How tempting it is to imagine that life in South Down villages a hundred years ago or more was something of a rural idyll: yet for many people life was very hard, work was scarce, poorly paid, and unemployment a constant fear and possibility. The very poorest took to tramping the roads, seeking what work and charity they could find.
Writing in 1883, Richard Jefferies, the great chronicler of the English countryside, wrote that being poor in the countryside was no less wretched than it was for those living in towns and cities. “In real life,” Jefferies observed, living in the country was “frequently damp and rheumatic, and most hated by those who know it most.” Jefferies, who moved to Sussex in 1883, and died at Goring in 1887, aged only 38, noticed how the depression in agriculture was leading many men “to take to the road,” there being no work for them in the villages of their birth.
The farmers, many of whom were tenants, were themselves finding it hard to make a living, and consequently were compelled to carry on farming with fewer labourers, as Jefferies reported in his book Chronicles of the Hedges: “Hard necessity compels the farmer to do with as little as he can, and as the farmers are the only employers, when all the tenants for miles and miles follow this course, it begins to tell on the cottagers. We have heard of as many as forty men being idle in one hamlet, hanging about with nothing to do.” No wonder such a desperate situation lead to an exodus from the countryside into the towns.
Although South Down farming land was some of the best in England, new technology was reducing the need for labour and cheaper foreign imports were forcing farmers to accept lower prices. Writing in 1899, W. H. Hudson was astonished to find Chichester full of poor men, spending the little they had on drink –
“In the streets, near the railway station, at the Market Cross, and at various corners, you will see groups of the most utterly drink-degraded wretches it is possible to find anywhere in the kingdom – men with soulless faces and watery eyes, dressed like tramps – standing idle with their hands in their pockets. But there is no a penny there, or they would not be standing in the mud and rain; and as for doing any work, they are past that. Here that rare spectacle, a man without a shirt, has met my sight, not one or twice, but several times, the naked flesh showing through the rents of a ragged jacket buttoned or pinned up to the neck. these loathly human objects are strangely incongruous at the spot, under the great spire, in sight of the green open healthy downs, in perhaps the richest agricultural district in England.”
Hudson was a great admirer of Jefferies, and his own writing owed much to the former’s observational style, though perhaps lacking some of Jefferies empathy for his subjects. Hudson even went to stay at Jefferies’ old house in Goring, when he was writing his Sussex book, Nature in Downland. One evening he went for a walk through the village, and meandering down the path that led to the church, he saw a tramp coming towards him, “whose countenance” was just like that of Jefferies. For a moment Hudson was convinced that his mentor had been reborn on Earth as a tramp. He put some money into the tramp’s hand, and then quickened on his way, but the that face “so full of misery” stayed with him for many hours.
The actress and author Nancy Price was one of the most formidable and fearless figures to emerge onto the literary scene after the First World War. She moved to High Salvington (recently absorbed into the Borough of Worthing in 1929), and died there in 1970 aged 90. She campaigned successfully to halt the march of residential Worthing onto the Downs and ensured the preservation of Honeysuckle Lane as a rural byway.
Price believed you could only really find out about the lives of other people by living with them and experiencing their daily routine. To find out what life was like in the merchant navy she took on the persona of a man, and dressed accordingly, and joined a vessel as a crew member. She was at sea for many months, and later wrote about her experience.
She was befriended by other tramps, and as an earlier writer, Margaret Fairless Barber had observed a generation earlier, she found there was a code of living among these men and, in Fairless’ words “a brotherhood of the poor.” She realised that tramping for her was an interlude in an otherwise comfortable life, but one that taught her a valuable lesson about the fleeting nature of material possessions –
“Though I believe I pass as a respectable citizen, I am by nature a vagabond, never so happy when, free of houses, I join the brotherhood of the road. I would rather a knapsack than a trunk, a tent than a house………[Yet] I cannot call myself a true member of the brotherhood of the road because, though to adventure, to explore, to find the unknown track, to know solitude, all weathers, to sail the seas….all this gives me a zest for life, to me there must be a time limit: there comes a moment when I want to go home.”
In 1909, the South Downs writer and bee-keeper, Tickner Edwardes spent many months tramping from Devon to his home at Burpham, where he found he had to recover his “starched dignity,” with its stiff collars and buttoned waistcoat. Middle Class respectability romancing the life of a tramp may seem more than a little delusional and patronising, but it does highlight the disconnect that affluent people felt towards the natural world snug in their detached residential isolation.
