Blaker Family of Sussex - Reminiscences


Old Social Habits.

OWING to the conditions surrounding them, the mode of life and habits of thought of the people were very different from those of the present day. The well-to-do farmers and men of that class usually got up at 6, had breakfast about 7, dinner about 1 or 1.30, tea at 5, supper at 9 and went to bed about 10. Their social habits were much like those of the colonists of the present day. If a person, at a distance from home, chanced to be near a friend's house, he usually called in and was always asked to partake of the next meal or sat down with the rest as a matter of course. Dances took place very occasionally and were considered great events. Dinner parties were common but not frequent, the guests having to drive eight or ten miles in an open conveyance on bad roads. These dinners were much like the present ones, except that they took place in the afternoon, about 3 or 4 o'clock, that mild beer was drunk as well as wine, sometimes home-made; a champagne glass of very strong old ale with the cheese, and after the ladies retired, the gentlemen drank punch and smoked long clay pipes.

But the most important events were the hunt dinners. Of course, only gentlemen were present, and as soon as the cloth was removed, pipes and tobacco were brought in, the punch was brewed, songs—chiefly hunting songs—were sung, and the festivities were kept up till morning.

I recollect asking a nonagenarian, the late Mr. New, of Southwick, who had ridden on horseback not less than sixteen or seventeen miles in the morning of the day on which I sat next him at dinner, what he had done to be so well and strong at his age? The answer was "I was always very careful, I never drank much wine. Five or six glasses at dinner, and the same after dinner, but I used to drink punch from six o'clock at night to six o'clock next morning." But he forgot to mention that, in the intervals between these orgies, he was most abstemious and lived in the open air, facts also which my friend the late Mr. Robert Taylor, of the Old Steine, omitted when he told me that, one moonlight summer night, when returning home after dining at "Moulescombe," a house about a mile and a half from Brighton, on the Lewes Road, he was very much annoyed by a man who would drive close beside him. When he got opposite the Barracks he tried to avoid him by galloping his horse to the Steine, where, on stopping, he found he had been racing his own shadow!

Confirmed drunkards there were then as now; but, as a rule, men boasted, like Mr. Justice Shallow, of these occasional exploits only, and would have thought it extremely bad taste to be seen smoking or drinking before dinner, or to any extent in the afternoon. Rough practical jokes were common, and ideas on general subjects so lax, that things which would not be tolerated now were then looked upon as excellent jokes. A gentleman, well known in the neighbourhood, happening to say one evening that he had never had an accident, one of the party took the linch-pins from the wheels, remarking as soon as he had started that he would have an accident that night.

A near relative of my own was in company in Brighton with the young Rector of a parish in East Sussex one Saturday. In the evening the Rector became incapable, and, being in Castle Square and the London Mail about to start, my relative bribed the driver, and induced him to take the Rector to London. The next morning the bells for service were rung at his Church, but no parson appeared.

The clergyman of a parish not far from Brighton, who, on one occasion, could not conduct a service properly because he could not articulate, and, on another, came to the Church with his surplice over his pink hunting-coat, was very angry with the Clerk for coming to Church drunk, because after he had read a verse from one Psalm, the Clerk read a verse from another. "I reached over the desk and took his book away," he said to the gentleman who related this to me, "and then he took a little book out of his pocket and read a verse from a different Psalm altogether." I recollect this old Parish Clerk, who still retained his office which he held for more than fifty years, as a white-haired old man, with an enormous necktie extending almost from shoulder to shoulder. Mr. Parish, the late Rector of Selmeston, told me that when he was first appointed to the parish many years ago, Mr. James Skinner, a medical practitioner of considerable; local reputation, who first introduced me into the world, and who lived near the Rectory, called on him one very rainy Sunday morning, and after lighting his pipe and sitting down, said :—"It's no use your having churching such a morning as this. No one will come. Don't you think I had better send my man Bob round and say there will be no service, and then you can read me a chapter or two out of the Bible?"

In those days of riotous living and practical jokes, especially when "the mirth and fun grew fast and furious," if there happened to be present a man who was inclined to be abstemious, it was considered a high joke to make him drunk. To do this sometimes a quantity of gin was put into a mug which usually contained water; this was placed near him, and when he thought his liquor was too strong, he unconsciously poured more gin into it.

It was astonishing how much alcohol some men were capable of taking, and this strikes with wonder anyone who has had an opportunity of seeing the poisonous effects of large doses of alcohol. A farmer of considerable position in East Sussex seemed to have this power. It was the custom for a large number of farmers from this neighbourhood to go to Smithfield Show, and they usually stayed at the Bridge House Hotel, London Bridge. On one occasion this gentleman was there, and it was decided to have a five-shilling bowl of punch, which was brought in by the waiter. This gentleman took it up in his hands and said, "Do you call this a bowl of punch?" and drank it off at a draught, saying to the astonished waiter :—"Now bring a five-shilling bowl of punch."

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