the arts of milking and cow work".

Local tribunals decided whether individuals could be deemed in reserved occupations – in other words retained on the land.

Farmers were allowed to keep one man per horse team, one man for every 20 cows and 200 sheep.

Blacksmiths, wheelwrights and thatchers were exempt from military service.

Remount officers toured farmsteads enlisting hunters and plough-horses for cavalry work and to haul guns and supplies at the front. Few returned to their stables.

Ratcatchers were paid 10s to eradicate rats on 100 acres; long-standing timber was felled, Irish labour was imported. However farmers dubbed efforts by the wages board to increase pay as a "great mistake as we are already asked to do more than we have ever done".

In 1926 Plumpton Agricultural College was built and students included officers seeking expertise to farm smallholdings granted to them in demobilisation packages.

Courses included poultry, horticulture and bookkeeping.

But for weald and downland dwellers, the World War I revolution in land use brought to an end several thousands of years of a farming system and rural life.

Pictures courtesy S. B. Publications, SeafordPart 4 - HEROES FEEDING THE NATION

CHANGE places with the picture postcard image of the Sussex ploughman.

You'd hold a position of importance on the farm with your tailor-made plough and horse team.

Up at 4am to feed the horses (Suffolks on the clay, Shires on chalk); home for breakfast, tack up and out on to the fields where you'd plough a tenth of an acre an hour in "furrow-longs", or furlongs, turning the soil with your two-strong team to bury stubble and weeds.

Work till dark, feed your horses, groom and clean their equipment.

Home for tea, back to the farm to bed down horses; home to bed yourself.

In 1900 there were nearly 25,000 working horses in Sussex. Half-a-million sheep grazed on half-a-million acres; now both sheep and grassland are reduced by four-fifths.

A total of 50,000 acres were devoted to wheat (now halved), 3,500 to potatoes (down by three quarters), and 120,000 head of cattle (also halved).

There were 14 dairy herds in the Hurstpierpoint area alone just after World War II; now there is none.

In 1900 agriculture played a vital part in the life of the community. Haywards Heath was one of five towns to submit weekly returns under the Corn Returns Act of 1882. A corn market had been held every Wednesday at the Corn Exchange with the annual cattle and pig fair in November and a Christmas fat stock show.

The town's market grew to be one of the 12 largest in the country, covering an area of nearly eight acres where Sainsbury's is today and dealing with upwards of 100,000 head of stock per year.

The years between the two world wars saw the import once again of cheaper produce from abroad and many cultivated fields tumbled down to poor, scrub-infested grassland.

Viewed from Ditchling Beacon, the Wealden landscape would not have altered much between 1900 and 1945. But farming practice and rural life had changed for ever.

By 1939 mechanisation had ensured farmers were better prepared to cope with food ministry demands for intensified production under the wartime Dig for Victory campaign.

Lloyd George ordered 6,000 Ford tractors from America in 1916 to speed production and by the 1920s they were in use on most large farms, numbering nearly half-a-million by the mid 1950s.

After the war, the Agriculture Act (1947) guaranteed prices and capital grants encouraged ploughing of ancient grasslands and removal of woodlands and hedgerows. The great post-war changes in the use of land are chronicled by the people who lived through them.

Local homes are now out of reach of the sons and daughters of those who originally made village communities so vibrant. Each village contained several butchers, greengrocers, a haberdasher or two, a dairy and a hardware store.

Farmers have diversified – small family farm centres, golf courses and barn conversions and the creation of small business units.

Research shows 40 per cent of farms in England have some form of non-farming enterprise.

Former district council chief executive Bernard Grimshaw explained Mid Sussex had been administered under East Sussex County Council until 1974.

Its post-war designation as "Growth Area Six" which saw local authorities earmark land for development was only removed in 1983.

And the London-Brighton "Golden Corridor" had been targeted for even more growth than has taken place to date.

He described how industry was attracted to Burgess Hill and population growth to Haywards Heath as expanding business was forced out of London and beyond the green belt.

Huge areas either side of Hassocks were developed to provide accessible and competitively priced housing for a post-war generation of commuters.

Farmers now find themselves in the limelight, rethinking their role in society.

Fifty years ago they were hailed as heroes for helping to feed the nation. After the UK joined the European Union in 1973 farm production was supported financially; now challenged by CAP reforms on the one hand, farmers are under fire from the environmental lobby.

Many have taken up the challenge, examined ways to alter farming practices, develop new sources of income, innovate and diversify.

People understand their anger at having to surf an unsteady market and demonstrate ecological credentials after twice obeying the call to feed the nation this century.

Although the history of farming has seen up and downturns, in the past a slump in dairying would have been offset by an upturn in barley or pigs. Now many farmers face 1930s market prices set against rising production costs.

Many have gone to the wall. Many others find it hard to resist lucrative options from developers hungry for land well within the London-Gatwick-Brighton corridor.

But the countryside is biting back. Conservation groups are powerful and well-funded.

Bernard Grimshaw says the countryside is tidier than it used to be and land use is – after all – the result of democratic choice.

Not all change is for the worst, he believes and no-one can honestly defend rural poverty as an acceptable price for the "cultural icon" myth of country life.

But he believes the future of the countryside is in our hands.

And he urged: "Join your local amenity group, take part in community life, attend parish council meetings, speak up for what you believe in."

As William Morris wrote more than 100 years ago: "Surely there is no square mile of the earth's habitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way if we men only abstain from wilfully destroying its beauty."