Hilaire Belloc once sat and talked with a tramp he met on the downs, and the man shared with Belloc an onion, the only food he had with him. Belloc understood more than most that wisdom was not accrued through possessions and wealth, but by recognising each person’s common humanity and soul. He also saw a society where so many had “neither an acre of land or a wall to call his own.” Belloc advocated ‘Distributism,’ whereby every family in England would be given enough land to feed themselves, and would thereby be freed from poverty and the need to seek charity from either the wealthy or the state. That might have been a viable proposition in 1870, the year of Belloc’s birth, but how many families in England today would know how to farm an acre of land?
This short extract from my interview with Edith Geere very nearly wasn’t recorded at all. My interview with her took place in December 1999, when she was 92. She told me a lot about growing up in Sompting and the difficulties poorer people had in making ends meet. In those days all my interviews were recorded on C90 audio cassettes; and it was just as the tape was running out that Edith told me about the poor beggarman who called at her house on his way to the workhouse at East Preston.
Literally, as she finished telling me of the beggar being arrested and her mother’s reaction, the tape ran out. The indignation in Edith’s voice is still palpable, even though she was describing an event that had taken place so many years earlier, before the First World War.
Just off a lonely bridleway about a mile from the village of Warningcamp, stands a pole with a wooden plaque on it bearing the legend ‘J U 1771.’ This unexpected discovery puzzles all those who come across it, unless of course, they are familiar with the legend of Burpham Highwayman, Jack Upperton.
In 1770, Jack Upperton was a farm labourer, aged over sixty: not the typical profile of a highwayman, who tended to be young and urban. These ‘wild young men’ sought escape from poverty by holding up stage coaches and other travellers at isolated spots along ‘The King’s Highway’. Emboldened by the legends of Claude Duvale and Dick Turpin, young men revelled in the fame and notoriety that followed in the highwayman’s wake. They became wealthy very quickly, and were caught, tried and executed with similar speed. Most were under 25 when executed after a career lasting no more than a year. A tiny minority, such as William Davis, ‘The Golden Farmer,’ managed to evade capture for decades, but he worked with no accomplices, committed robberies far from where he lived, and spent his ill-gotten gains cautiously, so as not to arouse suspicion. His neighbours in Hampshire just thought he was a very clever and successful farmer, hence his local nickname.
Poor Jack was neither clever nor successful. He had reached an aged when he was becoming too old to continue heavy farm work and he had no family to look after him. All he had to look forward to was a life of destitution. At his age and station in life he knew death was not far off. So perhaps it was the inevitability of his fate that convinced him he had nothing to lose by carrying one, audacious crime.
In those days, the post boy, on his way to Arundel would follow the old London Road that came over the tops of the downs, passing by Burpham and Warningcamp, winding its way down to the Arun Valley. Jack assailed the startled lad, whether with a real firearm or a pretended one, we do not know; but the boy was terrified and gave up his mail bag to the robber. The haul was not spectacular: one account claims Jack made £5 out of the crime – another £20 – at least £500 to £2000 in today’s money. But a poor man needed little to live on – ten shillings (50p) was more than enough to feed a man such as Jack for a week, and still have enough in hand for a couple of beers in the local inn, The George and Dragon.
For about six months it seemed that Jack had got away with the crime. He had disguised his face, and the boy (we may guess a lad of about 14 – 16 years) was too much in shock to offer a good description. No one was looking for a man aged over 60 (apart from Jack, the oldest highwayman I have come across in my researches over the years, was 40 – most were far younger). However, one night, the worse for drink, Jack shared his guilty secret with his drinking companions, one of whom at least, must have informed the authorities. He was arrested and, in his home, were discovered some of the stolen letters.
Jack was taken to Gaol. Some subsequent accounts, say Lewes Gaol, but that was not built in 1771, so it was more likely he was taken to the House of Correction in Midhurst, or possibly even to the lock-up in Arundel. Lawrence Graburn (1881 – 1965), a Wepham farmer, recorded many of the stories about Jack Upperton, told to him by old men in his and neighbouring villages. It should be remembered that even a man of ninety, telling these stories to Graburn when he was a young man, wouldn’t have been old enough to remember Jack Upperton, so this information needs to be seen as more folklore than historic fact, but it is testimony to the impact that Jack and his crime had, that people were still talking about it well over a hundred years after he died.
It was said that the Vicar of Burpham went to visit Jack in gaol and said how sorry he was to see him in such a serious situation, to which the old man replied nonchalantly, “it as a scrambling sort of turn-out,” by which he meant it was a messy or muddled business. Today, a man in such a plight might expect legal aid and some representation in court, but Jack had none. He told the judge he ‘meant no harm,’ but the judge wasted no time in donning the black cap and sentencing the old labourer to death. In those days the punishment for highway robbery was execution, followed by ‘gibbeting,’ meaning the body was welded into an iron frame (usually described as ‘chains’) and hoisted up on a stout pole, and there left to rot. This was supposed to act as a terrible warning to others passing on the road who might be tempted to take up a life of crime themselves. It also meant there was no burial and therefore no hope of resurrection on the Day of Judgement – for the flesh would rot and be pecked out by the birds, and the bones would eventually loosen and fall to the ground, to be carried off by scavenging animals.
Jack met his end at the Horsham Hang Fair, where crowds of people would turn out to see the latest batch of felons being hanged. It was a day out for all the family. There were all types of amusements laid on. People expected the condemned men and women to give a good speech from the gallows, and booed if this didn’t happen. Sometimes the crowd showed sympathy for the condemned person by uttering groans and moans. Jack said little and the reaction of the crowd is not recorded. After his death, a blacksmith was engaged to weld his body into the gibbet cage.
It is said that the people of Burpham and the surrounding villages turned out to see Jack’s body hoisted up into position, whether out of curiosity, to pay their respects, or even to gloat, we can but wonder. One old shepherd, leaning on his crook, sighed, “Oh Jack, you wouldn’t be ‘anging there now if you had gone straight.” It is not difficult to imagine what an awful and horrific spectacle the gibbet must have presented for many years. By the 1850’s, the post had entirely rotted away, leaving a large hole. In about 1868, one of the riders in Lord Leconfield’s hunt was thrown from his horse when the animal galloped into the hole. After this the hole was filled in. Then, over the years, trees grew around the site, and less and less people could remember where the gibbet had stood.
The exact location of the gibbet would have been lost forever, had not Graburn decided to erect a replica post and plaque on the spot of the original one. By the 1980’s, this too had been lost, so a member of the Upperton family erected another one to the memory of their notorious ancestor. Then, with time, this too fell or was vandalised or stolen. Now, within the last year or two, yet another replacement has arisen on the site – perhaps also erected by members of the Upperton family? The post is by a footpath that runs through the wood known as ‘Gibbet Piece.’
Within living memory, the legend still circulated, that on dark and windy nights, like the one when Jack committed his robbery, his ghost would appear, still rattling in chains. Others say that the ghost would even offer words of advice to those who asked. My informant, Nobby Kinnard (see article on ‘rough music’) and his friend, Vic Jacobs, told me in 1988, of an amusing anecdote connected with this legend. They said, back in the 1920’s or 30’s, when they were boys or young men, a group of ‘Bertise Wooster types’ from London turned up in the Norfolk Arms in Arundel. They went to the bar, and there was an old Sussex man, rich in the dialect of his county, with his reddened old face, framed by ample grey whiskers. The ‘bright young things’ amused themselves by making fun of the old man and his way of speaking, until in anger and frustration, he blurted out, “Ye be less a smilin’ if ye went up t’ gibbet post, an arsked ‘ol Jack a thing a two….” This, of course, only increased their merriment, and on offering the old man a drink or two, he told them of the legend and of how to find the gibbet.
According to Nobby and Vic, slightly older friends of theirs, who were also in the bar and were overhearing the conversation thought it was time the ‘lununers’ were taught a lesson. They left the bar and got on their bikes and rode up to Gibbet Piece. Eventually they saw the headlights of the old man’s tormentors approaching as they slowly drove up the road to Blakehurst. When they could drive no further, they stopped their car, and walked up the path into the woods. Befuddled by drink, chatting and laughing, one of them sauntered forward, and addressing the long-dead highwayman, asked, “Well how are you tonight then Jack?” Great indeed was his shock when a voice loudly replied, “Oh, I be wet an’ cold, wet an’ cold!” Nobby told me, with a chuckle, “ they was last seen headin’ out t’ Chid-ester, a ‘undred mile an hour!”
Further research has shown that Jack committed his robbery of the post-boy on 26th September 1770, and he was executed at Horsham on 6th April 1771, with the gibbeting taking place, presumably, very soon afterwards.
The last men gibbeted in Sussex were the Drewitt brothers of Midhurst in 1799. Like Jack, they were also convicted of highway robbery. The last gibbeting in England took place in 1832, with the practice finally being outlawed in 1834.
Jonny Mott of the Duck Pond Sailors, who grew up in Warningcamp (the nearest village to the Jack Upperton gibbet), has written this evocative song about the sad tale of this aged highwayman –
In the days before any village had a policeman, or before school education became compulsory, local communities were very prepared to ‘take the law into their own hands,’ whenever the need arose.
A man might have been beating his wife, or parents cruelly ill-using their children, or a couple may have strayed away from the moral code of their village, in which case they might receive some ‘rough music.’ A time would be chosen, usually at night, when a group of local people (generally lads and men) would assemble, sometimes with blackened faces or some other disguise and proceed in procession to the victim’s house. As they went, they would blow on crude musical instruments and bang together pots and pans, tin trays and anything else that would make a loud discordant noise – this was ‘rough music.’
The point of this nocturnal row was to ‘encourage’ the culprit to change his or her ways. Usually, one visit was more than enough to have the desired effect, but not always. If the wrong-doer carried on with their bad behaviour, the rough-musickers would return, but this time they would have an effigy of the person which they would proceed to burn outside their house. If the mob were really angry, they would throw stones at the windows of the house and chant out dire threats.
Very, very occasionally, a third visit would be needed and this was always the last. This time the mob would seize the miscreant, throw him onto a cart, and wheel him to the parish boundary, often dumping him in a ditch or in bushes by the road. Such a person would never be allowed back in the village, as their very life could be in danger if they did return.
In the coming weeks I will write more about rough music, including outbreaks in towns, which were often linked to local political and religious disputes.
The following link is an extract of an interview I recorded with Nobby Kinnard of Clapham in 1997, where he describes the last rough music demonstration in his village
The publication in 1954 of an article in the West Sussex Gazette about rough music, led to a flurry of correspondence from older readers who recalled the practice.
Lillian Brown, then living in Cuckfield remembered the days of her youth, when she lived in Bury. In that village the rough-musickers referred to themselves as the “Kangaroo Band” (any connection there with “kangaroo court” I wonder?), and Mrs Brown well recalled the verses they used to holler out on such occasions:
There is a man lives in this place
He beat his wife – a sad disgrace!
He beat her black, he beat her blue;
He made her poor bones rattle, too.
Now if this man don’t mend his manners
We’ll have to send him to the tanner’s;
And if the Tanner don’t tan him well
We’ll nail him on a nail him hell
And if that nail should chance to crack
He’ll fall upon the Devils back;
And should the Devil chance to run
We’ll shoot him with his fiery gun.
At the end of the last stanza a gun would be fired, presumably in the air rather than at the miscreant or his property. J.S. Chandler recalled his boyhood in a Hampshire village, where rough music was a fairly common occurrence. He remembered that the victims were usually middle-aged, childless couples, and rarely younger couples with children. Also men rather than women were the general targets; seldom did a wife receive the same punishment for similar conduct. Chandler recounted one rough music demonstration that rather backfired on the demonstrators:
“My father told me of a rough musicking against a butcher in the village, who was supposed to have ill-treated his love wife. When the demonstration was at its height, the butcher filled his blunderbuss with blood and fired it at the crowd. The blood was well spread and the crowd quickly dispersed, thinking that some of their number had been shot.”
Margaret Scourfield Davies lived at Myrtlegrove Farm and in the interview she recalls a manhunt that took place on the Downs around Myrtlegrove (between Findon and Patching) in May 1934.
A burglar named Hills robbed a house in High Salvington. The police were alerted. Two policeman in a car were driving along the Long Furlong road (now A 280) when they spotted the suspect by the entrance to Tolmare Farm. They got out of the car to question the man. However Hills drew a gun and shot one of the officers. P.C. Jex. It was the middle of the night and dark and Hills easily made his escape.
Over the next few days the police scoured the Downs but could not find their man. Captain Bendtick Budd, leader of the British Union of Fascists in Worthing organised his own manhunt, with his blackshirted followers conducting their own search for the fugitive.
Hills was eventually run to ground in Patching Woods where he was shot dead. The police later claimed he shot himself; but Vic Jacobs, a local cowman I interviewed in 1987 was convinced that the police shot him.
PC Jex recovered from his wound and later ran Jex newsagent in Broadwater for many years.
Listen to Margaret’s own lively interview and see what you think!
Four West Sussex schools are gearing up to start recording oral histories for the project. Findon, Bury, Shipley and Chesswood schools are all going to be receiving a briefing from our Film Maker, Chris Evans on the techniques they will be using.